Two consecutive defeats, each conceding 3 goals in performances where United were well below par and as a result lost ground in the title race.
This made the build up to the FA Cup third round tie with manchester City all the more intense. Along with the speculation regarding Wayne Rooney and his rumoured fall out with management, it would appear the pressure was truly on Manchester United, who went in as underdogs to the Etihad Stadium, a fortress for the hosting side of late. Some would be forgiven for being somewhat pessimistic going into the game on the strength of the last two gamers, but that did not dampen the excitement for a derby cup game, the particular highlight of the third round draw.
With the build up to this game dominating, there was also time for the rumour mill to go into overdrive, linking United with a host of names at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson is notoriously reluctant to add to his squad, in part due to a lack of availability of the players he would like. However, with under an hour until kick off, the shock news broke that Paul Scholes had come out of retirement to sign for United until the end of the season and had been named on the bench. The return of a legend to ease the burden on an injury hit squad, but could he really have the impact that many would be romanticising? Regardless, the news would have been a boost to fans and players and would add yet more significance to a hugely anticipated game. As well as the surprise inclusion of the day, the United squad continued to to look a little stronger, with Chris Smalling returning to the defensive line up, slotting into centre back alongside Rio Ferdinand with Phil Jones moved out right sitting in front of Anders Lindegaard in goal. Midfield saw Carrick and Giggs together with Valencia and Nani out wide. Finally, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were selected to lead the attack. The game kicked off with United barely able to get into City’s half, with Mancini’s men able to control much of the possession and United showing nerves, with Lindegaard taking too long to clear the ball and nearly allowing Aguero to challenge him as a notable example. Suddenly, completely against the run of play, Rooney played the ball out right to Valencia, immediately charging for the box in doing so, Valencia bringing the ball forward and whipping in a superb cross that found Rooney to head against the underside of the bar, and bouncing in. Clinical play and a shock 0-1 lead, with Rooney rubbing it in by kissing the United badge in front of the City fans. Things went from bad to worse immediately for City, as Vincent Kompany received a straight red card for a two footed challenge on Nani. Despite this City had their chances, such as Aguero minutes later drawing a superb save from Lindegaard with a curling 20 yard effort heading for the top corner. However, at the half hour mark, United doubled their lead when Welbeck improvised a volley when a cross came off Lescott, to finish into the corner. A great showing of skill and athleticism to put his side 0-2 up. With tempers flaring and cards being shown it would not have been a surprise to see another red card at some point during the game, the referee being kept suitably busy and 7 minutes from half time, judged Kolarov to have fouled Welbeck in the box, awarding United a penalty. The resulting spot kick by Rooney was saved, but the rebound went unchallenged as Rooney made it 0-3 before half time. With fans seeking revenge and making the most of their time to gloat (including performing the infamous Poznan), United were in ecstasy and cruising. For the second half, City brought off Silva and Johnson, possibly as damage limitation. Despite this and the one man deficit, they pulled a goal back, after Evra conceded a free kick, which was sweetly placed over the wall and into the corner leaving Lindegaard flailing. 1-3 and game on. With both teams having their moments going forward anybody would have been forgiven for thinking City were a man down at all.
After 57 minutes, the moment many had been waiting for arrived as Paul Scholes stripped off and came on for Nani. An unlikely second debut at 37 years of age. The referee was centre of attention again as the lively game saw another penalty appeal as Valencia was brought down by Kolarov, and although most agree the penalty should have been given, Chris Foy waved away the appeals. Moments later, it was 2-3, as Milner intercepted Scholes’ pass and crossed for Aguero who’s shot was mishandled by Lindegaard and Smalling was beaten to the resulting rebound. Tensions reached new heights as City fans ramped up the volume and United suddenly looking edgy. With United very much on the back foot, Ferguson opted for a conservative approach, bringing off the impressive Welbeck and replacing him Anderson. The play on the field adopted a more cautious approach, with United looking to keep the ball and tire out the opposition to see themselves through to the final whistle, and despite passages where this worked, City refused to give in, and there was yet more controversy late on when Penalty appeals for City were waved away when there seemed a certain handball by Jones. There was still time for Mancini’s side to cause problems as the final whistle loomed but their efforts as United would have been relieved to hear the final whistle that saw them through to the next round of the FA Cup with a 2-3 victory over their fierce rivals. After a roller coaster ride of a match, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Refereeing was significant, poor decisions for and against both sides
Chris Foy certainly caused the most controversy in what was bound to be a fiery match at the best of times. After what was an arguably justified, if harsh, red card against Kompany, he appeared to struggle with controlling proceedings from there on. He was called into action again for the penalty decision against Kolarov, which was correct but left some questioning why no card was produced. He certainly produced his fair share of yellow cards, but also missed some big decisions in the second half, notably two potential penalties. When Kolarov again was involved, this time bringing down Valencia, the appeals were waved away despite looking a clear penalty, but naturally given the decisions earlier on in the game it probably would have been considered brave to give another one. However, United would likely feel aggrieved considering moments later City brought it back to a 1 goal game when Aguero pounced on Lindegaard’s fumble. The other penalty that was missed will have left City upset, with Jones certainly getting his hand to the ball late on, something which potentially meant an equaliser and possible replay in what was a dramatic afternoon of football.
2) The red card was harsh but has justification
There are many that will state the red card was not justified and was extremely harsh on Kompany. However, when one considers what happened, we can see there is reason for it to be given even if it appears a little harsh. Yes, Kompany got the ball and Nani was not hurt, in fact appeals were not even that strong. However, to go in two-footed as he did is simply not accepted these days and to put himself in the position to do such a thing is something only Kompany is responsible for. He will have known that such tackles are readily punished these days so why give the referee the justification to pull out the red card? The excuse was given and it was acted on, even if we see the harshness of such a decision so early on. We may find that the red card is rescinded, but if the appeal fails it will be this aspect that it fails on.
3) Signing of Paul Scholes – shrewd or a sign of desperation?
With the unexpected announcement that Paul Scholes was to come out of retirement until the end of the season, many United fans took to Twitter and other forms of media to express their welcome to a United legend, brought back to bolster a midfield short on numbers in recent weeks. Of course there were also some exercising caution at what impact, if any, his signing would bring and if it was a desperate attempt to bring in numbers in a struggling midfield at present. Certainly his presence and experience adds an extra option and given the fact he has not been out of retirement too long, one imagines he is not too rusty in the skills department. However, the sceptical among us also have a valid argument that even last season pre-retirement his impact had been diminishing and that we should not expect miracles for a signing intended to add weight to a weakened squad. Still, the boost in morale it will have provided would do no harm and many fans grew excited as he warmed up and took his place on the pitch in the second half. Despite a clear lack of fitness as a result of a lack of regular training over the months, emphasised by his struggle for breath by the end as well as his mishap in giving the ball away to Milner that allowed City’s second goal, there were positives to his appearance. Most obvious was his almost miserly pass completion rate, giving away very little with a success rate of 97% of the 71 passes played. Impressive to say the least, but it remains to be seen what role he has to play in the coming weeks and months during the business end of the season.
Continued on page two.