You would have been laughed at if in October you told any football fans that Manchester United would be chasing domestic and European titles by May. Dubbed the worst United squad of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, nobody saw them as genuine Premiership challengers, let alone continental contenders.
The high aspiration of getting some star signings vanished into thin air after Ferguson signed three relatively obscure players: a young Mexican striker, a Fulham defender who less than three years ago was still playing non-league football and a homeless Portuguese attacker who had never even been seen by Ferguson. Wayne Rooney went public to express his frustration and said the club lacked ambition before requesting a transfer. The club’s away form was dreadful and the media started to think that this was the beginning of the end.
Six months later, United comfortably sits on top of the table – six points clear of Chelsea – and has just about booked its ticket to the Champions League final at Wembley following its 2-0 away defeat of Schalke in their first-leg semifinal. How did they manage to do it?
Many said that United would never reach the same heights after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez’s switch of allegiance to the blue side of Manchester. That’s why Ferguson couldn’t afford to lose another key player and moved heaven and earth to keep Rooney at Old Trafford. It seemed that Rooney was just inches away from moving to another club, but one could wonder if Ferguson pulled another of his famous mind tricks to make the Croxteth-born striker change his mind.
I wouldn’t want to imagine how United’s season would have ended had Rooney not stayed, as he has proved to be a massive player for them since the turn of the year. The champions-elect don’t have a designated playmaker in the mold of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas or Tottenham’s Luka Modric. That’s where Rooney comes in. Originally an out-and-out striker, Ferguson plays him deeper these days to hold and distribute the ball. Italian football fans would say that Rooney acts like a trequartista, a classic number 10 like Francesco Totti or Kaka, but he’s much different because those two rarely track down the ball.
Rooney’s goal tally falls short consequently – he had 26 league goals last season and only 10 goals this season, but his vision and passing create chances for teammates to score. Step forward Javier Hernandez, who at 6 millions pounds looks like a bargain. His partnership with Rooney has been deadly and is keeping the league’s top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, on the bench.
But it was Berbatov along with Hernandez who carried United through Rooney’s difficult time when the English international struggled to find his form. Berbatov has only started three times in United’s last 14 matches, yet his 21 goals in the Premiership this season are second to none.
Nani also has had a massive role in cementing United on the top. He has become a more effective, less-showboating winger this season, leading the league with 18 assists, to go along with the nine goals to his name. Michael Carrick is back to his brilliant self at holding the midfield and the return of Antonio Valencia from a horrendous injury almost feels like a new signing. Park Ji-sung, who according to cynics “was only bought to sell shirts,” is irreplaceable in European fixtures with his discipline and stamina.
The United defense looks impenetrable when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are fit, but a much-maligned signing from Fulham, Chris Smalling, has proved that he can take the mantle when needed, while it won’t be long before the Da Silva brothers, Rafael and Fabio, are posing as regular fullbacks.
It would be a travesty to ignore Ryan Giggs’s contribution to this Red troupe. His lightning pace might have been diminished, but how many times has he saved United with his utter brilliance and vision this season? At 37, he makes people ponder whether “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was actually based on him, and Man City supporters might want to demand a drug test.
Ferguson’s Red Army will make a trip to north London this weekend to face Arsenal, whose title aspirations once again ran into a cul-de-sac in a rather sad ending to a promising season. Three points will give United one hand on the its 19th title, moving it one ahead of Liverpool, in the most competitive Premiership season ever (or the worst, depending on how you see it).