I love watching Champions League football, especially the knock-out stages. In the past two seasons though, it's been a bit painful for me to watch because of the controversial nature of Manchester United's round of 16 defeat last month by Real Madrid and also because of last season's horrid display in the group stages. One thought I couldn't shake yesterday while watching Madrid's 3-0 demolition of Galatasaray in the first-leg of their quarter-final tie was, "just how good is United? Are they amongst Europe's elite?"
This community has had a wonderful discussion in recent days in assessing how successful United's season has been. At the time of this being published, 71% deemed the current campaign as 'good', 20% expressed that it was 'disappointing', while 9% felt that it's been 'great'. One's assessment is certainly subjective and it is highly dependent on how good you think this current side is.
The two-legged tie with Madrid was both inspirational and heartbreaking. For 146+ minutes, the quality of football from the Reds was at a very high level -- perhaps their highest in the past few seasons -- so it made it that much more gut-wrenching when Nani was unfairly sent off and when United were eventually eliminated from Europe. Sir Alex Ferguson's side clearly displayed that they were on par with a team that are clear contenders for the European Cup.
In the current quarter-finals, there are five clubs in Madrid, FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus that are arguably amongst Europe's elite -- to perhaps varying degrees -- while Paris Saint-Germain are trying to spend their way to that grand tier. Are United, though, amongst that top level at the current moment?
By evidence of the Madrid match-up, one could simply conclude that the answer is yes. However, Ferguson generally got his tactics right in that tie as he essentially nullified the greatest strength of Jose Mourinho's side -- United positioned themselves somewhat deep and compact in order to deny the space for the Spanish side's lethal counterattack. Galatasaray trying to have a go at Madrid exhibited how suicidal that strategy can be against Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, and co. Would the Reds have been as formidable of a foe against a possession-based side such as Barcelona or Bayern Munich? How might have they coped with the pressing and pace of Dortmund? -- a side that has some similarities to a Athletic Bilbao team from last season that wreaked havoc and overran United in the Europa League.
It's been an impressive response by United this season after they were overtaken domestically in the past campaign by Manchester City. While Ferguson's side have been mechanical and efficient in the Premier League, part of their dominance is also due to the limp challenge and disappointment by both City and Chelsea this season. In addition, the gaffer has an incredibly deep squad at his disposal and if you divided the team into two -- along with the hypothetical situation where he could deploy two healthy starting XI's each week -- he might have two teams that could earn a top four finish. Is the best XI, though, that much more dominant than City's or Chelsea's? Is it comparable to Europe's elite?
United have seen improved performances in midfield this season, an area of the squad that has been heavily criticized in recent years. Michael Carrick has arguably been the best central-midfielder in the Premier League this season while Tom Cleverley has emerged to be a consistent and reliable midfield partner. In addition, Phil Jones has been a 'destroyer' in the center of the park when deemed necessary, something that has been badly needed in recent seasons. The quartet of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), and Danny Welbeck has also been compared to the famed Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Teddy Sheringham strike force from the 1998-99 treble winning season. Yet though, there have been clear deficiencies to this team.
In Ferguson's preferred 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish system, there are two areas in attack where the creativity tends to come from -- the withdrawn striker that acts as a central-playmaker and from flying wingers. This season, it's been a mixed bag from the from the No.10's while the wide attackers have simply been a disappointment. Going forward, it's hoped that Wayne Rooney will be more consistent and more defensively reliable while Shinji Kagawa is expected to make a bigger impact in his second season in England. Out wide, with the quality that Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, and Nani possess, things can't possibly be worse next season. If it is, or if things don't improve significantly, the soon to be arriving Wilfried Zaha -- who is just 20-years-old -- is likely to get a plethora of chances to establish himself as a first-choice player. This may or may not end up being be a good thing.
It's difficult to know exactly where United stand in comparison to Europe's elite, a position the club clearly expects to be in on a yearly basis. Barring an epic collapse, the Reds have reestablished themselves as England's best this season and for the most part in the past decade, that meant they clearly were amongst the best in the world. However, with the Premier League's slight decline in the past few seasons, United's domestic dominance no longer automatically earns them status amongst Europe's elite. With all of this context in mind, where do you feel the club currently resides? Just how good is this team? Is this club, with another astute summer move or two, in position to realistically compete for the European Cup next season?