United’s European heartbreak still provides bright spots

Manchester United’s loss to Real Madrid is without doubt one of their most painful in their recent history. In terms of feeling an injustice after a result, it’ll rank up there with the Champions League exit to Porto in 2004 and the Premier League title decider loss to Chelsea in 2010. Amongst all the doom, gloom and incompetent ref-bashing though, there are things to look at from a positive light.

For the first six months of the season, United were damned with faint praise, sometimes less. Phrases such as “average team dominating an average league” and “worst United side in years” were constantly bandied about.

This was unfair, because in all honesty, people are comparing a developing, transitional United team to the fully developed teams of 1999 and 2008. Surely a more accurate measure is to compare them to another transitional side, for example the United team of 2004-2006? That team was barely competing for the title let alone winning it, yet they ended up becoming one of the greatest sides in club history – so how good could this crop potentially be in a couple of years?

The performances against Real Madrid show that there’s certainly a lot to be positive about.

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Injustice: Sir Alex Ferguson will still be raging but has a lot to be proud of. All rights to this image belong to Tom Jenkins and The Guardian.

For a start, Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics over the 2 legs were absolutely spot on. In fact, his tactics, so often criticised last season, have been excellent over the last few months (this is borne out by United’s terrific record in the big domestic games so far this season.)

Bar a shaky opening 45 minutes at the Bernabeu, his side looked cool and intelligent. They smothered Real Madrid, defended with a plan and were dangerous on the break. Even with 10 men, they had Real on the ropes for the final 15 minutes. Jose Mourinho’s claim that the best side lost was quite clearly an attempt to curry favour with the United hierarchy – but it was also very true.

If this tie had been 12 months ago, Madrid would probably have romped to victory. As it was, they edged through, aided by a pretty ridiculous refereeing decision. If these two sides were to meet in another 12 months, you’d think a United side with an extra year’s experience under their belt would be even more of a threat.

Bear in mind that David De Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck had never played a Champions League knockout tie before last month. Jonny Evans had only played a handful. Yet all of these players sparkled at some point over the two legs. Welbeck in particular was magnificent, while Rafael played Ronaldo in the second leg as well as anyone could. Clearly there is a lot of potential for the years to come.

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Coming of age: Danny Welbeck has won rave reviews for his displays in both matches.

In the immediate future, a first domestic double since 1996 is still a possibility, as well as the opportunity to gain a record points total in the Premier League era. The players will need lifting but motivation has always been one of Sir Alex’s strong points.

United used the heartbreak of last season’s title loss to spur themselves on this year. As Gary Neville has recently said, they have their “title heads on” and seem like they are determined to wrestle their crown back from Manchester City. Something similar could be on the cards from a European perspective. The rage and hurt they are currently feeling is exactly what Sir Alex will be telling them to remember next season.

Abramovich’s gamble set to backfire – for once.

It’s safe to say that Roman Abramovich isn’t exactly known for his patience. His trigger happy finger has been a constant source of amusement/disillusionment/exasperation (delete as appropriate)

However, for the most part, things have turned out well for him. He fired Jose Mourinho, and his immediate replacement Avram Grant took Chelsea to the last day of the title race, and within touching distance of the Champions League (more than what Mourinho managed in his last full season).

“Big Phil” Scolari was sacked halfway through the 2008/09 season, but his immediate replacement Guus Hiddink won the FA Cup. And of course most recently, Roberto Di Matteo became arguably the most legendary caretaker of all time – guiding the side to the FA Cup and their first ever Champions League.

So taking all this into account, you can’t blame Roman for feeling a tad smug. Almost every time he fires a manager, to the disapproval of many pundits, his chosen replacement ends up delivering a good degree of success. Instability and knee jerk reactions appear to be the route to success in this regime.

However, with the appointment of Rafa Benitez, this may be one of those occasions where Chelsea’s owner regrets his managerial merry-go round. Not only is his interim boss somewhat of a hate figure for many Chelsea fans, but he’s not been given the key luxury which was afforded to the likes of Grant, Hiddink and Di Matteo – an experienced, powerful Chelsea side.

Maybe not this time: Abramovich may be regretting his approach. All rights to this image are reserved by Rex and The Telegraph.

Maybe not this time: Abramovich may be regretting his approach. All rights to this image belong to Rex and The Telegraph.

Although a manager is undoubtedly important, at Stamford Bridge it sometimes feels as if the players are more important, and the success is almost solely based on their abilities and mindset.

Grant may not have been the most able or popular coach, but he was blessed with a Chelsea side bang in their prime. Cech, Terry, Lampard, Essien, Ballack, Drogba and the 2 Coles all in their peak years. Makelele still around. He was an average coach in charge of a formidable squad.

Hiddink, who took over less than a year later, had largely the same group of players, whilst Di Matteo was able to eke out the final drops from the veterans. Out went the AVB introductions such as Romeu and Sturridge, in came the likes of Lampard, Mikel, Drogba and even Kalou.

Benitez however doesn’t have this benefit. Drogba, for so many years the symbol of the Chelsea side, has departed, while the three English veterans are not the players they once were (credit to Lampard for a decent renaissance though). They’ve also had absences from the side due to injuries and suspensions. In other words, unlike the other managers who’ve stepped in when Abramovich has fired someone, Benitez can’t rely on going back to the tried and trusted methods. He has a team in transition.

Rocky Rafa: Benitez hasn't had the best of starts.

Rocky Rafa: Benitez hasn’t had the best of starts. All rights to this image belong to Getty Images.

The likelihood of Chelsea challenging for the Premier League is slim to say the least – the gap between them and Manchester United has increased by 7 points since he arrived. They suffered a surprise League Cup exit to Swansea last week, while they will need a replay against Brentford to progress in the FA Cup.

The Blues will still finish in the top 4 and may manage a good FA Cup run, especially with Benitez’s record in knockout football. But they probably could have got that with Di Matteo at the helm (for the record, this writer believes that giving Di Matteo the permanent job in the first place was a bad decision – doing well as a caretaker is no guarantee of permanent success. Just ask Kenny Dalglish…)

There is no question that Abramovich would have been hoping for a similar level of success to his other short-term appointments. By the time the season ends, he may have to admit that the big pay-out given to Di Matteo, as well as the dissent amongst the Chelsea fans, could all have been avoided.