We start this season on the edge of true greatness. Not the fleeting greatness that gets bandied around weekly in the tabloids – proper, timeless greatness. The sort that people who are not born yet will look back on in forty years and rave about.
You can put together “great” teams, you can have “great” players, but what elevates a side into the timeless category is weight of achievement. It’s what makes Ferguson the best British manager ever, and Wenger just a worthy sideshow; it’s what makes Giggs one of the best players of all time, and Gerrard a footnote in comparison. It’s why everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say the Treble, why everyone (however grudgingly) acknowledges that as a seminal footballing achievement; it’s why names like Solskjaer and Sheringham appear alongside Schmeichel and Keane in everyone’s dictionary of footballing legends.
This season we can complete a hat-trick of Premiership titles and retain the European Cup. To do either would put this team into that timeless bracket. To do both would make them the best English club side ever.
The Premiership is harder to win than the top division has ever been. The points tallies required for victory demand relentless excellence over the entire season, starting from game one – the second half of the season push for which we became renowned is not good enough any more. Our main rivals have nearly unlimited money to spend, a squad which regularly sits £25m players on the bench and haven’t lost a match at home for two years. The chasing pack contains two teams who would have been good enough to win the league five years ago, featuring some star players who are coveted by every other club in Europe, including ourselves.
The next tier of clubs are more intimidating than ever before, as a combination of TV money, foreign ownership and the availability of cheap overseas talent allows them to build impressive squads of their own, packed with internationals. Anyone who claims that games against Spurs, Portsmouth, Villa, Everton, Man City or Blackburn will be easy is deluded. Even lower down, we are only too well aware of the surprises teams like Middlesbrough can spring.
We’ve won a hat-trick of titles before, but then we were by far the best team, with more money and more pulling power than anyone else, in leagues with ten teams of comparative deadwood who our reserves could and did beat. Whatever the talk of the “Big Four”, it’s the level of competition that would make this our greatest domestic achievement.
The Champions League has never been retained. Not in its current punishing format, with the leagues followed by a rock-hard knockout phase. The Bayern machine couldn’t do it, the galacticos couldn’t do it, the Treble-winners couldn’t do it. There are so many chances to slip up, so many hurdles to fall at. One bad day can be impossible to recover from. Real and Barca are stronger than last season, and as champions everyone will be gunning for us.
We can do it. We can do both of these things. We can be that team. We have a rock-solid defence, a flexible and resourceful central midfield, the world’s best player, two sensational support strikers, (almost certainly) a hyper-talented new centre forward, a deep and well-rounded squad which is both experienced and hungry, with both old heads and young blood.
But the line is thin. Ronaldo is injured to start with, and surely can’t be as good again. Rooney needs to climb again from his plateau, Berbatov needs to settle quickly to give us enough firepower going forward. Nani may be a season away from turning his talent into end product, and age is catching up with Giggs. Our central midfielders need to discover where the net is, and we have no top class cover for Evra. What if Rio or Vidic gets injured, or van der Saar really can’t last another whole season?
After one of the most boring and frustrating summers on record, we are about to leap headlong into our chance to surpass anything our rivals have ever done in their history. Hold your breath, and hope we smiling next May – if we are, history will smile on us.
[Ed’s Note: There has been an assumption in the article that Berbatov’s expected to join United. So excuse us if that deal falls through — heaven forbid.]
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