It’s an outstanding feat. United are unbeaten since that forgettable night at the San Siro in 2007. Going 23 games unbeaten in Europe is quite a feat, it must be said. The fact that we whine despite all this is a measure of the standards, we as United fans, tend to expect; which is often a euphemism for spoilt fans.
But what a strike that was from Ronaldo!
Long range strikes are becoming a matter of habit for this side, in the advanced stages of this competition. Scholesy’s strike vs Barca, in the semis last year, is still fresh in memory, but Ronaldo’s strike today was in an entirely different plane. The goal was fantastic in technique, execution and, more importantly, you had a feeling that when Ronaldo struck the ball, he knew it was going in. You couldn’t fault the ‘keeper for failing to stop it; dismemberment of his limb would have been the only option had he got his hand on to the ball.
The first half of the first half (alternatively, I could have said, the first quarter, but play along now, will you) was what we’ve been thirsting for the team to show for the past many weeks. The team showed urgency from kick off, in an away game, in Europe, which was very encouraging. In midfield we hassled, and ensured we seized the early initiative; Ronaldo’s strike giving the team the reward for going for it. Anderson started off well, and injected urgency early on. It was another matter that he seemed to slip away as the match wore on. I have been of the opinion for quite sometime this season that he seems to function best when given a shorter period of time to have an impact on the game. If he starts, he would probably give a good hour. Or, as an impact sub, after the hour mark. Last night was another illustration of how he could be simultaneously excellent as well as infuriating.
The second half however was a bit more tentative. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always wanted a United away performance in the knockout stages where we show a little more ambition than sitting back on a lead. Now it could be argued that it’s hindsight talking here, but for all our so called defensive control yesterday, we were always one good long range shot / booming header away from getting knocked out.
But we’ll count our blessings on this and hope Rio’s return has given our defence something resembling the glorious clean sheet days. It wasn’t a perfect defensive display though, and the last 10 minutes were nerve jangling to me. O’Shea, Vidic and Rio emerged with credit, but Patrice Evra continues his downward spiral and now appears the weakest link in our defence. Most of Porto’s attacks came as a result of a winger skinning the Frenchman. A few months ago, it would have been almost unthinkable of us to be saying this about our left back, but he seems confused and way off the pace.
On the other midfielders, Carrick flitted in and out of the game, while Giggs had a good outing. Rooney was once again played wide out on the right, but it was another outstanding display from Rooney. If we look beyond the cliches of selflessness attached to his style of play, his temperament was encouraging. Both, he and Ronaldo, have benefited from what Fergie apparently had to say to them. Ronaldo was once again trying to track back, and actually played like he wanted to prove something. Both Rooney and Ronaldo’s desire are about the biggest positives to take out of yesterday. If they keep this level up for the next 10 or so games left in our campaign, we could return to be the side that was feared not too long ago.
Which brings us to Dimitar Berbatov. He had his flicks and touches, but if he needs to justify his price tag, he would have to do a little more than that. I don’t question his link up play, and to some extent it was good yesterday. But if supporters of the Bulgarian think he shouldn’t be busting a gut and running like a headless chicken, ala Tevez, then he should at least be in or about the box when the ball comes in. Especially in counter attacks. Much of yesterday’s counters broke down because of the lack of someone forward. If Berbatov is not meant to help out in defence, then why isn’t he further up the pitch? Despite all that I’ll excuse him still because I think he hasn’t completely recovered from his ankle injury. But I can’t always be giving him the benefit of the doubt if this carries on.
Apparently we are the first side to beat Porto since November, which makes this win something. The clean sheet is also something that should encourage the players to build from there. There are still a lingering doubts over how our midfield will cope with the fixture cramp, but for now let’s enjoy the moment: we’re in the semis of the league for the third successive season, we have an FA Cup semi coming up this weekend and we are still top of the table. I would still play down the quintuple claims though. But it is a nice feeling when you are in the hunt for all trophies and yet, you know your team is capable of much better football.
Here’s hoping yesterday was the day we turned a corner as we inch towards the finishing line.
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