|photo by Josep Ma. Rosell||via PhotoRee|
January 4 / Old Trafford / Manchester, England
The EPL's worst unbeaten team was back in action again Tuesday night, extending their streak with an uneasy 2-1 victory over a determined Stoke City side. I speak in jest, of course, as I'm growing tired of the chorus of United haters who refuse to recognize the remarkably resilient nature of this year's Red Devil squad. This year's United almost never make things easy, but they always do enough to get a result, and have shown throughout a gritty fighting quality to overcome whatever obstacles may come their way.
The height and physicality of Stoke's team -- back to front -- have caused multiple problems for other teams in the League this year, but not so United. I thought Chris Smalling showed a maturity beyond his years tonight, exhibiting a calming and controlled presence throughout the game. The more I see him, the more readily I begin to accept the comparisons to the man whose boots he was ably filling, Rio Ferdinand. The Smalling I saw this evening was a far more composed version than the raw product I saw in the pre-season and some earlier League Cup games.
Another standout for me on the defensive side of the ball was Rafael.
To put it simply, this kid can flat out play. And not just defense. He provides a balancing menace to Patrice Evra's offensive rampages on the left side of the pitch and makes United ambidextrous in its overlapping runs and fullback crosses into the box.
I thought the midfield (ex-Nani, to whom I'll devote some effusive praise shortly) had an off night -- once again. Fletcher looks as if he's caught Michael Carrick-disease: one side-to-side pass after another, never looking dangerous or the least bit creative in the way he did last season. Gibson looked lively early, missing a couple of trademark long-range blasts, but then faded into an ever-deepening obscurity as the match ran on. And Giggs? It's hard to be critical of a legend, but let's just say that tonight wasn't his night: I counted at least 5 or 6 possessions where Sir Ryan wastefully returned the ball to Stoke.
But Nani was a relevation -- again. His assist to Chicharito was spot on, weighted perfectly, and his goal.... Suffice it to say that defenders have been warned, but Stoke seemed not to have received the message. Back off Nani anywhere near the box at your own peril. Even if it's just a half yard, he will find a way to beat you. Left footed or right footed. Doesn't appear to matter much.
And speaking of two-footed assassins, how can you not love the Little Pea? Another game, another goal, and the one tonight showing real imagination, and the skill to match. Backfooting it throught a sliding Ryan Shawcross is not for the faint of heart; don't try that one at home kids.
Chicharito is virtually unstoppable right now, a real offensive force to be reckoned with. It's got to be an increasingly difficult dilemna for Sir Alex to deal with (but if anyone knows how to deal with it, the Scot does. Can you imagine Mancini keeping his "massive" stars as happy as SAF manages to keep his?): Do you keep the kid on the bench and play Rooney (when he's healthy) and Berbatov (the League's leading scorer), saving Hernandez for the "super sub," Ole Gunnar Solskjaer situations? Does he continue to follow this policy -- easing him into the league -- or does he finally let him free and see his promise fully realized? The Little Pea now has 9 goals in all competitions this season, with many of them coming off the bench.
So let's give a tip of the hat where it's due: United are still unbeaten, five points clear at the top of the league, and did just enough -- once again -- to end up on the winning side of the score. Well done, boys.
Game Day Beer Review: Brouwerij Alken-Maes Grimbergen Blonde Abbey Pale Ale (6.70%ABV) Pours a crystal clear honey-like color with a thin head that quickly fades. The smell is dominated by belgian candy. Grimbergen Blonde's taste is sweet and redolent of apples, pears and bready citrus. For my tastebuds, it's a bit thin and overcarbonated. It finishes clean, but keep moving along, there's nothing special here; kinda like Stoke City: B.