It can often be in the irrational few hours after a humiliating defeat that thoughts turn to the last time you felt such anguish.
For supporters of Manchester United, you could argue that the humiliation felt in the abject way the side surrendered at Eastlands has been a little too familiar in recent times. I’m not necessarily talking about surrender in the ‘gave up’ sense, just the surrender of three points through failing to turn up for a big game.
Success has been enjoyed of course, but there has been an all too common failure to perform when it matters that has revealed a startling truth. When United need to win, they generally don’t.
Cup games, over a single game or two legged tie have seen United beaten when it matters most. Yes they got to a European Cup final in 2011, but via Marseille and Shalke before another failure against Barcelona. In the FA Cup semi-final of the same season, United were defeated by City, gifting the first trophy for the noisy neighbours new regime and giving them the confidence to push on and take the title the following years.
Go back to last season. Our twentieth title was secured more through the consistency of our October-March form than a blistering run-in packed with scintillating football. We won at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Eastlands; but when it really mattered at the crunch end of the season, where were we? With the chance to hammer our neighbours final nail into their championship coffin we were beaten at home. In the Champions League, we were knocked out and blamed the referee when questions should have been asked as to why we refused to attack in the aftermath of Nani’s red card. At Chelsea, we were dire in our FA Cup replay.
For too long, big games have been approached in a ‘smash and grab’ fashion. What we have, we hold has applied to the way we secured championships in draws at home to Arsenal in ’09 and away to Blackburn in ’11. On both occasions we went on to lose a European Cup final. Barcelona were good, in fact very good; but our worrying inability to succeed when the stakes are high needs addressing.
This isn’t a reaction to the demolition in the derby, it is recognition of how important a Capital One league cup victory could be in the battle to buck our big game trend. We had to start winning games such as the one on Wednesday night. In doing so, it can only have served to help give experience to the players so that when such ‘cup-tie’ fixtures crop us domestically and in foreign competition in April and May, we can push on and come out on top when the pressure is on. Look back at our cup exits and the games where we lost and basically threw the championship away (City ’12).
Our cup record needs to improve. The fact we haven’t been in an FA Cup final for going on seven years is something that should be highlighted more than it is. European glory last came five years ago (in the knockout stages that year, we only scored more than one goal once). This United side may revert back to the teams of the 80s who only had cup competitions, according to some. Good.
If we can start turning up in the ‘one-off’ games and winning like we did on Wednesday against Liverpool then it can be a habit transferred for when we need to win in the crucial months of April and May. Reverting back to being a cup team could be the exact thing needed for this United team to move forward.