When Wayne Rooney unveiled a moment of class to create a goal out of nowhere and get Manchester United the 3 points at Craven Cottage in the beginning of February, parallels were drawn with that strike. Indeed, the (erstwhile?) talisman remarked that he hoped his goal had the same effect on the 2012/13 title race as the latter did on the 2008/09 one. There was talk of moments that define a season, of grinding out wins and of the mental toughness.
While a cynic might have rubbished those as PR nonsense, truth is that since then United have gone from strength to strength. The return of Nemanja Vidic in mid-December has coincided with a remarkable improvement in defensive health - after the remarkable Boxing Day game against Newcastle, United have fallen behind to goals just twice, against Southampton in a game that ultimately finished 2-1 in United's favour, and against
Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir Spanish giants Real Madrid earlier this week. Since the game against Fulham, United have not just maintained but extended the lead at the top of the league by a further two points, navigating tricky fixtures against Everton and relegation threatened duo QPR and Reading. The treatment room has cleared up fairly solidly, with only Phil Jones and Paul Scholes currently unavailable1. The days of Marouane Fellaini terrorizing poor Michael Carrick seem long gone. United's goal difference in the league from February onwards stands at +10 - the team has not let in more than one goal for eleven games (when 11 v 11) in all competitions now. This is a far cry from the heart-stopping one-goal thrillers that were the staple of the season's beginning.
The other side, of course, is the incredible depth and breadth of attacking talent now available at the Gaffer's disposal. There were flashes earlier, of course, of our attackers - Shinji Kagawa was a lone light in the first couple of games, while Robin Van Persie was the player of the first half of the season, undoubtedly. Ashley Young and Luis Nani both flickered and faded with injury. Danny Welbeck was (and remains) at his mercurial best. Chicarito has been predictably excellent at scoring goals. Rooney, by all popular accounts suffering from some sort of mid-career crisis, has scored or assisted 20 goals this season - bettered only by Luis Suarez with 25 and Robin Van Persie with 27. The problem, however, was that dominant performances were too few and far between. Regular readers will recall the harrowing games against Liverpool, Tottenham, Reading and Southampton. There was something fundamentally flawed with the team, went the widely held view. This United team was below par, a mockery of the great sides gone by. They were riding on the (undeniable) class of their shiny new toy. The midfield was broken. The old ones were past it. The young ones didn't cut it.
It may be time for them to change the tune a wee bit. As pointed out on this site earlier, February has seen our most derided players rise against the narrative. Interestingly, the rise to form of a few key players in Nani, Kagawa, and Johnny Evans and to a lesser extent Antonio Valencia has been supplemented by consistency from the established names like Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Robin Van Persie2. What this means is that the squad is looking scarily close to full form and hurting from
grave injustice an unfortunate decision. In all, something fans joked about earlier in the season looks quite likely - the double may well be on. A rudimentary, albeit slightly nervous 1-0 win against Norwich ended 4-0, with goals of such irresistible class from hat-trick hero Kagawa and Rooney. There was, suddenly, fantasy on the Old Trafford pitch again. If the attacking performances of early-season were born of need, this one was born of skill and expression. After a long while, too long, United went up a gear when they didn't need to. In each game since the turn of the year, United have had a different Man of the Match, frequently two. Wee bit? May be time to chuck the tune altogether.
United play Chelsea on Sunday at Old Trafford in those most glamorous of domestic trophies, the FA Cup. While our performances in the cup in recent years have not been noteworthy - indeed we almost forget the day the Ginger Prince came back against Manchester City last year - the noises coming from Carrington point to a serious push for the crown. When we played Chelsea earlier this season, there was palpable fear of what the Trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata might do to our frail defense. While each of them are delightful players, and complement each other well, a defense that has played Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid will be far more assured this time around. Among the fan base, there is no fear - just expectation. You can be sure that a squad managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, that master of motivation, will be raring to go on Sunday. Old Trafford bayed for blood on Tuesday - the return of hated rivals and a former Scouse manager will do little to soothe their anger. Wrongs are to be righted, and come Sunday we well may see catharsis on the pitch.
1Darren Fletcher is out for the rest of the season with a long-term condition.
2This author believes RvP's influence exists outside of goals, far more than in his years with Arsenal. Anyone expecting him to maintain that unbelievable record form earlier this season are expecting too much.