Thoughts after viewing the Manchester United - Bolton game this morning:
* First off, it can't be avoided: Manchester United needed the win today to pull within a point of Chelsea, and didn't get it. Third straight tie on the road. Very disappointing to be honest. Moreover, I think United were probably fortunate to get the tie. Bolton's front line caused repeated problems for the United defense, which struggled to keep up. Things settled down a bit after Vidic and Evans switched to allow Vida to cover Davies, but they were never able to totally suppress the Bolton attack. Again, very disappointing.
* Thank God for Nani. I never thought I would be typing these words; I have to admit I formerly thought Nani should be traded. I'm feeling pretty good right now that I've been a steadfast supporter of Dimitar Berbatov throughout the past two years, but if I'm being completely honest I've got to own up to my former feelings about Nani. Not that I have them anymore, of course.... I felt, I suppose (to give myself proper cover), like many United supporters: too many wasted chances, the final ball almost always lacking quality, and an aimless sort of drifting through a game with seemingly little focus on what he should be doing or to whom he should be doing it. Also, too many shots that wound up in the 15th row (WAY too many shots that wound up in the 15th row), sailing wildly up and beyond the top of goal. He always looked like he was trying to be the poor man's Ronaldo, playing in the shadow of his older Portuguese compatriot. In the middle of last season things just about boiled over and I thought my former wish was about to come true: Nani criticized SAF publicly, which is a virtual crossing of the Rubicon for United if ever there was one (see Column 4, La Liga The Temptress, regarding Beckham for more on this particular sin). But these are different days. Nani may not be CR7, but that's okay. He's not trying to be anymore. I date Nani's newfound confidence and resurgence to the game at the Emirates last year against Arsenal. His wonder goal that game (I think the "Dubious Goals Committee" eventually awarded the goal to Nani, although at the time it was ruled an OG against Almunia)was the result of fantastic footwork and brilliant creativity. (Quick aside: I love the Brits for proper usage of the English language. No surprise there, in that they invented it! But my guess is that the average American sports fan wouldn't even know what "Dubious" means!). His second flash of brilliance that game came on United's lightning-quick counter attack with Rooney that effectively ended the game.
Flash forward several games (ignore Nani's ill-tempered red card vs. Villa) to the late-season game against Spurs where United desperately needed a win to stay in contention for the title. After giving up a late goal to go behind, who popped up for United but Nani with a cheeky little chip over Gomes that very few players in the League would have the vision or audacity to even try. Nani has carried on from there, fueled by resurgent confidence (see Berbatov, Dimitar) and resulting success, and is now -- especially with Antonio Valencia likely lost for the season -- one of the keys to this season's United attack. Today's game saw Nani play a key role again: a goal and an assist to bring United back twice against Bolton. Thank God for Nani. * Michael Owen is back. I know I said this the other day, but this time I really mean it. The devastating pace may be gone, but the trademark nose for goal is still there. How does the shortest guy on the pitch (playing a Bolton team that is not lacking for height, the one skill in footie that can't be taught!) come off the bench and immediately get his head on Nani's free kick and stick it in the back of the net? Positioning, plain and simple. Michael Owen is an incredibly smart player and always seems to put himself in the right spot. You do that enough times and the ball is going to bounce your way every now and then. It bounces Owen's way a lot, and he still knows what to do with it. * United need Rio Ferdinand to get well soon. I love Jonny Evans but to me the United back line is missing the touch of confidence that Ferdinand brings to it. We haven't seen the big guy much lately (although we've heard him a lot via his Twitter feed @rioferdy5) but I keep hoping his consistent return to the United roster is right around the corner. He and Vida form arguably the best defensive partnership in Europe, but they haven't played much together over the last season and a half, and United have been much the worse for it. * Sir Alex has chutzpah. Very few managers in the game would have had the temerity to substitute Rooney and Giggs and bring on Macheda and Owen. Yes, I know he has the luxury of a deep bench, but on the road, 2-1 down, the guy throws the midfield out the window and adds offense. Kind of a "Damn-the-Torpedoes-Full-Speed-Ahead" move. Didn't pay off with a win, but it didn't backfire, either, and let's hope maybe the point earned will prove important later in the season.
Still, the road ties problem is bothering me. Not sure what it means yet, but hoping it sorts itself out sooner rather than later. And that's farlieonfootie for september 26.