Can Manchester United Make it “Four in A Row”?

Yes They Can Can…If the Gaffer Reads the Writing on the Wall!!!

Well, having had his head handed to him twice last season, Sir Alex Ferguson still seems bound and determined to ignore the handwriting on the wall. The sheer depth of talent in his his squad, however, will always allow the Gaffer to peek into the abyss, throw out some appropriate barbs meant to psych out the immediate opposition and still find a way to pull a nineteenth trophy.

Nevertheless, slightly weakened, at least psychologically, by the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez and the shrill clang and rattle of coin resounding from the deep deep oil money-filled pockets of Manchester City, the grand old geezer of British football and his squad really do have their work cut out for them this season.

“You need a new leader!” the handwriting says.

And we do. Rio’s magazine is very nice (the bird on the front cover is nicer). I am impressed. He has also become, in partnership with Chelsea’s Ashley Cole–yes, the Cashley Grrrl and her bad left-footed self–a film producer. This is all splendid and wonderful. I’m sure Rio’s thinking ahead to retirement.

Still, the absolute howler Rio committed for England on Wednesday while making a simple back pass may be the sign of a return to old habits and vices, or even a flashback. Neither Rio nor Ryan Giggs owns either the moxy or personality to be the truly great captain United need. Sir Alex needs to step in now and force the responsibility on Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra , Nemanja Vidic, or… someone new!!! Picking Wazza may sound daft, but I think it would help force him to grow up.

I was kind of disappointed to see a strong character like Lorik Cana sign for Sunderland on the cheap. Cana, a decent post-to-post midfielder and an inspiring gung-ho captain for Olympique Marseille, would have made a wonderful skipper and definitely would have made a more natural successor to Roy Keane than the Gaffer’s pet, Darren Fletcher.

Now don’t get me wrong, Fletcher is definitely what Ferguson calls a ‘trier.’ To be sure, Fergie was referring to Carlos ‘el traidor’ Tevez at the time, but , I say, if the shoe fits… Darren has been learning on the job for six seasons now and his diligence is to be applauded. As a sort of super substitute, I think Fletcher is fine and capable of being even more adaptable than Johnny O’Shea.

For some reason, however, Fletcher’s diligence and hard graft is mistaken for quality. I have never been enamored of the Scotsman, but have seen a steady incremental improvement. There are those who believe he was the missing link in the ECC final against Barcelona. This is absurd! Whether we’re up against Xabi Alonso, Stevie G and Javier Mascherano or the even better midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, the fact is that we just don’t have the horses in central midfield to take it to the next level.! In a nutshell: Anderson is still being forced to play out of position and Fletcher simply isn’t good enough. This is United’s single biggest problem.

“You need a truly great hard midfielder if you want to win everything,” the handwriting says.

Now that Xabi Alonso’s gone, I’m not really worried about Liverpool. His replacement, Alberto Aquilani, is a fine footballer; but , but beyond his constant ankle problems, it will take him a season for him to get acclimated to the speed of the EPL. Buying Glen Johnson will improve their right side a lot, but, ultimately, Liverpool are completely dependent upon Fernando Torres and Stevie Gerrard remaining fit.

I hear Rafa Benítez is a deeply religious man who prays every morning with his daughters. If Torres manages to stay fit throughout the season, I, too, may become a believer in miracles. I won’t make too much of ‘Pool’s 2-1 mugging by Spurs this weekend, except to make note of the fact that they only lost two Premiership games in all of last season.

As I write, I hear on Spanish language radio that Arsenal are trying to squeeze 45 million quid out of Barcelona before agreeing to fllog Cesc Fabregas next year. Even with Fabregas, even if there were to be a miraculous shopping binge before the window closes, I can’t see the Arse staying in the top four. Having massacred Everton 6-1 at Goodison in their first game, Gooner fans are already talking the talk. Yesterday I got eight e-mails from different Arse men. Promises and predictions! The usual! I say sssssh! Same old Arsenal: No testosterone!

