Where does Manchester United currently stand? (Part II)

During the tenure of Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the club has conquered Europe twice and hoisted the FA Cup 5 times. Arguably the greatest manager that football has ever seen, the 69 year-old Scot is hoping to add to United's trophy-case in the coming months. (Photo by Jason Cairnduff-Pool/Getty Images)

This is the second installment of looking at and assessing where Manchester United currently stand in each of their remaining competitions. In Part I, I examined the Barclays Premier League and the Red Devils' prospects of lifting the trophy come May for a record 19th league title. In Part II, I'll discuss United's quest to conquer Europe for a 4th time and also their ambition to lift the FA Cup for a 12th time.  

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE:

Play resumes in a week, as the first round of the knockout stages begin. Here are match-ups for the final 16 and each club's current odds to win the whole competition listed next to each:

* AC Milan(18/1) vs Tottenham(20/1)

* Valencia(40/1) vs Schalke(80/1)

* Arsenal(20/1) vs Barcelona(2/1)

* Roma(40/1) vs Shaktar Donetsk(66/1)

* Copenhagen(200/1) vs Chelsea(5/1)

* Lyon(100/1) vs Real Madrid(7/2)

* Inter Milan(25/1) vs Bayern Munich(16/1)

* Marseille(100/1) vs Manchester United(7/1)


Thrice have Manchester United been crowned the kings of Europe (1968, 1999, 2008): once under Sir Matt Busby and the latter two times under Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie's first European triumph came at the Nou Camp versus Bayern in '99 after miraculous stoppage-time goals from Teddy Sheringham (equaliser) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (winner). The Scot's second European triumph came at the expense of Chelsea in '08, when United defeated their English foes in Moscow. Heartbreak followed a year later in Rome when the Red Devils lost to Barcelona in the final. During the current Champions League campaign, United have gone unbeaten and finished 1st in group play, earning passage to the final 16. They are set to face off versus French champions Marseille, who finished 2nd in their group behind Chelsea. 

Here's a look at the final 16 clubs:

The Favorite:

* Barcelona

- Overview: Quite simply, I will be surprised if Barcelona do not win the Champions League. Performances such as Barca's victory over Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final and their 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid in this season's first El Clasico have left me wondering if I'm watching one of the all-time great runs in club football history. Despite the Catalan club's upset loss to Inter last season in the Champions League semi-finals (yes, I was surprised), they have a chance to put themselves alongside Arrigo Sacchi's late '80s Milan sides, Rinus Michels' early '70s Ajax sides, and Fergie's late '90 United sides with Champions League glory this upcoming May. Pep Guardiola's squad appear to be on their way to a 3rd straight La Liga title, and winning the Champions League would only add to the legacy of the club's current run. 

- Players: Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Dani Alves, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, etc. That is insane. Messi may end up being the greatest player of his generation and Xavi may be the greatest passer of his (I contend Paul Scholes is the best sprayer of the ball). The other mentioned players can be argued as the best in their respective positions. The only center-back pairing in the world I'd put on par with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand is the Puyol-Pique tandem.

This side has no weaknesses. They simply keep the ball away from opponents as their amazing 71% possession in La Liga this season attests to. When they do lose possession, they put you under extreme pressure high up the pitch and get the ball back in dangerous positions. Michael Carrick had a nightmare 2009 Champions League final because of this. Their '4-3-3' is extremely fluid. The three central midfielders allow them to consistently win the battle in that area of the pitch, and they get width from their fullbacks, especially right-back Dani Alves. Messi plays a "false nine" role and his movement creates space for Xavi to find Pedro and Villa on diagonal runs behind the defense. The only teams able to earn any sort of result versus Barca in the past season and a half have been teams that soaked up the pressure, stayed compact and organized to clog up channels, and then hit them on the counter. This might be United's best approach if the two sides were to meet. Using the speed of Chicharito, Rooney, and Nani on the counter-attack may be the Red Devils best hope. 

More after the jump... 

