Monday, April 12, 2010

The Passing of a Season

And so it is becoming increasingly evident that Manchester United will end the season with nothing to show for their battles this season. Unless ya’re one of those United fans residing in Mars and is certain of more silverware this season. Many will readily furiously point towards the Carling Cup we lifted in February. This is a moot point. The Carling Cup cannot be mentioned as a competition worthy of trophies this great club should be winning. The Champions League, Premiership and the FA Cup (yes, I consider the world’s oldest knockout competition worthy!) are trophies we should be winning to be hailed as champions. None of these trophies are up for grabs, barring the Premiership, which hinges on Chelsea suffering a catastrophic fallout with goal-laden form.

I find myself increasingly at odds with the United faithful. Not the prawn sandwich munching Park Ji Sung fanatics (it’s an entire country!) who are the only ones who snap up the No.13 jersey nor the original apparel chaps who sport United’s latest gear during a game of football and yet can’t tackle to save their mom, nor is it even those who look for United related news in the entertainment section. I’m talking about the ordinary folk who sacrifice sleep in this part of the planet to catch a United game or the guys who plan their weekends around United’s games. The real fans who only really subscribe to sports cable channels for United games. The United fanatics. Nearly every United fan I’ve spoken to since the beginning of the run of results that has placed us in this miserable spot, seems to be of the firm belief that United have been unlucky this season.

Firstly, I think it’s fair to have unbridled belief in your team. Fans should always have faith in their teams. But blind faith is an ethos I just can’t subscribe to. Complacency in borne out of such blind faith in mediocrity. Liverpool’s fans are a testament to that. Secondly, we all know football fans tend to have a very short memory span. Anyone who thinks United have been unlucky this season has got be high on methane gas! Our joint second highest goal scorer this season is this chap we never bought, Mr. Own Goals! We have a guy who cost us in excess of £30 million who shares second spot with Own Goals. And we’ve been unlucky?

Berbatov has been the bane of many a United fan. United let the vastly more suited Tevez go because of their belief in Berbatov. Tevez has moved onto the greener pastures of the other half of the divide to consistently prove that Ferguson’s assertion that Tevez is not a natural goal scorer to be a hoax. Personally, I have always stuck my neck out for Berbatov because I think that he’s an exceptionally talented player.

But now, even my patience has run out. Berbatov is an exceptional talent, but he belongs in a club who don’t harbour hopes of the top prize. He was at ease at Tottenham because he was their superstar. Any striker who hit 20 plus goals at Spurs is a revelation by their standards. At United you are expected to be world class week in and week out. Spurs are the epitome of inconsistency. Some players just don’t have the bottle for the biggest of stages. Unfortunately for United, Berbatov is one of them. He is now what Juan Sebastian Veron was for us in 2003, an expensive accomplished failure. Brilliant player at the wrong club.

When Ronaldo left, a void the size of a crater was left in the United squad. A player who plies his trade on the wings and scores a whopping 42 goals a season is part of a very rare breed indeed. But Rooney has really stepped up to the plate. He took some time to get in stride as he developed his game to suit his new role, but when he got going nothing was going to stop him. Ronaldo’s departure has paved the way for Rooney to develop his game beyond that of just the epitome of a team player. He now possesses the predatory instincts to regularly hit 30 plus goals a season. The biggest beneficiary has got to be the England squad. He is peaking just in time for what will be an ultimately futile bid to lift the World Cup.

United’s primary weakness is the squad itself. Neville, Giggs and Scholes are still the finest we’ve got. Their experience is vital in the biggest of games, but they should not be counted on to produce the goods when it matters most. They’ve already lived that life in United’s glorious years. It is the job of the rest of this supposedly world-class squad to do the talking on the pitch.

Very few stand alongside Rooney as excused for United’s failings this season. Valencia has matured admirably as the season progressed to be a dependable supply line. Fletcher has literally manfully carried the United midfield throughout the season. He has to rank as the most improved United player of the last decade, if not of all-time. He certainly is the closest we have ever had to Roy Keane since the Ulsterman’s departure. However, he lacks the ferocious voracity of Roy Keane the captain of Manchester United. Evra’s probably the best left back we’ve had since Dennis Irwin. He has always produced a performance even when the team is struggling. Alongside Fletcher, he has to rank as our most consistent player. Defensively, he does tend to get caught, but he’s an absolute peach of a player. Van Der Sar is a man who hardly gets a mention. But there have been many games where he has single-handedly kept us in games. He has been consistently brilliant for us.

Nani, through Sir Alex’s legendary man-management, has started to display the reasons for which we purchased him. However, I’m of the school of thought who believes that Nani is not reliable first-team material. He’s flashy, quick and a decent crosser but his mental awareness is glaringly lacklustre on many occasions. He is also never going to be a big game player, for his confidence is too fragile. He will always live in the superiorly confident Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow.

United possess no other players who the fans can mortgage their houses on to place a bet. Surely the fans didn’t expect to become European champions when a team like Barcelona play the football they do. We’re disillusioned minions of hope like that. We don’t score from set pieces anymore, we grind out results more that pummel opponents, we lose to the plot to inferior opponents, we get outmuscled in a scrappy game, we need Rooney to bail us out every game and we concede too many goals! This is the team you prayed to many gods to be champions of Europe? A prayer is all we had!

A look at the statistics between this year’s challengers and last year’s champions will point out where we’ve lost the plot. Last season’s league table stands at 28 won, 6 drawn and 4 lost. This season, in 34 games we’ve lost 7 games already, of which 5 defeats came when faced with opponents from the top half of the table. We’ve definitely hit a golden scoring patch this season with 77 goals (Rooney getting the bulk) but our defence has leaked in 27 goals as opposed to 24 for the entirety of last season (partly due to our wretched defensive injury crisis this season). You may think of a mere 3 goals as nit picking, but it’s put into context when you realise that’s 3 defeats! However it can be argued that this has been an exceptional year for the Premiership, further evidence that the league has gotten much tougher.

The brutal truth is that when it counted most this season, we didn’t produce the goods. In the league, we’ve lost to Chelsea twice, an under par Liverpool, Burnley, Villa (who got hammered by Chelsea), Fulham (given a football lesson in the process) and Everton. We got dumped out of the FA Cup by effectively a struggling 3rd Division side. Then came our insipid Champions League exit.

Bayern exposed our over-reliance on Rooney while Chelsea exposed the mediocrity of our squad over the span of a week. Over the span of that week, the wheels to glory came off. During the first leg against Bayern, we were extremely lucky to have even got a goal. We were taking a lesson in passing from an average Bayern side. In the second leg, especially in the second half, we again gave them ample space to pass us off the park. Robben’s wonder goal would not have settled the tie had someone bothered to track him. He had an eternity to plan the strike as it fell. On arguments that Drogba’s goal was offside and we should have had a penalty, I point out that Chelsea has just as valid a penalty claim and Macheda’s fluke goal had a strong hint of handball. So I don’t really buy the whole “unlucky” argument. Champions make their own luck! Whatever happened to that?

Sir Alex surely knows the fragility of the United squad in respect to the ambition that the club harbours. He cloaks the mediocrity astutely with Mourinho-esq statements that shifts the critical focus away from his players. We just don’t possess the quality of players to execute the Manchester United brand of football. We have entertained, surely, but in such sporadic patches that we don’t deserve a champion’s medal. Either there really is no money available or United really can’t lure the world’s top players. Either way, we’re finally starting to come to terms with what increasingly looks like the end of the glory days. We might just begin to understand the sufferings of being a Liverpool fan.

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