The Premier League season begins in earnest tonight as Manchester United welcomes Newcastle United to Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, fresh from beating Chelsea to the Community Shield at Wembley, begins the assault on a 19th domestic title against Chris Houghton’s newly promoted outfit expecting nothing less than victory.
United begins the match with a major doubt surrounding star striker Wayne Rooney, whom has undergone intensive treatment on a calf injury this week. The striker, who has not scored at any level since injuring his ankle against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter final in March, has played just two halves of football in pre-season to date.
Injured stars Owen Hargreaves, Anderson and Rio Ferdinand will take no part in the match, with the United defender at least four weeks away from fitness and the Brazilian not due to return until late September. Ferdinand is yet to begin any full training according to his manager.
“Rio is nowhere near, no. He’s doing little bits of jogging and things like that but I think he’s a month away,” said Ferguson, who is likely to pair Nemanja Vidic with Jonny Evans in Ferdinand’s continued absence.
“We always anticipated it would take time. It’s a knee ligament and, although it wasn’t what you’d call a serious one, it was a hard one. You have to take time with knee ligaments.
“Rio has had a bad 12 months and we hope it gets better for him. You hope the break over the summer with missing the World Cup will help him.
“The back injury seemed to sort itself out as the season went on, then he had the groin injury. He’s had a succession of these things and you don’t want to see that when a player is in his 30s.”
Meanwhile, Patrice Evra must overcome both a minor leg injury and a lack of pre-season preparation to make the United bench, with Rafael da Silva also in contention to start for the Reds after overcoming a virus.
Ferguson is likely to pair veteran Paul Scholes with Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher in central midfield, with Welshman Ryan Giggs eyeing a recalling supporting Rooney – if fit – in attack. Nani and Antonio Valencia are likely to retain their wide roles in the United side to face a resurgent Newcastle.
Should United’s talismanic forward not make the match, then Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández and Michael Owen remain in contention for a starting spot against the Magpies.
Meanwhile, the visitors travel without half a dozen players including defender Steven Taylor, new recruit Dan Gosling and former United full-back Danny Simpson. Influential midfielder Danny Guthrie may also miss out. The injuries could mean a recall for former Red Alan Smith in central midfield, with Kevin Nolan supporting local hero Andy Carroll in attack. Veteran defender Sol Campbell is not yet match fit.
Despite storming to the Championship title most pundits expect a lower-half finish for Houghton’s side in the coming season, with owner Mike Ashley reluctant to repeat the excessive spending of previous Geordie regimes.
Victory is, of course, expected for United against newly promoted Newcastle, with the North East club circumspect in the transfer market during the summer break. Indeed, Wallsend-born Michael Carrick says that an opening day win is essential over his local childhood side if United is to regain the Premier League title from Chelsea this season.
“The way it looks, you cannot afford to drop too many points,” said the midfielder.
“Last season was a bit of a freak in terms of how many games both us and Chelsea lost and how many points were dropped.
“The previous few years there wasn’t much margin for error and competition is pretty fierce again now.
“Teams who have finished around the Champions League places are looking to break through and you really have to start firing from the off.”
United drew its opening day fixture against Newcastle two years ago. Few inside Old Trafford will countenance a similar result tonight.
Team – Harper, R Taylor, Coloccini, Williamson, Jose Enrique, Nolan, Barton, Smith, Carroll, Lovenkrands, Gutierrez. Subs – Routledge, Forster, Krul, Perch, Xisco, Ameobi, Guthrie, Kadar, Ranger
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: Robert Pollock & Andy Garratt
Fourth official: Lee Mason
United – n/a
Newcastle – n/a