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Manchester United face life after Ronaldo

He was loved and was hated, but even those who loathed him could hardly deny that Cristiano Ronaldo had a key part to play in Manchester United's latest hat-trick of Premier League successes.

sports Updated: Aug 11, 2009 15:39 IST

He was loved and was hated, but even those who loathed him could hardly deny that Cristiano Ronaldo had a key part to play in Manchester United's latest hat-trick of Premier League successes.

A return of 66 league goals over those three seasons would be impressive for a central striker, but for somebody who spent most of their time operating on the wing it is phenomenal.

Inevitably, this pre-season has centred on whether United can cope without him, with United insisting, not surprisingly, that they can.

"It is important to be clear that Ronaldo did not make Manchester United," said full-back Patrice Evra.

"Ronaldo was never the star at Manchester United. We are all stars and the boss would never let any one person believe he is the star.

"He was a good player for us and a very important one. But Manchester United was Manchester United before him and it is still Manchester United after him."

Perhaps the key aspect of Ronaldo's departure, though, is less his knack of scoring, than that United were so set up to provide him with the opportunities.

Theirs for the last couple of seasons has been that most modern of styles: a centre-forward who drops deep, creating space for players cutting in from wide.

It worked also for Barcelona last season, as Samuel Eto'o dropped off, opening gaps for Leo Messi and Thierry Henry.

It was with Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney the season before last that United came closest to strikerlessness; but even with Dimitar Berbatov last season, there was no expectation that he should lead the line in a conventional sense.

This season, United have reverted to something rather more conventional, and in Sunday's Community Shield, while Nani on the left was clearly more advanced than Park Ji-Sung on the right, the shape was an orthodox 4-4-2, with Rooney playing off Berbatov.

With Luis Antonio Valencia signed from Wigan Athletic, and Zoran Tosic, who joined from Partizan Belgrade in January, United have options in wide areas.

Their most striking signing of a relatively quiet summer, though, was Michael Owen, picked up on a free transfer from Newcastle United following their relegation.

He was used as a substitute on Sunday, and that seems likely to be his position for most of the season, at least in bigger games.

There have been major doubts about Owen after a series of injuries robbed him of his pace - he has, for instance, barely featured for Fabio Capello's England - but manager Alex Ferguson is certain the 29-year-old still has much to offer.

"Michael is a world-class forward with a proven goal-scoring record at the highest level and that has never been in question," he said.

That again suggests the use of a more traditional 4-4-2, for Owen needs service, whether from a target-man partner, as Berbatov could be, or from somebody sitting deeper, sliding through passes, something both Berbatov and Rooney can do.

What that means, though, is a turn away from the 4-3-3 that has been United's preferred formation in major European games for the past few seasons.

The loss of Nani with a dislocated shoulder in the Community Shield will be a blow to United in the early weeks of the season, but United - even without Ronaldo and Tevez - still have probably the strongest squad in the division.

And with Liverpool, who finished just four points adrift last season, losing Xabi Alonso, while Chelsea's new manager Carlo Ancelotti gets used to the Premier League, United look well placed to add an unprecedented fourth straight Premier League success.