May 2008: The outstretched palm of Edwin van der Sar bats away Nicolas Anelka’s penalty. He is swamped by a team of top quality players. Their smiles tell the story – Manchester United is once against Champions of Europe and the best team in the World.
January 2010: Just days after United crash out of the FA Cup to League One Leeds United, a poor performance sees Sir Alex Ferguson’s side drop points in the Premier League at St. Andrews. It’s another display lacking in inspiration.
Among ceaseless rumours of United’s financial situation, with the Glazers desperate to refinance their debt, pundits suggest the demise of Fergie’s Empire.
Question is, where did it go so wrong in such a short time?
United fans had every right to feel excited after that fateful night at the Luzhniki Stadium against Chelsea. After all, they supported a team that could dominate Europe for years to come.
United’s flawless defence boasted, in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, two of the best centre halves in the world. In turn Patrice Evra and Wes Brown supported the pair superbly.
Ahead of the most miserly defence in the country was a midfield sporting a newly fit Owen Hargreaves, who had instantly shown his value. Youngsters Nani and Anderson had demonstrated enough promise at a tender age to suggest that the pair really could replace the United legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez had struck up a partnership up front, reminiscent of the telepathic 1999 Dwight Yorke – Andy Cole pairing.
And one man stood head and shoulders above the rest: Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 42 goals and boasted the ability to go even further.
Then in reserve United had talents such as the now world-class Gerard Piqué, Ben Foster, the evergreen Giggs and Scholes and the improving Darren Fletcher, alongside Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea.
Fast-forward a year and a half and there are gaping holes in this picture. A previously imperious defence is now shaking, with Ferdinand and Brown struggling for fitness, Vidic looking like he has lost confidence in his ability and van der Sar suffering with injury and personal problems.
Ben Foster, the Dutchman’s replacement, is in the reserves and third choice, the often maligned Tomasz Kuszczak, is resident between the sticks.
Having lost Ronaldo, United’s midfield now looks wooden and lacking inventiveness. Anderson, and in particular Nani, have made little progress since 2008. The elder statesmen, Giggs and even more so Scholes are showing their age. Hargreaves is nowhere, having missed the past 16 months. Even the impressive Antonio Valencia and Fletcher still only pose a minor threat on the world stage.
Of greatest disappointment though, the highly gifted Dimitar Berbatov has failed to strike up the partnership with Rooney that Sir Alex expected. The Bulgarian is slowly and sadly proving the ‘flop’ that every Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea fan has been so eager to label him.
United hasn’t turned to a mid-table side overnight though. Evra is still a phenomenal player and Rooney is developing into the centre-forward fans always hoped he would become. Fletcher is improving steadily and, just perhaps, some of the youngsters such as Gabriel Obertan and Rafael da Silva will make the grade.
But the spark of yesteryear is gone: the thing that made United so good in May 2008 and at times last season. The principal catalysts of that spark – the impenetrable defence, the solid midfield and, most importantly, Ronaldo – have now faded or gone.
With each game there’s hope that it’ll change for the better. That Nani and Anderson will re-emerge, Ferdinand and Hargreaves will return to fitness, or Berbatov and Valencia will suddenly burst into life. It’s a hope in vain, as United’s fixtures against Fulham, Leeds and Birmingham so clearly show.
Still, Fergie has shown time and again that he has the tools to make just one more great team. Now there’s a hope.
May 2008 – Champions League Final Team Sheet
GK – Van der Sar – Then: A top quality keeper showing no signs of his age. Now: Unavailable for the long-term and coming to the end of his contract.
DR – Brown – Then: Coming off the back of his finest season, having made the right back position his own. Now: intermittently injured and lacking consistency.
DL – Evra – Then: A spotless full-back. Now: One of the few success stories, Evra is one of the most consistent and proficient defenders in United’s long history.
DC – Vidic – Then: Had a thoroughly consistent season alongside Ferdinand. Now: Is struggling to maintain his form and fitness ever since the Serbian’s horror show against Liverpool last season. Rumours of a move to Madrid refuse to go away.
DC – Ferdinand – Then: Possibly the best centre-back in the world. Now: Repeatedly injured, which is hampering his performance when he is fit.
MR – Hargreaves – Then: Came back from injury to score a vital free kick against Arsenal and was exceptional against Barcelona and Chelsea. Now: Injured
ML – Ronaldo – Then: 42 goals including strikes against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Roma. The winger could single-handedly win matches on his own. Peerless. Now: Departed for Florentino Perez’ Real Madrid, where he has scored 13 goals in 13 games. *Sighs*
MC – Scholes – Then: Influential playmaker – scored the decisive goal against Barcelona with a corker of a shot in the semi-final. Now: Really showing his age and there are question marks over a new contract. Still, he is a legend!
MC – Carrick – Then: Had a good season without ever catching fire. Linked the play well. Now: Forced to play at centre-back to cover for injured defenders. Has yet to prove himself of stellar quality.
FC – Rooney – Then: Perhaps over-shadowed by Ronaldo but still at the heart of the team. Now: Finally scoring prolifically for both United and England, Rooney has impressed. Sadly still has a tendency to get frustrated.
FC – Tevez – Then: Found a good partnership with Rooney and scored 20 goals. Always doggedly determined. Now: Departed for the enemy under a cloud. Started to pick up form for City.
Kuszczak – Second-rate then and second-rate now but in the first team.
O’Shea – A very good utility defender but is now struggling with injury.
Silvestre – Departed for Arsenal to wind up his career.
Anderson – Was very exciting then and less so now.
Giggs – Still turning out good performances but it won’t last forever. A true legend.
Nani – Bitterly disappointing after an encouraging start at the club.
Fletcher – Always developing. Threatening to become a top player for the club.