Weary Manchester United seem to have spent all energy reclaiming the Premier League title
United have been knocked out of both the Champions League and FA Cup in recent weeks
Tuesday 02 April 2013
Merely the title will have to do for Manchester United this season. Another Double will have to wait.
They were knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea this afternoon, meaning that their season has only eight games left to run. Barring a unique catastrophe, they will have to content themselves with just the Premier League, their 20th title, and the reassertion of national and Manchester supremacy after last year's upheaval.
This, in a sense, is a disappointment. Four weeks ago, as United prepared to welcome Real Madrid back to Old Trafford in the Champions League, there was some hope of a second treble. The league has been close to over for some time and so both other prizes appeared attainable.
But Cuneyt Cakir sent off Luis Nani, United were dazed and then floored, and they have not been able to hold themselves in quite the same way since. Sir Alex Ferguson's domestic Double-winning sides, of 1994, 1996 and 1999 (and that which won the league and the European Cup in 2008), had a ferocious resilience, appetite and authority, as well as elite quality from back to front. All of these have been absent in the last few weeks.
Ferguson, though, seems to know this. His priority this season has been to regain the title, and to take the rest as a bonus. This was always going to be a demanding Easter weekend, with yesterday's game kicking off almost exactly 48 hours after their league match at Sunderland, but his intentions were clear. Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, who started at the Stadium of Light, were on the bench at Stamford Bridge.
The relentless focus is impressive, but United did look like a team whose energy had been spent elsewhere. The initial midfield pair of Michael Carrick and Phil Jones saw enough of the ball but they lacked the drive and dynamism which characterise Manchester United at their very best. Carrick has been an exceptional tempo-setter all year but yesterday United looked like a team winding down after an exhausting but rewarding workout.
This is harder to measure but United also looked like they did not quite believe they could push themselves much further. Last February they drew a league game here 3-3 despite being 3-0 down early in the second half. That was a classic United comeback but, even as they threw balls into the Chelsea box in the final minutes yesterday, this performance lacked that fervour which is so often rewarded.
United did make one good late chance, a volley for Van Persie which he flashed over the bar. But, with no goals in his last nine United appearances, he seems to have lost some of his autumn form, to the cost of the team which he leads.
And this is a United side which, for all their success, still lacks some charisma and authority in midfield. A player who would have stopped the collapse after Nani's red card against Madrid, or stopped the collapse against Chelsea which brought about yesterday's replay. Someone like Marouane Fellaini or PSV Eindhoven's Kevin Strootman, who might have prevented Juan Mata from angling that perfect pass to Demba Ba for the only goal.
In wide positions, too, there may not be quite enough quality. Nani is more involved now than he was but almost nothing came off for him yesterday and he does not look like a player Ferguson is planning to build around for years to come. Antonio Valencia, who started at right-back, before moving forward, looked like a player with the rudimentary ingredients of a good winger but not enough of spark or style. Wilfried Zaha is coming this summer, though, and he will provide more of both.
United, with Zaha and other additions, should be stronger next season. They should certainly be closer to a side who can win more than one trophy, because their young players, again, were promising yesterday.
Danny Welbeck, starting as a second striker before moving to the wing, was probably the best player in red. The vision and touch of his link-up play are excellent and not always fully credited. One ball round the corner to Tom Cleverley made one of United's best first-half openings. He is an excellent athlete too, and his burst down the right was too much for Ashley Cole, who injured his hamstring trying to catch up. Chris Smalling and David de Gea were very comfortable defensively and neither to blame for the goal.
There is potential in this United side, and in years to come they could win doubles and trebles too. For this year, though, just the one medal will have to suffice.
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