As the final whistle blew in the Stade Velodrome on Wednesday evening, with it came the completion of the first legs of the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
The ties have been fascinating in the most part, with some truly brilliant games, perhaps none more so than Arsenal’s scintillating 2-1 victory over the much hyped Barcelona team.
One of the key themes of the Round of 16 has been the success of those teams from the Barclays Premier League. The teams from North London were particularly impressive, dispatching of two European superpowers in AC Milan and the previously mentioned Barcelona. Chelsea recorded a somewhat routine 2-0 victory over a Copenhagen team who didn’t seem particularly up for the game, but for Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops it was to be viewed as a missed opportunity.
For their game was a dour affair, with Ferguson himself stating that ‘nothing really happened to be honest’ and adding that it was ‘not a good match to watch’. Whilst the United supporters will point to the list of absentees from the match, which included Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Michael Owen, United looked short of quality in the middle of the park in particular.
Manchester United still stand atop the Premier League table, but Ferguson himself will know that they haven’t had a particularly impressive campaign thus far. Whilst they have only been beaten once in their 26 matches, they have won only 3 away games, bettered by the likes of Newcastle United and Blackpool and doubled by Roberto Mancini’s noisy neighbours at Eastlands.
Looking at the squad available to Ferguson shows that while they do have a collection of class players, there are doubts around many of the players in the squad. Last week, in the FA Cup, Sir Alex played a team of mainly backup players against Crawley Town. Whilst it must be acknowledged that Crawley were obviously going to be right up for it on their big day out, the performance of these backup players must be a source of worry to the wily old Scot.
Ryan Giggs continues to impress at the ripe old age of 37, and recently signed a contract extension for another year, which must surely be his last. For Ferguson, the continued performances of Giggs must be the source of great relief, given his choices in the absence of Giggs are Bebe and Gabriel Obertan.
Bebe, a summer signing from Vitória de Guimarães, has made only seven appearances so far this season, in which many people were expecting to see the talent that persuaded United to part with over £7 million for. However, he has proved entirely underwhelming and looks out of sorts. It would be cruel to write him off so early, but the early signs are not encouraging.
For Obertan, the omens look even worse. He joined in the summer of 2009 from the French team Bordeaux for £3 million and whilst his performances have been average, this is surely not good enough for a club widely regarded as one of the biggest in the world, and he seems likely to move on again soon.
The problems in replacing the ‘Golden Generation’ do not end there. Paul Scholes is another mercurial talent who is close to retiring and the central midfielders at Manchester United are perhaps not quite what they should be.
Michael Carrick, not yet 30, joined in the summer of 2006 for over £18million and while he was influential initially, his performances in the last 18 months suggest that he is in real decline. Darron Gibson, a product of the United youth system looks average at best whilst Owen Hargreaves’ crippling injury problems have all but ruined his career in Manchester.
Anderson has begun to grow into his role in the United midfield, and was rewarded with a new contract recently to reward this, but United really seem to lack a creative player in the middle of the park to dictate play and create chances. Add into the mix the need for a new goalkeeper given the impending retirement of Edwin van der Sar, and we can see the need for investment into the squad.
Ferguson has shown his nous time and again in signing players such as Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez for bargain prices, and it may be the case that he needs to do it again this summer, in order to stay at the top of the pile.
Whether the Glazer family will allow him to spend is another matter, but what is sure is that transfers are needed, not only due to the lack of depth in the squad but also due to the seemingly relentless pursuit of success across the road at Eastlands. Roman Abramovich has also begun to dig into his deep pockets once more, and United cannot take their position for granted.
Sir Alex Ferguson is himself 69 and may well leave his post at the end of next season, bowing out along with Giggs and Scholes perhaps. Whatever happens, the next 18 months seem set to be hugely important – and hugely worrying – times for the fans of Manchester United.