By Thomas Doyle
1. The comeback kings strike again
It is becoming something of a theme for Manchester United to make it difficult for themselves this season, and despite being top of the league with notable wins over Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, there is only so long you can continue to give opponents a head-start and live to tell the tale. Fulham, Southampton, Stoke, Liverpool, Braga (twice) and now Aston Villa have all led against United this season, only for Sir Alex Ferguson’s stunning attacking line to claw their way back to victory. While it’s undoubtedly made for more entertaining football, teams with more tactical ability will punish United as they progress in the Champions League.
2. Why always Pea?
Javier Hernandez was in danger of becoming the forgotten man at Old Trafford – after such a scintillating 2010-11 Premier League campaign; he struggled a little in his second season with form and fitness. This, coupled with Danny Welbeck’s form last term and the acquisition of Robin van Persie inevitably cast doubts on his long-term future at the club. However, the Mexican has been in superb form of late. He netted a brace in United’s 3-2 comeback against Braga, scored the winner from the bench against Chelsea in the league, hit another in the 5-4 Capital One Cup defeat to the Blues, and then got an invaluable hat-trick on Saturday evening. The diminutive forward showed great awareness after coming on at half time to find space for each goal, and if he can remain in this form, Ferguson will find it impossible to drop him.
3. Defence must tighten up
It could be argued that with the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones out for the majority of this campaign, the defence would inevitably be under pressure. However, three clean sheet in 17 games in all competitions tells its own story. During that time United have shipped 26 goals, usually unthinkable for a title-challenging side. The saving grace is the explosive form of the forward line – however, if any of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernandez were to suffer a long-term injury, the porous nature of the defence would surely be more heavily scrutinised.
4. Smalling needs time to find form
It is a huge bonus to have Chris Smalling back to full fitness to ease the burden placed on the likes of Rafael and Rio Ferdinand, but if his display at Villa Park was anything to go by, he will need a few weeks in order to regain his composure and match strength. The England defender was easily outmuscled by Cristian Benteke for the first strike by the home side, and looked tired when trying to track the powerful forward down the line. He was however dominant in the air winning several aerial duels against the aforementioned forward. The centre-back is too talented to have true concerns about, but Ferguson may well use the dead-rubber Champions League ties ahead to give Smalling some much-needed game time to come back fighting for the festive glut of fixtures.
5. Scholes does it again
The 37-year-old central midfielder was tasked with running the show in the centre at Villa Park, where he has enjoyed happy memories such as a wonder volley in the league in 2007. The Ginger Prince struggled in the first half and misplaced a few passes, which caused consternation due to his usual impeccable standards. But after half-time – where he presumably got a stern warning from Ferguson – he was back to his old self, and started the comeback with a glorious 60-yard pass to set Hernandez through for the Mexican’s first goal. He may need more time to rest, and still can’t tackle (but he knows what he’s doing), but it’s passes like that which open up teams – and for those, Scholes is still the best in the business.
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