|photo by wwarby||via PhotoRee|
Old Trafford / Manchester, England / March 19
The Reds take the pitch once more this afternoon with a back four that isn't first choice by any stretch of the imagination, but with hope that their attacking lineup will create more opportunities than the visitors from just up the road in Bolton. Today marks the first start in ages for both Nani and Valencia on the wings -- forcing Ryan Giggs into the middle of the pitch -- and once again Sir Alex looks to the in-form pairing of Rooney and Chicharito to provide the offense.
Despite the Gaffer's intent, it's Bolton with the game's first real opportunity, and when Elmander lays a ball off in the box United are fortunate that Fabrice Muamba's resulting shot is rushed and poor when the ball gets stuck in this feet. It's not the most confident of beginnings for the makeshift back four -- composed today of Brown, Smalling, Evans and Evra -- and Sir Alex must be crossing both fingers and toes that the patchwork defense will hold together for the full 90 minutes.
The teams trade wild shots in an active opening, with Rooney coming closest for the home side. There's a shout from Chicharito for a handball on Bolton defender Gary Cahill, but referee Andre Marriner wants none of it. The call could have gone either way, in my opinion, but Chicharito looks peeved while flashing a hint of frustration, an emotion which has rarely been seen from the Little Pea.
Both squads look slightly disjointed in the early going, but Bolton appears the more lively of the two, with Davies and Elmander in particular causing problems at the back. Sir Alex phones down to René Meulensteen on the bench to pass along some words of wisdom, and his advice almost pays a quick dividend: Nani and Hernandez combine on a quick one-two in front of goal before Jussi Jaaskelainen comes to the rescue to keep the scoreline knotted.
United experience some shaky moments at the back -- with Johnny Evans almost passing Bolton in on goal -- before the worry passes again, and Rooney is kept out at the other end on a spectacular side-footed volley, with Bolton's Finnish 'keeper fortunate that the ball is struck squarely at him. Bolton continue to pile on the pressure but Sturridge and Elmander both squander opportunities in front of goal for the visitors.
United are worryingly sloppy in possession this afternoon, repeatedly giving the ball away at both ends of the pitch, and the team can't seem to find a way out of second gear. Ryan Giggs is having a relatively anonymous day in midfield, and the entire team -- save Rooney -- is struggling to create any clearcut opportunities. In truth, both wingers look slightly off the pace, and Chicharito -- despite making one or two nice runs -- has rarely threatened to this point in the match.
Near the 30 minute mark, though, it's Valencia, Rooney and Chicharito conspiring to create the home side's best chance to date, but the young Mexican is just wide on the final effort. Rooney is playing with a confidence that seems to be lacking in most of his teammates today, and when he blows a dart straight over the bar five minutes before the interval he's got to be disappointed with the wayward effort.
Fabio and Berbatov enter the game for Brown and Hernandez to begin the second half, and it's a great opportunity for the enigmatic Bulgarian to show the Gaffer what the team's been lacking. United look lively to begin the second period, and although they ratchet up the pressure about 10 minutes in, they ultimately fail to create much in the way of real chances. To be fair, the Bolton defense has settled in and weathers the storm extremely well, and Cahill in particular may be auditioning for his future. If there's any truth to the rumors, the Englishman appears to be passing the test with flying colors, and both he and his partner in Bolton's central defense, David Wheater, throw their bodies around the pitch and frustrate effort after effort from the Reds.
The home crowd -- relatively quiet to this point in the match -- comes to life as United attempt to turn up the heat even more. As news of a two-goal West Brom lead over Arsenal filters through Old Trafford, the stands buzz with excitement, but the Reds still continue to struggle even if they do show greater intent than the visitors. With twenty minutes left the mood turns increasingly tight, and the crowd -- at Old Trafford, as well as on Twitter -- beseeches the home side to find a way, any way, to win. With less than fifteen minutes left on the clock, though, it just doesn't seem to be happening.
The news goes from bad to worse as Johnny Evans is late to a tackle on Amercian Stu Holden, charging into the ball with his studs showing, and it's a straight red from referee Marriner. To be fair, it's the right call, and although the tackle is not malicious it is ill-timed. United are down to 10 men for the final twelve minutes, and Carrick is forced to slot back to center half. The clock ticks cruelly down as Arsenal score once, and then even more agonizingly equalize with West Brom, and it looks as if the opportunity to put some further distance on the Gunners will go for naught.
It's just when all seems to have gone to hell in a handbasket that a moment of brilliance comes to the fore: in the space of approximately two minutes, Nani shoots repeatedly and on target at the Bolton goal, as if trying to will the home side to victory. With less than two minutes left in regular time, the Portuguese winger cuts in once more from right to left and his bouncing laser is spilled by Jaaskelainen. Berbatov is quickest to react, and although the Bulgarian's rebound is partially blocked by the Finn, the ball's momentum carries it lazily into the net as Old Trafford explodes in a cataclysm of noise.
It's a timely goal, and the kind of thing the crowds at Old Trafford have become accustomed to but never tired of seeing. The goal propels United to a hard-fought 1-nil victory over Bolton, and the three points gained on the afternoon could prove crucial at the end of the season. The team does this type of Houdini escape act too often for it to be "luck," and it dawns on me at this point that Manchester United is more than just a team -- it's a mindset, a way of never giving in until the final whistle, even when the odds seem stacked against the club.
Sir Alex mentions as much in his post-match remarks, stating: "It’s the character of this club. It’s a fantastic character. No other club in the country’s got that. We are fantastic when it comes to gritting our teeth and getting something out of a dead situation. We did it again today and full marks to them."
I can't say it any better than that, so I won't even try. This is farlieonfootie for March 20.
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