Imperious United ready to paint Moscow red

FOR Manchester United fans, could there be anything better than clinching the title on the final day of the season, suggestive as it was of a cup final and league climax all rolled into one? Well, yes, actually.

And you don’t have to look very far forward into the future to see what it might be. Nor, indeed, to see how things could all suddenly turn very sour for the champions.

United are now on the brink of a European and domestic double — but brink is the operative word. On the one side, lies the potential for glorious continental confirmation of their credentials as England’s finest. And on the other? For the Red faithful, the fear must be that another year of domestic triumph could yet give way to the crushing anti-climax of failure at the ultimate stage of the Champions’ League. And at the hands of their vanquished Premier League rivals to boot.

That’s the kind of appalling vista which will furrow the brows of all at Old Trafford even as they celebrate back to back titles on the home front. But for now, they are entitled to bask in their deserved retention of the crown.

Arsenal might have been the purists’ favourites but United, at their best, could match them for tails-up attacking class and, when their backs were to the all, the Old Trafford side were able to call on much deeper reserves of manpower, experience and sheer, bloody-minded resilience.

Nothing illustrated the essential difference between the two clubs quite like United’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford in April. Arsenal had taken the lead through an admittedly dubious Adebayor goal but, despite enjoying the best of the exchanges, finally succumbed to a retaken penalty by Ronaldo and an exquisite free-kick from Owen Hargreaves, an expensive signing Alex Ferguson had the luxury of being able to use sparingly for long stretches of the season.

Arguably, an earlier United defeat of Arsenal – that 4-0 thumping in the quarter-final of the FA Cup – was even more significant in terms of the psychological damage it did to the Gunners, who were leading the Premier League at the time and never quite recovered from the shattering experience. True, with bigger fish to fry in the Champions’ League, both sides had made significant changes on the day, but it still said much about United’s greater options that a comparative bit-part player like Darren Fletcher could come into the side and crown a rare start with two goals.

Of course, the outstanding goal-getter and headline-grabber for Manchester United all through the season has been Cristiano Ronaldo. The RTÉ panel’s hostility might be just a more extreme expression of the reservations many have about the claims to greatness being advanced so hysterically on the Portuguese player’s behalf, but there is no gainsaying that his prodigious goal-haul – 31 in the league alone, after his goal against Wigan yesterday — has been central to United’s winning campaign.

Ronaldo might have supplied the ‘wow’ factor but, as an astute football man, Alex Ferguson would surely be the first to acknowledge the key role played by the sometimes sensational but always selfless Wayne Rooney, as well as critical contributions at critical times from the likes of Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez.

After yesterday’s denouncement, 108 goals in all competitions makes for a vivid numerical illustration of United’s firepower but, of no less significance, were their hugely impressive defensive statistics. In 56 games, the back four have conceded only 31 goals and kept 31 clean sheets, and all this achieved despite having to cope with the long-term absence of Gary Neville.

Key to that solidity was the commanding form of Nemanja Vidic who, alongside the increasingly composed Rio Ferdinand, gave United a rock solid presence at the heart of their defence. And not far behind Vidic as a defensive candidate for player of the year, was Patrice Evra, United’s most improved performer this season to such an extent that it’s hard to think of a tidier and more effective attacking full-back in the Premier League.

A word too about dependable goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, something of an unsung hero in a team full of marquee names, but, without question, United’s most consistently reliable last line of defence since Peter Schmeichel helped Alex Ferguson to his first league title at the club back in 1993.

United’s triumph means that Alex Ferguson has now claimed his 10th Premier League trophy, shining confirmation of his status as the top flight’s top manager.

But, with the European Cup still the supreme target for Manchester United, Ferguson will not need to be told that the club is now on the cusp between the best of times and the worst of times.

Failure in Moscow and their 17th league title will not feel like much more than a consolation prize.

Window shopping

How Alex Ferguson could strengthen his title winners this summer.

Dimitar Berbatov (£15m): The Tottenham striker has been desperate to leave White Hart Lane for months now and Ferguson has already confirmed he wants experienced back-up for his strikeforce. Where he would play, however, is anyone’s guess.

Michael Owen (£7m): The Newcastle striker would also fit in with Ferguson’s blueprint and has long been admired by the Scot. Kevin Keegan would resist the move but, with Owen having just over a year left on his current deal, the decision might not be his to make.

Karim Benzema (£15m): Ferguson has already gone public with his admiration for the Lyon striker and would be one of the favourites to sign him, for all the French club’s reluctance.

Micah Richards (£12m): Likely to leave in the summer after a disrupted season and has impressed Ferguson with his muscular displays in a variety of defensive roles. Right-back is a problem position for United, with Gary Neville’s long-term fitness in doubt, and the England defender is admired at Old Trafford.


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