x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Changing of the old guard

Manchester United and Milan - two great clubs who face a struggle trying to replace an icon.

Manchester United's Ecuadorian winger Antonio Valencia, left, scores his first goal for the club as Boca Juniors defender Morel Rodriguez tries to challenge during the Audi Cup semi-final at the Allianz Arena in Munich.
Manchester United's Ecuadorian winger Antonio Valencia, left, scores his first goal for the club as Boca Juniors defender Morel Rodriguez tries to challenge during the Audi Cup semi-final at the Allianz Arena in Munich.

Munich looms large in Manchester United's history, from the disaster in 1958 to the delight of 1999 when Bayern capitulated in an improbable comeback. In that context, their latest visit to the Bavarian capital is unimportant. Yet as the Audi Cup, featuring United, Bayern, Boca Juniors and AC Milan concludes today, it offers the first meaningful pointer of their prospects for the season.

The most instructive comparison is with Milan. They, like United, have lost an icon. Each is looking for a faded idol to compensate. For Kaka, read Cristiano Ronaldo. Where Ronaldinho has to step up, Michael Owen has stepped in. Two former European Footballers of the Year are the spiritual successors to the last two winners of the Ballon d'Or. Real Madrid's millions may have been more welcome in Milan than Manchester, but the impact is the same. It is hard to portray this as a summer of progress at either club.

It may, however, be one where there has been a shift in the philosophies. United have pronounced themselves reluctant to compete with Real and Manchester City for players they regard as overpriced. In Italy, meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi has said: "We won't buy players over 30 anymore." Milan has long been regarded as football's equivalent of the retirement home. Now Manchester has some similarities, and not just with Owen's arrival.

They concluded their Asian tour with an 8-2 win against Hangzhou Greentown, featuring a hat-trick from 35-year-old Ryan Giggs. The Welshman was operating in a more advanced role, suggesting he shares the responsibility for replacing Ronaldo. A more direct alternative to the Portuguese is now available. Antonio Valencia missed the Asian leg of pre-season. Now United have one of the two right wingers they have recruited - the other, Gabriel Obertan, remains sidelined - with Nemanja Vidic the other arrival for the second tour of the month.

Comparisons are inevitable but - as the Ecuadorian, who opened his account for the club in Wednesday's 2-1 victory over Boca, averaged three goals a season at Wigan - unfortunate for the newcomer. "I understand all too well that losing 26 goals from a winger is hard to replace, but we will try because it is the nature of our club that the expectations never change whether you have Ronaldo or Valencia," Sir Alex Ferguson said.

Ferguson's rhetoric has been instructive, regular admissions of the difficulties Ronaldo's exit has caused being married with consistent praise for Owen and vocal criticisms of City and Real. Leonardo, Milan's new coach, represents Ferguson's polar opposite in many respects, amenable where the Scot is abrasive and in his 30s while the older man nears 70, yet they have a shared interest in proving the galacticos policy to be flawed.

For the Rossoneri to do that, a search for a striker must be concluded. Germany is a logical place to look with Edin Dzeko, the Footballer of the Year in the Bundesliga, reportedly top of the shortlist. Theirs has been a demanding pre-season and while defeats to Inter Milan and Chelsea in the United States are scarcely auspicious, they should provide fine preparation for matches in successive days.

Ronaldinho's build-up has included being shown a red card by a referee intending to brandish yellow. Officials, like players, have clearly been rusty but as the season nears, results and performances take on a greater significance. So do prestigious scalps. The four clubs contesting the Audi Cup have, the organisers have boasted, a cumulative total of 78 league titles. The fear in Milan and Manchester may be that Bayern are the likeliest to increase that haul this year. For AC and United, the task is to prove that meaningful silverware is not the inevitable consequence of possessing superstars.

rjolly@thenational.ae