With the brief international break coming up this week, I thought it would be a good time to take a closer look and assess where Manchester United stand in each of their remaining competitions. United currently top the table in the Barclays Premier League with 13 matches remaining, they're among the final 16 in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, and they're also among the final 16 in the FA Cup. Despite suffering their first league loss this past weekend, United have positioned themselves well in their effort to chase the most prestigious trophies an English football club can win. This will broken down into two installments: Part 1- the Premier League. Part 2- Champions League and FA Cup.
The past weekend was one of the wilder ones in the English Premier League history. A record 41 goals in 8 games were scored on Saturday. Newcastle went down 4-0 to Arsenal and then became the first team in Premier League history to come back from a deficit that large by scoring four goals in the final 20 minutes to earn a miraculous draw. Previously unbeaten United suffered their first loss to bottom of the table Wolves. Chelsea were upset at Stamford Bridge by a resurgent Liverpool. With the exception of Manchester City vs West Brom (which resulted in manager Roberto Di Matteo getting sacked), every other match was an absolute cracker. The past weekend was a display of how unpredictable English football can be. I'm going to take a closer look as to where United stand relative to their title-contending rivals and examine some of the factors in their quest to earn a record 19th league title. Here's the current table heading into the international break:
* Manchester United (current odds 2/3): With 13 matches remaining, United are in terrific position to lift the Premier League trophy at season's end. Despite Rio Ferdinand picking up a recent calf injury, which is supposed to sideline the England captain for roughly 2 weeks, the Red Devils injury concerns aren't major. Park Ji-Sung has just returned from international duty and Antonio Valencia is expected to resume training by month's end. Wayne Rooney is showing signs of returning to the form that made him both the FWA and PFA Player of the Year last season. Many have asserted that United aren't quite the quality side that they've been throughout their trophy-laden years, however, you don't go unbeaten through 29 straight Premier League (extending back to last season) matches without being very good.
What cannot be disputed is their determination and resolve, and these characteristics are what might guide United to the title. The squad is filled with proven players who have achieved everything that there is to accomplish at the club level. As is United tradition, these players have seemingly done well to pass down and integrate this winning culture into the next generation of players. The mental toughness and leadership of the current squad is the backbone that provides the foundation for them to be a contender.
Getting more into squad specifics, there are definite strengths and concerns. If Ferdinand can stay mostly healthy, the four first-choice defenders and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar provide arguably the best defense in the Prem, and maybe in the world. Without Rio though, well uhhhhhh *gulp*.... (see carnage @ Blackpool and @ Wolves). With Nani, Ryan Giggs, Park, and Valencia, United have quality wide players who all provide different strengths. I'd consider them a strength as a whole. The trio of Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, and Chicharito provide a quality group of strikers that also provide variety. Michael Owen as the 4th striker provides solid depth as well.
My biggest concern is the central midfield: I don't worry about Paul Scholes but at age 36, he's not able to provide his creative genius week in and week out. Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, and Anderson are all very solid at times, but none provide difference-making quality on a consistent basis. With Fergie's preference to go with three central midfielders in "big matches," this is an area of the pitch that could be the root of our undoing. Too often I've seen red-flags from this area of the pitch; a lack of creative ability to break down an organized and compact defense or the lack of ability to quickly start a quality counter-attack. I'm hoping for the best, but this area of the pitch is where I'm hoping for an infusion of talent in the summer (Sunderland's 20 year-old Jordan Henderson is strongly rumored to be coming to Old Trafford). I would like to see an Owen Hargreaves type (we miss you Hargo) of ball-winner and a creative attacker (Wesley Sneijder type). Ideally in a three-man central midfield, the preference is a (1) ball-winner, (2) passer, (3) attacker. Think to Barcelona: Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta. Here's the theoretical ideal:
In United's case, the roles are slightly altered. Scholes or Carrick typically sit where this 'ball-winner' does and they are employed as 'deep-lying playmakers', not 'ball-winners.' Fletcher sort of plays the ball-winner role a bit higher up the pitch in a box-to-box position, but also does his part as a simple passer. Anderson can complement them by playing a bit of both passer/attacker. Carrick can also play the 'passer' role while positioned ahead of Scholes, but then both would need to be complemented by someone who is strong in tackle. I hope this provides the basic idea. My concern is that this unit won't be enough of a creative force in European matches, or possibly in title-deciding matches in the league's stretch run. City's compact and organized side will provide a stern test to this in the upcoming weekend.
