Let me begin this piece with an admission, I really should not be writing this for several reasons. The first being that it is blatant temptation of fate by even mentioning the ‘T word’ I have inevitably cursed the quest for success on three fronts. Sorry. Secondly, the treble will never, ever be repeated by an English side. Finally, comparing sides from different eras should never be attempted.
It is late February and United are still in the running for three trophies. This is usually the stage in the season when the press and fans alike start to get giddy and greedy respectively. With a 12 point lead in the title race, few would argue against United regaining the Premier League trophy. However, success in the cups relies on so many factors that mean winning the treble is nigh on impossible.
For one you need a lot of luck. In 1999, there were countless occasions when the season could have been derailed but mercifully was not. A lack of injuries to key players, favourable borderline decisions and just when you think the team have fallen short at the final hurdle, a misplaced clearance in the Nou Camp and a few minutes later the treble is accomplished. No-one will never forget that, quite frankly because it will never happen again.
The sheer improbability of the treble is also what makes it so special. Aside from United busting Liverpool’s dream in the 1977 FA Cup Final an English team had barely come close. Indeed, domestic doubles had been secured but an English team had not been in the final of the European Cup since 1985. This was partly accredited to the Heysel disaster and also a tactical nous coming from the great AC Milan and Juventus sides. English sides were only just beginning to compete again in Europe and Sir Alex Ferguson had finally built a squad able to cope with the additional demands of a long run in the European Cup.
The 1999 team was also a special side with many players reaching their peak. Whether it was fate or just good timing, Peter Schmeichel left United at the very top. A defence that included the consistent Denis Irwin, the rock that was Jaap Stam and the criminally underrated Ronnie Johnsen formed a solid base.
The midfield of Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Jesper Blomqvist and Nicky Butt were all in their mid to late 20s as were the Neville Brothers. Up front Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole were forming a partnership that terrified Europe with Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer proving their worth in the two finals themselves. What characterised that team was its sheer desire and will to win epitomised by captain Keane who never gave in, never admitted defeat even in the face of knowing he was suspended from the Champions League final even if United could get past Juventus.
Times have changed since then. The game has moved on and the constant that is Sir Alex Ferguson has moved along with it. Sports science has evolved and improved fitness levels while Opta has brought in a method of analysing football matches that takes in every imaginable detail. Put simply, the margins at the top have become smaller and every club is looking for even the tiniest of an advantage.
That is not to say that the treble is impossible, just getting increasingly difficult. Of course, Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 and Barcelona in 2009 managed it, yet that was and still is a special side led by one of the finest players the world will ever see in Lionel Messi.
If you wanted to judge this sides merits with points totals then they do impress yet that is also discounting the merits of the competition. In 1999, there was the formidable Arsenal side who had won the Double the previous season and an emerging Chelsea. This season, United are faced with a regressing Manchester City and beyond that the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal who can largely be discounted as title winning material.
But with 65 points after 26 games, this United side is 14 points better off than the treble winners were at the same stage in the season. It is also a higher points total than any United side managed by Sir Alex Ferguson. If you wanted to compare it elsewhere, the tally is also a point better off than Arsenal’s Invincibles and equal to that special Jose Mourinho Chelsea side of 2004-2005.
Not bad but this is not a vintage United side, not yet anyway. You get the impression that this is a work in progress, that there is still room for improvement from players still learning their trade. Time is on their side, especially for the likes of Rafael, Jonny Evans, Ashley Young, Nani, Anderson, David De Gea, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Javier Hernandez but comparing them to the 1999 side is just folly.
For this United side to accomplish the treble will mean a whole lot of luck and a coming through a gruelling schedule from here on in. That is not to say the feat is impossible and that is not to argue which side is better, I just beg to be proved wrong come what May. At Wembley preferably.