Football: Now troubled Beckham faces a first-team fight

If clubs need large squads to compete with Europe's elite, Manchester United are already well placed. By Guy Hodgson
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THE THEORY that clubs who join the European super league will require squads of 40 overlooks one thing: Manchester United already have enough players for three teams, and several high-profile figures will be lucky to appear for the first XI this season unless injuries strike.

The most prominent of them is David Beckham, who may be No 1 in the hate list of rival supporters who blame his petulance for England's World Cup defeat by Argentina, but is by no means guaranteed to be in premier position when United decide their first-choice midfield.

Other players who could struggle to play are Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Henning Berg, David May and Dennis Irwin. Even Paul Scholes, who was lauded during France 98, is not guaranteed a place. To put it mildly, Alex Ferguson has a selection headache even before he signs the striker he has been promising himself during the summer. A look at United's playing resources underlines his problems. He has six full-backs who would be first choices in most Premiership teams and five centre-backs with first-team experience now that Jaap Stam, his pounds 10.75m signing in the summer, has made his bow.

"You can't relax," Gary Neville, the England defender who made 46 appearances last season, said. "I have seen the manager drop better players than Gary Neville and I've seen him sell better players than Gary Neville. It's going to be difficult to be certain of a first-team place."

If Neville is concerned about his position, then the midfield players should be wracked with doubt. A fully-fit Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs should be the only ones able to look at the team list without qualms, but even the Welsh winger may have competition. Jesper Blomqvist seems to have been given assurances about not playing second fiddle to Giggs. Add the fact that Ferguson, when given a choice, has always opted for Nicky Butt to complement a prickly core, and the numbers are not adding up already.

Throw into the equation Phil Mulryne, a Northern Ireland international who scored a hat-trick from midfield against Birmingham City in a friendly last month, and the prospects of Beckham and Scholes gaining automatic selection are, at best, complicated.

With Beckham there is also the question of how he will react to the vilification he will get at away grounds this season. Last season he responded to abuse about his girlfriend, Victoria Adams (aka Posh Spice), and was fortunate to escape disciplinary censure. This time, with the eyes of the football world on him, he might not be as lucky.

Glenn Hoddle was not the only one who noticed that Beckham was below his best in United's run-in last season. Ferguson said his Spice Boy was having problems reconciling his life as a celebrity with the bread and butter of kicking a piece of leather around a muddy pitch. Then again, wearing sarongs and getting sent off in important international matches is not designed to lower your profile. "I have tried to emphasise to him that it is a physical game where players of talent will always be singled out for a hard time," Ferguson said. "I have told him the the only way to get back at these people is with the ball."

Up front United are blessed with the Premiership's top scorer, Andy Cole, and with Solskjaer and Sheringham, who surely is too talented to have as lacklustre a season as last time. That is if he plays, of course.

It is among the strikers that you feel Ferguson will be tempted to experiment, or even change the personnel to suit occasions.

Ferguson has used Giggs through the centre before now with mixed results, and Scholes has been earmarked by the United manager as the ultimate successor to Eric Cantona in the space behind the front runner. There is also the prospect of Dwight Yorke or someone of similar calibre adding to the riches. United have dabbled with using horses for courses and Ferguson could have Giggs breaking from midfield to support a sole striker on their travels, particularly in Europe, and then using him on the left flank at Old Trafford. Tactical expediency, not the urge to protect, could mean Beckham does not play other than at home.

United's team in Sunday's Charity Shield read: Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Scholes, Cole - which left an alternative 11 (when everyone is fit) of: Van der Gouw; Curtis, Berg, May, P Neville; Mulryne, Wallwork, Cruyff, Blomqvist; Sheringham, Solskjaer. There are eight internationals in that second team, with promising youngsters like Wes Brown and Michael Clegg waiting to come in.

Ferguson has estimated it will be 10 years before a European super league takes off but, at a pinch, United would be ready tomorrow.