Are Chelsea good? Sure Chelsea are good, but they’re getting really old. If Chelsea stay fit, particularly my darling Michael Essien, they have to stand a good chance. Anyone watching the Community Shield match clearly saw that this cynical group of mercenaries are going to grind out victories any which way they need to. Carvalho, Terry and Ballack are gristled, mean, dirty and past their pomp, but they will well and truly mount up for this their last serious season as a group and go for it. Clearly, this season Chelsea will be very physical, like Big Sam’s version of Bolton Wanderers, only with a touch of class.

Aston Villa and Everton will hang in there on the periphery, but just don’t have good enough squads. Both teams got badly beaten in their first match, and, although there shouldn’t be too much made of it, Joleon Lescott moping for a move to Manchester City for a whole season will poison the Toffees dressing room in much the same way Gareth Barry’s whinging to be a Scouser hurt Villa last season.

This leaves Manchester City. Despite their still being a little aenemic-looking at the back, I have to believe their depth of talent will tell on the opposition after January, especially if Robinho is happy. It is imperative that the old big four need to put them to the sword early in the season before they’ve gelled as a unit , or else they really may sneak into the top three.

This brings me back to United. As I said earlier, United’s only two major defeats of last season were very public, totally humiliating and telegraphed our weaknesses to all and sundry. We have three potentially brilliant attacking midfielders in the wingers Valencia, Nani and Tosic. Old man Giggsy should be able to make his mark as a substitute, although the energy machine, Park ji-Sung. may have already overstayed his welcome and is probably due for a move to a club where scoring isn’t important. by next season.

What I expect to happen in game after game is the Chelsea model from the Community Shield match. Everybody will try to beat United up in central midfield, and, even though the red devils will never be turned into the kind of passive, testosterone-free team Arsene Wenger has fashioned in his own image at Arsenal, I expect the squad will be battered and become tired early enough in the season to have to trot out Darron Gibson and Tom Cleverly regularly in the Spring. In United’s first game, a 1-0 win over Birmingham City, neither Ginger Scholes nor Darren Fletcher kept possession for long. This is worrisome.

“Berbatov is a load of rubbish!” the handwriting on the wall says.

In my heart of hearts, if United can just hold on until January, I think everybody around him will ultimately convince the Gaffer to swallow his pride and go out and spend big money on a midfield general. Ideally, I’d like Ferguson to splash big on Daniele De Rossi or Hernanes; but, more realistically, I’m sure he’d rather gamble on the youth of Javíer Martínez, Blaise Matuidi, Steven Dufour, Anthony Annan, Axel Witsel or Scott Brown. Out of the six, although he may not be as good a technician as the others, Dufour looks to have the best leadership skills.

We may mourn the exit of Ronnie and Carlitos, but I truly believe that Wazza, Macheda, Welbeck and little Mickey Owen can get the job done if Berbatov keeps out of everybody’s way. Dmitar Berbatov, like the League of Nations, America in South Vietnam, the Concorde, Massimo Taibi, Eric Djemba Djemba, Juan Sebastian Veron and Kleberson, exists to illustrate the folly of owning absolute power.

Sir Alex Ferguson, easily the most successful manager in British football history, and a fine motivator of young men, has been calling the shots at Old Trafford since the last old school club chairman, Martin Edwards, stepped down in 2002. To be fair to Ferguson, he has truly been a mostly benevolent dictator since Edwards walked away from the club. Despite his habit of teasing Jose Mourinho, Carlos Queiroz and the press about his ‘imminent retirement,’ most of us true believers think he will never quit, and end up being carried off the field of play on a stretcher, exactly like his mentor, Jock Stein.

Even if Taibi, Djembax2, Kleberson and the fitfully brilliant £28M Seba Veron could be written off as honest mistakes on the Gaffer’s part, the whole circus involving Berbatov has stunned many fans. Slow, lazy, selfish and beguiled by his hubris-driven ego to a point of ridiculousness, the shrugging Bulgarian is truly the Gaffer’s weakness.