Contenders:

 

* Real Madrid:

- Overview: Real Madrid have been kings of Europe a record nine times. Now that Jose Mourinho's side have fallen seven points behind fierce-rival Barcelona, the Madrid side has likely turned their attention to the Champions League and Cope del Rey. For the first few months of the season, The Whites appeared to be on their way to challenge Barca's recent reign, however, after getting blitzed 5-0 at the Nou Camp by their Catalan foes, Real Madrid have relatively struggled. Before that El Clasico, many were touting them as a worthy foe to Barca in La Liga and as a possible favorite to win the Champions League. Since then, it's been a bumpy path for Mourinho; and there's now persistent rumors that the 'Special One' is feuding with club President Florentino Perez behind close doors. This is a very good side, and if weren't for the juggernaut that is FC Barcelona, the Madrid side might be dreaming of a possible treble this season.

- Players: I'm sure most readers are familiar with Cristiano Ronaldo; if you're not, he used to play for United and he's kind of good. He and Messi have made La Liga their playground, and both with their 24 goals apiece are on pace to better the La Liga record of 38 goals in a season. Striker Gonzalo Higuain's season-ending injury has been a monstrous blow, and Karim Benzema has has struggled to adequately fill-in. The Frenchman's struggles forced Real Madrid to seek a striker in last month's transfer window, and after many futile attempts to bring in a number of world-class strikers, Emmanuel Adebayor came to town on loan from Manchester City. Angel di Maria provides quality on the opposite flank to Ronaldo, and Mesut Ozil drifts between the lines as a playmaker in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1. Kaka recently returned from injury and Mourinho has been trying to integrate the Brazilian into the lineup. The central midfield is anchored by Xabi Alonso. Spain and Real Madrid No 1 Iker Casillas is the heart of the defense and he has solid defenders ahead of him in Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, and Sergio Ramos. If Mourinho can sort out his attacking four, Real Madrid is a legitimate threat to win the Champions League for a 10th time. 

* Manchester United:

- Overview: Much has already been said about our club in these installments, so I'll keep this brief. The main key for a United run may be health and simply avoiding Barcelona until the final. Real Madrid might be favorites over United in a possible match-up, but the Red Devils would certainly be capable of knocking them off. A match-up with either Chelsea or Arsenal would likely be perceived as virtual toss-ups. United would probably be considered slight favorites over Milan, Inter, and Bayern. Assuming that United is able to get by Marseille, the hope would be to avoid Barca until the final. With the home-and-away format of the Champions League knockout stages, I feel confident that United is capable of defeating any other side. If we got the opportunity to play Barca in a winner-take-all final at Wembley, I feel that we would have a shot. Wembley would be absolutely electric, and underdog United would have a better chance in that scenario.

* Chelsea:

- Overview: After Manager Carlo Ancelotti's self-proclaimed "bad moment" for Chelsea, the Blues find themselves ten points back from league-leading United. This has likely shifted the club's ambitions to making sure they qualify for Champions League play next season, and also to win the competition that has eluded them. Owner Roman Abramovich bought the North-London club in 2003, and the one thing money hasn't been able to buy is a Champions League trophy. The current champions of England have a relatively easy draw with Copenhagen, and are likely to be among the final eight teams in the competition.

- Players: The key for Chelsea, in both domestic and European competition, is to figure out their their tactics. The Blues are trying to find the best way to integrate 50-million pound transfer acquisition Fernando Torres. The recent purchase of the Spaniard has forced Ancelotti to switch formation because his new No 9 isn't compatible with Didier Drogba in a '4-3-3.' The Italian's manager attempt to implement a narrow-shaped '4-4-2 diamond' was a fail last weekend versus Liverpool, and finding the right tactics for his talented side will be key for the club's fortunes in the next four months. If the right fit can be found for his superstar puzzle pieces, Ancelotti can then take aim at the trophy that has eluded his Russian boss. The health to club skipper John Terry and talisman midfielder Frank Lampard are key factors as well; another injury to either could derail any ambitions for Chelsea.

