Manchester United appear to be doing it again. As we enter the business end of the 2011-12 season, despite the fact they sit in second place, they appear to be turning the screw, playing with more flare, and using their experience to pile the pressure on leaders Manchester City. It’s not the first time they’ve done this. Traditionally after Christmas, the Red Devils get their heads in gear, results start to become more convincing, and pundits finally change the record from, ‘when you’re winning and not playing well you always give yourself a chance’ to ‘United are playing with pace, power and determination’.
The other positive is the emergence of several key players from their winter hibernation. Rooney has had a fairly quiet spell, but now appears to be the deadly striker we saw at the start of the season. Welbeck has returned, Valencia and Cleverley are playing more, despite intermitent injuries, and the team are going from strength to strength. Even the return of Scholes, who for two or three games looked far behind the pace required to play in the Premier League, appears to have been a Fergie masterpiece, as his assured touch and calmness in the middle has seen the side appear stronger and more resolved in recent weeks.
It is fair to say though, that United have had their worst European season in many years. After being torn apart in last season’s Champions League final to Barcelona, United have slipped into the Europa League this year, and were hardly electrifying in their defeat of Ajax in the last round. That’s why, despite sitting 30 points behind leaders Real Madrid in La Liga, it was not a huge surprise that Althetic Bilbao came to Old Trafford to get a result. Whilst the result itself was not a shock, the manner of the performance will certainly give Fergie plenty to think about, not only for the second leg, but for the remainder of the season.
Ferguson himself admitted that the better team won on Thursday night. It was perhaps a bigger statement of his disappointment, that despite a bizarre refereeing decision to award a free kick because Evra touched the ball without a boot, leading to goal; Ferguson, a man known for criticising decisions in order to protect his players, this time chose to blame his players fully for the result, and the third goal, which saw both Anderson and Rafael simply stand and watch as De Gea’s stunning save wasn’t enough to prevent Muniain drifting in from the edge of the area to stroke the ball home in the final minute.
Ferguson has often talked about the need to play an experienced defence, and therefore his decision to rest Ferdinand and play Smalling and Evans was controversial, although Evans was one of the more impressive players for the majority of the game. Rafael however looked out of place, Smalling looked off the pace, and although Evra’s forays forward were as impressive as ever, he too was being torn apart by the Bilbao front three of Llorente, Muniain and De Marcos. Take nothing away from these three, or the Bilbao side in general, they came to play, and in front of a huge following they performed without fear, passing their way through the United team without any issues. The defence and midfield of United backed off though, were often uncertain, and generally looked uninterested for large parts of the game.
One United player that does deserve credit is David De Gea. A man who has taken a fair amount of time to get accustomed to the English game, on Thursday night he made a number of world class saves that have allowed United to cling on to the small chance that they might still get through to the next round. Similarly, Rooney looked lively, and while Hernandez had two or three great chances that he dwelled on too long, he also played well. The service of Valencia, and the work-rate of Cleverley were visible by their absence, and it was a shame that Welbeck didn’t get his chance for a run out.
Perhaps what we should remember that despite being a trophy that United have yet to win, it is the Europa League. With the title race very much a two horse race, it appears that United’s players are choosing to turn up for the Premier League games. If they are not going to be capable of winning both the Premier League and the Europa League, then surely the fans and players alike would welcome the Premiership out of the two. A chance to overtake their ‘noisy neighbours’ in the latter stages of the season and hold on to their Premier League crown is surely more important than the second rate European trophy. As for Bilbao, they stand no chance in La Liga, and have the chance to make a real name for themselves in Europe. More than that, but the chance to play against Manchester United is surely going to raise the games of the players as they strive to show the world what they can do.
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