Date: 17th January 2013 at 12:15am
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4th Round awaits

With the FA celebrating 150 years, it seemed appropriate that some FA Cup games would accompany all the talk. On Wednesday night, Manchester United welcomed West Ham to Old Trafford, to settle their 3rd round tie in a replay. 

Sir Alex Ferguson named a vastly different side to the one that took victory over Liverpool at the weekend. In goal stood Anders Lindegaard, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling paired up in front of him. Buttner was at left back, with Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, saw Ryan Giggs and Anderson centrally, with Valencia and Nani on the right and left wings respectively. Up front, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney were to be found, leading the line.

The first half saw United take control of proceedings, although both sides had chances to get forward, it was the home side who found the best opportunities to open up the scoring. Indeed, within 10 minutes, it was 1-0, Anderson played a through ball that found Hernandez just onside, and as the Mexican moved forward he squared the ball across for Rooney to meet it and finish, celebrated with a tribute to his recently-passed sister-in-law.

Much of the play looked to catch the opposition on the break, with plenty of play utilising the pace of Nani and Valencia although clear cut chances were hard to come by. Going forward United looked fairly slick but the occasional lack of control and rustiness in some players showed. Nani came closest to doubling the lead when presented with the ball in the box, he fired low at goal, beating the goalkeeper, only for the ball to be well stopped by Potts on the line. Soon after a cross came in, with Smalling getting his head to it, but his effort was straight at the keeper.

With half time approaching, there was time for one more save to be forced, with Rooney getting a shot away from distance, with Jaaskelainen diving low to parry it and able to recover enough to prevent it going for a corner. It ensured the sides went in at half time with just the goal between them.

The second half was a different story, with West Ham applying more pressure than they had done. United on the other hand, seemed to sit back a little more, seemingly not quite knowing how to handle it. It was a similar story to that at the weekend, when Liverpool came forward on commencing the second half. Indeed, there were times when West Ham threatened to sneak their way back into the game. However, for all the potential, the back line were able to deal with plenty of what was thrown at them. In fact, despite being on the back foot, it was United who would have the better of the chances. Hernandez in particular had opportunities to put the game beyond reach, smashing over with the goal in his sights and getting on the end of some tempting passes without being able to convert.

However, United’s attacks were sporadic in the face of increased pressure, and with over 20 minutes remaining Carrick was introduced to shore up the midfield. 10 minutes later, United were presented with an opportunity to put the visitor’s threat to rest, when a penalty was awarded for handball. Rooney stepped up to take it with a short run up, and blasted his effort straight and over the net, more rugby conversion than football spot-kick.

As the game was drawing to a close, the ball did eventually find the net again, with Ryan Giggs playing a peach of a ball for Hernandez, who finished well, only to be called back, correctly, for offside. So it was, despite West Ham showing plenty of aggression and attacking intent in the latter stages of the game, it was not to be as United held on for a 1-0 victory and progress to the 4th round of the FA Cup, to face Fulham.

With that, here are five things to be taken from the game.

1) Far from a classic, but job done

It would be fair to say that Wednesday night’s contest was far from the most memorable of clashes in recent memory. Although open, with both sides looking to make their own mark on the game, it never seemed to step up a notch, complimented by the subdued nature of Old Trafford on the night. United lacked that killer touch when they got forward, squandering chances when presented with them, and provoking groans from the home support with some of their play. West Ham improved in the second half, and no doubt made United nervous as the clock ran down with only a goal in it. However, it is hard to think of a moment when Lindegaard was truly tested.

However, whatever the standard of the game, fans will have been pleased to see their side safely progress to the next round of the FA Cup, ready to take on Fulham. Sir Alex will be hoping for a greater showing from his side in the Cup than has occurred in recent years as their campaign for success in it starts now.

2)  Inviting too much pressure

At 1-0 up and fairly comfortable in the first half, the second half became a story of the visitors piling on pressure as they looked for a way back into the game. Suddenly, the Londoners had greater control in midfield and gave United a tense end to the game. This was, in part, due to United’s inability to finish the game when they could, particularly with the penalty. Although they held on for the win, and the clean sheet, there must be some thought as to why it is that after a period of control, when side’s get more aggressive United suddenly look more panicked and more vulnerable to conceding. It occurred against Liverpool and is something to note in a season when the back line has struggled to establish itself and pressure has been allowed to build.

The reasons have been discussed throughout so there is no need to go into great detail once again regarding this, be it the goalkeepers lacking a voice and command of the area, or simply the constant shuffling around with so many injuries. Whatever the problem, one cannot rely on the attack to get the side out of every single jam it finds itself in.

3) The return of Nani – for better or worse

With speculation about Nani’s future rife prior to the start of the new year, many wondered if he would be seen at Old Trafford again given the timing of his injury and the impending transfer window. However, Sir Alex dismissed such rumours, and on Wednesday night, he was to be found on the left wing. It did not take long for fans to see the Nani that is so familiar. Theatrical attempts at winning fouls, some pace, although that will improve with match fitness, hit and miss with crosses and the constant threat on goal that he possesses. He came close to scoring in the first half, were it not for the brilliant goal line stop from Potts.

Nani is a figure that tends to divide the Old Trafford faithful. He has his flaws but on his best day he can truly shine. It may be safe to assume that he believes his own hype rather too often, and feels he is entitled when really he needs to simply get on with the job at hand more often and receive the fruits of his labour further down the line. Given the state of United’s wings in recent weeks, he is still has a part to play at the club and gives Sir Alex further options. One hopes he can play a pivotal role as the business end of the season approaches.

4) Injury returns and squad rotation

Sir Alex made a host of changes for this replay. The likes of Anderson, Nani and Rooney who have spent time on the sidelines lately got a chance to stretch their legs and make a return to match fitness. All had their moments and were fairly impressive on their return to action. Anderson played a superb pass to cut open the opposition defence to allow Hernandez in and showed good bursts of energy, although his touch at times left a little to be desired, perhaps due to “rust”. Rooney was also a source of danger, charging down well to meet Hernandez’s unselfish play for the solitary goal. The only issue there is with the awful penalty. Regardless of his time away, Rooney and penalties have not been a particularly successful combination and there must be some consideration given to changing this. Perhaps providing Hernandez or Van Persie with the spot kick duties will prove more fruitful.

There were some notable displays out of the game. The defence, despite the pressure applied, coped fairly well with the Hammers’ threat. Chris Smalling in particular was impressive, putting in good tackles and covering well when there was an attempt to beat him. Buttner looked more confident in pushing forward on this occasion compared to his last outing and Hernandez looked like United’s best chance at goals whenever they got forward. Indeed, he should have scored on this occasion, but he was involved in plenty of play, and set up Rooney nicely for the only goal of the game.

For all the injury concerns that have occurred this season, it will have been ideal for Sir Alex to provide other squad players a chance at some game time, with some returning from the sidelines needing match practice. The squad is looking suitably covered as United head into a busy period of the season, with the Champion’s League tie with Real Madrid looming.

5) Ryan Giggs – often criticised, still capable

For all my belief that Ryan Giggs should not be started that often and that this should be his last season, it still brings a smile to the face when he puts in a performance that reminds fans what skills he can bring to the table. Wednesday night was one of those games. In a man of the match performance, the Welshman stood out in midfield, showing some good pace getting forward, at one point running most of the pitch with the ball at his feet and playing some sublime passes. I maintain that he should not be starting regularly in the face of other midfielders, and how long he has left in the game is questionable, but one cannot deny that when he produces as he did on this occasion, it brings back many pleasing memories as he rolls back the years.