By Isidore Lewis
Oh, how the landscape changes. In one week, Manchester United have gone from near certain Premier League winners to having their title challenge hanging by a thread. First, they lost to Chelsea, in a match they probably should have won, or at least drawn. Then, they lost to historical rivals Liverpool, this time in a manner which was altogether much more convincing. Or unconvincing, depending on which way you look at it.
In fairness to Manchester United, the Premier League doesn’t get much harder than two away games to Chelsea and Liverpool. In a typical season, most other sides will probably concede to lose these games and, put in perspective, United are still in a strong position at the top of the table. They remain the “benchmark”, as Kenny Dalglish put it in his post-match press conference. Nonetheless, Alex Ferguson will be disappointed not have picked up a single point in two games.
As he will be frustrated by the fact he had to play them at the time he did. The Chelsea match was originally scheduled for before Christmas, at a time when Chelsea were arguably weaker (the match, you may remember, was postponed because of snow and poor weather). As for Liverpool, they have enjoyed something of a revival since the arrival of Dalglish, at least in the sense that they seem to be in a better position mentally than they were in the first half of the season.
Not that any of these arguments hold much credence. Fixture lists are never perfect, for any team, especially not for a big side competing for a number of trophies at the same time. Such is the nature of high-level competition that there is always a big game just around the corner.
Such perspective, however, will no doubt be lost on Ferguson – at least in the immediate term – whose refusal to speak to the media after Sunday’s defeat will no doubt be interpreted by others as a charmless display from a sore loser. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the end of the season and the players and staff at Old Trafford will, in the cold light of day, remain optimistic that their title challenge is still fundamentally on track, especially with Arsenal having also dropped points (against Sunderland).
Elsewhere at Manchester United, the world is still none the wiser as to who will be bought to replace Edwin Van Der Sar when he retires at the end of the season. In the past few weeks, it seems that almost every goalkeeper in Europe has been linked with a move to Old Trafford.
Speculation has been high and all the usual suspects have been mentioned along the way: Schalke’s Manuel Neuer, Bayer Leverkusen’s Rene Adler, Atletico’s David De Gea, Lyon’s Hugo Lloris, Ajax’s Maarten Stekelenburg and, most recently, Liverpool’s Pepe Reina, whose ambiguous interview with the Guardian newspaper – in which he failed to deny that he would ever leave Anfield for Old Trafford – may or may not have been a signal of intent.
Just who Manchester United eventually go for, however, is anyone’s guess at present. It is, of course, possible that none of the above will join. As it is that Alex Ferguson will not got for anyone at all, although this is by all accounts unlikely.
Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard has already joined the club, of course, and even made his debut against Southampton in the FA Cup some weeks ago. Depending on his development over the next few months and years, Lindegaard may well become an option for Ferguson in the long term. In the short and medium term, however, it is likely that the club will make a move for a more established Number 1, which probably means buying someone with experience and probably means buying one of the aforementioned names. Few, if any of the younger goalkeepers he has ever bought have had a lasting success at Old Trafford, whereas the precedent set by Van Der Sar – who arrived from Fulham in 2005 already aged 34 – will probably have encouraged Ferguson to go for experience once again.
In this respect, I would possibly rule out 20-year-old David De Gea from the above list. In addition, one of either Rene Adler and Manuel Neuer – most probably Neuer – is expected to join Bayern Munich, so the situation with these two is complicated somewhat. It is also more than possible that Ferguson will go for someone not on the list; an alternative choice in the shape of someone safe and unfashionable such as Stoke’s Thomas Sorensen, Manchester City’s Shay Given or Bolton’s Jussi Jaaskelainen.
For now, however, it is all little more than paper talk. What’s more, Manchester United have more immediate things to worry about, starting with the Champions League second-leg match against Marseille and the FA Cup tie with title-rivals Arsenal. No rest for the wicked then, Sir Alex.