At the beginning of last week if you’d have asked most United fans what they wanted from the next seven days you probably would have got the following answer: A decent Champions League draw. A win against Liverpool- without the obligatory Vidic dismissal. Owen Hargreaves to finally make some form of comeback. Chelsea failing to beat Blackburn. Ditto Arsenal against West Ham. The Glazers to sell United to the fans. Well, four out of six ain’t bad.
The news that Owen Hargreaves had finally made his comeback- of sorts- against Burnley reserves for 45 minutes on Thursday night was music to many a United fan’s ears. The on-off saga of Hargreaves’ return from injury has become one of the most divisive issues between United fans and those of other clubs. Many at Old Trafford know that without Hargreaves the 2007/08 season may not have yielded anything at all, let alone been the second most successful season in United’s long history. Hargreaves was immense and some of his performances particularly towards the end of the season pushed United onwards and upwards. United are quite simply a better team when the man with the most unique accent in football is playing for them. It’s easy for opposition fans to downplay his importance as he has played less than 30 games for the club since his move from Bayern Munich. Last season much was made of Darren Fletcher’s unfair dismissal against Arsenal in the Champion’s League semi-final which ruled him out of the final. I for one, have never really bought into the ‘if Fletcher wasn’t banned we would have won’ argument put forward by many United fans. Fletcher on his own would have struggled to mark both Iniesta and Xavi. However had Hargreaves been fit I feel him and Fletcher could have done a job on their Spanish counterparts and turned the game in United’s favour. Hargreaves has been sorely missed at Old Trafford and if he can play any part this season, it will not only help United in the short-term but possibly secure Hargreaves’ future at the club.
The Champions League draw was one which seemed to have been made by Paddy Crerand. Everyone wanted to avoid Barcelona, like Liam Gallagher at an awards ceremony, the general feeling seemed to be they were best avoided- let someone else try and deal with them. Sitting next to an Arsenal fan in an office when the draw was made, I waited for my internet to start up as it was being annoyingly slow. As soon as I saw my neighbours head fall into his hands I knew who his team had been drawn against. He then proceeded to make several jealous and bitter comments as United were drawn against Bayern Munich, and then faced with the prospect of playing the winners of Lyon v Bordeaux- hardly the most difficult of routes to the final. Cue several excited messages from United fans declaring it was time to book tickets to the Bernabeu as we were all but destined for a third successive final. While the draw left United with an excellent chance of progressing all the way to Madrid, it still does not mean that their place is guaranteed. Bayern Munich, are still a force to be reckoned with and with players such as Ribery and Robben capable of giving any team a good run for their money. It’s easy to forget that at times this season United have been poor and while lately things seemed to have kicked into gear; any form of complacency will only make the already arduous task become almost impossible. United, both fans and players alike, need to realise there are no easy games at this stage of the Champion’s League and respect for your opponents is paramount. Over the year’s teams such as Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto have all managed to prove an insurmountable obstacle, so let’s not get too confident too soon that it’s already time to start brushing up on Spanish and buying the sun tan cream just yet.
The win over Liverpool was so much more than just three points against a team occupying sixth-place in the premiership. It was a chance to end a dismal run of three successive defeats against the rivals from up the M62 and also dent their chances of qualifying for the Champions League. Yesterday this article would never have been written as it was a time for rejoicing at finally putting that 4-1 result behind us and moving on. However after the euphoria has died down it’s now time to look at the result with a little rational perspective and analyse just what it means. United’s triumph will no doubt help convince many that this season they are even more equipped than they were last time round for a title challenge. Forget Ronaldo and Tevez, as long as United have Rooney and Fletcher, there’s no need to bother taking the ribbons off the title trophy. While that may turn out to be true, there is still a lot of hard work to be done if United are to make history and more importantly, actually achieve what seemed unthinkable 20 years ago and overtake Liverpool in number of title wins. Chelsea’s failure to beat Blackburn made Sunday a magnifique jours as they say in the Laboritoires Garnier. It should be noted though, that Blackburn is just one of the upcoming tough fixtures that United have to contend with in the next few weeks. The Lancashire outfit have an excellent home record and as they showed on Sunday, they’re not afraid of the top sides, so calling a trip to Ewood a ‘banker’ would be folly. With Chelsea due to come to Old Trafford only three days after the first leg against Bayern, the West Londoners will see that as a real chance to reassert their title winning credentials and try and take advantage of their opponents possible fatigue. There’s also the trip to the ‘noisy neighbours’ to contend with, who after Liverpool’s defeat and their win at Fulham are now in prime position to battle it out with Tottenham for the coveted fourth place. The games against United have often been treated like something of a cup final for many Manchester City fans- well due to their lack of real cup finals you can hardly blame them- but with the possibility of stopping United winning the league, City will be absolutely ecstatic if they can get a win against their illustrious neighbours.
So my point is this, while it has been an absolute minter of a week for United, there is still a lot to be done if this season is to be as successful as 2007/08. There’s no doubt that Arsenal are doing that title winning thing of getting points without necessarily playing that well, while you can never count Chelsea out. The Champion’s League is not as some might argue, destined to be retained by Barca but if United are to ‘get our trophy back’ it’s going to take the biggest performance of the past two years. Let’s just hope, from United’s point of view, the confidence doesn’t turn to complacency as we enter the final furlong of the season.
Read more of Justin Mottershead work at his blog ‘Name is on the Trophy’