March to May
P11, W6, D2, L3. GS:13 GC:12
“Beware the ides of March” we are all told and so it came to pass for United as their title challenge faltered following successive away defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool. A fantastic first half display saw the Reds lead Chelsea by a goal at half time thanks to a fine Rooney strike and an all round energetic performance notable for Scholes and Carrick controlling midfield and dominating on the flanks. However, the second half was a complete reversal as the home side were galvanised by Luiz’s controlled volley and took control before taking the lead thanks to a Lampard penalty. The result meant that Chelsea were effectively back in the title race although some poor officiating from Martin Atkinson left a sour taste in the mouths of the United faithful at Stamford Bridge.
The following weekend saw a much anticipated trip to Anfield but the midfield was once more over run and a Kuyt hat trick put United to the sword. The match will be remembered by many for the dangerous studs-up challenge on Nani by Carragher that saw the Portuguese winger in tears at the assault committed. Although Nani was only out for a week, it could be argued that he was not the same player for the remainder of the season as coupled with Antonio Valencia’s return, he was switched out to the left wing and was noticeably less effective.
Valencia’s return to league action came in the home game against Bolton after a brief cameo versus Arsenal in the FA Cup the week before. A late Berbatov strike (a rare impact as substitute) got United back on track with a precious three points. Jonny Evans was given a red card for a dangerous tackle on Stuart Holden that made United’s strength in adversity all the more important.
There were echoes of Bloomfield Road once more for the Reds as they trailed West Ham by two goals at half time at Upton Park. In similar fashion, United stormed back to claim a vital three points as a rejuvenated Rooney struck three times (including one from the spot) and Hernández popped up late on to put the icing on the cake. Controversy is never far from Rooney’s door and so it proved once more at Upton Park as he swore down the lens of the television camera which led to an FA charge and a ludicrous two match ban that would rule him out of the FA Cup Semi Final against City.
A week later saw the visit of Fulham to Old Trafford and they were comfortably dispatched by first half goals from Berbatov and Valencia before the home side took their foot off the gas with tougher tests on the horizon. A disappointing midweek draw at Newcastle gave United’s title rivals fresh hope in a performance that lacked authority or the necessary invention to break down a stubborn Toon defence. This match followed the sub-standard display at Wembley against City that saw the team’s treble dream evaporate and put their opponents on the brink of ending their 35 year trophy drought.
Having experienced two goalless games, the nerves were out in force for United’s attack in the home game against Everton as the match drew closer to its conclusion. Fortunately, prayers were answered when Hernández, not for the first time, secured the three points late on with a salmon-like leap at the far post.
The least said about United’s trip to the Emirates Stadium the better as the away side slumped to their fourth, and thankfully final, defeat of the season. Neither side looked particularly threatening over the course of the game and post-match many United fans called into question the wisdom of abandoning the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation that has been so effective against the Gunners in recent years. As it was, a momentary lapse in concentration from Park who had just been moved to a central midfield position, left Ramsey free to fire past Van der Sar. A late penalty claim was turned down as Clichy caught Owen but it was not to be United’s day.
The penultimate game of United’s home campaign brought Chelsea to Old Trafford in the knowledge that if they could repeat last year’s victory at the Theatre of Dreams then they would be in a strong position to retain their league title. As it turned out, these hopes were effectively extinguished after just 34 seconds as Hernández was put clear on goal and nervelessly steered the ball past the advancing Cech. What followed was United’s most complete performance of the season as the Chelsea defence wilted under the pressure exerted by the likes of Park, Rooney, Valencia, Giggs and Carrick. In fact, the Ecuadorian gave Ashley Cole such a torrid time that it is hard to recollect another such time in the left back’s career. The relentless pressure told once more midway through the first half as Vidic surged past the Chelsea backline to power in a point blank header. Although, Lampard gave the away side hope with a smart finish in the second half, the home side continued to create a multitude of chances but as each one was squandered so the nerves grew. Chelsea knew only a win would realistically keep them in the hunt and they eventually ran out of both ideas and time. United now knew that a single point in their remaining two matches would see them finally knock their old rivals Liverpool off their perch to claim their historic 19th league championship.
First up in their quest for the one remaining point required were Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. The home side had the audacity to shock the massed ranks of the away support as they took the lead and looked good value for it as Kuszczak in the United goal demonstrated perfectly why he will not be considered as Van der Sar’s replacement. His nervousness with the ball at his feet spread panic amongst a back line usually so composed under the guidance of the veteran Dutchman. In the end it was left to Rooney to secure the draw with a well taken penalty after Hernández was bundled over in the box by Robinson. The final ten minutes saw both sides happy to settle for a point as the ball was played around among United’s back line with barely a threat of forward progression. The final whistle blew and the scenes of jubilation that followed will live long in the memory as this alleged sub-standard squad celebrated their historic championship with the fans lucky enough to be present.
Going into the final league game at Old Trafford with the title secure, the only remaining goal was to see if the team could complete an almost perfect home record. Only West Brom had left the Reds fortress with anything other than a defeat. Unfortunately, a United victory consigned Blackpool to relegation after a season where they imposed their own brand of attacking football on the division but ultimately they conceded far too many to survive. Their spirit was amply demonstrated by having the impudence to take the lead at one point but hopes of saving themselves were dashed by Anderson, an own goal and a late Owen strike.
The club’s 19th league title was presented after the game but not before Old Trafford had applauded Ian Holloway’s gallant battlers from the field in a sign of class from those in attendance sympathetic to the plight of a fine football team. Nemanja Vidic lifted the trophy and started the celebrations in earnest as the players wives and children joined in the party on the pitch.
The season was to end on a sour note with the defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League but there was no disgrace in coming off second best to one of the best sides of all time. Despite this disappointment, it was never going to take the gloss off a remarkable season that has seen Sir Alex Ferguson navigate his way through the congested fixture list with wonderful imagination and bravery in terms of squad rotation. The challenge as ever is how to remain on top next season and plans are already under way with rumours flying around about transfer dealings at the club. As well as players coming in to strengthen the squad, there will be inevitable departures too with the likes of Neville, Van der Sar and Scholes retiring and question marks about the futures of a number of others. Whatever happens, United will rise again next season in the face of renewed challenges from the usual rivals as they look to retain their league trophy and conquer Europe once more.Season Review Part 1 can be found here.
Season Review Part 2 can be found here.
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