Manchester United's 2013 Highlights: Best Player, Best Match and More

Rob Blanchette@@_Rob_BFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2013

Manchester United's 2013 Highlights: Best Player, Best Match and More

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    It has been a tale of two contrasting seasons for Manchester United.

    2013 began with United on the charge towards what became Sir Alex Ferguson's final trophy and a historic 20th league championship. However, it ended with the club floating above the murky, shark-infested waters of the mid-table, battling to find its way into a Champions League position of safety. 

    These past 12 months will forever be remembered as the year when we said goodbye to the father of this great club, but the whole story from January to December has been full of intrigue and drama.

    Here, we review United's highlights from 2013, the players who made a difference and the events which defined a landmark year in the club's history.

Game of the Year: Bayer Leverkusen 0, Manchester United 5

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    When reviewing all of the matches of 2013, it might come as a surprise that United's most impressive performance came under David Moyes rather than Sir Alex Ferguson.

    United's systematic destruction of a well-regarded Bayer Leverkusen team pointed the finger towards what Moyes could achieve as manager of the Red Devils.

    The game was United's largest away win in Europe since 1964 and showed that this team is not exactly a bad one.

    On the night, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones controlled proceedings and we got to see a glimpse of what Shinji Kagawa could do in his more favoured position. United were rampant and ruthless, putting the German side to the sword. 

    It was one of those nights when everything went right. 

    The disappointment of home defeats to Everton and Newcastle were to immediately follow, but the seeds of a "new way" were there to be seen in Leverkusen on that night. 

    If Moyes can find a way to make his boys play like this on a regular basis, then the future for United will be exciting and bright. 

Most Improved Player: David de Gea

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    The accolade given to the "most improved player" usually goes to an outfield player.

    However, the talent of United's Spanish goalkeeper has shone brightly in 2013 and he very much deserves the huge praise he has received throughout the year.

    The 23-year-old has matured quickly in a Manchester United shirt after his shaky beginnings at the club that saw him regularly castigated by the British press.

    However, David de Gea is now well on his way to being one of the very best in the world at his position. 

    The young goalkeeper needed Sir Alex Ferguson to show faith in him and this belief in his ability has allowed De Gea to grow as an individual and improve his potency.  

    No longer do audible murmurs of nervousness go up from the Old Trafford crowd when United concede a corner and a large centre-forward goes up in the air to challenge the young player.

    The physically larger De Gea now has the tools to deal with his opponents. He now shows no fear. 

    You no longer read of teams targeting De Gea from set pieces. 

    United's biggest challenge will be keeping hold of their goalkeeping jewel. There is no doubt that powers such as Real Madrid and Barcelona will one day come calling for his services. 

Goal of the Year: Robin van Persie vs. Swansea City

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    The Robin van Persie that started the year was electric, leading United to an emphatic title success and giving Ferguson the perfect end to his managerial career. 

    The Van Persie that is ending the year is starting to resemble the Arsenal player of a few seasons ago, picking up knocks that are limiting his time on the pitch.

    However, the genius of the Dutchman is still present and this was in evidence at the start of the season when Swansea City hosted the Red Devils.

    Van Persie's control from a lofted Ryan Giggs pass and subsequent acrobatic finish gave David Moyes the perfect start to his United tenure.

    Moyes will be hoping Van Persie can now stay fit and deliver moments of wonder such as this one in South Wales.

    United lack a core of truly world-class players, so it is of paramount importance that Moyes gets RvP playing regularly and scoring the volume of goals that his team needs to compete at the top level.  

Young Player of the Year: Adnan Januzaj

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    We are witnessing the birth of a genius. 

    The baby-faced looks do nothing to hide the deadly ability of Adnan Januzaj.

    As the youth talents of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison become just whispers in United's history, the young man from Belgium has made the breakthrough to what many hope is a glittering career dressed in red.

    Januzaj's impact has been well-timed for both Moyes and United. He has been a breath of fresh air for United fans, as the final days of senior professionals like Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are witnessed.

    The 18-year-old has signed a new deal with the club and is destined to be central to any success that the Red Devils will have in the future. 

    The United faithful have already christened him as "a boy who can do anything."

    His potential is world-class. 

    As the club says an extended goodbye to Ryan Giggs, his replacement is already being primed to walk in his shoes on the left wing. The timing could not be any more perfect. 

Eric Cantona Award for Cult Status: Patrice Evra

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    There is a strange irony currently surrounding Patrice Evra.

    As his contract with United runs fast to its expiry and Moyes makes a list of new left-backs that he would like, the Frenchman has hit new heights of popularity amongst the United faithful. 

