View From Old Trafford: Ferguson eyes familiar foes in race for crown

Manchester United's manager feels his side have had their best pre-season, but, having failed again to buy his prime targets, sees a strong title challenge coming from Highbury and has nominated Liverpool as dark horses
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It was no contest; Manchester United were thrashed by Real Madrid. While 45,000 Japanese thought it worth paying £115 a ticket to watch David Beckham train in Tokyo and a billion Chinese tuned into his debut in Beijing, Sir Alex Ferguson discovered that, in America, his boys were distinctly B-list.

It appeared that the summer of 2003 was all about how much money could be made from how many shirt sales, as if a football club was a marketing operation with the odd match thrown in.

Beckham's deals and Arsenal's spending on the new Ashburton Grove stadium were more intensely discussed than whether Real Madrid had a balanced midfield or whether Arsène Wenger could ever hope to replace the back four he inherited from George Graham. Put this way, if you measure success by profit, then the greatest challengers to Manchester United over the past 10 years have been Tottenham.

As he enters his 16th full season at Old Trafford, this would not concern the great helmsman. Announcing their two-week coast-to-coast trek across the United States as "the best pre-season we have ever had," was in part motivated by Ferguson's relief that his players were not besieged in their hotels. Some could slip out to a restaurant or a club while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could take in a Bob Dylan concert in Los Angeles. United also played supremely well, beating Celtic, Juventus and Barcelona by decisive margins and had the better of Arsenal in the heat-soaked atmosphere of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

The times have changed since Ferguson's first pre-season with Manchester United in the summer of 1987 but some things have remained constant. Then, as now, he failed to land his principal targets. Newcastle quoted a fee of £3m for Peter Beardsley and then sold him for almost half that to Liverpool. Graham Taylor offered Ferguson John Barnes for £900,000, a gift he refused and a mistake for which United's chief scout, Tony Collins, whom his manager thought should have offered "better guidance", paid with his job.

For Beardsley read Ronaldinho; for Barnes read Damien Duff. As in the summer of 1996, when Ferguson was utterly convinced that Alan Shearer would join, he had no alternative strategy prepared when he was turned down by Ronaldinho.

Then, Ferguson was forced to trot out what seemed a gaggle of cheap, run-of-the-mill signings - Jordi Cryuff, Karel Poborsky and Raimond van der Gouw and one who would not be forgotten, Solskjaer. This summer it has been David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Tim Howard, Kleberson and, most intriguingly of all, £12m lavished on Sporting Lisbon's wonderboy, Cristiano Ronaldo, who might just be Carlos Queiroz's parting gift to Old Trafford.

Djemba-Djemba looked effective enough in Cardiff, while Howard enters the season as the club's first-choice goalkeeper. Kleberson is a known force, although weariness after completing a season in Brazil might be his greatest enemy. Only the defence, with Gary Neville and Wes Brown suffering long-term injuries and Phil Neville doubtful for the opener with Bolton, looks in need of shoring up.

At no time on tour was Ferguson prepared to discuss the reasoning behind Beckham's departure but, elsewhere, he again appears to be at odds with United's board. While Duff, anxious to remain in Lancashire, awaited a bid from Old Trafford to rival Chelsea's offer, there was only silence. United thought £17m too much for a 23-year-old. Similarly, their attempts to secure Ronaldinho on the cheap earned only the contempt of Paris St-Germain's chairman, Francis Graille, who said: "Manchester's written offers were always lower than the proposals made verbally."

In other words, a club that had made £229m profit in the first decade of the Premiership talked big and were prepared to spend relatively small. Here was an echo of Beckham, valued at £40m by United in April, whose clumsy attempts to play off Barcelona against Madrid fetched only £25m and that in instalments.

Even in Matt Busby's day, when the glory of playing at Old Trafford was supposedly compensation enough, Manchester United were always reluctant to pay the going rate. The United board wanted Juan Sebastian Veron's wages off their pay-roll, it was as simple as that, and whether Ferguson, who defended the Argentinian passionately, was overruled will have to await his next book.

United will also not stomach paying Fabien Barthez £3m a year to be their third-choice goalkeeper. He will go the way of Jaap Stam and Andy Cole, men lauded by Ferguson - he thought the Frenchman had the greatest will to win of anyone in the home dressing-room at Old Trafford - and then, when they began to wane, cast out with cold ruthlessness.

Veron, who was supposed to complete United's transformation into a true European team, proved an expensive disappointment, unable to break their habit, acquired since winning the European Cup in 1999, of going out to the first decent side they met in the knockout stages.

Domestically, and despite the river of signings flowing into Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are still the great enemy. Newcastle, Ferguson believes, are still collectively too young, while Chelsea will take perhaps a season to gel into a truly formidable force. He believes the swiftest dark horse will be a foe even older than Arsenal.

Liverpool, without the encumbrance of the Champions' League, with Harry Kewell to provide desperately-needed width for Michael Owen, could "cast a net over all of us". Last year, Ferguson declared his greatest achievement at Old Trafford had been "knocking Liverpool off their perch". This season his chief task is to stop them climbing back.