Manchester — For a club of Manchester United's standing, two
years out of the Premier League title conversation is too many.
There are reasons to be optimistic that the run won't
stretch to a third season, even though the 20-time English champions head into
the new campaign with as many questions as answers.
Louis van Gaal is starting his second season in charge and
feels his philosophy — his buzzword since arriving at Old Trafford — is
beginning to permeate the club. The Dutchman also believes his squad is better
balanced after the offseason signings of midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and
Morgan Schneiderlin, Italy right back Matteo Darmian, Netherlands forward
Memphis Depay and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Throw in its return to the Champions League and another
strong set of preseason results on the tour of the United States, including a
victory against European champion Barcelona, and there's every reason to feel
United should improve on seventh- and fourth-place finishes in the league in
the last two seasons.
Not everything is rosy at Old Trafford, though.
United looks short up front following the departure of Robin
van Persie and Radamel Falcao this summer. Wayne Rooney starts the season as
the club's only senior striker, although Javier Hernandez — currently injured —
is back from his loan spell at Real Madrid.
Also read: Van Gaal worried by De Gea after United loss
There remain question marks over the future of goalkeeper
David de Gea, arguably United's best player last season and the main reason the
team is back in the Champions League. De Gea is heavily linked with a move to
Madrid and has barely featured in preseason.
And Van Gaal has acknowledged that his squad still the lacks
the kind of star quality in attack that is sprinkled throughout the forward
lines of European heavyweights Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern Munich. Argentina
midfielder Angel Di Maria was supposed to have added that but he is on the
verge of joining Paris Saint-Germain, to end an underwhelming year at United
following his club-record move for 59.7 million pounds (then $99 million).
"We can use much more creativity," Van Gaal said
during the U.S. tour.
United's first task this season will be to win its Champions
League playoff at the end of August to advance to the group stage. Another of
Van Gaal's priorities will be to start the league season better than last year,
with United's title chances virtually over after picking up just 13 points in the
opening 10 rounds.
If that happens, United could yet be back as a genuine
contender in the title race, as it should be after spending about 230 million
pounds ($360 million) on new signings in the last 12 months. As it stands,
there is a general feeling that Chelsea will again be too strong this season,
perhaps even Manchester City and Arsenal.
Here are some more things to know about United ahead of the
RELIANT ON ROONEY
Rooney is back as United's No. 1 striker, and there is
pressure on him to deliver now that Van Persie and Falcao are gone.
"I hope to score 20 or more goals again," the
England captain said. "If I am playing as a striker, then I will be
disappointed if I cannot do that again."
If he achieves his target, he will become United's record
scorer. Rooney's tally for the club is currently 230 goals, 19 behind Bobby
THE NEW RONALDO?
Comparisons are already being made between Depay and Cristiano
That may be premature, but there is hope at Old Trafford
that the 21-year-old Dutchman can provide an attacking spark to take United to
the next level.
He was among the top players in the Dutch league with PSV
Eindhoven last season — he has pace, trickery and a dangerous free kick — and
has impressed in preseason.
The Premier League is a huge step up, though, and many
players have struggled to deal with being labeled the so-called "Next Big
Thing" at England's most successful team.For
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