Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Stroll in the Park

photo by antonius_incognitusvia PhotoRee

Where else can we begin but with pre-game news that Owen Hargreaves, United's lost boy, is gaining his first Premier League start in over two years today. Seen only once in a United kit (and that only fleetingly) since September 2008, Hargreaves was formerly one of the world's most skilled holding midfielders, but has faced a series of knee operations and extended rehabilitation that have made him the forgotten man of this Red Devils squad. It's a somewhat shocking announcement that he'll start today, and like United fans worldwide, I'm holding my breath today to see how Hargreaves looks on the pitch.

United begin the game in a 4-4-1-1 formation today, opting for Chicharito up front by himself, with Obertan tucking in just behind. Berbatov is left off even the bench today, apparently under the weather. Sickness has ravaged the United roster for today's game, with several Red Devils, including the famed Gaffer himself, feeling the effects. 

Five minutes in, and the news is not good.  It's a hushed Old Trafford crowd that witnesses yet another setback for Hargreaves, as he limps off the field with what looks like a pulled left hamstring, unable to continue.  It's a sad and especially early ending to the much anticipated outing, and Fergie's bold roll of the dice has turned up snake eyes.  

It's Bebe on in relief, and there's no better indication of the injury and illness troubles that have beset Old Trafford this year than United's attack being led by three youngsters: Chicharito, Obertan and Bebe. In a semi-comical side note, Rafael is brought off the bench to act as interpreter, translating for Bebe what the coaches want him to do.

Wolves clearly feel emboldened by the undermanned squad they're facing, and it's likely more important than usual for the Red Devils to gain the first goal. Early on and it's Park Ji-Sung shooting most often for United, and he'll need to play a big part if the Red Devils are to enjoy success this afternoon.  The Korean is all over the pitch in the match's early moments, although initially at least it's his final touch that is lacking.

The match skitters back and forth with no real rhythm, or even threatening attempts on goal, but it does showcase a Bebe attempt at setting the unofficial record for most overhit cross of the year, missing his compatriots in the box by only a mere 35 yards or so.  Obertan is profligate, too, as he misses picking out a wide open Chicharito in the game's 24th minute, preferring to take a poor shot rather than pass the ball to his unmarked teammate. It's United's first real attack of the day, and ends frustratingly with Chicharito left alone watching the ball sail well wide of goal.

Wolves give as good as they get, and the players on the pitch could easily switch shirts with no difference in quality being observed.  United trip over themselves and give the ball away easily, looking impotent and wasteful before the break.  Let's not forget this is Wolves we're talking about, second bottom in the league, and hardly considered a stern test, especially away at Old Trafford.

Near its end, the first 45 minutes of football at Old Trafford today is easily looking like the worst half of the season to date.  It's also notable for the bewilderingly poor quality of Bebe's crosses. The portuguese winger, who has looked decent in his prior brief outings, looks completely raw and out of his depth today, like a schoolboy plucked directly out of the stands and thrust suddenly onto the pitch with his heroes.

Shortly before stoppage time is whistled, though, it's Darren Fletcher dribbling through Wolves' defense and picking out an open Park Ji-Sung in front of goal, the Korean cooly slotting home to provide United with an undeserved 1-nil lead, and the crowd with something to cheer about after 45 minutes of pure drudgery.

It's a more assured United that opens the second half, with the Red Devils slotting back into a 4-5-1 formation to better match their opponent. Few opportunities result, though, as Bebe's poor crossing remains a constant, as does the apparent lack of understanding between the United players, many of whom appear to be on completely different wavelengths.  United also suffer from a lack of width in their play, as the inability to get a reasonable ball in from the wings forces more of the attacking play to come through a well-clogged middle.

United are rightfully punished for their lack of any real offensive threat in the 65th minute, as Fletcher stumbles and loses possession; rather than getting up and getting on, though, Fletch proceeds to take a brief nap on the pitch, seemingly enjoying a dream about how the ball was just taken from him, and jogs back just in time to see the tail end of a Wolves' counter-attack finish with a Eubanks-Blake ball between Van der Sar's legs and in the back of the Manchester United net.  

One goal didn't look likely to see out the game today, and based on their sub-par performance to this point in the match, United will need a real bolt out of the blue to win it in the last 20 minutes.  Scholes and Macheda are introduced for O'Shea and Bebe, with the substitute being substituted as Sir Alex rolls the dice one last time on a day in which nothing so far has paid off. 

Hernandez goes into the book for simulation in the 83rd minute on the end of a long ball from Scholes, and sadly it looks the closest opportunity United have had in the second half as the seconds continue to tick cruelly away.  Looking poised to give up even more ground to Chelsea, United are deep into "Fergie Time" when an individual moment of brilliance changes the outcome as well as the mood inside Old Trafford.

It's into the 94th minute of play when the game is brilliantly won by the Korean maestro, as Park Ji-Sung beats four Wolves defenders as well as goalkeeper Hahneman on the near post to give United the 2-1 win. Easily the Red Devils' best player on the day, Park glides silkily through Wolves' defense, singlehandedly cutting them apart and leading reporters all over the world to hit delete and begin their storylines again.  It's Park to the rescue, and United with the slimmest of victories to keep the title chase hopes alive.

Game Day Beer Review: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2010 (6.80%ABV).  A fitting choice on the day, Celebration Ale pours a warm amber color with a huge, yeasty white head that leaves behind significant amounts of lacing.  The initial smell is mild, but offers a glimpse of what becomes more readily apparent on the taste: all malty pine and subtle west coast hops.  This beer is incredibly well balanced, not overly bitter like many IPAs, and is a virtuoso performance by one of America's leading independent breweries.  It should be Christmas all year round with this beer -- highly recommended for celebrating Red Devils' victories and pretty much anything else you might think of: A.

I'm celebrating -- how about you?  This is farlieonfootie for November 7.

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