A visit from Stoke City is the perfect way for United to round off a hectic Christmas schedule. It’s not that The Potters are the worst team in the Premier League it’s just that their record against United is deplorable- 100% loss rate in the EPL.
As the Manchester City trophy cabinet will testify -records are made to be broken and with an imminent visit from everyone’s favourite shell suit wearers from up the M62 it was obvious United were going to rest one or two players, so nothing could be taken for granted.
You can usually tell any team’s title credentials by the quality of their fringe players and when I saw that United were missing Anderson, Rooney, Rio and Carrick- yet still had a very strong team it filled me with confidence.
Admittedly Stoke are hardly the toughest test when it comes to being slightly under-strength and the game was not a total walkover, but if United can continue to change the starting line up and get results then the chances of ‘our trophy’ coming back in May look good enough for Fred Done to already pay out on.
In the past when we’ve had unsuccessful seasons, you can almost see it coming by the standard of our second string. Players like Bellion, Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson were the backbone of our subs bench in 2004-06 and what happened during those years?
Now though United’s squad suddenly looks a lot brighter, in no small part due to the fact that Anderson, Park, Carrick and dare I say maybe even Gibson have laughed in the face of transfer rumours and shown what they’re capable of.
The way Smalling and Chicharito have slotted in has exceeded practically everyone’s expectations. With Chelsea having to rely on the likes of Sturridge and Ramires to fill in when they’re missing key men, City having a hard time keeping all their superstars happy and Arsenal missing one tough nut let alone one to back him up, United’s squad looks by far the strongest and most harmonious.
So what did we learn from the visit of Tony Pulis’s men, other than if we had a decent free kick taker we’d probably have won the league by now and Darron Gibson still thinks it obligatory to shoot at least every other touch of the ball.
1. Nani is back with a vengeance. Any worries that it may take Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha time to get back into his stride were obliterated last night as he was arguably United’s best player.
Running at defenders picking out some wonderful passes and a great left-footed goal all gave everyone notice that he is more than back into his swing after missing the last few games through injury.
With Antonio Valencia back in training the prospects of those two slick haired wonders driving down the flanks must have full backs already shaking with anxiety.
Nani showed the full array of talents at his disposal last night and if he could only take a free kick he’d be the equal of his Portuguese predecessor- almost.
2. Smalling is getting everyone buzzing. What is it about Sir Alex Ferguson proving everyone wrong? He must wake up in the morning look at the papers and laugh in the knowledge that whatever rubbish is being written by the Chelsea fan’s in Fleet Street will soon be exposed for the nonsense it is. A few months ago many people questioned the wisdom in buying a player who’d only made a handful of appearances for Fulham and during that time and seemed a tad error prone to say the least. However any doubts anyone had over whether Smalling was either good enough or ready to play for a club the size of Manchester United have been quickly quashed as the young defender seems to go from strength to strength.
The Rio Ferdinand comparisons have been coming thick and fast and while I’m loathe to heap such a heavy expectation on any player, I cannot help but see why.
Against Stoke Smalling showed exactly why he’s leap frogged Jonny Evans in the defensive choices with an assured performance.
Confident on the ball and able to handle the physical and aerial test of Kenwyne Jones, Smalling was arguably the night’s biggest high point.
If he can continue in his current vein and not let the praise or expectation go to his head- or overwhelm then he could have a very bright future ahead of him.
3. Darren Fletcher seems to be over his dip in form. Am I the only one who’s noticed Fletcher doesn’t seem to have been himself in recent games? Going back to the Wigan game he seemed a little off the pace, especially with his passing. Then came the games against West Ham and Arsenal where again he seemed a little out of sorts.
After returning from injury Fletcher was thrown into the game against West Brom -initially as a right winger which did him nor United any good and again didn‘t have the best of games.
Last night however, Fletcher seemed to be back to his best. It may not have been a vintage Super Darren Fletcher barnstorming performance but it was exactly the sort of effort that United needed: solid and energetic. If Fletcher could find some consistency then he could be the heir to Roy Keane’s throne which has still been left vacant since the Hero of Turin departed in 2005. When he’s on top form there isn’t a midfielder in the world who can get the better of him, let’s just hope if he is picked for the Liverpool game, he plays like he did in the first half against them at Old Trafford and not the second.
4. Patrice Evra- J’adore vous. My love for the French left back has been well documented by me ever since I started blogging and last night he reminded me why. It may have been Nani and Chicharito who took all the headlines, but Evra playing his fourth game in ten days looked as though he’d been rested for the past six weeks. Bombing down the left flank like a really fast left footed football player, Evra was his usual brilliant self. Evra even found time to shrug off that tag wearing sideshow Bob hair-styled former dipper Jermaine Pennant.
All the Chelsea fans who insist that Ashley Cole is the best left back on the world should put their pie n mash down for a few seconds and take a look at the games over the Christmas period. While the fixtures seem to have caught up with Cole recently, Evra goes from strength to strength.
With Rafael doing his best Evra impression on the right hand side, a United line up that could very soon feature Evra, and Nani on one side and Rafael and Valencia on the other, is in all honesty- saliva inducing.
5. Darron Gibson may still have a future at Old Trafford. I’m going to be totally honest and admit with the form of Anderson and Carrick, I genuinely thought Gibson may be on his way. Admittedly one decent game against Stoke doesn’t exactly guarantee a place in United’s starting eleven, but Gibson has been moving in the right direction lately- obviously it’s a lot easier to do so when you’re getting picked. The problem with Gibson- other than his fondness for constant shooting- is he’s always going to suffer with comparison with his team mates. He’s also always going to come off looking second best. His passing is not as wide ranging as Carrick’s, his engine not as high tempo as Fletcher’s. he can’t carry the ball like Anderson nor dominate a game like Scholes. Despite these factors it doesn’t make Gibson a bad player. He showed against Stoke that while he’s arguably not the sort of player you’d want to see starting 30 games a season for United there’s no reason he can’t do a job as a useful squad player.
As he’s shown in the past Gibson is a capable midfielder and although at the age of 23 he’s no longer a ‘youngster’ there are elements to his game that if developed could make him the player he looked like becoming two seasons ago.