MANCHESTER, July 28 – Manchester United may have won the last three Premier League titles but they will face even more scrutiny than usual when they come up against Birmingham on the opening day of the season on August 16.
Despite a summer of upheaval in Sir Alex Ferguson’s camp, United will be expected to open the campaign with a convincing win.
But whether they will be able to repeat the achievements of the past few years, in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, is open to question.
Ferguson’s reluctance to spend more than a small portion of the 80 million pounds (94 million euros) earned from the Portuguese’s sale to Real Madrid has puzzled plenty of supporters, as has replacing Carlos Tevez with Michael Owen.
As well as Owen’s arrival on a free transfer from Newcastle United, the United manager has brought in Antonio Valencia from Wigan in a 17.5 million pounds deal and spent three million more on Bordeaux’s Gabriel Obertan.
Although he lacked the consistency of the previous season last term, Ronaldo still managed 25 goals, a tally that included some vital strikes, and will be greatly missed.
Rio Ferdinand believes that Ronaldo’s departure will mean United are a more compact unit that will be even harder to find a way past.
To improve the defensive record of last season, which conceded just 24 goals, will be some achievement.
But there are suspicions that the absence of the game-breaker will be more keenly felt as the champions look to win a 19th title that will make them above the tally they currently share with Liverpool.
That they managed just one victory in six matches against their ‘big four’ rivals last season can be taken to mean they have an unrivalled squad strength but that the likes of Liverpool can more than match them in one-off matches.
That will be a statistic that Ferguson will be desperate to improve on but the United manager has plenty of confidence in the squad left behind by Ronaldo and Tevez.
Veteran Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, 38, is still his number one goalkeeper but is likely to be used just once a week as Ben Foster is given greater opportunities to shine.
Injuries continue to hamper Gary Neville and Rafael is likely to be given even greater chance to shine at right-back.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will once again form Ferguson’s first-choice central defensive partnership but the United manager knows that Jonny Evans supplies seamless cover, while French left-back Patrice Evra remains untouchable.
Ecuador international Valencia will be expected to slot straight in on the right but there will be less game time for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Ferguson, whose side lost the Champions League final to Barcelona, is desperate for Owen Hargreaves to overcome his long-standing knee problems but is otherwise happy with his central midfield options of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson.
On the left, Nani has a lot to prove and Ferguson is quietly hopeful that Serbian Zoran Tosic can make an impression.
Following Ronaldo’s move, Wayne Rooney has been promised plenty of chances in the centre, while much more is expected from Dimitar Berbatov.
Ferguson is confident Owen will supply goals and youngsters such as Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck will be called on more regularly after impressing last season.
The United manager accepts that not having Ronaldo will give the champions’ rivals a boost.
He said: "It will give teams a bit more encouragement. They’ll all be delighted that we’ve lost Ronaldo, no question about that.
"We are a different team now and we will shape it differently. We’ll be more compact in midfield because he (Ronaldo) was a bit loose in his defending.
"We’ll be more compact, but we also have the increasing maturity of players like Darren Fletcher.
"Owen Hargreaves will come back, Anderson will improve, Nani will improve, Rooney will improve.
"I think they’ve got to improve, the young players, and we expect them to improve. I think Dimitar Berbatov will have a terrific season, too. So we’re not so bad."