What does a bright start mean for United?
Manchester United's Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa . AFP PHOTO/ANDREW YATES
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Even when Manchester United are playing poorly they are still winning, such is the strength of one of the most obvious challengers to Manchester City this season.
United’s 4-0 mauling of near-neighbours Wigan Athletic overnight just about summed up their start to the campaign.
A missed penalty from Javier Hernandez, innumerable other wasted chances and a grumpy Sir Alex Ferguson come half-time.
But a tap-in from Paul Scholes in his 700th United appearance opened the floodgates before Hernandez made up for his earlier penalty miss with a goal of his own.
And when a couple of debutants in Alexander Büttner and Nick Powell got on the scoresheet late on it suggested United might have more up their sleeve than a bunch of decidedly ageing veterans.
While Scholes opened the scoring on a landmark occasion for the diminutive midfielder, he wasn’t the only United player to celebrate a milestone clash.
Ryan Giggs featured in his 600th Premier League game for the Red Devils while Rio Ferdinand was making his 400th appearance for the club.
All three still feature prominently – though Giggs less so this season – however now more than ever time is starting to catch up with a host of United’s veterans.
That’s why Ferguson will be pleased with the debuts of Büttner and Powell, with United eager to revitalise a squad which ran out of steam at key junctures of last season.
Former Vitesse Arnhem full-back Büttner looks set to put pressure on French defender Patrice Evra, who was left out of the starting eleven against a toothless Wigan attack.
That’s perhaps not surprising given that defence has been an Achilles’ heel for United so far this season, having conceded five goals in the three games leading up to the Wigan clash.
One of those was Everton’s winner in their shock 1-0 opening day victory at Goodison Park and while United scraped by both Fulham and Southampton thereafter, they needed somewhat fortunate 3-2 wins to do so.
They’ll be pleased to be hanging on to the coat-tails of Chelsea nonetheless and Ferguson knows it’s key to pick up early points ahead of testing UEFA Champions League group-stage fixtures.
United open their continental campaign at home to Turkish giants Galatasaray next week, which explains why Robin van Persie started on the bench against Wigan, while Shinji Kagawa failed to even make it off it.
The pair were bought not only to add depth to a United squad looking to make a serious challenge in Europe but also one which struggled to compete with neighbours City for sheer quality last season.
Provided he stays injury free, van Persie could be good for another 25 league goals this season but he won’t be able to win the title alone.
And with the temperamental and sometimes injury-prone Wayne Rooney not always enjoying the best of relationships with his coach, United need van Persie to score consistently rather than in fits and spurts this season.
Realistically the Red Devils will be challenging City, Chelsea and a resurgent Arsenal for the Premier League title and Ferguson will be determined to go one better than last season’s bitterly disappointing outcome.
But with question marks over goalkeeper David De Gea and his leaky defence plus a midfield still reliant on some decidedly battle-weary legs, the jury is still out on whether United’s upbeat start to the season makes them the favourites to snatch City’s crown.
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman
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