Listen to this article
There is an unease about Manchester United that could edge towards crisis in Romania on Wednesday night. Worrying as the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal on Sunday was, it can at least be written off as a pre-season irrelevance, but failure to get past Dinamo Bucharest in the Champions League qualifying tie would border on the disastrous.
Last season was the first in eight that United did not reach at least the quarter-finals; if they were to follow that by not even reaching the group stage it would be difficult to dispel the sense that Sir Alex Ferguson's empire is in decline.
So bad have things got that after Sunday's emphatic 3-1 defeat, even Ferguson was forced to admit that with injuries and withdrawals for international competitions, this is the hardest pre- season he has known.
It was suggested last season that after a tough pre-season in the US, United peaked too soon and ran out of steam in the crucial months of February and March; that is not the case this time round. The European Championships and the Copa America have hindered their preparations, while injuries and the Olympic Games mean that United travelled to Bucharest for the first leg without nine of their first-team squad.
"A lot of their players are out, and we have to take advantage of that," said the forward Ionel Danciulescu. He was the top scorer in the Romanian league last year and has maintained his run of form with four goals already this season. He rejects the idea that Dinamo are overly reliant on him, giving credit to his strike partner, the physically imposing Claudiu Niculescu. "It's just coincidence that I have scored," he says. "Next time it could be somebody else. We are a team and we are united."
Whether they are quite the team they were last season is another matter, and in that there must be encouragement for United. The defender Cosmin Barcauan and midfielder Dan Alexa have left and, despite eight new signings, they were far from convincing in losing the opening game of their title defence.
Dinamo will be further weakened tonight by the absence of first-choice goalkeeper Cristiano Munteanu after he was sent off for a crude professional foul in the second qualifying round game against Zilina.
They are technically assured in midfield, but last year and this there are concerns about the lack of pace in their three-man defence, and that is something Alan Smith, a virtually certain starter with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer injured and Louis Saha doubtful, could exploit.
It could be, though, that after last season's turmoil, adversity is just what United need to prove themselves. "It's disappointing with the injuries and the Olympics," said Ryan Giggs, "but we've just got to get on with it."
Get alerts on News when a new story is published