Usually I’m not all that enthused about the extended international breaks that occur during the season, because it means that there’s a two-week gap between Manchester United matches.
But for once, I say thank goodness for the international break, because at the rate that we’re losing defenders this way or that, I’d rather us not have a match this week or weekend. If we did, I’m sure we’d lose someone coming out of the tunnel, or in a post-match shower slip.
The latest hit to our depleted back line came on Saturday against Bolton, as stand-in starter Jonny Evans, whose reputation and confidence has already taken a few hits this season, saw straight red at the worst of times. Sure enough, he did get the ball, but he also got plenty of Stuart Holden’s knee with his studs, and he was rightly dismissed, leaving United with 10 men for the last 15 minutes of the match.
On the bright side, he has apologized to Holden, who’s set to be out of action for the next six months, and also on the bright side, his late dismissal didn’t prove to be costly, thanks to Dimitar Berbatov, who was in the right place at the right time in the 88th minute, slotting home the rebound after Jussi (hold on a minute, need to spellcheck his last name) Jaaskelainen had spilled a Nani rocket into his path.
Of Berba’s 21 goals this season, this might have been the most important one, for multiple reasons.
With United having a favorable home tie, Arsenal visiting West Brom, and Chelsea hosting City, this past weekend held a lot of potential.
Chelsea did beat City to keep themselves in the hunt and perhaps strike the final blow for whatever faint title hopes City still had (and had Tottenham not dropped the ball at home against West Ham, it would’ve tightened the gap between fourth and fifth to two points, with Spurs having a game in hand), but Arsenal needed a late comeback to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw at West Brom. An Arsenal loss would’ve been more gratifying, yes, but according to my abacus, 3 > 1 24/7/365, and we now hold a five-point advantage at the top of the Premier League table.
Not only does it put some valuable distance between us and Arsenal in the title race, it also shows a lot about Berbatov.
Despite being the Premier League’s top scorer and having the best individual season of his Manchester United career, Berbatov has started only two of United’s last eight matches, and it’s not as if they were all against also-rans. He was only a sub against City and Chelsea, and he didn’t even leave the bench in the FA Cup win over Arsenal and last week’s Champions League win over Marseille.
There are a lot of players who would lose their focus, their confidence, and their composure in that situation, but in that key moment, he held his position well and stayed onside, and when the opportunity came, he reacted like you’d expect a striker to and put it away.
Some might consider it a problem for the amount of available starting spots for a certain position exceeded by the amount of players who have a valid argument to fill them.
We should, however, view it as a luxury, especially considering how depth at other positions has been an issue this season. It was only a matter of time before Wayne Rooney’s form had the kind of upswing that it’s had recently, but we’re far from the one-man team some detractors might have perceived or hoped we’d be, with the Premier League’s leading scorer in Berbatov (21 goals in all competitions), the buy of the season -in Chicharito (16 goals), and a winger who’s third on our scoring charts in Nani (10 goals). It’s no wonder then that we’ve no fear when we need a goal late on, down a man or not.
But what about our defense? Going into Saturday, we were already without Rio Ferdinand, who’s also potentially done for the season, Nemanja Vidic, John O’Shea, and Rafael, so Saturday’s events didn’t help matters, at least in terms of depth.
And along with Evans’ sending off, Wes Brown was replaced at half time by Fabio, reportedly due to a calf injury. So, if we had to play tomorrow or Wednesday, we’d have to somehow clone Chris Smalling, or utilize Michael Carrick in the same center back position that he occupied after Evans was sent off.
We can only hope that, by the time we’re set to face West Ham on April 2, that Vidic is fit again, otherwise that latter course of action may be the one we’re forced to take. It’s not one that I’m opposed to, because Carrick is a more than capable fill-in in that role, but who wants to be in last resort mode at this point of the season? Not I, that’s for darn sure.
With that in mind, I’d like to ask Laurent Blanc to not even consider playing Patrice Evra against Luxembourg or Croatia, and as for the rest of our fit defenders, I ask that they do no heavy lifting, refrain from sexual activity, stay away from pins, needles, tacks, and sharp knives, only take sponge baths, and if they must do any strenuous exercise, remember to stretch well. A little extreme? Perhaps, but that’s what it’s come to
But to end on a positive note (yeah, I bet you knew it was coming), Saturday was the latest testament of United’s ability to overcome adversity like no other. A slow start, injuries, inconsistent play, sending offs, you name it, it’s happened this season, and we’ve risen above it all. We may be limping into April, but us and our crutches, bandages, and scars are limping into April in a position that most could only wish they could be in with a 100% fit and available squad.
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