A win against one of the top sides in Europe will always work wonders for a team’s confidence and Manchester United’s demolition of AC Milan on Wednesday night will give them tremendous momentum heading into this weekend’s fixture with Fulham.
Despite having a strong European pedigree, it would be questionable judgment to label this Milan side one of the best in Europe, but to claim seven goals across two legs against any side at this stage of the competition is no mean feat. United played with the confidence of a team sitting on top of the Premier League and one which was already three away goals to the good, but one of the most striking elements of the game was the make-up of the United starting line-up. Wednesday night’s match was only the second time this year that both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand made up the heart of the defence in front of Edwin van der Sar. This gave United the backbone from which to build and immediately instilled confidence into the rest of the side. Although the United back four were not tested as much as the Rosseneri would have liked, at times they did look slightly shaky when put under increased pressure.
To date, this season has been somewhat inconsistent from United’s the point of view. They have already lost two more matches than the entirety of last season and have been disappointing at times, but they have also put in some fantastic performances, playing some attractive football. One of the reasons for this inconsistency has clearly been the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has been unable to field the same starting line-up in back-to-back fixtures. Many will point to the fact that the Scot has often tinkered with his midfield and attack, regularly freshening things up. Nevertheless, it is chiefly the issues faced by the back four that is causing the inconsistent nature of the results.
Throughout this season, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans, Gary Neville and even Michael Carrick have played at centre-back in the absence of one or both of Ferdinand and Vidic, and the aforementioned players have not all had a full bill of health themselves. Furthermore, over the last three weeks United have started with three different right full-backs – it is only left-back Patrice Evra who has been a settled part of the back four, having started every Premier League match this season. Considering the fact that United’s squad has been stretched to the limit, they have done remarkably well to be in the position they currently lie. It is at this stage of the season that United traditionally hit a purple patch of form and with the first choice centre-back partnership reunited, this annual tradition looks set to continue.
The result on Wednesday will have sent out a stark warning to the rest of Europe about the credentials of this United side and the goalscoring exploits of Rooney will certainly not have gone unnoticed. In truth, United have become adept at playing against Italian opposition – the away performance in the San Siro against Inter last season being one of the more memorable encounters. The United forwards and midfield players were able to close down and press their Milanese opponents when they were in possession, refusing to give them the time on the ball that is often afforded in Serie A. United played their game plan perfectly and it would not take any stretch of the imagination to propose that United could adopt the same tactics if they once again face last season’s winners of the tournament.
In last season’s final, United were poor and gave Barcelona far too much time on the ball, enabling the midfield to get a strangle hold on the game and utilise their short, sharp passing method. United were unable to get amongst the Catalans and were often chasing shadows. If they can put them under the same amount of pressure as they did with Milan, there is surely a chance of coming out on top. It is a little presumptuous to assume that United will again be facing Barca in the latter stages of the tournament, but along with Chelsea, the Spanish champions must clearly be viewed as the biggest threat in this competition.
Following the performance this week, many will feel that United have a great chance of making the final once again and going one better than last season. If Ferdinand and Vidic can maintain their defensive partnership until May, this could be a distinct possibility.
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