Last season we were written off because Cristiano Ronaldo was injured at the start of the season, we’d have to make a trip to the other side of the world during the busiest period of the season, and quite frankly, it just wasn’t possible to repeat the success of 07/08.
Ronaldo scored 16 fewer goals for us, we won the FIFA World Club Cup and still came back and played catch up, we won the League Cup, we were knocked out of the FA Cup by a dodgy ref and penalty shoot-out in the semi-final, and lost to quite clearly the best side in Europe in the European Cup final.
Can we equal or better than this season? I don’t see why not.
The great thing about United is that we’re always evolving. Sir Alex Ferguson has created great team after great team at our club, with great player after great player moving on, and it really does appear as though nothing can stop him. Even during the bad times, things never really get that bad.
I remember reading a rare Paul Scholes interview not so long ago where he talked about how it felt for the players between the title wins of 2003 and 2007, where we managed an FA Cup and a League Cup win.
“I actually didn’t realise it was four years between winning the league,” he said. “But I certainly did not think it was over during that fallow period. Manchester United is a major club. OK, we were probably not as close as we would have liked to have been but I never thought we would not win it again and the manager did not let us think that way either. At a club like this, you always think you will get it right one year.”
This season, like every other season under our great manager, we will start it believing that we are going to win it again. 2008-2009 was good to us and I’m of the firm belief this coming season will match it.
1. Matches played
Last season we won the league having played more matches than any of our rivals, yet still won by four points before the final day of the season. So deep is our squad, we were able to rotate our players, depending on the occasion, and had great success. A lot of the players who came in to the mix (Macheda, Welbeck, da Silvas, Gibson etc.) helped us reach the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final despite it being their first season at the club. You would expect better from them next season.
In the 08-09 season we played in a total of 64 games in all competitions whilst Liverpool, who finished four points behind us, played just 53. We can already discount two games from last year as we won’t be in the FIFA World Club Cup, which was not just draining from a playing perspective, but because the lads had to travel over to the other side of the world and back mid-season. If we can go unbeaten for 12 league games between November and January, winning ten of them, with a trip to Japan slap bang in the middle, we have to remain confident of what we can achieve without going to the World Clup Cup.
Who knows how far we will get in the domestic cup competitions but this year more than ever I imagine these will firmly belong to the younger players. Our first team players shouldn’t be used in the League Cup at all, as far as I’m concerned, and a few should only be drafted in if we’re playing strong opposition. This will take the pressure and the game time away from the players we’re relying on to win us the league.
2. Point to prove
United started last season on the back of the league and European Cup double. Our players didn’t have a lot to prove. Whilst of course the goal was to repeat that success, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on them. They had gone out and done it already. To win the double the following year would have been ridiculous… yet we still came painfully close to it. By February we had two trophies in the bag, were in all competitions still, and were top of the league. What did we have to prove to anyone at that point?
This year things are different. After the embarrassing defeat to Barcelona, suddenly it was forgotten that we beat the best teams in Italy and Portugal to get there, and that we totally destroyed Arsenal in the semis. This team was done, apparently. When Ronaldo left, it only heaped on the pressure. We’ve been dubbed a one-man team for a few years now (remarkably!) and without that one man, were we going to fall apart?
That means it’s time for all our players to step up to the plate. They have a point to prove – they are a great team and can be successful without Ronaldo. That should only drive our players forward and make them more determined than ever. They are winners and they will strive to prove that.
Then we have individual players with a point to prove, none more than Michael Owen. He had become a bit of a laughing stock in this country following his depressing spell at Newcastle and now the eyes of the footballing world will be scrutinising every move he makes at United. For Owen, it’s not only his pride at stake, but his salary and his World Cup place. He’s on a basic wage of £30k a week, which is less than what Jonny Evans earns, unless he plays in games and scores goals, and there’s no way Fabio Capello will be picking him for England because of his name – he has to prove he’s up to the task too.
Dimitar Berbatov was loved by some, hated by others, after being dubbed “lazy” throughout his first season. Whilst I’d argue his more languid style shouldn’t be confused with laziness, Berbatov has been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism regardless. Unless he scored 25 goals or more last season he was going to get slated, given his massive transfer fee. You are right to expect a lot from a £30m striker and for all his beautiful play, he didn’t score enough goals. But with Ronaldo exiting centre stage, there is certainly the potential for Berbatov to grab more goals, and it appears as though this is something he is very keen to do. Wayne Rooney said the other day that Berbatov has been working a lot harder in training and appears to be more up for it. He’s got his first United medals and now he wants to help win us more.
Wayne Rooney has been given the responsibility of filling Ronaldo’s boots by the press and I’d have to say our fans agree. If he has a good season, we will have a good season, but if he gets injured or goes off the boil, we’re in trouble. Thankfully, we’re putting our faith in the right person, as far as I’m concerned. He will relish in this challenge of being the big man at United and will be wanting a good season to go in to the World Cup.
3. Where’s the competition?
Whilst we can look at the positives and negatives of our squad, it will do us good to pay attention to our rivals, the teams pipped to beat us to glory.
Chelsea finished third last season, they haven’t strengthened their team and their best players are all a year older. Anelka’s goals helped Chelsea massively this season but you don’t fancy him to score 19 again this year, whilst defensively Terry and Carvalho are past their best. Their big bonus is the return of Michael Essien who is a brilliant player to have in your team and he should be approaching his peak. The new manager has been tipped to make the difference to Chelsea, but people said the same about Scolari, and I don’t see why Ancelotti should be viewed as any different. His forte is the Champions League but in Serie A, a considerably weaker league than the Premiership, he amounted to not a lot.
Liverpool’s biggest blow is losing Alonso, who is a top quality player and made a big difference to their side. It’s easy for Gerrard and Torres to take the credit when Alonso is doing all the donkey work behind them, and Torres recognised what an important player he was for them. They were four points worse off last season, despite playing in 11 fewer games than us and still having Alonso, so it’s a big ask for them to improve on that.