Old Trafford alarm bells ringing loudly
THE alarm bells that are now ringing out loud at Manchester United began to be heard during the first 20 minutes of their Champions League victory against AC Milan in the San Siro.
On that occasion, United were able to overcome a terrible start against their ageing opponents, but all of their problems caught up with them against Chelsea on Saturday.
United are easier to beat this season, a fact underlined by their seven Premier League defeats, and that is down to a combination of three factors.
They are getting older, they are less resilient and, quite simply, United are not as good as they once were.
Ten days ago, we were looking at the possibility of United winning a treble this season, but they might ultimately end up with only the Carling Cup.
They are still in contention, of course, but unless Chelsea falter in the league, it is going to be tough to win a fourth successive title.
Yet as they prepare for a season-defining game against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, the one shining light for United is that they have hit the jackpot with their route to the Champions League final. To be blunt, Bayern are not very good. I couldn't believe how poor they were against United.
They looked tasty on the break in Munich last Tuesday, but their weakness is at the back and United really should have taken care of them in the Allianz Arena. The fact that they didn't means that United must win on Wednesday to stay in the competition. A week ago, that appeared a certainty, but you would no longer put your mortgage on it.
United will never have a better chance of reaching the final, though. They have already seen off an old Milan team and Bayern are not much better.
Lyon or Bordeaux in the semi-finals should not worry them either, but unless United bounce back from an awful performance against Chelsea, their season could be over on Wednesday night.
I have never seen United perform as badly in such a crucial game as they did against Chelsea. Yes, they had a Champions League game against Bayern last Tuesday, but they had ample time to recover.
Antonio Valencia didn't start in Munich, but he started against Chelsea and did nothing. Wayne Rooney's injury-enforced absence against Chelsea deprived United of more than the goals that the England forward has been scoring this season.
He sets an example with his commitment and enthusiasm. When you see a great player like Rooney flying around the pitch for 90 minutes, it rubs off on the rest of the team. Without him, there was nobody to generate that same desire and energy.
United raised their game in the final 10 minutes, but that was only because Federico Macheda's goal gave them a lift. Despite the impact made by Macheda after he came off the bench, there is no way that Alex Ferguson will start with him on Wednesday.
For all of Macheda's youthful exuberance, the tried-and-tested formula in big European games is to go with your best team.
If Rooney fails to prove his fitness, I'm sure that Nani will play because he did enough as a substitute against Chelsea to earn a starting spot. He made the goal and his pace will hurt Bayern.
And Ferguson will stick with Dimitar Berbatov because, without Rooney, he has run out of options. The Berbatov situation poses a dilemma for the United manager because he is a different player to Rooney.
If you are a centre-back lining up against Berbatov, you know you won't be troubled by him mentally. He doesn't run the channels or offer a physical threat. Neither John Terry nor Alex were worried by him on Saturday. He is a very talented player, but he is a luxury and, when you have one of those, the other nine outfield players have to perform.
If only five or six perform, then the luxury remains a luxury. Carlos Tevez, who Ferguson allowed to leave last summer, is anything but a luxury player.
He could play 100,000 games and not run out of enthusiasm. The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo has been discussed many times, but losing both him and Tevez was a double whammy for United.
They have gone from having four top strikers to two and, if Rooney remains sidelined against Bayern, they will have just one in Berbatov.
But, despite all of their problems, I expect United to beat Bayern, but only just. (© Daily Telegraph, London)