|Photo by Frankenstoen on Flickr|
There were plenty of spare seats at Old Trafford last night for the visit of Crystal Palace in the League Cup quarterfinals, and it's a good thing: previously winless in their last five outings, Palace shocked the footballing world by winning the match 2-1, leaving the home-supporting witnesses stunned and disappointed, and joining Manchester City as the only other side to have emerged from a trip to the Lion's Den with a win in the last 18 months.
Although it was a younger United squad fielded by Sir Alex, there were also several notable senior squad players on the pitch for the loss, including Dimitar Berbatov for a languid first half, as well as Jonny Evans -- captaining the team in his 100th outing -- Park Ji-Sung, Antonio Valencia, and Chris Smalling. Strangely, the team also included a man United was unable to give away earlier in the year, Darren Gibson.
The snoozefest that was the first half was notable mostly for the absolute dearth of chances created by the home side, as well as Fabio lasting about 30 minutes less than he usually does, being forced off the pitch by a hamstring issue at the 36 minute mark. United's offense looked lazy and disjointed throughout, like a team of pick up players who only met each other several minutes before the match got underway.
Valencia pushed agonizingly wide to open the second half, which saw the Reds on the front foot for much of the early action. Somewhat ominously, though, Rafael bookended his brother's injury at the 63 minute mark, and it was at this point that the match changed: substitute Darren Ambrose's 65th minute long-range screamer left Ben Amos with absolutely no chance, and handed a shock 1-nil lead to the visitors. To their credit, United responded to the provocation almost immediately, with Kiko Macheda being hauled down in the box by Palace Captain Paddy McCarthy, before coolly leveling the score at 1 from the spot. With neither side capable of finding a winner in regulation, the fans were gifted another 30 minutes of action, as the game went into extra time.
With both sides having exhausted their substitutions -- United replacing Berbatov (ankle) and the Da Silva twins (popped bubble wrap) -- it was left to the same players on the pitch at the end of regulation to settle the affair. It was Ambrose again who handed the advantage to his side -- steering in a free kick to the head of Glenn Murray, who somehow managed to escape Captain Evans before thumping the ball in the back of the net. Both Gibson and Macheda were wide of the mark in their almost immediate efforts to respond, as Palace clung tenaciously to their lead. When the Reds were unable to find a way past the Palace 'keeper to send the contest to penalties, though, their Cup run was disappointingly over. The sparse crowd of home fans were left with the sight of the visitors celebrating their famous victory, as they streamed out of the stadium no doubt wondering how it had all come to this.
Somewhat more worryingly, the game continued a patchy run of form at home, the previously unassailable Fortress Trafford. Having not lost at home all of last season (and only drawing once) the match marked the second loss at home for United this young season, added to a salvaged draw against FC Basel in the Champions League, and the more recent draw with Newcastle this past weekend. Whereas last season's League Cup exit could perhaps be excused by the weather (snow) and a player (Jonathan Spector) having a career night, this season's finale can not be explained away nearly so easily -- at home against a Championship side that had not scored in over 500 minutes of action prior to last night, one would expect United to win -- even when fielding a side replete with players from the reserve squad.
Rafael and Fabio's recurring injuries are beginning to make them a bit of a liability for the team. Neither brother can be counted on for a full 90 minutes of action, and when either player's name is placed into the starting lineup, it virtually guarantees that one of the team's three substitutions will be used for defensive purposes at some point in the game -- far from an ideal situation.
It's a situation that needs to be rectified -- whether through better training or bringing in fresh defensive talent. Perhaps the Brazilians should take a cue from he team's legendary elder statesman, Ryan Giggs, and try yoga. It certainly couldn't hurt them to be more flexible.
This is Farlieonfootie for December 1.