Mission Complete, SAF… For Now…

Today, Sir Alex Ferguson achieved the goal he set when joining Manchester United in 1986 – knocking Liverpool off their perch, and the top of the English game. It boggles the mind when you consider that the score was 18-7 by 1990. Many considered Fergie’s mission to be nullified there and then. But it was that very same season that his United side claimed the FA Cup, and therefore entry into the UEFA Cup Winners Cup (kids, this was about all Chelsea won before Mr Abromovich arrived). They won that a year later, with one of the greatest goals in United history courtesy of Bryan Robson, and then it started – ‘it’ being the onslaught from Salford towards the River Mersey.

Liverpool haven’t exactly had a bad time over the past twenty years. There have been quite a few honours which they have picked up, but more notably, one which they have failed to – the Premier League. Many thought they had ended their baron spell in 2009, but United reeled them in, despite a 4-1 home defeat to their contenders at Old Trafford. It was a great season as Rooney and Ronaldo spearheaded United’s attack. The Berb and Podgy Tevez were less effective, but the man who scored crucial goals versus Villa and Sunderland? Federico Macheda. Nice one, Kiko. Nice one. Manchester United clinched the title with a game to go against Arsenal at home – with a 0-0 draw. Sound familiar?

For a game to seal a title, it was quite a boring game this time round. United on top, Kuszczak messed up twice, Blackburn score against the run of play, hit the post, penalty given, and that’s it. I was watching with a friend who couldn’t believe the knock-about football we saw at the end. I simply said “both teams need a point.”

However, one thing that did come up was the defensive frailty of Manchester United. The back five (including keeper) just seemed so uneasy for long periods of the game. I’m sure the Pole in goal (who was about as much use as a pole today) was thinking “here’s my chance to show I’m the man to replace VDS.” After that, Fergie will be even surer that he needs to splash the cash. Who though? Rumoured are Maarten Stekelenburg, Hugo Lloris, and David De Gea. However, Ferguson needs to get a safe pair of gloves in goal who is used to the English game. Stellenbosch’s and Lloris are both quality, but have no experience at the same level as United are. Ajax are no longer Dutch giants, and Lyon have become the third best team in France it would seem. United need a keeper who either has played in England for a while, or is used to Europe’s top level – the Champions League. The beauty of goalkeeper is that they can keep going forever. Van der Sar is 40, and probably deserved to be in the PFA Shortlist. Look at Gigi Buffon, who himself is 108, and Iker Casillas – solid, and still with years left in them. Why not someone such as Gomes or Paul Robinson? Manuel Neuer is my personal choice. After his heroics in Gelsenkirchen, and with just a year left, could The Red Devils snaffle him from under Bayern’s noses?

Consistency is key to any great side. United in the late nineties had this with Schmeichel-Neville-Stam-Johnsen-Irwin. The keeper goes, and it all fell apart from Massimo Taibi onwards , and then Stam went, followed by Irwin, and poor Nevs is left with youngsters. United struggled for a while, but many thought that then VDS-Neville-Ferdinand-Vidic-Evra combination was impenetrable (notice the time gap there). But, sadly, all good things come to an end. Edwin has two more games in United colours and Gary is already in the Sky Sports commentary box. Vidic is still a great performer, but he is prone to a few errors now and then (think Liverpool ’09). Today though, it seemed like this partnership that had been so great for the past five or so seasons was collapsing. This was epitomised when they both went up for a header, and clattered into each other.

United’s great strength is depth, but this is less so in defence. Jonny Evans has potential, but needs more experience (and not to be played at left-back). Wes Brown… let’s move on. The Da Silva twins pack a real punch, but are limited by other wide men such as Nani and Valencia. Chris Smalling is waiting in the wings, and O’Shea is just there to fill in a gap really. But apart from the three remaining starters, none of them scream “World Class”. Fergie must be thinking “why the hell did I sell Gerard Pique?”

Ferguson can enjoy his success for now, but must be apprehensive about the future, which is getting gloomier in Greater Manchester. Not only did the Bluer side take the FA Cup home (which was part of United’s treble-that-wasn’t-to-be), but the debt was last counted up to be £1bn. Going forward, only Barcelona can claim a better forward six. At the back? Go back a few season, yes, United are untouchable. But now, they are lacking a quality right back and keeper (as of June), and have the prying eyes of Europe all over Vidic. Fragility in any great team starts in one area of a team, and seeps through it. Liverpool are better placed than ever to make it 19-all next season, so Sir Alex must watch his back. But be warned – he’s already thought of that, trust me.

Luke Smith

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