Can A Team Of 30s Reclaim The Title?

It is six years since Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to fly some of his senior players out to the United States, desperate to avoid a public relations disaster and criticism that Manchester United’s squad for their last pre-season tour to this part of the world lacked star quality. Now Ferguson finds himself facing concerns that United have too many senior servants; that, after another quiet summer in the transfer market, he will once again go into the new season relying on players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar.

Indeed, the United boss could field an entire starting XI of players who are 29 or older. And yet, at the impressive Rogers Centre in Toronto, the strongest argument in favour of age and experience came not from one of his most trusted lieutenants, but from a player who has caused the United boss more frustration than anyone else.

Dimitar Berbatov is an infuriatingly complex character — blessed with sublime skill but a work ethic that leaves observers feeling he can give at least another 20 per cent of effort and body language that suggests he does not always care. The brooding Bulgarian became an increasingly peripheral figure last season, troubled by a knee problem and often consigned to the bench while Wayne Rooney blazed a goal trail on his own.

It is highly possible that Berbatov would no longer be a United player if the club had been given an opportunity to recoup a decent proportion of the £30.75m they paid Tottenham for his services two years ago. But the new look he sported in Toronto — the long hair and headband that he jettisoned last year have been replaced by a shorter style — may just be matched by a new attitude in the player. Berbatov certainly played with purpose as United kicked off their five-game tour of North America with a 3-1 win over Celtic.

In the absence of Rooney and Michael Owen, he lasted 90 minutes in the stifling heat, even though United used seven substitutes, and found himself with a variety of young partners in Mame Biram Diouf, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda. Berbatov showed great determination to score the first and helped set up the others for Welbeck and another United substitute, Tom Cleverley, with an unselfish pass and classy backheel. The latter touch illustrated his desire to express himself and enjoy the occasion in a manner that was often missing last season.

It delighted Ferguson, even though the United manager’s claim that no-one inside Old Trafford has ever doubted Berbatov was less than convincing.

"He got the man-of-the-match award, and he deserved that. In the second half he produced some fantastic moments and it underlines the one great factor — that class he has. You cannot take that away from him. No matter how many people criticise him, it never comes from inside our camp. We see that class. We know we’ve got the right player," said Ferguson

Berbatov’s performance also helped to ease Chris Smalling’s embarrassment over handing Georgios Samaras the chance to equalise from the penalty spot in the second half. The £10m signing from Fulham soured his debut by needlessly bringing down Celtic new boy Joe Ledley, a challenge even Ferguson acknowledged was unwise.

"He got caught out for the penalty kick a little bit when their player came from the blindside in behind him and he could maybe have let him go on. I always feel in a situation like that, with a player running away from goal, you are better letting him have the shot. But Chris is only 20," said Ferguson.

Smalling is one of the young breed Ferguson believes are the future of United. But his only other purchase so far this summer is young Mexico striker Javier Hernandez, who is expected to join his new team-mates for the final game of their tour against his old club, Chivas, in Guadalajara, and the United boss will again call on the veteran players who have served him so well down the years. Having suggested two years ago that the age of Chelsea’s squad meant they were unlikely to show much improvement, Ferguson now faces a similar assessment of his own players as they attempt to snatch the Premier League title back from Stamford Bridge.

Van der Sar — at 39, the oldest player on the books at Old Trafford — believes the United boss still knows how to get the best out of men like Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville at this stage of their careers.

He said: ‘I think Sir Alex is quite clever enough to know when he plays certain players in games, and when to rest them. Darren Fletcher can play two games in three days, but if a certain player is playing on Tuesday and the manager knows he can’t play him on Saturday, then he saves the player. The training methods at United are perfect, but it’s a great credit to players like Giggs and Scholes and their lifestyle that they are still playing at the top level.’

Exclusively by Derek Hunter

Pre-Season friendly: Celtic 1 Man Utd 3

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