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Manchester United

Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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 By Andy Mitten

Man United's poor start continues

The ESPN FC panel discuss where Angel Di Maria would fit in the Manchester United lineup and if his services are what the team really need.

If I write this Manchester United column as I should do -- and that is from the heart as well as the head -- then five minutes from now you're going to be in a bad mood.

That's if you're a United fan. If you're not, then you might laugh at the continued misfortune afflicting one of the greatest football clubs in the world and tell me I should stop moaning.

I could talk about the impending arrival of Angel Di Maria, a world class player in his prime, one of the very best for the European champions, Real Madrid.

His days at the Bernabeu have been numbered when James Rodriguez arrived earlier this summer. On Saturday, a poll in AS newspaper showed that over 80 percent of Madrid fans didn't want the Argentine to go, a feeling that was reflected among his Bernabeu teammates.

It was the same a year ago with Mesut Ozil, but club president Florentino Perez decided that Di Maria was for sale.

It's to Madrid's financial advantage that United aren't as attractive to footballers as a year or two ago and to the superagent Jorge Mendes' advantage that he now represents the majority of the best Iberian and South American footballers. Since the signing of defender Marcos Rojo, United can field a team where the majority of their players speak Spanish as their mother tongue.

I could offer some cheer over the prospect of a huge 6200 ticket allocation at Milton Keynes tomorrow evening, a new ground for the diehards in United's support to visit. It will be the first time that the club have been in the League Cup at the second round stage since 1995 and club officials were given a reminder that they'd have to send a representative to attend the recent draw.

Or we could savour the prospect of the season's biggest league allocation of 3856 tickets at Burnley on Saturday (it's also one of the cheapest at 36 pounds for adults and 22 for under-22s).

That should be just an hour's drive from Manchester, but took twice that when United last played at Turf Moor in 2009. United unexpectedly lost 1-0 but another defeat this time doesn't bear thinking about.

United collected their first point of the season but there was little for them to smile about.

While I can push the positives, it would be ignoring the exceptionally large elephant in the room: that injury-hit Manchester United have suffered an awful start to the season. Last term was bad enough, but even David Moyes' side took six points from the equivalent fixtures at home to Swansea and away to Sunderland. Under Louis van Gaal, United have one.

Most of you will have seen Sunday's game, either in person or on a screen. You've probably read a lot about it and it's all largely gloomy if you're a United fan. The team started poorly and the players looked nervous, but took the lead through Juan Mata before Sunderland equalised.

The 2440 travelling fans, who paid what will be the season's lowest price of 30 pounds, will remember the Stadium of Light visit as notable for being the first away game under Van Gaal. It was nowhere near as bad as losing the league title at the same ground in 2012 but nowhere near as good as last season when Adnan Januzaj scored twice to secure a much-needed victory.

Trips to Sunderland evoke mixed memories. Until a few years ago I'd only ever visited the town, which became a city in 1992, to watch United.

Before moving to their current home in 1997, Sunderland played at Roker Park, with its uneasily juxtaposed stands and windswept uncovered away end.

I stood in that end for an FA Cup third round replay on a freezing January night in 1996 as the wind and rain howled in off the nearby North Sea. The crowd was just 21,387 and saw Andy Cole and Paul Scholes score to advance United towards Wembley and victory over Liverpool's white suits.

See, just thinking about those has cheered any Manchester reds up and probably brought a smile to the rest of you as well!

Another memorable trip came in January 2001 when United were so far ahead of the rest of the league that regulars on the coach I travelled on billed it as the game where the team would win the league. In January.

United did win, 1-0, and Cole scored again. By then, Sunderland had their new ground and huge crowds. 48,260 attended that game -- a full house -- and there was talk of expanding their stadium to seat 63,000.

United lost the last three games of the season ... and still won the title by 10 points. It seemed boring and predictable at the time. Watching United is anything but now.

Revisiting past triumphs skirts the issue of Sunday, when a nervous United gave the ball away and kept getting caught in possession. Then another defender, Chris Smalling, was injured, and he will be the latest who'll be occupying the new medical centre at the Carrington training ground.

