By the time Manchester United next take to the field we will know just how realistic our title ambitions are. After drawing with Blackburn it looked all over but the team picked themselves up to pick up two massive wins against Manchester City and then Tottenham Hotspur. We were missing Wayne Rooney again; but in the last two games in particular we have been given ample proof that the legends that have illuminated the clubs recent history will fight tooth and nail to extend the glory days.
So when the first penalty was awarded, and Rooney was nowhere to be found, there was really only one man who could have taken it. Sure, Nani might have scored a few in the past. Sure, Berbatov had something to prove on three counts, first to just save his United career, second to prove something to Spurs, and thirdly to make up for his FA Cup semi final miss last year.
Maybe it was because he had shown such coolness in Moscow; but you can’t help but wonder if it was because he was the one man on the pitch who was carrying the weight of expectation 70,000 United fans in the stadium and millions around the world because he is one of us. The daggers may be out if Nani wouldn’t score; the ground would probably swallow up Berbatov should he miss; but with the knowledge and faith that Ryan Giggs would try and score because of everything it means, he knew that he would have the sympathy of a support who would know even if he failed he tried his best. But, just like he never has, he didn’t let us down.
As a side note, that Giggs took the penalty was symptomatic of the tradition of the club. Like how the team tried desperately to get Bryan Robson his 100th goal in his final game against Coventry in 1994, and Ferguson starting Park in the Champions League Final because he missed out the year before. When David Beckham (reluctantly) allowed Diego Forlan to score a penalty to get off the mark. You would say it’s contrived if it weren’t so embedded in the history of the club. Having Ryan Giggs taking the penalty seems so insignificant but he was given the task, the responsibility of being the person who gave United a fighting chance in the title race (not discounting Nani’s mammoth contribution, of course). There would be no way of knowing in advance that Giggs would score the penalties, but he did, and if we win the title it will be a symbolic moment.
It seems like I’m rabbiting on too much about a penalty kick but I’m just making the point; a point sorely missed by the classless Shola Ameobi yesterday. Nicky Butt won a penalty for Newcastle in the dying moments of his retirement game and Ameobi took it. No room for class or sentiment in a dead rubber game, not let him go out in style by giving him the penalty he bloody won. It may seem contrived or out of sympathy but there is still a job to be done; Giggs’ overall contribution was supreme, a difference maker, as was Nicky Butt’s final contribution at St James’ Park.
Anyway. Sir Alex remarked after the Spurs game that there was a sense of assurance among the players, no panic, and he was right. Despite the long periods of frustration at City, the team just kept believing and when the goal arrived, it was a trademark Scholes late arrival rather than any last minute mad dash. United are playing with a coolness that defies the fact that they are not in control of their own destiny, while Chelsea have shown nerves when in front. It’s not as if they lack experience; but perhaps they do lack self belief.
United’s stalwarts in particular must have incredible mental strength, to endure the physical test of the most combative league in the world at the crucial stage of the season and still have the ability to make the difference after 80 minutes. The term “world class” is bandied about much too often for this to really sound like a bold statement; and indeed, the players I’m using the term to describe will undoubtedly see me as a target for derision in some quarters. On Twitter in midweek I repeated my long standing belief that Giggs is the best player in the history of the game, and Scholes would be in the top 6 or 7. Two penalty kicks don’t exactly vindicate me; that’s not the point I’m making, but the fact that those two players are able to dictate, run and make the difference in the biggest games at the highest level means they are two absolute, world class diamonds of players.
Their “longevity” is used as to describe them almost dismissively, as if it’s expected they should be able to play at the highest level. Both the wrong side of 35, both are completely different players to what they were 10 years ago, and both are still peerless in the domestic game. The game has evolved to the point where the top teams deploy protective midfielders to better utilise the talents of their skilled players – United’s acceptance of this tactic has once again proved to all who follow the club, even if outside of their peers they seem woefully under-appreciated, that Scholes and Giggs are simply the best footballers in the league.
Wayne Rooney will rightly get the accolades for his wonderful goal tally; the contribution of Antonio Valencia and Nani has been crucial as both emerged as the standout wingers in the league, but to just even stay in the race United have had to rely once again on their legends – if we are to do the unthinkable and win a fourth successive title, it will be the unsympathetic, ruthless raw desire of those legends to succeed and fight for the club in the way every fan wants to that will be the story of this campaign.