The almost perfect diamond formation of the 2007-2008 season may have been the hardest working football team ever. They smothered a brilliant Barcelona team at the Nou Camp in 2008. The full-frontal battering ram effect of Tevez and Rooney up front allowed Cristiano the freedom to score 42 goals. Clearly, we can see now, this team was brilliant, but often rejected pretty football for the sake of practicality. The cliché is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, Ferguson wanted a new kind of aesthetic perfection last season. Dimitar Berbatov, a big man who can dribble, flick and dish, can be a dazzling technician who, at his best, reminds you of Eric Cantona on Paxyl. Perfect for the slow, deliberate system at Tottenham Hotspur, like some big-ticket chatchke at Fortnum & Mason’s, Berbatov was truly the object of the Gaffer’s lust and desire.

Without ever fitting into the system, Berbatov was trotted out week after week. Well, £32M is a lot of money to spend and the Gaffer wanted to get his money’s-worth. Fortunately, United are such a good team that they kept winning anyway. The disenchantment of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez was clear for everybody to see, yet Fergie’s righteous band of committed professionals still managed to hold onto the premiership crown by the skin of its collective teeth and can do it again.

As far as strikers go, I hope Ferguson stands easy until January. I really believe we have ample strikers. Come Christmas, if the Gaffer finally loses his faith in Berbatov, perhaps we can dump him on Athletic Madrid or Valencia in part-exchange for Sergio ‘el Kun’ Aguero or David Silva.

“We need a good goalkeeper NOW!” the handwriting on the wall says.

This is the least of our worries. EVDS will be back soon and our defence is still really solid. It’s very clear that, similar to Tim Howard before him, Ben Foster is turned into a nervous wreck by the pressure of big games. Howard has matured slowly at Everton and I expect Foster will improve somewhere else. Kucszak, although prone to mistakes in the air, looks to be a better choice as he gets far less flustered than Foster in pressure situations.

If Manuel Neuer is available, Ferguson has food for thought. Schalke will surely prefer to sell Neuer–who really does have all the tools in spades–to Manchester United rather than their permanent Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munchën. Is he worth £20M? I wish United would have bought Sergio Asenjo from Real Vellodidad before he went to Athletic Madrid for £3M a few weeks ago, because I think he has surpassed the aging Gianluigi Buffone as the second-best keeper in the world.

At 6’3”’ and around 17 Stone(238 lbs) Neuer is exactly what Ferguson has wanted for two seasons: A true successor to Schmeichel and Van Der Sar. Comparative theorems are a slippery slope, to be sure, but, if Diego Lopez is deemed to be worth £12M by his club, Villareal, then, yes, Neuer is worth £20M. Foster made four fine saves from Birmingham City this Sunday, which is cause for celebration. His footwork, however, was horrendous. Two weak passes fell short and United were extremely lucky that the hapless Brum forward line were too surprised to take advantage.

Clearly, Ferguson is committed to his two weakest starters, Darren Fletcher and Dmitar Berbatov. He is not the kind of man to cut his losses in the way Rafa Benítez did after the disastrous £20M purchase of Robbie Keane. As long as the lads win, he will keep trotting out Berbatov again and again. If the goals aren’t going in by January, however, stuck with a 29-year-old Jonah of steadily diminishing value, I would expect Ferguson to use him as swap bait for Agüero or to be sold back to Spurs for about 50% of the price he was purchased for.

“Manchester United will win again and Fergie will laugh as you swallow your humble pie!” (once again!)” says the handwriting on the wall.

As I said earlier, I can’t see anyone mounting a season-long challenge good enough to challenge United for the Premier League honours. United will not just survive without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, they will thrive. With Adam Ljajic arriving from Partizan Belgrade in January our attacking midfield options will improve even more. I don’t think we will make it to Madrid this year for the ECC final, but I do expect United will have found a new, inspiring holding central midfielder by this time next year.

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