Tactically, I'm not too concerned as Fergie seems to get this right most of the time. We have the tactical flexibility to play both a '4-4-2' versus sides that we're clearly superior to, and also the ability to play the '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid against strong opponents. The biggest concern is to figure out what to do with Berbatov and Rooney when Fergie goes with a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape. Rooney up top and Berba on the bench? Or Berba up top with Rooney on one of the flanks? The one tactical gripe I have from last year's campaign was from when we played versus Bayern Munich in Champions League play. If some of you might remember, there was a situation where we were already in a '4-3-3/4-5-1' and we needed to protect a late-lead. Berbatov was brought on for Carrick and we reverted to a '4-4-2,' and this completely turned the game in Bayern's favor. But for the most part though, Fergie gets it right and I feel confident about our tactics.
The biggest obstacle remaining is the fixture list, United undoubtedly have the most difficult remaining schedule. However, this also provides them an opportunity to deliver knockout blows along the way. Here are the remaining matches versus the current top six sides:
- @: Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal
- Home to: Manchester City, Chelsea
Five of the remaining thirteen league matches are big ones. If we are to lift the Premier League trophy in May, we certainly will have endured a gauntlet of quality sides during the final stretch run. United will need to stay healthy and balance a congested fixture list that includes difficult European matches and the final stages of a FA Cup run. The opportunity is there for a historic season.
After the jump, a further look into United's Prem League title-contending rivals...
* Arsenal (9/4): As most are aware by now, Arsenal haven't won a trophy since 2005. This fact is one used most often by rival supporters when they want to needle a Gooner. Although the North London side is strongly favored to defeat Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final, any Gooner under the influence of truth serum would likely admit that they thirst for greater glory. They drew Barcelona in the first round of the knockout stages in the Champions League....yeah, good luck with that Arsenal supporters! (I wonder if Cesc accidentally puts on a Barca shirt for those matches) The Gunners are among the final 16 in the FA Cup, but they are merely among the favorites in that competition along with United, City, and Chelsea. Where Arsenal might have the best chance to win significant hardware, in terms of probability, is the Premier League where they sit four points behind United in 2nd place.
Although Arsenal may have the easiest remaining fixture list out of the title-contending sides (@Spurs, home to Liverpool and United), they have shown the propensity in recent years to trip up at crucial moments. Even just this past weekend, they missed a golden opportunity to close down some ground on United by blowing a four goal-lead in the final 20 minutes at St James' Park. It has been moments like this, and other comparable ones in recent seasons that lead many to doubt the title-winning credentials of Arsenal. No title-seeking club shows a wider range of bi-polar behavior (okay, possibly Chelsea this season). As much as United is widely respected for their grit and determination, Arsenal in contrast are widely doubted at times due to an implied lack of mental resolve and fortitude.
Manager Arsene Wenger has done a fantastic job at finding and producing young talent, and implementing them into his side. However, for these past few years, it's been the same rhetoric: when these youngsters develop, England and the rest of Europe better be aware! Well, it's been a half of a decade now since any new trophies have been added to the Arsenal trophy-case. Without a doubt, young players have developed and thrived for Arsenal, but again...zero trophies have resulted. The criticism of the Gunners and Wenger is valid. Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie, Jack Wilshire, etc are all superb talents, but it may be a lack of leadership and experience that has led to their detriment. Their skipper Fabregas has made it no secret that his apparent dream is to ride the bench for Barcelona so that he can play slap-and-tickle with Xavi and Iniesta. The only way for Arsenal to erase the doubts is by achieving tangible accomplishments: winning the Prem or FA Cup this season. Only this will silence the critics.
