Whilst I don’t imagine that any current team, however well they played, could of beaten Barcelona in the kind of form they displayed on Saturday I also believe that they exposed the true ability of the Alex Ferguson’s current Manchester United squad.
Rather than recap in detail on why United lost on Saturday evening I will just touch on a few key points which highlight some areas which were not just tested but horribly exposed by the best team in the world. The first thing I noticed was the supreme confidence that most United teams have was not there. They looked nervous in possession and panicked whenever they were under pressure. I accept that Barcelona are a brilliant pressing side but it seemed that it was only the youth of Fabio da Silva and the class of Wayne Rooney that overcame this, the rest of the team looked like they were treading water. What it also showed was the lack of world class players in the starting line up.
Rooney and the centre backs were the only players who looked like they could match Barcelona in any way, even the usually calm Ryan Giggs floundered as he found himself up against world class midfielders on form for the first time this season, sadly his age showed. The irony was that he was being touted as one of the men that could make the difference, but running the show against an old and out of form Chelsea team, as he did several times in the past month, and facing the force of Barcelona’s current midfield trio are two very different prospects. The current United midfield has no world class players capable of playing a full season. Park has always been the greatest of squad players, Valencia looks promising but has still to really prove himself and Michael Carrick will probably never be more than a good Premiership performer. As United trudged off the pitch Sir Alex Ferguson must have realised that even with a bit of luck this United team could never beat Barcelona.
My last issue is one of belief, the United that never die looked like they had given up once Lionel Messi scored to put Barcelona 2-1 up, the players and manager looked like they just knew they were going to lose and there was nothing they could do about it. Even in the post-match interviews player and manager alike were resigned to the fact that there really was nothing they could do. I hope that this was good sportsmanship rather than Sir Alex Ferguson truly believing that they played well but the Barcelona team was just much better than the eleven he had on offer. You have not heard a word of that from, the rather less sporting, Jose Mourinho who certainly thinks his Real Madrid team can and will overcome Barcelona next season.
Now. I need to be clear that I do realise that all of the above could be viewed as meaningless because most teams would have capitulated in a similar fashion, and this same Barcelona team beat Real Madrid 5-0 earlier this season and have only lost a handful of times breaking records and creating jaw dropping statistics along the way. Indeed they did get thrashed by a brilliant team, but i think that these areas which Barcelona cruelly exposed will also serve as United downfall unless Sir Alex does some major work in the summer.
Many have pointed to the fact that the current group of players have not only successfully won back the Premiership but also reached the Champions League Final as proof that this is not a poor United side but in contrast an under rated team that are not getting the praise they deserve. The widespread eulogizing of a man who has achieved so much yet still has the hunger for more is well deserved, but I think that this is one season where Sir Alex has not been at his imperious best, and were it not for the 19th title I would think it extraordinary that he won the Manager of the Year award from both Barclays and the LMA. Maybe it is the fact that Sir Alex has finally knocked Liverpool off their perch that has led to all the accolades, but i think he can thank the capitulation of the usual suspects in the title race along with the luck of the draw in the Champions League.
Whilst many have pointed to the low points total that United achieved as evidence of the strength of the Premier League I disagree. Since Chelsea won the league for the second time under Jose Mourinho the teams has been getting gradually weaker, culminating in a season where Didier Drogba barely managed double figures and Frank Lampard failed to reach 20 goals for the first time in six years. They also posted their lowest ever points total in the Roman Abramovich era. This is a very weak Chelsea team and especially weak squad, this is a fact that cannot be denied. So we can agree that United’s closest rival for the past seven seasons were far less of a threat. Arsenal also have found themselves struggling for form including a dismal end of season collapse which ruled them out of the race late on. Liverpool are in recovery and Tottenham and Manchester City are still finding their feet for different reasons. I feel that it is the self destruction around United that has seem them win the title with relative ease and without playing well for most of the season, and before you say it the old cliche of winning when you play badly is apt for the odd game, not an entire season.
