By Thomas Doyle
1. “Game on”
Just two weeks ago, Manchester United were champions elect; eight points clear of a stuttering Manchester City side, the red half of the city was all but certain of title number 20. How different the run-in looks now. After a shock loss away to Wigan, Sir Alex Ferguson is sure to have warned his squad against the dangers of taking their foot off of the gas, yet that is exactly what happened against a strong Everton side on Sunday afternoon. Nikica Jelavic’s opener shocked United into life, yet although United twice had a two-goal advantage, the game never looked safe, with the defence and midfield especially porous. To throw away a two-goal cushion with less than 10 minutes to play is almost unheard of for a United side closing in on a title, and the Monday night clash at the Etihad now looks a whole lot more important to the destination of the title. “Game on”, as the manager said.
2. Welbeck and Rooney are gelling
Few were expecting Danny Welbeck to go from a promising loan spell at Sunderland to first-team regular at United in such a short space of time, yet he seems intent on fulfilling the rich promise that he clearly holds. With a sumptuous curling goal and two clever assists on Sunday, he was at the heart of everything positive that Ferguson’s men created. His delicate flick for Nani’s chipped effort took out Everton’s defence in a heartbeat, and his bamboozling interplay with Rooney for the fourth showed why he is currently preferred up front to Javier Hernandez. The Mexican still appears to be the more clinical of the two, but the young Englishman has so much to his game that Ferguson may have just found the perfect partner for Rooney. The fourth goal was reminiscent of Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole’s movement for a goal in the thrilling 3-3 away draw with Barcelona in the 1998/99 Treble season, and more of the same will be most welcome.
3. Old Trafford is leakier than a sinking ship
Given the monumental task of entering the season without Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes (at least for a while), and the serious injury to captain Nemanja Vidic it seems inconceivable that United are still clear at the top of the league. However, while there have been some fantastically entertaining games at the Theatre of Dreams, Ferguson will be aghast to have seen so many conceded at the usually impregnable fortress. Six at home to City, four to Everton, three to Basel, Atletico Madrid and Blackburn, two to Ajax and Benfica – these are not seemingly the stats of a title-winning team (although with the majority against European teams, this goes some way to explaining the dismal European runs). David de Gea has improved and matured, and can readily be considered the number one keeper, and Jonny Evans is unrecognisable from the shadow of a defender at Upton Park last season, yet there are still gaping holes to exploit. Rafael has done well, but still looks vulnerable while defending, while Patrice Evra’s positional sense seemingly switches from professional to Sunday League in a matter of moments. United may scrape home this season, but work must be done to progress in Europe next season – how Ferguson must long for boring 1-0 home wins.
4. Nani could be crucial on Monday
After a relatively long spell out following a bad tackle in the away win at Arsenal, Nani has come back at just the right time for United. The Portuguese was impressive during his cameo against Aston Villa, and with two assists and a well-taken goal against Everton, deserved more than a point for his display. With Ashley Young facing media heat following a few questionable tumbles of late, it is the perfect time for Nani to remind us exactly why he was Players’ Player of the Year for the club last season – what better way to showcase his return to form and fitness than with a match-winning display at the Etihad?
5. Stick or twist?
Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick have formed a solid relationship once more in the middle of the park during United’s recent fine form, yet they were put under pressure by Everton’s midfield throughout. Phil Neville, Darron Gibson and Leon Osman harried the cultured duo, while Steven Pienaar and Marouane Fellaini were combative in forward positions, increasing the pressure on United. Ferguson may have missed a trick in not sending out Phil Jones to disrupt any potential comeback while the score was still at 4-2, and the image of Evra heading against the bar at 4-2 will cause United fans nightmares if City do indeed take the title. The formation against City will be vital – while Rooney and Welbeck played well together on Sunday, a 4-4-2 against resurgent rivals could well be suicide. One would expect Welbeck to occupy the lone striking role, with Rooney, Valencia, Park/Giggs/Cleverley, Scholes and Carrick behind, yet whether Ferguson sticks for a plucky draw or twists for glory – or failure – is anybody’s guess.