By Richard Cole
With little fan fare, not much pizazz, and with below-par performances, Manchester United somehow seem themselves in a strangely comfortable position atop of the Premier League at the moment. United have played 21 games, compared to the 22 or 23 of their nearest rivals in the table. Yet, United lead on goal difference over Manchester City, with two games in hand over them.They’re 2 points and a game in hand over Arsenal, and perhaps most surprisingly, 7 points and a game in hand over Chelsea, although one game in hand is against them.
Ask any United fan and they’ll tell if you if they had been offered this position for this moment at the start of the season they would have ripped your hand off and feasted on it.
The summer had little transfer activity. With United fans hoping for a player like Van Der Vaart – who went on to do very well at Spurs for a total bargain price – United were given some relative unknowns, and one total unknown. Javier Hernandez came in from Chivas, Chris Smalling from Fulham, both deals were already done before the end of the season, with Smalling’s deal put through in the January transfer window – being left to gain more experience with his old club and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez being at Old Trafford to watch United dumped out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich.
The only signing of substance was the totally unknown Bébé in a strange move. Revelations that Sir Alex Ferguson himself hadn’t seen the former Estrela da Amadora and Vitoria Guimares player – who was abandoned by his parents, and had been living in a care home – actually play football before. Putting all his trust in the scouting network, and also of former Assistant Manager, and then a Portugal Manager in troubled waters, Carlos Queiroz. Portuguese “Super Agent” Jordge Mendes had also been involved with the deal, he oversaw the deals too of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, and Anderson to Old Trafford. Bébé had only played friendlies for his new club Vitoria, but had done enough to impress, with Untied using his release-fee clause. United fans and accountants though were also cursing the name of Queiroz, who perhaps if he had notified Fergie sooner, the club may have got him for nothing instead of the £7.4m move not long after. Still it was Bébé real lack of top-level coaching and football experience that showed all United fans that although their new signing maybe talented, he would be in need of a few years to develop and mature at the club like other raw Portuguese talents had, and were continuing to do.
United fans themselves were not so much pessimistic about the new season, Arsenal strengthened – but needed to – just to keep up, Chelsea had done little, Liverpool had a new manager but no one expected them to even be challenging for the title, Tottenham Hotspur had signed Van Der Vaart – but they still feel just slightly short of a title challenge. Neighbours Manchester City though, had spent huge yet again, and yet there is still the lack of a mentality at the Eastlands club. No pessimism then, but really, no optimism either.
The season though, started brightly. Javier Hernandez had shone at the World Cup in South Africa, and looked promising in his friendly appearances too – quickly becoming a cult favourite. His comedy goal helped United comfortably beat double-winners of the least season, Chelsea in the Community Shield.
United opened the Premier League season with a 3-0 stroll over newly promoted Newcastle United. Dimitar Berbatov shone once more as he had against Chelsea, and continued to do through, Paul Scholes continued to defy the process of aging, picking up Player of the Month Award for August and Nani looked to have continued his top form he found at the beginning of the year.
Then, on the 5th September, rumours began about Wayne Rooney, who had a marvelous season the year before, average World Cup and had started the season off patchy and slightly unfit – missing games intermittently. Rooney’s personal life was becoming a thing for tabloid scrutiny, this of course, wasn’t to be the biggest headlines Wayne Rooney would make the year.
United’s start to the Champions League was a huge blow for the team. In a match in which Rangers showcased the least amount of an ambition that a side at Old Trafford had done since Steve Coppell’s Reading grounded out a 0-0 at the start of the 2007/2008 season, Antonio Valencia suffered a double leg break. The challenge on him was inocious but the way Valencia landed on his leg did the damage, with replays only being shown from certain angles to avoid the horrific injury being broadcasted. It was feared that the improving Valencia would be out for the rest of the season, but a later prognosis reveal it was hopeful the right-winger may recover for Februrary. This due in part to the excellent medical staff at United. Antonio Valencia’s improvement regiment includes sessions on an underwater treadmill designed by NASA.
United’s first big game of the season came on September 19th against Liverpool at Old Trafford. The game was perhaps typical of United’s season so far. United went 2-0 up, before squandering a lead like they had done earlier to Everton and Fulham – and would do again. It was though, a brilliant goal from the all-new Dimitar Berbatov, a touch control and then an overhead kick to give United the win, and seal a hatrick. Patrice Evra said it best, as he always does, about the way United had conceeded goals so far, “We need to stop making things so nervous – we could have finished the game with a heart attack!”
