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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.
It is a bit early to single out Manchester rivals United and City as the only title contenders this season, but it appears highly likely that Arsenal will not be among the chasing pack now headed by the new-look Liverpool and Chelsea.
What is more, the 8-2 hammering the Gunners suffered at Old Trafford suggests that Arsene Wenger’s side might even struggle to finish in the top six, unless the Frenchman can swiftly turn around their fortunes.
The Premier League title race is reaching boiling point and Ferguson is hot under the collar that his team did not get a penalty in their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal.
The Champions League is the biggest club competition in the world and generally where players peak, so Wednesday’s semi-final first leg should be the best of the recent encounters between the Spanish rivals.
They might be running away with the Premier League title and facing a side who are 10th in their own table (ok, those portents look pretty rosy), but they have come unstuck the last two times they have lined up against German rivals in the semi-finals.
Jose Mourinho and winning appear to go hand in hand after the colourful Portuguese coach delivered at the first time of asking in Wednesday’s King’s Cup final.
All the more significant was beating Barcelona for the first time as Real coach, which sets up a fascinating double header in the Champions League semi-finals on April 27 and May 3.
Strong belief in emulating the 1999 treble must surely be gripping Old Trafford after Manchester United’s somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win at Chelsea in their Champions League quarter-final first leg, but Alex Ferguson and his troops will also be aware they are still a long way from crossing the finish line first in any competition.
With Wayne Rooney losing his appeal to have a two-game ban reduced and the ever-present threat of injuries crippling a squad well short of the talent of the 1999 crop, United will once again have to dig deep into their resources as the strength-sapping season reaches its climax.
Now the international period is over we can focus on domestic issues again, or can we?
Tuesday’s matches provided plenty of drama, from the battles Spain and the Netherlands had to fight to get through tricky Euro 2012 qualifiers, to Ghana’s lighting up of London, to Australia’s World Cup revenge against Germany in a friendly.
Mike Collett on 20 years of Ryan Giggs
The world, and English soccer, was a very different place 20 years ago, but one thing has remained unchanged — Ryan Giggs is still playing for Manchester United and still in the hunt for trophies.
Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the day the skinny 17-year-old came on after 35 minutes of a match in the old First Division to replace the injured Denis Irwin for the first of what is now 863 appearances for the club.