In my post-match review cum pre-match preview in the aftermath of the 5-0 trashing we handed out to Wigan Athletic on Boxing Day, I had warned that the greatest danger Manchester United faced now were from themselves and of being over-confident. I had warned about the over-confidence coming from the team selection of Sir Alex Ferguson and true to cue, United were undone on Sir Alex’s 70th birthday at home at Old Trafford against strugglers, Blackburn Rovers. That is now our third home loss in the season in all competitions. Old Trafford has lost a bit of its invincibility; it isn’t much of a fortress anymore. It might be premature of me to suggest that but if FC Basel and Benfica can come to Old Trafford and play without fear and leave with a point in the Champions League, Manchester City can put 6 past us at home and Crystal Palace can knock us out at home in the Carling Cup, I might just have a point when I say that this season Old Trafford is not much of a fortress anymore.
We have hammered teams at Old Trafford too this season but to win league titles, consistency is key as is your home form. Last season, United only dropped points once at home as United clinched its 19th league title and reached the final of the Champions League but that is in the past now. We were knocked out of the Champions League due to our complacency and we thought we had learned from that but that’s obviously not the case. It is a fact that the manager doesn’t have a full set of fit players to choose from due to the injuries especially in defence but that was not an excuse to field a side that weakened further by Sir Alex’s rotation policy which bordered on arrogance and over-confidence. We started the game with a midfield that was mismatched and imbalanced with Nani the only player in his usual position. Park Ji Sung as a central midfielder is dependable and he put in another reliable performance but his partner in centre midfield, Rafael Da Silva, a right back by trade was a questionable selection. Danny Welbeck has played on the wings before so his selection as a winger was not a shocker but a surprise considering the fact that he has started mostly as a forward this season.
In defence, we had Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick in their makeshift roles. Phil Jones was back to partner Carrick in central defence and David De Gea was back in goal. Right from the start, the crowd at Old Trafford was quiet expecting a win and perhaps that transmitted onto the players on the pitch as a sloppy lack of control saw the ball run away from Evra and in his desperation to win back the ball, he committed a foul and gave away a free-kick from which Blackburn made full use to win a penalty off Dimitar Berbatov who fouled Christopher Samba in the box with another desperate foul. It took United until about the 40th minute mark to intensify the pressure on Blackburn.
In the second half, we had greater balance as Anderson was introduced in centre midfield after making a quicker than expected return from injury which pushed Welbeck forward to partner Berbatov. Valencia was pushed forward into midfield and Rafael was restored to his usual position at right back. Immediately United had greater threat but Blackburn got a goal out of the blue through Yakubu who got an easy run and shot at goal after evading two weak challenges by Carrick and Jones. United responded in typical fashion with two Berbatov goals to draw level but as we were pushing for a third, another poor defensive challenge by Carrick gave away a corner and from the resulting corner, De Gea was out-muscled and Blackburn got their third through their centre back Grant Hanley. We couldn’t respond and we ended 2011 with a defeat as we tried to start the New Year on top of the table. Instead, we could start the New Year three points behind our hated rivals, Manchester City if they win tomorrow away at Sunderland. It is certainly not the way I want to start the New Year, with a bitter taste in the mouth after a shocking and disappointing defeat.
If we are going to win the league, we must stop dropping points and giving away results such as this. In seasons past, United have always pressed on whenever they have had the opportunity to put pressure on their rivals and it is unlike United to drop points as they have today. Sir Alex has to understand that our squad is not as strong as Barcelona or even Manchester City and we cannot afford to rest key players especially when we have a lot of injuries to deal with. After building a great run of form after being knocked out of the Champions League, it is silly having to pick up the pieces all over again after a game that we should be winning especially at home. I had pointed out that our defensive situation was a concern and we cannot get away for too long with having makeshift defenders and it was telling today. Carrick was uncharacteristically inaccurate with his long-range passing and too soft in his tackles. Phil Jones, I have felt does better when he has the room at right back or in centre midfield to unleash his energy rather than in centre of defence where one needs a bit more composure and calm. Evra was also poor with his passing, his control and focus and evidently had an off day.
Nani was another who had an off day as he had more shots that ended wide or over than on target and he hardly had a decent delivery the whole game. De Gea was only called into action thrice and in all three cases, he had to pick the ball out of the net but the way he was easily bundled on Blackburn corners, it was alarming and unfortunately for us, one led to a goal against us. Hernandez tried hard but still looks some way short of his usual sharpness we expect from him. Overall, Park had a reliable and a good game in centre midfield. Anderson’s return was vital and his arrival at the start of the second half increased the quality level as he pulled the strings from centre midfield coupled with his usual energetic display. Valencia was one of our best, if not the best player for us with his speed, power and delivery causing a problem for Blackburn. Rafael looked at greater ease in his usual position at right back as he and Valencia caused havoc on United’s right wing. Finally, Berbatov was sharp as he carried on from his Boxing Day hat-trick with a double today.
I feel this defeat is just a blip and an off-day but having to play catch-up and with the genuine concern of a thinning squad, every game is important until the end of the season. United need to go on a long run of wins now and it is possible but points will be dropped along the way but we can’t afford to drop too many. Sir Alex did say that there would be twists and turns in the title race. Let’s hope that our noisy and rich neighbours can have some more for themselves. As for United, quit kidding ourselves about our squad strength and we need our better players playing more often than not for at least until our injury situation eases up and we can afford to rotate our squad more often. A better 2012 please Manchester United, snap out of the complacency of winning two-three games by big margins.