1. Priceless van Persie
For United fans, we can believe the cynics and critics and either be worried about the fact that the Dutchman is seemingly becoming a one man band for us, scoring all of our goals and constantly rescuing us in games, or we can just revel in the fact that we’ve got one of the best players on the planet playing for us and simply having him in our side enhances our chances of silverware this season. Last year we performed a minor miracle to take the Premier League title to the last day but we were appalling in the Champions League and lacklustre in the domestic cup competitions. Many managers, including Roberto Mancini and Martin O’Neill, have already claimed that by persuading Arsene Wenger to part with his talismanic captain in the summer, Sir Alex Ferguson has bought the Premier League title. There’s still a long way to go of course, but as far as the £24 million we parted with to bring the injury plagued 29-year-old to Old Trafford is concerned, it’s already turned into one of the biggest bargains the wily old Scotsman has ever masterminded. He didn’t start the game against West Ham and to be honest, when he came off the bench, he wasn’t that heavily involved. But, when Ryan Giggs’ searching long pass arrowed towards him, he got behind his marker, brought it down from out of the sky and fired across Jussi Jaaskelainen and into the opposite corner as easily as he would open a door.
2. It’s been too long
We last made an FA Cup final in 2007, going down to a late goal in a truly dire game against Chelsea. Prior to that we lost in 2005 on penalties to Arsenal after dominating the game. We last won it the year before that, a 4-0 drubbing of minnows Millwall. The last Wembley final we made was in 1999, a comfortable 2-0 victory over Newcastle on our way to the historic treble. For a lot of teams, five years since their last final appearance and eight since their last win wouldn’t be too catastrophic, but we’re not any old team and it’s been far too long since we had a decent go in probably the most famous and prestigious cup competition in the world. Our history is intertwined with the FA Cup, United is steeped in rich FA Cup tradition, we hold the record as the team to have lifted it the most – 11. The League Cup is a chance for Fergie to give players in the squad who need a game some playing time and to give promising youngsters some vital experience, but the FA Cup is a big deal and I think Fergie has had enough of Chelsea’s dominance of the competition over the last few years, so have the fans. Chelsea have won it three times in the last four years and have won it four times since our 2004 triumph (the first of those four the 1-0 win over us). Despite the fact he left van Persie on the bench against West Ham, Fergie’s team selection suggested he’s had enough and he wants us to make a good fist of winning it this year. True, we’ve had some tough draws the last few years – going to Upton Park in the third round is hardly a walk in the park. In addition, we went out to Liverpool at Anfield last year. We lost in the semi-final to Manchester City at Wembley in 2011; the previous year was the fateful cup shock at home to Leeds United and although they were a Championship side at the time, it was still a local derby and a far from straight forward win before kick-off. In 2009 we made the last four but went out on penalties against Everton and in 2008 we lost in the sixth round at home to a late Portsmouth penalty, having dominated the game and missed a succession of chances. Our spirited late fightback against the Hammers is sure to build spirit within the squad and obviously we’ll be big favourites to win the replay at home. It will still be a tough game but I think it’s about time we made the FA Cup a real priority this year.
3. Hernandez substitution
In the end it counted for little as RvP’s sublime equaliser saved us and earned United a replay, but when Fergie decided to turn to the bench to freshen up his side, I was surprised that he chose to take Javier Hernandez off the field. I think he and Welbeck had been lively throughout so neither had played badly. Perhaps Ferguson had in his mind the fact that the Mexican has had more game time than the young English forward and has also enjoyed the better form and is in good goalscoring form too so Welbeck could do with a little confidence boost, but when you’re looking for a goal, bar van Persie, there’s no one else I would want on the field in a game chasing situation than the Little Pea. The intelligent runs he makes and the pockets of space he finds are so clever and effective that he’s almost impossible to defend against so I was surprised Fergie hauled him off. I wouldn’t have necessarily taken Welbeck off either. He’s so elegant and sleek and is a brilliant link up player. I was more surprised that Kagawa stayed on. He’s a clever player and is having a decent enough debut season for the Reds but it was only his second game back from several months out with injury and you can tell he’s not match sharp yet. Both Hernandez and van Persie are in fine goalscoring form and I think if both of them had been on the pitch, we might have been staring at a win rather salvaging a draw.
4. Spotlight on the veterans
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have had differing seasons thus far. Scholes’ decision to come out of retirement proved inspirational last season, as he rolled back the years and, some would say, worryingly, was our standout performer in midfield. He carried on from where he left off at the beginning of this season too and was instrumental in some of our wins at the start of the campaign, most notably when he came off the bench in our comeback against Southampton, where hat-trick hero van Persie memorably described him as the real man of the match. In the last few weeks, Scholes has started to look every bit the 38-year-old that he is. While he still strokes the ball around simply one minute, keeping possession, then sprays out one of his trademark 40+ metre passes out to the wing the next, his running legs are not what they once were and when playing teams with busy and energetic midfields, he can often be overrun. There are a lot of doubters out there who now think he should call it a day again. While I’m not one of them and am just waiting for the next match he turns in a star showing, the fact that he is only going to get older plays on my mind and highlights how much of a job Fergie has on his hands to try and, eventually, find someone worthy to fill his boots. The Welshman, on the other hand, has begun to find the gears after a slow start and his sublime vision in finding van Persie for the equaliser on Saturday was absolutely stunning. The deft control, second touch out of his feet and the finish from the Dutchman was magnificent and capped a wonderful move but Giggs’ ball was the key part of the move, and the most eye-catching part of it for me. Anyone can hoof a long ball forward in hope of it finding a teammate but Giggs looked up and lofted it out of the reach of the full back, perfectly onto van Persie’s boot, and that is pure class. Giggs is a year older than Scholes but while the diminutive ginger ninja’s legs are fading, Giggsy’s are as good as ever. He may not be able to fly down the flanks like years ago, but he can still get forward, track back and find space. To be honest I still feel both players do and will have a big part to play for the rest of the season. As the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent and they don’t come much classier than United’s two elder statesmen.
5. Our defence struggles against the big men
Much has been made of our defence this season. In recent weeks, with a full complement of defenders available, we’ve improved, enjoying back to back clean sheets in the league against West Brom and Wigan. While we’ve surrendered leads and given away so many early goals, the thing I think we’ve really struggled against more than anything else is our inability to deal with big, physical front men and physical sides in general. Carton Cole is not a magnificent footballer but he enjoys playing against United, and he caused problems all night for Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans on Saturday. He’s a brilliant target man and West Ham certainly played to his strengths in this game. Their two goals also came from aerial balls into our box, with James Collins scoring both of his goals with free headers. Players like Alou Diarra, Guy Demel, Kevin Nolan, James Tomkins, Collins and Cole played a key role, both in attack and defence, all game, and while our creative and clever players tried to pass it around crisply on the floor and looked good doing it in the first half, we couldn’t match them physically in the second half when the hosts were the better side. A lot of the defenders are still young (Phil Jones/Chris Smalling) and are learning the game, while Vidic is still feeling his way back to full fitness. The two recent clean sheets were morale boosting but the West Ham game was a wake-up call that tells us there’s still a lot of room for improvement at the back.
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