Fortnight to make a season
Manchester United faces Chelsea, Liverpool, (potentially) Arsenal and then Marseille in the Premier League, FA Cup and then Champions League over the next fortnight. It’s a two-week spell that will go a long way towards shaping the club’s season. In a fortnight Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, clear at the head of the Premier League, could be genuine contenders for the treble or face heartbreak on three fronts.
In a season where United has often justifiably been criticised for performances that have lacked, as Didier Deschamps put it, “stardust,” it could yet become one of the most remarkable campaigns in the club’s history.
It’s a punishing schedule that is aided only by the relative poor form of Liverpool and Chelsea this season, together with Arsenal’s equally packed fixture list. Nonetheless these four games will decide whether United heads into April and May fighting on all fronts or potentially disappointed by failure. Indeed, lose at one or both of Stamford Bridge and Anfield and the title initiative could head Arsenal’s way, despite United’s current lead.
Of course, some of the gloss has already been taking off the Reds’ visit to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, with United 12 points ahead of Carlo Ancelotti’s outfit. John Terry, typical of the man, has talked up the Londoners’ chances – claiming United will crack under the pressure – more realistically a Champions League place is the best outcome for Chelsea this season before Ancelotti inevitably is dismissed this summer.
However, last season’s champions could significantly damage United’s chances should victory over the Reds follow last season’s Premier League double. Indeed, with Chelsea’s two winning goals in last season’s fixtures both mired in controversy Ferguson could do with catching a break at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night – a ground on which the Reds have not won since April 2002.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s mixed form under Kenny Dalglish has brought wins over Chelsea, Sparta Prague, Stoke City and Fulham but a sobering loss at West Ham United today. Indeed, new strike pair Andy Carroll – who is yet to feature – and £22 million former Ajax hitman Luis Suarez must hit the ground running if the Anfield outfit is to qualify for Europe next season.
Dalglish’s success or otherwise may already now rest on the Europa League – a Champions League spot still an outside bet with the Merseysiders lie six points behind Chelsea in fourth spot, having played twice more. Whatever the club’s form, Liverpool is surely unlikely to perform as limply as it did in the crucial fixture against Chelsea last May – a victory for the Londoners that effectively sealed the title.
Meanwhile, United’s probable FA Cup fifth round fixture with Arsenal – assuming the Londoners beat Leyton Orient in next week’s replay – will take place on the weekend of 12/13 March, just days before the club’s return leg with Marseille. In a season where United’s priorities remain a 19th Premier League title and Champions League progress Ferguson will surely rotate against the Gunners, in a match that now takes on added significance for Arsenal after today’s humiliating loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final.
Yet, while each of these domestic ties could significantly change events in favour of United’s rivals – especially with Ferguson’s outfit rarely impressive away from home – the Reds can potentially fatally damage others’ hopes. Win twice in the coming week and United will go into domestic and European cup ties in huge confidence.
Conversely, even if United remains favourites to beat Marseille at Old Trafford on 15 March, the precarious state of the tie will seem more daunting still should results not go the Reds way in the next fortnight. More so given the French outfit’s improving results – Didier Deschamps side beat Nancy 2-1 at the weekend to close within a point of Rennes at the top of League 1.
Fortunately, United is likely to head into the fortnight with Wayne Rooney in tow despite calls for the 25-year-old striker to face FA sanctions. Referee Mark Clattenburg could yet report the striker and the FA deal with the player an ‘extraordinary case’ but precedent suggests otherwise, with the official having dealt with the incident on the field of play.
Indeed, it may have been the striker’s “worst ever season” but with a modicum form returning against Wigan Athletic on Saturday Rooney could well fire the Reds to glory in the next couple of weeks. The most important fortnight of United’s season to date.