Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

The Forgotten Footballers

OK, so we all remember footballing legends’ careers when they’ve finally hung up their boots, but what of the once-famous players still plying their trade in modern football?

Below is a list of ‘forgotten footballers’ that I have compiled. See if you agree with my top 20 countdown.

20. Milan Baros

Still only 31, and fresh from a successful spell at Galatasaray, Baros gets onto the list by virtue of the fact he now plays for Banik Ostrava in his native Czech Republic – who knew that? I certainly didn’t, but Baros is again amongst the goals for what was his first ever club, scoring five times in nine games thus far.

19. Luca Toni

The World Cup-winning Italian striker has been something of a journeyman in his career so far – like many of the players in this countdown – but his stint at Bayern Munich will be remembered as his most successful. Toni left the German giants in 2010 for Roma, and has since played for Juventus and UAE side Al Nasr before returning to current club Fiorentina.

18. Asamoah Gyan

A controversial figure in Sunderland after leaving them on-loan for Al-Ain, Gyan has torn apart the UAE Pro-League for his new club, scoring 58 goals in 43 games so far.

17. Lucio

The big World Cup-winning centre-back made his name in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and then Bayern Munich, but after moving to Italy he has drifted into relative anonymity after high-profile moves to Inter Milan and subsequently Juventus. The 35-year-old now plays for Sao Paulo.

16. Kevin Kuranyi

Famous for his immaculately-trimmed beard, Kuranyi has not played for Germany in international tournaments since his 2008 retirement. Prolific spells at Stuttgart and Schalke have been followed by an equally-good stint at Lokomotiv Moscow, where he has bagged 32 goals in 83 games – making his move to Russia all the more mysterious.

15. Adrian Mutu

Goalscoring, contractual issues and drug-taking are all chapters in Mutu’s career, but the Romanian striker has struggled to re-build it after testing positive for cocaine in 2010. Now playing for AC Ajaccio in France’s Ligue 1, Mutu’s 11 goals this season steered the Corsican side to safety – but only just.

14. Ricardo Quaresma

Once a player with dazzling pace and skill, Quaresma has failed to live up to the hype surrounding his potential and, after stints at Barcelona, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Porto, now finds himself playing for Al Ahli in Dubai. Quaresma still makes himself available for Portugal, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani preferred to him on the wing, he has drifted into the tail-end of his career without creating much fuss.

13. Deco

Chelsea fans will likely remember the talented Brazilian playmaker, who is now 35 years old. He has previously played for Barcelona after winning the Champions League with Jose Mourinho at Porto in 2004. Deco now plays in his homeland for Fluminense.

12. Mido

Once highly thought of, Mido has gone off the radar – largely due to battles with his weight. After racking up his eleventh career club following a move to Barnsley, Mido has played just one game for the Tykes – all this for a striker who counts Ajax, Roma and Spurs amongst his former employers.

11. Junichi Inamoto

Junichi Inamoto was labelled a Japanese heartthrob after starring for his country during the 2002 World Cup which they co-hosted alongside South Korea. Now, after numerous spells at European clubs, the ex-Arsenal youth midfielder has moved back to Japan where he plays for Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League.

10. Juninho

Famous for his free-kicks, Juninho has had to endure heavy criticism for moving to the Middle East for money. He was one of the first big-name footballers to do so and has barely been mentioned since. His tally of 75 goals from midfield in just under 250 games for Lyon remains impressive, but after joining Al-Gharafa in Qatar he has not played to the same level. He now plays for New York Red Bulls in the MLS.

9. Rivaldo

It didn’t seem so long ago that Rivaldo notched a hat-trick for Barcelona against Manchester United with a spectacular overhead-kick. Even fresher in the memory is his goal against England en route to winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil. Rivaldo still plays at the age of 41, and has chased big-money moves to Uzbekistan and Angola before settling at current club Sao Caetano in his homeland.

8. Quincy Owusu-Abeyie

Perhaps a striker more known for his name rather than his goalscoring ability, the ex-Arsenal man went on loan to five different clubs in ten years before signing a three-year contract with Panathinaikos in 2011 where he currently averages a goal every 10 games.

7. Rafael Marquez

A Barcelona and Mexico legend, Marquez was a rock at centre-back during the height of his career. A two-year link-up with MLS side New York Red Bulls has now finished, but Mexican side Club Leon tempted him back to his homeland, and he has made 13 appearances for them so far.

