Sunday, April 3, 2011

Popping Bubbles

photo by Jeff Kubinavia PhotoRee

Sir Alex trots out a conservative lineup today, planned with one eye firmly on United's mid-week Champions League match against Chelsea. It's a 4-5-1 with Rooney sitting alone up top, and supported by a crowded midfield that includes Giggs, Gibson, Carrick, Valencia and -- for the first time in three months -- Park Ji-Sung.  Nemenja Vidic comes back to Captain the side and marshall the defense, and he's surrounded by Evra, Smalling and Fabio and the Pole in Goal, Tomas Kuszczak.

I'm nervous pre-match, but it's nothing compared to what my friend Paul is thinking: "Nervous?  You don't know about nervous.  Nervous is worrying about having to play against Scunthorpe and Doncaster next season!". Well said, Paul.

United are first to test the 'keeper, with Chris Smalling directing an early corner at Robert Green, but the English national team's backup is more than equal to the task. It's a scrappy start for both teams, with few real chances created in the first 10 minutes.

The mood quickly changes, and not for the better: it's horrific defending from Patrice Evra, and it's a magical long ball from Thomas Hitzlsperger that leads to the game's first goal.  Carlton Cole is shocked to find himself through on goal from the German's long hoof down the pitch, and when the subsequent ball bounces awkwardly against Evra's upraised hand, Lee Mason has no choice but to point to the spot. When Mark Noble tucks the resulting penalty away, it's 1-nil to the home side and the Boleyn Ground grows ever more boisterous.
As play resumes, Antonio Valencia resumes his regular torturing of Wayne Bridge, and when the goals come today for United today it looks as if the build up will begin on the right-hand side. United turn up the heat to play their way back in the contest, and to be honest, look kinda-sorta dangerous on the road for the first time in ages.

Despite the dominance, Less Mason is soon pointing to the spot once again, albeit this time in error, as Nemanja Vidic stupidly fells Carlton Cole just outside the box. It doesn't matter, though, as Mason is biased against United -- you read it here first  -- and Noble slots the penalty home, this time beating Kuszczak high on the opposite side from his last penalty. 

United have dominated the game's posession and corners to this point in the match, but are still on the short end of a 2-nil scoreline. It's surprising to be sure, but not shocking given the harebrained plays by United's senior defenders. When Robert Green saves Park Ji-Sung from a wide open chance in the box, it's a terribly wasted opportunity, as Park puts the ball in the only spot Green could have defended.  It's frustrating to be sure, but United are only one shot away at this point from being back in a match in which they've more than held their own. In a repeat of the day's events, though -- is it Groundhog Day today? -- Nemanja Vidic needs to drag down Demba Ba to deny another one-off goal scoring opportunity, and United are fortunate to haul themselves to the locker room on the short-end of a 2-nil scoreline.

Chicharito enters the game to replace Evra-- Fergie swapping offense for defense -- to begin the second half, with Giggs' slotting back to left fullback. No sooner has Chicharito entered the fray than the young Mexican has an immmediate chance, but is unable to keep his difficult side-footed effort down.

United pen the Hammers in and are still looking likely to claw at least a goal back, but ten minutes into the second half and the scoreline remains the same.  It's Chris Smalling with another chance -- that's at least three today for the central defender-- but the effort ultimately comes to the same as United's score: naught.  It's Berbatov on for Nani at the 64 minute mark as Sir Alex attempts to lift the offensive quality just a bit more.

Rooney starts the fight back with a stunning free kick, and with 35 minutes left United are well and truly back in the game. It's a magical curler around the wall by Rooney, Thomas Hitzlsperger attempting ridiculously to knock the kick down with his foot, and the clock sounds suspiciously as if it's striking midnight on West Ham's magical ballroom dance.  The home side begins to show the strain as Frederic Piquionne replaces Carlton Cole, but it's a sign of Avram Grant's intent to avoid the drop that he's put on a fresh striker rather than a defender.

Berbatov nearly equalizes on a skillful stroll down the end line, and once again the question must be asked: with quality like this, how can he be kept sitting on the bench?  His presence had brought an immediate calm to the visitors, and West Ham fans begin to fear the worst ("I'm shaking and I want to throw up," texts a certain Hammers fan I know).  Rooney equalizes in the 74th minute, displaying a goal scorer's touch on the end of a Valencia cross, putting the ball past Robert Green and sending the home fans into a stunned silence.

The away side smells blood, and it's a quick succession of chances for Berbatov, Chicharito and Rooney. The air seems to have popped from West Ham's bubble, and now the only question in the visiting stands is how large the final margin will be. When Fabio displays a winger's touch with a great run toward the end line and hurdles over Matthew Upson, Lee Mason points to the spot when the Brazilian's cross deflects off the West Ham defender's arm.  Once again, it's Rooney to the spot, and when his beautifully taken penalty settles into the back of the net, it's a hat trick for the Englishman and a 3-2 lead for the Reds.

When Berbatov and Chicharito are passed in to create a two-on-one situation, it should be 4-2 for the good guys, but Berbatov opts to try and pass the little Mexican through and the resulting ball is intercepted.  Giggs slots the ball to Hernandez a few minutes later, though, and this time the pass makes it all the way to Chicharito, nutmegging the hapless Upson in the process, and Hernandez has a sliding tap in for the 4-2 lead.

United toy with the Hammers to kill the game off, Berbatov pulling the ball back and forth as if on a string, singlehandedly holding off the West Ham defense.  The West Ham fans flee the stadium, unable to witness the final carnage, and Sir Alex's men have made quite a statement to Arsenal and Chelsea: Catch Us if You Can.

This is farlieonfootie for April 3.

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