The real problem Manchester United are facing
All four of the Spanish entrants of this season’s Champions League have made it through to the knockout round. All three of the German participants have advanced (as well as all of the Bundesliga’s representatives in the Europa League). Yet England are only two from four.
The Premier League title race is said to be over following Manchester United’s 2-0 over Everton on the weekend. A 12-point gap and as good as done. In February. Whichever way you want to paint it, that’s devastating for the top flight of English football. It’s exactly the same state La Liga are in at the moment, with Atletico 12-points off Barcelona, who were once again impressive in their 6-1 win over Getafe on Sunday.
The problem here is that Manchester United are coasting, rather than destroying. They’ll win the league title this year, provided something miraculous doesn’t happen, but not necessarily because they’re the conquerors of a league in its prime. The quality of Premier League football has taken a massive nosedive in recent seasons. Ahead of their Champions League group tie against Real Madrid, Manchester United haven’t been able to face a team of the quality of the Spanish champions.
And let’s not get too bogged down with how poor Real Madrid have been this season. They were pathetic in their 1-0 loss away to Granada last week, a loss which came via a Cristiano Ronaldo own goal and where Madrid only registered their first shot on target just after the hour-mark. In contrast, Ronaldo was at his very best this past Saturday night, scoring three goals, the first of which was sensational, inside 60 minutes as Madrid beat Sevilla 4-1.
Xabi Alonso was out of the line-up, so was Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil. Kaka came in and did a very professional job amid talk that he would likely be one of the first names out the door in the summer. And yet you feel that games such as that and the wins over Valencia and Getafe in recent weeks have been showcases of the tension inside the Bernabeu rising towards this two-legged tie against Manchester United.
Real Madrid have already outplayed Barcelona this year. They’ve had to battle against opposition like Borussia Dortmund, who beat Madrid in Germany earlier in the season, and managed to emerge from a Champions League group which could have been much trickier than it actually was.
Manchester United, you feel, haven’t been hardened in the same way Madrid have this season. This is very much a title-winning squad at Old Trafford this season, but they haven’t had to do much. They advanced out of their Champions League group without much hassle, despite being troubled on occasion by teams like Galatasaray and Braga. The Premier League, however, hasn’t been a test for them. United haven’t had to deal with at least two teams who are equal or better in quality than they are. Sure, teams like Newcastle and Norwich have given them games this season, but you feel United only really looked weak in the opening weekend against Everton, who have now dropped off since the start of the campaign.
It’s not that Manchester United may not be good enough to overcome Real Madrid, it’s that you wonder how prepared they are mentally. Not only that, Madrid have nothing else to play for this year, other than the Copa del Rey. All the focus is on this competition for the La Liga champions. The Bernabeu will become a fortress, the best players in the squad have played to their optimum since the turn of the year, Mourinho wants to go out on a high, and after 10 years of failure in Europe, Madrid are hungry for the holy grail of their tenth European cup.
It gives a greater insight as to the state of the Premier League now than what it was four or five years ago. And that’s not to say English football is in a bad way, but it’s that the Premier League is not as strong as it once was. Yes, clubs like Bayern, Barcelona and obviously Real Madrid under Mourinho have either risen up or dominated UEFA’s elite competition, but it’s the sense that English clubs have dropped off, rather than remained at the zenith and welcomed those from the continent who have been able to raise their game that little bit further.
Alex Ferguson wanted to get the job done this past weekend against Everton when the opportunity was there. United won and have now probably sealed the title, however it didn’t seem like a game where silverware was on the line. Of course, there are many more games left and the cushion of an almighty points gap at the top. But if United remain in cruise control going into the glamour tie of this round of Champions League games, their perceived strength will be washed away without mercy. Nothing yet this season has prepared them for Real Madrid at their very best.