By Isidore Lewis
Good but not great, solid but not sensational; Manchester United are quietly leading the way after 26 games of the Premier League season. Sitting at the top of the table and having lost only one game, it’s a position that most other clubs would be more than happy to be in, yet there is a feeling that things could be going better for the Old Trafford side.
Such are the high expectations that surround a club like Man United that even winning is sometimes not enough. As was the case against Crawley Town in the FA Cup this weekend, performances so far this season have been underwhelming; the club’s best-paid player, Wayne Rooney, is not playing particularly well and, although in some cases it is perhaps too early to judge, many of the club’s recent signings – Bebe and Gabriel Obertan in particular – are already looking like expensive flops. Furthermore, the club still have to play Chelsea both home and away in the league thanks to the rescheduling of a match which was supposed to take place before Christmas.
United’s performances over the winter period have been characteristic of the season so far: Grinding out results despite the team not playing particularly well. They have won some important games –most recently against local rivals Manchester City – yet, they also lost to bottom-of-the-table Wolves, doing so in the same week title rivals Arsenal dropped points.
Many will argue that, at this stage in the season, the results are all that matter. Looking forward, the side’s title challenge is on track and a more positive spin on how things have gone show a team in good shape. New captain Nemanja Vidic is having a fantastic season in central defence, Dimitar Berbatov is finally scoring goals and new signing Javier Hernandez is making a significant impact in his first season at the club, having scored a number of important goals. Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs have signed new contracts, Nani is proving to actually be quite good and, despite his impending retirement, Edwin Van Der Sar is looking as reliable as ever in goal. Furthermore, after the controversy surrounding his contract earlier in the season, Wayne Rooney is not leaving, which can only be good news for the club, especially if his brilliant goal in the Manchester derby last weekend is anything to go by.
It’s a steady platform to take into an important few weeks for the club, kicking off with the return of the Champions League and a vital first-leg match away to French champions Marseille. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are notable absences in defence for Wednesday’s game; and, elsewhere, Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Michael Owen have all failed to recover in time. However, given the strength of United’s squad, Alex Ferguson will feel he still has plenty of options and will be confident in the players he is taking to the Stade Velodrome.
By contrast, Marseille are facing something of an injury crisis. Attacking midfielder and France international Mathieu Valbuena has missed the whole of February with a knee problem (although reports suggest he may now play, having recovered in time) and star striker Andre-Pierre Gignac has been ruled out after having suffered an injury to his abductor muscle in the game against St. Etienne on the weekend. Fellow strikers Loic Remy and Brandao are also doubtful having picked up minor knocks in the same game, which could leave OM struggling for options in attack.
Even so, it will not be an easy night for Manchester United. With the prospect of a ‘home’ final at Wembley Stadium, the English side will be more motivated than ever to get to have a good run in the Champions League. And, whilst there is of course still a long way to go before this quest can become a reality, a win against Marseille on Wednesday will at least take them one step closer to the prize…