International Soccer
It's not time to panic in Manchester just yet

Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been a long time since Manchester United has found itself in the bottom half of the Premiership standings. However, that is exactly where the defending EPL champions currently reside through three games.

The summer signings of Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson brought even more promise to a dominant team that won 28 of its 38 Premiership matches last season.

Despite the offseason spending of Liverpool and a talented Arsenal team, it was once again expected that United would battle Chelsea for supremacy in England.

Now, the Red Devils have 15 other teams to climb over in their quest to return to the top thanks to a poor start that includes a loss and two draws in the club's first three games.

After scoring a league-high 83 goals last season, United has found the back of the net just once and will be without striker Wayne Rooney for the next two months because of a broken foot.

Reading, Portsmouth and Manchester City are not exactly a murderer's row of teams against which to start the season, but the fact that United failed to come away from that stretch with a win is a little disconcerting to manager Sir Alex Ferguson and United supporters everywhere.

The opening match against Reading was supposed to be a coronation at Old Trafford for the defending champs. However, it turned into anything but, as United played to a scoreless draw and the team watched Rooney hobble off the field.

Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson's squad is sitting 16th in the league table.
The squad's next match against Portsmouth just four days later offered more promise. Argentine striker Tevez was making his debut with the team, and Paul Scholes got United on the scoreboard in the opening 15 minutes.

Things were finally looking up for United until Portsmouth's Benjani Mwaruwari equalized in the second half, and Cristiano Ronaldo received a red card and a subsequent three-game suspension.

United was now left with two draws in two games, and would be without Ronaldo for the next three matches.

Surely a big derby match against rivals Manchester City would awaken the sleeping giants the next week. United would be champing at the bit at the first glimpse they got of those powder blue uniforms across the way. Add to the equation that City was a perfect 2-0 to start the season, and you had all the makings of a big breakout win for United.

Once again, things did not exactly go as planned. City got a deflected goal from Deiberson Geovanni and Tevez missed an easy tap-in from a few yards away to deal United the loss.

"We have given ourselves an uphill fight, there is no doubt about that," Ferguson said. "We have to get a win under our belts. We have Tottenham on Sunday. That has become a very important game for us."

Time to press the panic button right?

Not exactly.

While they may indeed have an uphill battle on their hands, there were positives to take from the first three games, even if the end results did not show them.

United badly outplayed both Reading and Manchester City and was unlucky to come away without a win in both games. The Portsmouth contest was another that tilted in United's favor in every aspect except the scoreboard.

United has simply been plagued by poor finishing in the final third and a little bad luck in its poor start.

"You look around that field and there's not one bad performer," Ferguson said after his team's loss to City on Sunday. "Everyone played his part. At this moment in time we'll use our experience to make sure we don't get carried away and have a knee-jerk reaction to it."

Certainly the performance of Hargreaves in his debut on Sunday is a source of optimism. The former Bayern Munich midfielder did a great job of shutting down the middle of the field and allowing offensive-minded midfielders Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes the ability to get forward.

Hargreaves has battled tendonitis in his knee, but if he can hold up will solidify a strong defense and allow for more freedom in the attack.

Tevez has failed to score in his first two games but has certainly had chances. He will start to come around and put those opportunities away as he becomes comfortable in the United system. He was thrown into the fire with the injury to Rooney, but Ronaldo's return in two games will help, as will some more time to train with the team.

United will also benefit from a more balanced Premiership in order to stay in contention this season. Last year, United and Chelsea ran away from the pack by January, leaving a two-team race over the season's final four months.

The opening three weeks of this season have taught us that no team looks capable of doing so this year. Mighty Chelsea has fallen behind in all three of its games this season, and despite winning two and drawing one of them, has failed to look impressive. Liverpool and Arsenal have also had to struggle for wins as the traditional powers in England have failed to separate themselves at this early junction.

United will have time to mount a comeback, and wins in the club's next three games against Tottenham, Sunderland and Everton will have them right back on track when Chelsea comes to Old Trafford September 23.

The last time Manchester United started a season this poorly was the 1992-93 campaign. Incidentally, that season also marked the first of seven titles in nine years for United, so let's not write them off just yet.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Pat Martin at pmartin@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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