Another game, another lackadaisical opening 60 minutes of football. The end result? Another win for United in a season full of games strikingly similar to the the FA Cup tie vs. Southampton played earlier this afternoon. Ryan Giggs and Nani's introduction near the hour mark changed the game in favor of the Reds, and Michael Owen and Chicharito did the damage in a 2-1 game that was even more uncomfortable than the scoreline suggests.
Sir Alex sent out a mix of veteran and youngish talent to take on the Saints at St. Mary's Stadium, in a side that included United new boy Anders Lindegaard between the sticks, and the initial results from the team were not pleasing. For the better part of an hour, United looked dull, listless, plodding, and totally lacking anything approaching a cutting edge -- looking closer to a spoon than a knife -- and lacked quality and accuracy on their passing (I would add to that "shooting," but there was such a paucity of offense during the first hour that to use the word would stretch the definition beyond an appropriate level).
Southampton, on the other hand, seemed inspired by Blackpool's first half on Tuesday, and played aggressive, attacking football throughout the opening half, showing an assurance that belied their current First Division standing. When they scored just before the stroke of halftime, the goal coming as Richard Chaplow sliced through the United back line like a hot knife through butter, it was nothing less than a deserved reward for their valiant effort, and the Saints were good value for their lead into the early portion of the second half.
United were hampered by a lack of width and pace on offense, with several men playing positions in which they didn't appear comfortable. Michael Owen played the first half as a deep lying midfielder, dropping way back to get the ball at times as Gabby Obertan partnered Chicharito up front. With Gibbo, Anderson and Scholes manning the rest of the midfield, the end result was as disjointed as it sounds. Lacking accuracy and urgency, balls skittered to and fro, bouncing off United player after United player, as the Reds were unable to create any real offensive opportunities (Michael Owen's post job aside) and the midfield looked as if they did not understand the concept of linking up with the players further up the pitch.
All this changed with the introduction of Giggs and Nani near the hour mark, joining Wes Brown who had come on for Fabio at halftime. It's a somewhat damning indictment of Gibson's and Anderson's performances in the match that Sir Alex's changes made an immediate impact on the game. From nothing, United's offense suddenly had width and pace, and the tide of the match began to slowly but inevitably turn in the Reds' favor. For the second time inside five days, Ryan Giggs played a blinder, inspiring his teammates to turn up the pressure on a Southampton side that turned back into a pumpkin inside the final 30 minutes.
Michael Owen was man of the match for this particular viewer, leveling the score near the 70 minute mark with his cool header, before contributing a key steal and pass in the Southampton end that started the play leading to the winner. Despite losing a good deal of his pace, the diminutive Englishman still has plenty of wile left, an intuitive sense for being in the right position at the right time, and is still able to consistently find the back of the net, and all of his mesmerizing skills were on full display today.
Once the Southampton goal was breached for the first time, the second goal was only a matter of when, not if, and there was little suspense as to who would score it. Once again, it was Chicharito netting the game's winner, scoring yet another crazy goal in a season that is quickly filling up with them. Slotted through by a masterful pass from the Welsh Wizard, young Hernandez kept his cool as he fell to the ground, steering the ball just past the helpless Southampton 'keeper for the lead and the match. The praise keeps on adding up for the deadly Mexican, and Wayne Rooney should be taking copious notes from the bench to see how its done.
United march on, 2-1, over a Southampton side that not only showed up, but played their hearts out. I have a few minor complaints with the effort from the boys in Red, but nothing overly damning: (i) I thought the defense lacked leadership with Lindegaard, Evans and Smalling up the middle; (ii) there's no denying both Gibbo and Anderson were poor (worryingly, Anderson's performance level seems to have fallen off at roughly the same time he signed his contract extension); (iii) the formation used -- combined with playing personnel not used to being on the pitch at the same time -- created a stuttering, mistake-prone first hour; and (iv) the team's initial effort was uninspired and flat, necessitating the introduction of two players (Giggs and Nani) I would have preferred to see rested.
Other than that, though, it's hard to complain with a win, and I'll take another one, especially in an away game, as United move into the FA Cup's 5th round.