United get rude awakening
The plain sailing Manchester United would have expected in the group stage of their Champions League campaign has turned into a rough ride after Tuesday’s 3-3 home draw with Swiss side Basel, who were unlucky not to have come away from Old Trafford with the three points.
Two draws in their last two games, away to Stoke City in the Premier League and the late escape against Basel, will have rooted out any complacency that might have crept into Alex Ferguson’s men after their flying start to the season which included an 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal.
United’s last two performances also showed that despite their three big summer signings in David De Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young, the team still lack depth when key players are injured.
With Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Javier Hernandez and the increasingly influential Chris Smalling all sidelined, United’s makeshift 11 with Ecuador winger Antonio Valencia filling in at right back looked bereft of ideas up front against Stoke and utterly unconvincing even when they were 2-0 up against Basel, when only a late Young header spared them from paying in full for a comedy of errors at the back.
Any thoughts of wrestling the Champions League title away from holders Barcelona will have also taken a back seat for the time being, especially given they also drew 1-1 at Benfica in their opener, as Ferguson could face fresh dilemmas with what to do with one or two players.
Dimitar Berbatov looks confined to the fringes, behind four other strikers in the pecking order, and Ferguson might be tempted to offload the Bulgarian during the January transfer window when he can still get a decent bargain for last season’s joint top scorer in the Premier League.
Michael Owen won widespread praise for his brace in the 3-0 League Cup win over Leeds United last week but looked rather flat against Stoke and played no part on Tuesday, while Rio Ferdinand was completely at sea against Basel’s 32-year old striker Alexander Frei.
Midfielder Michael Carrick told Manchester United television after the game that it was a one-off blip United should easily bounce back from, as they were expected to after a poor start in the 2005-06 campaign.
United finished bottom of the group that season, behind Villarreal, Benfica and Lille, having missed out on even the consolation prize of carrying on in the UEFA Cup after the winter break.
Does Ferguson, hence, need to add more signings in January if the Premier League champions are to retain their domestic title and challenge for their fourth European Cup?
Or, will United’s patchy form turn out to be a harmless glitch, as Carrick predicted, when they are back to full strength?