When Will You Start To Believe?

Magnus is glad to have his Manchester United back.

When will we start to believe that Manchester United are on the hunt for a ninth Premiership title? When will we start to believe that we are again contenders in Europe? When we beat Copenhagen Wednesday night? When we are still top of the League at Christmas? In March? In April?

This season has already brought a growing belief that maybe Sir Alex Ferguson was right all along – that all that was needed for United once again to be a force to reckon with was a little tweaking here and there, not the massive overhaul that most of us – yes, including me, I’ll duly eat my piece of the humble pie – felt was necessary. What before the season looked like wishful thinking – nay, mere dreaming – by only the most ardent of United fans, is now in danger of becoming reality.

Copenhagen on Wednesday shouldn’t be too much of a problem. We will get at least the point that we need to qualify for the second round of the Champions League, and thus accomplish one of the primary goals of the season. After last season’s embarrassingly early exit from the competition, it will please the United support no end that the club has progressed beyond the group stage, although it won’t satisfy them.

For that to happen, United must advance in Europe, stay at, or near, the top of the Premiership, and hopefully advance in the domestic cups. And on current form, there’s every chance they will.

I must say, I almost can’t believe I’m writing this. Only a year ago, powerful voices in the media were calling for Ferguson’s head. They wanted him gone. In fact, they were looking forward to the downfall of the great Scot, the Emperor of Manchester. Headlines such as “Past his sell-by date” (The Times) and “Ferguson has demonstrably, irrefutably, lost the plot” (The Guardian) were not uncommon. After nearly 20 years in charge of the club, even some fans were of the same opinion. United Rant, a famous fanzine, even proclaimed, rather harshly, “For God’s sake Fergie, Go”. Not exactly the glorious end Ferguson himself expected.

But then something happened. Exactly what, remains unclear. United started winning. They went on a great run that even saw Chelsea get slightly anxious towards the end of last season. And they haven’t looked back.

After a summer in which Ferguson sold his main striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, United have started the season in ferocious style. They seem to have reverted to the mentality of the nineties – “Your team may score two or three, but we’ll score one more”. The old swagger is back, as is the belief that at the end of the day, United will beat whoever stands at the opposite side of the pitch. It’s a thrilling time.

Against Bolton on Saturday, and even more so against Liverpool last weekend, United annihilated the opposition without at any time hitting top gear. Two highly capable teams were dispatched in such a ruthless and disciplined manner that it was quite hard to believe.

This revival must be, at least partly, attributed to the emerging defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. We all know of Ferdinand’s potential, but many have felt that he’s too prone to lapses in concentration. However, ever since Vidic entered the fray towards the end of last season, Rio’s mistakes are all but eradicated. Vidic’s no-nonsense playing style is a throwback to the good old days when defenders had but one job to do – protect the goal at all costs. For a defense that has been too complacent in seasons past, it was the perfect remedy.

Furthermore, in midfield, where many fans felt that the team was looking too lightweight, United are looking increasingly impressive. The genius that is Paul Scholes is partnered by Michael Carrick, who seems to be growing in stature and confidence game-by-game. On the wings, Ryan Giggs is enjoying a full-blown Indian summer, playing some of the best football of his career – and that’s saying something, whilst Ronaldo looks a more mature and content player than at any time during his Old Trafford career. Up front, we have a blossoming partnership between Louis Saha, who’s revelling in his new role as United’s main striker, and the precocious talent that is Wayne Rooney.

Against Bolton on Saturday, Rooney was immense. His passing, his link-up play, not to mention his goalscoring, were all top class. If that game was any indication of things to come, United fans are in for a treat.

Yet many fans don’t yet believe. They say that maybe United have peaked too early, that Chelsea have not yet hit their stride, that our squad remains too susceptible to injuries to key players, that we’re not yet mature enough to challenge for European honours. Maybe they’re right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Because I, for one, believe we’re ready. We’ll show it against Copenhagen tomorrow, and we’ll keep showing it all the way till May.