For a grand club like Manchester United FC, ambition and expectations are and always should be lofty. The second that this is not the case is the same second that something has gone wrong. However, as the current season has progressed and as United have used their grit to top the Premier League table while continually earning advancement in the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup, I've been reluctant to engage in the conversation of a possible treble.
United's treble during the 1998-99 campaign was obviously a historic achievement; it's an occurrence that left an indelible impression on me in my youth. Ryan Giggs' goal versus Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and the dramatics of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer versus Bayern Munich in the Champions League final played a big part of United's successful courtship of me from afar. It was a side that not only endeared itself to many because of their brilliance and ingenuity on the pitch, but also because of the character, diligence, and steel resolve they exhibited in their many dramatic comebacks that season from seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Even though the current side has shown a comparable ability to grind out results and to steal matches at the death, there has been much discussion in the traditional media and among general football supporters that this edition of MUFC isn't on par with some of the past great sides. I tend to agree, hence my reluctance thus far to discuss the possibility of another treble. However, as the two-week break for internationals comes to a close and we begin to enter 'Squeaky Bum Time,' I've begun to realize that I may not have respected the opportunity that this club has in this final run-in. The quality of the current side can be debated to an endless subjective debate, and the mounting injuries are a concern, but the genuine opportunity that Sir Alex Ferguson's side has for greatness is real and tangible. The spectrum of possibilities over these final two months of the season can either confirm the doubts of many or it can be an opportunity for this side to immortalize themselves in football's rich history. United is well-positioned on all three competition fronts; the best approach for a neutral may be to just wait-and-see before passing judgment while United supporters should fasten their seatbelts for what will undoubtedly be a wild ride for 'Squeaky Bum Time.'
A closer look examination of where United stand in the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League after the jump...
BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE
With eight matches remaining in league play, United top the Premier League table. Arsenal FC and Chelsea FC trail United by five and nine points respectively, but both have a game in hand on United. As most readers of this site are likely aware, United seek a 19th league title in England, which would allow them to surpass bitter-rival Liverpool FC for the most English league titles ever. For me personally, this is the trophy I want most this season. The biggest hindrance to United and their ambitions this season may be injuries. Sir Alex commented on this as well and also on the possibility of a treble during this week's press conference in New Jersey to announce the club's upcoming summer tour in the United States.
"It is going to be more difficult than it was in 1999. We didn't have the injuries we do now. There is a great desire to do it but we have so many injuries to defenders at present. We will never give in though. No matter what happens, you always feel Manchester United will score in the last minute."
Here are the current odds to win the Premier League (via Bodog.com) and a brief breakdown of each of United's title-contending rivals. Bodog has United at 8/15 to lift the trophy:
Arsenal (3/1): After the Gunners famous victory over FC Barcelona at the Emirates in the first leg of their Champions League tie, the North London side's season has somewhat crumbled apart. As heavy favorites, Arsenal failed to earn their first trophy in six years by losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City at Wembley. This was followed by elimination from the FA Cup by United, elimination in Champions League by Barcelona, and shocking displays in league play. The Gooners still are well positioned to compete for the Premier League title and they will host United on 1 May at the Emirates; a clash that could possibly be title-deciding. The game in-hand that Arsenal have is their trip to White Hart Lane to face rival Tottenham Hotspur. There are genuine personnel concerns for Arsenal over their situation at goalkeeper and center-back, but perhaps their biggest obstacle is this side's mental fortitude, or possible lack of.
Chelsea (11/2): With only nine matches remaining, and being four points behind Arsenal in the table, I found it intriguing that the bookies have the Blues as the favorite to contest United for the league trophy. The West London side spent heavily in the January transfer window. While Fernando Torres has yet to open his scoring account with Chelsea, the addition of center-back David Luiz has sparked a revival at Stamford Bridge. The defending champions have seemingly focused their intention on making the top four this season in England, however, their recent play has given them an outside shot to repeat as champions. Chelsea can get themselves within striking distance of United if they are able to come to Old Trafford and earn three points on 8 May. They also face a London derby at White Hart Lane versus Spurs on 30 April.
