The Guardian wrote us off for winning the Premiership title last season, predicting that Luiz Felipe ‘He’s won the World Cup, you know?’ Scolari would lead Chelsea to victory, something RoM of course disagreed with.
Next season is less predictable than most Premiership seasons, it has to be said, with Scolari coming with the potential to be a superstar or a flop. However, it shouldn’t matter much what Scolari does with Chelsea if Sir Alex Ferguson continues to work his magic with United.
United claimed their eighteenth league title, winning the league before the final day of the season, but we’re being written off again. This time in favour of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea and, most insulting of all, Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool. Yes, The Guardian writers have predicted we will finish third this season, something RoM of course disagrees with.
Guardian writers’ prediction: United 3rd
It is a jump to conclude that United will miss their most conspicuous asset to the extent that other teams are now favourites for the title. Paul Wilson is right. Ruud van Nistelrooy scored more goals in his final season than Ronaldo did in his but without buying any replacement, United went on to score more goals the following season. To replace Ruud’s 21 league goals as well as score an extra 11 for good measure was a great achievement. I see no reason why the players in our squad can’t replace Ronaldo’s 18 league goals of last season, particularly when considering we’ve got two new attacking additions to the squad in Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia. Just like Ronaldo stepped up to the plate after Ruud’s departure, there are plenty of players with the potential to come in to their own now Ronaldo has vacated centre stage.
United seem likely to return to something based on a more conventional 4-4-2 with Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov first choice strikers and Michael Owen and Federico Macheda in reserve. On paper, at least, that suggests a considerable goal threat, and before writing off United’s chances of a fourth title it would be wise to wait and see whether Berbatov and Rooney can come into their own given extended runs in their favoured positions. I imagine Guardian readers are more than familiar with Rooney’s recent England form, which boasts 10 goals in his last 7 games, so it makes sense to conclude that when Rooney plays in his favoured position for us, as he has been doing for England, he will score more goals. Regardless, only five players scored more Premiership goals than Rooney last season and that was when he was pushed out on the left (and Torres was the only one of them who had played in fewer games than Rooney, with him missing eight league games last season) so it makes sense to conclude that now he will be given more opportunities to score, he will score more goals.
Owen’s impact depends very much on whether the new system works, since he will not prosper in anything that requires him to play in midfield or alone up front. Given that Carlos Tevez scored just 5 goals in 29 games for us in the league last season, Owen doesn’t have to do much to make the desired impact. If he can score six goals next season then we’ve saved ourselves £25m. His job as our benched striker is to make up the goals we’re losing from the benched striker before him. If he can then chip away and contribute to Ronaldo’s missing goals too, then we’re on to a winner.
My concern isn’t about making the ‘new system’ work, (it’s 442, it’s not a new system, it’s United‘s system) rather keeping Owen fit. If he stays fit, I don’t see how he can’t score goals. He just needs to be on the shoulder of the last defender, a position he’s occupied all pre-season, and he will score.
Given the extent to which United were taken apart in Rome it is perhaps surprising central midfield has not been strengthened. It makes you wonder just how much we can spend on these central midfield positions, when looking at how much we’ve splashed on Carrick, Hargreaves and Anderson. Carrick has thrived at United and I’m more than happy to have him in my team every week. The News of the Screws reckon Hargreaves is out for a further six months, so whilst I don’t take their stories as gospel, nothing would surprise me when it comes to Hargreaves’ knees! Anderson had a great first season, shat all over Fabregas (and Gerrard) but completely fell by the way-side last year. Whilst he still showed glimpses of what made him so popular he was still a long way off the mark. His performance in Rome, which was a perfect mix of painfully embarrassing and excruciatingly cringe-worthy, was the icing on the cake. Must do better.
Where Wilson makes his mistake when discussing our central midfield is his failure to mention Darren Fletcher. Yes, ‘the Scottish player’, Ferguson’s illegitimate son, the player no-one (including Roy Keane) could understand how he got in our team. Well, what do you know? Ferguson was right and we were wrong on this one. Fletcher is a great player and I’ve gone from groaning to feeling relieved when he’s in our starting line-up. He works as hard as any Premiership player and now actually has the quality to match. Whether it’s true or not, I’ve yet to meet a red who doesn’t think Rome could have been very different if Fletch had been playing – but his red card against Arsenal summed him up. The game was won yet he was still putting 100% in to every tackle and had the referee gone to Specsaves, Fletcher’s perfectly timed and executed tackle on Cesc Fabregas would have gone down as brilliant, rather than the moment that denied him his starting place in a European Cup final.
Given the massive amount of title-winning experience within the club it seems reasonable to suppose a fourth consecutive domestic crown is possible, maybe even probable. But unless the Berbatov-Rooney axis can be very clever indeed it is equally likely United will be rumbled again in Europe. Berbatov claimed the most assists for United and only one player in the Premiership assisted more over the course of the season. To have a player of that quality sat behind Rooney, who was one of the top scorers in the league last season despite being pushed out on the left, will almost certainly guarantee goals, and lots of them.
But I want to address our ‘failure’ in Europe last season, something this country has been very giddy about. Let’s get things straight. This Barcelona team is bloody brilliant and won The Treble last season. Can you imagine any team in Europe being criticised by their press for losing against United in 1999? There’s no shame in not being as good as Barcelona.
We finished top of our qualifying group. We comprehensively beat the best team in Italy, who have won their league for the past four years on the bounce, completely outplaying them at their place and putting the tie to bed at ours. We then beat the best team in Portugal, who have won their league for the past four years on the bounce. We then beat Arsenal, who apparently play the most beautiful football in Europe, after absolutely demolishing them on their own turf. Yeh, we got rumbled by Barcelona, but if we’re the second best side in Europe every year, particularly behind a team as good a this current Barca one, then I’m not going to be too disappointed!
Essentially though, of course we can’t really predict who will win the league. Whilst I don’t think there’s any way we will finish behind both Chelsea and Liverpool next season, there’s never a guarantee of success. But my money would be on the manager whose won eleven English titles pulling out the stops, rather than backing two unproven managers. As Ferguson said, Liverpool have just enjoyed their best season in twenty years, yet Benitez still couldn’t even take it until the last day of the season before bowing out. Ancelotti has shown his ability in the Champions League, but hasn’t done much in Serie A, which is obviously an inferior league to ours, so it’s not wise to suggest he will certainly be able to pull the strings in the Premiership.
I fancy United to win the league, but then again, I do every summer. The thought of lifting our nineteenth title is almost too good to be true but I certainly think we have more of the qualities to win it than Liverpool and Chelsea. Roll on the weekend!