UEFA Champions League: Are Manchester United England's Only Hope at the Title?
Manchester United picked up their fourth win from as many matches in the UEFA Champions League this week with a come-from-behind victory over Sporting Braga—becoming the only team left "perfect" through their first four matches in the competition this year.
Courtesy of goals from Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, the Red Devils clawed their way back into the match and into the final 16 of the tournament—a feat that they could not manage last year.
This year, they've done it with two matches still to play.
It's been somewhat of a special fortnight for Sir Alex Ferguson's men, who have not only qualified for the knockout rounds of Europe's most prestigious tournament, but they have also climbed to the top of the English Premier League courtesy of wins over rivals Chelsea and Arsenal in consecutive weeks.
Their attack is firing on all cylinders, with Van Persie and Rooney beginning to form the most lethal striker duo in world football at the moment, and whilst there are still some issues defensively, United have become one very sound football team this year.
They've become the best team in the Premier League and are showing themselves to be one of the best teams in Europe as well—a genuine contender for the Champions League title.
Out of the three other Premier League teams that have qualified for the tournament this year—Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal—you'd have to say that the Red Devils are best placed to challenge for the title this year.
And it's not even close.
But are Manchester United the only English team that stands a chance of winning the most sought-after trophy in world football? Are they England's only hope at the Champions League title this year?
To answer that, we need to examine the three other teams.
Manchester City have proven to be a disappointment in the Champions League this year, and despite boasting a squad filled with exciting young talent, we can safely rule them out as potential challenges for the title this year.
They have failed to win any of their four group-stage matches—albeit against tough opposition—and find themselves in last place in the group. Roberto Mancini's men would need a minor miracle to qualify for the knockout stages, and even if that did take place, there are no guarantees that the Citizens won't just bomb out in the next round of competition.
So draw a line through Manchester City.
What about Arsenal? The Gunners might have been outclassed by several teams in the past few weeks, including Norwich City, Schalke and United, but their performance in the Champions League this week showed that perhaps they are improving.
They did, after all, hold Schalke to a 2-2 draw in Germany, and could well have earned all three competition points had they not squandered their early lead.
Arsene Wenger's men sit second in their group and look likely to progress through to the round of 16; can we say that they are a title contender this year?
The Gunners have been inconsistent in attack this year—recording just one shot on target when they played United and none at all when they previously played Schalke—and are becoming far too dependent on the midfield brilliance of Santi Cazorla.
They have had a bad run with injuries, but despite that, their defensive unit is simply not good enough to be a dominant and controlling force this year, and they don't have the attack to match the likes of Manchester United in an offensive shootout.
So draw a line through Arsenal also.
That brings us to Chelsea—the defending champions.
The West London club showed us last season in the Champions League that you don't have to be playing glamorous, attacking football to win games, and indeed win the trophy. So can we consider them a threat again this season?
The answer is both yes and no.
The Blues have drawn a tough group featuring the likes of Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk—both of whom stand a great chance of qualifying at the expense of Roberto Di Matteo's side if Chelsea cannot find a win in their next Champions League match.
They might have ran out winners over Shakhtar at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday without two of their key defenders on hand, but still, question marks remain as to whether or not Chelsea are as durable as they were last year.
They have, after all, only just won one home game in the competition this season, and have been outplayed in many of their group-stage matches so far.
The inclusion of Oscar and Eden Hazard in their lineup has sparked a strong run of form, but whether or not it has made them into a side that can contend for the title this year—well, that still remains to be seen.
It appears that the jury is out until we know the result of their campaign-defining match against Juventus next week in Italy.
If they can topple the Italian champions on their home ground, they will have booked their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League—stages that they proved last year they can excel in and chalk up victories in.
If they can beat Juventus, then yes, Chelsea must be considered a chance at the title. Their team is simply too strong to suggest otherwise.
But if the Blues fail to beat Juventus and are left dependent on results falling their way in the final week of the competition, then no. Regardless of whether they progress through to the next round or not, if they can't achieve a result next fortnight then this is a team that isn't quite yet up to the consistency that the likes of Manchester United are at this year.
And that would therefore make United England's only hope.
We won't yet know whether they will be carrying the hopes of a nation into the knockout rounds of the Champions League this year until the conclusion of this month, but you'd have to agree that United are the best-placed English side at the current point in time.
They are the only English team left undefeated and they are the only team that have proven so far to be an unstoppable force in the Champions League.
They aren't England's only hope just yet, but they certainly are the best.
And it isn't even close.
Do Manchester United have what it takes to win the Champions League?
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