Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mach ado about nothing

What was unthinkable just three weeks ago has become an exciting and tense footballing reality. Manchester United were swanning down the home straight to the Premiership title, had drawn the - on paper - weakest opposition in the Champions League, had two cups in the cabinet and were in the semi finals of a third. The question wasn't whether United would win more trophies, but whether they could win ALL five of them.

That has now changed, quickly and drastically. United met Liverpool in a make-or-break match - for the Anfield side anyway - that, had United won, would have all but settled the Premiership title race. But they crumbled at the hands of Rafa Benitez, whose well-organised, energetic side led by Torres and Gerrard carried out a clinical and thrilling 4-1 dismantling of Alex Ferguson's men. Since that result, United have put in three lacklustre performances since: a 2-0 humbling at Fulham, an undeserved victory against Aston Villa thanks to a 17-year old debutant's moment of magic, and a barely deserved draw at home in the Champions League (quarter finals, no less) against Porto.

The last four games have exposed severe frailties in defence and a worrying lack of creativity going forward. United have conceded more goals in the last three Premier League games than in their previous 15, and have proven that without the formidable Ferdinand/Vidic partnership, others - notably Gary Neville and John O'Shea, not to mention Edwin Van Der Sar - are nowhere near the level required to keep clean sheets against top teams when the pair are missing.

Similarly, United's attacking options have run out of steam at just the wrong time. Ronaldo seems to be sulking, though two excellent goals against Villa managed to stave off excessive criticism and he could yet prove to be the single deciding factor in United's success this season. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs both now look short on fitness when required to dominate the midfield in big games, with the latter virtually restricted to substitute appearances to affect matches. Michael Carrick, so essential for much of the season, seems to have run himself into the ground trying to provide defensive cover at the expense of the consistently injured Owen Hargreaves, and both vision and passing at the expense of Fletcher, who has neither. Whisper it, but a key figure for United currently missing is the Brazilian youngster Anderson, who can provide the perfect foil to Carrick's deeper creativity. United's bit-part midfielders, Ji-Sung Park and Nani, have suddenly become big game necessities.

Berbatov's disappointing season looks set to end in patches as he returns from injury, and United's predicament was summed up neatly by last night's performance,where only the industry and loyalty of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez saved United's blushes - and the latter isn't even a full United player, still. The fans have made up their minds firmly on where Tevez's future should lie, though, and Ferguson should have the nous to realise how important he is to keep. If not, Barcelona or Real Madrid will surely come calling.

Against Porto, United were out-passed, outmanoeuvred, devoid of flair and that winning mentality that Ferguson instills in all of his teams, gifted their opening goal and lucky not to concede twice as many. Of course, that they had to work extremely hard against Villa barely 48 hours earlier showed. Again there, United were second all over the pitch for the third league game in a row, but the heroic Federico Macheda's last-gasp winner to steal three points was supposed to reignite the United march for five trophies.

The ecstasy and jubilation at that goal subsided last night, however, when United turned in another poor performance against a thrilling Porto team, and dealt their Champions League defence a hammer blow. It would be stupid to write United off in any of their competitions yet though - Ferguson's various United generations have made snatching victories from defeat's open jaws a habit over the last decade. An unprecedented quintuple would be Ferguson's greatest feat, possibly unrepeatable in future seasons, and United still have the time and the players to chase that dream.

Very quickly, however, Manchester United need to rediscover their form and self-belief of a few weeks ago, or the wonderkid's goal that supposedly set their title ambitions back on course will turn out to be much ado about nothing.

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