 

A Puncher's chance:

* Milan:

Overview: The seven-time European champions currently top the table in Serie A. Last season, Milan was knocked out in the Round of 16 knock-out stages by United. Fergie was brilliant tactically versus Milan, and Park Ji-Sung essentially man-marked Andrea Pirlo out of each game. This season's Milan is an improved side, and their attack has been infused with the additions of Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Tottenham will return to the San Siro, but this time facing Milan. This should prove to be one of the more entertaining match-ups in the Round of 16. 

* Inter:

Overview: The reigning European and World champions find themselves currently sitting 3rd in the table in Serie A. Last season, then Manager Mourinho, led the Italian side to a historic treble. Since then, Inter has endured a rough ride. Mourinho's successor, Rafa Benitez, has already left the club and he's been succeeded by former Milan man Leonardo. The Brazilian's appointment as manager has seemingly brought a spark to Inter, as they've been climbing up the table since. Most of the same players remain from last year's treble winning side, so if Inter can regain form, they are a threat to contend for Europe. In the Round of 16, they face Bayern in a re-match of last year's Champions League final. 

* Bayern Munich:

Overview: The current champions of Germany and European runner-ups find themselves struggling this season as they currently sit 5th in the Bundesliga table. The legendary German club have shown flashes of brilliance, but they've been plagued by inconsistency. Public feuding between Manager Louis van Gaal with his higher ups, and constant injuries to influential players like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, have led to Bayern's struggles. The Bavarian's club main goal for the current season may just be to make sure they qualify for Champions League again for next season. 

* Arsenal:

Overview: As mentioned in Part I, Arsenal has drawn Barcelona and this likely spells doom to any Champions League hopes. This is their punishment for not taking care of business in group play. However, if the London-side can somehow pull off the upset (yeah right), then their chances would likely be as good as any other club's in winning the Champions League. Their likely focus is to end their trophy-less drought of 5+ years in domestic cup competitions, and chase United in the race for the Premier League. 

* Tottenham:

Overview: Spurs arguably have had the biggest roller-coaster ride of any in Champions League play. After going down 3-0 to Young Boys in the first leg of their Champions League group play qualifier, Tottenham recovered and then went on to win their group. During this run, Spurs played two memorable matches with Inter, and Gareth Bale introduced himself as an elite footballer with his destruction of Maicon. Spurs return to the San Siro to face Milan in the Round of 16. The North-London side have been more impressive in European competition than they have been domestically. If they can get Luka Modric and Gareth Bale healthy, they are capable of making a dream run through the competition. The club is also in a battle to finish top four once again in England, so that they can experience European nights once more next season. 

 

Pretenders:

* Valencia: 

Overview: This should go without saying, but the Spanish side is finding life much more difficult this season without David Villa and David Silva. Valencia currently sit 4th in La Liga table. They drew with United at Old Trafford, and suffered a 1-0 defeat to them at home. Valencia received a favorable draw with Schalke, and will be favored to defeat the German side. If they are to advance, the Spanish side will find themselves as underdogs the rest of the way.

* Roma: 

Overview: The Italian club currently find themselves sitting 7th in the Serie A table, but they only trail rival Lazio by three points for the final Champions League qualifying spot. Roma also have a game in hand. The Roman side finished 2nd in group play and they find themselves with a relatively favorable draw in Shaktar Donetsk. Just like Valencia, if they are to advance past the Round of 16, they would likely find themselves as underdogs in the next round. 

* Lyon:

Overview: The French side has been one of the more successful clubs in Europe during the past decade. After three straight quarter-final appearances in the Champions League, OL finally broke through to the semi-finals last season. The club has a lot recent experience in the competition and they should be perceived as a threat. OL currently sixth in the Ligue 1 table, but they are only two points short of PSG for 2nd place in the congested Ligue 1 table. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris may be one worth watching, as he's been linked with United in the past as a possible successor to Edwin van der Sar. 

