Manchester United were winners of the Champions League as recently as 2008. They were close to the grand prize twice in 2009 and 2011, only to succumb to defeats by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona on both occasions.
However, this year, under Sir Alex’s tutelage, the Red Devils will provide stiff competition, and are one of the favorites to lay hands on the top prize in European Football once again.
Here are 6 reasons why Manchester United can win the Champions League this year.
Acquisition of Top Players
After several years of transfer activity, Sir Alex Ferguson finally signaled intent by making not one, but two world-class acquisitions this summer.
Such marquee acquisitions not only inject talent into the roster, but also boost morale amongst the ranks, signifying a strong intent to compete on several fronts. It also allows players to be rested and rotated—key players get the deserved rest, while younger players needing experience can be entrusted with added responsibilities, all without hurting chances for points.
Over the summer, Japanese sensation and Borussia Dortmund’s talisman Shinji Kagawa was signed. It was an astute signing, as Kagawa has repeatedly demonstrated how much of an impact he can make on the team.
Despite his limited language skills, Kagawa has gelled effortlessly with the team and provided them with a strong offensive outlet. He has the natural flair of an attacking midfielder, creative and technically sound. He can glide through defenders, has great ball-control and creates numerous goal-scoring opportunities, scoring plenty himself.
To those who have watched Kagawa wreak havoc at Dortmund, this is no surprise. Despite missing the majority of the 2010-11 season through an injury he picked up on international duty, Kagawa became an instrumental figure for Dortmund, helping them win the Bundesliga. For his efforts, he was placed in the Bundesliga Best XI.
In 2011-12, he racked up 14 goals and seven assists during the campaign to help Dortmund defend the Bundesliga title.
Tactically, he relieves pressure from Wayne Rooney. Often times, Rooney tends to drop deep and function as an attacking midfielder of sorts, orchestrating the attack and setting up other strikers.
Kagawa’s introduction allows the creative burden to be lifted from the Englishman, and complements him nicely. Kagawa is also a great goal scorer and doesn’t shy away from shots.
Watch Kagawa’s ten best goals here. Hopefully, under Sir Alex’s tutelage, he will blossom into an even better player, capable of fulfilling defensive duties as well.
However, it is not only Shinji Kagawa that Sir Alex has acquired. A masterstroke landed last year’s best player in England at Old Trafford. Robin van Persie's age and history with injuries made him quite a suspect candidate, yet he has dispelled all worries by shipping goals by the dozen against opposing teams.
If initial proceedings— seven goals in nine games in the league, and two goals in Europe from three games—are any indication of the future, the signing will pay off handsomely. What more can you ask?
His link-up play with United’s talisman, Rooney, has been exceptional as well. Against CFR Cluj, it was Rooney who provided both the assists for his goals. Only as recently as the game against Chelsea, it was Rooney who provided for Van Persie, his shot ending up in the back of the net after hitting the post and deflecting off David Luiz’s arm.
Furthermore, like Kagawa, Van Persie can turn provider. He also often drops deep to collect the ball and orchestrate play. And he can take set-pieces.
Indeed, United are indeed afforded with a lot of options in the offensive half with these two remarkable acquisitions. As the season progresses and the key players develop a rapport, United should be dismantle any defense.
Yes, United’s defense has been absolutely appalling this season. Too many goals are conceded early on, and major mistakes are made on a consistent basis.
However, three key defenders have been injured for United—captain Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. For the opening phase of the season, United have had to rely on a makeshift defense on more than one occasion.
For example: Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia have both played at defense. And both had horrific showings when used as center-back and right-back, respectively.
For years, United have been a team reliant on rock-solid defenses.
Rafael has turned into a crafty right-back, capable of attacking yet making crucial tackles and interceptions. He also supports the wingers by creating much-needed space for them, exchanging one-twos with them and putting incisive balls into the box.
His partnership with Antonio Valencia operates on a telepathic level.
At left-back, Patrice Evra faces stiff competition from Alexander Büttner, and this has seen some noticeable difference in Evra’s performance.
As Vidic, Smalling and Jones return, United will have a host of options to choose from and will rid themselves of their defensive frailties.
Who was United’s best player last season? For me it was Antonio Valencia, and most of you will agree.
Who is United’s talisman? Wayne Rooney.
And with the aforementioned acquisition of Van Persie and Kagawa, Manchester United’s offensive lineup is one of the best in the world.
Furthermore, they have Javier Hernandez (who certainly proved his worth by clinching the winners against Chelsea and Braga) and Danny Welbeck in the offensive mix.
Don’t forget that Nani and Ashley Young, on their best days, can wreak quite some havoc from the wings as well.
United have options at center-midfield, too. Darren Fletcher has returned recently, while Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes also remain. Tom Cleverly and Anderson provide other options, and Nick Powell also lurks in the distance.
Sir Alex Ferguson Factor
Like every season, Sir Alex has a key role to play in United’s title ambitions. This year is no different.
However, it seems to me that Sir Alex might be making one last dash for European supremacy. It is unlike him to shell out a pretty penny for a player like Van Persie, who was approaching 29 at the time, had a history of injuries and demanded a formidable wage.
Last year, he failed to win the league, surrendering a lead on the very last day, and he must be anxious to make a comeback.
In 1998, when Sir Alex failed to win the league, he went on to guide United to a historic treble in 1999.
It’s no secret that Sir Alex loves the 4-4-2. Over the decades, United’s strength has been a reliance on excellent central midfielders and the use of width as afforded by the wingers.
However, this season is a bit different.
Over the past few years, possession has become king in football. The 4-2-3-1 formation has allowed teams to control the tempo of the game and dismantle opposition.
Last year’s finalists, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, both utilized a 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was the same formation employed primarily by the Spanish, German, Dutch and French national teams.
Players like Kagawa and Van Persie have afforded tactical versatility to United, which has been evidenced by Sir Alex tinkering with formations quite a bit this season.
The traditionally stiff 4-4-2 has paved the way for more fluid formations—formations like the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 and the 4-4-2 diamond formation.
Formation and tactical flexibility equips United to take on stronger oppositions with ease.
There are plenty of reasons that make United a dominant squad capable of taking home the Champions League crown.
United have a blend of experienced veterans—Carrick, Scholes, Rooney, Van Persie, etc.—and young firepower—Tom Cleverly, Danny Welbeck, Alexander Büttner etc.
People like Vidic and Fletcher are going to be in the roster as well.
Arsenal experienced firsthand how a lack of squad depth can injure your chances while vying for major trophies. In the second leg against AC Milan, Arsenal was poised to make a comeback, and after being three goals up in the first half, things seemed to be heading Arsenal’s way.
Finally, there are no locker-room blowouts at United, unlike at Manchester City (Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez), Bayern Munich (Arjen Robben vs. Franck Ribery), Chelsea (at least under Andre-Villas Boas) or Real Madrid (Jose Mourinho, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos).
United boast an ethic which puts the team first, and this is going to be key as United try to compete for the grandest prize of them all.
What do you make of United's chances in the Champions League this season? Do you think that current defensive woes will limit United chances? What about the midfield? Is the midfield strong enough to make a challenge? Leave your opinions.
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