There is no doubt that Manchester United have made great strides over the last few months, building momentum, confidence and putting together a winning run for the ages.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had put together a very impressive unbeaten sequence - nineteen games - to carry a vibrant and energetic team to the brink of the Premier League's top four and, until Sunday, still in contention of two pieces of silverware.
Of course, perspective is needed - United need
only two points to finish in those Champions League positions and are favourites to win the watered down, post-lockdown version of the Europa League. One defeat in twenty is hardly a cause for panic, even if the disappointment of choosing an FA Cup semi final to cough up the worst performance of our season will linger for a long time to come. We knew that Chelsea were beatable, and although the law of averages suggested there had to be a time when they would prevail, we had been playing well and scoring for fun. The Blues had been beaten three times, so the stranglehold they used to have on United had been well and truly lifted. Despite the argument of the FA Cup being the least important of United's three remaining priorities, it was a very disappointing way to go out of a very winnable competition - surrendering meekly and simply having no answers to a Chelsea performance in which they were far from sizzling, but did what they had to.
But despite United's wonderful run of form, questions remain. The pressure has ratcheted up tenfold, with every match massive in these final weeks of the season, and no margin for error. We're at the stage of campaign now where you simply cannot afford any slip ups. But again, United have struggled to seize the moment - missing the chance to go third by drawing with Southampton and then wilting in the face of a Chelsea onslaught as a place in the FA Cup final slipped from the team's grasp. It seems that whenever there is a chance to achieve something tangible - whether that be firmly taking control of a Champions League position or getting to a cup final - United find a way to mess things up. They prefer to be chasing, rather than be chased. There are most definitely still issues surrounding this side's mentality and ability to cope with a pressure cooker environment. When it comes to the crunch, the scenario when it truly is win or bust, this side continually fall short. Granted, this is a young team and times like this will stand them in good stead for the future, but there's also experience too - Nemanja Matic, Harry Maguire, David De Gea and even the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are young players with experience, so there can be little mitigation. Let's not forget that this was our second defeat in a cup semi-final this season having been knocked out in the last four of the Carabao Cup, too. A good achievement to get that far and more signs of tangible progress, but again not getting over the line when it matters. No disgrace in losing narrowly to a side as good as Manchester City over two legs, of course, but more evidence of this side's shortcomings at the business end of a competition. Semi finals and finals mean nowt if you don't win them.
There has been a noticeable drop off in the last three games, as the Reds won ugly at Palace before crashing out to Chelsea in a tie where Frank Lampard's side were better. In every department. The Blues were fitter, sharper, stronger, more energetic and more aggressive as the string-pulling Bruno Fernandes was strangled and overpowered. United wilted in the face of the Chelsea press. The Reds had built their winning run on belief, solidity and not to panic when questions were asked but all of those attributes were conspicuous in absentia. It's all well and good brushing aside bottom half fodder - albeit impressively - as United have done, but since lockdown there have been three true tests of United's mettle. The Spurs game can be excused as that was the first after three months out of action, but throw in the Southampton stumble and the Chelsea capitulation and we've failed to pass any of those tests. Three difficult opponents with everything on the line, and three black marks. It could of course, be simply a matter of weary legs and scrambled minds, but history suggests it's something more that that: something more deep rooted and psychological. If that's the case, then there's no simple solution - can you coach players on how to deal intrinsically with pressure? If you can, then it could be a good move for a young manager like Solskjaer to tap into sports psychology. Or is it a tactical issue?
It was a situation we saw last season when the Reds got into a great position to make the top four against all the odds, only to fall away and end the season in ignominy with defeat to relegation-bound Cardiff. I still think United will make the top four - two draws against West Ham and Leicester will be enough. That would be progress and a step forward, but with United's previous of going under when on shaky ground, it is far from certain.
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