When the draw for the Carling Cup Quarter Final was made, those associated with Manchester United may well have had reason to feel fairly confident at progression, and Crystal Palace a chance to cause an upset in a game where they had little to lose in a tie that would provide a welcome distraction from the Championship.
Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a side made up of players perhaps lacking game time in most respects but otherwise fairly experienced, 9 of which were internationals and a bench that was occupied almost exclusively by the youth talent coming through the ranks, save for Lindegaard. The likes of Rooney, Carrick, Nani and Hernandez were left out in favour of potentially giving the youngsters a run out, with Berbatov, Macheda, Valencia and Park all getting starting places.
The first half was a fairly uneventful affair, with both sides failing to register a shot on target for much of the proceedings, United struggling to find a way through a well organised Palace, who themselves were not afraid to get forward, with Zaha deserving particular mention. Early pressure from the visitors unsettled United in the early exchanges, as they struggled to organise themselves with a set plan of attack. Before half time, Fabio went off injured, replaced by Fryers, the first of the youngsters to get a chance to impress. Half time saw the introduction of the much-publicised Ravel Morrison, highly regarded at Old Trafford as one for the future, replacing Berbatov. Although Berbatov had been quiet in the first half, it was a surprise to see him taken off, but it later transpired that he left the stadium in a plastic protective boot suggesting a serious injury to the Bulgarian striker. United started brightly after the break, gelling nicely, maintaining pressure and beginning to find ways through the Palace defence, with Macheda beginning to look sharper than he had done in the first half, for example. However, with Palace still finding routes of attack themselves, their threat was still evident but the opening goal still came as a huge shock to the home support. Ambrose picked up the ball just inside the half taking a couple of touches and from approximately 40 yards out, lashed a rocket of a shot that kept accelerating as it smashed into the top corner. Perfectly hit, and leaving the home side stunned. A response was expected and within 3 minutes of Palace taking the lead, United had the chance to draw level when Macheda was dragged down inside the box. He slotted the resulting penalty home calmly. The remainder of the game looked to be heading to extra time, with play balanced as Palace refused to be broken down without sitting back. Extra time started with both sides continuing to struggle to break each other down effectively, until Palace struck a big blow, with a free kick from the left side of the box, whipped in by Ambrose finding the head of Murray heading powerfully to give his side a 2-1 lead and the potential for an upset. Although there were arguments of him being slightly offside, it will be felt that the defending failed to deal with a dangerous free kick that found it’s man. United responded into the second half, trying to break down a tiring but resilient opposition who did not allow many avenues through. Much of the attack was concentrated through Valencia and although there was a late surge, a clear cut chance failed to materialise as the final whistle came. Crystal Palace had done what many thought unlikely, taking a well deserved victory from Old Trafford, and considering the draw that followed, meant that a semi final clash with Cardiff would result in a Championship side being in the final for the Carling Cup. For United, a poor performance for most on a disappointing evening that saw another lacklustre performance in attack going punished, that led to an apology from Sir Alex Ferguson in his post match interview. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Crystal Palace deserve to go through
First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that Crystal Palace were certainly worthy of their victory. They were organised defensively getting back in numbers and making life difficult for United in not allowing themselves to be broken down. As well as that they always looked dangerous on the attacking, in particular Zaha proving a particular threat, displaying pace and strong foot work in making United’s back line look nervous whenever he came forward. Even in the final stages of the game, they refused to back down and did not allow the home side through cutting out the possibility of a clear cut chance. As mentioned earlier, the second goal was arguably marginally offside, but the failure to deal with the free kick is the more important factor in what was a well taken set piece. A semi final clash with Cardiff awaits them and a trip to Wembley now looks a strong possibility.
2) Chris Smalling – United’s best player
In what was a poor performance all round, Chris Smalling could at least walk away from that game knowing he put in a good performance. Leading the back line and carrying out his defensive duties effectively he was easily the best player for United on the night, looking professional and showing why he has become a regular in being selected for a starting role recently. Valencia also had flashes of attacking threat, although this largely occurred during the latter stages of the game when United began to push forward more, but he struggled to get through on the right wing as Palace closed down effectively most of the time.
3) Certain players may be on borrowed time at Manchester United
With the emergence of highly rated young talent at Old Trafford and with some who were previously revered to such an extent having failed to establish themselves since coming to the fore at United, one might imagine that certain members of the squad may be on borrowed time and indeed may well have played their last game for the Champions. For example, Mame Biram Diouf, although believed to hold much potential when signed, is now 24 having failed to make himself a regular in the first team and is somewhere near the bottom of the pecking order in terms of forwards. Against Palace he had an occasional moment, but overall was ineffective out wide and now one may wonder if it is time he looked to pastures new for more opportunities of first team football. Macheda is younger but since his heroics against Villa a couple of years ago, he has failed to further develop into the quality striker as was hoped. This can be put down in part to injury, but over a couple of seasons one would have expected greater things from the young striker. He was by no mans terrible on Wednesday night, and got better as the game went on, but failed to find a way through a resistant Palace defence and seemed out of sorts out wide as he had started the game. Another loan spell may well do him some good, but with so much talent currently ahead of him, the future does not look too bright at Old Trafford for the Italian striker.
Continued on page two.