By Tony Mogan.
Manchester United entered Sunday’s titanic third round FA Cup battle with their noisy neighbours on the back of a truly miserable week. A humiliating loss at home to rock bottom Blackburn Rovers followed by dismal 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Newcastle United, where the Reds looked as second best as humanly possible marked a horrid run on the pitch, while uncomfortable rumours regarding the relationship between the manager and Wayne Rooney left a sour taste off it. Factor in injury woes that are quickly becoming a standard footnote, and it was no surprise that United entered Sunday’s fray as definitive under dogs. However, as Sunday morning broke and the sensational story of Paul Scholes coming out of retirement emerged, the mood was expeditiously lifted, and after 45 minutes of swift counter-attacking football which saw United lead 3-0 before the interval, those mid-week worries faded, temporarily at least. At one point it did appear that United were to deliver onto City the sweetest of revenge, a hammering at their own ground that would of dispelled those nightmare images of that 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford last October for good. It wasn’t to be though, as a resilient City, backed by admirable tactical nous from Roberto Mancini managed to almost claw their way back. Almost. There are still lingering issues for United to address, but the joy of knocking holders Manchester City out of a competition they had to wait 35 years to get their hands on will keep heads high as the two continue to duel for the Premier League crown over the coming months.
1) Scholesey’s Return
In a nostalgia-laden 24 hours, we were all treated to the return of two of the most iconic footballers English football has seen. Thierry Henry’s return to North London had been discussed, dismissed and discussed again for the better part of two weeks, whereas Paul Scholes’ decision to take the field as a player again was as out of blue as it gets. The notion had been talked about fervently in the midst of Man United’s injury crisis, and was indeed was the subject of The Sun’s back page Saturday morning, but realistically, how many of us envisaged him coming off the bench Sunday afternoon? As we all saw however, the fairy tale return didn’t go quite according to plan at first, as a misplaced Scholes pass allowed Manchester City in for their second goal following his introduction. Putting that to the back of our minds however, the role Scholes is likely to play for the remainder of the season became clear as the game went on. As City looked to snatch an equaliser, the metronomic passing that has so regularly defined Scholes’ game was there to see, as he and Michael Carrick calmly kept possession and dictated play in the final 20 minutes of the game, killing off City’s ambition. Scholes incredibly completed 71 passes at a 97% completion rate during the 33 minutes he was on the pitch. That was more passes completed than any City player during the entire game. Although his legs may be all but gone at 37, Scholes will have a role to play. The idea of experience being so important to a title challenge is a line frequently paraded around in football discussion, but its standing is paramount, and the presence of Scholes alongside the likes of Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will undoubtedly ease the burden of expectancy that will come to rest on the shoulders of these young players as the season progresses. His presence on the pitch, sporadic and carefully timed as it is expected to be, will be invaluable.
2) Chris Hoy should avoid Twitter for a few days.
Before Christmas, four time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy was on the receiving end of some rather nasty comments on Twitter from a number of simple minded Spurs fans, who had inexplicably mistook the multiple gold medal winning athlete for Premier League ref Chris Foy. Foy had earlier had made one or two questionable decisions during Tottenham 2-1 defeat at Stoke City, leading to Spurs’ band of keyboard warriors lambasting him in the Twitterverse, albeit targeting the wrong man. In the wrong profession. Following Chris Foy’s afternoon on Sunday, it might be a good idea for the perturbed Chris Hoy to avoid his Twitter account for a couple of days, just in case enraged City fans make a similar mistake. Vincent Kompany’s 12th minute red card for a challenge on Nani had Roberto Mancini irate, and there was no shortage of criticism regarding the decision following the game, with an appeal swiftly following. Although it did appear that Kompany dived in with two feet off the ground, the Belgian international appeared to be in control of his body at all times, and did cleanly win the ball from Nani, who made no objection to the challenge. Two questionable penalty incidents in the second half followed, Antonio Valencia being denied a clear penalty after being taken down by Aleksandar Kolarov and the ball striking Phil Jones’ hand after it rebounded off a stray leg in the closing stages. Both incidents were ignored and Foy’s decision to not award a penalty on either occasion played a pivotal role in the outcome of the game. Not an easy afternoon for Chris Hoy. I mean Foy.
3) The Mancunian Candidate.
Just as he was in the encounter at Old Trafford earlier on in the season, Danny Welbeck entered another momentous Manchester Derby as the sole Mancunian on show. A selfless display where the striker chased every single ball down and stretched City’s defence to its limits was marked by a fantastically taken goal in the first half, carried out with all the confidence and panache of a genuine superstar in the making. The technique for his goal was superb; Welbeck carefully watched the ball drop from the air and connected with an audacious volley on the stretch, keeping the ball low and directing it towards the furthest corner of the net. A trend that is becoming increasingly common is how Welbeck performs in these so called ‘big games’; currently he has goals against Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. Long may it continue.
4) Chris Smalling’s (very much) welcomed return.
Chris Smalling returned to United’s backline following a bout of tonsillitis on Sunday, and he slotted back in effortlessly, tidying up a United defence that has been indecisive and unsure of themselves during the previous two games. United shipped an unprecedented six goals against Blackburn and Newcastle United, where defensive performances were marred by miscommunication and indecisiveness, as Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones failed to assert themselves. Smalling’s return to the first eleven and an improvement in United’s defensive organisation as a unit are no coincidence. The issue regarding whether Phil Jones is a central defender of a central midfielder is a debate that will rage on throughout the season, but it is not unfair to point out that Jones’ weakest moments in a United shirt have come when Sir Alex has played him as a centre back. As much as we love his marauding jaunts up the pitch, they can become a liability when huge gaps are left at the back, and while Jones has pace and strength in abundance to get back and rectify this, it can be a very dangerous game to play. As Rio Ferdinand still looks worrying off form and Nemanja Vidic is a long term absentee, Smalling is arguably United’s best central defence option. Perennially calm, an effective passer and an intelligent reader of the game, the former Maidstone United player is paramount to United’s defensive solidarity.
5) Manchester City take place in the fourth round after ‘moral victory’ over United.
While there is an element of understanding to some of the grievances upheld by Manchester City’s players and backroom staff, the inevitable outpour on Twitter from some of City’s players made for interesting reading. After the result, Micah Richards unleashed this heartfelt message to his legion of followers:
”We lost today but in our heads we won! Our team spirit is inspirational! The fans kept us going for 90 mins! Thank u. Ctid”
Fair play for winning the game in your heads, Micah. I suppose a nod of approval should be thrown in the direction of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and co while we are at it though, for winning in their heads, and on the pitch.
Captain Vincent Kompany also piped up with:
“The fans, the players and every single person involved with Manchester City FC were incredible today. Definitely the moral winners of this game.”
City are currently awaiting the fourth round draw for the Moral Cup Winners Cup. And while they may be seen as the ‘moral’ winners in Kompany’s eyes, congratulations again must be extended to United for being the ‘actual’ winners.