6. Michael Johnson

Dubbed “The New Steven Gerrard”, Johnson’s promising career has been blighted by mental health issues, serious knee injuries and drink-driving charges. Recent pictures of Johnson show his weight to have ballooned, and at the moment he is a free agent after being released by Manchester City.

5. Kleberson

Another 2002 World Cup winner, Kleberson moved to Manchester United in 2003 where he was berated for a series of lamentable displays. He mustered just two goals during his two-year stay, and now plays for Philadelphia Union in the MLS.

4. Amr Zaki

Described by then Wigan manager Steve Bruce as being “as strong as an ox”, Zaki has disappeared from the international footballing eye. The Egyptian striker was a goalscorer with strength and pace – in much the same mould as Alan Shearer – but now finds himself a free agent after problems with his commitment, injuries and professionalism. Zaki did sign a deal with Egyptian club ENPPI in 2013 but his contract was terminated by mutual consent after a heated disagreement.

3. Alex Manninger

The Austrian stopper boasts Arsenal and Juventus among his former clubs but he has opted to continue his career with FC Augsburg in the Bundesliga after lengthy and impressive spells in England and Italy.

2. Dani Guiza

Having spearheaded a devilish Spanish attack with David Villa for several seasons, Dani Guiza’s career has been steadily disintegrating. A big-money move to Fenerbahce ended after three years when he scored just 23 goals. A strange move to Malaysian side Darul Takzim, where he netted six times in 10 games, is the latest chapter in his career. He is still owned by La Liga side Getafe where his clinical finishing will inevitably still be in demand.

1. Angelos Charisteas

The final man on the list, and perhaps a footballer with the biggest fall in notoriety ever. Charisteas became a hero in his native Greece when he scored the only goal of the game against Portugal in the 2004 European Championship final. Since then he has played at Ajax, Feyenoord and Schalke without much success. He currently plays in obscure surroundings for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia’s Professional League.

Will England miss out on World Cup 2014 qualification?

Nestling beneath the predictable hyper-positive build-up to England’s forthcoming fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro is an important caveat which continues to be overlooked.

The prospect of England not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer would have been largely unthinkable when they thumped Moldova 5-0 in their first qualifying match last September.

Since then, Roy Hodgson’s men have only recorded one more win in three games – a 5-0 drubbing of lowly San Marino – which was sandwiched in between disappointing 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland.

Despite being two points off leaders Montenegro in Group H, England know that defeat to the Montenegrins on Tuesday would put them five points adrift of automatic qualification (assuming they beat San Marino tomorrow), and provided Montenegro also sweep aside minnows Moldova.

A five point gap, with four games remaining, could be insurmountable as the Three Lions would still face a tricky fixture away to Ukraine and a crucial match at home to Montenegro, who have already proven they can frustrate England – they recorded two creditable draws against them in qualification for Euro 2012.

If England were to miss out on automatic qualification, they could face a play-off against the likes of Spain or France in a worst-case scenario.

Dangerous teams such as Portugal, Sweden and Croatia are also play-off prospects after average starts to their respective qualifying campaigns.

This means that victory for England in Podgorica on Tuesday is absolutely essential, yet it doesn’t seem clear cut at all.

England’s defenders have deserted them. John Terry has retired from international football, the recalled Rio Ferdinand’s intricate pre-match preparations were deemed sufficient for him to withdraw from the squad, while Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones are all injured.

This means that England’s centre-back partnership will most likely hinge upon Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, despite neither player being regular choices for Manchester City or United respectively.

Lack of match-practice and a relative level of inexperience when compared to other players means that Montenegro’s in-form strike partnership of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic – both prolific scorers for Fiorentina and Juventus in Serie A – will be licking their lips on Tuesday.

It’s a hazardous situation for England, but one which they can overcome.

A draw would not be the worst result for them, but it could potentially allow Poland to move level on points with them when they inevitably thrash San Marino the same day.

Defeat would move a play-off position ever closer, and the probability of coming through a two-legged tie against difficult opposition is no better than evens.

So, amongst all the world-beating headlines that will stick to the England team throughout the next few days, the gory sub-plot of failing to qualify for the World Cup remains an all too realistic shadow – and one which will intensify over Hodgson’s head should the unthinkable materialise.