Thursday, December 01, 2005

Carling Cup: Man Utd 3 - 1 West Bromwich Albion

Yup, I stayed up just to watch the Man Utd - West Brom match, even though it was a Carling Cup match and not a Premier League one. In fact, when I racked my brains to think of the last time I'd watched a Carling Cup match, I couldn't remember any. There's a high possibility I never bothered watching any at all.

So I confess that my two main reasons for staying up to watch this match were not totally football-related: Firstly, to watch the pre-match tribute to George Best, at Man Utd's first home game since his passing; and second, to watch Giuseppe Rossi for a full 90 minutes of action, as I'd only watched him play before in last-minute substitutions in Premier League matches and wanted to see clearly what all the hype was about (though I already had an idea from his goal against Sunderland on his first-team debut).

I switched on the telly 5 minutes late and thus missed the lining up of the players and managers, but saw them standing around the centre circle as tributes to the great man was read. It thrilled me to see the players from that night in 1968 when Man Utd first won the European Cup, helped with a hefty dose of Best's magic, standing again on the pitch of Old Trafford. A pity I'm too young too have seen that match.

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I was pleased, too, to see our "Captain Marvel" of the 80s, Bryan Robson (current West Brom manager), standing alongside his mentor Sir Alex, holding a bouquet of flowers. Sir Alex held a plaque saying "In Loving Memory of George Best", and later both of them laid their tributes on the pitch.

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The minute's silence was nicely done as well, I can't begin to describe the thrill I felt at seeing Old Trafford united and holding up posters of George Best, which had been handed out before the start of the match. Kudos too, to West Brom, who took part in the minute's silence, and their supporters who remained respectful throughout (unlike Leeds and Liverpool fans). Callum Best, son of George, was present on the pitch, and I have to say it's a pity he didn't follow his father's footsteps into football.

Before the match started, I'd spent some time reading up on Best-related trivia, and it must be noted that it is perhaps fitting for Man Utd to play West Bromwich Albion in the first home game after his death, as this was the very same fixture in which a 17-year-old Best made his debut in 1962. After this it would be a Premier League match against Portsmouth, with whose chairman Milan Mandaric Best was great friends with (I believe Best himself was either on the board or the coaching staff for a short while at Portsmouth), and following that, the Champions League do-or-die tie against Benfica, which Best ran riot over and destroyed to win the tournament for Man Utd.

Ferguson fielded virtually a full-strength squad, with the exceptions of Kieran Richardson, Rossi, Cristiano Ronaldo, who finally was given a starting berth after his off-field problems, and Louis Saha, making his first-team return from injury. Surprisingly, John O' Shea started in central midfield alongside Darren Fletcher, while Richardson was shuffled into left-back.

While I'm on the topic of team selections, I have a bone to pick about Richardson. He's a left-footed left winger, who, because of injuries to the first team defence, had been drafted as a makeshift left-back on several occasions. However, if John O' Shea is in the team, it makes more sense for O' Shea to be at left back and Richardson to be in his natural position on the left flank. As it was, O' Shea, being a versatile utility player, did an admirable job in the holding midfield role (not his first time in it, either), but Richardson was often caught out of position and made a few dangerously rash tackles; 2 minutes into the game and he'd given away a free kick on the edge of the area. And I haven't forgotten that penalty he gave away while playing at left back against Middlesborough in that embarrassing 4 - 1 defeat.

Carlos Queiroz, and Kieran Richardson himself, might harbour hopes that he might develop into a great attacking full back like Roberto Carlos, but I for one wouldn't bet on it. For one, Man Utd never uses a 5-3-2 formation, which is the formation which most utilises attacking full backs; even if they did start to use it, we need 3, or at the very least, 2 solid central defenders, which we don't have at the moment (it's painful to watch Mikael Silvestre, it really is). To try and use an attacking full back in a 4-4-2 formation is really too dangerous and leaves our flanks as wide open as a hooker's legs. Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze are overlapping full backs, not attacking full backs, and anyway they are hardly caught out of position, and they are experienced enough to know how and when to go for tackles.

Mikael Silvestre is another player I'm not happy with. We have Wes Brown back; why not use him? He could use 90 minutes of play, I believe, and he's a more natural and better central defender than Silvestre, whose natural position is left back anyway (see, another left back used out of position).

Man Utd, though, started brightly enough, and in the 7th or 8th minute had a Louis Saha effort ruled out. Offside the goal may be, but it was a hint of bright things to come, as Saha and Rossi had combined superbly with Rossi laying a tantalising pass into Saha's path, after an electrifying burst of acceleration. Small Rossi might be, but he sure has a set of powerful lungs and legs.

Several minutes of flowing play, with the Man Utd players getting into their stride quickly, Diomansy Kamara brought down Cristiano Ronaldo just inside the box and referee Mark Clattenburg immediately pointed for a penalty. Ronaldo, who of course now wears Best's legendary No. 7 shirt, took the penalty coolly and clinically with a low drive past Russell Hoult.

