Nani starts for Manchester United against Kansas City Wizards tonight but Sir Alex Ferguson will begin the new season short of key players through injury and recuperation. Indeed, the Scot may not have a fully fit squad until the Autumn, with United navigating four domestic fixtures before the Champions League begins in September.
Without Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves against Newcastle United on 16 August, the Scot’s World Cup contingent, together with Gary Neville and Antonio Valencia, will also likely to be short of match fitness.
Following a season of frustrating injuries in 2009/10, Ferguson will undoubtedly rue his luck as the new campaign begins in much the same fashion. There is, however, at leas some hope with Ferdinand returning in around six weeks’ time according to the Scot, Owen before September’s end and Neville and Valencia now back in training.
Ferdinand’s injuries are now routine of course, with back problems very likely to reduce the England captain’s appearances over the course of the season. This will come either directly, as afflicted the 31-year old much of last season, or more probably, circuitous knee, groin and calf problems will force the defender into the physio’s room.
No wonder the sense of relief engulfing the manager on agreement with Nemanja Vidic over an, as yet unsigned, new contract.
Neville and Valencia could return for United’s fixture with a League of Ireland XI at Dublin’s newly rebuilt Ariva Stadium on 4 August, just four days short of the Community Shield against Chelsea at Wembley. While Rafael da Silva has featured against both Philadelphia Union and Celtic on the summer tour, Neville will still play a significant role in the coming season.
Valencia will undoubtedly be a key player in United’s campaign in both the Premier League and Europe in the coming season.
Meanwhile, Hargreaves’ future looks bleak, sequestered as he is to Dr Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic. The total of the Canadian born international’s United career over close to two years is just three games in 2008/9 and 30 seconds action against Sunderland last season.
Ferguson must also wait on Anderson, the Brazilian, whose disappointing campaign last time out was cut short by a left anterior cruciate ligament injury. Indeed, so poor had the midfielder’s form been that United countenanced cashing in on the player during the January transfer window, only to receive only loan or low bids for the player.
If injury has in effect saved Anderson’s position at the club then an early October return provides the midfielder with a first opportunity to repay a debt he still owes the club.
United’s World Cup contingent, including Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Park Ji Sung, Patrice Evra and Vidic return in around a week as planned but the extended break will leave the quintet effectively five matches short of full fitness.
Javier Hernández begins his return three days earlier against Chivas Guadalajara in Mexico next Friday. The £ 7 million signing will play 45 minutes for each side as part of the April deal that took the striker to Old Trafford.
The effect of injury and the World Cup means that Ferguson will not have a full fit, match sharp squad until the leaves begin falling and some tough matches passed. But with so little added to the squad this summer the manager can ill afford any squad shortcomings, especially at a time when United traditionally – or by folklore at least – is most vulnerable.
Perhaps more than ever Ferguson must rely on the depths of his squad at the season’s very outset.
Key fixtures before United’s squad returns to full fitness
8 August, Chelsea, Community Shield
16 August, Newcastle United, Premier League
22 August, Fulham, Premier League
28 August, West Ham United, Premier League
12 September, Everton, Premier League
14/15 September, Champions League
19 September, Liverpool, Premier League
26 September, Bolton Wanderers, Premier League
28/29, Champions League