Manchester United’s war of three fronts

March 19, 2009

Manchester United know all too well just how much can change in a Premiership week. Seven days ago Sir Alex Ferguson‘s side had an air of invincibility, able to drop players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov from the line-up against Liverpool while bookies paid out on bets that Manchester United would win the Premiership title. Two slip-ups (admittedly both chronic) from their most consistent player of the season, a red card and four Liverpool goals later and all of a sudden the picture looks very different indeed. To win the much aspired to quintuple, Manchester United will have to overcome top four Premier League opposition in at least two competitions – with either Chelsea or Arsenal coming up in the FA Cup if United can edge past Everton, and Arsenal‘s visit to Old Trafford still to come in the league. Manchester United will almost certainly have to lock horns with their domestic rivals in the Champions League to boot, with half of this year’s remaining contestants coming from the Premiership.

The problem is that against the rest of the Premiership top four, Manchester United have struggled this season – recording a solitary victory over Chelsea. The table below, looking at how the top four have performed against each other, clearly shows that Liverpool and Arsenal are laughing when it comes to seeing off similarly well-equipped opposition:

untitled-1Manchester United avoided the big four en route to their Carling Cup and (of course) Club World Cup victories. And from the look things, that was a good thing too. But they definitely won’t be so lucky in the FA Cup, and more likely than not they won’t escape this year in the Champions League either. So what are the three big factors that could turn the 2008-2009 season into a year of missed opportunities for Fergie’s men?

1. Rafa’s new contract. A good week at Liverpool by any standards – four goals a game against Real Madrid and United, followed by manager Rafa Benítez finally signing on the dotted line to commit to the club’s long-term future. A repeat of their 2005 European triumph would just put the icing on the cake.

2. Essien’s back. Chelsea have lacked bite in midfield this season without Michael Essien, and Deco has proved no replacement. The Ghanaian scored at the weekend to issue a timely reminder to Chelsea‘s rivals that the London club are a different proposition with him presiding over the centre of the pitch, and combined with Duth coach Guus Hiddink‘s nous there should be no stopping Chelsea.

3. Arsenal have discovered a bit of mental fortitude. Arsène Wenger said it himself after the Roma match, but Arsenal have lacked the strength of mind to turn 0-0 draws into more meaningful results. Queue an epic penalty shoot-out victory against canny Italain opposition and a hard fought (literally fought) win over Hull and Wenger’s boys are back in action.

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Manchester United have stopped needing to try

March 2, 2009

carlingcup2008_945758I’ve been writing this blog now since January. And since the New Year, Manchester United have amassed 13 victories, scored 30 goals and kept 11 clean sheets. They are the reigning Premiership champions, the reigning European champions, the reigning Club World Cup champions and – now – the reigning Carling Cup champions. And I haven’t written about them once.

Why? Because Manchester United are boring. Not boring like an Arsenal side who have gone four Premiership games (three at the Emirates) without scoring a goal. After all, this is a team oozing with quality. They’ve got Cristiano RonaldoCarlos Tévez, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov up front without even accounting for players like Ryan Giggs, Anderson or Paul Scholes – and by the end of that roll call of attacking talent you’re half way through their team sheet.

Rather, Manchester United are boring like Roger Federer used to be boring. Predictable, relentless victory is the mark of the truly great in sport. But it isn’t half as fun as scraping a last minute victory against Wigan. For goodness sake, even Chelsea are more entertaining to watch these days, if for no other reason than at any point they might throw away the lead, sack their manager or decide to decamp to Moscow. Manchester United, by contrast, can field their youth team in an English cup final and still be so good that the opposition manager would back them over his own side: “I have to be honest,” says Tottenham manager Harry Rednapp, “we were not that confident with our penalty-takers really and you looked over there and they had very confident penalty-takers.”

Of course I am jealous of Manchester United. It’s not so long ago, supporting José Mourinho‘s Chelsea, that I was more or less in the same boat. But I also remember all too well that look on the faces of United’s fans this morning. No joy. No linking arms and merrily dancing a jig. Barely even a half-hearted gloat throw the way of their Tottenham counterparts. Just a hunger for more. Ask Federer, or Chelsea fans, for that matter – winning trophy after trophy just makes the first one you lose harder to bear.

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