Can United's new boys fill the void left by the departed?

GENERAL football wisdom states that Manchester United are slow starters in the Premier League, and that it is good to play them early – a sentiment that Clive Allen has reinforced this week...

By Ben Pearce

GENERAL football wisdom states that Manchester United are slow starters in the Premier League, and that it is good to play them early - a sentiment that Clive Allen has reinforced this week.

True, the reigning champions kicked off their campaign with an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Birmingham, before suffering a shock defeat at Burnley three days later.

History should have warned the reigning champions, because for the past two years running they have taken just five points from their first four league fixtures.

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So United's start to this campaign is actually an improvement to their usual early-season tally - they have only bettered their current total of nine on two occasions since the turn of the millennium.

However, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have always recovered quickly, taking 10 and 12 points respectively from their next four - winning the title on both occasions.

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And last season's Champions League finalists are already accelerating, having beaten Wigan Athletic 5-0 away and come from behind to defeat Arsenal 2-1 at Old Trafford in their last outing.

Meanwhile, critics who suggest that United are vulnerable at the back, currently missing Edwin Van Der Sar and Rio Ferdinand, have seen the Red Devils concede just two league goals.

There is therefore little to suggest that Spurs will benefit from an early meeting with United on Saturday, but the Lilywhites nonetheless have a better chance of success than they did in the same fixture back in December.

For, while it may not necessarily be a good week to play United, it is surely a good season to face them.

Ferguson's outfit will undoubtedly be strong contenders for the domestic title and Champions League, as usual.

But the loss of Carlos Tevez and particularly Cristiano Ronaldo has undeniably weakened them, crucially eliminating their biggest goal threat, free kick maestro, counter-attacking demon and fear factor in one swish of the Old Trafford exit door.

One player may not make a team, but the loss of Ronaldo has shorn United of an important unpredictability, a lurking danger that refused to go away, even when his side were chasing the ball.

Ferguson opted to hold onto the world record �80million transfer cheque during the summer, making United a ticking bomb in terms of their future potential and buying power in the transfer window, and a lacklustre first half to the season could force the boss to strengthen in January.

So, while United are certainly not weak, they currently look less formidable in an attacking sense than they have done for years - and may do for many more.

Plenty of questions are yet to be answered: Can new �16m signing Antonio Valencia get close to emulating Ronaldo's impact in terms of goals, assists and end products? Is Michael Owen an effective replacement for Tevez? How will the changes affect United's system up front, and how do Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov fit into it best?

Spurs will hope that United are still grasping for the answers on Sunday.

Ham&High Sport verdict: Tottenham will aim to pick up where they left off, playing quick, passing football with a high tempo and taking all three points.

John O'Shea has joined the list of United casualties so the visitors are missing three members of their first-choice back four. There are goals to be had for both sides in a 1-1 draw.

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