One eye on Wednesday. In the run up to Sunday’s fixture with Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed he would aim to field a different side in preparation for the mid-week game at the Bernabeu. Situations change, though and Sir Alex found himself looking at the weekend completely differently.
24 hours earlier, Manchester City had come up against Southampton, and found themselves on the receiving end of a 3-1 result after an impressive and energetic showing by the Saints. With that in mind, Manchester United fans found the team sheet reading far stronger than originally thought for Everton’s visit, with Jose Mourinho watching on from the stands. In goal, David De Gea started with Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans in front of him. At left back, stood Patrice Evra, with Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, saw Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley, with Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia playing out wide. Up front, leading the line, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie were to be found.
The first half was a story of United getting forward and creating space for themselves, utilising the right to set up opportunities. Though Everton got forward themselves, it was the home side that took the within 15 minutes, soon after Van Persie missed a golden opportunity to put his side ahead. Heading down the right, the ball was played to Van Persie who got into the box and played the ball to Giggs, who took a moment and shot, his low effort coming in off the post to give his side a 1-0 lead. Despite the good start, it was the visitors who had more chances and great possession in the first half, reminding Sir Alex’s side that they were not going to be beaten easily. Notably, Osman curled an effort goal-ward from the left of the box, but De Gea dived to his left to push it around the corner. With 10 minutes until half time, another sign of their threat was shown, as Everton broke and Mirallas played a ball along the 6 yard line, only for Rafael to stop it.
However, on the cusp of half time, some daylight between the sides, as Van Persie beat the offside trap, and with Howard to beat, rounded him and made sure not to miss, scoring with the ball going in off a sliding Heitinga. 2-0 United and half time.
With memories of last season fresh in the memory, fans were aware that there was plenty to play for in the second half.
The second half began with United looking to take more control of proceedings, playing at a pace to suit them and keeping the ball. WIthin 10 minutes, the industrious Phil Jones was brought off, perhaps carrying a knock, with Michael Carrick taking his place. United found themselves with a couple of opportunities to go 3 ahead after the hour mark. First Jonny Evans created space for himself from a corner, causing a goal line scramble, Howard saving well. Then, Tom Cleverley volleyed from distance, with his effort heading goal-ward Howard again got his hand to it for a corner. As Everton continued to show some threat of mounting a come back, United missed yet another chance to go further in front, WIth good play between Giggs and Van Persie leading the Dutchman to a shot that went just wide.
However, as the clock ran down and United prevented any major chances going against them, the clock ran down and Sir Alex’s side took a 2-0 win and 3 points to go 12 points clear at the top of the table. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) 12 Points clear, 12 games left – The title race is not over yet
United fans remember all too well the fall of their side’s title challenge last season, when an 8 point lead began to wilt, starting with a dramatic 4-4 draw against Everton at Old Trafford and culminated in City winning the title in dramatic fashion on the final day of the season. It was because of this that the game was approached with a similar caution on this occasion. Even at 2-0, the potential for a comeback remained. However, United played out the game professionally to secure the points.
It would be foolish to state that United did not have a significant advantage at this point. What remains is to maintain the form and see out the next 5 games before coming up against City at home. Sir Alex will be keen to ensure his side do not get complacent and maintain the gap heading towards that game. He, more than anyone else, will know the title is not won until it is mathematically impossible for the rivals to catch up.
2) Sir Alex named a stronger side than originally intended
Prior to Sunday’s game, Sir Alex stated there would be a number of changes, with the hopes of saving his strongest side for the trip to Madrid on Wednesday. However, as confirmed post-match, with Saturday’s results going United’s way, it was clear he sensed blood and looked to capitalise. The opportunity to extend the lead further was not to be missed. Of course this means going into Wednesday’s game less rested, but given the drive to win the Premier League this season, it is understandable to take the chances when they present themselves.
As well as this, the risk appears to have paid off, points wise and with no major casualties, although questions may hover around Phil Jones, if he was set to play during the week.
3) Phil Jones role in midfield
Sunday saw Phil Jones employed in a capacity that may be the case come Wednesday. Against Everton, it was clear his main objective was to break up play, mainly through neutralising Fellaini’s threat. He was effective. The visitors were not able to threaten as readily as they had before, with the final third proving problematic for them and with Fellaini playing deeper he was ultimately kept quieter. It was an interesting use of Jones, taking on a defensive role, albeit with him getting forward occasionally, while Tom Cleverley could get involved further forward.
Impressive, and if fit, he could be used in the same way in Madrid, taking on a Darren Fletcher style of play, causing problems in midfield, disrupting their flow and stifling them. Quite whether this works against the likes of Ronaldo and co. remains to be seen, but something to look out for.
4) Clean sheets as important as goals
One aspect to be particularly pleased about was United getting the clean sheet along with the 2 goals. The back four did well for much of the game. Vidic was at the heart of the back line, leading it and doing his best for the cause. Rafael, along with Valencia helping, controlled the right side well and prevented any attack down that side, particularly from Baines. Rafael, in fact, put in a man of the match performance, showing good attacking potential and getting an assist in the process. Evans looked assured until he departed and Evra worked hard down the left. This meant De Gea was not often troubled during the match. What he was called to do was done well, making a couple of good saves and providing good supply via his kicks.
Defensive issues have reared their ugly head often this season, but as United head towards the business end of the season, it could be the back line are in the ascendancy when it needs to be, and this clean sheet could provide a welcome confidence boost for the Champions league.
5) Ryan Giggs, the international effect on Valencia and Van Persie’s missed sitter
Although I do not think he will be starting against Madrid, there was plenty to take from Giggs’ performance on Sunday. He was constantly involved in play, putting in slick passes, showing some pace and finishing well for the first goal. Although he has come in for criticism at times this season, he is still able to produce something to remind fans that his contributions are worth something to the cause.
After weeks of looking completely devoid of confidence, it was encouraging to see Valencia look a little more like the Valencia fans know of. After scoring for Ecuador and showing something resembling passion in his celebration, he turned up for the game against Everton and looked to be more direct, more forthcoming in his advances down the wing. He still looked tentative at times, but nonetheless it was an improvement on recent games, and will hopefully lead to a surge as the season reaches it’s conclusion.
Finally, Robin Van Persie, after missing when he was through on goal and rounded Tim Howard, he found himself in similar circumstances when he was played through just before half time, this time hitting the target and scoring with the ball coming off a sliding Heitinga. A point to make in how he put his miss behind him from earlier in the game, to take the opportunity in the same way the next time only ensuring the conclusion went his way. The mark of a strong character to forget what went on before and take every new chance as it comes.
Jones had an excellent game playing the position in which I think he could be a world beater. He is simply too short in stature to be a truly world class central defender, especially against set pieces and corners. But as a midfield enforcer with attacking flair, I really think he could provide United with the kind of steel in midfield it’s been lacking since Keane moved on, and the same again for England since Robson called it a day. He just has to start believing in it.