This season was supposed to be all about the ‘power shift in Manchester’. We had sold The Best Player in the World (TM) and ‘lost’ Carlos Tevez to Manchester City. The likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville were past it, the manager was surely past his sell-by-date and United’s ‘time for decline’ was upon us. In contrast, City had bought a whole host of ‘stars’, from Emmanuel Adebayor to Robinho, Gareth Barry to Carlos Tevez, Roque Santa Cruz to, er, Patrick Vieira.
We weren’t following the script when ‘has-been’ Michael Owen scored an injury time winner against City’s super expensive new back five in our first league meeting since the power shift supposedly began.
But surely this would come in to play during the League Cup semi-finals, with the final due to be played on the 34th anniversary of when City last won a trophy. It was written in the stars for the blues. But again we ruined it all for them. Tevez did his best to save the day, but even with three goals in two games against us, he couldn’t drag his team through to the final, with ‘has-been’ Giggs scoring in the first leg and ‘has-been’ Scholes scoring in the second.
So last weekend was finally the opportunity for them to assert themselves and shift that power. A win for them would help secure their place in the top four and almost certainly guarantee them entry to European’s elite competition, whilst also ending our title hopes.
Looking at the starting team, I wasn’t overjoyed if I’m honest. Scholes and Giggs hadn’t done enough against Blackburn, so although they were playing in different positions at Wastelands, I had still wanted ‘my mate’ Nani to start down the left. City would have pace and skill down both their wings, in Adam Johnson and Craig Bellamy, and I wanted us to have the same down our wings. But Giggs has his own attributes to offer, even if he isn’t as pacey as he used to be, and we saw that with our first real chance.
Giggs came in hard to win the ball and pass to Darren Fletcher, who struck just wide of the post. We were dominating play but the next good chance fell to City. Darron Gibson was hassling Tevez on the ball before the Argentinian chose to throw himself to the ground, looking at the ref as he fell. Tevez took the resulting freekick, which was heading for the top corner, before Edwin Van der Sar collected with relative ease.
The next chance fell to us, with Giggs playing a great ball forward to Wayne Rooney, who found Scholes. He struck the ball well, but like Fletch, was just wide of the target.
Rooney got himself in to a great position after shrugging off Kompany, but instead of playing the first time ball across the box, he hesitated, and what should have been a goalscoring opportunity became a corner. As usual, our corner was cleared by the first man. But let’s not be too harsh on Giggsy, he’s only been taking our corners for almost two decades…
Another great chance came for United when Antonio Valencia’s strength to win the ball in the air played in Rooney. This was probably our best chance of the game but Wazza struck with his left and couldn’t hit the target. You had to wonder whether it was going to be one of those days.
Valencia was showing off his creative flair again and put it on a plate for Giggs. But our veteran casually tapped the ball straight to Given. It was a certain goal, a chance Ryan could have had nightmares over had the result turned out differently.
Gary Neville, who did a good job on Bellamy all day, charged down the right and got a toe to the ball before the Welshman took him out. Sir Alex Ferguson said yesterday that Neville always studies his opponent before match day, which isn’t hard to believe when you look at the comprehensive job he did on a player who destroyed us at Old Trafford earlier this season.
The freekick that followed went straight to the first man, as if we honestly believed anything different could happen, as Berbatov started to warm up before replacing Rooney with 15 minutes to go. Rooney had been quiet and his only really memorable action was messing up our best chance. He wasn’t ready for a game of this magnitude and his place in the starting line-ups means it is no wonder Berbatov is being linked with moves to AC Milan. You imagine that if an offer of £20m came in for him the club would bite their hand off, although I would argue Huntelaar in a part-exchange isn’t anywhere near as appealing as it was a few years ago.
You wondered whether the substitutions were going to have an effect on the end result and I think it’s hard to deny that they did. City took off the unimpressive, yet still clearly potentially very dangerous in attack, Adam Johnson, for the defensive oldie, Patrick Vieira. That was all we needed to know. City wanted a draw.
They deceived us slightly when Tevez, who was unusually quiet, pressed forward and played in Bellamy. But the Welshman sliced his shot and messed up their second real chance on goal.
Giggs played in a ball for Nani to attack down the other end, but after sliding in he could only direct it wide.
Gareth Barry did little all game but could have changed everything when his great movement got him in to a dangerous position. Neville came across him and the former Villa captain dived impressively. No penalty, no yellow card.
Back down the other end and Nani played in a great ball to Berbatov, who directed his header just wide of Given’s post.
Then we had a goalmouth scramble after Van der Sar came for a ball he shouldn’t have, palming the ball straight to City, leaving Vidic to put in an excellent block before Fletch booted it away. Berbatov held the ball up well and released Nani on the break, but he lost possession and took his frustration out on the linesman.
Neville and Bellamy wrestled a bit just inside the City half, before the ball fell to Wayne Bridge in the box. Our right-back had covered the run well though, after scrambling free of Bellamy’s clutches, and pressured Bridge to shoot straight at our keeper.
