Manchester United: Worse than the Premier League table suggests?
Manchester United opinion: The Red Devils need to improve this summer in order to challenge for silverware again next season
Despite last week's derby defeat, Manchester United are still firm favourites to reclaim the Premier League crown from neighbours Manchester City.
The 15-point lead they currently hold could be cut down to just 12 points, but it would take an even more dramatic slip-up than last season's to see United relinquish the title this season.
Roberto Mancini recently claimed that City are not 15 points worse than United. Is he right, or are United really that much better than their local rivals?
On paper, City has a much better squad with brilliant individuals who can be their match-winners. Players like Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and, on his day, Samir Nasri have the ability to conjure something out of nothing.
On the other hand, United only have Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney who fall into the same category of player.
United's early season form almost suggested that they were only prepared to start playing when they go a goal down. Nine comeback-wins this season in the league represented a haul of 27 points that went a long way to helping United build the current lead over City today.
For the past couple of months, United have been grinding out victories against teams in the bottom half of the table. However, their winless run of five games against heavyweight oppositions showed that there's much to improve if United are to be a major force for next season, having been knocked out of two cup competitions in the double-headers against Real Madrid and Chelsea and then losing the league game against City.
The pairing of Rooney and Van Persie is as good as any strike-force you will find anywhere in Europe, but it is one of football's worst kept secrets that United's midfield is their Achilles' heel.
Ever since Paul Scholes became a bit-part player, United lack a dominant presence in the centre of the park.
Michael Carrick has since stepped up to become one of United's top performers but he lacks the authority to impose himself against Europe's best. While he is not a bad player by any means, Carrick being United's best midfielder itself indicates a lack of options in this area.
Darren Fletcher's influence in the team has diminished since his well-documented illness. It is a big question mark whether he will return as the same player or whether he would make full a recovery at all.
Anderson was initially bought as an attacking player but fell into some sort of identity crisis as Sir Alex has seemingly tried to change his role. That, coupled with his on-off injuries, has made him at best a fringe player at the club.
Tom Cleverley has shown much promise but he has failed to hold down a starting spot throughout the whole season.
This leaves us to ponder where these players would fit in at other European giants like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus or even Borussia Dortmund.
For a team that been famed for its wing play from the days of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, United's current set of wingers is probably the worst they have had for the past 15 years.
Antonio Valencia probably overachieved in this first few seasons at the club. He brought the term 'one-trick pony' to a whole new level. He has failed to make any sort of contributions because full-backs by now have found out his tendency to run down the outside of the byline.
Ashley Young is almost a carbon copy of Valencia on the opposite flank. Without a natural left foot, Young has been accused of taking too much time to switch to his right to deliver crosses. While United's defenders have been getting into the act of scoring goals, it's a real worry that neither Valencia nor Young has managed to get on the scoresheet in the league this season.
And finally, Nani has shown plenty of promise ever since he stepped foot into the Theatre of Dreams. But what he had actually done during his six years at United is having the club's fans dreaming of what might have been.
He was brilliant one week, dismal the following. He has yet to show any kind of consistency or momentum that he could step out of the shadows of fellow Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having said that, it's hard to see how United's wingers can fetch up to £25m individually in the transfer market, while the same amount of money spent on the likes of Angel di Maria, Pedro Rodriguez, Isco, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard or James Rodriguez would be considered a major coup.
Since failing to make it out of the Champions League group stages in 2005, United have made it to three finals and consistently featured in the latter part of the knockout phases.
They were a shocking exclusion for the Round of 16 draw last season. With Sir Alex determined not to make the same mistakes this season, his team topped the table with two games to spare.
No disrespect to Benfica, Cluj and Galatasaray, but you would have expected a team of United's quality to come away 2-0 winners in most of those games without breaking a sweat.
Therefore, United's falling behind in five of those six group games put further questions on whether United can rub shoulders with Europe's heavyweights.
As it turned out, United fell at the very next hurdle against Real Madrid in their Round of 16 clash.
United' exit would be remembered by the controversial dismissal to Nani but I would like to focus on the first leg played at the Bernabeu.
Despite the respectable 1-1 draw United played out in Spain, they could have been well and out of the competition by then had it been another goalkeeper playing for them on the night.
Real Madrid conjured up 28 goalscoring chances on the night, with David de Gea needing to make at least five stunning saves to keep the Red Devils in the tie. Had Los Blancos come away with a four or five-goal lead on the night, the second leg at Old Trafford would have been a dead-rubber instead.
It was clear that United's midfield could not hold their own against the likes of Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, with the home side coming away with 61% of possession.
United have been knocked out of both domestic cups by a team which is still guessing who would be in their managerial seat next season.
Slowly but surely, United are marching on to a record 20th league triumph with gritty wins. Some say it's the hallmark of champions, being able to grind out wins despite not being at their best, but it remains to be seen if this attitude alone is enough to see United retain the league crown next season, as their cup exits this season have shown that United are still a long way away from being one of Europe's major forces once again.
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