It does not feel like it has been away for long, but the Premier League is back.
Just shy of the competition’s 30th anniversary, the action gets underway a week earlier than usual as club football attempts to adjust to the upcoming mid-season World Cup in Qatar.
Narratives galore have emerged over the pre-season, but in terms of opening-weekend curiosity, it is fair to suggest Old Trafford will attract more than its fair share of intrigued glances.
Another new era begins at Manchester United on Sunday as Erik ten Hag takes charge of his first competitive match at the club.
There’s a long list of managers who have failed to bring sustained success to United since Alex Ferguson’s retirement nine years ago – Ten Hag will hope he can buck the trend, and he begins with the visit of Brighton and Hove Albion.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 5, 2022
Ten Hag’s April appointment came amid gloomy days at Old Trafford. Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager was proving tumultuous, with the German as familiar to criticising the club’s structure as he was presiding over underwhelming performances.
United had been dumped out of the Champions League by an unimpressive Atletico Madrid side, and that began something of a downward spiral, with hopes of a top-four finish quickly diminishing.
Now, Ten Hag will be the eighth manager – including caretaker/interim bosses – to take charge of United since Ferguson left.
At least the short-term omens are good: of the previous seven managers, only Ten Hag’s compatriot Louis van Gaal failed to win his opening match, losing 2-1 to Swansea City.
It will take a lot more than one win over Brighton to bring the good times back to Old Trafford, however.
Ronaldo: A point to prove and a milestone within reach…
Of course, one of the major sideshows for United in pre-season has been Cristiano Ronaldo.
Reports claimed he wanted to leave for a Champions League club and he did not join United on their pre-season tour of Australia and Thailand. This was put down to personal reasons.
But no such move away has so far materialised, and so he was welcomed back into the fold before playing 45 minutes against Rayo Vallecano last weekend. Cue more controversy, as he and several other United players left early, which Ten Hag later called “unacceptable”.
Given the circus around Ronaldo in recent times, at any other club you would expect him to be dropped for this game – yet, with Anthony Martial out injured, Ronaldo looks likely to start, and few would put it past him making the occasion about himself again.
After all, he’s only three away from his 500th career league goal. He couldn’t, could he?
A score to settle
Brighton and United played each other quite recently. Well, recently in competitive action terms, anyway.
The Red Devils’ penultimate game of last season was at the Amex Stadium, and Seagulls fans will remember it fondly as they ran out crushing 4-0 winners.
That was Brighton’s biggest top-flight win ever in their 356th match at that level, while it inflicted a fifth successive away defeat for United, their worst such run since 1981.
Winning at Old Trafford is another matter entirely, though – Brighton have never won there. If United do lose, they will have suffered three consecutive Premier League defeats for the first time in seven years.
While that May encounter was a game to forget for United and Bruno Fernandes, the playmaker does have a good track record against Sunday’s opponents.
In five league meetings with Brighton, Fernandes has been involved in six goals (four goals, two assists), which make the Seagulls his second-favourite opposition, behind Leeds United (eight goal involvements).
Similarly, Brighton’s Pascal Gross has done well against United in the past.
His four goals versus United is more than he has managed against any other team, and Gross has netted in all three of Brighton’s Premier League victories over the Red Devils, getting the winning goal on two occasions.