The past weekend of Premier League football could well be deemed a pivotal series of results for Manchester United especially. But can United fans dare to dream that those glory days are now leaning back towards Sir Matt Busby way or will the next few weeks shatter those hopes as being nothing more than a false dawn?
After losing in the Champions League in midweek, United traveled to the bear pit of St Mary’s to face a Southampton side that, whilst not yet playing with the free-flowing football that has confounded their critics over the past couple of seasons, would certainly have been a fixture the home faithful would have relished.
Manchester United: Fresh Hope or False Dawn?
United can be ‘got at’ is the general belief these days — uncertainty at the back, a lack of a real goal threat upfront, and an ideological task master in Louis van Gaal who, despite his glittering list of achievements, still has to win over even a section of Old Trafford diehards.
And the opening quarter of the game looked no different to those views: Southampton exposed United’s foibles with ease — especially down the flanks — and the likes of Michael Carrick and Blind in particular looked all at sea. Yet United weathered that particular storm, and the significance of this result cannot be understated.
Yes, the Reds will do well to find an adequate replacement for the tragic Luke Shaw. Yes, Wayne Rooney still looks light years away from the classy street fighter who has starred in so many Mancunian magical moments. And they will certainly face just as tough tasks — if not tougher — than a Saints side who have had a difficult start to the season.
Yet the plain truth is that as of this evening, Manchester United sit two points behind arch rivals City, and many of their biggest challengers have already been beset by problems this season — and we are still in September. Man City do still look like title winners in waiting, though their loss to West Ham on the back of yet another tame Champions League defeat has taken the wind out of their sails for now.
Arsenal have yet again flattered to deceive. Granted, on their day they are streets ahead of anyone in the league with Wenger’s brand of free flowing passing, but once more they have revealed their soft underbelly to Chelsea of all teams — whom they still amazingly just cannot break in the league.
Chelsea themselves have — as I wrote many weeks ago — already surely blown their title chances and even now Mourinho still seems incapable of escaping controversy; a natural by-product of the great showman playing to the gallery each week.
Liverpool look to have regressed yet again with Rodgers the nearest thing to a dead man walking. Of the others big guns, there is more to like about West Ham and Leicester, who were both tipped for difficult seasons, than there is anywhere else in the league table.
Perhaps the canny van Gaal will be proved right after all. Anthony Martial’s brace at St Mary’s was a tantalizing sight of what is to come and he looks a ‘player’, whilst the mystery of the transfer deadline drama between United and Real Madrid that kept David De Gea at the club looks to be the best move of the summer. Unwittingly or not, De Gea was magnificent against Southampton, and his presence alone cannot be replaced by the other keepers at van Gaal’s disposal.
There is still plenty of work to be done and United supporters will presumably be delighted at their team’s start to the campaign despite some very obvious flaws. But the truth is that for the considerable outlay the club has invested over the past couple of seasons, now is the time for them to kick on and start returning and repaying the faith.
United live under the most examining of microscopes, as do their players. Depay and, so far this season, Rooney, have not convinced. But the likes of Schneiderlin, Mata and Smalling have more than stood up to the test. Van Gaal himself never seems to flinch at whatever probing questions the media put to him — he is straight-talking and blunt.
Yet as cracks appear in the armory of their rivals, it could just be the case that the man who arrived to push David Moyes out of the car headlights he invariably seemed caught up in may be able to deliver under the huge weight of expectation.
Once again, consider all the ‘problems’ that you have read and seen about United this season. Be honest, there are a list of them. Then look again at the Barclays Premier League title and ask yourself which camp you would rather be in as the summer finally draws towards autumn and we wonder who will on top of the pile seven months from now.