By Oliver Platt
When Manchester United
and Manchester City
's respective squads are assessed on paper, it is quite remarkable to think that midway through April the 19-times league champions were eight points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
Simply enough, City have more depth and quality in nearly every position. Sir Alex Ferguson was seconds away from adding yet another title to the Old Trafford trophy cabinet in May; and it would have been one of the most impressive triumphs of his glittering managerial career - a feat of experience and togetherness.
The limited action for Red Devils players at Euro 2012 is indicative of the transitional nature of their current squad. Although United had only one fewer representative than City in Poland and Ukraine, the involvement and impact of the two clubs' internationals reveals the gulf that is growing between them.
Whereas every member of the City contingent featured prominently, only four United players started more than one game. Anders Lindegaard and Phil Jones did not play a single minute, while Patrice Evra was dropped after France's first match - to be replaced by City left-back Gael Clichy.
Wayne Rooney, of course, played only two games for England due to the suspension that cost him his participation in the opening pair of Three Lions fixtures. Once more, despite scoring upon his return against Ukraine, his impact can only be described as muted.
It must be asked how long England can go on relying on Rooney as the creative hub of the team, and that extends to his role at Old Trafford. It seems that the teenager that once buzzed between the lines has morphed into more of a natural centre forward – although still fielded in support of Danny Welbeck for both club and country, Rooney's biggest asset is his ruthlessness in front of goal.
A tally of just five assists in the Premier League last season pales in comparison to the figures recorded by true architects such as David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Juan Mata.
Sir Alex has a decision to make, and despite the presence of Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, the signing of Shinji Kagawa, a central attacking midfielder, might be an indication that he is leaning towards returning Rooney to the No.9 position.
Striker or trequartista, much will be asked of Rooney next season. The future looks somewhat bleaker for Evra, who, at 31, has faded from his status as one of the world's best left-backs. The younger, more energetic Clichy was preferred by Laurent Blanc but the whereabouts of the mind, as well as the legs, of the former Monaco player is cause for concern.
"After a disappointing World Cup campaign with France, Evra doubtless wanted to make a big impression in Poland and Ukraine, but he would only start one match for Les Bleus
," explains Goal.com
's France expert, Robin Bairner.
"Once more his attitude was questionable, and being dropped for Clichy will have done little for the confidence of the former national team captain. After a poor season with his club, Evra did nothing to stop suggestions that he is a player on the way down at the Euros."
It is not all doubts and bad news, however. He may have played second fiddle to Cristiano Ronaldo when the Real Madrid winger caught fire against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, but at 25 years of age, Nani has matured into a top class wide man and impressed particularly in the 3-2 victory over Denmark.
"Nani had the opportunity to make up for a mixed season in which he often found himself out of Ferguson's starting plans," Goal.com's Portugal expert, Luis Mira, commented.
"With Ronaldo away from his best form in the first matches of the Euros, the Seleccao
relied on Nani's creativity in the attacking process. The 25-year-old's work-rate was impressive, and he grabbed two crucial assists in the last two group games.
"The missed sitter in the match against Netherlands was a let-down, but Nani showed in the tournament that he has not yet lost his touch and that he can play an important role at United next season."
Antonio Valencia was United's best winger last season but on the back of their Euro 2012 displays, the Portuguese man will have done more to strengthen his credentials for the left-sided berth than Ashley Young, who endured a hugely disappointing tournament despite starting all of England's matches.
In the Three Lions' two pre-tournament friendlies, Young was a shining light in an England team that looked tepid at best going forward. Things looked promising when the 26-year-old freed James Milner with a well-timed pass against France but once shifted to his usual left wing role, Young's displays deteriorated.It was hoped that Rooney might spark his club team-mate into life upon his return against Ukraine but no such transformation took place. Used to playing with more freedom in a role closer to the forwards, Young struggled to achieve the right balance between attack and defence in Roy Hodgson's rigid 4-4-2 formation and often looked overwhelmed by the stage he was playing on.That, more than anything, will worry Sir Alex, who requires characters capable of performing in the most daunting of situations both domestically and in the Champions League.
He will be pleased, then, to have witnessed the continued progress of Welbeck, who did not receive much in the way of service but again showed tactical acumen and responsibility beyond his 21 years and flicked a superb winning goal past Andreas Isaksson against Sweden.
Welbeck, along with Jones, Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley, is part of Sir Alex's latest generation of United young upstarts. In catching their city rivals, they have quite a task on their hands, but the experience of Euro 2012 should stand the striker in good stead.Follow Oliver Platt on