Manchester United once again showed their strength in adversity on Saturday by overturning a potentially decisive West Ham lead into a title defining three points.
With the United defence looking uncharacteristically shaky in the opening period, two penalties were conceded and duly converted to leave the quest for championship number 19 in the balance. After a decent first half display, there was still confidence that the challenge could be pulled off. And so it transpired, as a Wayne Rooney hat trick and a tap in from Hernandez saw the Reds once more recover to claim a vital three points.
United now move onto the small matter of a Champions League Quarter Final against Chelsea in good heart and brimming with confidence. Saturday the 2nd of April may well go down in history as the one that effectively decided the outcome of the Premier League as both Chelsea and Arsenal failed to match their rivals points haul. Disappointing draws leave the Gunners seven points behind with the Blues a further four behind although both have a game in hand.
The main talking points of events at the Boleyn Ground
Nemanja Vidic is our captain, a true warhorse but when he has an off day, it seems he can do little right and so it proved in the first half on Saturday. His problems seem to come when he gets isolated, we all know that he is susceptible to pace and trickery when one on one with an attacker and this showed in the build up to the 2nd penalty.
The picture below emphasises the isolation point perfectly. Look how far he is from Smalling and how much space there is between him and the goal. It meant that even a modest attacking force like Carlton Cole could cause problems with strength and then some trickery.
|Vidic is uncomfortable when isolated from his fellow defenders and when left one on one with an attacker|
Part two of the problem for Vidic was the way that once turned and heading towards goal, Cole managed to unbalance the big Serbian which leads to his poor body shape here. Clearly he thinks Cole will head down the line but with a simple step over, the forward darts inside and the inevitable Vidic lunge brings the foul that led to the penalty.
|Look at the body shape of the two players and you can see Cole going one way and Vidic the other leads to the foul|
Although the defence did look a bit shaky in the first half, you would have to say that this was mainly due to Smalling and Vidic allowing balls to bounce rather than getting to them before they hit the ground. It was a surprise as this is on page one of the central defender's handbook. The nerves in defence may not have been helped by the absence of Van Der Sar in goal as he exudes confidence and you get the feeling that his calmness has a soothing effect on those in front of him. Evra was another to suffer from an off day leading to his exit at half time. Similar to Vidic, when he has an off day then it is really noticed and can often lead to the concession of a penalty or a rash challenge. It is hoped that both will be back on form when they take on opponents from the capital again this week.
Keep calm and send on the cavalry!
This was my message at half time on Twitter to followers who were panicking somewhat at the poor scoreline and seemingly inevitable loss. I have seen too many times over the thirty years I have been watching United their amazing belief and will to win to give up on them now.
In my preview of the game, I mentioned that I could see the substitutes bench playing a huge role in this and every game towards the end of the season and this was the cavalry I was hoping to make an impact. It is a long time since we had seen the likes of Nani, Berbatov, Hernandez, Owen and Anderson all patiently waiting on the bench to make their impact on the game.
Clearly, two nil down was a dire situation and needed a change of plan in order to give the Reds a chance to get back into the game. The first change came at half time and saw the nervy Evra replaced at left back by veteran Giggs with Hernandez brought on up front. The main benefit of this was having an extra man up front and what a player to introduce. Almost instantly you could see the plan evolving as the little Mexican just failed to divert the ball into the goal with what looked his first touch. In effect, his introduction meant that Upson and Da Costa dropped deeper, wary of his penchant for playing on the shoulder of the last defender and using his pace and movement to run in behind. This is turn freed up some space in the midfield for Carrick and Gibson to exert their influence as the West Ham midfield trio suddenly were put on the back foot.
The vital introduction of Berbatov came just seconds before Rooney fired in his free kick and at 1-2, you could sense a feeling of déjá vu suddenly increasing amongst the home team defence. The Bulgarian then took centre stage; creating a chance for himself with a sublime flick and run in behind Da Costa down the left flank only to be thwarted by the alert Green. He is deceptively quick with the ball and showed this by racing clear of his man in what could of been a goal of the season contender!
For the rest of the half, Berbatov seemed to be playing the game at his own pace, never rushed and seemingly unaware of the extent of the urgency now being shown by United. It was almost like he knew that with patience, the goals would come and that there was plenty of time left for this to come to fruition. Of course, he remembered the 2nd half against Blackpool and could see parallels with that fightback.
For me, Sir Alex is the master of the effective, positive substitution. That game at Blackpool was completely changed by the introduction of Giggs and Hernandez and there are countless other examples in the club's exciting past how sending for the "cavalry" in times of need can turn a seemingly hopeless situation into something pivotal and ultimately glorious.
Rooney comes alive!
Although Rooney was neat and tidy in the first half on Saturday, you could not say that he was a particular threat to the Hammers. With the introduction of the pace and movement of Hernandez at half time, you could sense the Scouser's joy at realising he now could drop deep as he loves to do and lead the assault on the home team. Although he can play as the lone man up front comfortably, he is more adept at being the conductor from deep and allowing his pacy accomplice to take up residence in the six yard box. Suddenly, Rooney with baton in hand drove United on and helped engineer the change in scoreline.
