This afternoon's Community Shield match at Wembley against the FA Cup winners, Portsmouth, is, according to Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, a "barometer of fitness". As he tapped the barometer yesterday, the reading must have been somewhere between "cloudy" and "storms". Eight senior players are less than fully fit, the powerful Brazilian Anderson is at the Olympics, and three key attacking players will be no more than spectators today; hence the renewed attempts to lure Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham.
Some, like Michael Carrick, Nani (who is suspended for the first two Premier League games) and the club captain, Gary Neville, will be pushed into action just to give them what the manager calls "minutes on the clock", but the clock is ticking fast as the opening League encounter at home to Newcastle next weekend approaches. However many of the walking wounded make that deadline, Cristiano Ronaldo will not be among them, and Wayne Rooney will barely be over the virus he picked up as United unwisely rushed from South Africa to Nigeria to play anotherlucrative pre-season friendly.
Although Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp is bemoaning the lack of funds available to him, one of the more intriguing aspects of the afternoon will be seeing Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in tandem for the Cup holders in a classic little-and-large combination. It is one that has briefly been seen for England, to mixed effect, but can only benefit from longer stints together on the training ground. "A natural combination and way of playing," Ferguson said. "Defoe will run through, Crouch will lead off. When they get to the last third [of the pitch] it's a threat to defenders because of the height of the guy and the quickness of Defoe round about his feet."
Just as well for United, then, that last season's back five have remained unscathed amid all the injury dramas. Edwin van der Sar, who saved three successive penalties to win the Shield a year ago after a 1-1 draw with Chelsea (an eerie preview of the Champions' League final) is ready to see off the challenge of Tomas Kuszczak and Ben Foster; Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic should continue to be as powerful a central defensive partnership as any; and either Neville, desperate to return after being out for so long, or Wes Brown will partner Patrice Evra, with Mikael Silvestre in reserve.
Ferguson, who has said he will not continue beyond the age of 70 (he is 67 in December), has a keener eye than ever on the squad's development and renewal and there is already excitement in the Carrington training centre about the young Da Silva twins, Rafael and Fabio.
Without either Crouch or Defoe, Portsmouth brought off one of the shocks of last season by winning 1-0 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, and Ferguson believes they could rise as high as fifth place, ahead of "Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton". Like the rest of the football world, however, he expects no surprisesin the constitution of the four teams above them.
"If Arsenal get off to a start like they did last season I think that they will sustain it better. They got injuries at a bad time round about the end of February. You always expect Liverpool to be challenging. I don't expect Chelsea to change too much. It's a very, very experienced team that could easily win the League. They're at their very peak as a team. Phil Scolari can re-energise them with new ideas. There won't be much in it but I just hope that we are the team that can improve more."
Keen as ever not to dwell on triumphs he now regards as belonging to the past, Ferguson was not even prepared to make anything of a possible Chelsea hangover from the shattering defeat in Moscow: "They've had disappointments in the past they've had to deal with, and if it was a young team they could feel the impact of losing a final, which is not easy. I'd have thought with the kind of experience they've got they can handle it."
His own squad, he admits, must handle the tricky balance between defending their domestic and European titles. "The nature of the Premier League is that you have to go for it. If we can get through the group stage of the Champions' League, that's when the European Cup really starts. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going in the League."
One of the difficulties in doing so will be the extra commitments as reigning European champions. At the end of this month United meet the Uefa Cup winners, Zenit St Petersburg, in the fatuous European Super Cup and in December fly to Japan for one or two matches in Fifa's grandiose Club World Cup. Each trip will involve postponing a Premier League game, for which new dates are not easy to find. The disruption is one more small reason to believe the barometer will show pressure over Old Trafford.
Manchester United (probable): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, O'Shea, Scholes; Giggs; Tevez.
Portsmouth (probable): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson; Utaka, Bouba Diop, Kranjcar, Little; Defoe, Crouch.Reuse content