By Tony Mogan
Manchester United’s harrowing exit from the Champions League, an ever-increasing injury list and Manchester City’s relentless assault on the defences of teams up and down the country was beginning to give some United fans a slightly unsettling feeling. A week and a half later, those details are now beginning to trickle into the back of people’s memories, at least for the time being. A comprehensively reassuring victory over Wolves, followed by a comfortable win over QPR at Loftus Road which saw United find that fluidity and vibrancy that had been missing recently bought some optimism back, just in time for Christmas. Sticking around in London, United made it eleven goals in three games as they trounced a lifeless Fulham side at Craven Cottage, with an array of fantastic goals and performances reminding everyone what United are capable of. Although City will sit atop the Premier League on Christmas Day, United are once again getting amongst the goals, and look ready to seize upon any slip ups made by the noisy neighbours.
1) Magnificent Nani – Man United’s creative hub
It wasn’t long ago that Nani was constantly fitted with the tag of being consistently inconsistent. But this evening marked another spectacularly productive, and most importantly, selfless performance from the Portuguese winger, who laid on two of United’s five and added to his own personal tally of eight goals this season with an precise header. His driving runs down the right wing caused countless problems for the hapless Chris Baird, Bryan Ruiz or any other Fulham player who thought they could stop him. Whipping in an accurate, first time ball or dizzying his opponent with flawless footwork before playing a delayed cross in both come naturally to Nani now. When he wasn’t bombing down the wing, Nani’s approach work was an absolute joy to watch. Accurate, short passes proceeded by immaculate control and the constant penchant to find a team mate in space made Nani simply irresistible this evening, and when he is in that sort of mood, United follow suit. With ten assists to accompany his eight goals in his 25 appearances this season, Nani’s productivity is instrumental to United’s success.
On a side note, was that his first headed goal for United?
2) United’s away form
A resounding 5-0 victory doesn’t epitomise United’s form away from Old Trafford this term, but it does bring into focus how impressive United have been on the road this season. United have dropped points just twice away from home all season, coincidentally in successive away trips to Stoke and Liverpool. Since the 1-1 draw at Anfield, United picked up all three points in their next five away trips, conceding none. The performances that have gone with those results have varied, and the gradual improvement from pragmatic, carefully dictated 1-0 victories away to Everton, Swansea and Aston Villa to fluid, energetic dominance we saw against West London sides this week has been an enjoyable one. At this point last season, United had picked up just a single victory on the road (a 2-1 victory over Stoke), along with 6 draws, draws marked by late capitulation and thus late equalisers from opposition and an inability to kill off a game when needed. This season, the importance of consistently picking up all three points despite the side struggling to find their best form has been paramount, with Man City grasping the early advantage. United have managed to do this, addressing the problems of last season in the process.
3) More bloody injuries…
The only comedown on what was a gratifying evening for the Reds; the sight of two more players limping off as the list of battled scarred names making up United’s injury list grows. After two laudable performances in central midfield, Phil Jones started the match at right back allowing Smalling the opportunity to switch to his favoured central defensive position, due to Rio Ferdinand picking up a knock in training before the game. Jones was on the receiving end of a nasty elbow from Fulham’s Clint Dempsey early in the first half and was left positively reeling from it. The 19-year-old received quick treatment and was soon back in the thick of it, despite perhaps not knowing where exactly he was, and made a goal-saving challenge to prevent Bryan Ruiz seizing an equaliser. Still looking distinctly dazed, Jones was taken off with a suspected broken cheek bone. Ashley Young, Jones’ replacement was also on the receiving end of a clattering, after going in against Fulham’s Dickson Etuhu. Young has struggled to rediscover that invention and confidence since his toe injury, and tonight’s walloping is another setback for the England international who has swiftly fallen down the pecking order, due to his own misfortune and the scintillating form of Nani and Valencia of late. Jones and Young join an injury list currently occupied by long term absentees Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher, in addition to Ferdinand, Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Michael Owen. When it rains, it pours.
4) Importance of Danny Welbeck
As Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge has been proving why he is a key component to Chelsea’s attacking prowess, Danny Welbeck is getting back in on the act himself, grabbing a deserved goal to highlight a lively performance this evening. Intelligent, tricky and unpredictable, Welbeck seamlessly flows with the likes of Nani and Rooney when on the pitch, and arguably gives United a lot more fluidity when he takes a starting position. Although he may not be as potent in goal as Javier Hernandez, Welbeck offers a more versatile forward option, and was often dropping deep and pulling out wide as United’s rampantly versatile front four tore into hapless Fulham. Diligently remembering his defensive duties was another commendable sight, something the youngster has valiantly improved upon. The fortunes of England’s brightest forward talents in Welbeck in Strurridge is becoming an interesting little subplot this season with the European Championships looming, but on evidence provided thus far, both should be taking a deserved place in Fabio Capello’s squad next summer.
5) Dimitar Berbatov – United’s forgotten man
The 50th United player to score 50 Manchester United goals, it was destined to come in the characteristically sublime, outrageously audacious manner which exemplifies the Bulgarian. Sauntering off the bench with fourteen minutes to play, Berbatov effortlessly positioned himself on the end of Antonio Valencia’s cross, allowing the ball through his legs before sensually flicking it into the back of David Stockdale’s net. A classy goal pulled off with all the stylish nonchalance Berbatov carries with him on the football pitch, and despite the game all but finished, the Bulgarian looked sharp and determined to remind people of what he is capable of. Berbatov will almost certainly find himself involved over the upcoming Christmas and New Year period, and with Rooney rediscovering his lethal touch, Danny Welbeck simply gasping to continue proving his worth to United and England and Javier Hernandez set to return, goals should be expected.