The silver lining that came from yesterday was Chelsea getting ousted from the FA Cup. The biggest upset of the day did, in some way, assuage the pain of getting knocked out by the sailor men from Portsmouth. Because, prior to the Chelsea game I was really angry, not especially because of us getting knocked out, but because the Blues would have their easiest passage towards defending their FA Cup crown.
For us though, after being given more than our fair share of draws against Premiership opposition, it had to happen some day. As much as I hate to say it, we were knocked out despite playing football that was many times superior than our opponents.
It’s easy to jump on players and the manager for a defeat and, in our club’s case, even a draw. But let us for a moment consider the chances we had before going any further. Here are some, off the top of my head, in no particular order of occurrence:
- Rooney’s one-on-one after being put through followed by Tevez’s shot cleared by Johnson
- Carrick’s goal line clearance
- A scramble from Nani’s corner followed by Ronaldo’s shot
- Evra’s shot saved by James
- Ronaldo while having a clear view of goal ‘passes’ the ball off target
- Free header for Ronaldo after Evra’s cut back
- Nani’s teasing ball in completely missed by Ronaldo from a tap in range.
- Ronaldo’s penalty appeal after being barged by Distin
If we assume that we converted even one third of these, we’d be singing a different tune today. To be honest, it was a performance we must be proud of despite not winning. Now I am not necessarily implying that there aren’t chinks in our armoury. But losing by literally running all over them should call for less negative reaction than losing with a disjointed display — like the City game.
Let’s look at our performance a little closely.
Fergie got the formation right. A 4-4-2, is what fans love and sending out a strong side also made our intentions in going out to win, clear. Positive intent, attacking mindset, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Nani forming a pacy forward line — nothing wrong with that, is there?
Of course, selecting a formation is only a job half done. The players responded positively with a clutch of chances created throughout the game. Portsmouth, on the other hand, created precious little and attempted to hit us on the break. At the end of the day that worked because we over committed. David James’ outstanding clearance caught Rio and Vidic, who were guilty of over committing, leaving us with Anderson and Rooney to cover at the back. There was little that Kuszczak could do and the red card was as ridiculous a decision as I’ve ever seen.
But yes, our performance was certainly flawed — which is why we lost the game. The difference between us and a team like, say, Liverpool, has been the clinical efficiency of our goal scoring. There have been games where we’ve been found wanting but yet, managed to eke out wins. We didn’t take our chances and it was ultimately our undoing.
The other thing was the fact that our front four (plus Evra) practically carried our attacking burden and the central midfield were passengers for most part. Paul Scholes, the star against Fulham, was invisible. Hargreaves did alright for a bit, but I saw a lot of him sticking to players but not winning the ball. I am not being critical of him, because we were hardly threatened defensively, nor were we run over in midfield, but the pairing of Scholes and Hargreaves yesterday offered us little by way of attacking threat. Anderson and Carrick’s introduction gave us a little bit of an impetus — and Carrick did fluff a gilt-edged chance — but taking off a striker for a three man midfield looked more negative to me.
Which brings me to our front line. Tevez ran himself to the ground. I thought he was outstanding yesterday. He won tackles, beat players, ran in hard, and just ran like a terrier except when it mattered. He put Rooney in the clear only for him to take a touch too long to score. Nani was largely inconsistent in his delivery, but he did present two excellent cross that, on an other day, would have been converted. Ronaldo was not his usual clinical stuff, just like everyone else. And Rooney… what of him?
Many of us thought this would be his season. He did start in a rich vein of form, both for club and country, but injuries took the wind out of him this season. Rooney has not lost it. His troubles are in the mind, more than anything. He needs clarity in his role. SAF said a few weeks ago that he needs to avoid tracking back too often. He’s a striker first and foremost, and at times he’ll have to eschew his urge to be involved in every part of the park. He didn’t do too badly; I don’t know how many people remember his neat one-two with Ronaldo. He is such a good player that despite being out of form he can raise the performance of the team. But being a striker, he must score when presented with chances like he was yesterday. It’s bread and butter for players like him, but as I said he needs to clear his mind. Maybe some much needed rest could do him good? I don’t know. But he’s become more of an enigma to me than he’s been in the past.
I hope he finds his touch, because when he does, he usually tends to go on a run.
At the end of the day, I’d like to spin this more positively. A draw would have been the worst result, given our already hectic schedule. We still have the league, and the Champions’ League to go for — and so are the rest of the ‘Big Four’. So with the FA Cup out of the way it’s a nice way for our team to go on at full tilt and prove something.
We’ll Never Die.
Edit: Oh, and just to boost your spirits we have a nice surprise interview with someone very special, lined up for tomorrow. So do visit us for that.
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