By George Ankers
"I think there is a gap there," said Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan in comparison to Barcelona in the build-up to Wednesday's glamour friendly in Gothenburg. "The challenge for us is to compete. It will take time but we're not that far away."
Some might have turned their noses up at such a statement after United finished second last season through getting the most of what was, by their own very high standards, a fairly average team, but the man had a point.
United may have nominally lost the friendly through the farcical tacked-on penalty shootout but they matched the Catalan titans quite competently throughout the game and showed signs that they can get close to them when the serious business gets going.
The best sides can rely on a solid keeper and David de Gea continues to grow into a very good one for the Red Devils. The Spaniard was the standout player on the pitch in Sweden, making several important saves and, even more encouragingly, spotting danger early and snuffing it out with confidence.
Despite a turbulent start to his Old Trafford career, the youngster looks unlikely to be locked in a debate between himself and Anders Lindegaard for the No.1 jersey this time around and that will bring stability to the back line.
With Nemanja Vidic ready to step into that same defence e at a key time, his brilliant partnership with Rio Ferdinand (another standout in Gothenburg) is as good as any other club's if they can stay fit.
The Red Devils are an attacking team by nature but, particularly in the livelier first half, they really pushed to hit Barca quickly when they got that elusive possession of the ball, and Scholes was the pivot through which they supplied their wide men. One pass in particular, long and diagonal from deep in his own half right onto the boot of Nani, who took it, turned and fired not far wide, was a joy to behold.
Scholes will not play every game in 2012-13, far from it, but you can bet that he will be kept fresh for the big ones as his influence remains undiminished. Anderson had one of his good days alongside him, though it is much more likely that the superb Michael Carrick will be there regularly when he no longer needs to cover injuries at centre-back.
Slightly further ahead, Shinji Kagawa continued an encouraging pre-season with a second-half showing that offered glimpses of real class. The Japanese is surprisingly strong on the ball for his small stature and tested Jose Pinto just after the break with a fine shot.
In many ways it would be a shame if the potential arrival of Robin van Persie forced the ex-Dortmund man wide because it is clear that he can be a key man for Sir Alex Ferguson behind the main striker, the advanced playmaking link that has been missing for a while.
Wayne Rooney had an anonymous half which turned actively bad with his meek penalty and came off at the break, but it would be foolish to suggest that this portends a bad year. The England man, freed thanks to Kagawa of the burden of dropping deeper, should be able to focus on banging in more and more goals.
He completes an excellent spine of the side, while just a little more consistency from Nani and Ashley Young would ensure that, along with Antonio Valencia (a right-back again on Wednesday), the flanks are no problem either.
That is not to say that there are not issues to address. Patrice Evra was again somewhat lacklustre and has been on a downward spiral for over two years now. Leighton Baines may not be a world-class replacement but he would be an improvement and United will need one sooner rather than later.
Valencia, too, can only be a stop-gap at right-back. A Barcelona with David Villa on the left of attack rather than Cristian Tello or Ibrahim Afellay would have exploited the generous space that the retreated winger left in behind.
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Rafael Da Silva will soon return from Olympic duty and the Brazilian tyro is on his way to becoming a very good player, but he will need to make a further step up in quality and consistency in order to reach Gary Neville levels of reliability – and help make sure that the Ecuadorian can be allowed to do what he does best and attack from the wing.
Meanwhile, a quality defensive midfielder does need to be recruited. We have all been saying it for some time and, though Scholes and Carrick will often suffice, the 37-year-old's Mr Hyde moment in crashing into Sergio Busquets in Gothenburg serves as a reminder that a sturdy, clean tackler of the ball is the dimension still missing in the middle and should be most required when impetuous European sides like Basel hit United energetically in the Champions League, as happened last term.
On the whole, though, the signs are encouraging. United's XI should be less chop-and-change in the key positions this year and, the nominal gap in squad quality between them and Manchester City bridged by the Fergie Factor, their close challenge for domestic honours is set to be maintained.
No side needs to aspire to be Barcelona; they need only to be able to beat them – and all the signs are present that United can get there soon.
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