Why United could still have a joyless season
Not too long ago, Arsenal and their fans believed they could challenge for a quadruple – they were in the finals of the Carling Cup against a seemingly beatable Birmingham City, had a first leg lead against Barcelona in the Champions League, set to face Man United in a mouth-watering FA Cup Quarter Final tie, and looked to be genuine contenders in the league.
Two weeks later, and they were down to just the league. Monumental defensive errors cost them the Carling Cup, blasphemous refereeing saw their European dreams brought to a cruel end and they were outsmarted and outclassed by a makeshift United team in the FA Cup. Gunner fans around the world are still reeling from the shock of crashing out of three major trophies in the space of two weeks. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that United fans could well be left with the same bemused looks on their faces a couple of months from now.
Think about it – United have a busy April ahead, with Premiership games against West Ham, Newcastle and Everton, interspersed with titanic Champions League Quarter Final ties against Chelsea yet to come. And sitting pretty in the midst of that list of games is the FA Cup Semi Final against bitter crosstown rivals Manchester City. There are a number of factors that could contribute to leaving us empty-handed at the end of the season:
Injuries and the international break
The biggest problem we’re now facing is injuries. Granted, the international break will be a good time for players to recover from the physical demands of the Premier League. But besides being pointless and unbelievably boring, international breaks can be a major pitfall for teams with regard to injuries. And with an already dwindling list of first team players match-fit, we would be desperately unfortunate to lose any more over the next week. In the classic club-versus-country battle, I’m all for clubs refusing to let their players represent their respective countries. While national pride is of undeniable importance, risking players’ fitness for tournaments that come along once in four years seems a little ridiculous. There’s too much at stake.
Moreover, our recent run of form has been anything but entirely convincing. Back-to-back defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool battered the team’s confidence, even though an epic win over Arsenal in the FA Cup Quarter Finals would have served to restore some of it. United progressed to the next stage of the Champions League with a hard-fought home win over Olympique Marseille, and then eked out a 1-0 win against a physically superior Bolton Wanderers.
I debated long and hard about including ‘luck’ as a factor that could play against us in the run-in. As a United supporter, I am anything but confident about the Champions League games against Chelsea. In the past three fixtures against the club, we’ve quite simply been robbed by the referee. It wouldn’t have hurt if Chelsea played like Liverpool did when they battered us 3-1 a few weeks ago. We definitely matched, if not outplayed, them but controversial decisions by the men in the middle cost us dearly. Last season it was the league that we lost by the single point. All-English Champions League games are always massive clashes and I have a dirty feeling about the upcoming games against Chelsea.
Should we lose to Chelsea over two legs in the Champions League, that’s one trophy we can definitely kiss goodbye. Manchester City are formidable opponents and have hit a vein of form, winning four of the six games they’ve played in March with blips against Dynamo Kyiv away in the Europa League (haha!) and a 2-0 home defeat to Chelsea in the league. Even domestically, the battle outside the top two is heating up. Chelsea have been resurgent and with Arsenal shockingly faltering and stumbling in recent times, are looking like strong league contenders all of a sudden. Slightly lower down, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are also very much in the reckoning for European football next year.
Despite the encouraging mantra – ‘Believe’ – that runs in every United supporter’s blood, and our strikers finding the back of the net, I am personally anything but convinced that bringing the League title home to Old Trafford this season will be a cakewalk. If anything, the couple of months to come will be full of sleepless nights, hurling abuse at the television screen, greatly increased blood pressure, and nails bitten down to the bone.