By now, I think most who frequent Red Rants know that I’m generally a positive person, even when the situation should dictate otherwise.
However, the only positive thing about Sunday’s…whatever that was…at that place…against that team was when Phil Dowd mercifully blew his whistle for full time to end it.
All that happening doesn’t bear repeating, because I’d rather not grit my teeth down to the gums, but it’s safe to say that anytime you allow Dirk Kuyt to notch the world’s easiest hat trick, the outcome more than likely won’t be a good one. I think I just threw up a little, excuse me for a minute.
As I watched Sunday, I fumed, cursed, and sent my mobile phone flying through the air on multiple occasions (I’d have preferred the remote, but that was not an option), all the while wondering if it could get any worse.
For much of the season, we’ve successfully skirted disaster, getting away with being unable to defend as well as we should have in key situations away from home and often playing some pretty unsightly football. I was going to insert ‘uninspired’ there, but while that has appeared to be true at times, inspiration has been the only thing that’s saved United from a draw or a defeat on more than one or two occasions, so it wouldn’t have been an entirely true statement.
But in our two toughest and most important trips of the season, those faults were truly brought to the forefront, most notably when Patrice Evra half-heartedly attempted to get a boot on a ball that Chelsea’s David Luiz subsequently deposited into the back of the net to erase United’s advantage at Stamford Bridge, and well, for the duration against Liverpool (cringe). If there was ever a reason for Nemanja Vidic to try to never be sent off or suspended again, what happened at Anfield (times two) was it.
So we stand at a very pivotal point of our season, with an advantage in the Premier League that is a lot more tenuous than it already was before the last couple of weeks and our fate in two competitions set to be decided in the next several days.
And we’ll have to do it without our most influential player, who’s the latest name added to an injury list that’s already seemingly a mile long.
So then, is it time to clench those cheeks and nibble our nails down to shreds, or is the outlook a lot rosier than it appears at the moment?
Instantly I’m reminded of a similarly ugly late-season blip two seasons ago, when we lost 4-1 at home against Liverpool and followed it up with a 2-0 defeat at Fulham. It was the first time since 2005 that we’d lost back-to-back league matches, and it left us with a one-point lead over Liverpool with nine matches left.
Of course, we don’t have Ronaldo to save us this time around, and at the moment, we don’t even have Nani, thanks to Jamie Carragher, who’ll need to do a lot more sucking up to United now than he already does.
And with what we saw on Sunday and what we’ve seen in far too many spells this season, it’s not easy to feel confident on any front, even with our Premier League title rivals having no shortage of flaws themselves.
Arsenal don’t now have the distraction of the Champions League, and if we send them out of the FA Cup on Saturday, they’ll be free to focus all of their energies on the Premier League and making up a deficit that, at this moment, amounts to goal difference.
Chelsea look to be heating up at the right time for them and the wrong time for everyone else, including United, and while they’re still nine back, they have a match in hand and still have a visit to Old Trafford that could loom large.
But if anything that being a United fan has taught me, it’s that in those moments when we’re most expected to crumble, we’ve risen to the occasion more often than not, so to hit the panic button at this point would be a little presumptive.
True enough, you can’t look at this year’s United team in the same light as many previous United title contenders, even the last few, despite many of the same names who’ve played pivotal roles still being factoring in now.
For the rise of Nani and Rafael, Dimitar Berbatov’s goal bursts, and the emergence of Chicharito as our new Ole, there’s been Rooney’s ineffectiveness and perceived indifference relative to his importance and his prior impact, the injury issues that have beset every part of our team except for one (and even he was stricken by the flu!), and all that encompasses our issues in midfield, which in itself is worthy of an article.
As exciting as the comebacks and late goals have been, and as memorable and brilliant as some of those goals have been, goals aren’t everything, even if we’re pacing the Premier League in that category by a decent margin over Arsenal.
Overall, it hasn’t been pretty to watch, and those who question United’s title credentials have every right to do so. If someone had told me prior to the season that 95% of our squad (or thereabouts, it would seem) would miss time due to injury or illness, half would suffer from issues with consistency, and we would win only 20% of our first 15 away matches of the season, I’d have had a good laugh. In fact, I have at several points this season when perusing the league table.
