skip to content

Martin Samuel: Dismiss Manchester United at your peril

More

12 Apr 2011 09:13:44

Martin Samuel: Dismiss Manchester United at your peril

There is a school of thought that the match between Manchester United and Chelsea will merely determine which club have the right to be defeated by Barcelona at Wembley on May 28. We underestimate the strength of this Manchester United team at our peril, however. As the season turns into the home straight the need for reassessment on a variety of fronts is increasingly apparent. It has been a consistent theme this season: this is not a vintage campaign and its champions elect from Old Trafford are a shadow of their predecessors. He's no Ronaldo... but Nani's goals and assists record this season mark out a player of substance Most specifically, it is advanced that the current Manchester United squad pale by comparison  to the Treble winners of 1999 or the team propelled by Cristiano Ronaldo's stunning 42-goal season in 2007-08. And, of course, any club would miss players of the calibre of Ronaldo or the Nou Camp generation. Yet, while this Manchester United side have sometimes struggled to match the fond memories of past incarnations, as key players return to form and fitness there is much to admire. Increasingly, particularly in the four-goal comeback against West Ham United and the victory over Chelsea in the Champions League, there is a sense that Sir Alex Ferguson is working towards his next great United team, perhaps his fourth, or fifth. The away form brings the question mark. United have won fewer games on their travels than any Premier League team in the top five, and only as many as Blackpool and Newcastle United. They would have to win all their remaining three - at Newcastle, Arsenal and Blackburn - to match the eight away wins of 1998-99 and are significantly trailing the 10 away victories in 2007-08. This is not merely an awkward season of transition, however, but a significant step forward. Nani has come of age, while the progress of Javier Hernandez has been astonishingly quick. Players such as Rafael are much improved, while Chris Smalling will continue to mature in the company of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Heading in the right direction: Chris Smalling (left) has matured playing alongside Vidic and Ferdinand These are major developments for United, with so many questions asked about long-term replacements to players such as Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. And if Nani is no Giggs, the question remains: who is? There will never be another like him, but Nani's record of assists and goals this season marks him as a potent force nonetheless. Giggs is showing little sign of retreating yet anyway. His cross for the winning goal at Stamford Bridge last week, not to mention his intelligent turn at left back at Upton Park, reveal a talent unsurpassed in more than longevity. This is a Manchester United team still weakened by injury, as the absence of Darren Fletcher - so important in the biggest matches - indicates. Yet, with Ferdinand back beside Vidic against Chelsea, Luis Antonio Valencia returned from injury and Wayne Rooney on his most consistent run of performances for 12 months, one can only speculate on United's margin of supremacy at the top of the league had their senior players remained available. The current seven-point margin, which will be reduced to four if Arsenal win a game in hand, flatters the competition. United are a lot better than that. Sweet pea: Hernandez has made great progress On the eve of the return leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, which is expected to set up a semi-final with Schalke of Germany, and a favourable path to the final -  Ferguson was generous in his acceptance of some of the criticism of his team. 'I think it comes from our away results,' he said. 'We have not won as many as normal and there is a reaction to that. We have only won five and although our record is second only to Arsenal, I understand. We were disappointed with some of our away performances, too. Against Sunderland and Liverpool, we were poor.' This is true, but they were greatly reduced. On October 2, when United drew 0-0 at Sunderland, they were missing Rooney, Giggs, Valencia, Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra, while Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov started on the bench. At Liverpool, when they lost 3-1 on March 6, they were missing Vidic and Ferdinand, plus Valencia, and had Fletcher and Hernandez as substitutes. With a fuller complement of players, the true strength of the team is being revealed. Plainly, the significant difference between United now is the resurgence of Rooney, for so many reasons a lost soul early in the campaign. Before his injury sustained against Bayern Munich last season, he was on course to surpass Ronaldo's 42-goal milestone and it is the absence of a player to tilt at this feat that has troubled United. Valencia, who is not a prolific goalscorer, was never going to do it and the sheer physical strain on Rooney may ultimately have been his undoing. What has changed is that, in  Hernandez, and Berbatov when he is engaged, United now have  forwards to take the pressure off. A tireless worker in a way Ronaldo was not - witness his doggedness in defending United's slender lead late in the first leg at Chelsea - something had to give if Rooney was to lead the line, score 42 times and still be United's first regiment of ferocious defence. In the second half of this season, the cavalry have arrived in the shape of the brilliantly energetic Hernandez, and Rooney has flourished. Replacing goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar could be United's biggest challenge this summer - and Ferguson is permanently on the lookout for the next Paul Scholes - but the rest is coming along nicely. Quietly, efficiently, Ferguson has rebuilt his squad and they look a very promising one. Chelsea would delight in such an effortless transition; Arsenal would relish the proven quality here. We will soon find out how good United really are, but they are good enough to beat Chelsea again and later earn the right to face Barcelona, there is no doubt about that.  We'll thwart Roman again! Rio's back to lock it down and prolong Chelsea waitPressure, what pressure? Carlo says he won't be sacked if Chelsea get KO'd Three feelgood facts for Fergie and Manchester United... and three reasons to cheer Carlo and ChelseaIs Torres really up to the job or does Ancelotti drop his ?50m striker?Martin Keown's Big Match Dossier: Pea is for Perfect in United's dream strikeforce  Explore more:People: Paul Scholes, Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs, Edwin Van Der Sar, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nemanja Vidic, Luis Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Nani Places: Barcelona, Liverpool, Newcastle, Germany


Daily_Mail

Sponsored links

Facebook comments