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Into the Unknown sea of the Europa League!

Two exits within the space of a week. That is the reality of the season so far for Manchester United; one that started so brightly with good, positive football that had us all purring and brimming with confidence and enthusiasm for the season ahead as we got goals after goals. Instead, we now stare at the unknown. The unknown comes in the shape of the Europa League, a competition we have not won in whatever guise it has been in and a competition we had not planned to play in. However, that is the reality that faces everyone at Manchester United; owners, manager, players and fans when we think of midweek European action for the rest of the season.

However all is not lost yet as we are in second place in the league and very much in the shout to retain the league title as well as still be in the running for the FA Cup, although we have it tough from the first game itself with a derby against Manchester City. Anything can happen in that tie and I believe United are more than capable of beating City away from home. However, one cannot help but feel a little pessimistic, worried and anxious at this point of time as we got news yesterday that our skipper, Nemanja Vidic would be sidelined for the rest of the season. There are other key players who are sidelined through injury like Javier Hernandez, Anderson and Tom Cleverley and then there are the Da Silva twins who could be key players if they can remain fit and maintain the level of consistency expected at United.

Coming back to the painful topic of Champions League elimination, would anyone have guessed when the draw was made that United would make such heavy weather of qualification that we would eventually not even qualify to the knockout rounds? I don’t think anyone would have thought of that but I, for one, was guarded and not over-confident of our progress. After all, the players and the team have got to do their jobs on the pitch for us to qualify and that is what they didn’t do. A lot of silly mistakes were made out of lack of focus and concentration and admittedly, from the manager himself, the players were over-confident in some matches too. A team that only conceded 4 goals en route to the final last season conceded 8 goals at the end of the group stage and had only won once at home in Europe against minnows of the group, Otelul Galati and even in that match, they made heavy weather of it. Certainly performances weren’t up to standard at all, they weren’t breath-taking last season but at least we made it difficult for teams to score and won our games at home. For two of the past four seasons, we have played second fiddle to Barcelona but this season we are not even close and the gap seems to have got wider now.

Now, the unknown, how will United as a team and the youngsters in the squad respond from this disappointment in Europe because we theoretically are still in Europe albeit relegated to the second tier of European competition? It is not as easy as it seems because United as a team are in unfamiliar territory of playing on Thursdays which would mean changes in team preparation. There is also the pain that I hope and expect the players to feel from watching Champions League matches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the television instead of experiencing it for themselves. I do hope that this disappointment would strengthen their resolve to do better in Europe next season and give the fans something to cheer about for the rest of our European campaign. The Europa League formerly known as the UEFA Cup is one competition United have not won yet so it would be nice to complete our collection of all the European trophies having won the European Cup/Champions League thrice, the defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Super Cup once each. One more question remains, will Sir Alex use the Europa League as the Carling Cup of Europe and blood youngsters and players who haven’t had much playing time like a lot of the clubs in the Europa League are doing now?

Moving on now to the bread and butter of league action, United have had the disappointment, shock and horror of a 6-1 mauling at home against City to deal of and as we are dealing with that with some solid yet unimpressive 1-0 wins to restore our confidence, we were dealt with another disappointment and this time a humbling defeat at home to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup. United can take scant consolation from the fact that it wasn’t the strongest United side on show as there were many internationals and ex-internationals in the team. Having bounced back with a more confident and assured performance with a 1-0 win over Villa, United would now have to contend with the psychological damage the early exit from the Champions League could cost them. It will remain to be seen how we do against Wolverhampton Wanderers today but they haven’t been easy opponents for us as seen last season. Moreover, we have got to deal with the loss of our rock in defence, Vidic. We have options there in the form of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones but they are either inexperienced or maybe not as good as Vidic himself. In my opinion, with the Da Silvas out and with no other right back that is available, Smalling and Jones will contest for the right back slot with Jones’ versatility allowing him to be considered in centre midfield as well. Vidic’s injury also means that it becomes very, very important for us to wrap Rio Ferdinand in a cotton wool to keep him fit because his presence and experience at the back will be required more than ever now. Evans is at the right age and has a good opportunity to claim a spot in central defence but how well will he take it, remains to be seen. It is time for him to show that he is capable to remain as a Manchester United player and one that is of first team quality not a bit part player.

