A lot of pages were spent over the past week discussing tactics, formations, players, attitudes, form, referees. All that came to yesterday as the so-called Big Four clashed with the nation holding it’s collective breaths — according to Sky — for the ‘closest title race in history’. I am sure that was a hyperbole, only short-memoried TV blokes would have you think, as I am fairly certain that such a superlative wouldn’t even apply to the history of the Premier League.
But we are here to talk about yesterday’s game, regardless of the flashlights associated with Easter Sunday.
The formation was more or less expected from either side — keeping the occasion in mind, both managers went for a 4-3-3 in a safety first measure. It was the composition of the sides that had a tale to tell; Benitez’s lineup was the more predictable of the two, which itself was interesting.
Fergie chose a midfield trio of Anderson, Scholes and Carrick. Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs formed the attacking three while Rio Ferdinand returned from injury to give our back four a more familiar look after two games of constant shuffling. And a return of Edwin van der Sar was also welcome.
I wouldn’t go into how our goals were scored, because I am sure countless match reports, the Match of the Day (Link1 or Link2) and short clips would have given you a good enough idea. What I am interested to talk more about — and what would have a bearing on our season from now — is in the performance, or should we say, my opinion on the team’s performance.
So how good were we? We were outstanding, but, to be fair, the red card took the stuffing out of the ‘dippers. Speaking of which, Mascherano — someone, whom Benitez had the nerve to compare with our own (and only) Roy Keane — showed how one could foolishly laugh ones way out of the pitch and for an early shower. He looked like the village idiot who cheerfully chops at a branch with an axe, not realising that he is sitting on the wrong side of the very branch. To be fair though, I thought the yellow card on Torres that led to Mascherano’s protests was harsh. The referee had a nervy match, overall.
But while things were even before the sending off, United did create more chances. And the goal came when it was 11 v 11. Now fans can be fickle, so I’ll take the advantage of that and say, “Come on now, hand Wesley a fucking contract!” It’s lads like these who rise up to the occasion in such games and Sir Alex’s selection mirrored that sentiment. And it’s needless questioning whether his personnel rose to the occasion.
Let’s do the low down, then, shall we?
Wayne Rooney shrugged his indifferent form in front of goal to give a performance that would make everyone proud. His vision, movement, work-rate — things that we do know about Rooney — was there to the fore. We know what Rooney’s best at, don’t we? He may not be banging the goals in, but for movement, intelligence and spirit to stand up in the games that matter he gets full marks. But for brief moments in the first half, he showed the first touch of a seductress — remember when he plucked VDS’s long punt like the ball was magnetically attracted to his boot? That was the Rooney we all know and love. Now if he could also calm himself down in front of goal…
Ronaldo, the supposed big game bottler who ‘only scores against lesser clubs’, killed it and settled nerves when it began to get a little tight for us. A shout should be given to Nani for another top class delivery from corners. Ronnie could have scored another when he was denied by Reina only for the ball to go on to hit the cross bar.
Michael Carrick once again showed what he can do if he was afforded the space that he had. His range of passing showed that, at the moment, he’s the only player (eligible for England duty) who has the kind of range and composure that can dictate the tempo of a game. While England midfielders are known for their rampaging, all action style, he represents serenity — minimum fuss with maximum damage. Give him space and he can destroy you. And I am not being over the top here. He can have off days, especially when not allowed the space, but on his day he can rival the very best in the business. Yesterday he wasn’t outstanding, but did what was essential — keeping possession of the ball.
And then there was Paul Scholes. He, along with Carrick, reminded us why we won the title last season. It’s a strange situation for us United fans. Just when dissenting voices about certain players gather steam, they respond with a riposte that knock us off our self-styled ivory towers and remind us that — think what we may — at times, we must leave the football to the masters. We may not see too many great servants of our beloved club, so we may as well cherish days like these, just as the Ginger Prince himself conceded in a recent interview; that he knew he has to enjoy every moment because he doesn’t have too much time left.
In what was a collectively mature effort from everyone, there was one player who was towering in his presence: Rio Ferdinand. My preview expressed a worry for United because I felt we wouldn’t be able to cope with Liverpool’s in form forward line if Rio didn’t make it. His surprise return showed us what we missed against Bolton and Derby — despite the clean sheets. Clearly Rio Ferdinand is in the form of his fucking life. And I can’t emphasise how much important he has been to our side more. I think I drew the yin-yang analogy earlier about his partnership with Vidic. But as a ball playing defender, whose reading of the game these days sees little parallel, at least in the premier league, the money we spent on him some years ago is worth every penny.
He hasn’t been popular with fans because of his contract wrangles, and his tendencies towards the flash lifestyle. But on the pitch, this season and last, he has been nothing less than a colossus, albeit a quiet one. John Terry in his prime and Jamie Carragher in that Champions’ League winning side grabbed the headlines because they made so many last ditch tackles that made pretty picture postcards. But Ferdinand moves like liquid, renders the last ditch tackles redundant. Today was his second yellow card of the season, and that too, for God knows why. The value of an excellent defender is at times felt by his absence. And I’d make Rio our joint best player of the season so far. And I am not saying this just based on our performance today. I’ve said it in earlier articles, as well as when asked by Scott in his interview, on my choice for the player of the season.
Rio, sign the contract, and we’ll sing your praises till death.
All in all, it was a performance of extreme maturity and composure, more than being flashily brilliant — and that is also encouraging for such a young side as ours. (Yes, Arsenal aren’t the only young side.)
And away from the emotion and onto what the game holds for our season — the weekend wasn’t ideal because we’d have preferred a Chelsea-Arsenal draw but, being five points ahead of Chelsea and six ahead of Arsenal, we are in control of our own destiny to retaining our title. Let’s not get carried away though. While we cannot emphasise the importance of beating the top teams on the way to the title, more often than not, it’s the lesser sides that tend to decide which way the title goes. So while we can feast on the euphoria that accompanies beating the ‘dippers, let’s hope the players have the prior knowledge, of having done it before, to call upon in the lead up to what is still an exciting title race.
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