Another month gone, another predictable run of results. These may be uncertain times for United supporters, but our monthly cycle seems to have settled into a familiar pattern. There’s the deeply uninspiring pair of defeats, a dull home draw and then a semi-arousing, unlikely victory to take some solace from. LVG pontificates in his post-game interviews, Mata blogs about the importance of focusing on the next game and then the whole sorry sequence starts once more.
Getting knocked out of the Europa League wouldn’t have been too big a deal except for the fact it had to happen against Liverpool. A quick glance at the team sheet prior to the first leg was enough to suggest how things would pan out. Fellaini and Schneiderlin are not a midfield pairing in a million years, with the Belgian producing a performance that was absolutely pitiful even in comparison with his usual sub-par offerings. There’s not a single United fan I know who doesn’t simply grimace and shake their head at the mere mention of his name.
There’s not one redeeming feature about Fellaini’s game at all. Graceless, snidey, petulant, clumsy… for the most part he ambles round the pitch breaking up our play, instead of the opposition’s. How he managed to stay on the field for the full 90 minutes is beyond me, and Van Gaal’s enduring faith in the guy’s complete lack of ability speaks volumes for the sorry state of his team. Things aren’t ever going to get any better with him roaming round, clattering into people and then looking utterly bewildered when the referee blows for each blindingly obvious infringement. He’s simply an awful, awful footballer.
Anyway, that long-standing gripe aside, Liverpool turned up whereas United didn’t. Marcus Rashford found himself playing right back during the 1st half… which was never going to turn out very well. The goalie, once again, was exceptional and ensured we weren’t 3-0 down at HT; how many times has that happened this season now? Martial battled gamely up front but there was nobody else willing to commit… which they were unable to anyway given we were being so comprehensively outplayed in midfield. Meanwhile, you’ve got Herrera, Schweinsteiger and Carrick all sat on the bench. In short, it was a complete mess and we were lucky to get out of there with only a 2-0 deficit.
The 2nd leg at least tee’d up the potential of an all-time classic, and it briefly looked like it might be happening when we went 1-0 up. United battered Liverpool for 45 minutes and were unlucky to be only ahead by a single goal as HT approached… even the crowd woke up from its usual somnambulant stupor and there was something approaching a genuine atmosphere to savour. A hint of venom in the air, players flying forward, decent goon for the goal… this was how we used to live.
Unfortunately, Coutinho’s exceptional goal killed any giddiness stone dead and the tie was over with the last kick of the 1st half. What a great player that kid is, incidentally. City must be kicking themselves after being suckered into paying £50M for the overrated Sterling when they could probably have snaffled him for half the price. Anyway, instead of any further heroics, the players trudged off whilst the crowd went into silent contemplation mode. It was a very sobering HT break watching the scousers balloon about letting off flares whilst we stood cursing ourselves for being naive enough to believe it was actually possible for a few minutes. Still, it was a nice reminder of how things used to be.
You know that it’s been a strange old year when a glance at the league table confirms that we’re 16 points behind Leicester City… whose closest challengers are serial bottlers, Spurs. They are more than likely going to win it with games to spare, which as an event in the football universe is about as likely as Fellaini edging out Messi and Ronaldo for the next Ballon d’Or. In these days of ‘big fours’ and plans for a revised, ‘closed shop’ Champions League, Leicester are a heartening reminder that football still has the ability to produce stories that contravene all common sense and perceived wisdom.
Ranieri’s team are being lauded as the nation’s sweethearts right now, and even a myopic old cynic like me finds it hard to wish them anything but the best. There was something on 5 live the other week inviting people to phone in and suggest sporting upsets that would rival them winning the title. Suggestions included Denmark or Greece winning the Euros, Wimbledon winning the FA Cup, some clown even proposed that Sheffield Eagles beating Wigan Warriors in the RL Challenge Cup bore comparison.
It doesn’t, of course – none of these events do. Cup successes of that ilk are simply based on a team stringing together 6-7 decent performances. Any underdog can win a one-off cup, whereas winning a title over the course of 9 months is a genuine test of nerve and endurance. Blackburn winning the league in ’95 doesn’t count, given they were buoyed by Jack Walker’s vast wealth. Leeds winning in ’92 is probably the closest in recent-ish memory, though they weren’t competing against the handful of billion pound behemoth clubs that inhabit the Premier League in 2016. 1992 was still a fairly level playing field in terms of competing teams’ cash and resources, nothing at all like the cabal that’s in place today.
So if Leicester do it, in team sports’ terms I reckon it’ll be just about the greatest upset ever – I can’t recall anything that eclipses it. I’ve never had any time for their frothing, little Inglunder support but if they end up winning it at OT next month, then I hope their team gets clapped off the pitch. They’ll have achieved something genuinely remarkable, putting like likes of Newcastle and Liverpool – teams who have squandered hundreds of millions over the years in pursuit of the title – to shame.
In 3 months time we’ll be sick of the sight and sound of them and they’ll be back to being a complete irrelevance, but in a season where watching United has felt like purgatory at times, Leicester have been a genuine breath of fresh air. Regardless of whether or not they implode on the final straight, the plaudits they’re currently receiving are richly deserved – they’ve been absolutely superb.
Copyright Red News – April 2016