It’s a question that has been on the minds of Manchester United fans ever since the most recent, painful defeat against the Spanish demi-gods Barcelona.
The Champions League Final of 2011 was perhaps an even more one sided encounter than their previous meeting, at the same stage, in 2009. Wayne Rooney briefly gave Manchester United hope with an equaliser in the first half but, for the most part, United were chasing shadows. Rarely will you see Manchester United outclassed but this was such an occasion. It was men against boys. It was Federer against Jeremy Bates. Ali vs Audley Harrison. The Roman Empire vs Dad’s Army.
And, while that team has since grown older (Xavi is now 33 and Puyol 34) there is no discernable deterioration in the quality of the overall product. Indeed, some think that Tito Vilanova’s Barca is even better than Pep’s vintage. Jordi Alba has been a superb addition down the left and Cesc Fabregas has added yet more quality.
If the target for United is to win The Champions League then the most salient question is whether they can now match Barcelona. Obviously Sir Alex and his charges will be taking one game at a time. There is the small challenge of Real Madrid to overcome first. And who knows. Perhaps another team will do United a favour and knock out Barcelona in some freak tie. But the likelihood is that, if Manchester United want to add to their tally of European titles, they will have to take on The Catalans once more.
It’s easy to argue that Manchester United are a better side than the one which surrendered so meekly to the Spaniards in 2011. RVP has arrived and added great quality to the top end of the team. The opposition simply can’t take their eyes off him for a second, such is his movement, precision and finishing ability. And with Wayne Rooney firing again, this is a devastating forward line.
The midfield also looks a totally different proposition two years on. Manchester United can now call on a developing Shinji Kagawa aswell as the maturing talents of Tom Cleverley and Anderson. Additionally, Micheal Carrick is having the season of his life in the engine room, putting his stamp on games and offering more positive passing than ever.
Countless questions have been asked of the defence this season, but the reality is that most of the problems have been caused by injuries rather than an overall crumbling of the defence. Now that Vidic, Jones, Smalling and Evans are fit and Rio Ferdinand has found a way to manage his back problems, United will find that solidity once again. Furthermore, Evra is back to his best and Rafael is developing into a defender capable of shackling even the best players in the world.
The only area of concern for Sir Alex, with his team miles ahead of the rest in the league at present, is the form of his wingers. Antonio Valencia is going through an inexplicable crisis of confidence after a devastating year last season. Valencia was never a fleet footed magician, much more a superb athlete and good decision maker, but his touch seems to have deserted him as the season has progressed. soccersweep thinks that he remains United’s best wide man however and that Fergie needs to play him through this bad spell to allow him to rediscover his form.
Nani is back from injury, after a long spell on the sidelines, but his performance against Fulham at the weekend summed up his career at United. He did the hard bits well but fluffed the final ball too often. He needs to add consistency and improve his decision making if he is to stay at United. Currently, you just don’t know what to expect. He has the world at his feet but the fog in his head.
Ashley Young is a half decent squad player but might be a better full back – he’s disciplined but doesn’t offer much invention or cutting edge going forward.
If Fergie can get one of these three back to top form, he may well opt to use a right winger and play Shinji Kagawa a bit narrower on the left, which will also give United more substance through the middle.
But, overall, we think that this is the best United squad in years. They haven’t battered a lot of teams this season but they have found a way past virtually all of them. They have won an astounding 20 out of their 25 league games, find themselves 9 points clear in the Premier League and have a relatively straight forward tie at home to Reading to reach the quarters of the FA Cup. This team means business and has no discernible weaknesses. And the squad is deeper than at any time in recent memory.
But will it be enough to conquer the best club side ever? Manchester United will of course need luck but the gap in quality between the sides will be far smaller this time out.
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