Manchester United can replicate the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League this season but it’ll take nearly a dozen cup final performances to do it following Tuesday night’s victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford. With an FA Cup semi-final to come against Manchester City on Saturday, and a two-legged European semi-final against Schalke bracketing Premier League ties against Chelsea and Arsenal, United faces a hugely demanding season’s end.
Indeed, should Sir Alex Ferguson’s side make the FA Cup final after this weekend’s semi, the longest break his team will be afforded between now and the Champions League final on 28 May is just six days; a truly punishing schedule. Unless United loses at the weekend, Ferguson’s team will play two Premier League games after the FA Cup final – due to take place on 14 May – before a potential Champions League showpiece at Wembley.
Yet, with the Reds hitting top gear for arguably the first time this season, and Ferguson’s squad now almost fully fit, United supporters can dare to dream. Wayne Rooney’s return to sparkling form, even if the 25-year-old is suspended from the FA Cup semi, Antonio Valencia’s fitness and Rio Ferdinand’s reassuring presence make a huge difference to Ferguson’s options. Against Chelsea, Michael Carrick again stepped up a level, while Park Ji-Sung added another crucial goal to his impressive big-game collection.
It is impeccable timing from a side that had so rarely impressed during the opening six months of the season.
“I think we’ve hit our form, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Ferguson told Sky Sports after United’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Tuesday night.
“You’ve seen it in the second half at West Ham and the performance at Chelsea, plus the performance tonight. It’s a really good moment for us and the players are enjoying it. I think they’re relishing the challenges they’ve got now. You see the momentum the team’s under at the moment.
“Momentum is a great thing. everyone’s desperate to play on Saturday against Manchester City and they’re all desperate to play in every game now. The bonus I’ve got is that all my players are getting fit again now, and that’s a great boost to us.”
While Ferguson’s players will all want to play, the manager’s challenge is to rotate his resources at the right time, ensuring rested limbs but minimising the risk of dropped points. Yet, the Scot’s tendency to make five, six or eight changes in games he considers ‘winnable’ often plays into the opponents hands. The Reds’ muted performance against Fulham at the weekend is a case in point.
With games against mid-table Newcastle United and Everton coming up before fixtures with London title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal, Ferguson faces a considerable dilemma. Common sense says the Scot must rest key players before a likely Champions League tie with Schalke. However, lost points will only increase the pressure on United ahead of that crucial double-header with Chelsea and Arsenal in early May. By contrast two victories in upcoming Premier League matches may kill the title race stone-dead before May. There is, after all, no guarantee that Arsenal will take maximum points from games against Liverpool and then Tottenham Hotspur.
It’s a cliché of course, but modern football is indeed a squad game. Much as Ferguson’s side will win key matches with big performances from star players, the whole squad will pick up crucial points elsewhere. In this Wes Brown is as important as Ferdinand; Dimitar Berbatov as Rooney; Park as Ryan Giggs.
It is still a long road of course. With barely a midweek off for the next six weeks tired limbs and minds will inevitably lead to mistakes and therefore dropped points. Perusing the fixture list – Arsenal and Chelsea aside – Ferguson will look to United’s away fixtures first against Newcastle and then at Blackburn Rovers as potential banana skins. After all, the lifeless draw at Ewood Park last season effectively cost United the title and Ferguson’s side has so rarely sparkled on the road this campaign.
Yet, City’s inconsistency – allied to that of Arsenal’s – points to a Premier League victory and a place in the FA Cup final at the very least. In Europe, while Schalke has performed admirably in the Champions League, Ralf Rangnick’s side is still mid-table in the Bundesliga, although greatly recharged under new management. Still, Ferguson will surely feel that not since United faced – and lost to – Bayern Leverkusen in 2001 has the route to a European final been so open.
Then, if progress goes to plan, comes Barcelona or Real Madrid at Wembley in late May. At the season’s start, with Ferguson arguably possessing his weakest squad in five years, few pundits predicted a United league win, let alone a treble. And in a one-off game, even Barça is beatable. Perhaps.
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