With regards to the Champions League I think that getting to the final is a fine achievement and they have gone about their task in each round superbly, but the draw has helped them massively. If you said that Manchester United had to beat Marseilles, Chelsea and Schalke to reach the Champions League final you would guess that Chelsea would be the only stumbling block. Fortunately Chelsea were horribly out of form and United performed superbly putting Chelsea to the sword home and away. Of course it is not United’s fault they had a good draw, but for me it highlights anther reason that this particular United team are flattering to deceive.
Many will rightly say that if United can win the league easily then with a couple of reinforcements they will be up there again, and that writing off a team that has reached three finals in four seasons is ridiculous, and ordinarily I would agree. However next season will see the Premierships newest rich kids invest heavily, in a manner not seen since Abramovich burst on the scene with an open cheque book. Manchester City have spent the last two seasons building a solid base, and were finally rewarded with the FA Cup and Champions League football. I expect them to be the team to beat next season, the players have now gelled and whatever anyone says about team unity and teamwork, good players win matches and City can afford to buy the best, and they have a strong defence to afford a few bad days at the office. Arsenal and Wenger look like they are finally going to put their hands in their pockets as it is make or break time at the Emirates, not just for Arseanl but for Wenger too, and if he is as intelligent as he looks and likes to think he is then he may have learnt from the many mistakes he had made of late, as always we can expect Arsenal to be there or there abouts.
I do not know what will happen at my beloved Chelsea, but I think we will buy four or five players and depending on who comes in, should see a younger more energetic outfit, and also I am not sure it can get any worse. Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish have been the form sideof the past few months and it is understood he will have more to invest, expect them to be fighting with the top four but a title challenge is probably a season or two away. I don’t expect Tottenham to do much other than annoy whoever is in fourth position before settling for Europa football or maybe less. So if all these teams will be spending and getting better, United need to keep pace because I cant see the current crop getting such an easy ride and it would be unthinkable for United not to finish in the top two, or dare I say it top three.
If we look in a little more detail at the team there are some key areas of concern. In goal, Edwin Van derSaar has been an absolute rock for United and it was such a shame that he was probably a little flat footed for two of the goals in the final, but with Mr. Consistent gone United cannot be sure that the replacement (which we must presume is David de Gea) will live up to these standards, just look at Arsenal’s goalkeeping woes. In defence United will hope that Partrice Evra finds form again, and the Da Silva twins grow up very quickly, and of course that Nemanja Vidic and the new sick-note Rio Ferdinand stay healthy, but the real issue will be whether they can goal with the new kid between the sticks. Midfield is the area which United’s season will hinge on. Ryan Giggs cannot possibly keep going forever and Paul Scholes is nearing the end, but these players cannot be replaced with a Anderson, Park or even a Nani, United need a World class consistent performer to come in if they are to scale the heights of this season. Sir Alex has a great deal of belief in his players, which is a huge part of his success. He has made journey-men into top class players and kept faith with loose cannons like Nani, but i think next season if he doesn’t make big changes he could find himself in the position he was in 2005. Rooney is still a class act and Hernandez will only get better, but in the modern game you need a minimum of three strikers and Dimitar Berbatov is clearly on his way, so reinforcements are needed up top. This is of course on the massive assumption that Bebe is not actually the next Pele and really is just a homeless kid that is really good at keepy-ups.
Sir Alex admits himself that in 2005 Chelsea raised the bar, and set a new ‘acceptable’ point total needed to win the Premiership. The bar has dropped somewhat the last two seasons but don’t be surprised if that bar shoots back up again, and don’t be surprised if it is Manchester City who are pushing it. Having said all this, the least surprising thing of all would be if Sir Alex once again reinvents his United team and is sitting top of the pile with that smug grin on his face. Form is temporary, class is permanent, but Sir Alex will need to get a lot more class in to his team if he is going to make it title number 20.