Monday, February 27, 2012

Respect Your Elders: Manchester United 2 - Norwich City 1

photo by ssoosayvia PhotoRee

Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverly are Manchester United's most keenly felt pre-game absentees versus Norwich City, on a mild and sunny Sunday in eastern England. The former is still struggling with a throat infection, while the latter picked up a knock on his "good" ankle against Ajax, meaning both should be back in the none-too-distant future. It's a key game for the Reds, who need a victory to keep pace with Manchester City, whose emphatic 3-nil win over Blackburn on Saturday moved the League leaders five points clear at the top.

Ryan Giggs appears for the 900th time in a Premier League contest, and he's joined in the midfield by the Barclay's Premier League Player of the month, Paul Scholes, as well as Michael Carrick and Luis Nani. Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra man the ramparts in front of David De Gea, while Chicharito and Danny Welbeck are both preferred to Dimitar Berbatov up front. Without further ado, it's off to Carrow Road for our match commentary:

It's De Gea off his line in the early going to grab a high cross, and the visitors will hope that his early commanding presence is a sign of things to come. Nani's length-of-the-pitch run almost pays off at the other end, but Norwich's Zach Whitbread intervenes at a critical juncture to hoof the ball out of bounds.  It's Giggs who nearly makes headlines as the Champions begin the contest in a confident mood, but he nicks Jones' fine cross just over the bar. With opportunities for the visitors coming fast and thick, it's Scholes who makes the early pressure pay off, ghosting in on goal before converting Nani's cross into a 1-nil lead within the game's first eight minutes.

Norwich lay on some bone crunching challenges to remind the visitors that they're no pushover, and their physical efforts seem to inspire the crowd and bring them back into the contest. Before they fully get their grip on the game, however, Welbeck nearly doubles the lead -- trying to finish off a beautiful give and go between Nani and Chicharito -- but Norwich 'keeper John Ruddy denies the Englishman at full stretch.

Norwich is intent on tying the game through a series of set pieces, looking to take advantage of their big bodies, physical presence and aerial prowess.   By the half hour mark, it's the home side giving as good as they're getting, pinning United back, and De Gea's outstretched leg is all that denies Anthony Pilkington his equalizer.  The save forces Sir Alex from his comfortable perch on the sidelines, the Scot red-faced as he barks out orders, likely demanding better marking from his defense.

Hernandez misfires in one of United's by now rare forays into the offensive end, a tame roller offered when surely a crisper finish would have found the back of the net against the run of play. But it's De Gea who's looking especially sharp today with another outstanding play, somehow snagging Grant Holt's biting header to deny what the Norwich attacker believed a certain equalizer.

The home side's confidence is growing, it's closely held and controlled possession contrasting sharply with the visitors' unraveling form. Although his team are behind on the scoreboard, Norwich City Manager Paul Lambert has good reason to believe his charges have the game well within reach as the two sides head into the break.

Norwich pick up right where they left off, threatening the United goal within 60 seconds of the restart. Once again, United are loosey-goosey with the ball, turning it back to the hosts repeatedly, seemingly intent on torturing the traveling fans. In truth, both teams are slightly flat as the game settles down into a more moderate rhythm, with even the raucous home crowd taking a breather in anticipation of a frantic close.

The game finally begins to open back up a bit at the hour mark, both teams wearing down slightly, and it's a very even contest entering the final thirty minutes. Both coaches make substitutions to inject some energy back into the game, with Ashley Young replacing Chicharito for the Champions.

Sir Alex's change almost finishes off the game, in a move springing from new substitute Young's long out ball that eventually ends up at the feet of Welbeck, but American defender Whitbread clears the ball before it can cross the line to keep the scoreline at status quo ante.

Ryan Giggs twice misses history by inches, as he first volleys Jones' arcing cross straight off the crossbar and seconds later nutmegs Whitbread but is unable to get his foot on the ball to beat Ruddy, as the scoreline stubbornly refuses to budge.

Norwich appeal hopefully for a push on Scholes in the box at the other end, but Referee Mariner is unperturbed by the midfielder's box out of Grant Holt.  The visitors play keep away in order to force the home side to gamble, and both sets of spectators are nervous as the game ticks down into the final ten minutes of action. It's Scholes with an uncharacteristic giveaway that almost leads to Norwich's equalizing, but once again it's De Gea who bails his teammate out with a fine diving save. If the boy is lacking confidence from some of his showings last month, it's very hard to see how it's affecting his play at the current time.

But it's the next shot from Grant Holt that proves a bit too much for the Spaniard to handle, the Norwich striker delivering a stunning 83rd minute blow to the Champions' title hopes with a top drawer finish on a ball that fell smack in the middle of three United defenders. It's a massive twist in the title race, and the lateness of the tally leaves the Reds little time to respond. In truth, it's no less than the home side deserve for their efforts on the day.

Michael Carrick chooses the wrong option in a late attempt to win the game, his through ball to Young being blocked before it reaches Ruddy. Welbeck compounds the error, missing a wide open header in front of goal after being picked out by Giggs.  Although United look more threatening than they have at any time since the game's opening minutes, it appears as if it's going to be too little, too late as the home side dig in.  Welbeck misses again, this time his tame effort blocked by Ruddy, and United look as if they are truly down and out. 

It's when all but the truest of fans have given up that Sir Ryan Giggs appears as United's late game savior, having offered the youngsters several chances to finish off the game -- chances they spurned -- before finally deciding to take matters into his own hands.  It's a role he's intimately familiar with, having performed it too many times in the past to count. The flying Welshman makes an intelligent run before deftly side footing an Ashley Young stoppage time cross, steering the ball into the back of the net for yet another dramatic late winner. 

It's classic Manchester United, and I can't wait to see this one on the Season Highlight reels, the strike sticking the finger straight up at Manchester City, as if chastising the Citizens for gaining some false sense of hope before the final whistle had blown. The normally reserved Giggs celebrates in front of the traveling fans, veins bulging and arms pumping. It's 2-1 United on the day, and the endings don't get much better than this.

Although a minute of stoppage time remain, the game is over and done before even the re-start, Norwich gutted by Scholes and hung out to dry by Giggs.  It's the old guys who still reign supreme at 37 and 38, repectively, and United with another valuable three points on the road.

This is farlieonfootie reminding you to respect your elders on February 27.

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