Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Forget the controversies - Manchester United will be crowned Premier League champions but treble is surely beyond them

 The Red Devils showed their fighting, title-winning spirit against Avram Grant's West Ham, but vulnerability will prevent them from repeating historical feat of 1999

From torture to magic. Usually in the space of one game. Often within a single half. It has been a recurring theme of Manchester United’s curious yet compelling season. 

Despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s protestations to the contrary, there has been little of the champagne football that has been the hallmark of the vintage United teams.

Yet sheer bloody-mindedness and battle-hardened competitiveness runs deep in the club’s DNA. That, more than anything else, has been enough to get them over the line on so many occasions this season and makes a 19th championship crown a growing formality.

It is United’s Premier League to lose and they demonstrated with a thrilling comeback at Upton Park that they don’t intend it to be relinquished from their grasp.

Ferguson’s serial winners were fortunate on Saturday lunchtime. Even their one-eyed manager admitted afterwards that they “got lucky” when last defender Nemanja Vidic escaped a red card for hauling Demba Ba down outside the box at the end of the first half.

The Serbian had a stinker. He is a magnificent centre-half, and has been the rock on which United’s Premier League challenge has been built this season, but when he is bad, he is terrible.

Vidic could have been given a yellow when he was tricked by Carlton Cole’s neat footwork into handing West Ham a second penalty and his third principal offence of an error-strewn afternoon came in the second half when he again illegitimately brought down Ba.

It is not just Fernando Torres, it seems, who is capable of inducing a Vidic meltdown.

Referee Lee Mason was also generous in the extreme by pointing to the spot for the third time in the afternoon when Matthew Upson handled a Fabio pass with a left arm that had barely strayed from his side.

Nevertheless, that should not detract from a comeback that was almost a replica of the January trip to Bloomfield Road, when a weakened United were two goals down at half-time before summoning the heavy mob from the bench to clinch victory.

Wayne Rooney’s performance mirrored that of his team. In the opening period, he was a million miles from his best despite Antonio Valencia sending a stream of inviting crosses into the box from the right flank. In the second, the centre-forward’s fortunes changed completely after his Beckham-esque curling free-kick ignited his team’s revival.

His second consisted of two brilliant touches – a shift of the ball to open up an angle and a thunderous finish – before he rolled home the penalty to complete a fightback that had become increasingly inevitable.

Rooney blotted his copybook by bizarrely swearing into the Sky TV cameras as he celebrated his second goal, an issue that the broadcaster declined to take up with player or manager afterwards.

Yet the controversies will be long forgotten when, as seems increasingly likely, Vidic stands upon a hastily-constructed podium and raises the Premier League trophy above his head.

The question is whether the Serbian will be doing the same with the FA Cup and Champions League gongs.
Surely not this season. Not on the evidence of a spluttering campaign when United have tended to be good enough rather than especially good.

Treble hunter | Sir Alex has set his sights on a repeat of 1999 but question marks remain
 The team is deficient in too many areas to do what Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan did 12 months ago. Even assuming Edwin van der Sar shakes off a minor groin injury and returns between the posts in the first-leg of the quarter-final clash against Chelsea, the defence is hardly watertight, with or without Rio Ferdinand.

The midfield personnel change from game to game – and it is anyone’s guess who represents the first-choice four or five – and do not control the play or create the chances of the 2008 double winners.

That said, United look strong on the flanks and up front. Nani’s zest, Valencia’s crossing, Ryan Giggs' vision and Park Ji-Sung’s industry are complementary modes of attack. Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Rooney, whose hat-trick takes him into double figures in the Premier League this season and triple figures during his United career, combined to lethal effect against West Ham.

Yet there are too many jigsaw pieces missing to be confident of a once-in-a-generation treble; fluency, collective quality and fortune with injuries among them.

Chelsea will be formidable opponents over two legs in what will be a thunderous English civil war, and the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City will matter more to United’s noisy neighbours.

Ferguson’s managerial genius has papered over the cracks at home but there will be one opponent down the line – be it Chelsea, City or one of the continent’s big beasts – who will prick United’s bubble.

It is hard to dispute Ferguson’s assertion that United “played like champions” against West Ham. The Premier League engraver can begin practising the same strokes used 12 times before.

Can his counterparts at the FA and Champions League do the same as the possibility of a repeat of 1999 remains a tantalizing possibility? Forget it.

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