Saturday’s 2-1 win over Barcelona doesn’t come remotely close to erasing the disappointment of losing a second Champions League final in three seasons to them, and it doesn’t provide any definitive evidence that the Barcelona-Manchester United gap has been bridged even slightly, but even though it was a friendly, it could serve as a table-setter for individual and collective success this season.
Sure, this victory doesn’t have the same shine on it that it would if it’d been achieved been in a competitive match, if the likes of Lionel Messi and Xavi had played, because we all know firsthand (unfortunately times two) what world-class quality they possess.
However, Barca did trot out David Villa, Pedro, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Eric Abidal, and keeper Victor Valdes, all of whom started at Wembley, along with Ibrahim Afellay and Seydou Keita, who were substitutes that night. Even with scrubs comprising the remainder of the lineup – and they aren’t, nor are the six substitutes who came on in Saturday’s match – United had their hands full for 90 minutes.
The statistics were, as one would expect, well in Barca’s favor in shots on goals, possession (yawn, what’s new there, right?), and corners, and they had their share of openings.
But along with appearing more assured in their half this time around, United were more confident in Barca’s half as well, and it could have – and should have – resulted in more than the two goals. More importantly, United made the most of a promising start, and after the inevitable (and inevitably brilliant) Barca equalizer, not only didn’t wilt but struck the final blow. Not that anyone needs reminding, but that’s certainly a different script than the two defeats, especially the one in Rome. It was without a doubt ‘the’ game of United’s U.S. tour, and they produced a performance that earned more than a mere pat on the back.
In the end, there’s only so much that can be said about the win and the overall performance, because it was a friendly and both teams freely substituted throughout (and there was the requisite Da Silva injury substitution), but it’s a win that could serve as a real confidence boost heading into the games that matter.
More than anything, it served as a chance for some to prove their worth against an opponent that was better than all four of the previous tour opponents combined, and the two unproven young talents Fergie handed starts to did just that.
Danny Welbeck only made his preseason debut in the third of the five tour matches, but he certainly hit the ground running and has put himself in position to earn more regular and significant opportunities than he ever has at United. After not having something to show for a solid showing against Chicago, Welbeck got on the scoresheet against the MLS All-Stars, and against Barca, he provided an excellent assist for Nani’s opener, drawing in the attention of Barca’s discombobulated back two before threading a perfectly timed, weighted, and directed pass to set up Nani for the finish through Valdes’ legs. There’s a great deal of competition for places in attack, so breaking through won’t be easy, and he’s a ways from the best that he could be, but Welbeck has the pace, playmaking skill, and potential to force his way into regular chances in the near future.
Tom Cleverley has been tipped for big things at United for some time now, and this is a pivotal season for the soon-to-be 21-year-old, after successful loan spells at Leicester, Watford, and Wigan in the last three seasons. And from the looks of it, he’s ready to take the bull by the horns and make his first senior appearance for United and many more with it.
Cleverley more than held his own in midfield against Barcelona and earned the highest praise he could hope for, as Fergie rated him United’s best player on the night. His best moment of the night, of course, came late on, when he perfectly read and raced to an errant pass (how often can that be said about Barca?) and seamlessly started a break, then released the ball at just the right time to Michael Owen, who chipped the ball over Valdes for what proved to be the winner. Defensive and offensive awareness, timing, vision, unselfishness, and quickness were all showcased in that single sequence, and all of those are attributes that can pave the way for success for Cleverley.
Cleverley’s path to a regular place has fewer obstacles than Welbeck’s does, though that could see a little change between now and August 31st, if United aren’t done wheeling and dealing this summer. But they both look appear ready and willing to do what it takes to make it at United, and if their performances against Barca are a sign of things to come, there’s reason to feel confident about their prospects for this season and beyond.
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