It’s been just over five weeks since Manchester United crushed Bolton 5-0 at the Reebok Stadium, which makes it just over five weeks since they last played well.
In the six subsequent games (ignoring the Leeds League Cup win for obvious reasons) they have somehow evaded a hiding which seemed inevitable after a flattering 3-1 win at Old Trafford against an impressive Chelsea side. Stoke roughed them up, Basel exposed breathtaking complacency while Norwich clutched defeat from the jaws of victory in M16. And then at the weekend fear was advertised in a tentative, catenaccio-inspired line-up at Liverpool, with the team’s two best players wasted on the bench.
For all the plaudits United received at the start of the season, there were gaping caveats that some refused to dwell upon. Apparently in September, the league was a two-horse race between the two Manchester sides; a remarkable statement when Chelsea had only dropped five points and possess arguably as good a squad as City and a superior one than United. The Reds had obliterated downtrodden teams emphatically and perhaps amidst the hype, the youngsters’ naivety has been patented by the absence of captain Nemanja Vidic and the sporadic niggles which customarily beset Rio Ferdinand. The irony is that David de Gea, mocked gleefully after a few mistakes, has been a consistent performer during United’s malaise.
Fortunately for Sir Alex Ferguson, his side have not suffered a defeat during their relapse, but his tinkering and deluded faith in what is a flawed and raw squad has to be curbed if he wishes to avoid past repercussions. In the 2008/09 season United kept a clean sheet for 10 consecutive Premier League matches, but then Ferguson gave the nervy Tomasz Kuszczak a start against Blackburn Rovers who, quelle surprise, scored to level the match and then hit the post in the second-half. Cristiano Ronaldo saved the day with a blistering free-kick but thanks to one unnecessary alteration momentum suddenly subsided.
In the coming weeks United had Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s big-game maladroitness to thank as Internazionale squandered chances for an away goal at Old Trafford in the Champions League last 16, while at St James’s Park they edged out Newcastle after going behind. But that weekend, Liverpool came to Manchester and battered their inter-city rivals 4-1. That beating that had been on the cards came to a spectacular crescendo, with United still black and blue when part two the next week featured a red card double at Fulham (Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney) and a 2-0 defeat.
Injuries have forced Ferguson’s hand over the past month – most damagingly Tom Cleverley. His lay-off has coincided with Anderson, so enterprising at the start of the season, looking forlorn and Wayne Rooney enduring an ineffectual phase. Cleverley’s importance can be gauged by just how lethargic United have looked over the past month without his positivity, but it is such a tedious issue stressing United’s midfield is cr*p that it is as newsworthy as facts such as the sky is blue and the grass is green.
Even when Cleverley and Anderson clicked, they had no midfield cover as an insurance policy, which made the mauling of Arsenal a surreal experience because many United supporters didn’t feel calm unless there was a five-goal advantage, so exposed was the defence.
City arrive on Sunday top of the league – outright – in what must be the first time in a blue moon, and United will need to execute the verve on display in the Community Shield clash if they are to reclaim their perch.
Oțelul Galați presents an opportunity to regain form, but even in the routine Champions League group stages United have underachieved thanks to a cautious display in Lisbon and underestimating their swashbuckling Swiss visitors. Three points at all costs arguably outweighs the performance this evening when Ferguson would have initially viewed this as an opportunity for squad rotation (heck, he still will).
Although it is debatable whether the Champions League poses as an exciting quest for United this season, since participation with the current squad is so frivolous and the group stages can be as much of a turn-off as ITV2. Last season’s was lifted by overachieving before the foreseeable final defeat, but even prior to the second leg against Marseille in the knockout stages, after such an insipid away display and with the league the priority it probably wouldn’t have hurt if l’OM eliminated United. The Glazers would certainly disagree.
Recovering is not quite the appropriate word just because of two wins and four draws in six games, but City arrive on Sunday top of the league – outright – in what must be the first time in a blue moon, and United will need to execute the verve on display in the Community Shield clash if they are to reclaim their perch. Crucially, Vidic should be available and so too should Cleverley, despite having not flown to Bucharest as well as Ferdinand, who is also fit (for now at least) in order to rest for the derby.
City have inflicted just two defeats upon United at the Theatre of Dreams in almost 40 years, but they were two of the most gut-wrenching. In 1974, it was when Denis had done it as United were relegated. In 2008 it was one of the worst home displays in living memory as City ran out 2-1 winners in what was the Munich air disaster’s 50th anniversary week. On Sunday it would be to stretch the Citizens’ lead to five points. Potentially a galling end to a horror trilogy that usurps the recent trio at Anfield, it’s imperative United rediscover their form tonight.
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