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Unconvincing invincibles


Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

If it is possible to define a whole season in around 90 minutes, Manchester United may well have done it last week at Tottenham -- and could easily do it again tomorrow afternoon against Birmingham City at Old Trafford.

Well, not easily, because that is an impression you get only when running back through the results of a so far unbeaten season.

The truth is that United have done very little easily. It has mostly been stressful, even desperate, and if you are looking for the most remarkable achievement, it is to be found, frankly, not in football that reminds you of the best of the United tradition, but in the avoidance of calamity.

No one can be in much doubt about the root of the problem -- and such it undoubtedly is, despite the fact that United have a better goal difference and two-game advantage over their moneybag companions at the top of the league, Manchester City.


For the first time in five seasons, three of which amounted to superb announcements of their regained hold on the top of the Premier League, United are deprived of a single point of outstanding inspiration.

It is a great credit to their durability that they have stayed unbeaten -- even if the inconsistencies of their leading rivals have also to be fed into the equation when we consider their strong position at the top -- without that compelling evidence of individual brilliance.

Wayne Rooney supplied that quality for most of last season, but, critically, he went absent in the final furlong and he has never picked up his stride since. Not truly. He remains the man who still looks to be in search of a purpose no higher than the beginnings of some justification for his outrageous brinkmanship in the contract negotiations that brought such a shudder to Old Trafford earlier this season.

Those who say that this is a season of dwindling horizons in the top league certainly need look no further than United and their flawed super-talent. Patrice Evra has spoken contemptuously of the challenge posed by the new rich City, describing them as mere fodder in the pursuit of still more title glory, but he has scarcely been vindicated.

If it is true that City approached the local derby in November with an astonishingly negative approach for a home team which had cost so much, it is also right that United were scarcely more proactive.

United's redemption continues to be Alex Ferguson's belief that there is only one way to play football at the highest level and that it is to believe in your ability to win every match. Unfortunately, seeing is believing and United continue to fall short of anything like the right level of conviction.

Indeed, if they should hang on until the end of the season -- something about which the Spurs manager, and friend of Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, candidly doesn't give them a prayer -- they will have the title, a remarkable fourth in five seasons, but also a rather degrading comparison.

It will be with the last bunch of Premier League invincibles -- the Arsenal of 2003/4.

In only one place in one of the three most vital departments of a team, central defence, midfield and up front, can the current United be said to be the match of Arsene Wenger's great team. Nemanja Vidic is the man who challenges history; elsewhere today's United just cannot match the points of strength enjoyed by Arsenal, who had Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure in their prime in the middle of defence, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires shaping the midfield with a combination of steel and brilliant improvisation and Thierry Henry and some of the last of the best of Dennis Bergkamp up front.

Set against such riches, United might just point to the erratically brilliant Nani and the possibility that Rooney will one day soon wake up and feel comfortable in his own skin.

Michael Carrick continues to search for the vein of brilliance which suddenly disappeared in the second half of the 2008/9 season.

Midway through that campaign Carrick was a viable candidate for Footballer of the Year. Both defensively and creatively his game seemed to be marching into a new dimension, but by the time he reached Rome and the final of the Champions League against Barcelona he had become a shell, along with most of his team-mates.

Now Carrick says: "Of course we want to be playing at our best because it gives us our best chance of winning the title. You don't want to struggle through every game and rely on individual magic to win. We want to be playing well on a consistent basis. We know when we haven't played great, but in the end it boils down to winning the title.

"When you are not playing well it's a case of finding a way to win -- or sometimes draw. Then when you come to tot up the points at the end of the season you see how you came to win the title."

If it happens this spring, United may need to make a rather more exhaustive study of how it was done, and also consider the weaknesses of the challenge they faced throughout a season which has so often fell below reasonable expectations.

As always, the crucial assessment will come from Ferguson. For a little while he had reason enough to believe that the chasm left by Cristiano Ronaldo had been largely filled by Rooney. The succession had been achieved; Rooney was everything so many believed he might be before surrendering Old Trafford's centre stage. Then, for one reason or another, he virtually stopped playing.

Normal service may, who knows, be resumed against the battlers of Birmingham tomorrow afternoon. It will not be before time, otherwise, like in London last weekend, an increasingly familiar question will be posed. The question is; are United, unbeaten and hard title favourites, really doing no more than playing at their very limits.

Invincibles? For the moment at least it is hard not to sniff at the claim.

Irish Independent