|Still number 1 - Paul Scholes|
Here we are. The gentle waft of European football is just beginning to tanatlise the nostrils once again- naysayers say she's less fragrant and savoury than her prettier sister we usually go out with, but when you think of what happened on that bedeviled night in Basel, it's nothing less than what was deserved. Fair play though, as first night-outs go, a ravishing trip to Amsterdam is as grand as they come. More about it later.
Let's go a few weeks back in time. The air around the club, at the start of this year, had been grumpy with navel gazing and vein busting invective from the support section. Out of the Champions league and League cup, near-jeopardization of title chances with consecutive losses to Steve Kean's Blackburn and Alan Pardew's barcodes, rumours of Rooney exit thanks to shit-stirred, jaundiced journalism and underperforming/injured players. Add these to the ever growing frustration over manager's stubbornness to address the midfield issue which has been apparent for the last two years. The whispers in the corridor suggested a few arrivals, but they never echoed their way into manutd.com type confirmation. A set of worries was irascibly poured out of every sweaty orifice of the interweb.
At that moment, asking for a convincing performance and win at giddy neighbour's backyard seemed a bit too far-fetched, but that's exactly what was followed, and, in my opinion, could turn out to be a seminal point of the season. Record books may suggest United's 3-2 win over local rivals as a routine cup win that holds no pertinence as they went on to fall in the next hurdle at Anfield. But, in hindsight, it not only ended United's barren run of form and restored belief with in the squad, but also broke City's air of invincibility at home and slowed down that billion-dollar juggernaut. United are unbeaten in the league since then, a run which includes convincing away performances at Arsenal and Chelsea, routine home wins against Bolton, Stoke and those sniveling vermin from Merseyside. If United manage to gain 13 points or more from the next 5 league matches (Norwich, Spurs, Westbrom, Wolves and Fulham), they will be in pole position for the title race when April starts.
There's a fair number of reasons behind United's recent resurgence, but none, I feel, more prominent than a certain ginger bloke from Oldham. To be honest I was quite sceptical about Scholes's return, partly due to the glaring concerns over his fitness and the prospect of him drawing an expendable figure in the squad. Not to mention the slight aggravation over club's apparent settlement to resort to a retired player rather than investing in the future. But, as succinctly put forward in this piece by the brilliant Zac Hann (ManUtd24), Scholes has been the vital catalyst in United's revival. You could argue, regardless of the result at the end of this season, this move has already eclipsed Henrik Larsson deal in 2007 when it comes to influence on and off the pitch. His direction was something United needed for a number of reasons, but mostly for right footballing ones. Most of his performances this month, by their sheer class and composure, provided tangible gratification for supporters. Long may it continue.
Well, I would be in dereliction of duty not to chow down on the tasty dish that is Ajax- United. This is normally a tie that could light any competition this continent can offer. It's surprising that, In spite of being the powerhouses of Europe for the last few decades, their last competitive meeting was way back in 1976 UEFA cup tie at Old Trafford, where United recorded a 2-1 win. It's difficult to imagine Sir Alex, despite his reiterations on this point, taking this competition as seriously as Docherty did that day. There's a coherent argument that the squad is too thin to challenge for two titles, and this competition is hardly lucrative for a club of United's stature. But actually it is no more a distraction than Champions league, something United have been accustomed to for 20 years. Europa also stages a low-pressure environment for players like Berbatov, Hernandez, Anderson, Park, Cleverley, Fabio, etc where they don't have to come and deliver straight away. We'll have to wait and see the squad-sheet against Ajax to gauge Sir Alex's plans for this competition, I think.
Ajax, unlike United, had a very commendable group stage campaign in Champions league, and should consider very unlucky with the way they went out of it. Need to be said though, their subsequent domestic performances have been quite shambolic but were largely overshadowed by the power struggle between Mr. consigliere Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal. Their win over 17th placed NAC Breda on Saturday was their first this year. Three losses and one draw prior to that this year had tarnished any chance of defending the Dutch title. If there was any good time to face Ajax, I think it's now. This is not to suggest it'll be a cakewalk for United. Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena is always a different proposition and they have the players to hurt a complacent opposition. Christian Eriksen, diminutive Danish player with nimble feet, could prove to be quite handy for United's defence if their midfielders leave space behind them. If Theo Janssen and Nicolai Boilesen are declared to be fit, their participation will lift the squad morale. Toby Alderweireld also has comeback from injury and will partner captain Jan Vertonghen to form an effective CB pairing. Injury to first team players like Gregory van der Wiel, Derk Boerrigter and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson makes Ajax's task on the night an enormous one though.
It’s not easy predicting United lineups when the team is in the form and injured players are coming back. Common sense would suggest that manager will rest a few first team players with the intention of keeping them fresh after a tough run of games. Tom Cleverley, who's been injured out for almost 4 months, could make his European debut today. Hernandez, Pogba and Park Ji-Sung are players who've done well when they came on, and deserve chances.
My starting line-up will be De Gea- Jones, Smalling, Evans, Fabio- Young, Carrick, Cleverley, Park- Rooney, Hernandez. What's yours?