x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Trophyless Manchester United this season a real threat for Alex Ferguson

Selection decisions have backfired for the manager and there is plenty of travelling ahead for his less-distinguished side in search for silverware.

United’s participation in the Europa League could hamper their Premier League title bid.
United’s participation in the Europa League could hamper their Premier League title bid.

The 2005 FA Cup final was a terrible game. A stalemate that meant the trophy was determined by a penalty shoot-out, it is remembered principally for being the last time Arsenal won a trophy. Yet it also has a secondary significance: it ensured the 2004/05 campaign was the last Manchester United ended without a trophy.

Now a repeat is threatened. Admittedly, United only trail Manchester City by three points in the Premier League and dismissing their chances is famously dangerous. They are masters of course and distance in the title race whereas their rivals are newcomers.

The Europa League, the only European competition Sir Alex Ferguson has not yet won, offers another opportunity to secure the 49th honour of the Scot's managerial career.

Yet with nine games remaining and plenty of travelling required, it is far from the ideal tournament for ageing or injury-prone players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes or Rio Ferdinand, whose workload needs to be managed carefully.

The Thursday fixtures appear an impediment to Premier League excellence. It is little wonder many clubs depart the Champions League's unloved sibling without a tinge of disappointment.

The domestic cups are rather different matters. Having already eliminated Manchester City, the league leaders and FA Cup holders, United may have eyed a path to Wembley.

In both competitions, their anguish may be all the greater because the beneficiaries are Liverpool, who beat them in the FA Cup on Saturday. And as Crystal Palace had already eliminated United in the Carling Cup, Kenny Dalglish's side are likely to lift that trophy.

Ferguson is football's keenest practitioner of squad rotation, but occasionally it goes awry. Sir Bobby Charlton has said he invariably loses in a guessing game of trying to pick the Scot's side. So do most others. By confusing the opposition, Ferguson sometimes gives himself a head start.

There have been masterstrokes among his unexpected choices; there have been matches where squad players are kept involved and interested; and there are times when the 70 year old gets away with odd picks.

But when Ferguson's tinkering backfires, it does spectacularly. Picking Darron Gibson for his penultimate United start, Mame Biram Diouf, who has not been allowed on the pitch since, and Federico Macheda, a striker fielded on the left wing, against Palace was a case in point.

There was more merit to the idea of picking David de Gea, an £18 million (Dh102.6m) goalkeeper who had excelled at Anfield in October, on Saturday but the upshot was the same.

If the Spaniard, whose confidence appears destroyed, may not deserve to be blamed for Dirk Kuyt's winner, he was certainly at fault for Daniel Agger's opener, becoming unnerved by Andy Carroll's presence in the penalty area and concentrating on the striker to such an extent that the Dane's effort had glanced his head before he had reacted.

De Gea may yet prove to be United's goalkeeper for the best part of two decades, but his debut campaign there is likely to be remembered for his culpability as the club departed three competitions.

He also erred in December's Champions League defeat to Basel, although United's exit owed as much to the complacency of team selection and performance in the Old Trafford draw - and a significant setback in a fourth.

The 21 year old flapped as Grant Hanley rather ruined Ferguson's 70th birthday celebrations by heading in Blackburn Rovers' winner at Old Trafford in the league.

It was a loss that owed much to other left-field moves. With Wayne Rooney banished from the side after angering Ferguson with his night out in Southport, Rafael da Silva, the right-back, played in the centre of midfield.

Or he did for 45 minutes, anyhow, before a two-goal deficit prompted a reshuffle.

Then as now, Ferguson's options were dramatically diminished. To his credit, he complains far less about injuries than many of his peers, even as United have suffered more than their immediate rivals, Arsenal excepted.

When depleted United teams win, he often extols the virtues of his squad.

When they finish seasons strongly, it is often because premier players have been spared games in which their understudies have got the job done.

And when United do win trophies, plenty of medals are generally required simply because there are so many contributors.

Failure can have plenty of architects, too, but attention tends to be focused on the players whose mistakes proved costly or the managers whose choices seem misguided. Ferguson has made a virtue of strange selections. They account for some of his many honours.

Yet, in a year when it may count as an achievement simply to push City close - many among the United fan base will argue this is one of their least distinguished teams in the two decades - he is likely to end without his usual consolation.

And when others are pictured celebrating at Wembley, if thoughts turn to Crystal Palace and Liverpool, a sense of regret should become more pronounced.

Rather than going to the national stadium, United could be making an unwelcome return to the land of Roy Carroll, Mikael Silvestre and Quinton Fortune. It is a place called 2005.




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