Recriminations over the weekend’s defeat to Arsenal, coupled with Chelsea’s fortuitous win over Tottenham Hotspur the previous day, may not be forgotten but Manchester United is still master of its own destiny on European and domestic fronts. No matter the conjecture emanating from Stamford Bridge, seven points in Manchester United’s three remaining Premier League matches will seal the title for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
The question is whether a one-off match against Chelsea at Old Trafford will bring out the best in Ferguson’s outfit, as seen recently witnessed against the Londoners and Schalke in European competition. Indeed, Saturday’s defeat in north London owed much to United retreating from the fluid football of recent weeks, returning it seemed to the negativity that marked the Reds’ early season away performances.
Yet, at home United’s mentality is very different, where Ferguson’s outfit has won 16 of 17 fixtures in the Premier League and scored an astonishing 43 goals – a total significantly higher than any other side at home this season. Call it the ‘United way’, call it an attacking philosophy, but there is a strong suspicion that the Premier League title is the Reds’ to lose but only if the timidity seen away from Old Trafford is transported to home turf.
“We have our destiny in our hands. We have a massive game against Chelsea. If we want to win the title then we have to beat Chelsea – it’s as simple as that. If we don’t beat them then we’ll be in trouble,” says left-back Patrice Evra.
“We just need to play the Man United way. I am not worried because we know we didn’t do the things we normally do against Arsenal. We have three games left and need to win every game. Every game is a final.”
“We didn’t feel in trouble. We knew how Arsenal would play. They kept possession of the ball but never looked dangerous. Normally when we visit the Emirates we play with speed, power and aggression, and create more chances than we did on Sunday. That is why I am very disappointed.
“There were some difficult decisions but I don’t want to talk about the referee, the problem was Man United, not the referee. It is easy to find some excuse. We did not play the Man United way and when we don’t play the Man United way, we don’t deserve anything.”
The dilemma for Ferguson is whether to set his team up to play on the front foot against last season’s champions on Sunday. The equation is, of course, black and white for supporters; the United way is to attack from the opening whistle. One suspects there are greater nuances for Ferguson though, who is surely confident that his team will beat Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool in United’s final two Premier League matches.
Chelsea, meanwhile, must win at Old Trafford with tricky matches first at home to Newcastle United and then away at Everton to come. The longer United keeps the match tight against Chelsea the more likely the Londoners will be vulnerable to the counter-attack.
Yet, says striker Javier Hernández, United is expected to play for the win. Always.
“Giggs and Scholes tell us that we need to play like Manchester United players, always remembering the club’s rich history and never giving less than 100 per cent on the field,” Mexican striker Hernández told Inside United this week.
“Being a United player is about winning – you can never think about drawing or losing games. It’s that attitude that can help us to win trophies. We need to avoid silly errors to give ourselves the best chance of winning, and to play every game like it’s our last one.”
Yet, the focus among supporters at least is firmlyon United’s match with Chelsea on Sunday. If that picture is mirroed in Ferguson’s squad, there is a very real risk that the Scot’s players will take their eye off Wednesday night’s return with Schalke. After all, although the Reds are two goals to the good, Schalke scored five against Inter in Milan during the quarter-final rout.
Moreover, with Ferguson planning to rest Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Hernández there is a very real risk that United will hand Schalke the momentum on Wednesday. It is a risk Ferguson believes is worth taking against a side United so comfortably defeated beat last week.
“If you look at the experience of last year when we lost the league, the team were very tired against Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich on the Wednesday,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.
“That will have a bearing on my team selection. We’ve got two massive games, both as important as the other. There will be some changes (against Schalke). Hopefully the nucleus of the team is still good enough to win.
“The interesting thing about last weekend was that the four (Champions League semi-final) teams all lost (league matches). So European games do take it out of you. I have to pick the right team tomorrow in order to have the same kind of freshness I need for Sunday’s match.”
It is a gamble Ferguson makes in the knowledge that Schalke must score three times at Old Trafford without reply to deny United a place in the 28 May final against Barcelona. Yet, defeat to Schalke – possible against a team that under-performed at home – will take further wind out of United’s sails, even if Ferguson’s side makes the final.
After all momentum at this stage of the season is key. It is perhaps why now, more than any other, Ferguson’s side must revert to the positivity that has brought the best out of his side this season.
Destiny, as Evra says, is still in the Reds’ hands.