Manchester United: UEFA Champions League Winning Team 2016
Manchester United have started the season well. Sir Alex is integrating youth and experience once again. He's already talking about tough choices between his new young stars and their established counterparts.
The top seeding in this year's UEFA Champions League draw has given them yet another comfortable group. If things run true to form, there will be more chances to blood future stars—this year, Cleverley, Welbeck, Pogba and Morrison.
Right now it's a tough choice to pick a winning team for 2016, let alone 2012. And that's without knowing who else might be signed between now and then. Ganso, Costa and Goetze are all possibilities, but so are several of the current United youngsters who don't even make this projected squad.
At least the choice of captain seems obvious. By the time of the 2016 Final, Xavi and Iniesta for Barcelona will probably have retired, but Wayne Rooney will be 30, having spent over 11 years at United. He will have over 500 appearances for the team and over 100 for England.
In the last year or so, he's got his act together. By 2016 he's very likely to be the most senior pro. He leads by example. He's a natural to skipper the side.
So who else makes up the team and who could be on the bench?
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
In goal it's a simple choice. Ben Amos is determined to stake a claim for the future, and he has just been picked by Stuart Pearce for the England Under 21s. His time may come.
Anders Lindegaard seems to have many of the qualities of Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Saar. He is an established international, having played for Denmark at every level from Under 19. He hasn't put a foot wrong since joining United and in May 2016 will still be only 31 and in his prime.
Sam Johnstone is also a possibility. Nobody yet knows how he will develop. He is 18 and has also played international football for England Under 16s. Like Amos, he is highly rated at Old Trafford.
But nobody is more highly rated than David de Gea. Sir Alex has been following him for over a year. He may have been uncertain in his first couple of games, but he showed positive signs against Tottenham. His distribution of the ball is as good as anyone in the world, and he seems to have a calm maturity.
Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Saar didn't get the chance to grow up with 'Fergie's Babes.' Once he's learned English, de Gea will feel very much at home among the 'class of 2011.' He has the No. 1 jersey. Assuming he comes through his 'baptism of fire' in the Premier League, he'll be first choice in 2016.
Central Defence: Jones & Smalling
The choice in central defence isn't completely straightforward. While Jonny Evans has had some moments of uncertainty in the past, he was excellent against Spurs. He is a full Northern Ireland international and, although only 23, already has 27 caps to his name. He has appeared 50 times for Manchester United.
Chris Smalling had only appeared 18 times in the Premier League for Fulham when Sir Alex paid a reputed £7 million for him. He has since made over 30 appearances for United and, although not yet a full England international, has played 21 times for his country at more junior levels.
Having already proved himself at centre back last season, he has been called upon to deputise at right back twice this season and has revelled in the role. Gary Neville lauded his performance against Tottenham.
Phil Jones has partnered Smalling for England Under 21s and as Monday's match showed, they have an excellent understanding between each other. Both have suggested that they could become world class, and Sir Alex has said Vidic and Ferdinand will have to fight for their place in the first team.
There are other young players with real promise. Reese Brown looks like he will be an even better player than his older brother Wes. Michele Fornasier and Scott Wootton also have the potential to become first teamers in due course.
Our chosen pair is Jones and Smalling, who could even be established as such well before 2016.
Full Backs: The Da Silva Twins
The Da Silva twins were spotted in the 2005 Nike Premier Cup by Manchester United scout Les Kershaw and signed in 2007. Although nominally Rafael plays right back and Fabio on the left, the latter has also played on the right.
They are very talented footballers, either of whom could play on the wing and both with goal-scoring ability. Fabio has 13 and Rafael 12 caps for the Brazil Under 17s. Rafael was called up to the full squad in 2010. At just 21, Rafael has played 40 times for United, including Champions League matches.
While Fabio has only 17 appearances for United so far, he has the disadvantage of shadowing Patrice Evra. He is considered the more talented of the two at Old Trafford.
Because of their attacking potential, pace, skill and defensive qualities, it is hard to see anyone threatening them for first choice within a year or so. Either could also play on the wing.
