LANDOVER, Md. — Saturday night’s 2-1 win over FC Barcelona closes out Manchester United’s involvement in the World Football Challenge, a tournament that has seen them net 20 goals and allow just three in five exhibition victories.
For United’s technical staff, perhaps the most promising aspect of their US tour is the fact that young faces and new arrivals have played such a prominent role in that impressive record.
“On this tour, we’ve seen some good additions to the family,” said assistant manager Mick Phelan after Saturday’s result. “Tonight it wasn’t a do-or-die situation, [but] it was important that the players that we put out onto the pitch understand what it takes to play against an exceptional team.
“We had some very good young players out there tonight — I thought they comported themselves to a high standard, so we’re pleased that we got something out of the game.”
United winger Nani was the leading light for the 81,807 who packed the massive venue, scoring the opening goal and repeatedly troubling the Blaugrana defense with his slashing runs — and with four eventful years at Old Trafford under his belt, it’s easy to forget that the Portuguese international is still just 24 years old.
“Of course I’m very happy. We did well,” Nani said. “We were playing some good football this evening. The regular season is coming up and it’s good to win.”
The Portuguese international enjoyed an exceptional match on both sides of the ball against FC Barcelona. He played with a purpose of a player who was fighting for his job, which applies in the case of Nani after Antonio Valencia took ownership of the right flank last season.
“I’m very confident. … I lost my place to Valencia," he said. "The manager makes his decision. But now I’m feeling very comfortable [going] into next season, to do my best and help the team win games.”
While he and fellow goal-scorer Michael Owen are familiar faces to United fans, it was 20-year-old striker Danny Welbeck who set up Saturday’s opener and Owen’s match-winner was similarly keyed by Tom Cleverley, a 21-year-old midfielder who seems ready to stake his claim to a leading role after spending the last several seasons on loan to lower-division clubs.
United’s next stop is a testimonial match for recently retired midfielder Paul Scholes, and the task of replacing the club legend’s influence in central midfield is a leading concern, especially given how pedestrian the Red Devils looked in that crucial area when Barcelona defeated them in May’s Champions League final.
“It is crucial, because with Paul Scholes retiring and Darren Fletcher still recovering from his virus, it’s an area which we’ll have to find a solution for,” manager Alex Ferguson said. “But that’s why we played Cleverley today.”
Barcelona controlled the majority of possession at FedEx Field, as they do against nearly every side they face, but Man United’s young engine room combination of Cleverley and Anderson made sure it counted for little, showing tenacity, athleticism and sharp passing when United did win the ball.
“Cleverley, physically he’s not the strongest lad, but he’s wiry, and he’s got a good idea of the game, and he’s a good footballer,” Ferguson said. “So for him tonight, it was a big night. I thought he was our best player. His discipline was terrific, he’s a quick passer of the ball, he’s got good eyes. So he’s a big strong possibility for us to start this season.”
United’s boss also offered praise for David de Gea, the Spanish goalkeeper who arrived from Atlético Madrid in a $31 million transfer this summer as the long-term successor to iconic Dutch netminder Edwin van der Sar.
“Obviously replacing van der Sar is very difficult, he’s a great goalkeeper,” Ferguson said. “But the benefit with de Gea is he’s 20 years of age. He’s a young man. The qualities he has at the moment which were valuable to us were his great composure, his great use of the ball. He’s quick, agile and I think that we’ve banked on that. When we assessed him, I thought that was the right one to take.”
Being right about young players is one of the markers of success of Ferguson’s career. Manchester United will be counting on it again when the new season officially kicks off next weekend.