Ferguson forced to rely on spirit as Chelsea lie in wait

Manchester United's last opponents, Dinamo Bucharest, are generally detested in Romania, partly because they were once the team of the loathed Securitate secret police and now because they are the plaything of a multimillionaire. But the money the construction magnate, Nicolae Badea, has put into the Romanian champions is rendered minuscule by Roman Abramovich's largesse at Chelsea, United's next opponents.

Seldom has Manchester United's Premiership season opened with the sort of fixture they encounter on Sunday, playing a club that in a little over 12 months has spent almost as much as Sir Alex Ferguson has in 18 years at Old Trafford. Last season it was a gentler introduction; Bolton at home. Ferguson's team, depleted by injury and a wearing pre-season schedule, will have to hit the ground not running but sprinting.

Since leaving for an ill-conceived American tour which will not be repeated next summer, Manchester United have been limping. After half an hour in the Lia Manoliu Stadium on Wednesday night, the embarrassing defeat by Arsenal in the Community Shield last Sunday looked like it might be eclipsed by something far more damaging.

From Mikaël Silvestre's point of view, in the middle of United's back four, things seemed very worrying. His sum total of training was five days, alongside him as a makeshift centre-half was Roy Keane while his two other defenders, Gary Neville and Quinton Fortune, were plainly not match-fit. And yet Manchester United not only survived, they thrived, partly because of the gulf in talent but partly because of the reserves of spirit, a commodity Silvestre thought Chelsea's new manager, Jose Mourinho, would have difficulty creating.

Although last season Newcastle came away from the Balkans with a victory in their Champions' League qualifier only to screw everything up at St James' Park, it is almost inconceivable that United would do the same at Old Trafford.

"Chelsea proved last year that they are capable of challenging Arsenal and ourselves for the title, but they have got a new team again, so they'll have to work hard under a new manager," Silvestre said. "It's early days to give an answer about them. Even if you buy top players, you need a certain spirit in the dressing-room. You don't get that in one month, even if you are living and working together 24 hours a day.

"We have been here before. We lost two seasons ago against Zalaegerszeg from Hungary. It looked like it could be the same here, but we knew how to react - we knew each other and we knew we could beat this team. The players who are still here all have that hunger.

"You have to show spirit when you are playing in adversity, against injuries, bans and everything else. We have been missing a lot of players, but that's when you show the quality of the club. We have to prove it to ourselves first, because we want to prove it to everybody that we have the talent to win the title again."

Patching-up and making-do is one thing against Dinamo Bucharest, but it is quite another against Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge, Ferguson surely has to trust Keane further up the pitch to break up a Chelsea midfield around Frank Lampard. The problem is that Ferguson has so few options.

Alan Smith will again lead the attack alone, which says everything for the waste of £6.75m that is Diego Forlan. Ferguson enthused about Smith's display in Bucharest, just as he enthused about him in Cardiff, but even at Leeds, he would have enjoyed more support.

When his career at Elland Road was drawing to a close, Smith complained that he wanted to be judged purely as a centre-forward, not as a midfielder or support striker where he had often played. He never imagined when agreeing to cross the Pennines that he would have to prove his talents in isolation.