Perhaps there is something in the Spring sunshine that has enveloped the nation. Not only is the Manchester United squad approaching full fitness for the first time in months but Sir Alex Ferguson’s team has twice won on the road inside a week. Where failure has come all too often this season, Ferguson’s side succeeded away from Old Trafford; the Scot’s side did so with some panache too.
Indeed, such is the momentous nature of the Reds’ victories over West Ham United and Chelsea over the past four days that even off-the-field distraction cannot detract from the club’s confidence-boosting achievement. Ferguson is part way though a five-match touchline ban, of course, while star striker Wayne Rooney will begin a two-match sanction that will keep the 25-year-old out of this weekend’s game with Fulham and then the FA Cup semi-final. Yet, even the Football Association’s senselessness is unlikely to divert the confidence now coursing through the United collective.
It’s a far cry from the sense of doom brought with successive defeats at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool and then Chelsea at the turn of the year. It is no exaggeration to say those losses threatened the very core of United’s season. With games due against Arsenal in the FA Cup and then Marseille in the Champions League there was a genuine chance that Ferguson’s ‘team without stardust’ might enter spring staring at failure.
Perhaps, in the most unlikely of circumstances, Ferguson’s team of seven defenders – the one which inexplicably knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup – has made a season. It has certainly broken Arsenal’s. Defeat to the Gunners would have been a third in succession, potentially mentally and physically damaging beyond repair. Instead, the vibrant nature of United’s cup victory not only broke a sequence but ushered home a new sense of belief at Old Trafford.
Champions League victory almost inevitably followed against Marseille before Dimitar Berbatov poked home a last-gasp winner against Bolton Wanderers to maintain a sense of momentum. Destiny? Perhaps not. Great timing; absolutely.
Rooney’s two-match ban, confirmed by a duplicitous FA commission on Thursday morning, will affect United’s chances in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City next weekend of course, although Ferguson was always likely to rotate his resources. In the current mood, the ban will do little but help Ferguson circle his wagons and Rooney will take a well-earned rest in time for United’s final push towards the finishing line.
Still, the striker issued a surprisingly blunt statement after today’s FA announcement, reflecting both Rooney’s anger and that of the club. That Rooney’s sanction is both severe, unprecedented and not reflective of his crime – or rapid apology – was well understood in United’s management team. The dismay at the game’s governing body cannot be underplayed.
“I am gutted to miss two matches, one of which is an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley,” said the player’s statement.
“I am not the first player to have sworn on TV and I won’t be the last. Unlike others who have been caught swearing on camera, I apologised immediately. And yet I am the only person banned for swearing. That doesn’t seem right.
“Whatever, I have to accept that what’s happened has happened and move on from here. That’s what I intend to do.”
Even so, with key defender Rio Ferdinand now fit, Antonio Valencia back into a groove so soon after breaking his leg last September and Anderson due to return at the weekend, even Rooney’s ban will not unduly concern Ferguson . Indeed, the Scot’s team has overcome far greater obstacles this season already.
There is also little doubt that Ferguson’s outfit is finding form and fitness at the right time. Fulham arrive on Saturday, followed in quick succession by Chelsea and City in cup competitions. Whatever the knock-out results United’s form points to victory over the Cottagers, with games against lowly Newcastle United in the North East and then Everton at home to come before May.
Nine points – whether the club remains in the FA Cup and Champions League or not – and United will surely be close to a 19th domestic title.
“Everyone is very happy. We’ve got a great result, scored the away goal and kept a clean sheet. That’s what we wanted before the game,” captain Nemanja Vidic said of United’s victory at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
“We weren’t afraid to come here and play with two forwards; we did that last time and played some good football.
“The job is not done yet. It will be difficult but with our crowd behind us I believe.”
Work to be done perhaps, but form says Ferguson should throw an FA Cup final and Champions League semi into the mix. It’s a remarkable transition in United’s fortunes.