And then the moment that made it all, and there is only one other player I would have preferred to gift us possession in injury time. Instead of keeping possession and playing it simple, Bellamy saw the headlines and tried to lob the ball forward to Shaun Wright-Phillips. Vidic, who had a great game, and showed us what we had been missing for so much of the season thanks to his injury, made the block and Gabriel Obertan picked up the ball. He played in Patrice Evra, probably desperate to atone for his crucial mistake in Munich a few weeks ago, who put in the perfect ball to Scholes.
He is 35-years-old. It was the hottest day of the year so far. We were 93 minutes in to the game. Yet there was Scholes waiting in the opposition box to win us the game. How’s that for a has-been?
Again, this is where the substitutions came in to play. We replaced like for like when taking off Valencia for Obertan, a winger for a winger. We replaced like for like when taking off Rooney for Berbatov, a striker for a striker. We made an attacking substitution when replacing Gibson for Nani, an attacking winger for a central midfielder.
City took off Adebayor for Wright-Phillips, a striker for a winger. They took off winger Johnson for defensive midfielder Vieira, as already mentioned. But most crucially of all, they replaced the ever-impressive De Jong with the less than impressive Stephen Ireland. Let’s be honest, the lad who supposedly grew up supporting United, was City’s best player last year and who has been linked with a move to us, has had a very disappointing season. Ferguson did all he could to expose this, getting Fletch to drop a bit deeper and playing Scholes further forward. Ireland had only been on the pitch ten minutes when he stood idly by and watched Scholes score the winner. He wasn’t in the game, he didn’t know where he was supposed to be, and our 5′ 7″ ‘has-been’ midfielder was presented with a free header just seconds before injury time elapsed.
We were the better team and we made the better substitutions, but I think credit needs to also go to the team selection. I imagine I wasn’t alone in not being too impressed with the boss but maybe there’s something to be said about his sentimental nature. Over half the players in our starting XI came through our academy. These are the players that live and breathe United, who will fight for the badge, who recognise the importance of derby day, and who will play until the final whistle every time we come up against our local rivals.
“That’s why United are where they are,” Harry Redknapp said earlier in the season. “They are a team and they are all together. When we played United at White Hart Lane the week before, my coaches, Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand, were in the stands along with the United boys who weren’t subs. They were jumping up and down at every decision and again when they scored their goals. That winning mentality goes right through the club. Gibson and all the other boys wanted to play but they also have those feelings that they showed. There are not many clubs where you get that. It’s something you’d like to develop. It’s hard to change some people but that’s what makes winning teams.”
Has Redknapp started to create this mentality at Spurs? Wins against Arsenal and Chelsea in the past week might indicate this Spurs team are starting to fight a bit harder and believe a bit more. It takes years to create something like Ferguson has, with passion for the club and a winning mentality running through the players, but Spurs look up for it. They didn’t just beat their local rivals, they were the better team, and this will galvanise anyone. They are as close to Champions League football as they were when they got robbed by food poisoning and they will be hungrier than ever to get that fourth spot.
The problem for them is they are facing a pretty driven team in Manchester United, with a manager more desperate than any for success, who has proven himself worthy time and again. He wants four in a row, he wants nineteen to the vermin’s eighteen, he wants to win.
Our lads had to sit in the dressing room after the Blackburn game and feel like the title had been lost. The fans in the stands certainly felt that way. We had blown it. So now, against Spurs, we know what is at stake if we don’t win. Chances are we won’t get a second go at this. We have to win all our games and hope that Chelsea draw somewhere along the way.
Modric is a great player, Bale is being hailed as the latest Spurs player we’re going to pinch, Pavlyuchenko is up for it, Defoe and Crouch will be hoping Capello is watching, Dawson has been fantastic and also wants a shot at being on that plane to South Africa, and essentially, we are playing against the fourth best team in the country. That is never going to be a walk over.
We have the second best home record this season and Spurs have the sixth best away record. That being said, they’ve only won 6 of their 16 games away from home, against Hull (18th), West Ham (17th), Portsmouth (20th), Blackburn (12th), Wigan (15th) and Stoke (11th).
It will be interesting to see which team the manager picks tomorrow. Will he pad out out the midfield as he usually does for the big games or will he trust in the faithful 442? Berbatov has scored twice in the four games he’s played against Spurs since joining us and is certainly in need of proving himself.
Ferguson might also opt to go with another former Spurs boy in the centre of midfield, drafting Michael Carrick back in alongside Darren Fletcher. You imagine Valencia and Nani will start on the wings, with Antonio helping out Neville when it comes to Bale.
If we don’t win tomorrow, we don’t deserve the league, so it may hurt, but we just have to get on with it. But I think we will win. I think we’ve got enough in our team, in terms of ability and desire, to go out and get those three points. We have got the right mix of youth, age, ability, home grown and fancy foreign players and our winning mentality is second to none. This is our trophy and I expect our lads to do everything in their power to keep it this season.
COME ON UNITED!