When Manchester United were drawn with Leeds United for the third round of the Carling Cup, there was plenty of anticipation and excitement for the revival of what has been a bitter rivalry for many years. As well as this, Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of two seasons ago when his side were knocked out of the FA Cup by a League One Leeds side at Old Trafford. Due to this, going into the game Leeds coach Simon Grayson was one of the rare examples of a coach with a 100% record over Ferguson….. One game, one win. United lined up with a team that was both familiar and unfamiliar for certain reasons. The side in question contained many experienced names such as Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Park Ji-Sung, Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Fabio Da Silva as well as a few fringe players such as Macheda and Diouf that had been due a run out of some sort. However, the way in which they lined up was certainly unusual with Carrick occupying central defence, Valencia at right back (although this is something that has happened occasionally), Diouf and Macheda occupied the wings and debutant Ezekiel Fryers partnering Carrick, despite being a left back. Despite this, United took to the task at hand with professionalism, putting aside any potential upset in the first half by taking a 3 goal lead courtesy of a brace from Owen and a superb piece of skill from Giggs on the stroke of half time. This allowed more of the promising stars of tomorrow to be given a chance, and the game was seen out with a comfortable 0-3 victory and United safely through to the next round. So, with that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Michael Owen – the forgotten man, still performing
Michael Owen may have found himself lower down the pecking order, particularly after the signing of Javier Hernandez as well as the emergence of Danny Welbeck and due to recurring injuries. However, his attitude to the place in the squad and his attitude when selected has often been a positive point that has won him fans at Old Trafford. Tuesday night was a demonstration of this professionalism and the example he sets as a striker to the younger members of the Old Trafford set up, providing a constant headache for the Leeds defence and grabbing two well taken goals, the second in particular acting as a display of powerful finishing. Although his opportunities have been limited so far, there is little doubt that Owen will have his moments to deliver and have an impact on United’s season in their search for success.
2) Dimitar Berbatov – The New Paolo Maldini…..
Dimitar Berbatov looked a striker short of confidence during Tuesday night’s game. This was rather understandable due to his inability to win a starting place in recent weeks and a general lack of action otherwise. It appeared as though he struggled to get with the pace of the game, unable to get involved with the play as much as he would have liked, with much of the play being channelled through the wings. In fact he could be seen to be dropping back deeper than perhaps he should have, although this is not unusual in the way Berbatov often plays. His most notable contribution in the first half was two blocks from Leeds most dangerous play when United failed to deal with a set piece appropriately early on. This is not to say Berbatov had a bad game as such, he still displayed much of the skill and good touch that he is known for, but is definitely in need of a confidence boost and more regular match time. The most impressive aspect of the game, however, was his volunteering to take up central defence when the impressive Fryers went off, reducing the side to ten men (Fryers explained, via twitter, this was due to cramp @efryers). The “languid” Bulgarian made rather a good effort of partnering Carrick at the back, made more surprising by the revelation from Michael Owen after that he often volunteers to defend in training.
3) Paul Pogba – Plenty of Potential
A comfortable lead at half time was probably exactly what Sir Alex Ferguson was hoping for, allowing him to hand debuts to some youngsters as substitutes with little risk of throwing the game away. The first of these, replacing the evergreen Ryan Giggs, was French midfielder Paul Pogba. There had been much talk regarding this youngster, with many touting him for great things and the starlet shining brightest of them all. Of course it would have been unrealistic to expect miracles of the young lad, but fans will have been encouraged by what they saw. He settled into the game nicely, showing glimpses of what he is capable of, a notable example being a long range pass from midfield out right, straight to feet. His combative ability and his appearing to be unfazed in light of some tough play from opposition was impressive. United fans will be hoping to see more of him as he gets blooded in to the senior squad and potentially making himself a regular feature sometime in the future.
4) Ezekiel Fryers – Composed
One debutant to start the game was young Fryers, a left back who was given the honour of partnering Carrick in the centre of defence before coming off with cramp late on. On reflection one must say the young defender had a composed and solid game, keeping a clean sheet and putting in an encouraging performance throughout. To start a game such as that, in a hostile environment and rise above it to perform solidly and focus on the task at hand is admirable in someone so young and inexperienced, and one hopes his development will continue so that United find themselves with another world class left back for years to come.
5) Squad depth and utilisation is impressive
One cannot help but be impressed by the way the squad has been used for various purposes in recent times. Antonio Valencia at right back continues to defy logic, holding position well and proving defensively capable for a player who is generally attack minded. Such talents could become a real asset latter in the season when injuries creep in and options run short. In fact the defensive make up was quite strange, particularly towards the end, with Fryers coming off and United finding themselves with a winger, a central midfielder and a striker occupying 3 of the 4 defensive positions. The use of two strikers out on the wings could have gone wrong but on the occasion came off relatively well. It ought to be noted that it worked better for Diouf on the right rather than Macheda on the left, who seemed to struggle to make an impact as much as he could have in the first half, whereas Diouf used his pace to create promising positions and get involved in many attacking plays. A final point ought to be made of Ryan Giggs, who once again demonstrated his silky skills with a ball at his feet when on the stroke of half time he nutmegged a challenging defender and struck the ball with the outside of his foot, to be deflected in. A little fortunate perhaps, but extremely satisfying to see nonetheless. Overall an all round professional and solid performance from United, perhaps dropping off a little in the second half against a Leeds side who refused to give in, but the chance to give some young starlets a chance to shine from a comfortable position will have been what Sir Alex Ferguson wanted, and will have little complaint with the manner in which his side progressed through to the fourth round of the Carling Cup.