Saturday, October 16, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: October 17, 4:58 PM UK
United not good enough
If strength in depth is the key to a title winning triumph, then Manchester United look to have all the aces in their pack, yet all is not well at what may soon be Glazer's Kingdom.
The substitutes at Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal against Birmingham today said it all. Wayne Rooney, John O'Shea, Paul Scholes and even the much maligned Phil Neville would warrant a place in most Premiership sides and if you compared United's starting line-up to that of Arsenal's against Aston Villa today, you may dare to suggest the fallen champions have the edge over their successors.
The likes of Lauren, Gilberto Silva, Edu and even the impressive Kolo Toure may struggle to force their way into this United line-up, but Fergie's men look so far behind the side they love to hate.
In years gone by, a fearsome United side would have turned up at a place like St Andrews and swept their opponents aside with the arrogance that thrives when a winning mentality prevails. However, such a mindset has moved down the M6 and M1 to Highbury and no matter what he tries, Ferguson cannot find an answer to his side's lack of bite in the attacking third.
With Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Smith, Louis Saha and, belatedly, Rooney and Scholes all searching for goals as United chased the three points they so badly needed, they should have had more than enough to rattle a Birmingham side that has struggled to keep its back door shut in recent months.
Yet other than the odd incisive burst, this United side is not capable of destroying teams in a manner Arsenal have managed for much of the last 18 months. Such is the state of their decline that next Sunday's showdown between the Premiership's traditional superpowers looks likes being the most insignificant encounter between the two for many a year.
On the evidence of the first few weeks of the season, this Manchester United side have no chance of ousting Arsenal from their pedestal. With Chelsea well placed to claim the position of challengers in chief, Fergie's stars will not like the fact that they are little more than bit part players in a competition they have dominated for so long.
The United manager was right to point out his side should have won the game. Van Nistelrooy's miss from point blank range 10 minutes before the break was a shocker and Alan Smith's injury time shot flew inches wide, yet a victory would merely have papered over the cracks.
With great possession throughout and Roy Keane doing the job of three players in the midfield, their patient build-up was all too predictable and with a probable 11 point gap to bridge on Arsenal by the close of play today, their hopes of reclaiming the Premiership crown already look distant. All their stars are back and available now so that excuse is redundant and Fergie may be running out of excuses.
When you are relying on a side who haven't lost in 16 months to lose four times, you are in big trouble, though Fergie would never concede as much. 'There is a long way to go,' he insists. 'We are building a new team here and it won't happen overnight, but I'm not looking at this and saying it's gone for us now.
'Arsenal are looking strong at the moment, but we play them next weekend and it should be an interesting game. We always have great battles together and I'm sure this one will be no different.
'You have to give Birmingham some credit this afternoon because they made it hard for us and battled away. Maybe they earned their point, but we had the chances to finish them off. It's always tough after the international break, but we will keep going.'
Birmingham can feel proud of their efforts in this game after a tough start to the campaign. Emile Heskey and Dwight Yorke led the line well and while they rarely looked like breaching the United defence in what was a dour game, Bruce was happy with a hard-won point.
'You have to be happy with a point against any United side,' said a downcast Steve Bruce who has apparently fallen out with the Brummie media in recent times. 'I'm proud of my players. We have now played three of the big sides at home and now we have a chance to take on some of the lesser sides so we have to make the most of it.
'When you look at the attacking stars they had at their disposal today, it was not going to be an easy day. They have strikers coming out of every corner and we are down to the last two fit lads at the club. With that in mind, this was a great point.'
Anything less than victory against Arsenal next Sunday will leave Manchester United in a less than familiar position. Before we have even reached November, their title dreams will be virtually at an end and you just wonder how long it won't be before the voices of dissent start to make themselves heard.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matthew Upson
In the face of a star studded United striking line-up, the Birmingham defence held firm and Upson was the most impressive.
CHANT OF THE DAY: The cry of 'Who Are Ya' as Wayne Rooney made his entrance with an hour gone brought a smile to the face.
PRESS BOX CHATTER: The hacks were talking under their breath about Newcastle making a loan move for Michael Owen when the transfer window opens in January.
INSIDER ADVICE: Give yourself plenty of time if you are attending a Birmingham home game as it can be a bugger to find a parking spot!
FOOD WATCH: St Andrews may have a modest press box by Premiership standards, but the food on offer at half-time was impressive with a rather tasty selection of sandwiches.
UNITED VERDICT: Not good enough. They are still coming together as a team and have a squad that would rival anything in Europe, but their flaws are all too obvious and cannot be solved quickly.
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