Manchester United can still be underestimated, despite all they have achieved.
There is good cause to think the current line-up inferior to many of its predecessors, yet it has prospered. The team's results are better than its reputation. With 63 goals, United have outscored everyone else in the Premier League. As they approach the return with Marseille in the Champions League, the 0-0 draw at the Stade Vélodrome has put them in a reasonably good position.
There are still risks and the club's own record should at least make people pensive. In their European history under Sir Alex Ferguson, United have returned from the away leg with a goalless draw on half a dozen occasions and gone on to be knocked out three times. The calibre of the opposition is the critical factor and Marseille's status as champions of France tended to meet with only a grudging respect.
United's quality is also under scrutiny, however, and the going has been hard in Premier League away games. They have won just four of them, a record inferior to those of Blackpool and Newcastle United as well as Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Before long, the clamour will rise for a far-reaching overhaul of the squad. Marvellous as Ryan Giggs, 37, and Paul Scholes, 36, have been, a lack of true alternatives also protects their status.
The subject is recognised everywhere, but it cannot be a burning issue while United are still blazing a trail in European and domestic competition. So long as Nemanja Vidic is present, the defence will normally be sound even when Rio Ferdinand is missing. In seven Champions League fixtures this season, United have conceded a single goal. It was scored at Old Trafford by Pablo Hernández of Valencia, but Ferguson's team equalised through Anderson and topped group C.
On occasion, the standing of the club is not reflected by the standard of the play. In days gone by, United would probably have found the net against Marseille, instead of looking as if some sort of non-aggression pact had been struck with Didier Deschamps's team. The deeper truth lies in the dwindling menace of some renowned figures. Scholes has one goal this season, although he has been stifled by injuries as much as opponents.
By the same token, there is a little less talk at present of Giggs being ageless. The difficulties before United are well-known and the often mediocre results in away games should not come as a great surprise. More attention is paid to precautionary measures than would once have been the case.
A potential vulnerability in Saturday's FA Cup tie was offset by the vitality of the Da Silva twins, whose deployment in the wide midfield positions both checked Arsenal and also put them under strain. At times Ferguson is compelled to improvise, with uneven outcomes. When he had neither Ferdinand nor Vidic available, the outcome was the 3-1 loss at Liverpool. It followed a defeat to Chelsea, but the focus on the defence has also indicated an insufficient contribution elsewhere.
At £7m, Javier Hernández is an uncommonly good acquisition, but the bulk of the goals have come against less highly rated opponents and he is still a player under development. So far as United's prospects are concerned it is likely to be the effectiveness or otherwise of Wayne Rooney that is the key factor, although the flair of Nani is also significant. There may have been just nine goals from the Englishman in this campaign, but half a dozen of them have come since the start of February.
Perhaps Ferguson's patience with Rooney and his seemingly distracted life is being rewarded. There was vitality once more in the FA Cup victory over Arsenal. At the opener, it was his cross that led to Fábio da Silva scoring after Manuel Almunia had parried the header from Hernández. In spells, Rooney seemed to lose himself entirely in the match, as if football was once more at the heart of his existence. There was a hunger to the opportunism when he added the second after a Hernández drive ricocheted off Johan Djourou.
Ferguson's squad is thinner than it once was and they have still to go to the Emirates in the league, as well as facing Chelsea at Old Trafford, but the obduracy is not to be ignored. While this is not an outstanding United line-up it is one with a capacity to cope. Predecessors have had far more glamour, but the current version has a perseverance that will unsettle the contenders in all competitions.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010