Monday, January 09, 2006

Burton Albion 0 - 0 Manchester United

When I watched the match last night I felt as if I was watching a Reserves match.

That was what the lineup looked like, with Sir Alex fielding Ritchie Jones, Phil Bardsley, Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi, and Kieran Richardson. Mikael Silvestre and Tim Howard made first-team returns (and I hope this is Silvestre's LAST first-team match because he quite simply sucked), Wes Brown and John O' Shea were the token members of Man Utd's normal first eleven, and perennial substitutes Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were given a runout.

I was pleased to see Solskjaer on his first start after more than 18 months out, and glad to see that he'd been given the captaincy as he was by far the most senior player on the pitch (though I must admit I don't think he'd make a good captain; too silent), but the next moment I was horrified to see that Sir Alex was deploying him on the right flank. So what, are we converting strikers to wingers now? I know Ole was used as a right winger for a while after Beckham's departure, but he never excelled at it. As a consequence, he hardly had a touch on ball all night last night.

So, despite Sir Alex's assurances that he'd field a strong side to avoid any chance of a repeat of that embarrassing draw with Exeter last season, this was the very youthful team that trooped out onto the Burton pitch. However, I was still rather confident. After all, Burton are 104 places below us, with a team put together for just 202,000 pounds and consisting of truck drivers and delivery men. They wouldn't stand a chance against our young pros. Plus the pitch wasn't as bad as earlier reports had suggested it would be - it certainly didn't look like the Stamford Beach Bolton had to play on 2 seasons ago, at least.

But from the very first whistle, Burton, buoyed by their ecstatic and enthusiastic 6000-plus supporters, took the game by the neck while Man Utd was still trying to find their footing and some sort of footing on the sandy ground. It took Silvestre 2 minutes to make his first mistake and lose the ball on the edge of the area to Burton right winger I-don't-know-who, but fortunately Brown was on hand to make an interception before things could get worse.

It was 25 minutes of steady, relentless pounding from the Burton side, who especially terrorised the inexperienced Gerard Pique and the shaky Silvestre with large centre-back Darren Tinson, quick striker Shaun Harrad, and outstanding left winger Jon Shaw. Phil Bardsley had already made an incredible clearance off the line, Tim Howard was alert to gather 2 powerful shots, and Wes Brown had held back a Tinson header. It was not till then that Man Utd got their first sniff on goal: a Louis Saha effort that 22-year-old Burton keeper Saul Deeney did well to save.

The rest of the half looked more familiar with Man Utd pressing forward and attacking, but Burton proved as adept at holding the fort as they were in piling pressure on Howard's goal, with Deeney making at least 2 good saves from Saha. Still no goal as the half-time whistle sounded. Kieran Richardson had been responsible for losing possession much too easily, and Rossi deserved a good kick in his butt for missing a perfect cross from Phil Bardsley.

The second half started in like manner to the first, with Burton looking very lively and dangerous - Bardsley was the hero again with another goal-line clearance. It seemed a matter of time before Sir Alex would bring on his 2 young prodigies Rooney and Ronaldo, and bring them on he did in the 59th minute for the ineffective Rossi and Solskjaer.

They made an almost immediate impact, Rooney trying a delicious overhead kick in front of goal with practically his first touch, and Ronaldo crossing for Saha, who just managed to get his head on it but was ruled offside. But Burton captain Tinson held his defence together firmly, and Deeney's heroics denied Man Utd time and time again. Burton held on till the final whistle to claim a dream trip worth about 500,000 pounds to them to Old Trafford.

What have I learnt from this match? Never underestimate minnows.

Burton verdict: They played much, much better than expected. Skill and technique they may not have in abundance, but their hard work ethic and team spirit carried them far last night. Our overpaid stars could pick up a thing or two from them.

Player to watch: Left winger Jon Shaw and goalkeeper Saul Deeney. Shaw was a thorn in our defence all night, running rings around our players, and Deeney pulled off several reflex stops which van der Sar or Howard themselves would have been proud of. And at Old Trafford, with 68,000 people in the stands and the match globally televised, there is no better time or place to showcase their talents and hope a manager from one of the four leagues above them plucks them from obscurity.

Manchester United verdict: Disappointing on the whole, and worrying as well: Can we not score or create without the services of Ronaldo and Rooney? But one or two bright sparks can be fished out. Firstly, an assured performance from Tim Howard, who showed no signs of lack of match sharpness; a slow recovering of the form that made Wes Brown one of the most admired defenders in the country before his injuries; and an outstanding performance from Phil Bardsley. The others were either bad or nonexistent; Man Utd could easily have been knocked out if not for these 3 players. Oh, and Louis Saha deserves a mention for getting our best chances of the night and working his socks off.

Player to watch: Phil Bardsley. If he continues this way - defending well and confidently, while not being afraid to run up and overlap and help out in the attack, we have another Gary Neville on our hands. As I recall, he performed admirably as well during the worst of the injury period when he was drafted in for Premiership games.


At 6:21 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger JayWalk said...

In a way, they also bor pian. League Cup semi-finals just a few days later. LPPL.


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