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Old 13th August 2005, 13:25   #1
TanyaT
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Default United are dark horses in fading fight for the title

United are dark horses in fading fight for the title

Kevin McCarra
Saturday August 13, 2005
The Guardian

At Old Trafford they must get nostalgic over the monotony of days gone by. Manchester United, happy in their predictability, won the Premiership seven times in nine seasons between 1993 and 2001. Among those prone to flashbacks of Andy Cole's miss at Upton Park in the closing fixture of 1995 there is still a pang of regret that another title was presented to Blackburn Rovers during that period.

Even so it was an era of privilege. In the stands now the fans have to tell themselves it is revitalising to be back in an age of certainty. During the last two seasons Sir Alex Ferguson's team has not even competed for the championship, finishing third on each occasion. If statistics are a guide, the side are deteriorating, 15 points short of an unbeaten Arsenal in 2004 and then 18 behind the unrelenting Premiership holders Chelsea.

United, by their own standards, have not been outstanding since their barn- storming charge to the title five years ago. There can be no escape from the scrutiny as their new programme starts at Goodison at lunchtime today. The Glazer family might have drawn the fire for a while and it appears they are not in the sights of the support just now. The protest before Wednesday's match with Debrecen amounted to no more than noises off.
Poor shooting on the pitch and any inability by the business to hit astonishingly distant financial targets will hurl the Glazers into a crisis. For a little while, however, it is the team alone that is under examination. Such is the deterioration at Old Trafford that it is virtually superfluous to note that Sir Alex Ferguson would surely lose his job if United trailed in third once again. He himself created the expectations that make such a sequence a sackable offence.

It would be a grim irony if, next summer, the Glazers could actually appease the crowd by dismissing a person who was for so long its hero. Ferguson, for all that, is not morose. Despite a lack of visionary signings or, perhaps, the funds to make them, he is already better off than he was a year ago. Rio Ferdinand is no longer suspended and Cristiano Ronaldo, who then had Euro 2004 in his legs, is not detained at the Olympics, as Gabriel Heinze also was. The manager could crow, too, that Wayne Rooney has traded the last of his podge for muscle.

United, perennial favourites for much of Ferguson's tenure, have turned into dark horses. Their fans have generally disliked the three-pronged attack. With Ruud van Nistelrooy isolated, out of sorts and short of goals, a club of historic verve scored only 58 times in the league last season. A comparable system, however, works perfectly for Chelsea and the onus is therefore on Carlos Queiroz to coach the United players into co-ordination.

Reigning champions are supposed to find that the other clubs step up their resistance and it is just about possible to imagine United, with Van Nistelrooy, Rooney and Ronaldo preying on defences, contending for the title. The trouble is that Ferguson's squad is now so unbalanced that it is as easy to envisage the slide continuing, with United bumping down to fourth, behind the emboldened Champions League winners Liverpool.

What if Paul Scholes relapses into the flatlining form that diminished the whole side when last season was still in the making? Is Ferguson really sure that Alan Smith can deputise for Roy Keane when the 34-year-old captain needs relief from the slog of pedestrian afternoons in the Premiership? The midfield is so much an area of concern that it comes naturally to wonder if the Brazil right-back Cicinho, whom they wish to buy, can be adapted to cover there.

While Liverpool have meagre resources in specific departments, especially central def- ence, Rafael Benítez has pondered the flimsy away form in the Premiership and concluded that more muscle and height are essential. Mohamed Sissoko can never live up to a genuine comparison with Patrick Vieira but there are faint overtones. Brought on as a substitute in midweek, he used his rangy physique well to break up CSKA Sofia attacks and start some of his own. Liverpool will be harder to overcome on their travels.

Despite the loss of Vieira, Arsenal will probably retain their own kind of durability. Arsène Wenger has never finished worse than runner-up over his eight full seasons in the Premiership. The members of the top four look obvious but Everton did overturn all predictions last season. Spurs are being billed as candidates for the elite group but Martin Jol is so aware of his squad's ability to drift into the doldrums that he rebutted the claim as if it had been a dire insult.

He is one of many managers who would like to progress under cover of public indifference. Middlesbrough will share that feeling. Newcastle United, however, are never allowed to tick the 'no publicity' box and, in any case, have the habit of careering into notoriety. With the differences between Graeme Souness and Craig Bellamy allowed to become irreconcilable, the forward had to be jettisoned. It will be uncomfortable if the Wales international excels at Blackburn while his old club are punchless. Souness could bring in someone like Michael Owen to ensure a great advance on last season's 14th place but the manager will be sacked if Newcastle's status is not transformed.

The feeling of jeopardy will be constant in the bottom half of the table, where one existing Premiership side usually lose their status. Fulham are being fingered for that role but, with Steed Malbranque and Papa Bouba Diop in midfield, they might reject the casting. West Brom, however, could be weaker now that Kieran Richardson has gone back to Manchester United.

Adversity could steal over Portsmouth, who will miss Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Arjan de Zeeuw, with the latter departing after differences with the manager Alain Perrin. The Dutchman, returning to Wigan, has not sought any haven. He is bound to be in peril, as will players at the other promoted clubs Sunderland and West Ham. Even so, none of them are without hope. If the destination of the Premiership should begin to seem inevitable, there will always be the gory suspense of waiting to find out who is led to the scaffold on the closing afternoon.

Where they must improve by Arindam Rej


Attack
United must be more ruthless. Sir Alex Ferguson's team averaged 16.32 shots a game last season against Chelsea's 14.18 but scored 1.53 each match (58 goals) compared with Chelsea's 1.89 (72). United had a similar percentage of their shots on target, 54.35 compared with the London side's 57.51. United failed to score in 10 games, double Chelsea's total. United lost four of those games; Chelsea lost one.

Defence
United's 19 clean sheets would normally have been impressive but Chelsea outshone them with 25. By conceding 26 goals (0.68 per game) United also lagged behind Chelsea, who let in only 15 (0.39 per game). Chelsea did not allow the Champions League to affect them early on - they kept clean sheets in the Premiership games that immediately followed their first four Champions League games. United kept none.

Discipline
No Chelsea players were sent off in last season's Premiership so instant bans were no worry. Paul Scholes, Alan Smith, Mikaël Silvestre, Wes Brown and Gary Neville all had red cards. The yellow-card counts were similar, with Chelsea having 50 bookings and United 49.

Consistency
Chelsea have gone 85 matches since losing back-to-back games whereas United did it in April (at Norwich and Everton). United managed sequences of four victories or more on three occasions but Chelsea managed it five times.

Luck
Unfortunately for United they hit the woodwork more times - 18 - than any other side. Chelsea did it 10 times. United were also awarded four penalties compared with Chelsea's six, with both teams conceding two.

Statistics based on last season's Premiership.
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