Armchair Pundit

Has Fergie gone soft?

Alex Chick

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Alex Ferguson has revealed that no more than "one or two" of the players who went to the World Cup will feature in the Premier League opener against Newcastle on August 16.

Come again?

"Even the Community Shield does not come into the agenda in terms of a need-to-win game. It's always been used at this club as the final part of our preparation ... By that time, after we've surveyed the fitness of the ones who've been in the World Cup because they don't come back until July 28, we'll really know whether any or all of them should play in the opening game. I have a feeling that we'll probably not play them all, but maybe one or two will play."

Won't come back until July 28! Has he gone soft?

It seems more than generous considering no United player even made it as far as the quarter-finals - all of them will have been off for at least a month.

Park Ji-sung played all 360 minutes of South Korea's campaign, but had his interest ended in the last 16.

Wayne Rooney saw 342 minutes of action for England, hardly making an impact except when berating the fans.

Nemanja Vidic played three games, but has been on holiday since Serbia lost to Australia at the end of the group stage.

Patrice Evra had an eventful tournament, if not on the pitch. The France skipper was dropped after two games having led a training boycott.

Javier Hernandez made four appearances, starting once. He was the fastest player at the tournament, but 169 minutes hardly represents a hefty workload.

Michael Carrick did not play for England, rendering his stay in South Africa little more than a luxury holiday with some occasional light jogging thrown in.

So what is Ferguson playing at? Does he genuinely believe players need such a long break after a brief dalliance with the World Cup?

It is not a totally ridiculous thought - everyone else knocked off in the middle of May, and was sitting on a beach drinking sugary cocktails for the duration of the World Cup.

And even if, like Carrick, you were little more than a fly-on-the-wall inside the most dysfunctional England squad ever, you might benefit from being able to switch off completely.

Mind you, switching off completely was what Carrick did all season in a series of hapless midfield displays.

If Ferguson is right, United could have a huge advantage over their rivals at the start of the season, since they had such a limited role in the World Cup compared with the rest of the Premier League big boys.

They had six players at the finals, only three of whom are regular first-team selections.

Liverpool and Manchester City had 12 apiece (City boosted by Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure and David Silva), Chelsea had 11, while Arsenal and Tottenham both had 10 players.

If Carlo Ancelotti opted for the same policy of allowing his players an extended break, he would start the season with a dangerously weak first XI: Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Hutchinson, Zhirkov; Benayoun, Essien, Mikel, Deco; Kakuta, Sturridge. (Bosingwa, Essien and Mikel are only in because they missed the tournament through injury.)

And as for Liverpool, it would be almost unspeakably bad: Cavalieri; Degen, Kelly, Ayala, Aurelio; Aqulani, Lucas, Plessis, Riera; El Zhar, Ngog.

So for United's rivals, it could be a toss-up between fielding a weakened team or starting a Premier League campaign with a group of players still knackered from last season's exertions.

Ferguson certainly knows how to win the season after a World Cup. The 1998/99 season saw the club's greatest success, winning the Treble with national pariah David Beckham to the fore.

In the 2002/03 campaign, they bounced back after Arsenal's Double the previous year, unseating Arsene Wenger's boys.

And after the 2006 World Cup, United turned the tables on Chelsea - who had won the last two titles - winning the first of three Premier Leagues in a row.

There may be nothing in this - after all, eight United players featured on the opening day in 2006/07 after playing in Germany in 2006.

But equally, Ferguson might have looked at the way his players - Rooney in particular - wilted towards the end of last season, and decided a proper rest is the only way to avoid a repeat.

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