WHO’LL FILL RON­ALDO’S BOOTS?

Num­ber of op­tions for Sir Alex as he looks to re­mould United at­tack

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FOOTBALL - BEN JAMES

HE was loved and he was hated, but even those who loathed him could hardly deny that Cris­tiano Ron­aldo had a key part to play in Manch­ester United’s lat­est hat-trick of Premier League suc­cesses.

A re­turn of 66 league goals over those three sea­sons would be im­pres­sive for a cen­tral striker, but for some­body who spent most of their time op­er­at­ing on the wing it is phe­nom­e­nal.

In­evitably, this pre-sea­son has cen­tred on whether United can cope without him, with United in­sist­ing, not sur­pris­ingly, that they can.

“It is im­por­tant to be clear that Ron­aldo did not make Manch­ester United,” said full-back Pa­trice Evra. “Ron­aldo was never the star at United. We are all stars and the boss would never let any one per­son be­lieve he is the star.

“He was a good player for us and a very im­por­tant one. But United was United be­fore him and it is still United af­ter him.”

Per­haps the key as­pect of Ron­aldo’s de­par­ture, though, is less his knack of scor­ing, than that United were so set up to pro­vide him with the op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Theirs for the last cou­ple of sea­sons has been that most mod­ern of styles: a cen­tre-for­ward who drops deep, cre­at­ing space for play­ers cut­ting in from wide.

It worked also for Barcelona last sea­son, as Sa­muel Eto’o dropped off, open­ing gaps for Leo Messi and Thierry Henry.

It was with Car­los Tevez and Wayne Rooney the sea­son be­fore last that United came clos­est to strik­er­less­ness; but even with Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov last sea­son, there was no ex­pec­ta­tion that he should lead the line in a con­ven­tional sense.

This sea­son, United have re­verted to some­thing rather more con­ven­tional, and in the Com­mu­nity Shield, while Nani on the left was clearly more ad­vanced than Park Ji-Sung on the right, the shape was an or­tho­dox 4-4-2, with Rooney play­ing off Ber­ba­tov.

With Luis An­to­nio Va­len­cia signed from Wi­gan Ath­letic, and Zo­ran Tosic, who joined from Par­ti­zan Bel­grade in Jan­uary, United have op­tions in wide ar­eas.

Their most strik­ing sign­ing of a rel­a­tively quiet sum­mer, though, was Michael Owen, picked up on a free trans­fer from New­cas­tle United fol­low­ing their rel­e­ga­tion.

He was used as a sub­sti­tute at Wem­b­ley, and that seems likely to be his po­si­tion for most of the sea­son, at least in big­ger games.

There have been ma­jor doubts about Owen af­ter a se­ries of in­juries robbed him of his pace – he has, for in­stance, barely fea­tured for Fabio Capello’s Eng­land – but man­ager Sir Alex Fer­gu­son is cer­tain the 29-year-old still has much to of­fer.

“Michael is a world-class for­ward with a proven goal-scor­ing record at the high­est level,” he said.

That again sug­gests the use of a more tra­di­tional 4-4-2, for Owen needs ser­vice, whether from a tar­get-man part­ner, as Ber­ba­tov could be, or from some­body sit­ting deeper, slid­ing through passes, some­thing both Ber­ba­tov and Rooney can do.

What that means, though, is a turn away from the 4-3-3 that has been United’s pre­ferred for­ma­tion in ma­jor Euro­pean games for the past few sea­sons.

The loss of Nani with a dis­lo­cated shoul­der in the Com­mu­nity Shield will be a blow to United in the early weeks of the sea­son, but United – even without Ron­aldo and Tevez – still have prob­a­bly the strong­est squad in the divi­sion.

And with Liver­pool, who fin­ished just four points adrift last sea- son, los­ing Xabi Alonso, while Chelsea’s new man­ager Carlo Ancelotti gets used to the Premier League, United look well placed to add an un­prece­dented fourth straight Premier League suc­cess. – Sapa-DPA

FLASHY BOOTS TO FILL: Man United fans will be looking to Michael Owen and Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov, in the back­ground, to take over from the de­parted Cris­tiano Ron­aldo at Old Traf­ford this sea­son.

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