We needed six points from our two home games against Burnley and Hull so I don’t think we can get too carried away. These teams have been dreadful on the road this season, with the worst away record in the league, so whilst we can be happy to have won and to have scored so many goals, the real test will come against the teams we have to play this week.
With one eye on City, and maybe the other on Arsenal, Sir Alex Ferguson selected a team that would be enough to win, without spoiling our chances for the week ahead.
Edwin Van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand were handing some important playing time together, with the defender making his first appearance since our 2-0 defeat at Anfield in October. Following the defensive mistake at Wastelands, it’s vitally important we have a solid defence for the second leg to ensure we keep City out on the break, with the blues likely to sit back and try and defend their narrow lead. Whilst Hull weren’t too dangerous in front of goal, Rio did the job and will be glad to have 90 minutes under his belt.
We were a bit hit and miss in midfield though, with Paul Scholes and Nani putting in a great performance, whilst Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung failing to have much of an impact. In the first half in particular, Scholesy was pulling the strings for everything, coming in deep to collect the ball, and directing the game. His central midfield partner, Fletch, was hard working but ineffective. Not a bad game, by any means, but there was definitely something missing.
Nani improved as the match went on against Burnley last week and picked it up where he left off this week. He had a really positive impact on the match and had a say in three of the goals.
He won the corner which lead to our first goal, after Scholes played in a great ball to Nani, whose cross was blocked for a corner. Nani played the ball in, Scholes unusually responded to the calls to ‘shoot’ from distance, and his powerful shot was palmed in to the path of Wayne Rooney to make it 1-0.
With less than ten minutes to play, a Nani freekick forced a save from the keeper, before Fletch played in Rooney to smash the ball in to the back of the net. It was hit so sweetly and powerfully that the best any keeper could do would be to have his hand taken off when attempting to save it.
For the third goal, Nani ran at speed down the right wing, beating his man, before playing in a perfect ball to Rooney to claim his hat-trick.
All in all, a great day out for our Portuguese winger, who clearly benefited from being played down the right wing, when usually forced out on to the left. The consequence may have been that Park had a dreadful game on the opposite wing, but that is of little concern, given that Park is nowhere near as effective when on the right as Nani was yesterday. The problem is Antonio Valencia is our first choice for the right wing and is dreadfully one footed, meaning Nani’s future opportunities are likely to be on the left again. But he definitely deserves at least a spot on the bench in the coming week, although if it was down to me, I might even be tempted to start him against City, to give the pace and great crossing we will need to break them down.
The star of the show was of course Rooney though, scoring all four of our goals and working tirelessly all match. It’s not his fitness that we need to think about head of the games this week, rather a healthy mental state. He wants to play every minute of every match, so whilst some may have been hesitant to see him in the starting line-up, there can be no doubt that it was the best decision. He is flying high, scoring more goals by January than any player had by May last season, and will be full of confidence.
Rumours have linked him away to a move to Real Madrid last week but you just can’t see it happening. He has another two years left on his current contract and regardless of the financial difficulties, offering Rooney whatever he wants in extension talks this summer has to be top priority. He’s only 24-years-old and is now finally being given the chance to come in to his own, after playing in Ruud van Nistelrooy then Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow for the early years of his United career.
The financial difficulties can’t be ignored though and the crowd were more than happy to let their feelings be known. Song after song was sung, with us wearing our new green and gold colours in protest, to let the Glazers know exactly what we think of them. Whilst keeping Rooney shouldn’t be a big concern, being able to afford other top talent in the future should be.
Rooney’s strike partner, Michael Owen, probably should have scored, but had a good game for us regardless. He was constantly moving up and down the back line, coming deep just to get a touch of the ball, and looking hungry for action. He does need to be more clinical in front of goal though.
Berbatov came on for Owen with just over 15 minutes to play and set up Rooney for his fourth, killing the ball then flicking it on beautifully to Rooney to finish. In 19 appearances, playing with a knee injury, Berbatov has now scored/assisted 12 goals.
The first half performance was better and once Scholes was replaced by Darron Gibson, we didn’t look as good. Odd then that three quarters of our goals were scored during this time. We shouldn’t ignore that Hull came painfully close once or twice and like I said after the Burnley game, a better team will punish us.
But generally, we’re heading in the right direction, with confidence mounting, particularly since we claimed top spot in the table.
We’re currently two points clear of Arsenal and Chelsea, having played one more game than the Gunners and two more than Chelsea. Fortunately for us, the games they have in hand are against tough opponents who could easily strip them of points.
Arsenal play Villa away, then us at home, then Chelsea away, and then Liverpool at home, before facing Sunderland then Stoke away, the side who just knocked them out of the FA Cup on the same ground.
Chelsea’s fixtures are easier, taking on Birmingham at home before Burnley and Hull away, but then they have to travel to Goodison Park, then play Arsenal at home, before playing City three days after their away trip to Inter Milan.
There’s still 15 games to go and plenty can change, but hopefully United are turning a corner now and our experience can take us through to the end of the season. No English club has ever won the title four years in a row, yet the press claim we are in crisis if we fail to achieve it. We have suffered dreadfully to defensive injuries and haven’t been playing very well for chunks of the season, so we really shouldn’t win the league. But we have scored 19 more goals that the same point last season, our defence is returning, and our recent form is better than Chelsea’s.
This really could be the turning point in our season and if Sir Alex Ferguson’s wins the league with us this season it will go down as one of his greatest ever achievements. But let’s take it one step at a time…
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