| Wayne Rooney |
London: Manchester United’s pre-season performances have been encouraging but rehabilitation under new manager Louis van Gaal begins in earnest on Saturday when they kick off the new Premier League season at home to Swansea City.
Dutchman Van Gaal, whose managerial haul includes league titles in the Netherlands, Spain and Germany, faces arguably his toughest task to date in restoring United quickly back to the top of English football’s pecking order.
United’s 20th league title in Alex Ferguson’s farewell season was followed by a slump to seventh — their worst showing in recent years as Ferguson’s successor David Moyes found himself horribly out of his depth.
No wonder then the only way for them is up. It will depend on how fast and how quickly Van Gaal implements his own style on a squad that still looks thin on quality in several areas despite £56 million of spending.
A home clash with Swansea, starting their fourth season in the Premier League, should give United temporary leadership of the table although champions Manchester City and Chelsea will be determined to put down early markers away from home.
City face Newcastle United on Sunday while Chelsea, with a parade of new signings including Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, have to wait until Monday to launch their campaign against Burnley.
Like Van Gaal and Costa, Chile striker Alexis Sanchez will also get his first taste of the Premier League as Arsenal begin with a London Derby against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
United enjoyed wins against European champions Real Madrid and Liverpool during their north American tour and added a 2-1 victory against Valencia on Tuesday in their final warm-up fixture, after which striker Wayne Rooney was named as the club’s new captain.
With the onus on Rooney and fellow forward Robin van Persie to score the goals, United’s lack of central midfield flair, so apparent last season, could be solved by the quick feet of Ander Herrera who has signed from Athletic Bilbao.
Van Gaal knows a fast start will be vital to challenge last season’s top four and believes confidence is high as Swansea loom, although he also offered a cautionary note to the fans.
“They expect a lot and you can’t change everything in three or four weeks,” he said of the Old Trafford faithful who will have no European football to distract them this year.
“And the players can’t change either. We have to wait and see. We need time but we have won every game up until now and that’s fantastic. We have great confidence to play against Swansea City. But we are not taking them lightly.”