With what was arguably Manchester United’s most important friendly of the summer now behind them, the footballing world are starting to gradually build up a picture of how they expect Fergie’s men to go in the 2012-13 Premier League season.
Of course, at this stage it really is impossible to tell which sides will be challenging for the title, and who might be underachieving or even facing the threat of relegation—but if the signs from this year’s preseason are anything to go by, it should be another fruitful year for the boys in Manchester red—if they can find their scoring boots.
Saturday marks the finale of United’s 2012 tour, with a clash against German side Hannover 96 at their AWD Arena.
So what should United fans be expecting from this fixture, which has been dubiously titled the “Chevrolet Cup”?
United coming into the fixture
Preseason has been good, but not great for United. In reality, if yesterday's draw with Barcelona hadn’t of occurred, one might have been forgiven for being a little disappointed with the way things have gone.
Performance itself has not really been the issue for Fergie’s men, rather the inability to put away chances, and really bury games that they have been dominating.
Nobody really expected United to go out yesterday and knock three or four goals past Barcelona—but to an extent they did against the likes of Valerenga and Ajax Cape Town.
The goal drought is something that United fans and, I’m sure, players alike will want to put right before the start of the 2012-13 season.
Yesterday’s penalty miss by Wayne Rooney really emphasised the pressure that the players are feeling at the moment in regards to this lack of goals.
Think about it for a second, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s talisman and top goal scorer, missing a penalty in a game that didn’t really mean anything at all.
There shouldn’t have been any pressure on Rooney—forget who the opponents were, this is a world class striker standing over what should be a goal scoring opportunity 80% of the time.
Against the German side, it’s crucial that United score at least one goal to settle some of those nerves before the Everton match.
Perhaps one thing that has come as a great source of inspiration to most Manchester United fans over the summer has been the so far great success of their only (first team) summer transfer, Shinji Kagawa.
The Japanese international (who will be more than familiar with Hannover, having plied his trade in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund for the past two seasons) has been one of, if not the best player so far of United’s summer tour.
Despite not starting against Barcelona, Kagawa came on to once again show the world why he wasn’t just signed to boost United shirt sales in Asia.
Shinji’s movement both on and off the ball, as well his obvious understanding and ability to read a game, has quickly propelled the young man to the top tier of World Football.
Hopefully for his and United’s sake, that form will continue through to see him having a real impact on this game when he does come on—that’s assuming that Sir Alex will again choose to start the 23-year-old on the bench.
A player notably playing out of position for the match in Gothamborg was new United no.7, Antonio Valencia.
With Phil Jones suffering a back injury and Rafael still on call with Brazil at the Olympics, Valencia stepped up to fill the role of right-back.
It says a lot about his natural ability that, out of position, Antonio managed to aide his side in keeping a clean sheet against the world’s best.
This sort of performance against Hannover will be more than welcomed by the United faithful.
It was also nice to see the centre-back partnership of Vidic and Ferdinand back in action against one of the world’s best.
It’s been a long while since the two played together against a side that can cause them any real kind of threat, and they dealt with it beautifully.
Johnny Evans did a fantastic job in the stead of the big Serbian—who was sidelined for the majority of last season with a severely twisted knee—but it looks as though the classic United duo are back up and running again.
One thing is for certain, United fans should not be expecting the side from Lower Saxony to let the former English and European champions walk all over them.
The German Bundesliga has seen a drastic increase in quality over the past half a decade, culminating in what really should have been a Champions League and European Championship double for the country’s most renowned side and national team, respectively.
As it was, neither of those scenarios came to fruition, with both Bayern Munich and Germany falling short when it mattered most.
OK, let’s not get carried away—Hannover are not quite matching that level of quality just yet, but that isn’t to say they still aren’t a force to be seriously reckoned with.
Last season, Die Roten managed to end up finishing in 7th place in the Bundesliga, securing them a spot in the third round of Europa League qualification.
I’m sure it won’t be too hard for any United follower to remember the embarrassing fiasco that was the Red Devil’s 2011-12 Europa League campaign—a tournament that they should have strolled to the final of.
With the quality on show in recent Europa League and Bundesliga seasons, this should be an indication of how gifted a side 96 have become over the past few years.
As for their preseason efforts, the German side have chalked up some outstanding results, including a 5-0, 6-1, 9-0 and even 12-0 cluster of victories, to name just a few.
Hannover are certainly not a side that struggle to score goals.
In fact, United fans will remember the player that will probably cause Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand the most problems in the fixture.
Mame Biram Diouf—who, despite showing great early promise, eventually didn’t quite cut the mustard at United—oined the 96 ranks in January of 2012.
Scoring 10 goals in just 15 appearances, Diouf slowly started to show that form that had once seen him capture the favour of the great Sir Alex.
United are used to playing against former academy players, with a whole host of them spluttering from one end of England to the other. This is a somewhat different kettle of fish, however, with the Senegalese striker seemingly starting to find the groove and potential that he never could in Britain.
Other goalmouth threats come in the shape of Ivorian Didier Ya Konan and German Jan Schlaudraff, who at one point was on the Bayern Munich wage list.
Defensively Hannover are sound, with the likes of Christian Pander and legendary American superstar (and captain) Steven Cherundolo (who has made a whopping 348 league appearances for the club since 1999) at right-back.
As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, United’s attack and defence will also have to cope with the ever impressive left-back Christian Schulz, who has been somewhat unlucky over the years in regards to national selection—with competition for the position coming in the form of a certain Phillip Lahm.
Creative options are also far from lacking, with Portuguese winger Sergio Pinto, and 23-year-old German playmaker Lars Stindl providing their front men with more than enough options to bag a goal or two.
All in all, Hannover are not the set of rag tag players that they might have been 5 years ago. This new set of elite players, led by Mirko Slomka, are more than a match for a United side that will be desperate to finish their preseason preparations in style.
One could say that an away fixture against a side of Hannover’s quality is effectively the perfect last minute preparation for their trip to Goodison Park on the 20th of August.
The two sides will come out and attack United in a very similar manner, and it would be wise for Fergie to almost, dare I say, treat this friendly like more of a League game than a pointless kick around.
Predicted outcome and what it means
Despite away pressure, and coming up against a very talented European side, I can’t help but think, with the season now so close, United will really kick it up a gear and eventually run out 2-0 victors in this one.
Hannover have a terrific chance of making a real impact on the 2012-13 Europa League and Bundesliga season, but at this stage it’s just a little step too far for Slomka’s men to expect anything against a pumped up Red Devil side.
There will be several people out there who maintain whatever the circumstances; a preseason friendly will always just be a game that has no real bearing on a team’s competitive campaign.
Usually I would agree with this statement.
But with the new season now so close this fixture—away to a side you would expect to easily finish in the top half of the Barclays Premier League—will mean more than it might have done at the beginning of July.
A win here gives United real momentum going into mid-August and that clash in Merseyside.
Don’t expect Rooney and co. to run away with it by any means, but this match should be the first indication of the type of football that we might be expecting to see from United over the coming months.