The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.
All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.
For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.
Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.
Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.
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