Manchester United won the League Cup final on penalties against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley yesterday afternoon, leaving them on course for what could possibly the greatest achievement ever by a club side – a clean sweep of all tournaments this season. This season has been quite a different one to last season for them. They picked up the two trophies that really matter to them – the Premier League and the Champions League – and played some breathtaking, swashbuckling football on the way, but they slipped up in the FA Cup and the League Cup.
This time around, however, Alex Ferguson has been more ruthless. In fact, this year’s Manchester United has taken on many of the characteristics of (and one suspects that no-one will want to hear me say this) the great Liverpool side of the mid-1980s, grinding out results when not playing particularly well, defending absolutely and resolutely, and occasionally playing football of such effortless simplicity that even the most hardened of cynics has to stand back and merely admire the quality of football on display. They have lost just once, inexplicably to Derby County in the First Leg of the League Cup semi-final since the start of November, and it’s difficult to see where their next defeat is going to come from.
There is a point to which one could argue that they have been somewhat lucky this season. Liverpool spent £20m on the wrong striker and, whilst led the Premier League table for much of the first half of the season, they have seldom looked like genuine championship material. Ten league draws in twenty-seven league matches tells its own story – too many matches that they should have won but failed to score the critical goal that would have won them the all-important extra two points. Elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Everton means that all that they realistically have to play for now is the Champions League. The appointment of Felipe Scolari last summer couldn’t slow Chelsea’s decline. Too many players that are now past their peak but, because of a combination of fat contracts and a misguided degree of player power, they were unmanageable for the first half of this season. The appointment of football’s equivalent of Red Adair, Guus Hiddinck, was a sensible one and their form has taken a turn for the better over the last few weeks, but the suspicion remains that they remain likely to drop points to sides lower down the division, and the fear for visiting teams of a trip to Stamford Bridge seems to have completely evaporated. Arsenal could yet win the FA Cup or even become the European champions this season, but their deterioration has been even more severe than Chelseas. To some extent, United have been fortunate that this has been a transitional season for two of their rivals, whilst all three seem riven by some degree of backroom discord.
For Manchester United, this season has not been built upon the trickery of the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo. This season has been about a consistently solid defensive performance which has made them look unbeatable in the purest sense. Van Der Saar and Vidic have probably been their players of the season, marshalling their les experienced team-mates, sweeping up mistakes and keeping possession with such ease that some of their matches have looked like little more than training exercises. To this extent, Alex Ferguson has gone back to basics, building his team up from the back, safe in the knowledge that, when they does get the ball forward, the array of attacking talent is still amongst the best in the world. He has had an unexpected boost in a remarkable Indian summer for Ryan Giggs, whose form has belied his advancing years, and whose influence off the pitch seems to be adding to their sense of professionalism on it.
It hasn’t all been perfect, though. There were times early on in the season when it looked just possible that they could go the same was as Chelsea or Arsenal. Four matches without a win in left them looking slightly ragged, and successive defeats at the hands of Zenit St Petersburg (in the European Super Cup) and Liverpool seemed to call into question whether they could excel themselves and go one better than last season. Also, last summer’s big signing, Dimitar Berbatov, hasn’t been an unqualified success. In terms of style and skill, he remains one of the best players in Europe, but he always runs the risk of looking bored when he is not completely involved, and a question mark remains over whether he was actually worth the £30m that United paid for him. Also, in spite of their massive commercial pull, United remain heavily in debt thanks to the Glazer leveraged buyout. The overwhelming majority of the credit for this seasons success should go to Alex Ferguson and his team rather than the Glazer family.
Can anyone stop them? Can anything yet ruin what is increasingly like a historic season for Manchester United? Well, there are a couple of small clouds on the horizon. An FA Cup quarter-final away to Fulham on Saturday is not the walkover that some might tell you it is, and there are those that are concerned that they couldn’t manage an away goal at the San Siro in the first leg of their recent Champions League match against Internazionale. These, however, seem to be trifling concerns in the overall scene of things. For now, there is a distinct possibility that we could be in the midst of watching something remarkable unfold. If they manage it, arguments about luck will go out of the window. There will be little alternative but to step back and applaud.