It’s certainly no laughing matter at this point, with United in a precarious position. But perhaps this is where we need to be, backs against the wall, season on the line, and facing heavy criticism and doubt.
It’s no doubt a shame that we’ll be without Nani for Saturday’s match, as it would’ve been nice to see him replicate his one-man show from the last time United faced Arsenal in the FA Cup. And with the limitations we have out wide at the moment, his injury is more than a little inconvenient.
However, the wailing and gnashing of the teeth is a little premature, as each of our next three matches is at home, where we’ve been most successful this season. If Nani returns against West Ham on April 2 as he potentially could, we should still be safely above water and alive and well on three fronts.
Therein are the two X-factors that could make all the difference in crashing and burning like many would like to see or being able to shake off this recent stretch, a la 2009, when, staring down the barrel of a third straight defeat at home to Aston Villa, United produced two match and season-turning goals and produced similarly clutch moments in wins over Sunderland, Tottenham, and Wigan on the way to holding off Liverpool for the title.
This time next month, the squad should be as fit as it’s been all season long, provided there are no other injuries that crop up (knock on wood), plus or minus the two Owens, who are the most luckless of the luckless.
At the back, we will be able to rely on both of our steady studs, plus the up-and-coming one in Smalling, who’ll be able to fill in capably for Rio in case he’s rested at any point down the stretch. If there’s one person who’s taken opportunity by the scruff of the neck this season, the former Fulham man has, and one can only hope that he’ll develop into every bit the rock that the two men ahead of him in the pecking order have.
And while we’re woefully short on wide options – at least ones that have already proven their worth – that will change over the next few weeks, with Antonio Valencia set to return to action this weekend, Park returning in the next few weeks, and Nani following after. I know that isn’t the most formidable group of wingers we’ve ever had, but Nani has been one of the Premier League’s best this season, Park provided a real spark for an extended spell before leaving and then being sidelined, and Valencia could hold the key to Rooney’s awakening.
In that bunch of attackers, we may not have a Ronaldo-esque game-changer, but we do have a number of players who’ve stepped up in key moments this season and in the past. It says something about Chicharito’s impact that Sunday’s goal was his first this season that didn’t have some importance tied to it (unless you count saving United from getting blanked), and he’s only one of several who are capable of producing moments that prove to be season-defining like Federico Macheda’s debut dandy to stun Villa was.
All of the lineup fluctuation and forced rotation can’t be pinned as the prime reason for what’s been wrong this season, but with our options soon to be more of what we expected them to be, there’s reason to press forth with cautious optimism.
The schedule, not including the Champions League, is as favorable as it could be at this point in the season. United have more home matches than away matches in the league, and even if there’s a draw against Everton or Chelsea, we should come away with no less than 13 of a possible 15 points.
There are certainly no givens away from home, but matches at West Ham, Newcastle, and Blackburn are all winnable, and we’ve had enough success at the Emirates in recent seasons to not write that one off as a defeat.
The big question is whether or not the squad is mentally ‘there’ enough to stand tall down the stretch, hold on to and extend our Premier League lead, and make deep runs in the Champions League and FA Cup. I wish I could answer that question definitively and affirmatively, but short of being able to read their thoughts (or more sensibly, interview them), I can only assume based on what I know, based on what I’ve seen this season and in seasons past. Give up on them if you will, but I’m not on that boat with you, and I don’t see them being there either.
- Man United owners will consider selling minority shares if revised bids don’t impress them
- Man Utd must avoid signing Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic this summer
- Man Utd could sign Barcelona winger Ansu Fati for just €35m this summer
- Man Utd handed timely boost for Newcastle clash with Luke Shaw set to return early from England duty
- Why Man Utd should target Rasmus Hojlund next summer
- Man Utd following Roma and Juventus target Davide Frattesi
- Sir Jim Ratcliffe makes improved offer to buy Man Utd, Sheikh Jassim to follow
- Man Utd must enter race to sign Antonio Silva amid interest from three European clubs
- Victor Lindelof casts doubt on his Manchester United future
- How Glazers blew up Mourinho’s plan to bring Van Dijk to Man Utd