United’s below par performance at the Emirates is the latest in what has suddenly become a wobbly period for the Red Devils. At a crucial time of the season when United are traditionally coming into their own, they appear to be stuttering. While Sir Alex Ferguson will argue that the FA Cup was the least of his side’s priorities, the painful defeat to Manchester City looks to have knocked them off their stride somewhat. A misfiring performance at St James’ Park was followed up with a hard fought victory against a dogged Everton. Yesterday’s loss again saw plenty of possession with a lack of real cutting edge.
Just one goal in this four-game period could point to a lack of potency up front, but Wayne Rooney’s and Javier Hernandez’s form quash that argument. A likely explanation could be that the current midfield, fronted by Michael Carrick minus Darren Fletcher, seems more suited to the tactical, less combative European game. Additionally Nani’s mysterious ineffectiveness on the left wing of late has undoubtedly hindered the team going forward. A confidence player, he may have suffered from being moved or left out, even it is tactical rather than performance-related. However, having played a part in so many of United’s goals this season, he remains a vital player in the run in. Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary man management and squad rotation skills will also be crucial here. Like Ji-Sung Park, one of Ferguson’s favourite big game players, Nani can be deployed on both wings, but the Portuguese’s problem may be that Antonio Valencia, consistent and dynamic as he may be, is so exclusively right footed that he can only play on the right. The Ecuadorian will likely receive the nod because of his ability to track back and assist one of the inexperienced da Silva twins defensively.
Despite looking set to continue unhindered in Europe, their domestic form has rendered next weekend’s clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford a game of huge consequence. Chelsea have an unrivalled record at Old Trafford and a win would put them in pole position for the title. The Blues will be desperate for revenge for their Champions League defeat, but when coupled with their formidable home record, United may feel that they also have the psychological edge.
The Londoners had appeared well out of contention following a disastrous run in mid-season, which has seen them notch up a total of seven defeats. However their strong form in the run in has seen them quietly eat into United’s lead, bringing back memories of ’96, when United overturned a 12 point deficit to pip Newcastle to the Premier League title, and ’98, when Arsenal came from 11 points behind to beat United.
United will not be unhappy with a run in that also contains games against strugglers Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool, while Chelsea face a second tricky away match against Everton. Having been both the hunters and the hunted in the past, United and in particular their older squad members and their manager will not be fazed by the task facing them, and despite their recent wobbles, undeniably remain in pole position.