Will the Real United Stand Up At Stamford Bridge?

nigel smithCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2009

MOSCOW - OCTOBER - OCTOBER 20: Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United speaks during a press conference  ahead of their UEFA Champions League match against CSKA Moscow at Luzhniki Stadium on October 20, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

With a quarter of the league campaign completed, United remain in contention for a fourth successive league triumph.

The team lies second in the Premiership, just two points behind Chelsea and is also well placed to navigate the group stage of the Champions League with more than a little to spare. A 2-0 defeat over Barnsley last night heralded further joy in this year’s League  Cup.

So far, so good.

Yet, these bald facts cannot conceal the disquiet shrouding United’s autumn progress.

Defeat against Liverpool is guaranteed to have the Red faithful crying into its beer and United’s third successive reverse last weekend was no exception. Add Nemanja Vidic’s third red card against Liverpool and the further exposure of weaknesses in United’s rearguard and there is much to concentrate Sir Alex’s mind.

Fullback Patrice Evra could have been forgiven for summing up United’s season so far, when he gave his post-match verdict in the aftermath of Liverpool’s victory.

“We didn't show the Manchester United spirit," the United defender said with unusual candour. "The idea was to play our football but we didn't do that and I don't know why. Liverpool were aggressive in everything but we just didn't have the right attitude to play our football and it was very frustrating to lose the game.

"The atmosphere wasn't a factor. We have played a lot of times at Anfield and have players with experience, so it is not about the atmosphere. For professional footballers, you are happy to play at a place like Anfield and are not scared by it. We just didn't play our game."

Many observers might agree United have struggled to find their best form this season. The performances against Birmingham, Wigan and Spurs were brief moments of exhilaration set against a backdrop of several nervy and occasionally absent-minded displays.

Arsenal left Old Trafford believing they had been victims of a hold-up. Manchester City’s sense of grievance was even more acute after a Michael Owen winner snatched victory for Sir Alex’s team in the seventh minute of extra time. Sunderland lacked the nerve perhaps to claim the victory their vibrant performance suggested.

What stands out from the season so far is that United’s work betrays the lack of fluency and punch revealed so glaringly in last season’s Champions League final against Barcelona.

Other problems loom large too. The iron defence has gone rusty. Vidic and Ferdinand, a most reliable pairing who once brought the surefooted choreography of Fred and Ginger to defending, now have the look of Charles and Di. Questions remain about the value of Berbatov’s contribution, whether Valencia has the personality to rise to the Red challenge and Owen’s appropriateness and longevity.

It has come to something that United’s midfield, a recent source of pride given the myriad options available to the manager, now appears reliant on the much-derided Fletcher and the long-absent Hargreaves.

Sir Alex will point to the league table as his rebuttal of the charge that United lost their mojo when Cristiano Ronaldo joined Real Madrid.

He will also be comforted by the form of Evra and Rooney, the return of Edwin Van Der Sar and the labours of his principal rivals.

Liverpool, for all their joy at last weekend’s triumph, have been defeated on four occasions in their opening 10 fixtures and look a distinctly ordinary  outfit without the ignition provided by Torres and Gerrard.

Free-scoring Arsenal look weaker in defence and may still be suspect in central midfield. Chelsea appear to be hitting their stride but will they be failed by old legs next Spring?

Sir Alex might also note that, with the exception of Manchester City, the loss of his £80 million Portuguese super-star occurred at a time of retrenchment elsewhere in the Premiership. United may be a less threatening proposition for opponents but so too are Arsenal and Liverpool.

That leaves Chelsea as the main source of United’s concern. Ferguson will be able to measure the progress of Carlo Ancelloti’s side in a head to head confrontation early next month.

All the referee distractions in the world manufactured by the media-savvy Ferguson  cannot detract from the stark evidence that currently United are not playing well.

Will the real United stand up at Stamford Bridge?