If we were to conduct a survey among United fans asking how many still maintain an interest in the Champions League season, I suspect that the majority of the votes would drift towards “not me” or “I watch it but I don’t care”. Considering the circumstances that saw United bow out of Europe, harbouring a little resentment towards the competition might even be justified, but it would be incredibly short-sighted.
Take Tuesday night’s quarter final in Paris, for example. A match showcasing exactly what United need to focus on in the summer and, what’s more, showcasing it through two players whose names have been often associated with United.
David Beckham, the older of the two, is the latest of the Fergie Fledglings to prove that whatever was in the air at the Cliff must have been good, for there he was, a 37-year-old man facing the mighty Barcelona and doing rather well in the process. The spot Becks had flourished in during his illustrious career was last night occupied by a 20-year-old Brazilian that, had a flow of Qatari money not been poured into his – and his agent’s – pockets, could have well followed Beckham in United’s glorious right wingers tradition.
Lucas Moura is maturing into an excellent player, shrugging off the initial skepticism that surrounded his signing and adding an impressive tactical diligence to his physical qualities, something United have lacked from their wide players this season.
Now, don’t get me wrong, United have done a remarkable job in opening up a 15-point gap and had it not been for a debatable red card and a shocking second half performance against Chelsea at Old Trafford, we would probably be dreaming of the Treble, but imagine what it would have been like had our wingers fired on all cylinders.
I’m Antonio Valencia’s biggest fan but watching Moura on Tuesday night I couldn’t help thinking that his effectiveness stems from his ability to keep his game as simple as possible. If that sounds familiar is because that’s exactly what Tony had got us accustomed to last year, when he used to terrorise defenders up and down the country with a Kanchelskisesque approach – I’m faster than you, so I’m gonna knock the ball past you and ignite the afterburners.
David Beckham, on the other hand, has often been criticised for falling short of the archetypical winger but, ironically, he moulded his game around something that United wide men ignore with alarming regularity. In short, he beats the first man when taking a corner or a free-kick, something that Nani does not.
With player recruitment high on the agenda, transfer rumours have swamped Old Trafford recently but obviously I’m not suggesting that Fergie should sign Beckham in the summer, but Nani’s career must have run its course at United. At this point, while a good 50% of readers turn away in disgust accusing me of having an agenda and knowing nothing about football, allow me to stress that I don’t have any anti-Nani agendas at all.
In fact, quite the opposite. Nani’s a wonderful player, capable of turning games on their head. Unfortunately he’ll never be consistent enough or have the mental strength required to do it regularly at United, therefore the sooner he leaves the sooner we’ll stop wasting his and our time.
It’s not even the sheer petulance of the man – which reach a whole new level on Monday – that irks me the most, but I simply refuse to accept that a player that pockets in the excess of £50k a week could fall short in such a basic skill, such as clearing the first man at a set-piece.
I’ve rarely been as frustrated while watching United this season as I was on Monday when, standing in the away end, I and many others could see acres of space ahead of our wingers that were left unexplored, as United constantly tried to find a route through a packed midfield. Why the lack of movement? Why the lack of options and support out wide?
The second question brings us to Ashley Young, a player at times visibly out of his depth at United, who’s quickly turning into the footballing equivalent of Samuel Beckett’s Godot. Fans wait for him to produce, knowing perfectly well that he won’t, and when he does in fact fail to produce, they’re on his back.
On current form, Valencia, Nani and Young should be shipped out. On more practical terms, two of them will almost certainly be confirmed, while another might be heading for the exit door and Wilfried Zaha, who many thought would spend next season as understudy, is likely to see more of the pitch than he expects if the current trend continues.
This season has seen a vastly improved United compared to the one that fell agonisingly short of the title 12 months ago, but to ensure we’ll still have a reason to watch the Champions League come April and May 2014, flying wingers are needed.
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