After the defensive nightmare that was the 3-4 victory over Reading, Manchester United went into their clash with Cluj having qualified top of their group in the Champion’s League. They had been afforded the luxury of rotating the side and resting players that could be involved for Sunday’s clash with Manchester City, in need of a vast improvement in certain areas of the side for such a big game.
Sir Alex Ferguson, sitting in the stands on this occasion, named a much changed side from the weekend, opting for David De Gea in goal, with Scott Wootton and Chris Smalling in front of him. Phil Jones took place at right back with Buttner at left back. The midfield involved Ryan Giggs, Nick Powell and Tom Cleverley. Up front stood Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney.
The first half was a spell with little to offer at times, with little bursts of action that threatened to open the scoring. While United had more possession, both sides were guilty of affording the other chances to take the lead. The visitors threatened to capitalise on United’s weaknesses from set pieces and crosses, more than once creating problems as the ball was played in, with poor clearances causing issues for the back line, and giving the ball away easily a recurring problem. The away side were guilty of being too casual on the ball at the back, with Danny Welbeck in particular causing them problems, threatening the goalkeeper on the ball, and successfully dispossessing them midway through the first half, to put Cleverley through on goal, only to take a heavy first touch and get blocked by the opposing keeper.
Although Cluj grew in confidence as the half progressed, it was the home side who had the best chance to open the scoring just before half time. First, Smalling’s header was well kept out, before a double chance, with Rooney’s looping shot from the right to the top left corner was kept out, and soon after a cross came in, with Smalling’s header from close range glancing wide. As the half drew to a close, Cleverley was withdrawn, limping with a calf injury, replaced by Paul Scholes.
The second half began with Untied earning a free kick, with Buttner putting his effort high and wide. A good chance fell too Rooney as he was played in by Powell, but he tried to pass to Hernandez and the chance went by. Cluj also found themselves with opportunities, notably when De Gea carelessly kicked the ball straight at the opposition and leaving the defence open to attack.
It would not take long for the deadlock to be broken, Paul Scholes attempted a pass in midfield only to give the ball away, the resulting break gave Alberto room from 25 yards out to strike at goal, his stunning effort coming in off the post, leaving De Gea with no chance. United would be frustrated in their efforts for an equaliser. They were to find the opposing goalkeeper in good form, making good saves and commanding his area well as United looked fairly blunt up front, despite some good play. Indeed, Cluj saw out the game 0-1 at a subdued Old Trafford, although it was not enough for the side as Galatasaray won their game to take second spot.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) David De Gea to start Sunday?
Opinion was unanimous that Anders Lindegaard had something of a nightmare at the weekend. The Dane appeared to lose all command of his area and seemed hesitant in his actions. He was part of a defensive catastrophe that seemed incapable of dealing with any cross or set piece that came their way. For Wednesday’s game, David De Gea was brought back in, despite Sir Alex’s claim of not wanting to rotate only days prior. One must wonder if this means he will continue on Sunday. In my opinion, he is the better of the two goalkeepers and should have regained his place sooner. Constant rotation of them does not help their confidence and leads to an unsettled defence. Solidity starts with regularity with the goalkeepers and although he can be prone to mistakes, De Gea is young and given the chance, should continue to develop into the keeper that Sir Alex invested so much money in.
2) The benefits of early qualification
It would be fair to say that United were not particularly good on Wednesday night. Going forward they lacked a clinical edge, and at the back they were prone to panic at the back, creating difficult situations from getting some of the basics wrong, such as clearances. As well as this, the ball was given away far too often, with United perhaps taking the game too casually and suffering the consequences as a result. However, having qualified, it did allow others squad members game time, as it had done with Galatasaray and provided them with Champion’s League experience. Nick Powell showed yet more glimpses of his quality, playing good passes and looking active in midfield.
It would have been a valuable experience for Wootton, who asserted himself well at the heart of the defence, guilty of a couple of naive mistakes but otherwise impressing.
Of course, the main benefit is the resting of players that would be expected to play on Sunday. The likes of Ferdinand, Evra, Carrick and Van Persie were given the night off. Wayne Rooney was started and finished the match, although it was a relatively quiet performance from the England striker.
Some may state that if United were to play this way against City at the weekend, they could expect a beating, however, it is highly likely that much of the side that started against Cluj will not be starting on Sunday, although it must be said that there needs to be some improvement from the performance against Reading to have a strong chance of victory.
3) Phil Jones regaining match fitness
With Chris Smalling coming back and Phil Jones now making his return, United’s defensive options have swelled, despite their well documented difficulties at times this season. The Englishman played at right back and did well as he continues to gain match fitness. He was active at right back, doing his defensive duties well and getting forward often, looking to play in crosses and looking energetic. Unfortunately, such play was to come to nothing but greater defensive options are bound to be welcome with Nemanja Vidic due to come back into the side soon providing a further boost to the side.
4) Cleverley to join Anderson on the sidelines?
When Anderson was taken off injured against Reading, many fans collectively sighed in disappointment as the Brazilian who had looked so encouraging in recent games looked to be spending time on the sidelines with a hamstring injury. On Wednesday, Cleverley was withdrawn with moments left in the first half, a worrying sign for United’s midfield. If Sir Alex’s concerns are verified, it leaves a problem given the injuries to Nani and Valencia and the options that remain. Questions remain over Fletcher’s ability to complete 90 minutes as well as the use of Scholes and Giggs given the standard of opposition in the next game, and United’s vulnerability in midfield.
It will be interesting to see how this is handled in the coming weeks and whether or not United suffer for it as a result. There are options that could mean adequate cover and fans will be hoping they come off without much harm.
5) On to the next round
So, despite two consecutive defeats in the final games, United progress to the last 16 of the Champion’s League. Finishing top there is an advantage and Sir Alex will feel pleased with the progress given last season’s failings as well as the struggles of the other English sides, with exception to Arsenal. Despite the top place, there is potential for tough opposition in the next round, although one could argue that every game from then on is tough for any club. No game is to be taken for granted in Europe and although at times United have not been to a high standard in their group, one hopes the potential opponents in the next round will spur Sir Alex’s men to improve and step up their play to remain competitive and progress further.