When interviewed prior to Manchester United’s first leg quarter-final encounter against Bayern Munich the United club-captain Gary Neville highlighted what a season defining three games United were about to undertake across a nine day period. Now seven days and two games into that period United’s season looks dangerously like it is slipping away from them.
Last weekend’s encounter was always going to be an extremely difficult task for United being the first game following the injury to Wayne Rooney but it was the way that United played which will have most disappointed their fans. Sir Alex Ferguson and his assistant Mike Phelan have been right to highlight that the winning goal was taken from an offside position right in line with the referee’s assistant which in truth was an unforgivable mistake and it is correct that United could have been awarded a penalty. What however, is also correct is that Chelsea could just have easily been awarded a penalty of their own and it was clear that United’s goal was forced in by the hand of Federico Macheda. The officials may have been poor but they were not arbitrary in their decision making.
This issue of the referee and his assistants should not detract from what was a very poor performance by United. The side in the first half especially looked as if they were without any idea of how to penetrate the Chelsea back line. Ferguson has commented on this stage of the encounter saying that his charges looked leggy from their recent trip to Germany which may have been a fair assessment as there was certainly an out of sorts nature about his side but what was so strikingly apparent was the lack of cutting edge. So much had been said prior to the encounter concerning the loss of Rooney and the fact that United would be lost without him and it was as if the United believed that. As soon as United were able to get the ball into the Chelsea final third their play stopped as they were clueless at how to break down the Chelsea defence.
Huge pressure was on Dimitar Berbatov who seemed to miss his time to really shine. The Bulgarian certainly has more chances until the end of the season to prove his worth and keep United in contention but this was the game where he had to deliver. United are only two points behind Chelsea and in a season so full of twists and turns it would be foolish to assume the title will be heading to Stamford Bridge. United will still have a part to play and so may Berbatov but what will always be remembered by the Old Trafford faithful is that the Bulgarian failed to prove his worth when it really mattered. It is these kind of games where you need your big players and the failure of Berbatov in this encounter may well prove costly for his United career.
With the introduction of Macheda, United looked livelier but although a huge talent Macheda is still only 18. This is probably too much pressure on the shoulders of the young Italian who has been hampered by injury throughout the season. Last weekend was the exact same weekend when a year ago Macheda salvaged United’s season with a last gasp winner against Aston Villa. Comparing the two nothing was expected of him last season now everything was expected from him – this is too much for a player who in truth is still trying to find both fitness and form. It is likely that Macheda will have some part to play against Bayern this week but the expectation that he can orchestrate United’s progression through to the semi-final is a little much for the young Italian.
It has widely been reported that United will make wholesale changes for the second leg against Bayern this week with the older statesmen Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville dropping out following poor performances against Chelsea. An issue which may cause significant problems to United ahead of the encounter is the performance of Ji-Sung Park in the Premier League clash. Park has enjoyed a much improved standard of performances since Christmas coupled with his ever present workrate making him an obvious choice for Champions League encounters. His link up play in and around Rooney has been a feature of United’s good performances of late but against Chelsea the Korean seemed continually lost when presented with the ball in the location of Chelsea’s box. In an encounter where United must score and win it is not an option to be carrying a player posing such little threat so Sir Alex may have to go against one of his most used tactics in European competition.
The match against Bayern poses the best way for United to prove that they are still a force without Rooney and to try and salvage something from the season. Ferguson will ring the changes but currently it is very difficult to judge the side that he will pick. The experienced Scot however, has to get this spot on if United are to come through this three game period with at least a win and still some hope.