|photo by Arturo de Albornoz||via PhotoRee|
I should have known there would be a problem when I saw the overabundance of confident pre-game chatter on my Twitter timeline, showcasing lots of happy talk about narrowing the goal difference on City. A strange thing happened on the way to a 4-0 victory, however. Instead of a comfortable walk in the park, United were forced to hang on for a 1-nil nail biter over Fulham yesterday at Old Trafford. Despite the narrowness of the result -- a game in which United appeared they may surrender the lead on multple occasions in the last fifteen minutes -- the win moved the Red Devils three points clear at the top of the table after thirty games. It's squeaky bum time for the Champions, a time of year they know well. To Old Trafford for our match report:
o United looked in the mood early on. Fielding an exceptionally strong squad at home, the Reds showed no lack of ambition or aggression against the Cottagers in the opening ten minutes. Allowing Fulham virtually no opportunities to leave their own end of the pitch, it was only the final touch which stopped the Red Devils from taking an early and deserved lead.
o I don't know if it was the television broadcast or the excitement of the title race, but the crowd at Old Trafford on Monday clearly started the contest in top voice. They then proceeded to fade pretty quickly as Fulham came into the game....
o Clint Dempsey in pink boots? No thank you.... I'm guessing that Ryan Giggs got a good view of them from the back, however, as Deuce flew by him repeatedly in the center of the pitch. Playing Michael Carrick and Giggs in the middle opened up quite a bit of space for Dempsey and Moussa Dembele to run into, as Fulham withstood United's early assault, came out of their shell, and gradually began to dominate midfield.
o United were absolutely wasteful in possession last night, displaying a heavy touch and a knack for wayward passing. Several Reds were guilty of turning the ball over repeatedly, including some of the biggest names on the pitch: Wayne Rooney, Giggs, and Ashley Young among the guilty.
o Wazza's goal right before halftime was much needed, and brought a palpable sense of relief to the proceedings. Jonny Evans may not have scored a goal this week, but his assist on the goal was a clutch play by the Northern Irishman, who appears to be gaining new fans each week with his exploits filling Vidic's boots.
o Last season it was early goals that gave United confidence and led to the title -- remember Chicharito's opening minute tally against Chelsea...? This season the Reds' magic hour happens to be just before half-time. It seems as if we get the goals just when they are needed most, but are only rarely able to begin the game on a roll -- the kind of roll that leads to big goal outbursts. Here's hoping United can change that, and add some goals to their tally in one or two of the upcoming games.
o Antonio Valencia may just be the most terrifying one footed player of all time. Combined with Rafael, who himself had a terrific game on Monday, United tore John Arne Riise to shreds on the right hand side of the pitch for much of the night.
o The boys in the middle of the park did a more credible job in the the second half -- at least until the 75 minute mark -- as United turned the tables on Fulham and bossed the game. Still, the chances for the home side were relatively few and far between.
o Danny Welbeck had perhaps his least polished performance of the season before being swapped for Chicharito near the hour mark. How much longer will the young Englishman continue to keep the Mexican out of the lineup...? Or, given Hernandez's generally ineffective display Monday, as well, I have a novel idea: what about Dimitar Berbatov, the forgotten man of this United squad...?!
o United looked completely and utterly shapeless and discombobulated at the back once Rio Ferdinand left the pitch. People can talk all they want about Jonny Evans -- and I really like him, mind you -- but the key to the Red Devils' recent run of clean sheets has been Rio starting seven games in a row. Full stop.
o Anyone else wondering how Patrice Evra is still the Captain? The armband is definitely not handed out on the balance of his play for the season, and United appeared to be lacking any sort of vocal leadership once Ferdinand departed.
o It was a super tough ending to watch -- serious nail biting time. Referee Michael Oliver could have whistled a late penalty on Carrick, but on the the balance of viewings I would say he just about got it right: Danny Murphy went over far too easily, and Carrick appeared as if he was trying to avoid Murphy, who slowed down once he felt Carrick's presence behind him. In the end, the Red Devils did just enough to take the three points -- but also left considerable room for improvement next week against Blackburn.
Three points and top of the League. This is making for a very happy farlieonfootie on March 27. Could someone please pass the nail clippers...?