By Husmukh Kerai
When Manchester United came away from the first leg of their Champions League tie with Real Madrid with a draw, some began to whisper of another historic treble.
Los Blancos came into the tie in turmoil, the futures of their manager and best player up in the air, while the Red Devils were coasting on all fronts with a machine-like effeciency.
Yet with the help of a certain Turkish referee, it was the Liga champions who progressed into the quarter-finals and, in reflection, United have not been the same since. Monday's performance at Stamford Bridge was just another reminder.
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|Sir Alex Ferguson's men pip Arsenal to the championship by one point, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole scoring 35 goals between them to seal the club's 12th league title.|
|The Red Devils vanquish Newcastle 2-0 in the final, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes netting at Wembley to pick up their second trophy of the season.|
|In a legendary turnaround, United sucker-punched Bayern Munich with Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both striking in injury time to rescue a stunning 2-1 triumph.|
The normally assured Michael Carrick gave the ball away on a number of occasions against the Blues while Rio Ferdinand, Sir Alex Ferguson's best defender this season, was caught napping by Demba Ba for the solitary goal.
But, more than anyone, the Red Devils' recent slump was best epitomised by their £24 million man.
On arrival from Arsenal, Robin van Persie hit the ground running for Sir Alex's side, scoring a sublime effort on his debut and then going on to win a series of matches for United largely through his brilliance alone, propelling his new team to the top of the Premier League.
At one point the Dutchman looked a shoo-in for the end-of-season player-of-the-year awards but his form since the league leaders' exit from the Champions League has been worryingly below par.
The Netherlands international has gone nine games without a goal for his club, only one in his last 12. It has coincided with a drop in results. In the campaign's early days, United were the kings of the comeback, Van Persie invariably the saviour.
But, coming on as a substitute on Monday, the striker did not carry that same aura of inevitability which suggested that he would go on to decide the game. He put a close-range volley over the bar with goal at his mercy and, with it, saw the end of United's last meaningful match of the season.
With a surely-unassailable 15-point lead, the rest of the campaign is now just a month's wait to be handed a 20th Premier League crown.
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None of their domestic rivals have put up much of a fight in truth, the Red Devils merely the best of a bad bunch. The one or two deficiencies in the team had gone largely unpunished apart from a thorough examination in Europe.
That Tuesday evening when Madrid came to at Old Trafford was the pinnacle of United's season in terms of occasion, hype and drama. On the night, you could feel the electricity coursing through the Theatre of Dreams, a buzz which now will not be found in those parts again until the beginning of 2013-14.
In hindsight, you can wonder if Van Persie could have been rested earlier in the season to preserve his impact for the latter part of season, but it is not so easy to drop your star centre forward when he is finding the back of net every weekend.
Nevertheless, in the space of a few short weeks, the treble dream, like the Dutchman's form, has disappeared. It puts into perspective just how good Sir Alex's class of '99 actually were; the current crop are not fit enough to lace their boots.
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