LONDON, England, April 2 – For a club cruising to a record 20th English league success, Manchester United face a curiously unfulfilling end to the season.
Sitting 15 points clear in the Premier League, United’s victory in the title race seems a formality, but disappointments in the Champions League and FA Cup have left a mark.
Prior to the Champions League last-16 second leg with Real Madrid, talk was rife of United repeating their historic 1999 treble of league, cup and European Cup trophies.
Twenty-eight days later, such thoughts have vanished, with Madrid having prevailed in the European tie before United fell to Chelsea in their FA Cup quarter-final replay on Monday.
United’s fans had hoped the season would culminate with three trips to Wembley, for the FA Cup semi-final and final, followed by the Champions League decider on May 25.
Instead, they find themselves confronted by the comparatively mundane prospect of a league campaign that is still almost seven weeks from its conclusion.
The balance of United’s encounter with Madrid hinged on the controversial dismissal of Nani in the second leg in Manchester on March 5 and in hindsight, it may have been the moment that their season petered out.
Madrid swiftly exploited Nani’s dismissal – for a high challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa – to turn around a 2-1 aggregate deficit, and there has been an air of resignation around Old Trafford ever since.
Alex Ferguson’s side went 2-0 up in their next match, against Chelsea, but their performance was careless and Rafael Benitez’s side stormed back in the second half to take the tie to a replay.
Since then, United have produced two laboured 1-0 wins, at home to Reading and away to Sunderland, which preserved their commanding lead at the top of the league table but did little to quicken the pulse.
They toiled at Chelsea on Monday, too, threatening only sporadically and failing to rouse themselves for the kind of last-ditch assault that is the club’s calling card.
Saturday’s 1-0 win at Sunderland was United’s 15th victory by a one-goal margin in the league this season, one game short of the record they set en route to the Premier League title in 2009.
For all the goals they have scored, United have rarely been ruthless, and they are on course to finish the league season without having put five goals past an opposing team for the first time since 2006.
The theory of a malaise is given weight by the diminishing returns of strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
Van Persie made an explosive start to his United career, netting 22 goals by mid-January, but since then he has scored just once and has now gone nine games without finding the net for his club.
Rooney, who has missed the last two games through injury, has also experienced an indifferent campaign, and had to contend with speculation about his future after being left on the bench for the visit of Madrid.
United will have plenty of time to stew over their cup elimination by Chelsea, as they are not in action again until Manchester City visit Old Trafford in the Manchester derby next Monday.
The epitaphs for City’s title defence were penned long ago, but victory for Roberto Mancini’s men would give them a glimmer of hope, particularly after United’s collapse in last season’s run-in.
However, with the title in sight, Ferguson knows his side only need one last push to get over the line.
“We will kick on. It was disappointing today (Monday), of course, but we have to forget all about it and move on to the game against City next Monday,” he said.
“We are in a good position obviously and I think a positive result for us on Monday will just about seal the title for us.”
For all the disappointments of the last four weeks, Ferguson would gladly accept an end to the season devoid of any excitement whatsoever.