|photo by chefranden||via PhotoRee|
Two minutes in and a massive defensive blunder greets both a capacity-filled Old Trafford and surprised Southampton striker Jay Rodriguez. The shaky United defense, including the infamously flappy version of David De Gea, rears its ugly head once again, as Michael Carrick offers a backpass with all the conviction of a French General ordering his troops into battle, and the United 'keeper reacts to the mistake by appearing hoppier than a West Coast IPA. Rodriguez is quick to roll home the easy tap in to give his side a shock early lead, and although the game is only three minutes old, it's already time to ask the inevitable question: is the home side's leaky start an aberration, or a sign of things to come....?
Luckily, the evening's clash is against Southampton. Within six minutes, the Reds are level, after Wayne Rooney is put in by Shinji Kagawa and finds himself with only 'keeper Artur Boruc to beat, calmly dispatching the ball into the back of the net to even the scoreline. Less than two minutes later and the home side is nearly in front, as Rooney returns the favor by laying a delightful ball off for Kagawa, but the Japanese international is slightly off the mark and bangs the ball against the frame.
Close calls become the momentary theme of the evening, as Robin Van Persie adds his name to those who are only inches away when the Dutchman's swerving shot is deflected just over the Southampton net. Momentary is the operative word, however, as the two teams are soon separated once again: Patrice Evra offers a brilliant diving header to meet Van Persie's free kick, and it's Wazza with an easy tap in for his and the team's second goal of the evening. The Reds continue to have their way, as their fancy passing and quick ball movement repeatedly unlocks the visitors, while Southampton remain eager to go forward and look threatening on their intermittent opportunities against an uncertain United back line.
Southampton's new Argentinian manager, Mauricio Pochettino, offers a double change to begin the second half and orders his players to press the ball further up the pitch. The moves appear to energize the visitors, who are applying considerable pressure on the United goal by time the contest hits the hour mark and dominating second half possession by just under 2:1.
Sir Alex responds to the momentum reversal by pulling Chris Smalling off for old hand Rio Ferdinand and shortly thereafter, Rafael comes in for Anderson, with Phil Jones moving to midfield. When neither move does much to alter the course of the contest, Nani is sent to replace a fading Kagawa.
The Portuguese winger has an almost immediate impact, but somehow Van Persie is denied by a brilliant hand save from Boruc. Although the United striker does find the back of the net seconds later, he's ruled offside in a very tight call. The Reds are almost left to rue the decision, as De Gea is forced into making a brilliant save off Ricky Lambert's free kick at the other end to narrowly preserve the home side's advantage. Boruc is not done yet, and comes up big once again by denying Rooney in a one on one with just under ten minutes left in regulation, and United are once again unable to put the three points safely in the bag.
As if determined to make their home fans squirm out the final minutes, United are too kind to the visitors, turning the ball over time and again. Vidic is forced into a death defying block to stop Lambert from equalizing with five minutes left, as the home side seek only to hang on rather than claim a third goal. Rodriguez can't quite find the key to unlock De Gea's goal in stoppage time as Sir Alex nervously checks his watch, and in the end the home side does just enough to claim victory and restore their seven point lead atop the table. This wasn't about stamping authority on a contest, as many had predicted pre-game. Rather, this one was about hanging on, by a thread.
This is farlieonfootie for January 31.