The much anticipated return of the prodigal Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford did not happen after all yesterday – he enjoyed front-row seats watching Julio Iglesias perform in the Algarve last night – and the word is that he may not be back in England until later this week. But Sir Alex Ferguson had plenty more to preoccupy him, including the likelihood that a virus picked up on Manchester United's pre-season tour of South Africa and Nigeria will mean Wayne Rooney misses the start of United's Premier League campaign.
Rooney, whose broken metatarsal in United's League opener against Reading meant he missed six weeks at the start of last season, has undergone blood tests at United's Carrington centre but the virus has prevented him undertaking any training since the club's return to Britain last week. The striker could well miss miss England's friendly against the Czech Republic at Wembley on 20 August, three days after Newcastle visit Old Trafford, as Fabio Capello's side gear up for their World Cup qualifying campaign.
"I doubt we'll get Rooney for the start of the season with this virus that he's had," Ferguson said. "It's 12 days until the start of the season and he's not trained. It's [been] a long time."
The United players took malaria tablets before flying out to Africa and were also injected against yellow fever and hepatitis, but Ferguson still finds himself deprived of Rooney at a time when, with Louis Saha on his way out of Old Trafford and Dimitar Berbatov no closer to arriving from Tottenham, he might have to call up youngster Frazier Campbell to join Carlos Tevez in the attack.
The lack of firepower was telling in Rooney's absence at the start of last season as United's title defence spluttered into action. The goalless draw at home to Reading was followed by a run of games in which United managed more than one goal in a League game on a solitary occasion until the 4-0 thumping of Wigan on 6 October. Ferguson expects Michael Carrick – also laid low with a virus – to miss some of Sunday's Community Shield game with Portsmouth. Nani is suspended for both the game at Wembley and the visit of Newcastle following his sending off against West Ham in last season's penultimate League game. With Anderson missing on Olympic duty with Brazil, in terms of attacking options United are depleted to say the least.
The other absentee is, of course, Ronaldo, who will take another two months to recover from his ankle operation, though Ferguson served notice that he considers the threat of his moving to Real Madrid to be in the past. "The matter's closed now," the United manager said. "He's a Manchester United player. It's finished. He's here. He's going to play here next season. It's all over."
Real seem to agree, judging by the latest thoughts of president Ramon Calderon delivered at the unveiling of new signing Rafael van der Vaart after the Dutchman's arrival from Hamburg as what might be viewed as the alternative to Ronaldo. "Rafael van der Vaart is the first and possibly the only signing of the summer for Real Madrid," Calderon said. "We believe that this squad is full of quality and plenty of talent. It's a team which is a great family, very close."
Ferguson revealed that his attempts to find a new assistant manager after Carlos Queiroz's departure may not reach fruition until six weeks into the new season and he seemed to suggest that United would not recruit from within.
Fever pitch: United's missing men
*WAYNE ROONEY: Virus picked up in Africa. Possible return for the trip to Portsmouth on 25 August, though could be out for longer.
*MICHAEL CARRICK: Also returned to Britain with a virus. Returned to training yesterday but will miss some or all of Sunday's Community Shield.
*NANI: Suspended for Community Shield and first League game after butt on West Ham's Lucas Neill on 3 May.
*CRISTIANO RONALDO: Missing for a further two months after ankle operation. Not yet back in Manchester.
*JI-SUNG PARK: May miss the start after recovering from knee surgery during the summer.
*LOUIS SAHA: Notoriously susceptible to injury and seems to be up for sale. Unclear whether he will play again.
United's opening fixtures
10 Aug: Portsmouth (n): CS
17 Aug: Newcastle (h): PL
25 Aug: Portsmouth (a): PL
29 Aug: Zenit St P'burg (n): SC
13 Sept : Liverpool (a): PL