United to play it cool before the first act

Manager Ferguson looks beyond tomorrow's showdown as Chelsea include £25m-worth of imports in squad
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The Independent Football

With three Premiership clubs having already played European matches and a full Nationwide League programme scheduled for this weekend, the cliché "traditional curtain-raiser", as applied to the FA Charity Shield game, seems more redundant than ever. By the time Manchester United and Chelsea step out at Wembley tomorrow afternoon, the curtain will long have gone up on an English season that effectively began with Bradford City's first Intertoto Cup tie, on the same day as the final of Euro 2000.

With three Premiership clubs having already played European matches and a full Nationwide League programme scheduled for this weekend, the cliché "traditional curtain-raiser", as applied to the FA Charity Shield game, seems more redundant than ever. By the time Manchester United and Chelsea step out at Wembley tomorrow afternoon, the curtain will long have gone up on an English season that effectively began with Bradford City's first Intertoto Cup tie, on the same day as the final of Euro 2000.

For the two teams concerned, however, it still remains something of a dress rehearsal for next weekend's grand opening. United, despite regular appearances on this particular stage - it is their 20th Charity Shield, and seventh in eight seasons - have been known to stumble over their lines, consciously or inadvertently saving their best for the real thing. On the past two occasions, they have been beaten by Arsenal (3-0 and 2-1) and the year before that were held to a draw by Chelsea. What tends not to change is the denouement some eight months later, a repetitive final scene at Old Trafford played out to strains of "We Are The Champions".

So whatever the outcome tomorrow, even Sir Alex Ferguson will set less store by the scoreline than the preparation value. "The pre-season's gone very well," he said yesterday, "but we should never lose sight of the fact that we want to be ready for next Sunday." A stumble of considerable proportions briefly seemed to have occurred during the earlier training session, when David Beckham pulled up sharply with a back problem and was taken to hospital. The Manchester rumour factory had him at death's door by lunchtime, but shortly afterwards he was at the out patients' door instead and Ferguson was able to reassure a tremulous nation: "It's just a niggle. He'll be fine for Sunday." United have no new injury worries and Jaap Stam, who was not expected to play any part, may be given a walk-on part in the last act or two.

Once again the champions have been less active in the transfer market than any of their rivals, making a goalkeeper their only summer signing for the second successive year.

Fabien Barthez, a Euro 2000 winner with France, will enter stage left up the tunnel while last year's new boy Mark Bosnich treads the boards in as humble a provincial production as Ferguson can find for him. Otherwise, the manager might have been tempted by Bill Shankly's quip: "Same team as last season, boys".

In contrast, Chelsea, having indicated that they would be concentrating on buying younger English players, have spent £25m on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Mario Stanic, as well as three other imports. The latest of them, Internazionale's defender Christian Panucci, will sit on the bench, even though Albert Ferrer and Emerson Thome are injured. Graeme Le Saux is close to full fitness again and at least two of the newcomers, Hasselbaink and Stanic, should start as Gianluca Vialli promises: "Everyone here's quite hopeful about having a better season".

He was not able to promise a better game than the dreary FA Cup final against Aston Villa, though he insists it is one Chelsea want to win, as "to win a trophy is the best way to start a season". What the occasion will be notable for is Wembley's last club match before demolition and also the first major televised game in which the 10-yard rule is used for any dissent at free-kicks. As Ferguson has already expressed his doubts about consistency of implementation, it may take a controversial incident or two to get him and his strolling players fired up. Until that happens, the play's the thing.

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