PLAYING CATCH UP
The last time Manchester United made such a bad start to the season, they went on to win the league. But even with Wayne Rooney in their midst it is increasingly difficult - some would say nigh impossible - to see how they can emulate the class of 1993, or even get close.
Sixteen days into the new Premiership campaign Sir Alex Ferguson's team are already seven points behind Arsenal and Chelsea, and the deposed champions were so desperately unimaginative here, so torpid in attack and unaccomplished in midfield, that there was nothing to suggest the gap will not become a chasm.
Rooney's arrival might offer Ferguson an attacking quartet rivalled only by Real Madrid's but there are so many deficiencies elsewhere in the team that the impending £25m transfer will be regarded at Highbury and Stamford Bridge with only passing interest rather than a genuine sense of trepidation.
THE thinking behind Manchester United’s pursuit of Wayne Rooney is that they need a touchstone player, an individual who can arrive at Old Trafford and raise expectations and standards in all around him just as did Eric Cantona 11 years ago. If that sounds like a tall order for an 18-year-old with only 15 Premiership goals to his name, there was plenty of evidence yesterday to suggest that it does not begin to reflect Sir Alex Ferguson’s desperation as his rebuilding operation continues to founder.
Ferguson has always held dear the maxim that the championship race is a marathon, rather than a sprint, but the worrying signs are that United are looking distinctly Paula Radcliffe as Arsenal and Chelsea gallop off into the distance. Whereas the two London clubs boast a 100 per cent record, United have won just one of their four matches. An even more glaring illustration of their early-season malaise is that they have scored only three goals, as opposed to Arsenal ’s 16, and that cannot be attributed to the absence of Ruud van Nistelrooy alone.
Yesterday, for all their possession, United were never in control of a midfield in which Kléberson, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes — three fine passers, but not a ball-winner among them — were out muscled by Everton’s quintet of Lee Carsley, Leon Osman, Steve Watson, Tim Cahill and Kevin Kilbane.
United, are in desperate need of some unpredictable genius, but even that may not be enough to bridge the yawning gap between them and Arsenal.
Whatever honours Wayne Rooney hopes to achieve at Old Trafford, assuming that he completes a £25m transfer from Everton to Manchester United today, a winner's medal in this season's Premiership appears unlikely to be among them.
The players Rooney will leave behind certainly showed the pride in the jersey that Everton's followers demand. Nigel Martyn was his usual agile and authoritative self in goal; David Weir was defiance personified in his first appearance this season, continuing to head away the high balls to which United resorted after he suffered a head wound that required stitches.
Tony Hibbert met the challenges offered by Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs with equal composure. In midfield, Leon Osman, who scored twice against West Brom last weekend, engaged United's hugely promising American full-back, Jonathan Spector, in a fascinating duel. Indeed, every Everton man gave the impression of being determined to prove they are no one-man team.
United, bereft of Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and the leadership the Irishman provides, have scored three goals in four League matches, compared with Arsenal's 16. They scarcely threatened before the break, with only a misdirected free header by Louis Saha and a long-range drive by Kleberson to show for a display, which, uncharacteristically for United, was in dire need of width.
Ferguson should get his man today. Nevertheless, performances such as this prompt the question as to whether their money would be better spent on reinforcing the defence and midfield.