* Schalke:

Overview: Despite the nightmare season the German club is experiencing domestically, Schalke somehow found themselves atop their Champions League group. They currently stand 11th Bundesliga table, and only four points clear of the relegation zone. They were fortunate not to draw one of the giants of Europe in the Round of 16, and will look to make the most of their current run in the Champions League versus Valencia. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been the subject of transfer rumors to Old Trafford, and this competition will provide invaluable experience to the possible future United No 1. 

 

Speed Bumps:

* Marseille: 

Overview: The current French champions are a big underdog to United. They currently sit 4th in Ligue 1 and OM finished 2nd in their Champions League group behind Chelsea. The French side are led by Manager Didier Deschamps. Their home Stade Velodrome provides them one of the better home-field advantages in Europe. United's trip to the south of France will not be an easy one, and returning back to Old Trafford level for the second leg of this match-up is something that Fergie might actually take right now. Be sure to visit us in two weeks for a comprehensive preview of the match-up. 

* Shaktar Donetsk:

Overview: The Ukrainian champions qualified for the knock-out stages by finishing first in their group over Arsenal. The Ukrainian side are currently steamrolling through domestic play, and are twelve points clear of their nearest league competitor. Shaktar have tasted European success recently when they won the Europa League in 2009. They face Roma in the Round of 16.

* Copenhagen:

Overview: The Danish champs are currently destroying the rest of Denmark; they are unbeaten domestically and they sit nineteen points clear of their nearest competitor! Copenhagen finished 2nd in group play to advance to the knock-out stages, and impressively earned a draw against Barcelona at Parken Stadion. I was in a pub in Copenhagen when they won 0-2 away at Panathinaikos, and it was quite the experience. Some of the local supporters there were expressing to me how this was the greatest football moments of their lives, it was a great experience to see the pure joy on their faces. They are undoubtedly the the class of Scandinavia at the moment, and they may have a puncher's chance to upset Chelsea if the Blues aren't able to sort out their tactics in the near future.

 

FA CUP:

United is set to host Crawley Town, who play England's Conference National (5th highest level of English football). Most are assuming passage for United to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, but United will likely field a weaker side for this match, (to rest 1st teamers for their league and Champions League matches) so anything is possible. Here are the match-ups for the final 16 of the FA Cup:

* Manchester United vs Crawley

* West Ham vs Burnley

* Notts County/Manchester City vs Aston Villa

Stoke City vs Brighton

Birmingham City vs Sheffield Wednesday

* Leyton Orient vs Arsenal

Everton/Chelsea vs Reading

Fulham vs Bolton/Wigan

 

The clear favorites here are United (9/4 odds to win), Arsenal (7/2), Chelsea (9/2), and Manchester City (11/2). All four clubs also seemingly have ambition to win the competition, so chances are that two of those teams square off in Wembley for the final. However, sides like Everton and Fulham have proven in recent years that they can handle themselves well in competitions that involve knock-out stages, so they shouldn't be taken lightly. It's difficult to see a non-Premier League side winning the competition, but the FA Cup has endeared itself to many over the years because of the number of "giant-killings" of bigger clubs by smaller ones. 

United have not won the FA Cup since 2004, when they defeated Millwall at Cardiff's Milennium Stadium. The final wasn't contested at Wembley, due to the reconstruction of the stadium at the time. No other club has matched the Red Devils 11 FA Cup victories, but they currently sit on a seven year drought in the competition. With Fergie's side sitting top of the Premier League at the moment, and being seen as slight favorites by the bookies in the FA Cup, supporters see this an opportunity to match Chelsea's double from last season. The favorable draw of Crawley Town at Old Trafford likely puts United in the quarter-finals, so this deep Cup run will need to be balanced with the club's domestic and continental battles. 

The next four months provide a fantastic opportunity for Manchester United. The club has positioned themselves nicely in each of their remaining competitions. Will they sputter down the stretch? Will they earn a record 19th record league title? Could they do the unthinkable and win the treble again? Get your popcorn ready, it should be a fun upcoming few months. 

 

 

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