Sunday the 13th of May 2012 around 16:44. The champagne was on ice. The Premier League winner’s medals were safely in their boxes at the Stadium of Light, ready to be handed out to United’s victorious players. A replica of the famous Premier League trophy ready to be hauled high by Patrice Evra and Manchester United for the 13th time. Millions of United fans around the World poised to roar with joy at the sweetest of title successes.
This was a moment that every single person associated with Manchester United would never forget; but for all the wrong reasons. As a fan it was crushing; our title hopes suddenly increasing, then coming crashing back down to earth in the space of 5 unbelievable added minutes at the Etihad Stadium. We all know what happened next; the unthinkable. A shot. A goal. A title winner to rip up 44 years of hurt for United’s arch rivals.
The 2011/2012 season couldn’t have ended in an any more heartbreaking way – made even more tough to take by the fact that this was probably the greatest moment in Manchester City’s history. In fact, the season as a whole couldn’t have gone much worse. 89 points was a sensational tally, but Sir Alex’s men were nowhere near up to their usual sky high standards; humiliated in the Champions League group stages and hit for 6 at Old Trafford, by a resurgent Manchester City side.
There were lessons to be learnt this summer, but as Sir Alex Ferguson has looked to deliver an emphatic response to the season from hell. “I’m a winner” the 25 years manager of Manchester United declared just a day after Vincent Kompany joyfully lifted the Premier League trophy at his own expense. Instead of looking to forget the horrors of May the 13th, Ferguson has looked to channel the emotions in order to spur his men on to reclaim the title. He urged the younger players, both in the dressing room and in public, to “remember” that faithful day. And remember it they certainly will.
United were quick to snatch their summer targets, Shinji Kagawa – the Bundesliga Player of the Season – and young Nick Powell of Crewe came in as soon as June. Kagawa should provide the creative edge moving forward that the Red Devils lacked last season. So often they pressed and probed teams, but just couldn’t quite break through. Last season there was a run of 1-0 victories and winning in this fashion is all well and good, until the league title is won and lost on goal difference. The former Borrissia Dortmund playmaker should create plenty of chances for the new look, mouth-watering front line.
Similarly, should Tom Cleverely keep fit through the entire season United will have even more creativity in the final third of the pitch. The Englishman was a revelation in the early weeks of last season – playing a huge part in the famous 3-0 and 8-2 victories against Spurs and Arsenal respectively – and put up some good performances for “Team GB” this summer. A pioneer of the pass and move style of play – he and Shinji should also give his side a larger chance in Europe, once again there would be absolutely no excuses for this side to exit the prestigious Champions League in the group stages.
There have been cries from all quarters of Old Trafford – other than the away end – for Ferguson to sign up a strong ball winning midfielder, but he has resisted, thus far. Many would argue that United thoroughly missed Nemanja Vidic’s solidity in defense last season but many people underestimate the importance of Darren Fletcher, particularly when the young defense conceded no less than 14 goals against the 5 sides below them. This figure should decrease with Vidic returning, and Johnny Evans growing in confidence after a good run last season, on top of the rapidly maturing Phil Jones who appear destined to lead out the United defense at Old Trafford in years to come. But still it seems to easy to penetrate through the Red Devil’s midfield, a huge problem in Europe as was shown by the horror shows against Bilbao. The signs for the Scottish midfielder look good, he has returned to training for both his club and country, as well as playing in a friendly last week against Aberdeen. However, it is hard to say, but sadly Fletcher may never reach his high standards again, after losing stones of weight due to his illness. Michael Carrick is a reasonably good ball winning midfielder, as is the young Ryan Tunnicliffe, and Fergie may prefer to promote through the youth system yet again, although it will be a large step up for the young man who has only had first team experience at Peterborough United in the Championship.
Should the midfield create chances, there is absolutely no doubt that there will be goals galore at Old Trafford this season. With last season’s second top scorer fit and ready to go, as well as Chicharito, potentially in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mold, and young Danny Welbeck, who performed so well along side Rooney for both his club and country last season.
But United’s options don’t end there. With the addition of Premier League top scorer and PFA Player of the Season Robin Van Persie gives Sir Alex Ferguson a wealth of goal scoring options, almost replicating the front four achieved treble triumph in 1999. Ferguson’s rapid shift in transfer policy – spending large sums on players over 27 which he swore never to do after Dimitar Berbatov signed – is a reflection on the ability of Van Persie, with the man himself declaring the opportunity to sign Arsenal’s captain as “too good to turn down”.
Can Rooney and Robin Van Persie play together? Who will play as the deep false number 9 type player? What will it mean for new signing Shinji Kagawa? All these questions will soon be answered; there is no question that Ferguson would not put a £24 million investment into an arch rivals star player without a plan in mind. United fans will be desperately hoping that “RvP” in a United shirt will replicate Eric Cantona at Old Trafford, as opposed to Dimitar Berbatov who seems destined to walk away from the club that has deprived him of so many opportunities to shine in the very near future.
Goals may be guaranteed down one end, but Nemanja Vidic and co will be hoping that they don’t fly in down the other end. The Serb brings – alongside Rio Ferdinand – extra leadership and guidance for the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans, as well as being possibly the best center back in the League by himself (although Vincent Kompany may have something to say about that). There is no question that Evans’ solid form last season was significantly aided by having the experience of Ferdinand alongside him, and Vidic will be looking to pass on the same advice for the up and coming generation.
Meanwhile it would seem that young Rafael could benefit from such experience, down the right hand side of defense there have been flashes of brilliance but equally erratic performances that have put his side in trouble. Sir Alex will have given the Brazilian a rollicking after his histrionics in the Olympics Final, and the boy will this season need to become a man if United are to claim the Title, particularly with the deputizing Chris Smalling out injured. Another young man looking to up his performances will be David De Gea in goal; even if he was solid in the final months of the season his side cannot afford another slow start, although he looks now to have adapted to the Premier League and could be one of the players of the season should he pick up from where he left off last season.
A relatively new look United have their first test of the season against Everton, away at Goodison in the first edition of Monday Night Football. It will be a revenge mission for those who were involved in the infamous 4-4 draw at Old Trafford last season, which ultimately turned the Title Race on it’s head and handed the initiative back to Manchester City. Personally (maybe with typical supporter’s pessimism) I can see this being a tough game, Moyes’ men are always tough to beat and the Red Devils are notoriously slow starters, especially with new signings to adapt to the pace of the Premier League and plenty of injury problems to contend with.
On the whole – however- there is every reason to be positive going into the new season, United have a habit of responding emphatically after losing out on the title, and Sir Alex will be drilling into his players the need to take the title back to the red half of Manchester. Last season the side seemed to be in transition, and that trend will continue this season as Giggs and Scholes are handed less chances in the first team, and the young potential stars will – hopefully – step up to the mark and be even more influential. If this can be achieved, and Robin Van Persie can continue his sensation form off the back of last season, then there is a strong possibility that on the final day of this season the champagne bottles can be opened, and the trophy lifted high.
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