One game less, eight games to go, three points clear on top of the English Premier League, on a run of 9 wins in the last 10 league matches; a good run of form. This is made more impressive by the fact that during this run, Manchester United have faced their toughest challengers and closest rivals in terms of history or league position; Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspurs. If the Red Devils maintain this form for the remainder of the season which includes a very short trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City, we would be celebrating another title triumph come 13th of May 2012 away in the Stadium of Light against Sunderland. Added to the form of the team would be the fact that United’s players have the experience of seeing out a title run-in and emerging victorious. Everything seems to be going well and according to plan. Nothing to worry about? You would be wrong to think as such.
We might have seen off our toughest challenges but the challenges that lie ahead are equally tough. We might be facing opponents in mid-table or in the lower half of the table but each one of them poses their own threat and would be determined to give their best against United and not roll over for the Red Devils. Take last night’s match against Fulham as an example. They came to Old Trafford and put men behind the ball. They were well-organised and difficult to break down. On top of that, they defended stoutly, throwing bodies on the line to block shots and make things congested for United in front of goal. Whenever they had the chance, they would break swiftly to counter-attack to try and nick a goal on the break. United had most of the ball in the Fulham half for at least an hour of the match. In that hour, United only managed one goal which was ironically a result of a mistake in the Fulham defence.
Before United scored, the closest United came to scoring was from an acrobatic overhead kick from stand-in skipper Patrice Evra, lacking proper connection, the ball bounced wide of the post. After the goal which came with 4 minutes left of the first half, United’s most potent attacking threats; Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young had efforts blocked by Fulham’s goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. In the case of the latter, he had two efforts blocked in quick succession and in the aftermath, Ryan Giggs had a volley cleared off the line by Fulham’s captain Brede Hangeland. Thereafter, United’s play in the second half grew sloppy and increasingly infuriating. Prior to the goal, in the first half and the first 20-25 minutes of the second half, in the midst of all the blocks, United dominated possession and were camped in Fulham’s half but too often the final ball, the through ball was found wanting. The biggest threat came down the flanks and when good crosses were delivered, no player was on hand to convert. Fulham, with an experienced backline dealt with whatever that was thrown at them pretty well.
At the other end, United’s David De Gea was a spectator for most of the first half except for a period of 5-10 minutes when Fulham had their best spell in the game. In the second half, he got busier after the 65th minute mark but by and large had nothing major to deal with except to deal with crosses and make routine saves. As it has been customary this season, United decided to doze off and play the ball sidewards (I have said this so many times now that I feel like a broken record). As they did that, the intensity and urgency of their play dropped and the passes started going astray and in the desperation to win back the ball, they committed fouls to give Fulham free-kick opportunities to apply more pressure on United. Thankfully, the much-improved Jonny Evans and confident De Gea stood firm at the back. Rio Ferdinand had a part to play too as he has done in recent weeks until he was brought off as a precaution due to a stiff back in the 74th minute. The only moment of great worry and of much contention came when the much-hated and old nemesis Danny Murphy got free of Michael Carrick and sped into the box threatening to pull Fulham level. In his desperation, Carrick attempted to win the ball back but got a bit of Murphy and the wily old fox dropped to the ground at the first touch he received. Referee waved play on and wherever you were, United fans collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Deep down inside we knew that could have been given and looking back at the replay, even the most die-hard fan would have to swallow deep and admit that it may have been given. Carrick appeared to clip Murphy’s heel but as our very own wily old fox, Giggs said at the end of the game, these things even itself out during the course of the season. For every such incident where it could have been given against us, there is a decision of a penalty that should not have been awarded against us and was awarded. Read: Newcastle United, November 26 2011, Old Trafford, Ferdinand’s legitimate tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa deemed to be a foul and a penalty. Newcastle scored and got an equaliser and left with one point. For the neutrals and haters (?) reading this, don’t moan that referees don’t award penalties against us at Old Trafford or that away teams don’t get the benefit of the doubt at Old Trafford. We have had 4 penalties awarded against us this season and all of them have been at Old Trafford so please keep your ranting and raving to yourself. Every team is owed some luck and to win trophies, you need some luck and that is the fact.
As for us, United, if we continue playing like this, our luck will run out very soon because luck alone can’t win you titles. With nothing else to play for between now and the end of the season, the very least we can expect as fans, is entertaining football to win the title in style. We have put up with a lot of efficient, uninspiring performances this season. We have seen some very impressive and typical United action too but they seem to be few and far between. They seem to have taken place a long time ago, the start of the season to be precise. I repeat we cannot go on stumbling our way to victories eventhough at this stage, theoretically all we need is a string of 1-0 wins. However, that is just not the United way. By the way, the United way can also be referred to doing it the hard way but I am not referring to that. I am referring to the playing style; playing free-flowing football, scoring lots of goals, creating lots of chances, swift and precise play. Nothing sloppy, no naps during games, no rolling over to play dead, no such nonsense thank you very much. Let’s win this title with style to put down a marker to Manchester City and all the rest watching on. I am honestly sick of the laboured style of football, grinding out results.
We have nothing to play for except the title and our injured players are returning from injury so we should more or less be able to field a stable and standard first eleven week in, week out without much rotation because there is really no need to. We only play once a week anyways. I was surprised to hear from Sir Alex in his post-match conference that he felt the players got tired in the last part of the match. Tired? Sir Alex, with all due respect, we last played 8 days ago. Perhaps he meant that the players had expanded a lot of energy to try and score goals in the first 60-65 minutes of the game and grew tired thereafter.
With regards to personnel, I do hope that Ferdinand is fit enough to play in a week’s time against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. It will not be an easy fixture at all and the home side needs the points to stay up. We need a big performance from the players and we need the experience of Ferdinand in defence. Chris Smalling is having a dip in form ever since he had that sickening head clash with Klaas Jan Huntelaar on international duty with England. Phil Jones, is unsteady in central defence and isn’t quite the same one that we saw at the start of the season. If Rafael Da Silva maintains his performance last night and improves it, the right back spot should be his. Oh yes, he has to stay injury-free too. In midifield, between the veterans Giggs and Paul Scholes, I feel Scholes gives greater creativity in central midfield which was lacking against Fulham. It would be tough for anyone to take Valencia’s place in the form that he is in now and on the evidence of his form last night, Young should get the nod on the left wing as Nani remains injured and Park Ji Sung looks out of sorts. Danny Welbeck has been clumsy and not quite as effective up front recently. Javier Hernandez seems to be sharper but he was equally clumsy and sloppy when he came on. Maybe that could mean a look in for Dimitar Berbatov. Wayne Rooney for all of his goals in recent games has been sloppy in his overall play. His main fault has to be the lack of accuracy of his passes and the weight on the pass.
I just hope the squad and the players are able to bring their collective performance up a few more notches and entertain us a lot more in the trademark Manchester United fashion of entertaining, attacking football. Finally, I felt the crowd at Old Trafford last night was great. Keep that up fans!