It’s safe to say that we are now truly immersed in the business end of the season. United sit at the top of the Premier League, in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League, and in the Semi Finals of the FA Cup. A quite unimaginable and unexpected treble is still on the cards. In each of these competitions we hold the fate of not only ourselves this season but three of our nearest and dearest rivals. In the league it’s Arsenal. In the Champions League it’s Chelsea. And in the FA Cup it’s City. Wins in the upcoming games against these teams would end the season for them all and leave them with the final jostle for places in next season’s Champions League. I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a look at these three rivals and sum up their chances.
Premier League – Arsenal:
Arsenal are long touted as the English version of Barcelona and some sort of footballing perfection. A fact that didn’t hold true during their recent meeting with Barca in the Champions League. All arguments about the sending off aside there can be no doubt that Arsenal had their pants pulled down in that second leg. Arsenal are the perennial chokers, within an inch of glory but unable to take that final step. Outfought in the Carling Cup final by Birmingham, outplayed and outpassed by Barca, and then dumped out of the FA Cup by a United team that contained seven defenders but had more verve and cutting edge than Wenger has managed to instill in his team this season. It remains to be seen how long Wenger can try and be seen as the antithesis of teams like City and Chelsea, and avoid spending big on the kind of established player(s) that Arsenal are crying out for.
At times Arsenal can be breathtaking, at other times they can be lightweight and over elaborate. They lack the trait that has put United in the position that we are this season. Strength. They don’t have a Vidic. Well, no one has a Vidic but that’s beside the point. Vermaelen has been a big miss but the players bought to fill the considerable space left by him have at times looked shaky. Where we have Van Der Sar (one more year, one more year!!!) they have two young goalkeepers and the oft erratic Almunia. These two positions alone point the finger at Wenger’s inability or refusal to spend big to get a world class player to plug those gaps. In the midfield you find it hard to fault Arsenal. The thought of losing Fabregas has been softened by the emergence of Wilshere (a player I have to admit I would love to see at United) and Nasri. But it’s their front line that again pulls them back. Van Persie is only spared the “Darren Anderton Sicknote Award” by our very own Owen Hargreaves plight, Chamakh started well but has rapidly faded and the less said about Bendtner the better.
Can I see Arsenal beating Untied to the title? Not now. Losing three competitions in a fortnight has scarred them beyond repair now.
Champions League – Chelsea:
How the times have changed. There was a time when Chelsea were a midtable team with only a run in the domestic cups to look forward to and European football unheard of. A Russian oligarch, The Special One and a few hundred million later and they’re a big club. By those standards anyway. It’s been a funny season for Chelsea given their exploits last season. I’m sure their fans and many pundits expected them to walk away with the league this year and add into it at least one of the three cups they were competing in. Early wins paired with a glut of goals did little to temper this theory. Then the wheels fell off. Lampard’s extended absence crippled them and for a team long lauded as having a strong squad suddenly looked threadbare and average. The age of the squad has been talked about back and forth, a problem that Chelsea tried to remedy by the outlay in January on Torres and Luiz. Drogba has looked off the pace both physically and mentally, and a few of the other Chelsea players have been found out. Kalou and Mikel have looked poor this season and this is something that seems to be a sign at Chelsea. Their starting eleven is strong but beyond that it’s average at best.
Now, can I see Chelsea dumping United out of the Champions League? Tough one to call. This was one of the results of the draw I wanted to avoid. Chelsea undoubtedly have bettered us in recent seasons and United will have to turn the tables to get through this. I won’t bang on about the recent game at Stamford Bridge too much but hopefully UEFA have a strong referee for this game. The last thing either side wants is for the dust to settle after both legs with refereeing decisions dominating the headlines. I think if we can keep it tight and get a result in London then we have a great chance to progress and both teams will fancy their chances against Inter/Schalke.
FA Cup – Manchester City:
City. Richest club in the world. Yet still you get the feeling like they’ll somehow mess it up! It could all work out terrifically well for them but they need to shake off the soap opera that they envelop themselves in. They can at times be a powerful and attractive side, capable of grinding out results and showing the strength that Arsenal lack. But then they’re pegged back by a mix of massive egos, wages and at times extraordinary incidents. True to say that the off field issues have overshadowed a good season for our noisy neighbours. Issues that have been fuelled by the addition of Balotelli to their squad. Undoubtedly talented but with so much baggage with him how long will City and it’s fans put up with it? Yaya Toure looks a good player but looks as if the wrong brother took the slimming tablets. David Silva is another I’ve seen this season and would love to see at United and of course their most prized and coveted possession has carried them at times this season.
Mancini is one I can’t understand. Surely the majority of City fans crave silverware to shut us up and get rid of the 35 Years banner? Yet in the cup competitions he’s picked understrength sides that saw them dumped out of the league cup and earn a few replays in the FA Cup. True, he’s got the blue lot their day out in Wembley (feel free to ask for directions City fans) and they look on course to finish in the top four and the Champions League beckons. But then what? I don’t think Mancini is the man to lead them on to winning trophies.
Now, can I see City coming out on in the semi final? Again, a tough one to call I suppose it depends which City turns up at Wembley. If Mancini sends his team out to stifle the game then I think United will pick them off and triumph. However, if City set out to boss the game and play with a high tempo they could cause United problems. I still think we’ll nick it though and the laser blues can be happy with their day out at Wembley. All in good jest.
The time is now for United. The recent performances have shown marked improvements on the season so far and it could be that we’re finally clicking together…something we’ve been waiting for all year! Injuries permitting we could be in for a very interesting, emotional, and hopefully triumphant end to the season.