In midfield, we have the issue of wingers to resolve. Nani was one bright spot in the dark night of Basle but Ashley Young’s form has dipped. We also have the option of Antonio Valencia but one problem the wingers are facing is that they are not able to deliver good crosses and not be as threatening in taking on their man to get crosses in or get goals. Out of the three mentioned, Young is in the worst form of the three. It is his first season in a club as big as Manchester United, he started the season brightly but his form has dipped and the best of players at United have seen their form dip from time to time but has Young got the character to bounce back from this dip in form? We do have another winger in the form of Park Ji Sung but his performances this season have been erratic and uncharacteristically inconsistent. Is it the end of the road for the popular and ever dependable South Korean? In centre midfield, Jones’ lack of experience was evident in the Basle game as he struggled to come to grips with the Swiss club’s tricky, much sought after playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri as he found space time and again between our defence and midfield. His partner on the night, Ryan Giggs found it tough at the highest level of European football but he has delivered so many stupendous performances over the years that we can overlook this one maybe as just a one-off. Giggs has been used sparingly as expected by Sir Alex but his performances so far haven’t been what we have expected. Is age finally catching up with our beloved evergreen Welshman?

Michael Carrick who missed the Basle game due to a suspension is back for Wolves and I didn’t think I would say this but I got to say we missed having him in centre midfield. He has always done a good job in midfield although at times he does infuriate with his tendency to slow down the pace of the game or opting to pass instead of shooting in a good position or for not dictating the game enough in certain big games. He has also shown a tendency to start the season slow but get into form around this time and he is currently the most in-form central midfielder we have that is capable of some accurate passing, clever usage of the ball and dare I say, creativity! Maybe now is the time we will truly see what he has learned from playing with the master that is Paul Scholes. However who should partner him? Besides Giggs, Jones and Park, there are the options of the industrious Darren Fletcher whose energy and drive is missed and the much-maligned Darron Gibson. With Anderson out till February, I do hope we have Cleverley back sooner than expected to start prompting from midfield alongside Carrick but at the moment, I feel Fletcher would be the best partner for Carrick. I do hope though that Fletcher does recover to his best form and show us the Fletcher that we all know and love.

Up front with Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov’s injury, it means we have got to rely on Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf. Oh yes, Michael Owen is out too and out again through injury. Hernandez’s nifty movement and eye for goal was something we missed on Wednesday and he will be missed. There is a chance that Berbatov would recover in time for the Wolves game but he hasn’t quite hit the heights of last season’s Barclays Premier League top scoring form. Danny Welbeck has been bright and his introduction brought about a spark in the attack on Wednesday alongside Rooney but I suspect United are trying to ease him back in after his injury while on international duty with England. Sir Alex doesn’t seem to have much faith in Macheda and Diouf but the latter’s days appeared to be numbered especially if he is sent out on loan again. He has more faith in Macheda and age is on his side but he does need to buck up and perhaps a loan move to another Premier League club would do him some good as it did for Welbeck. With Sir Alex’s reluctance to rush Welbeck back, it looks likely that we would play with one striker until either Berbatov or Hernandez returns but I would prefer to play with two in Welbeck and Rooney and then reducing to one when the points are sealed and in the bag.

In the past few days, United have faced a lot of criticism and ridicule from different quarters. We can only wait to see how United respond to all this setbacks and pray that our luck changes. We got to keep it solid and tight at the back and at the same time produce the free-flowing football that we are known for and score lots of goals. We believe in you, United, I am sure the players believe in themselves and the team but stay focused, alert and clinical. Bring back the joy for the fans. Bring back the goals and stay solid. I understand it is tough to do both at a time but we are United and if there is anyone who can do it, then it is us because we have been doing it for years now. Sir Alex, I hope the hairdryer has been out already.

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