There must be a bloody good reason why no team in over a hundred years has won the title for four years in a row in the English First division. It is difficult to sustain success, when squads are chopped and rebuilt, complacency soaks in from past 3 years, self-motivation becomes a challenge and rivals spend, raise their game and understand your weaknesses better. Sprinkle all that with losing arguably the best player in the world, and a tenacious wee ‘tryer’ who would give his all and win you games; it was always a Herculean task to achieve the ‘never-done-before’ in the history of English Football for Manchester United. Number Nineteen was another small matter, of course. Imagine Barcelona without Messi for a second. Am I right or am I right?
Finding replacements for Ronaldo and Tevez is not easy, especially when your manager insists there is no ‘value’ in the market. Now Ferguson’s sudden desire to look it from an economist’s eyes, especially when United themselves churned the biggest transfer money in the very same summer, might have looked as a wind-up, but United supporters could clearly see where Fergie was coming from. Did someone say the bond Issue to come later in the season possibly had a say in all that? Darn! How naïve of someone to suggest that!
Manchester United were effectively down by around 30-40 goals before the season even started. A ‘spent force’ whose likelier destination was Hull, and a winger from Wigan as replacements of the two big names, everybody had written the obituaries for United. Forget title, United were touted to be struggling for CL places. In the eyes of many, the ‘one-man-team’ had lost its ‘one-man’. The clamor calls were made – Where will the goals come from? Sure United are headed in to transition? Eighty Million down the drain?
United started the season well. There were some customary blips once in a while, and some ridiculous ones like the Burnley match, but it was not so bad when nobody else wanted to run away with the title. Liverpool for sure! If we thought the Burnley result was the shock of the season, the old bitter rivals from League one had another thing coming in January.
With a squad decimated by injuries, eight defenders out at the same time, and midfielders playing in defense for a stretch, United somehow carried on. Van Der Saar missed seventeen games, Ferdinand twenty six and Vidic fourteen league games, in total. The simple fact that an eternal crock like Ledley King started more games than Ferdinand, summed up the problems United had in defense throughout. With all those injuries, United still conceded the least goals in the whole division. That’s a testimony to Ferguson’s eye for defensive talent.
O’Shea went out for the season in December (made his comeback in late April), Anderson in January, and Owen in February. Slowly and steadily, United were missing important squad players, who are much needed in the thick period of run-in. At least the embarrassment of the FA cup was compensated with the League cup win; to the dismay of many pundits, United wouldn’t be finishing the season without a trophy, come the end!
Chelsea admittedly were looking strong, but just when you felt they would continue to march on, some slip-ups by the Blues left the door ajar for United to make a comeback always. Arsenal, after being demolished by their top rivals, were however winning other games which they otherwise had lost in previous seasons. But, there was always going to be only one ending to the Gunners’ season. It all boiled down to the fight between the clichéd but true case of an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
The league is not won without the minor luck you need. For United supporters, the emotional fury was widely visible; If only the ‘foul’ against Fletcher at Stamford Bridge was correctly evaluated, if only the Drogba goal was clearly given offside at Old Trafford, or had Gerrard made his back pass more subtle! Chelsea got the rub of green at times, but that shouldn’t be a complaint for United, as we have had our fair share in the past. In the end, there was always going to be one winner, as it happens in every walk of life, and Chelsea just about deserved it.
An injury to Rooney and the emotional breakdown against Bayern took its toll, but the mental strength shown by United is still unparalleled in the league, a quality you don’t earn overnight. United’s European exertions proved to be the downfall in the end; ironically, after getting knocked out of the Champions League by Inter, Chelsea came back resoundingly. It is no surprise that United lost the games against Villa, Everton, Fulham and both games against Chelsea, after the midweek CL games. Over the course of the season, there were some special performances which made this season worth remembering -the hat-trick of heart breaks for ‘noisy neighbors’, the Milan massacre, gunning down the Gunners in their own backyard, revenge over Liverpool, and the Spurs destruction, both home and away, were amazing displays of United’s fantastic football.
The amazingly consistent Evra, who is probably one of the few players from the foreign contingent at United who understand the history and values of the red shirt, had a great season, making it to the PFA team of the year. However, there was another player who had his best ever season for United, and would go on to be talked about in the same breath as the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.
Wayne Rooney, loved and adored even more than Ronaldo by United fans, was always considered special. Rival fans took jibes, calling him the United’s version of Kuyt, a headless chicken who was overrated, not helped by the fact he is English. Never was there a player in the United ranks, who was under so much pressure to perform – he had to be United’s talisman, as well as take the mantle of scoring goals; he had to finally live up to his billing. The second top scorer in the league, sweeping all individual honors – he answered his critics in style. All the doubters, who had labeled him as the typical overrated English Poster boy, were now regarding him as responsible for the ubiquitous and downright boring phrase ‘One-man’ United again.
Valencia proved to be a case study titled ‘How to get the maximum out of 16 Million. He is indeed a rare breed in today’s football world, a breath of fresh air without all the posing and showboating. One will have to go back some seasons to find out when a player had such a good first season at United.
Nani, probably the second most chastised player by United fans during the season, came back to life. Tormenting Arsenal, City, Bayern and Spurs on his way, he cemented his place in the team. Fletcher, arguably United’s second best performer of the season, featured in the PFA team of the year. Being first choice in the midfield for Manchester United is not an easy task, especially when you have to fill the boots of legends like Robson, Keane and Scholes.
Year after year, you can’t look back at the season without paying tribute to Scholes, Giggs and Neville. They say, Cantona and Ronaldo were the sparks United needed from time to time, but legends like these three veterans are the fuels which keep up the fire.
Vidic and Van Der Sar, the bedrock in defense during the run-in, showed what United were missing in and around Christmas. Evans, one of the best defensive talents in the world, has shown great maturity and willingness to learn. His performances were top notch whenever he was called upon, and is surely United’s future; in certain corners, he is also looked upon as a future captain.
Owen might have suffered from injury yet again, but he gave some special memories that will remain in United folklore for the years to come. Kuszack performed admirably in the absence of Van Der Sar, and Berbatov has played his part well, being certainly better than people have made him out to be.
There were some disappointments- Carrick’s loss of form at times, Ferdinand’s and Anderson’s untimely injuries – but that’s part and parcel of the game. It will not be a surprise to see all three of them coming back strongly next season.
It was exciting to see the glimpse of talent showcased by Rafael, Macheda and Gibson. Along with Obertan, Diouf and Fabio, academy starlets like Cleverley, Welbeck, James and Keane coming up through the ranks, and new signings in the form of Hernandez and Smalling, the next season is going to be fascinating.
Finally, a mention of the Master, the one who pulls all the strings – the desire and motivation to start it all over again at the age of 70 can belong only to a man of unrivaled determination. My generation of United fans are blessed to witness this phenomenon. If United are indeed a ‘one-man’ team, then that one man is him. Take a bow, Sir Alex.
In spite of all the injuries and the departure of two key players, United still ended up only one point behind Chelsea , who had scored more than 100 goals and in the process did a double over all the major rivals, at the end of the season; United were down, but not out. If this season was supposed to be one of transition for United, and you take the championship fight to the last day, then next year should surely take us to our destination.
Manchester United will never die.