Manchester City (50/1): The 'Noisy Neighbors' aren't a likely threat for the league title as their ambition is to qualify for Champions League play by finishing in the top four. City still face a trip to Anfield to clash with Liverpool and they will host Spurs on 10 May. The match versus Spurs may be the deciding match on who qualifies for Champions League next season.
Tottenham (200/1): Spurs haven't been able to replicate their form in Europe on the domestic front in recent weeks. Their focus is on their current Champions League run and qualifying for the top four in England.
This is a competition that United have won three times, once under Sir Matt Busby and twice under the current reign of Fergie. If United were to win this competition again during the current season, Fergie would be able to match Bob Paisley's accomplishment of being crowned champions of Europe thrice. United are matched versus Chelsea in the quarter-final of this rendition of Champions League play; the winner of this tie will likely be favored against the winner of the Inter Milan v Schalke for an opportunity to play the final on English soil at Wembley. Barcelona and Real Madrid are favorites to win their quarter-final ties and to set up an El Clasico semi-final. Spurs are paired with Real Madrid and with Tottenham's current European form, they are capable of playing a spoiler's role. Here the odds for each remaining side:
Barcelona (1/1): The Catalonian side are heavy favorites to win this competition for a 2nd time in three years. If Barca go on to win a treble this season, their recent run will put them into the discussion of amongst the greatest clubs ever.
Real Madrid (4/1): The Spanish club have been crowned champions of Europe a record nine times. However, manager Jose Mourinho has gotten this current side into the quarter-final of this competition for the first time in six seasons. Mourinho has won the Champions League previously with FC Porto and Inter Milan.
United (7/1): The Champions League remains the single competition where United are not the favorites by the bookies. However, if they are able to get by Chelsea, a match-up which generally is seen as a toss-up, the Red Devils would likely be considered favorites over the winner of Inter v Schalke. Who knows what could happen if United are able to play the final on English soil.
Chelsea (7/1): Since Chelsea's defeat by United in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, Chelsea has had the upper-hand on United. The Champions League trophy is regarded as the one that owner Roman Abramovich yearns for most.
Inter (8/1): Under Mourinho, the Italian side won this competition last year over Bayern. However, Inter suffered through a miserable start to the season under Rafa Benitez. Their fortunes seemed to have changed under new manager Leonardo.
Spurs (20/1): The North London side has been the darlings of this competition. Their run has included Gareth Bale's destruction of Inter's Maicon and Europe seemingly having no answer for the aerial presence of Peter Crouch. They have the daunting task of being matched up with Real Madrid, but the world seems very curious about this clash.
Shaktar Donetsk (33/1): Despite winning the UEFA cup in 2009, the Ukrainian side seem to be the mystery team of this competition. They impressed by topping Arsenal to win their group and they continued to do so in their dismantling of Roma. They have some intriguing Brazilians, including Douglas Costa, who has been linked with United.
Schalke (50/1): The German side have struggled mightily in domestic competition and it has resulted in manager Felix Magath being recently sacked. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is one to keep an eye as the German No 1 has been linked to being the replacement for the retiring Edwin van der Sar.
Manchester United have lifted the FA Cup a record eleven times and they've earned passage to their 27th FA Cup semi-final, also an English record. The Red Devils are scheduled to clash with rival Manchester City at Wembley; the winner of that tie will be favorites to defeat the winner of Bolton v Stoke City. As the iconic clock banner in the Stretford End reminds all, it's been 35 years since the 'noisy neighbors' have won a major trophy. This will be a massive match for them. Here are the odds for the semi-finalists:
* United (11/10)
* City (2/1)
* Bolton (11/2)
* Stoke City (13/2)