Saturday, March 5, 2011

Most pivotal game of Fergie's reign?

Remember the date – March 6th 2011. This is the date that Sir Alex Ferguson has been awaiting for nearly 25 years. He swept into Old Trafford with a hard-nosed reputation and promised to do two things. Firstly to sort out the mess he found at once great club Manchester United that had failed to win a title in the top flight for nearly 2 decades (then) but more famously his personal remit was clear – he wanted to knock Liverpool off their effing perch. It was a tall ask and a bold claim. Liverpool’s title count was double that of United. There was no expectation that United would close that gap for at least another half century. That they are on the verge of their 19th title within a quarter of a century is an achievement that will surely be unrivalled.

Liverpool vs. United is the first date I look for when the fixture list is announced. Two clubs steeped in history but enjoying contrasting fortunes in the last 20 years come head to head once more and there is much, much more to this game then mere bragging rights.

Here’s the equation. If United win, they edge ever closer to a record 19th title at the expense of their most hated rivals and Fergie’s prophecy comes true, his legendary status complete. If Liverpool win, the knock on effect could demoralise United and give rivals fresh impetus to get over the finishing line first, notably Arsenal. A draw is probably no good to either side but would probably just favour United.

I’m not expecting a good game. The result is far too important. Liverpool come into the game on the back of yet another wretched defeat. A club used to success must wonder how it could have got this bad. United, too, come off the back of a defeat though their performance was by no means poor and indeed during the first half played Chelsea off the park in their own backyard. That they succumbed to defeat from a winning position is clear proof that this is not quite the United of the last decade. It was an undeserved defeat with United on the end of some poor decisions but even the most one-eyed Red must admit that United have been the beneficiaries of a few dodgy decisions across the season so these cannot be used as an excuse. Moreover, it confirms gathering opinion that this is a very average team with a deeply average midfield. Once Scholes ran out of puff, momentum was lost and Chelsea were able to dictate the pace of the game. United teams of old would never have let this happen.

Liverpool’s defeat at West Ham was most notable for how the home side, desperately fighting relegation, simply wanted it more. There should be no danger of Liverpool failing to be ‘up for it’ against United. This is one thing that is a given. There may be a stark lack of quality in the squad but each player will know they have to give absolutely everything tomorrow. The question is will this be enough? On paper United have the better players. Liverpool are in the process of rebuilding and need to simply write this season off but man for man, United are currently better. History proves that this means nothing. In many of United’s title winning seasons, they have succumbed in this fixture, lost the battle but won the war.

The most concerning element of the defeat to Chelsea was not the result, certainly not the performance. It was Vidic’s sending off which could prove pivotal. If it’s true that Andy Carroll is ready to make his debut tomorrow, United have reason to be concerned defensively, shorn of their best player this season by a distance. Poor Vidic. He must have been looking forward to facing Liverpool without Torres, the one player who has genuinely managed to get the better of him over the years.
United will miss Vidic’s authority and the defence will be tested but they will cope. I am more worried about the midfield. Fergie has made some terrific decisions over the years but it is alarming how much faith he continues to show in the current midfield. More alarming that all said midfielders are signing new contracts speaks volumes of the lack of funds available to United under the ownership of the Glazers. Yet, why complain. This team keep winning.

Liverpool will hope their big players perform. It would probably have been better had United not lost at Chelsea. They may have been more complacent. History has also told us that teams should beware a ‘wounded’ United.

Ferguson may not have told his players that this is the most pivotal game of his entire reign but hopefully they will perform as if they already know.

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