The two main concerns Arsenal should have for the stretch run are (1) injuries and (2) their defense. Fabregas and van Persie have proven to be made of glass in recent seasons. Despite their quality depth, the Gunners have only shown flashes of being elite this season when both have been in the lineup alongside Nasri and Theo Walcott. In regards to Nasri, who's arguably been their most important player this season, he too has injury concerns for the moment as he's sidelined for roughly three weeks with a hamstring strain. In regards to their defense, goalkeeping has been an achilles heel for them in recent seasons, and now their hopes are being entrusted to 20 year-old Wojciech Szczesny, who must take the reigns in goal for the injured Lukasz Fabianski. Also without a healthy Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal lack a world-class center-back. All of this adds up to them being inconsistent and vulnerable to giving up goals in opportune times (see: @ Newcastle). If the North-Londoners are tripped up and fail to win the Premier League, these two factors would be the likely culprits in their failed endeavor. United's visit to the Emirates on April 30th might prove to be the title decider.
* Manchester City (12/1): As signs at Old Trafford will remind you, Citeh haven't won a damn thing since 1976. The club's struggles since then led to a few relegation stints, but the club's fortunes changed when the financial saviors of Abu Dhabi came to the rescue in 2008. The takeover resulted in a flurry of bids for high profile players, and now the collective wages of City's players trail only Chelsea in English football. Despite their rise since new ownership, City still haven't won a trophy and are attempting to integrate all these high-priced footballers into a cohesive and successful side.
Citeh currently sit third in the table and trail United by five points. However, they've also played one more match than their title-contending foes. At the current moment, City's chances for the Premier League title look slim, but they could vault themselves within two points of United with an upset victory at Old Trafford next weekend. A loss to their rivals could also be a knockout blow for these same ambitions. Realistically, City's current target is to qualify for Champions League play next season. Manager Roberto Mancini has stated as much. If a surprise Prem title chase is still going on in April or if a FA Cup trip to Wembley comes up, City will no doubt be pleasantly surprised and seek glory. However, the main objectives for Mancini appear to be to place in the top four and learn to find the best mix of footballers and tactics that will lay a foundation for next season. City aren't short on money or talent, but they appear to be short on identity and finding dressing-room harmony.
It appears to be a two-horse race at the moment between United and Arsenal, but a City victory at Old Trafford on Saturday could change the whole dynamic of the title race. City's remaining twelve fixtures include trips to the mentioned Old Trafford, along with to Stamford Bridge and Anfield. They will host Spurs at Eastlands.
* Chelsea (8/1)
Despite recently spending over 70-million pounds on Fernando Torres and David Luiz during the latest transfer window, Chelse appear to be out of the race to repeat as league champions. They currently sit level on points with Tottenham for the final Champions League qualifying spot, while ten points behind United. They do have a much better goal differential that Spurs, so their North London foes will need to finish with more points than the Blues to claim 4th.
In addition to qualifying for Champions League for next season, Chelsea's other main objectives appear to be trying to win the Champions League trophy that has evaded owner Roman Abramovich and repeating as FA Cup champions. Chelsea still has a puncher's chance to get themselves back into the title chase because they still have two remaining matches remaining with United on their fixture list. Their fading hopes to repeat as champions are reliant on obtaining six points from those two key fixtures. Other goals for the London based club probably includes finding a proper way to integrate Torres into the lineup (the '4-4-2' diamond was a disaster vs Liverpool on Sunday) and preventing skipper John Terry from shaggin' any of his mates' WAGs.
* Tottenham (66/1!)
Well, the bookies certainly don't think much of Spurs' chances at lifting the Premier League trophy at season's end. The North London side appear to be concentrated on trying to qualify for Champions League play for a 2nd consecutive season and also to see how far their current run can take them in this year's competition. Spurs are currently missing the services of the Maicon-destroying Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Tom Huddlestone and passport-forgetting Ledley King. These injuries have decimated Spurs in recent weeks, and it has factored quite a bit into Spurs' recent struggles. Their ability to cope with this will be key if they are to earn a spot in the top-four again. Much like City, Spurs may see this season as a way to build their credentials, and try to establish themselves as regulars in England's top-four. If they can sustain their current level of accomplishment, then the club's ambitions might rise to lifting the Premier League trophy sometime in the near future. Away matches at City and Chelsea appear to be pivotal in their quest to return to Champions League competition.
My current guess on how the these 5 sides finish:
Join me tomorrow for the 2nd installment on where United stand in their quest to conquer Europe for the club's 4th time and to add to their record 11 FA Cups!