Champions League Quarterfinal, First Leg. Old Trafford, Manchester.
Manchester United 2-2 Porto
Surely it can’t end like this. Great football teams can have short half-lives, and the pessimistic quarter of the red side of Manchester will be forgiven for thinking that this one is showing serious signs of coming apart at the seams. Whereas last year’s team was hard, this iteration looks increasingly brittle. Whereas last year’s team involved a fresh infusion of youth, this one is more and more reliant on a fading old guard. Whereas last year’s United managed games with a strong sense of internal cohesion, this year’s team harks back to an older United, one that turned domestic domination into European disappointment by trying season after season to out-swashbuckle continental sides who were more than capable of maintaining their own composure. More than anything else, the Red Devils are beginning to resemble their predecessors from 2001. In that year, added to the sheer quality of the treble-wining side were both the vastly expensive Juan Sebastian Veron and the lethal Ruud Van Nistleroy, meant to be European specialists. Famously, even this nearly galactico-laden United failed to replicate their recent Champions League success. This year’s United are beginning to look all to similar. Although Dimitar Berbatov will likely never equal the accomplishments of either Veron or Van Nistleroy, he was certainly almost as expensive, and his presence has resulted in a similarly unsettling re-shuffle of a squad that might not have needed it. What exactly the terrible trio of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Carlos Tevez did wrong last campaign is unclear; less so is the blatant incompatibility of the languid, lazy Berbatov in a team that used to defend from the front so successfully. Not since Paul Scholes was shunted into an ill-fitting second striker role at the peak of his career have United made a strategic shift that has proven so costly.
Berbatov, to be fair, wasn’t even fit tonight for his usual jog-around and toe-poke routine. Up front, United looked plenty dangerous, especially given the starvation diet provided the forwards by an insipid midfield performance. While Michael Carrick had a shockingly bad match, the blame really lies tragically at the feet of two United legends: Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. Scholes, for all his ginger tenacity, looks increasingly past it and surely cannot be relied upon for much longer. He is at best a 50/50 proposition at this point, and central midfielders are not allowed to be so unreliable. Neville, even at his finest, was never a dominating player. Of slight build and limited pace, he made a career by his ability to read the game and through his powerful determination. At 34, his physical limitations have caught up with him. For all its beauty, football is relentlessly cruel, and it must be time for Neville to go. The hardened, angry lines of his face tell the whole story: it is not that he has no idea what he is doing; he knows exactly what to do, and yet can no longer do it.
Indeed, the United back line hasn’t been this poor for years. Giving up ten goals in four games is beyond reproach. It is astounding that a team which defended their way through the Champions League last term has been reduced by injury and temperament to a set of bumbling head-cases. Rio Ferdinand’s absence has been telling—the young Johnny Evans shows plenty of promise but is not yet ready to play this much—but the most significant problem has been the long-term reliance on John O’Shea. Although he is competent going forward and strong in the air, the Irishman is tentative and flat-footed at the back, especially in one-on-one situations. In this recent United implosion, during which they have been beaten 4-1 by Liverpool, 2-0 by Fulham, and 2-2 by Porto, a common theme has been opponents constant targeting of O’Shea. This should no longer be surprising. In the modern game, clubs with championship ambitions can no longer get away with starting squad-quality players at outside-back. Those looking for a difference between last season’s nearly-impenetrable United defense and this year’s initially strong but quickly disintegrating rear-line should look no further than the absence of Wes Brown. Brown, although extremely limited in a technical sense, would never in a million years have allowed the goals Neville and O’Shea have tamely surrendered to Villa and Porto in the space of 36 hours.
The odds makers, creatures of jingoism and habit, will still surely still favor United to pull out a win at the Estadio Dragao. Only a brave, even foolish, Mancunian partisan would take such a punt at this point. United are shipping more goals than the factory that makes them, and barring a sudden realization on Ferguson’s part that he must rush Brown, Ferdinand, and young Rafael Da Silva back into the fold, things do note bode well for the Red Devils. The quintuple, once so brashly predicted, looks now more like a lethal mirage.
Liverpool will be licking their lips.