Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sleepwalking Into the New Year

This Guy Looks More Awake Than Several United Players Did on Saturday

photo by istolethetvvia PhotoRee

So, that was an easy three points, as Manchester United leave the Hawthornes with West Brom done and dusted, clutching their 2-1 victory as tightly as a hobo hanging onto a ham sandwich. What looked on paper to be a tough road trip turned out to be that and more, despite United taking the lead just two minutes after the opening whistle. Nevertheless, a win is still a win, especially when it comes from a game not played at Old Trafford this season.

The match opened with a bang for the Red Devils, with Wayne Rooney ending a shocking nine month drought to finally score from open play. Picked out by Patrice Evra's long arching cross, Rooney gently nodded the ball down, and willed it with all his might to finish its journey resting in the netting behind West Brom 'keeper Scott Carson. With their one-time talisman off the mark so quickly, it looked to be only a matter of time before United extended the lead and secured a precious away win. But a funny thing happened on the way to the three points: United were decidedly second best for large portions of the match, fortunate to end the game with 11 men on the pitch, and were a Peter Odemwingie penalty miss away from dropping more points on the road.

Seeming to believe that the early lead supplied by Rooney was enough to cow the opposition into submission, United almost immediately took their foot off the gas pedal and let West Brom take the action to them. The Red Devils were fortunate only to be equalized in a 45 minute performance in which they appeared to be shaking off the cobwebs from a late and rowdy New Year's Eve. Gary Neville -- making only his second performance of the year -- was perhaps most fortunate of all, hauling down Graham Dorrans in the box on a play in which he was badly beaten, and somehow managing to escape not only a penalty kick but what should have likely been a red card  Although that was the most obvious example, GNev spent large portions of the 60 + minutes he played looking like a statue, and it may finally be time for the long-time servant of the club to hang up his boots and begin to work on his coaching certification.

Compounding the matter of the slow defending was another lightweight performance by the United midfield, with only Anderson seeming to turn up, and not offering one of his best games at that. Darren Fletcher looks to have been replaced this season by a look alike, less-talented player, and Michael Carrick's seeming turnaround of a few weeks ago has once again gone missing. Rounding out an off day for the midfield was a not very confident performance by french winger Gabby Obertan, who repeatedly gave away posssession or sent passes skittering away from their intended target. United suffered from the lack of a true wide game all day, and here's hoping that South Korea get knocked out of the Asian World Cup as quickly as possible because it would be very nice indeed to have the in-form Ji-Sung Park plying his trade until Nani and Valencia overcome their injuries and make their way back into the lineup.

With Berbatov largely ineffective, United lacked for creativity, and their offensive output proved nil for much of the match. It was only after a shocking penalty miss by Peter Odemwingie that the men in red seemed to become galvanized, realizing they'd been let off the hook, and that the three points were there for the taking. Relying on -- who else? -- Chicharito off the bench to provide the winning margin has become a bit of a cliche this season, but it's a cliche that this writer in particular will never tire of seeing.  It's also one that begs the question of how the Little Pea got buried so deep on the bench that he hadn't appeared recently, because he moved more in 20 minutes than most of the men in red did all day. Regardless, Chicharito's unmarked header -- you'd think teams would have learned that the guy is a world-class leaper by now -- gave United a 2-1 lead late in the game that they never relinquished.

Not that the three points looked entirely secure for the final twelve minutes, and for me that may be the strangest thing of all about the Red Devils this season. Rather than looking to stretch a 2-1 lead into a 3-1 final score, United held on for dear life, sitting back and inviting the deflated opposition to once again take the game to them, and offering the Baggies chance after chance to equalize the score. There seem to be considerably less torrid streaks this year, where you can feel the goal coming, and United dominate possession. Maybe I'm mistaken, but in prior year's I remember game after game ending with the opposition held up in their own end as United ruthlessly passed the ball around to spot the opening that eventually appeared. This year's version looks scared of winning in a way we haven't see before. I'll chalk it up to the loose play in midfield, and hope in the absence of Owen Hargreave's purported return that we buy in January or this summer an offensive playmaker who will eventually fill at least some part of Paul Schole's estimable boots.

I'd be remiss in signing off without mentioning Wayne Rooney's brave performance at the end of the match, returning to the pitch rather than leaving the team shorthanded, despite obvious discomfort related to an ankle injury. United fans will be waiting with baited breath to see if this striker's version of his achilles heel will be merely a footnote to the game, or a prelude of more bad times to come. Let's hope it's the former, and that the goals keep coming.

This is farlieonfootie for January 3.

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