x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Slumbering giants United have yet to bare their teeth

Beaten to the title last season and not grabbing attention this term, undefeated Manchester United are far from being a club in decline.

Negotiating tactic it may have been, but it does not help a football club when the star player questions its ambitions.

For some, Wayne Rooney's precious concerns over "the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world" was a confirmation from within that Manchester United were going steadily downhill.

Beaten to the Premier League title last season and off Chelsea's pace this as match-winning leads have been ceded left, right and centre. Financially overpowered in their own city as supporters protest their own club's indebtedness. The portrait of United as a sclerotic, declining force has grown popular in the space of a few traumatic months.

The thesis can be a seductive one. Certainly there is no Premier League trophy at Old Trafford just now - for the first time in four years.

And there was no Champions League Final date last May - for the first time in three.

As they prepare to face Tottenham Hotspur - one of the division's supposed coming powers - United lag five points adrift of Chelsea, a disturbing early season deficit, if one shared with Arsenal and Manchester City.

Yet rub the statistics another way and the legs of the argument begin to buckle.

United are the league's only unbeaten team, they are yet to lose in any competition this season (including a Community Shield victory over Chelsea), and their allegedly substandard backup XI remains in a League Cup already shorn of City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea.

When it comes to the "Super Sunday" head-to-heads that often sculpt the psychological shape of the season, United have barely begun.

Sir Alex Ferguson does not meet either Chelsea or Arsenal in the league until December. A first chance to put neighbouring City back in their place comes next month.

Though the current Liverpool offer no competition for the title, an ever-difficult fixture was successfully negotiated last month.

If United are not as enfeebled as they are made out to be, neither are Chelsea as irresistible as their present image.

Their early fixture list was one of confidence-generating generosity, while their shallow squad is yet to be tested by the demands of winter and the Champions League knockout stages.

Carlo Ancelotti is well aware that he has fewer resources to work with than when he edged past Ferguson last term.

The marginal nature of that triumph is easily ignored.

Chelsea took the league by a single point, benefiting significantly from Rooney's late-season ankle injury and their own early exit from Europe.

Not only did United lose the striker's prodigious scoring when he succumbed to an ankle injury at Bayern Munich, they had also spent a significant chunk of the campaign covering for an almost unprecedented glut of defensive casualties.

"If you remember, we played with nine defenders injured," Patrice Evra said recently.

"Tell me which team - Arsenal? Chelsea? - can play with nine defenders injured and still only lose the league by one point.

"Maybe some people will say I look for an excuse when I say that, but it's true.

"To say Manchester United are finished is a big mistake."

The same applies to the manager. Ferguson's handling of Rooney's contract renegotiation was masterful, calling the player's bluff on "the cow in the neighbour's field", extracting enough cash from the owners, the Glazer family, to conclude a lucrative new contract, while tying down his most important performer for the remainder of his own career at Manchester United.

Though United have considered the succession for fear of the Scot's sudden retirement, Ferguson has told friends he wants to place hands on a third European Cup and United's 19th League title before stepping down.

His squad have weaknesses (notably in central defence and midfield), but it was ever thus with Ferguson at Old Trafford.

The most persistent of his abilities has been to override the doubters. He remains firmly in that saddle.

sports@thenational.ae

The match-up
Key Battle
Dimitar Berbatov v Younes Kaboul
Berbatov, below, has not scored since a hat-trick against Liverpool on September 19 and he would dearly love to end that sequence against his former club today. Kaboul will need to be at his sharpest to shackle the Bulgarian.

Tactics
Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, showed he views Wednesday’s game at home to Inter Milan as the priority when he talked of resting Gareth Bale. Spurs have a miserable record at Old Trafford and they will probably be content with a draw.

Previous meetings
Spurs took the lead in the game at White Hart Lane last season and drew level at Old Trafford. However, they lacked the belief to defeat a vulnerable United side and lost both matches 3-1. It is difficult to see any other result today.

Probable line-ups
United (4-4-2) Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, Obertan; Berbatov, Hernandez.
Spurs: (4-4-1-1) Gomes; Hutton, Gallas, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Palacios, Kranjcar; Van der Vaart; Pavlyuchenko.

Facts
• Man United are the only unbeaten team in the league.
• Spurs have lost just once away from White Hart Lane this season.
• United have 18 victories and lost none of their last 22 league matches against Spurs.