United at a Crossroads As Chelsea and City Close In

Iain StrachanCorrespondent ISeptember 30, 2010

BOLTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United at the Reebok Stadium on September 26, 2010 in Bolton, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Javier Hernandez and Federico Macheda came off the bench to secure an important win for Manchester United away to Valencia in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Hernandez, 22, and Macheda, 19, have been lauded in some quarters as the face of the club’s bright future, but their intervention in Spain seemed more like the latest in a series of salvage operations that have characterised United’s early season.

Although they remain undefeated,  the team have failed to win away in the league, drew 0-0 at home to Rangers in their opening European fixture and were forced to rely on late goals against Liverpool and again on Wednesday.

Rio Ferdinand made a welcome return to the United backline that kept out Alejandro Dominguez and Alberto Soldado at the Mestalla, but his on-going back problem is reportedly so acute that he was forced to stand for much of the plane trip from Manchester to Valencia.

If such alarming rumours are accurate, it remains to be seen how much of a role Ferdinand can play this season. His absence for much of the last campaign cost United dear in the league and in Europe.

United’s other first-choice centreback Nemanja Vidic is considerably less effective without Ferdinand.

Sir Alex Ferguson must surely be ruing the decision to part company with Gerard Pique, who continues to impress at Barcelona. Jonny Evans, the man Ferguson opted for ahead of Pique, was given the run-around by Bolton’s Johan Elmander on Sunday.   

In midfield, United continue to lack the presence of a dedicated screening player. The reportedly imminent return of injury-prone Owen Hargreaves may solve that problem, but for how long?

There are greater concerns in the attacking department. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes continue to astound with their longevity and the significance of their contribution, but the end edges ever closer for the stalwart veterans.

Darren Fletcher has matured into a competent, reliable player, but hardly a game changer. Ditto Park Ji-Sung. Nani continues to tantalize with glimpses of form, while Antonio Valencia will be missed during his long-term absence. Neither is ever likely to be a Ronaldo.

Anderson, returned to the team on Wednesday after an injury and indiscipline-induced period in the wilderness, may be on his last strike.

At the head of the attack, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo continue to be missed.

Dimitar Berbatov has finally begun to show signs of the form that prompted his expensive acquisition from Tottenham Hotspur, but only as a consequence of the damaging decline of Wayne Rooney.

Lauded on a par with the likes of Lionel Messi six months ago, injury, an abysmal World Cup and revelations of marital infidelity have prompted a spectacular fall from grace for the 25-year-old, on- and off-the-field.

Allegedly struggling with an ankle injury during the opening months of the campaign, Rooney has now been put on hiatus by the United hierarchy. A projected three-week absence may be as much to do with the state of the striker’s mind as the condition of his body.

Shorn of the triumvirate of Rooney, Tevez, and Ronaldo and with far less assurance at the back, United look a shadow of the team that captured the European Cup in Moscow two years ago.

Liverpool’s travails and Arsenal’s continued inability to maintain a consistent challenge have bought time, but the financial might and impressive strength in depth of Chelsea and Manchester City pose an unprecedented challenge to the dominance Old Trafford has become accustomed to.

With the Glazer family pulling the purse strings tighter than Ferguson has ever known, how much longer can United maintain their pre-eminence?