Manchester United winning popularity contest but not much more after Chelsea secure Hazard

A survey claimed on Tuesday that the Red Devils are the world's best-supported side but it will count for nothing as long as the enforced thriftiness continues at Old Trafford
By George Ankers

Just over two weeks ago, Manchester United missed out on the Premier League title on goal difference. Now we are seeing signs that they would do very well indeed to get that close in 2012-13.

A survey by Kantar suggested on Tuesday that United boast 659 million supporters worldwide, more than any other team, but their missing out on the signing of Belgian sensation Eden Hazard to Chelsea did not reflect that stature.

The Red Devils can draw upon massive wells of ‘brand recognition’ to drain the planet’s major economies with merchandising but they have hardly been allowed to act like the world leader in this regard for several years now.

The financial chokehold enforced by the Glazer regime at Old Trafford was in evidence once again as United offered Hazard the lowest wage packet of any of his three suitors.

The Manchester United of old would have looked at the winger, Player of the Year in Ligue 1 for two consecutive seasons at only 21 years of age, coveted by everyone  - not least their most direct rivals for Premier League glory – and vowed to do whatever necessary to get hold of him, allowing their new star to repay the large outlay with major trophies.

Transfer prices may have gone up in football over the last few years, but so has United’s peerless penetration in the emerging Asian economies, and they should have been able to compete on a serious financial level for Hazard.

Indeed, the club’s angle on their bid for the Lille star appeared to be simply that they were Manchester United, and that that should be enough lure.

Money and success are what talks to most players these days – witness the complete U-turn in this particular transfer saga when the Blues stunned everyone by winning the Champions League, a victory not powered by history.

The Manchester United of old would have vowed to do whatever necessary to get hold of Eden Hazard, allowing their new star to repay the large outlay with major trophies

Sir Alex Ferguson has been performing miracles to keep his team so competitive in the last couple of years, even as the ostensible quality of his squad falls behind their rivals, but it cannot continue forever.

With milestone triumphs for both Chelsea and Manchester City this season, both sides are set to push on once again, and this time it could be beyond even the legendary manager’s reach.

Shinji Kagawa looks likely to be recruited from Borussia Dortmund and that is something, but if he had been a better option than Hazard, then it would have been the Japanese, not the Belgian, being wooed by a £200,000-a-week-plus salary from Stamford Bridge.

Even after Kagawa (presumably) signs on the dotted line, more work will be needed just to keep up with their neighbours’ pace. Reinforcements are particularly required in central midfield, where the only player to join the Old Trafford club since the £80 million sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 has been Paul Scholes.

If Shinji Kagawa had been a better option than Hazard, then it would have been the Japanese, not the Belgian, being wooed by a £200,000-a-week-plus salary from Stamford Bridge

The money should be there to carry out the necessary rejuvenation but, with the Glazers’ occupation of the club so far costing over £480m and that Ronaldo cash still yet to be fully pumped back into the team, why should it be expected?

For a club whose net spend on transfers has been lower than Hull City, Blackpool and Burnley over the last three years, the anticipation is that Kagawa will be the marquee signing – one who will, of course, further boost the red fervour in the Far East, for what little good it is apparently likely to do in the transfer market. It will not be enough.

Hazard was only one of many targets for Man City and they will now be spurred on to turn an already-superior squad into a much better one, while Chelsea too look set to continue spending and will boast a much-improved and title-challenging front line at any rate.

Thriftiness will no longer be sufficient for Sir Alex to conjure another serious tilt at that elusive 20th title. The ‘we are Manchester United’ argument is only persuasive to potential purchases if United are living up to their reputation.

They may have missed out on one Hazard, but there is danger enough at Old Trafford of a giant falling back to sleep.

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