Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Fountain of Youth

photo by jaci XIIIvia PhotoRee

It was youth to the fore for United's contest against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford last night, as Sir Alex once again fielded the latest crop of Fergie's Fledglings, handing a coveted starting spot to David De Gea, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverly, Chris Smalling, and Danny Welbeck, among others.  The Red team on the pitch offered a tantalizing glimpse into the future of the home side, as the average age of the Manchester United starting eleven equaled 23 years, representing the second youngest starting lineup in EPL history.

Spurs veteran coach Harry Redknapp countered with a mix of veteran guile (Brad Friedel and Rafa Van Der Vaart)  and youthful exuberance (Gareth Bale and Jake Livermore), but his midfield attack was lacking its chief engineer, with Luka Modric left back in London due to a serious case of the "Not Rights."

As the Old Trafford crowd has no doubt grown accustomed to over the years, the Reds wasted no time in attacking straight out of the gate, with Danny Welbeck just missing a ball that skidded through the box, and Rooney firing just over Nani's head shortly after the whistle blew. The combination was reversed just a minute later, as Nani connected with Rooney's head, but the focal point of the Red's attack was unable to direct it past Spurs 'keeper Friedel, a longstanding member of the United torture squad. Less than five minutes in and the pace was torrid.

Tom Cleverly tested Friedel after a swift move up the pitch involving Ashley Young and Chris Smalling, but Cleverly was denied from just outside the box, with Friedel once again more than up to the task in tipping the ball wide. United looked sharp, daggers drawn in the game's early going, as tackles flew in from every which angle on defense, and Ashley Young and Nani received the ball wide while streaming down the flanks.

Van Der Vaart gave De Gea a welcoming trip to the EPL, wanting in on the new tradition of beating on the Spanish newcomer, as Van Der Vaart's fellow Dutchman -- the man De Gea replaced -- watched from the stands above. At the other end of the pitch, Phil Jones returned the favor to Tottenham winger Gareth Bale, slicing him down as the Spurs' version of the Welsh Wizard -- poorer, hairier, and nowhere near as bedecked with trophies -- steamed goalward, as if signaling the Londoner's intent on playing themselves back into the contest by the twenty minute mark.

The look of the contest was fixed by this time, featuring United's swiftness down the wings against Spurs' desire to slow things down and move the ball through the middle of the park. United looked lively, with Ashley Young heading just wide among other chances, but seemed to lack just that last bit of quality in the final third of the pitch.

The Red's defense looked solid, indeed, as the youthful Evans, Jones and Smalling joined old man Patrice Evra in providing the newboy from Spain with a united front. Phil Jones in particular looked lively, while De Gea did his part, too, displaying little of the indecisiveness that plagued his last two performances, and catching the ball and distributing it with an air of renewed confidence.

Center backs Evans and Dawson traded yellow cards before the break, before another Van Der Vaart long range stinger offered a final first half test of De Gea's prodigious talent. Spurs were clearly the happier of the two sides heading into the locker room, outshooting the home side 4-1 after a rough early start, and United's offense was perhaps most noticeable for the paucity of on-target efforts.

As if trying to rectify that immediately, Ashley Young tested Friedel as the second half got underway, but veteran United watchers knew it was going to take more than a shot straight at the American to beat him.  Spurs looked certain to get on the scoreboard first as Aaron Lennon scalped Patrice Evra and found himself in acres of Old Trafford space, but the Englishman obligingly drilled the ball directly into Evans' chest while politely ignoring a wide open Van Der Vaart to snuff out the threat.

Meanwhile, at the Stretford End, Friedel was trying valiantly to singlehandedly counter Fergie's youth movement, bailing out his defenders twice in quick succession, while denying both Anderson and Rooney.  The Reds amped up the pressure, attacking with a renewed vigor as the match hit the hour mark, and you could all but feel the goal coming when the ball finally hit the back of the net.

The major surpise was where it came from, with Danny Welbeck glancing a Tom Cleverly cross straight into the goal's corner, and the Stretford End quickly rising to its feet to celebrate this newest of top flight combinations. And in a flash as quick as United's transformance, the duck was broken and the game was over

The catalyst was Welbeck. Criticized in the Twitterverse for being a step slow, and having a knack of showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time in the first half, Welbeck rose above the other players on the pitch to turn what had been a contest into a comfortable victory. Although the scoreline stayed edgy for a bit longer, United dominated possession and played like a house afire, capping a period of prolonged pressure and one-touch football with a visionary Welbeck backheel in the box to an Anderson who looked to be in a different zip code from his defenders.  No natural scorer he, even the Portuguese midfielder couldn't miss a left footer from point blank range to double the home side's advantage.

By the time Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park and a newly muscular Javier Hernandez entered the fray, the only question remaining was by how large a margin United would claim victory. Sir Ryan needed only five minutes to pick out an unmarked Wayne Rooney in front of goal, the Englishman scoring for the second time in two games with a perfectly angled header, and Fantasy Footballers around the world breathing a massive sigh of relief.

In the end, United played Spurs off the pitch over the last 45 minutes of action, as the American pre-season of training and conditioning appears to be paying a superior fitness dividend. That the fitness advantage may be doubled by the youthful zest that pervaded the squad Monday night must strike fear into the hearts of many a Premier League side. United continue to be a second half squad, toying with opponents before destroying them as the game wears on.

At Full Time it was Manchester United 3 - Spurs 0, in a contest in which United hit the Fountain of Youth.

This is farlieonfootie for August 23.

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