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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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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