With the holy grail of the Champions League qualification now secured, United need to move quickly if they’re to add to their five summer signings with the transfer window closing on Tuesday, September 01.
United fans will point to last season’s late signings of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao as proof that there’s still time to sign another much-wanted striker but while Barca manager Luis Enrique was worried about losing Pedro (now at Chelsea) to United because he wanted to keep the Canarian, he won’t be too worried about losing Neymar to United just yet.
The transfer rumours are largely seen as another tactic by the Brazilian to negotiate a bigger contract now that he’s slipped to being the fifth best-paid player at Camp Nou.
Neymar was second to Lionel Messi when he arrived, but Luis Suarez has signed since and Daniel Alves & Andres Iniesta have also negotiated bigger deals. And while United are still in the market for a superstar signing, they’re usually the hardest to acquire.
The club wanted Pedro but they also wanted several other top players and the procrastination over signing the Canarian – who was waiting for a month to seal the deal – implies that the focus was elsewhere.
The next few days will tell, but there’s still time for those last minute trips across the Channel.
There’s always high expectations at Old Trafford and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward was beaming as he walked out of the Jan Breydal stadium in Bruges (flanked by Sir Bobby Charlton) on Wednesday night an hour after United had confirmed their Champions League qualification with a 7-1 aggregate hammering of Bruges.
His smile must have been even wider as Thursday’s group-stage draw threw up PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg – teams familiar to United fans with long memories.
From a football perspective – and that should override all others – it’s a decent draw as United’s failure to qualify for the Champions League last season has seen their co-efficient drop and they slipped to the second tier of seeds.
PSV Eindhoven were considered the weakest of the top tier seeds. Once effectively the factory team of electronic giants Phillips, they’re now a successful football factory and one which United have routinely plundered in signing Jaap Stam (above), Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ji Sung Park and in the summer, Memphis Depay.
Memphis returns to the club he scored 22 goals at last season and United’s opening group game away to PSV on September 15 is arguably their toughest.
Wolfsburg hail from the small German city which makes Volkswagen cars. Last year’s Bundesliga runners-up met United in the 2009-10 Champions League, when a certain Michael Owen scored a hat-trick.
A trip to CSKA Moscow is not a game the travelling fans wanted. Visas for Russia are complicated and expensive. But Moscow holds fond memories as the scene of the 2008 Champions League Final penalty shoot-out win over Chelsea.
Only Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney now remain in the team from that third European triumph with Ryan Giggs (below) now learning to be a manager alongside Louis van Gaal.
United will be confident of progressing. They avoided the five Spanish clubs which some players were keen to do and if they win Group B it will help restore some of the prestige which has been buffeted in these lean, post-Sir Alex Ferguson years.
That’s not to say that anyone – bar Luis Enrique who was probably just being polite when asked post Barca game in the States – thinks United can win the competition.
Goals were not a problem against Bruges, where Wayne Rooney managed his first goal in red since April – on the way to a hat-trick. He was especially effective in the second period with Ander Herrera playing as a number 10 behind him and giving him support which had been lacking.
He was also selfless in letting Javier Hernandez take a late penalty. Rooney is a popular captain; he’s good with new players and has grown into the role.
A club of United’s economic might and support should be playing in the Champions League every season and ideally they shouldn’t need a play-off following a fourth place finish to achieve it.
But United were more convincing against Bruges than they’ve been in their league games so far.
There have been significant positives from the league games – three clean sheets and a defence which is settled and stable, a remarkable achievement given Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero only joined the club in the summer.
And also because Daley Blind was not bought to play at centre-half. The two holding midfielders in front of them works, but while seven points from a possible nine is a satisfactory start even if fans have yet to be convinced by the lack of chances and attractive attacking football played by Van Gaal’s team.
With Sunday’s live game way to Swansea (4pm) their next immediate test, one club legend recently said the club will be hard to beat but they won’t win the league and won’t score a lot of goals this season.