Man United hopes to perform

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> United – which opens Aug. 13 at Everton – may find it a struggle just to stay in contention.

Updated: February 25, 2007 10:54 IST
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Two years without a league championship. Not a single trophy last season. A contentious American takeover and a turbulent preseason. The aura surrounding Manchester United isn't what it used to be. Alex Ferguson's team finished in third place last season – 18 points behind Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. With the Blues looking even stronger this season, United – which opens Aug. 13 at Everton – may find it a struggle just to stay in contention. The struggle within Two star players – striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and defender Rio Ferdinand – argued heatedly during a game last week in Japan, and the offseason has brought few high-profile signings. Ferdinand has also angered fans by stalling on a new contract. Acquired three years ago in a record 30-million-pound (US$51 million) deal from Leeds, the England center back wants a 25 per cent pay increase to take his salary over 100,000 pounds (US$170,000) a week. The fallout continues, meanwhile, over the club's US$1.47 billion buyout last spring by American businessman Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many fans opposed the buyout, fearing higher prices, control by a foreigner, and the large debt level needed to leverage the deal. Critics also say Glazer cares little about the sport, buying for only business reasons. Glazer's sons – Joel, Avi and Bryan Glazer – needed a police escort away from Old Trafford Stadium when they visited in June. On the recent tour of Asia, Bryan Glazer was forced to defend his father when a group of fans broke into a VIP area after a victory over Beijing Hyundai. All in all, these are challenging times for the club which won the Premier League title eight out of 11 seasons. There's no disputing the talent. Banking on stars Strikers Wayne Rooney and Van Nistelrooy, wingers Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, midfielders Paul Scholes and Roy Keane and defender Ferdinand are all world-class players. United has also solidified its spotty goalkeeping in the offseason, signing Edwin van der Sar from Fulham to compete with American Tim Howard. And the Reds have added talented South Korean midfielder Park Ji-sung. But something appears to be missing. Playing United used to trigger fear, Ferguson's decisions were unchallenged, and the Reds were the world's most popular club. In the recent four-game Asia tour, some of the gloss was gone. The tour drew negative headlines, and a match in Beijing was played before only 24,000 in half-full Workers Stadium. "We can't hide an empty stadium, but we feel there were reasons why it happened and we will work to ensure the same situation doesn't occur again," chief executive David Gill said. Management feuds Gill is feuding with former Man United chief executive Peter Kenyon, who's now at Chelsea. Kenyon accused Arsenal and United of "hypocrisy and insecurity" after the heads of both clubs were critical of Chelsea's big spending. "That's his view," Gill said of Kenyon. "It was amazing when he said that, but if that's his view, that's his view." Man United won't even be playing in Sunday's Charity Shield match – the traditional kickoff to the English season. The game will pit Chelsea against FA Cup winner Arsenal. Those two clubs have automatically qualified for the Champions League, while United faces qualifying games next week and later in August against Hungarian side Debrecen. "We have to get through," defender Gary Neville said. "Not being in the Champions League doesn't bear thinking about for Manchester United. Not to be in would be a disaster." Deals in the offing Man United's most high-profile signing may still be a year away. Several British newspapers have reported the club will sign Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack next summer when his contract expires with the German club. If there's one thing to be cheerful about, it's probably 19-year-old England international Rooney. He scored both goals in Saitama, Japan, in United's 2-0 victory over the Urawa Reds. "I feel brilliant," Rooney said. "I've got a solid preseason behind me, that's something I haven't had for two years now. We haven't won the league in two years so that is our main priority this season." That won't be as easy as it used to be. (AP)

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