Manchester United return to action on Sunday afternoon against newly promoted Birmingham City at Old Trafford. However, the current Premier League champions will be without two key players going into the 2009/10 season. FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid in a world-record £80 million deal and Carlos Tevez swapped the red half of Manchester for the sky blue, joining arch-rivals City for £25m after his two-year loan deal expired.
To illustrate just how valuable the Portuguese and the Argentinean were to the Red Devils' cause, they fired an incredible 102 goals in the two seasons they spent together, which equates to almost 50 per cent of United's total of 221. In Sir Alex Ferguson's attempt to fill the gap their departures have made, the legendary manager has brought in Antonio Valencia from Wigan for a fee that could rise to £18 million and Michael Owen on a free transfer from relegated Newcastle United.
It is the Owen deal which sparked the most interest from the media and football fans around the world, with his injury problems, lack of goals on Tyneside and Liverpool connections the major topics for debate. Yet despite all his recent troubles, the England marksman has displayed blistering form in pre-season, notching four goals in four games, developing a great understanding with fellow strikers Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. If the 29-year-old can stay fit and healthy then Ferguson may well have pulled off the biggest coup of the summer, especially if his early form in a red shirt is anything to go by.
He's looking more determined, tracking back to help the full-backs. He's definitely working harder and trying to impress. He's a brilliant player.
By contrast, the club's big money signing, Valencia has had an interrupted build-up to the new season. The Ecuadorian had to travel back to his homeland in order to secure a work permit and an English visa which meant he missed United's tour of the Far East. The 24-year-old did finally make his debut against Boca Juniors in the Audi Cup in Munich, in which he scored and enjoyed an impressive outing, helping United to a 2-1 victory.
Despite the two new boys' promising starts, the jury remains out on whether they have the capabilities to replace such influential figures as Ronaldo and Tevez. Indeed, it is a big season for many of United's players, none more so than Dimitar Berbatov who has failed to ignite his career at Old Trafford since his £30.75m transfer last September, netting just 14 goals in 43 appearances. The Bulgarian international was criticised for his 'lazy' style of play by the club's fans, who were particularly incensed when he missed a penalty in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton by trying to nonchalantly chip goalkeeper Tim Howard during a shoot-out which United lost.
However, Wayne Rooney has a few words of warning for those who have doubted Berbatov: "You can see in training, and in our pre-season games, that he's looking sharper," said the England forward. "He's looking more determined, tracking back to help the full-backs. He's definitely working harder and trying to impress. He's a brilliant player."
It would be a great achievement obviously, because we all know what a difficult league it is.
Arguably Manchester United's most important player this season is Rooney himself. The 23-year-old is sure to break the 100 goals barrier for the club this season [he currently lies on 98], but he will need to increase his best league tally to date of 16 if he is to help lift the burden of losing two of their key players.
It is sure to be an exciting campaign and if the likes of Berbatov, Rooney, Owen and Valencia can find form, there is every possibility that United could win their fourth successive league title and become the first-ever side to do so in the process.
United have twice won three championships on the trot, following the achievements of Liverpool and, before the Second World War, Huddersfield and Arsenal, but no side has ever managed a fourth.
"We would like to do it," said Ferguson. "It would be a great achievement obviously, because we all know what a difficult league it is. Under the circumstances, it was a great achievement to win it last year. But we don't have to go for the Club World Cup this time and we don't have to play catch-up in terms of games."
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Will United do it? Will Michael Owen fire the goals that will take him to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, or will Wayne Rooney steel all the limelight this season? Let us know what you think.