At half time I was moaning about our lack of threat from free kicks this season and right on cue, and when his team needed it the most, Rooney delivered with a lovely angled clip into the corner leaving Green helpless. Realisation struck after the game during discussions with various people that this was in fact his first success from a dead ball situation since the completion of his debut hat trick against Fenerbaché back in 2004.
|Wayne "roos" the prankster that put glue on the match ball!|
The confidence then seemed to surge through his body and it was no surprise to see his touch and shot for the 2nd goal fly past the diving Green. The self styled "big man" was most definitely back!
It remains to be seen if he has to revert to a lone role up front on Wednesday but on this evidence you could make a strong case for going to Stamford Bridge with two up front and trying to take advantage of a lack of pace in the heart of the Chelsea defence.
You will notice that I have not mentioned a certain incident that revolved around Mr Rooney. The reason? It does not merit a place in my review due to its insignificance to the bigger picture.
Other quality performances
The two other players I would like to praise after Saturday's performance are Antonio Valencia and Fabio.
The Ecuadorian had a solid game throughout and was undoubtedly United's player of the first half. He looks on the road to discovering his best form following his long injury lay off which is remarkable seeing as many thought that this would only be truly recaptured next season. His directness and wonderful crossing ability give the Reds another dimension down the right when Nani is rested or playing on the other side. He also possesses a great work ethic for the side and will be hugely popular in the dressing room for these qualities.
Fabio was chosen at right back in the absence of his brother, Wes Brown and John O'Shea. He was excellent throughout and continues to impress going forward and played a big role in winning the penalty for the decisive third. After surging into the penalty box, it would have been easy to allow the ball to roll out for a corner after an interception by Upson but the way the young Brazilian sensed another possibility was exceptional. Although the award of the penalty after Upson handled was harsh, Fabio's sheer endeavour and effervescence merited reward. Perhaps deep down, he sensed that keeping the ball in play was completely preferable to another corner which all had been hitherto entirely lacking in danger!
"It's all in the mind"
Another fascinating battle was played out on Saturday and it did not involve a pitch or a ball. This particular battle was all in the mind! Think for a minute of the fluctuating fortunes on Saturday afternoon on the pitch and then compare these with the psychology played out in the hearts and minds of Chelsea and Arsenal ahead of the games later in the day. If the score at half time had been the same at full time, both would have huge smiles on their faces with the realisation that a chink in the armour had been found and that here was the opportunity to strike on United. They would have taken to the field with supreme confidence and in all honesty probably won their games comfortably and both been in a healthy position in the title race.
When their worst fears became reality and that once again, United had defied the odds to turn a potential loss into another three points, they took to the field with an opposite mind set. Now they knew the pressure was on. No slip ups were tolerable if they were to keep hot on the Reds coat tails. Prior to the lunchtime kick off, I could sense the importance of getting the three points and the knock on effect of deflation that would occur in their rivals if this was to come true. Both Chelsea and Arsenal subsequently dropped points after stuttering displays and the title initiative was once more firmly in the hands of the men from Old Trafford.
This mental strength is certainly something that Arsenal lack and it has been proved true many times over the past six years where they have remained trophy-less. What they do not possess deep within them is that sheer will to win, the strength in adversity and belief in there never being a lost cause that is deeply ingrained in each United player. Having all the talent in the world counts for nothing Mr Wenger if you do not have this very special, almost unique club trait. Please see this post from February about how this mental ability is cultivated at Old Trafford from a young age.
Many pundits have ruled Chelsea out of the running after their draw against Stoke on Saturday. I would not quite be so bold at this point seeing as they have a comfortable run of fixtures upcoming that should see maximum points heading their way.
After Blackpool away next Sunday (which they should win), Arsenal have a tough set of games that should hopefully see an end to their challenge with Liverpool (h), Spurs (a), Bolton (a), MUFC (h) and Stoke (a) in consecutive games. The way they are playing I would not be confident of many points and they end up being overtaken by Chelsea and even City.
As for United, the next three fixtures are huge and all very much winnable. Fulhum (h), Newcastle (a) and Everton (h) are the next three league games and only the busy program of cup fixtures mixed in should get in the way in terms of potential injuries. Nine points would mean that potentially the May games against Arsenal and Chelsea could be the ones where the record number 19 is finally achieved. A mouth watering potential prospect I am sure but clearly each game will be chalked off in turn with full focus on the challenge each will present.
The management team will surely pick the team for each game with others in mind and it is clear that with so many fixtures, squad rotation will be in operation. I would expect a much changed team for Fulham next Saturday with the Champions League second leg the following week. Now is the time for the likes of Michael Owen, Anderson and Gibson to attempt to write their names into Manchester United legend as the full depth of the squad will be tested. The good news is that Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher look close to a return and their experience along with their coolness under pressure will be vital as our battle on three fronts hits a crucial stage.
Tweet Bits - the best reactions from my Twitter followers
Once again United show what sets them apart from the rest - belief,determination & an all consuming will to WIN - neiltheviking
kids 3rd b'day sky+ the game. 2 down and disgusted I deleted the match at half time - I'm an idiot - mcarson04
ok start with 2 unlucky pens given but outstanding come back in true utd fashion and thats why were top, we always believe - nikkiutd
I have never doubted SAF. He is a true genius. He must have said something brilliant at half time coz we were great 2nd half - sfeeney7
I thought Valencia didn't put a foot wrong all day and was our most dangerous player - irishtotti
Do you agree with my assessment of the battle at the Boleyn Ground? Please leave your comments below and be sure to follow me on Twitter if not doing so already!