Three Questions For Fergie
When Manchester United run out to face a Malaysian Select XI next Saturday, the dawn of the champions' post-Ronaldo era will begin.
United's tour of Asia offers fans a first insight into how Sir Alex will compensate for the loss of the world's best player, and the tactics and personnel he is likely to deploy next season.
Whilst £80 million for Ronaldo is seen as good business, a mutually-satisfactory outcome to an inevitable transfer, there can be no doubting the problems caused to the manager.
Sir Alex's track record and his success in moving United on from a reliance on Robson's courage, Cantona's inspiration and Keane's charisma, make him indisputably the manager who is best equipped and prepared to pilot United towards more successes.
It's equally true that for Ferguson, the stakes have never been higher, nor United's room for manoeuvre never quite so small.
Next season should be a most ferocious and keenly-fought league adventure for the defending champions. The Premiership may have been stripped of its brightest star, but the news was greeted with hymns and hosannas in north and west London and on Merseyside, in thanks at the levelling of the talent playing field.
Manchester City have now muscled into the list of genuine silverware contenders with the purchase of experienced Premiership campaigners. With Aston Villa, Everton, and Spurs also expected to be dangerous opponents for the leading pack, United's period of readjustment after Ronaldo will have to be short in the team's quest for trophies.
The fate of United's season will rest on the manager finding the right response to three central questions: Who will score the goals to keep United in the hunt for honours? Which player will emerge as United's main creative force after Ronaldo's departure? Can a new-look United midfield keep the side competitive against elite rivals?
Sir Alex has already signalled that he trusts new recruit Michael Owen to add firepower to a side which retained its title last year despite being outscored handsomely by Liverpool.
"There is no doubt he could really get his goalscoring form back on track with us," Sir Alex explained, "but really he has never lost it. Although he had a few injury problems at Newcastle, he kept up the excellent goals-per-game ratio he has had throughout his career."
Despite the manager's breezy endorsement of the injury-ravaged England international, this has not stopped the newspapers from speculating that United may soon find room for another top gun.
Rumours persist that United are looking to bring in Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o. Today, the News Of The World would have fans believe that United have "a clear run at the Cameroon international and are ready to offer him a four-year deal on £150,000-a-week."
The splash is suspicious, as it is now acknowledged that United have a preference for players born after 1983.
When the newspapers are not adding Eto'o to Fergie's selection, they are trumpeting the manager's interest in Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Douglas Costa, Eduardo Salvio, Sergio Aguero, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among others. Hmmm...as they say in Hollywood, no-one knows nothing.
The loss of Carlos Tevez's 19 league goals in two seasons must also be concentrating minds at Old Trafford, adding to the pressure to perform heaped on the shoulders of Dimitar Berbatov.
"I am sure Berbatov will prove himself a top player for United," Bryan Robson told Mirror readers.
"He's been with the club for a year now, he should feel more comfortable and grow in confidence. It often takes players time to settle at Old Trafford and learn to cope with the expectations. Some very good players never made it at United.
"With Ronaldo gone it's a great chance for him to demonstrate his talent and make his presence felt."
The introduction of Antonio Valencia's pace and trickery on United's right flank may improve Berbatov's contribution.
New Sunderland coach and ex-United defender Steve Bruce describes Valencia, whom he developed at Wigan, as the new "Andrei Kanchelskis."
The comparison will delight fans who remember the Ukranian's lightening speed in United's early 90's climb to dominance. It may also unsettle those who recall a talented but erratic performer who, to the whiff of sulphur and harangues from the manager, decamped to Everton after four seasons.
If media gossip is to be believed, Valencia's direct approach on the right of United's new-look attack could soon be complemented by an injection of speed and goals from Aston Villa's £25 million rated Ashley Young.
The young English international, a £9m buy from Watford in 2007, was a stand-out performer in the Villa side which finished sixth last season. Fans salivating over the prospect of a deal will be encouraged by whispers that Villa are rivalling Spurs for the purchase of Middlesbrough's winger Stewart Downing.
Certainly, Young ticks every United box. At 24, he's the right age. The winger has progressed since his move to Villa and may now be ready for a higher stage in World Cup Year. Best of all, Young is a wonderfully creative talent who has been likened to a young Thierry Henry.
It's not at all clear why Villa, owned by the wealthy Randy Lerner, would need to sell Young, after banking £12m by selling Gareth Barry to City but if club and player could be tempted, United would have every incentive to turn media gossip into reality.
United's left flank position is a cause for concern given the enduring mediocrity of Ji Sung Park's contribution these past five years. Young's addition would make United a faster and more threatening offensive unit but would Sir Alex really be ready to select two genuine wingers in his midfield?
The answer would be yes, if Sir Alex could pair a fit and in-form Owen Hargreaves alongside Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher in his team's engine room.
The composition of United's midfield is at the heart of concerns over United's creativity in the absence of Ronaldo.
United's offensive capacity—Rooney, Berbatov, Macheda and Wellbeck—boosted by the arrival of Owen and Valencia, looks good in the mind's eye, but games are more often determined by the fate of the midfield contest. Barcelona's dismantling of United's pretensions in the Champions League final in Rome last May is prima facie evidence.
With less than two months to go before the close of the transfer window, the engine room must certainly command more of the manager's attention.
Giggs and Scholes are not the performers of old and can now be relied upon only for short cameos. The modestly talented Irishman Gibson is out of contract and may soon leave the club. The Brazilian Possebon has already gone and will develop his craft in Portugal.
That leaves the manager reliant on Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Hargreaves, Park and Fabio Da Silva for midfield sorties. Is this the personnel to power the team to the winners' podium next season? Will it frighten the tacticians at the Anfield, the Emirates and beyond?
Perhaps the manager expects more of his second string this term?
Perhaps he already has his eye on more powerful reinforcements?
Surely, they will be needed if United's season is to be distinguished by the smiles of success rather than the disappointment born of a lacklustre "transition" campaign.
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