THAT, surely, is that as far as Manchester United’s title hopes go! The 3-1 defeat at Chelsea merely confirmed my growing feeling that David Moyes not only took on a tough job when he succeeded “the master,” Sir Alex Ferguson, but a near-impossible one because of the dearth of top quality in the squad he inherited. United teams of recent years would have been snapping away at Chelsea when they went behind, giving the impression they could hit back at any moment. But not this team. At 2-0 down you felt it was all over. Without Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front, United simply cannot pose a goal threat, certainly not against quality opposition, and they can no longer compete with the best midfields around.
Another sign of the fraying around the edges of this once all-conquering side was the irresponsibility of captain Nemanja Vidic, sent off in the closing moments for his late lunge at Eden Hazard. He now misses Wednesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg with Sunderland, a match that represents United’s one remaining realistic hope of winning silverware. How ill-disciplined was that? Vidic is no longer the commanding figure he was but, nevertheless, he remains a significant one and, if he, Rooney and Van Persie are all absent on Wednesday it can only make the job of retrieving a 2-1 deficit all the harder. I feel for Moyes, for United’s struggles are not down to him. And people should not point the finger at Ferguson and suggest he got out when the time was right. Sir Alex has recently turned 72 and he unquestionably deserves the right to spend more precious time with his family. I don’t think Moyes should be judged as United manager until the end of next season. He will have a busy summer, when he needs to bring in two or three midfielders and preside over the uncertain situation of Rooney, with rumours persisting that the 27-year-old wants a new challenge. It is never easy to bring in top players in January, largely because clubs are reluctant to release them, but if any one of Mata, at Chelsea, and Newcastle’s Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa was available, he would, in my opinion, be what United need.
I must say I was disappointed in Chelsea, daft though that might sound after such a significant 3-1 victory over the fallen champions. Put it this way, had it been United who had gone three goals up, or Manchester City, we would have seen a team going for the jugular, trying to twist the knife into their opponents and pile on the agony. What did Jose Mourinho do? With 20 minutes to go he put on another holding midfielder in John Obi Mikel! With Ramires and David Luiz, that made three holding players – and your team is winning 3-0. Mourinho had United on the ropes at that point. Why not go for the knock-out blow? But that is typical Mourinho…he always seems to err on the side of caution, rather than adventure. In those closing minutes, Luiz – a centre-back playing in midfield – actually kicked the ball out of play on two occasions, a ploy designed quite unashamedly to break up United’s rhythm. Instead, Chelsea could have been focusing on rubbing United’s noses in it by trying for a fourth goal. Having said that, there’s no denying this Chelsea team is very hard to beat and will contest the title to the death. Although they don’t have the fluency and attacking flow of Manchester City and Arsenal, they do have some superb players, and many athletic ones, notably the Brazilian Ramires who is the fittest footballer I have seen since Colin Bell, my team-mate at Manchester City 30-odd years ago. I see Chelsea fighting for the title with City and Arsenal, though I don’t expect them to provide the entertainment that the other two do.