Ranking Man United's Most Valuable Players in Their Treble Campaign
It has been 14 years since Manchester United's legendary team of 1999 shook the footballing world by winning the elusive "treble," with two goals in the dying seconds of the Champions League final against the mighty Bayern Munich.
In that moment United announced themselves as a genuine force not only in the framework of the English game, but also on a European and World level.
Despite having been a dominant power within England for the best part of a decade prior to that famous night in Barcelona, this was the start of a European legacy that has seen United go on to be revered as one of the most lethal sides in the history of the game.
For the first time in a long while it looks as though another potential treble could be on for the table cloth army—who currently sit in a dominant position in the EPL, with a quarter final in the FA Cup and their second leg at home to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the European Cup quickly approaching.
Without doubt the toughest challenge for the Red Devils this season will be conquering their European counterparts and matching the heights reached by fellow English cohorts Chelsea last season, by clinching their fourth European crown.
If they are to complete the League, Domestic and European Cup spree, then Manchester United are going to need to step up their game to compete with the likes of Munich, Juventus, Barca and, more importantly in the coming days, Real Madrid.
The FA Cup is also far from guaranteed this year, with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City still posing a genuine threat to United's campaign.
But which United players hold the key to achieving the success that Sir Alex and his babes once achieved at the end of the last century?
6: David De Gea
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Any side relies heavily on its goalkeeper, and Manchester United are no exception.
Over the last year and a half David de Gea has not made many friends in the English press, often being used as a scapegoat by many as the reason for United's alarmingly poor start to the 2012-13 season in regards to the number of goals being conceded.
Aside from this the man from Madrid has been heavily criticised for his admittedly poor ability to collect the ball from corners, free-kicks and in-swinging crosses.
However, if it weren't for De Gea, United would be nowhere near as far ahead in the league this season as they currently are. Yes, he has made some silly mistakes, but the United number one has kept the team in several games this year when the scores were level—only for RVP and co. to go up the other end and clinch three points for Sir Alex's men.
Similarly his exploits in the Red Devil's round of 16 first leg tie against Real Madrid have given his team a genuine chance of getting past the Spanish Champions and making it into the quarter final of the competition.
Without doubt de Gea is one of the most underrated goalkeepers in Premier League history, and has barely been given a chance to prove his worth as a replacement to legendary keeper Edwin van der Saar.
If United are going to win the treble this year then David needs to show the kind of form that most fans of the club know he is more than capable of producing. If he has faith in himself then the performance we saw against Madrid can easily become a weekly occurrence from the 22-year-old.
5: Nemanja Vidic
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United have sorely missed their big Serbian at the centre of defence this year. Despite a considerable improvement in recent weeks (unsurprisingly after the re-introduction of Vidic to the first XI), the Red Devils have been far from intimidating this year when in comparison to the stalwart defence we once witnessed back in 2007 when they went 11 games without conceding in the league.
Vidic's return has instantly brought about positive results in United back four and despite his aging years—and seeming inability to play for too long without needing to miss a whole game to rest—his influence in the set up with be critical as the season approaches its climax.
David de Gea can only stop so many shots at goal. The United back four needs to do its duty also and keep their man in green safe from too heavy a bombardment.
Vidic is, in this writer's opinion, the key to that defensive shut out. What he doesn't know about defending genuinely is not worth knowing. Perhaps his pace (or what little he had) is starting to leave him; but tactical know-how and positional awareness are something that this man still has in abundance.
Clean sheets are imperative to title winning runs, and with Vidic back in the United defensive line-up the results are already swinging that way—with three consecutive shut outs in the Premier League.
If this form continues then United will be on the path to victory.
4: Rafael Da Silva
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A player who has shown immense improvement this season has been United's now securely first choice right-back, Rafael da Silva.
Despite having some critics during his time at Old Trafford (I won't lie, before the 2012-13 campaign I would have been very happy to see the Brazilian sent out on loan like his twin Fabio) Rafael has completely turned his image around, standing out as one of the table cloth armies most important players this year.
His work ethic is second to none in the squad, and despite a rocky start, da Silva's positional awareness and tackling ability has come on leaps and bounds as the season has progressed.
