Contribution by Joe McQuoid
Following Dimitar Berbatov’s dramatic late winner against Bolton last Saturday, the International fortnight was welcomed with open arms by the vast majority of reds after a turbulent March, in which we saw Manchester United suffer back-to-back defeats for the first time this season and Sir Alex Ferguson banished to the stands for five games.
Although Man United started the month with arguably their most impressive 45 minutes of the season at Stamford Bridge, the two hours of football that followed, coupled with an injury crisis in defence, threatened to destroy the club’s bid for a record breaking 19th league title.
Thankfully Arsenal and Manchester City failed to take full advantage of the setbacks away to Chelsea and Liverpool, although Sir Alex Ferguson will be more than aware that his side cannot afford another run similar to the one they have just endured, as the season heads towards a frenetic climax.
Potentially, Man United face eight games in April in all competitions, including three trips to the capital, starting with the game away to West Ham a week today.
Aside from the 4-0 victory there last season in the league, the Boleyn Ground has frequently proved to be a difficult place to go for United over the years and this meeting could be one of the sternest tests of their title credentials yet, as they come up against a rejuvenated Hammers side.
Four days later there is the small matter of the Champions League Quarter Final, First Leg with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a game in which the reds will surely have to score an away goal or two to have a chance of progressing to the last four of the competition.
You get the feeling that the three fixtures with the South-West London club in the coming weeks could prove make or break if United’s three-pronged quest for silverware this season is to end successfully.
Whilst a repeat of the 1999 treble remains a possibility, positive performances against Carlo Ancelotti’s men in the two European fixtures are essential for the side’s hopes going into the final stretch of the season, as defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League could have a knock on effect on the players’ confidence when the two sides meet in the league at Old Trafford on Saturday 7th May.
With games scheduled only three to four days apart throughout the month, the side need big results in their next few games in order to gain enough positive momentum to see them through to the end of the season.
Knocking Chelsea out of the competition they crave the most would give United a huge psychological boost going into the remaining weeks, whereas defeat could be give the Londoners the kick-start they need to launch an unlikely late surge for the league title themselves.
David Luiz will be a big miss for Chelsea, as he is cup-tied in Europe having already played for previous club Benfica in this season’s Champions League, whilst the reds will hope to have Nemanja Vidic, Ji-Sung Park, Darren Fletcher and possibly even Rio Ferdinand back in contention for the first leg.
Another key date for the diary next month is Saturday 16th April, as United travel to Wembley to take on City in the FA Cup Semi-Final, hoping to dash their rivals of hopes of ending 35 barren years without a trophy.
The game, which is set to be the most expensive fixture to police in the history of British football, promises to be one of the highlights of the season, with the winner set to face either Stoke City or Bolton in the final on Saturday 14th May.
Roberto Mancini’s side have looked poor lately, having crashed out of the Europa League to Dynamo Kiev and lost third place to Chelsea in recent weeks, and United will look to heap further misery on them in domestic cup competitions, after knocking City out at the same stage of the League Cup last season.
United have another three league fixtures in April, with the home game against Fulham sandwiched between the Champions League Quarter Final games, and a trip to St. James’ Park and Everton’s visit to Old Trafford to follow within in the seven days after the City game.
Before the trips to Stamford Bridge and Anfield earlier this month, Sir Alex insisted that the two fixtures would provide the ‘acid test’ for his players, but with what lies in wait for United in the coming weeks, the real examination hasn’t started yet.
Catch your breath, strap yourself in and make the most of International week, as starting with the referee’s first blow of the whistle at Upton Park next Saturday, it is going to be a bumpy ride from here on in.
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