The celebrations were muted, as befitted the occasion, but you could sense Ronaldo's relief as he broke his scoring duck and put a number 7 on the scoresheet for the club on the night it honoured one of its greatest No. 7s ever. From then, it was as if the floodgates opened. 3 minutes later it was 2 - 0, the goal coming from another Rossi assist and a Saha finish.

Though it took Man Utd till the 56th minute for them to score again, they didn't disappoint in the meantime. Their build-up play was fantastic, and breathtaking at times; only a sea of West Brom bodies, the linesman's flag, and the post on 2 occasions for Rossi, prevented the shots from being converted into goals. Ronaldo seemed to have given up on his fancy footwork, but was very effective as he outran defenders, crossed for teammates and managed a few shots on goal himself, and had one effort ruled out for offside. The team has definitely missed his creativity and trickery.

Park Ji-Sung, as always, provided incisiveness and penetration for the team, while Louis Saha had several glorious chances as well. A thumbs up for Saha's performance; he seems to have put his injuries behind him, and his pace and finishing clearly had not left him. However, I'm a little put off by his selfishness. It's a little too Djibril-Cisse-like for my liking. There were too many times when he chose to shoot rather than pass or cross to better-placed teammates. If he'd done so it could have been a few more goals.

Of course, I watched this match mainly to gauge Rossi's abilities, and I'm not disappointed. It was a good all-round performance by the little Italian (who actually reminds me very much of Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola, in physique and in style), and the only thing that was lacking was a goal from him - though he came close a few times. But he has blistering acceleration and his pace caused trouble for the West Brom defence all match, and his unselfishness carved out wonderful chances for his teammates. I particularly enjoyed how he had this nice little trick of doing a little jink to the left past a defender, and when the defender follows him he does a short backheel, turns quickly to collect the ball again and then starts running, leaving the defender standing dumbfounded. If he continues playing like this it won't be long before he is given a regular first-team place.

Man Utd's last goal, on the 56th minute, came amazingly not from one of the attackers, who as I say had been running rounds around the poor West Brom defenders, who were completely bamboozled by the combined pace of Rossi, Saha and Ronaldo, but from John O' Shea. it was the second goal in 2 games for him, the last one against Charlton, and he scored, not from a header as most would expect, but a fierce left footed strike in the middle of the box that flashed past a hapless Russell Hoult. It was a goal any striker would have been proud of, and even O' Shea himself looked for a few seconds like he couldn't quite believe what he'd done.

It was a good night for the defence as Gary Neville, captain for the night and top choice to take on the role permanently, managed 2 shots himself, one of which was a fantastic volley 40 yards out, but which unfortunately flew over the crossbar.

I had the chance of evaluating a few other promising youngsters who came on as second-half substitutes: Richie Jones, Gerard Pique and Phil Bardsley. With Bardsley in defence Richardson moved up to the wing, and like I'd pointed out was much more effective and was able to use his talents to their full potential. Jones was notable for a blistering run down the right flank which eluded 2 West Brom players and a beautiful cross which flew across the goal before anyone could reach it.

Some people might think that playing good football against a demoralised West Brom side which was 3 - 0 down may not be such a hefty task, but let me assure you West Brom fought till the very end. From the start of the second half they were attacking, searching for openings, harrassing Rio Ferdinand, and Nathan Ellington was a constant thorn in the side of the team. I imagine Bryan Robson gave them a bit of the hairdryer treatment at half time, for they came out rejuvenated and much more daring. The goal Ellington scored, from a corner, was fully-deserved, especially since he was easily West Brom's best and most dangerous player. Cheers to West Brom for a very entertaining match; they can go back feeling satisfied at least that they did put in a good performance.

It was, in general, a fantastic attacking performance by Man Utd, and the sort of performance I'd rarely seen this season, except for the Chelsea and Charlton matches. If they keep this up, I'd dare say the title doesn't seem impossible to get. The team is gradually settling down and are looking like the Man Utd of old, playing entertaining, free-flowing, passing football that's a joy to watch.


At 11:46 PM, December 01, 2005, Blogger lun said...

it wouldn't have made any tactical sense to play richardson in midfield with park ji-sung, darren fletcher and cristiano ronaldo, simply because out of this 4 there were no defensive midfielders, i.e ball-winners. 1 would have to drop back to defence to allow o'shea into midfield and richardson being the only one who had played at leftback before would be the one. quite logical in my opinion actually.

At 2:47 AM, December 02, 2005, Blogger Merenwen said...

Well, Fergie could always have opted to play Alan Smith but I suppose he decided to give Richardson a runout instead.

At 4:46 PM, December 04, 2005, Blogger kianhai said...

Nice Man U blog you have here.

Guess ferguson now only have oshea as an alternative to alan smith in the dmc role. Although with fortune returning soon, he has another option there.


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