Are Manchester United on the slide? Can Sir Alex Ferguson arrest it in the game of the season against Manchester City on Monday?
It has been a season of three phases for Manchester United. Until December they were leaking goals but scoring enough to stay in contention at the top of the Premier League. Then, with a fully fit defence, they tightened up to the extent that they have conceded no goals in their last six EPL matches. But they’ve only scored two in their last three competitive starts and there have been worrying signs since the Real Madrid disappointment.
It was always a dangerous thing to let the idea of a Treble out of the bag. While Sir Alex tried to keep his players’ feet on the ground, there was no little talk in the media. Despite being “robbed” against Real Madrid, there was still a potential Double as consolation.
Now there is only the Premier League title to play for and there are some worrying signs here that need to be dispelled on Monday.While non-United supporters have written off the title weeks ago, the bitter disappointment of last season’s nine point collapse remains as a warning to the faithful, but will it still act as a spur to the players? There are two convergent factors that could still produce a nail-biting climax long after Monday’s “six-pointer”. These are: complacency; and loss of form.
Let’s leave the first for a moment because Sir Alex will use all his motivational powers to try and avert any relaxation. His mantra for weeks, repeated in his Press Conference on Friday, has been “one game at a time”. However there were genuine worrying signs in the meek surrender at Stamford Bridge last Monday. Yes it was true that United had the match in their control for the entire first half, but it was an accident waiting to happen.
The last minute injury decisions on Jonny Evans, and most crucially Wayne Rooney, probably had far more effect than we might have realised. A reasonably likely original line-up could have been:
De Gea; Jones; Ferdinand; Evans; Evra; Nani; Carrick; Cleverley; Giggs; Rooney; Hernandez
This had to be hastily rearranged and we shall never know how much more effective the team would have been with Rooney putting in the sort of stint he did for England. It seemed as though that late disruption left United a little unsure of themselves. Although they started in control of the ball, there were precious few attacks and too many of the players looked off the pace.
After Ba scored out of the blue so early in the second half United seemed unable to move up a gear, even with the introduction of Robin van Persie and that leads to the most worrying possibility of all. Has the team lost form at the worst possible moment?
It was unsurprising that there was a massive sense of deflation after the astonishingly inexcusable refereeing decision against Real Madrid. In that moment, it now seems, the momentum of a runaway season seemed to deflate.
United’s “X-factor” this season has been Van Persie. At times he has carried the team by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But he has now hit a goal drought. Although he scored three times for Holland in the international break, he has only scored one goal in his last 12 appearances for United. That is worrying enough, but there are too many other players who are out of form.
Nani has been largely peripheral in the games he has played recently. He was quite dreadful against Chelsea. Anderson has been consistently poor and surely both players will go in the summer. Injuries have disrupted Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’s season. Phil Jones’ season simply hasn’t started. They are also nowhere near top form, although there were encouraging signs in Monday’s disappointment.
Wayne Rooney still seems to have “fitness issues” and Shinji Kagawa hasn’t found his Dortmund standards in the Premier League, the Norwich match apart. Added to that, there were worrying signs that the pressure is beginning to tell on Tom Cleverley and Patrice Evra.
The only positive note is that United will have won this season’s title on depth of squad and team spirit; neither of which City seem to possess. So the forthcoming match against their conquerors last season could not come at a more pivotal moment. Even with a 15 point deficit, if City can win convincingly they will start to believe they can yet again overhaul their rivals. Remember, United still have a resurgent Chelsea and Arsenal to play. Lose all three matches and the effective lead is cut to six points to survive in a total of five matches.
It may be that, in a couple of weeks time, with three wins notched and the title secure, this will all seem to have been a blip. The best way to start is this weekend, by putting to bed the memories of the devastating 6-1 reverse last season. For those of us who were there until the very last second it will remain as long in the memory as the 8-2 win over Arsenal.
As for City, the big question is whether they will play an attacking formation or more cautiously? Two of their players have been in the headlines this week. Carlos Tevez, who has been a driving force on the pitch this season and Samir Nasri, who was expected to be, has been disappointing. Lucky that City trumped United’s bid then. Both players will be needing chauffeurs for the next year or so, if they stay.
Yaya Toure has signed a new long-term contract and should be key in midfield. Maicon may not return this season and Micah Richards won’t be fit. Nasri, David Silva and Jack Rodwell will have late fitness tests.
If City notch another win the nerves will set in again at Old Trafford. But a home win would more or less seal the title and much-needed revenge for last season. This is the match for United’s form to return. The Rooney/Van Persie partnership; a solid midfield and defence; and the excellent David De Gea should ensure United at least don’t lose.
Of course it has taken on even greater significance since last season: not just because of the last minute disappointment; but also because City did the double over United. Even if United only sneak a win, combined with leaving City in their dust, this would put to bed the heartache of last year.
While many still don’t rate this United squad as highly as the Treble-winning team of 1999, there is no doubt it is stronger in depth and is performing much better in the Premier League. Unlike City, the 23 international players have gelled as a tight unit with a winning mentality.