Aside from his defensive duties, the 22-year-old has shown a remarkable ability to play an instrumental part in any counter attacks that United look to carry out in a match.
His pace and control of the football have led to several break-away goals from the counter attacking kings—and as we witnessed this weekend the former Fluminense youth player is not afraid to take a pop at goal from range to tremendous effect.
Against Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeau Rafael looked initially shaky and unable to keep up with one of the greatest players the game has ever known. However, as the second half progressed it become apparent that the young wing-back was starting to get the hang of playing against the former United wingers' supreme pace and strength.
This will once again be crucial when it comes to the second leg at Old Trafford, and without sounding too melodramatic, Rafael can win the tie for United if he keeps Cristiano as quiet as possible.
3: Wayne Rooney
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The criticism that Wayne Rooney has come under this season has been nothing short of baffling.
Despite still scoring a healthy 10 goals in the league this season (a tally that has unsurprisingly decreased in comparison to recent seasons with the addition of world class striker Robin van Persie to the United centre forward position) the critics are still out in force panning Rooney's efforts for the Red Devils this campaign.
It's almost as if they are completely neglecting the fact that Wayne has had to play an entirely different role to the one we are accustomed to seeing him in—and what's more, he's doing a fantastic job of it.
When Rooney has been fully fit this season we have for the most part seen him playing in just behind RVP or Javier Hernandez. In this role he sees a lot more of the ball, but usually with the purpose of either winning it back or setting up one of his team-mates as opposed to having a crack at goal himself.
Ironically it has been Rooney's incredibly unselfish nature on the pitch that has led to the negative reviews he is now receiving from sports pundits across the country.
One might almost look at Rooney as the proverbial puppeteer at the club this season, pulling the strings from just behind the centre of both the midfield and attack, but letting men around him get all of the credit.
Certainly Wayne does at times look past his best in games, but the same could be said of any of the world's best. One thing that has been consistent with United over the past decade is that if they want to win trophies then Wayne Rooney is the key to this. That applies today as much as it did in 2004.
2: Michael Carrick
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Michael Carrick has been the unsung hero of Manchester United for the past two seasons now. After what was a more than disappointing first half a decade in the red of Manchester Carrick finally came good on his £16m price tag last season as one of the team's stand out players in an otherwise disappointing campaign.
After another slow start to this year things looked as if they had gone back to dreary days once again; but Carrick proved his critics wrong, turning out another fantastic set of performances for Sir Alex's men.
So far this season Carrick has completed more successful passes than any other player in European football. Say what you want about these "silly" statistics, but when a player is able to keep possession of a football for his team (like Xavi or Pirlo are famed for) that can only be a brilliant thing.
Acting as the pivot in the United attack, Carrick has had another hugely influential impact on what has so far been a stellar campaign from England's most successful football team.
With the issues that Darren Fletcher has been suffering from over the past couple of years, Carrick has more then stepped up to the role and proven his worth as a world class player.
Bolstering the United midfield is no easy feat, but if he continues in the same vain of form that he's exhibited so far in 2013, then United have as a good a chance as any to complete that heralded treble of championships.
1: Robin Van Persie
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What more could be said about this man than hasn't already been said this season?
Without doubt Robin van Persie was one of the signings of the summer for Manchester United. Despite some believing that £29m was simply too much for a 29-year-old injury-prone player, Sir Alex once again showed that he knows best, bringing in a man who has redefined the United set up since his arrival.
Van Persie's goals have literally been the difference between a 12 point cushion at the top of the Barclays Premier League and the Red Devils battling it out for the final Champions League spot.
If it weren't for RVP's 90th minute dramatics at Upton Park then Fergie's men would have been sent hurtling out of the FA Cup in the very first round they had entered in from.
His goals in the group stages of the Champions League were what secured United first place in their section (admittedly that didn't work out too well with their reward being a couple of fixtures against the Galacticos), and despite not being able to bag a goal at the Bernabeau, RVP once again looked lethal, carving out attacks and providing the cross which led to Danny Welbeck's goal from a corner.
There isn't really much need to explain why Robin van Persie is the most important player for United this season. The facts, figures and performances speak for themselves.
Let's just hope for the sake of United fans that the cameraman at QPR didn't do too much damage to the Red Devils star Dutch striker.