Such is the paucity of defenders currently available, it won't be long before one of the club's former full-backs, who currently works in the Old Trafford executive lounges, will be asked to put his boots on.

Arthur Albiston may be 57, but he'd bring experience to what was a three-man defence with an average age of 21 for the majority of the Sunderland game.

Phil Jones and Tyler Blackett were United's two most credible performers while John O'Shea and Wes Brown, two former United centre-halves who now play for the Black Cats, had a comfortable afternoon by comparison, despite marking Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.

United were slow in possession and lacked tempo, quality and penetration. Just two games in, they looked as faded as the Stadium of Light's once red seats. Meanwhile, Ashley Young was again booked for diving and substitute Adnan Januzaj was asked to play in his third position in as many games.

- Macintosh: Three Points -- Sunderland vs. Man United
- Okwonga: Subpar United flail at Sunderland
- Smalling joins the injury list
- Brewin: Roy Keane, the fearless force

Enough. Enough of this. It's hurting.

I'd rather think about the first time I went to Sunderland not to watch United. In the summer of 2006, a close friend was offered a trial at the club. A Spaniard, he had a choice of Southampton, Hearts or Sunderland and asked me for an opinion. I told him that Sunderland were by far the biggest of the three.

Arnau Riera went to Sunderland, immediately impressed the manager, Niall Quinn, and was offered a three year professional contract on 3000 pounds per week.

He knew nobody and asked me to go and help him so I caught a train to the northeast and enjoyed his observations and bafflement about obscure aspects of English culture, including questions like "what is a sausage roll?"

He was staying in a hotel overlooking the sea and signed his contract on the day Sunderland were at home to Plymouth Argyle. I told him that when news of his signing broke, his anonymity would be lost in the city he now called home and that he should enjoy while it briefly lasted and try and understand what football meant to the people of the city.

We walked to the Stadium of Light and sat among Sunderland's most vocal fans by the away end. He had gone from being Lionel Messi's captain at Barcelona B to hearing Sunderland fans sing 'Wise Men Say'. We heard people talking excitedly about the "new signing from Barcelona". Nobody recognised him.

Sunderland lost and were bottom of England's second tier; Plymouth's madcap manager Ian Holloway told the media that he would buy every travelling fan a pint in the pub and was true to his word.

We walked back through the terraced streets around Roker after the game and stopped in a working men's pub, where fans were cursing the poor state of their team and the taps pouring bitter were the busiest. By a table near the door, four middled-aged men talked in the mood which afflicts most football fans: dejection.

The men opined how the boy from Barcelona would bring much needed quality. They'd heard good things; people often do about new signings they know little about.

"They're talking about you," I said to Arnau. He stood up, walked to the table and introduced himself, explaining that it was an honour to sign for Sunderland and that he would do his best for the club.

It was a wonderful, surreal, moment. The men found him a seat, talked football and wished him well. They handed him their phone numbers and said they'd do anything to make him feel at home in their city.

Four days later Arnau made his debut, when he came on at Southend and won the man of the match award (the sponsors' bottle of champagne was the only foodstuff in his kitchen for a while).

He went to receive the applause of the 2000 travelling fans at the end and was unsure whether to throw his shirt into the crowd or not. Another friend in the away end texted me: "Your mate played really well."

In his second game, he was sent off after three minutes following a heavy tackle in the League Cup at Bury. Two days later Roy Keane, a player Manchester United could have done with on Sunday, took charge. He didn't fancy Arnau as a player and didn't play him once. Instead, he brought in his own men and led Sunderland to promotion.

Sunderland came good just as Manchester United will come good under Louis van Gaal, who said he'd need three months to get things working his way. It looked like three days on the pre-season tour of America.

Arnau? He went on loan to Southend, then Falkirk in the Scottish Premier League before he ruptured both cruciate ligaments in a two-year period. Now 32, he works on reception in a hotel in his native Mallorca.

Football can be the cruellest game and it lends itself to disappointment, as Manchester United fans are finding out at present.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide.

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