The other possible contenders include Ritchie de Laet (on loan to Norwich City for a year), Tom Thorpe, Marnick Vermijl and William Keane's brother, Michael.
It's a sign of United's future potential, that this is the most difficult area to choose from.
It is a matter of delight that Tom Cleverley has been given the chance to demonstrate his undoubted potential so early. Having done so well on loan to Wigan, where he played 25 matches and a regular member of the England Under 21s, Sir Alex had him earmarked for his squad this year. What nobody would have anticipated was that he would be keeping Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs out of the side. He can play anywhere across midfield.
Everyone has known about Anderson since he was described as the most exciting young player in the world, before he broke his leg for Porto in 2006/7. Since his arrival at Old Trafford, he has muscled up and is very hard to push off the ball. Like his Brazilian colleagues, he has great ball skill and, if he can score regularly will surely become first choice. He has eight caps for Brazil.
The question is, however, where do you make space for Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison? They have both made United's first team squad at just 18. The former has already been likened to Patrick Vieira. He is 186cm tall, strong, genuinely two-footed and an excellent header of the ball. Luckily, he can play central midfield or on the wing, because of his skill.
Ravel Morrison has been described as the most talented English footballer of his generation. Only his chequered criminal and disciplinary record have hindered his inevitable progress into the first team. He was left behind United's US tour because he couldn't get a visa.
Surely a certainty for 2016 would be Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, otherwise known as Nani. He would be only 29 in 2016, with probably 300 or more appearances for United and 100 for Portugal under his belt. Although able to play on either wing, he prefers the right and has become a natural goalscorer. Although not as big as his fellow countryman, he has the ambition to emulate Ronaldo's achievements at Old Trafford.
Others to come into consideration could include Robbie Brady and Ryan Tunnicliffe. The latter will surely play many games for United in the future.
Midfield choice: Nani; Anderson; Pogba; Cleverley
World Class Strikeforce
Based on the stunning emergence of a new star and Wayne Rooney's form this season, there can surely be no doubt about the first choice strike force in five years' time.
We've already chosen Rooney as captain. Javier Hernandez would still only be 27. Based on what he achieved in his first season in the Premier League, together with 29 appearances for the Mexican national team in less than two years, the sky's the limit for the likeable young man.
There are of course several other candidates. Federico Macheda has been described as the most natural finisher at Old Trafford by Sir Alex. Mame Biriam Diouf is something of an enigma. An instinctive goalscorer, he also has real pace, but will almost certainly be sold.
The same will probably be true of Joshua King, a Norwegian footballer of Gambian descent, with an English name and currently on loan to Borussia Moenchengladbach.
John Cofie looks like an England striker of the future. He is very strong, with a bullet shot and pace. However, he himself stands behind William Keane, who has already represented his country. He has many similarities with Denis Bergkamp and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he will eventually form a partnership with Danny Welbeck for England.
So what of Welbeck? He has the advantage that he can play on the wing as well as up front and indeed may get more chances for the United first team as a result. We couldn't, however, place him ahead of our chosen strike force for 2016, Rooney and Chicharito.
The Nearly Men
So who are our seven substitutes?
It seems harsh that Jonny Evans misses out yet again. By 2016 he may well have more appearances than anyone else except Rooney, Chicharito and Nani. Able to play anywhere across the back, he is an excellent utility player and will surely go on to win 100 caps for Northern Ireland.
Of the players we have already mentioned, our remaining choices at present are: Anders Lindegaard, Scott Wootton, Ravel Morrison, Danny Welbeck, Kiko Macheda, and Will Keane.
Who knows what other players Manchester United may sign between now and then—or indeed who might leave?
It is also early to judge how well some of the youngsters will turn out. Chicharito, Cleverley and Welbeck have taken to the Premiership like a duck to water. Darron Gibson, however, has not established himself and is likely to be sold. There is plenty of talent in the Reserves and the Academy yet to emerge in the public eye.
All of the above thoughts are, of course pure speculation. What will happen if Fergie leaves. One thing is certain—youth will always be given its chance at Old Trafford, and the prospects are bright for a European future.