LONDON, (Reuters) – Manchester United, left clutching at straws in this year’s Premier League title race, must inject new blood into their ageing squad during the close season to re-establish their grip on England’s most cherished trophy.
United go into the last game of the campaign at home to Stoke City on Sunday hoping for, rather than expecting, a final twist to a compelling battle for top spot with Chelsea, an uncomfortable position for a club not used to failure.
Alex Ferguson’s squad, minus the departed Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, have shown customary zeal in their pursuit of a record 19th league title.
But unless Wigan Athletic pull off a huge upset by winning at Chelsea on Sunday, United must accept second prize and accept they are an inferior model this time round.
Before a ball was kicked this season the decision to sell Ronaldo to Real Madrid and allow Tevez to join Manchester City and only bring in Wigan winger Antonio Valencia and fading force Michael Owen looked risky, and so it proved.
Were it not for Rooney’s incredible goalscoring efforts United would have struggled to mount any sort of title challenge even during a season when Chelsea have often stuttered, Arsenal flattered to deceive and Liverpool were nowhere.
Despite an encouraging first term at Old Trafford for Valencia and the emergence of Nani as a genuine match-winner, United have been far too reliant on the tireless Rooney who has scored 34 goals this season in all competitions.
Almost inevitably, Owen’s injury problems returned and Bulgaria striker Dimitar Berbatov has failed to take his share of the strain, another lacklustre display in the weekend win at Sunderland ending when he was substituted in the second half.
Ferguson’s pressing need after the dust has settled on the season will be adding another goalscorer, possibly two, to lessen the load on Rooney who, worryingly for England coach Fabio Capello, has run himself ragged this season.
The Scot has already signed 21-year-old Javier Hernandez from Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara, pending a UK work permit, but an established marksman will be required if United are to keep pace with their rivals at home and in Europe.
Much will depend, however, on what transfer budget Ferguson is given by American owners the Glazers.
He will also have to come to terms with fact that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs will soon be restricted to cameo roles as age finally catches up with them although Scotland midfielder Darren Fletcher’s rise in stature has been a huge positive.
While their class still shines bright at Old Trafford, and Ferguson showed his faith in them by giving Scholes and Giggs one-year contract extensions, replacements will be required sooner rather than later.
Occasionally, like in the Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich, United’s squad has looked a little frayed.
Competition in Europe and at the top end of the Premier League will be even more intense next season with big-spending Manchester City, ambitious Tottenham Hotspur and improving Aston Villa genuine threats on the domestic scene.
Ferguson has remodelled his United side before, however, and there is no reason to suggest he will not be able to do it again. As soon as the final ball is kicked this season the Scot will be planning next year’s assault.
United have matched Chelsea in a campaign during which they had to adjust to losing two key players and, but for a 2-1 home defeat by the Blues in April, would be sure of claiming a fourth straight title on Sunday to go with their League Cup success.