by Luke Irelan-Hill

Michael Carrick is finally taking centre stage with a string of impressive performances for Manchester United. Tipped as the Roy Keane of his generation and also mentioned as having the technical gifts of Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, the England international is finally living up to the hype.

For too long, too many ‘maybes’ have surrounded and clung on to Michael Carrick, too many comparisons that have never quite been fulfilled. But this season he has finally cemented his place in the current Manchester United team and unlocked his true potential.

Over the years a lot of criticism has been attached to the versatile midfielder. Not enough confidence. Not enough pace. Not enough concentration. Not enough composure. Not enough ambition in his passing. He always seems to be missing something to make him the complete player.

But not this season. At 31, Carrick has not just found his place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side; he is also in the form of his life.

The silent man is becoming a big noise. Carrick is thriving with the players around him, especially the likes of Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Robin Van Persie as a quick-thinking outlet. Against the more highly rated English stars such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Carrick has proved he can cut it – just look at his number of winners medals. Gerrard may be a man with smaller medal collection but he has a far greater reputation for dominating the grand occasions from Istanbul to Cardiff. One of the criticisms thrown at Carrick over the years is he lacks the attacking threat of Gerrard and Lampard, he would rather play safe then take the risks when it comes to addressing the ball like his English counterparts, but it has done him no harm.

When it comes to England selection, Carrick has spent a decade in Gerrard’s shadow. Not at club level, though. But somehow, despite four Premier League titles and a Champions League winner’s medal under his belt, Carrick still has as many doubters as admirers.

He’s no Paul Scholes.

Of course football critics and football fans are always going to compare Manchester United midfielders to the ginger-haired maestro, and United legend Scholes, but surely Carrick’s form this season demands a reappraisal of the midfielder. Finally people must start giving credit where credit is due.

Those still needing assurances of how under-rated Carrick is need look no further than the Champions League final of 2008. This is where the real tests of temperament and talent are challenged. A player can live or die in this kind of environment. It is the pinnacle of club football.

Moscow 2008 proved Carrick can deliver, working diligently if not eye-catchingly for two hours against Chelsea and then holding his never and his aim in the penalty shoot-out.

But those looking to counter this will mention the 2009 final in Rome in which Carrick was swept aside by Iniesta, Xavi and the rest of Barcelona’s world-class team as they passed Manchester United off the park. This was no doubt a low point of Carrick’s excellent career at Old Trafford. And many present at the Olympic Stadium or watching on the TV will not have forgotten an incredibly poor pass by Carrick being picked up by Iniesta to create a goal for Samuel Eto’o.

However you cannot judge a man’s career on one performance even if it was on club football’s biggest stage. During the same painful inquest Carrick’s name was mentioned far more than any other United player but it cannot be overlooked that the whole United team simply did not turn up. For example, Christiano Ronaldo gave a selfish and below-par performance. Events of that night highlighted one of Carrick’s biggest weaknesses that he can struggle when the pressure is on him. If he is being pressed by the opposition when he receives the ball he can often require two touches of the ball to then move it on, unlike a Scholes, Iniesta or Xavi, masters of the first-time pass.

For too long there has been the feeling that Carrick could seize the control of game more and apply his talent more consistently. Even taking into account his tactical duties as a holding-midfielder, Carrick could still have dictated more frequently to the early stages of United’s attacks more forcibly.

Fast forward two years from the Barcelona defeat, which includes a lost to Bayern Munich in a quarter-final and Carrick was extremely influential in helping United past Chelsea in the last eight. He released Ryan Gigg’s with a 45-yard pass in creating Wayne Rooney’s goal. He ensured Frank Lampard could not dwell in possession. Carrick had finally shown that against the best he could cut it, both defensively and in attack, despite the latter not coming naturally to him.

Old concerns are now fading. This season, the Carrick fan-club has grown, with appraisal flooding in after the Manchester derby in December – a game every United player has to perform in. Carrick gave a text-book example of how to play the anchor-man as he patrolled in front of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, calmly stopping any incoming danger, and coolly redistributing the ball with a decent 44 of his 60 passed deemed successful.

Ferguson may have brought Paul Scholes back, but his hand was forced due to injury more than his lack of belief or trust in Carrick. Darren Fletcher is out again through illness and Owen Hargreaves was inhibited by injury. But through all of this Ferguson has continued to pick Carrick, and that is all the belief the midfielder has ever needed.

The next couple of years are also looking good for Carrick. With Scholes’ powers waning, perhaps Carrick will fully flourish. Maybe it was a mistake to take Roy Keane’s old No 16 shirt. He was never going to rival the Irishman’s ability of owning a game as Keane did so passionately in Turin in 1999. But he has been the building block for United in recent years and being a team-minded player he helps set the platform for his team-mates to perform on.

Michael Carrick is most appreciated by his team-mates and opponents. Maybe Carrick will receive most respect when he hangs up his boots. Although this will be a real shame as his form this season deserves celebrating.