Manchester United: 24 games from football heaven
It’s easy to say in retrospect but there was a strange feeling around Old Trafford during the spring of ’99. There were so many moments during the latter stages of that treble winning season when Manchester United seemed down and out. The FA Cup semi against Arsenal when United went down to 10 men after the sending off of Roy Keane. Going 2-0 down to Juve in the semis of the Champions League. And, not least, trailing to Bayern Munchen for most of the final.
But, such was the resourcefulness, talent and spirit of the squad that they found a solution to every problem, no matter how ostensibly grave.
Without wishing to tempt fate for United fans, this season has the same sort of feeling about it. Of course, United were pushed all the way in the league ’99. This year Manchester United are by no means comfortable but presently have a superb lead of 9 points in the title race.
But the general quality of the squad, and the manner in which it’s performing, certainly invites comparisons with the cracking vintage of ’99.
If United are to scale similar heights this time around they will have to negotiate another 24 games. Anything can happen in this period and no team, even Barca, can conquer all without some luck.
But this is a United squad that is finding an answer to every question posed. 20 wins in 25 league games is their best tally ever. They are full of goals and it now seems complete folly to write them off when they are behind, no matter how late in the game. How Manchester United must infuriate opposition fans.
The squad itself is arguably as healthy as ’99. In the past United would largely play youngsters in The League Cup. But such is the strength of the squad this year that, even in this competition, the team consisted mainly of senior players. So fatigue is not going to be a problem because there are so many players needing minutes.
Danny Welbeck needs minutes. After injuries, Nani, Anderson and Shinji Kagawa, Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling need minutes. When Phil Jones returns from illness he will need game time also. And players like Paul Scholes and Javier Hernandez are chomping at the bit to get on the park. Hernandez would walk into most sides on this form but, at Manchester United, he has to play second fiddle to the stupendous strike force of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
These players mentioned aren’t just young colts. They are all top quality players who (Chicharito apart) haven’t seen a huge amount of game time this season.
There isn’t an obvious weakness in this team or squad. Media misgivings about the defence are being proven unfounded now that important players are recovering from injury. The midfield looks much stronger (and,crucially, much more mobile) this year with Cleverley and Anderson improving and Carrick enjoying the season of his life.
The left side of midfield may need investment in the summer but, for now, Shinji Kagawa can play out there when Nani and Young are under performing – in fact it’s probably the only position that he will find a place in the team at present.
And the jewel in United’s crown is the front line. Rooney and RVP will cause any team in the world problems with their combined power, precision, movement and football intelligence. You can see that they genuinely love playing together and enjoy bringing the best out of each other. And the added bonus of this partnership is that, in the biggest games, Rooney can drop deeper into the midfield without Alex Ferguson having to change his line up. Thus, the manager no longer has to agonise about whether to play one or two strikers away from home in the big games.
Manchester United will have some brutal tests ahead. They will probably have to get past an angry Manchester City in the FA Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League, if they beat Real Madrid. But they have put themselves into a fantastic position and look like they are beginning to click at the right time, with players fresh and the treatment room fairly quiet. Nothing is beyond this Manchester United side, who are 24 games from football heaven.
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