The Community Shield – that clichéd ‘traditional curtain raiser to the season’ – is, of course, little more than a final warm-up for the real business of winning the Premier League in the modern game. That task begins away to West Bromwich Albion next weekend, yet, with United facing local rivals Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, it is perhaps only Sir Alex Ferguson who remains exactingly dispassionate about the fixture this season, with all the emotional and psychological edge that this game brings.
Supporters feel differently of course but the Scot remains focused on bigger tasks ahead despite the local rivalry on hand. After all, major trophies are won in May not August, even if the Manchester sides are competing for this particular gong for the first time since 1956. The full house and local pride ensures that nothing less than victory is acceptable for the 80,000 Reds and Blues return home on Sunday evening.
“It’s very easy to get emotional about this type of game. I don’t think we’ll be changing our policy,” Ferguson said of the Community Shield.
“I’ve always viewed the Community Shield as a stepping stone for the first game of the season and there are two or three players who will need a game to boost their fitness.
“I don’t think it [the Shield] has made any difference at all to the leagues. We have lost and still won the league. It is at Wembley. That is the significance of it. When you go to Wembley, you want to win. That is the only significance.”
Ferguson is likely to be without a quartet of key players at Wembley, with Michael Carrick suffering from an achilles injury, Javier Hernández not risked following concussion in pre-season and Darren Fletcher only recently returned to full training. Antonio Valencia is perhaps a fortnight away from full match fitness after the Ecuadorian suffered an ankle injury at the Copa America.
The absence of midfield pair Carrick and Fletcher, together with Paul Scholes’ retirement, offers Anderson an early season opportunity to impress. The Brazilian scored in Friday’s 6-0 win over New York Cosmos at Old Trafford and should start at Wembley. With Owen Hargreaves released and Darron Gibson consigned to United’s reserve squad in pre-season, Ferguson needs the former-Porto midfielder to start the season in good form.
Anderson, together with youngster Tom Cleverley and veteran Ryan Giggs form Ferguson’s only central midfield options at the season’s start. The limited roster serving to highlight United’s obvious weaknesses ahead of the new season.
Despite this United begins the new campaign as favourites to claim a 20th domestic title. Yet, City will be in contention from the off, having spent £38 million on striker Sergio Aguëro in the close season. The 23-year-old Argentinian offers City both creativity and goals and will likely make City’s bench at Wembley, with Carlos Tevez still absent.
However, with three weeks until the transfer window slams shut, Ferguson believes opposite manager Roberto Mancini may yet add to his already burgeoning squad. It is a challenge the Scot appears to relish.
“Because of the particular facet of the club that they have the money to spend, I thought maybe they would spend more this summer, and that may still happen; they may still sign a couple more players,” Ferguson added.
“We get this almost every year when clubs round about us buy, and that’s how you view the importance of winning the league these days. Chelsea had this great spell of buying when José [Mourinho] first went there and we accepted that challenge. It’s good to accept challenges, it keeps the complacency away from your door and we carry on as best as we can.”
Ferguson also believes that the coming season promises to be one of the most competitive of his 25 year tenure at Old Trafford. Liverpool’s huge outlay in the past six months is a gamble that must be rewarded with Champions League football, with Arsenal seemingly the most vulnerable of last season’s top four. With Tottenham Hotspur also chasing a spot in Europe’s premier competition only four of six leading clubs will reach their goals come May.
Yet, for United – and now City – it is the Premier League title that remains the season’s priority, the Blue half of Manchester now with genuine pretensions to the crown.
“To win the league in England is very difficult. If you look at the Premier League you are looking at the top six fighting for four places,” added the 69-year-old United manager.
“I think 84 points will win the league next year. We had less last year but you have to consider the increasing competition. Liverpool are expected to be better, the top four we know about and Tottenham as well. You expect it to be a really tough league.”
If Ferguson still regards this weekend’s derby as a friendly then his star player Wayne Rooney is more in tune with United fans who travel to Wembley for the third time this year. Defeats to City in the FA Cup semi-final and Barcelona in the Champions League offered a traumatic end to last season. A third Wembley defeat in a row is unthinkable.
“You couldn’t get better motivation to start the season with a bang,” Rooney told Four Four Two.
“I hadn’t even thought about it until I turned on the TV and someone was talking about potentially the best Community Shield ever. Playing City is the best way to start.”
The Scouser may start up front with Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov at Wembley – as the pair did against Cosmos on Friday – although Ferguson’s promise to deploy players in need of minutes may also offer Michael Owen, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda an opportunity. Mame Biram Diouf, seventh choice striker, scored twice against Cosmos to stake a claim.
Elsewhere Ferguson is likely to deploy those players short of time in pre-season. Both Rafael and Fabio da Silva are in contention for a place in the side, with Ferguson boasting a full complement of defensive options, including new signing Phil Jones. With Valencia unlikely to play Ferguson will choose from Nani, Park Ji-Sung and Ashley Young in wide positions.
Friendly or otherwise United is protecting a proud record in the competition, including 18 victories overall and seven appearances in the past decade. City, meanwhile, is taking part in the match for the first time since 1973. The Blues lost that game 1-0 to Burnley, with Colin Waldron scoring the only goal.
The game could also be the final appearance in the Shield for Welshman Giggs, who turns 38 this season and holds the record for the most number of appearances with 13. What better tribute, in what might be the midfielder’s final season, than seeing off City at Wembley on Sunday just as the Reds did 55 years ago. On that occasion another United legend Dennis Violet scored the only goal of the game.
Manchester United versus Manchester City. Wembley Stadium, London. 2.30pm 7 August 2011
United – 4-4-1-1 – de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Berbatov
Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Evans, Young, Cleverley, Owen, Macheda, Welbeck, Diouf
City – 4-3-3 – Hart; Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Clichy; Toure, De Jong, Barry; Ballotelli, Dzeko, Silva
Subs from: Zabaleta, Bridge, Onuoha, Kolarov, Toure, Johnson, Milner, Wright-Phillips, Agüero