On October 15th the rumours start to circulate that Wayne Rooney wanted out for the club, and they slowly grew momentum, until in a press conference the day before the home game against Bursaspor, in which Sir Alex confirmed the rumour was true and that Rooney did indeed want to leave the club – also said he did not know why the player wanted to leave. Rooney countered later saying he wanted assurances from David Gill that the squad would have investment – perhaps worried by the insane level of spending by City. Ian Holloway chipped in his 2 cents later in a video – as always – well worth watching. Then, on the friday, a week after the original rumours start to pour out an agreement was met between club and player and Rooney signed a hugely improved 5-year contract – but smearing his reputation in the public eye and especially with the United faithful, where “Rooney!” chants aren’t quite as loud and boisterous as they once were. There was one postive though, from the entire saga, Sir Alex extended his future book of quotations with another gem, “Sometimes you look in a field and see a cow. You think it is a better cow than the one you see in your field. It never really works out that way.”
Chicharito was one striker though, proving a highlight with the fans. In the first match after the ending of the Rooney saga, he bagged 2 goals in a 2-1 win over Stoke City. Perhaps a turning point in United’s season. It looked the same old story, Hernandez’s brilliant back-header had been cancelled out by Tuncay, but it was Hernandez again late on who sealed the win for United who were then on a 5-game winning streak as they went to the City of Manchester stadium in one of the most anticipated games of the season so far. It was though a bore draw, as City showed little ambition, something familiar to them under Roberto Mancini. With Untied being the better side out of the two, despite some major injuries and some players only just recovering from their own setbacks but failing to break down City’s defenses.
United completed the long-rumoured transfer for of Denmark goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard on the 27th November for an apparent £3.5m from Aalesunds FK of Norway. Another unknown signing out for United, with no real “big name” since the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov at the start of the 2008/2009 season. Some United fans are already suspicious of the quality of the the new player due to the fact he seems to have been on the bench for his old club due to Odsense’s current number 1, and former Manchester United player, Roy Carroll. One of the many goalkeepers unable to have a lasting impression since Peter Schmeichel and until the arrival of Edwin Van Der Sar, who is seemingly due to retire at the end of the season. Novemeber ended with two polar opposite performances from United. The 7-1 trashing of Blackburn Rovers, in which Dimitar Berbatov scored 5 goals was followed by a 4-0 defeat away in the Carling Cup to West Ham United. It was Manchester United’s first defeat since against Bayern Munich back in April. Although the Carling Cup does often take the backseat considering the other trophies up for grabs in the season, this season all but one of the big teams had been knocked out early on, and United had been hot favourites by default, the defeat leads Arsenal to possibly go on and pick up their first piece of silverware in 6 years.
It was Arsenal who would be United’s next big challenge at Old Trafford. Arsenal at that time were top of the table, although United had a game in hand and were one point behind, although sitting in 3rd. The game was also watched by the Chilean Miners and David Beckham, there is a joke somewhere there, it just needs to be dug out. It was a similar situation that Arsenal saw themselves in against United, they’ve failed to win at Old Trafford since Adebayor back in the 2006/2007 season. Sir Alex in recent games employed similar tactics in pretty much all his matches against Arsenal and seemingly, it still works. Park Ji-Sung, who was very much in form with 4 goals in 6 games, got the crucial goal with a bizarre header that Chicharito would be proud of. Arsenal too, were surprisingly vicious in the game, knocking up more fouls against United then Stoke City had managed to do. Wayne Rooney too, missed a penalty, United’s second penalty miss of the season after Nani’s against Fulham early on in the season.
United’s good form has continued until now, without the team really breaking into a sweat. 2010 was finished out with wins, except against Birmingham City, in with a controversial late equaliser by the Blues, and perhaps in contrast, with a lucky with at West Brom. So, United are a brilliant position now, in what is historically their best time of the season to go on and win a 19th League Title and eclipse Liverpool’s joint-record to be all out winners. It will need United’s start players thus far Nemanja Vidic, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani, Rafael da Silva and Chicharito to continue their great form. Likewise Anderson’s improvement, Rooney’s slow return to his former self, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick too have to at some point return to their former selves.
United’s fixtures in this second half of the season are much tougher though, with perhaps more likely opportunities to finally lose a league game.. They’ve yet to face Chelsea home or away. Manchester City need to go to Old Trafford. Still need to travel to the Emirates and although not the same importance, away to Anfield will always be a challenge. As well as these fixtures being intertwined with further Champions League fixtures (assuming United navigate past Marseille) and FA Cup (if they prevail away to Southampton). It could be a brilliant season for United. It seems their success thus far is not so much of them being good, more that they have never been particularly bad in games, besides perhaps West Brom and West Ham. Where as other title rivals have been bad at times. Chelsea had a huge blip, City are sometimes still too negative, Arsenal continue to seem to have one component missing and Tottenham Hotspur just aren’t yet up to the quality to be true title contenders. It may not be a title win to remember, but it would be a title win never forgotten.