This period, as winter gives way to spring, and the football season begins its final stretch, is always pivotal to Manchester United’s ambitions. It is the phase, so the cliché goes, that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side comes into its own; when the Old Trafford outfit streaks past the finishing post to ever more glory.
Yet, with matches against Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal in the FA Cup, and the Champions League knock-out matches against Marseille, before re-matches with the two London sides, this period is – and has been – all the more difficult this season. Not least that key fixtures take place away from Old Trafford where results have held Ferguson’s side together.
However, United’s defeats to Wolverhampton Wanders, Chelsea and now Liverpool away from Old Trafford in the past four weeks threaten to end the club’s hopes. Key matches against Arsenal and Marseille could end the club’s cup ambitions too. It is not as though red flags haven’t flown given United’s away form poor all season. Indeed, with 20 points on the road, United is placed fourth in the away form league table, just two points ahead of newly promoted Newcastle United and three beyond Blackpool.
This most difficult period has become all the more challenging with injuries to key players, not that casualties are uncommon as the season draws to a close. Rio Ferdinand’s injury is a huge blow to the club’s ambitions; Nemanja Vidic’s suspension against Liverpool on Sunday just as calamitous. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs’ injuries have reduced Ferguson’s midfield options of late.
The “deep gash” to Nani’s left-leg could keep the Portuguese wide man on the sidelines for the next month, robbing the side of its most creative player by some distance.
It is of course churlish to blame the club’s recent failures on injuries though. After all, Ferguson has a 25-man squad at his disposal, with some of the best young players in the country. At least that is the message repeated ad infinitum by the club’s management this season.
In truth supporters might argue that the quality of Ferguson’s reserves is somewhat lower than in previous iterations of the Scot’s team. It is hard to see where, for example, Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson and Bébé would fit into almost any of Ferguson’s previous title-winning squads.
In the meantime stories of a £100 million rebuilding programme resurfaced in the media this week. The rash of spin, backed by little more than conjecture at this stage, places about half a dozen players on Ferguson’s supposed hit-list. Those of an optimistic bent might conclude that the Scot has finally found the elusive ‘value in the market’ that only Harry Redknapp apparently knew existed.
That some of the club’s more average performers this season – Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson – have recently signed new long-term deals places the speculation into some context. Supporters might be wise not to hold their collective breath.
Transfer speculation is for the medium-term though. United must next face Arsenal in an FA Cup tie next weekend that has increasing significance, if not in Ferguson’s priorities, then for the team’s confidence. Defeat will not only reduce United’s chances of silverware this season but provide a huge blow to the side’s morale. Indeed, victory is arguably now imperative and while United’s 69-year-old manager must be tempted to rest key players ahead of a Champions League tie with Marseille the following Wednesday, it could prove a season-defining decision.
More importantly the fashion in which United surrendered to both Liverpool and Chelsea in the past week points to deeper problems in the side. These were not defeats that will make the club stronger; setbacks on which Ferguson’s firebrand will drive his side to ever greater heights. If United was meek in the second period against Chelsea on Tuesday night then Ferguson’s outfit hit a season low at Anfield.
In truth the Scot’s players have let him down in recent weeks. Ferguson can place Ryan Giggs’ rustiness at the feet of recent injury but if recent performances serve as an indicator Paul Scholes’ autumn has turned towards a chilly winter. Meanwhile, Carrick, who should be full of confidence after scoring a lucrative new three-year deal this week, singularly failed to provide any verve in the heart of United’s midfield. The Geordie’s defensive naïveté, at 29-years of age, was shocking at Anfield as it was at Stamford Bridge.
Yet Ferguson’s concern with that triumvirate is a mere ripple in the ocean of calamity that now threatens to engulf Wayne Rooney. The striker’s heavy touch belied a deeply ingrained lack of confidence that has not been altered by recent goals. Summer simply cannot come soon enough for the 25-year-old. Ferguson must hope that an extended break, with no international football save for England’s Euro 2014 qualifier against Switzerland in early June, refreshes his star player. As it is, Rooney’s weekly pay packet offers absolutely no value, to refresh that hackneyed phrase.
Before then Ferguson’s side is still in contention on three fronts. Recent evidence hardly makes the case for success on any.