Di Maria's brilliance can't save lost Manchester United season

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By JAKE MONTGOMERY
College Contributor Network

Manchester United's season might be over. In the 2012-13 Premier League season, the last time that United won the championship, the team's worst back-to-back match sequence involved a draw to Arsenal and a loss to Chelsea late in the season when the title was all but wrapped up.

Last season, when United finished eighth in the league, the Red Devils lost back-to-back matches twice and went through a seven-match stretch, in January and February, where they suffered three losses and two draws. These numbers are unheard of for champion-level squads and infrequent for Champions League-qualifying teams.

Manchester United is in trouble. Its next two matches are against current title favorite Chelsea and last year's winner and crosstown rival, Manchester City. Yes, the season is young and there's still the January transfer window and a lot of soccer to be played between now and the end of the season. Many United fans will believe that it's not time to panic yet. But those fans are wrong. It is time to panic, and this may be the worst Manchester United squad in recent history, both statistically and based on how they play, particularly how they defend.

According to the current Premier League table, United is only sixth which isn't so bad and seems to indicate that a resurgence is possible and even primed to happen. However, its schedule and the team's latest performance, against 14th-place West Bromwich Albion, tell a different narrative.

In a different sport on a different continent, in another great conference, that of SEC football, a team called Texas A&M, the 21st-ranked team in the country played a team called Alabama, the seventh-ranked team in the country, on Oct. 18. Texas A&M had previously been ranked at No. 6 earlier in the season, and Alabama was coming off of two poor performances that almost resulted in catastrophic, season-ending back-to-back losses. They looked weak. It was Texas A&M's time to strike the wounded powerhouse.

Alabama won 59-0.

What does this American college football story have to do with English football? Well, this week in the BPL, Manchester United, like Texas A&M, is lower in the standings than its opponent but possibly a sleeping giant ready to awaken. Chelsea meanwhile, is like Alabama, a dominant, powerhouse team that could hypothetically lose a game at this moment in the season but...will win 59-0 this week.

Or more likely, 2-1. Don't bet on Manchester United in this match or this season, and count on the club to disappoint and show an absolute inability -- a lack of talent that will be painted by the press as a lack of cohesion -- to crack the top four. It'd be a victory and a surprise if the Red Devils were in the top six at the end of the season. They'll likely be pushed out of that spot in the next two weeks, and perhaps for good.

You would think that the United players must know how important the West Brom match was. With Chelsea and Man City looming, possible embarrassment to bitter rivals on consecutive weekends, they must have known that the West Brom matchup was a must-win warm-up for the real show.

And yet United made mistakes and failed to get a win. The defense was porous. West Brom created chances. The Baggies' crucial second goal in the 66th minute, which was dangerously close to being the winning goal, was the fault of United's right back Rafael who held West Brom's Saido Berahino onside as he streaked freely up the middle of the pitch toward a hapless David De Gea in goal. There was nothing he could do.

Frequently, United's defense leaves wide gaps for the opposition to run through, and the only thing making the back line look respectable is the quality of the attacking players in front of them. Consistently praised for his "brilliant" movement and dribbling, Argentine midfielder Angel Di Marìa's true value for United lies in his exquisite crosses into the box, roped on invisible looping chords from his boot to his forwards' heads.

The substitution of Englishman Ashley Young on for Dì Maria in the 76th minute of a tied match against West Brom made no sense, unless there was a health or fitness concern by management or the player. United's capacity for scoring goals and winning matches is astronomically higher when Di Marìa is on the pitch. He is the Red Devils only hope this year. But for United faithful, hope is a dangerous crutch to lean on in a season whose diagnosis is getting worse and worse. It's all damage control from this point on. United is done.

Must-Watch matches of the week:

Manchester United vs. Chelsea Sunday, Oct. 26 12:00 PM EST

One team's collapse and another's ascent is not one to miss.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona Saturday, Oct. 25 12:00 PM EST

Luis Suárez's return makes this Clasico even better...if that's possible.


Low-Key intriguing match of the week:

Liverpool vs. Hull City Saturday, October 25 10:00 AM EST

After drawing against Arsenal, Hull could upset a Liverpool side that looked terrible midweek against Madrid. Watching that match was like seeing your high school soccer team play against. . .Madrid. It was that bad. Surprisingly, a Hull victory would put them level in the standings with the fifth-place Reds.


Jake Montgomery is a senior at Harvard University majoring in English. Raised in Philadelphia and a lover of the beautiful game since '06, he is a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Georgetown and Harvard basketball, Chelsea FC, Neymar, Steph Curry, Shabazz Napier, and Kanye West. Follow him on Twitter: @TheFloorGeneral
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