    A footballer who wears his heart on his sleeve, Evra's vocal passion about his football club has not gone unnoticed. 

    Moyes spoke with the Manchester Evening News about his vice-captain last week:

    Patrice is one of the finest leaders around the dressing room that I have ever seen. 

    He speaks well in everything he does and the way he speaks about the club is great. 

    He is inspirational behind the scenes and reminds all the boys what their jobs and duties are. 

    He knows we have to have a strong Manchester United. He demands. He doesn't think winning one game is it. He is saying no, we need to win all the games. 

    He is great for me and obviously he has been great for the team because he has been a really top player for a long time now.

    Moyes' thoughts are echoed by United fans everywhere. If the player does leave the club at the end of this season, his legend and reputation as a United great will be sealed. 

    Unfortunately, the years have caught up with Evra and he is not the world-class left-back he previously was. However, his heart is as full of Manchester United as it ever was and the team's supporters will forever love him for that commitment. 

    The "cult of Evra" will continue long after he has gone. 

Best Single-Match Player Performance: Phil Jones vs. Real Madrid

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    How many times can you think of when an opponent has dominated Cristiano Ronaldo?

    Phil Jones' worldwide reputation took a leap in February of this year when he traveled to Spain to face Real Madrid as a defensive midfielder and came away a hero with a Bryan Robson-like, all-action performance.

    On the night, Jones marked Ronaldo out of the game, though the mercurial genius from Portugal still managed to score a crucial goal. 

    Jones showed in 2013 that he is more than just a defender and his type of versatility has no resemblance to the likes of John O'Shea or Phil Neville, who preceded him as utility players. 

    In an April interview with the Press Association (h/t the Daily Mail), Sir Alex Ferguson raved about the young player:

    Jones is going to be a phenomenal player. He has a fantastic influence, no matter where he plays. 

    He has an instinct for the game and a drive about him. 

    I have no idea where his best position is. He could play anywhere on the pitch. But he will be one of the best players we have ever had.

    Fergie could well be right, as he has been many times before.

    The authority of Jonah grows and he is now an integral part of United under David Moyes. 

Player of the Year: Michael Carrick

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    "It's Carrick, you know. Hard to believe it's not Scholes."

    It is quite possibly the biggest compliment United fans can give to Michael Carrick—a song comparing the player's influence to the mastery of a modern legend.

    Carrick's importance to United is never more highlighted than when he is not available. 

    When Van Persie is injured, United has Rooney. If Rooney is injured, then there is Chicharito. When Vidic and Ferdinand are sidelined, there is a combination of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to carry the flag.

    However, when Carrick is injured, there is no one with his skill set and quality at United.

    Carrick's transformation into United's maestro has been years in the making, but his form for the past few years has been excellent.

    He held United together during the title run of last season and it was plain to see how Moyes' team struggled this season as Carrick carried his injury through matches, eventually leading to a number of weeks out.

    As good as Van Persie was last season and Rooney is this season, Carrick is the glue that holds the team together. United are half a team without him. 

    When Arsene Wenger was asked last season who his footballer of the year was, he told The Guardian's David Hytner that he would have given Carrick the nod:

    I would choose Carrick. He is a quality passer. He could play for Barcelona, he would be perfectly suited to their game. He has a good vision and is an intelligent player, and it is for what he has achieved in his whole career as well. 

    The appreciation of Carrick's quality runs deeper than just in Manchester. 

    If Moyes can be lucky enough to have the England international at his disposal for the whole of 2014, there is every chance that United can drive forward and make a late charge towards retaining their Premier League title. 

Manager of the Year: Sir Alex Ferguson

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    It has been 27 years since Manchester United last had two different managers in a calendar year.

    As a new dawn under David Moyes takes centre stage in the minds of United fans everywhere, the tenure of the greatest manager of all time has already been consigned to history.

    For this is the way that Sir Alex Ferguson insisted United be: a club that only ever looks forward. 

    You enjoy your successes as they happen, and then you move on.

    Now in the later years of his life, it was no surprise that Fergie retired after the club achieved its 20th domestic league title, but the shockwave of that decision can still be felt today deep in the fabric of the club. 

    As with many of his previous seasons, Fergie ended the campaign with the Premier League trophy gripped tightly in his magical hands.

    27 years ago, this title felt like a holy grail to the team and its supporters. A generation on and Sir Alex has made it this football club's trophy of choice.

    Quite often in life, you do not know what you have until it is gone. Football is no different. 

    The Ferguson era will go down not only in United folklore, but will define a large chapter in the history of English football. 

    If David Moyes can achieve even half of the great man's success, he will have done very well indeed.