With a commanding 12 point lead at the top of the league, and an all important second leg against Real Madrid in the Champion’s League coming up on Tuesday, one would have expected Sir Alex Ferguson to rest a few of his key men in preparation for the big occasion.
Any such prediction was swiftly rejected with the announcement of the starting line up on Saturday afternoon. The chance to extend the point gap, albeit likely temporarily, to 15 was not to be missed. With that, starting in goal was David De Gea. The back four comprised Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra from right to left. The midfield quartet was made up of Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Shinji Kagawa. Robin Van Persie was declared fit after an injury scare the week before to start up front with Wayne Rooney in what was a strong line up. Ryan Giggs, on the cusp of his 1000th game, was rested to mark his feat with a Champion’s League clash against Real Madrid, fresh from agreeing to continuing for another season at Old Trafford.
The first half was a story of the visitors organising well and sternly defending with United trying to break them down with slick passing moves and pace. For most of the half Norwich did well to hold off such advances, with United controlling proceedings on the whole they looked to get forward, often attempting one pass too many and lacking the clinical finish at the end of their moves. Quick play between Van Persie and Rooney allowed the Dutchman in on goal, only for Bunn to react quickly off his line and smother the ball before he could get a shot away. This was arguably United’s best of the early chances in a half that saw the players failing to fully connect quite often. The midfield was guilty of stray passes in what could have been a half of frustration. However, with little time left before half time, Valencia played a left footed cross from the right which found Van Persie, who got his foot on the end of it, the ball getting to Kagawa, who finally scuffed a shot to finish in the bottom right corner. 1-0 to United on the stroke of half time. The breakthrough made.
The second half kicked off, with United continuing to be in control. Norwich also saw spells of possession without causing much trouble for the host’s back line. One threatening moment was called back for a foul, with the ball played in Holt rose above Evra to head to Martin, who shot over the bar from yards out, only for the referee to call a foul for an infringement on Evra. With just under 70 minutes played, Van Persie was replaced by Danny Welbeck, and soon after Anderson followed, replaced by Cleverley. With United seemingly comfortable, fans were hoping a second might be gained to secure the points and with 13 minutes remaining, their hopes were made true by Kagawa.
Carrick played a long ball to Rooney, who was able to beat his man, and the striker played the ball to Kagawa who took the most confident of finishes, cheekily side footing in to the right hand side. 2-0.
It looked as though the game would quietly finish as the clock ran down. However, as 90 minutes loomed, the Kagawa struck once again. Starting the move, the Japanese midfielder passed to Welbeck, who played the ball to Rooney who then passed to a charging Kagawa, taking a touch as he beat two defenders to dink the ball over an advancing Bunn. 3-0, Kagwa the hat trick hero. THere was time for a fourth in injury time, as Rooney, encouraged to shoot by the United faithful, taking a touch to beat Johnson before looping a 25 yard stunner into the top corner to add yet more gloss to an impressive scoreline. The ideal preparation for Tuesday night.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Sir Alex not taking chances with squad selection
It would be fair to say, most were surprised to see such a strong line up announced on Saturday, considering one eye would surely have been on Tuesday’s game. Given Sir Alex’s words about how the whole squad will have to play their part, with his side competitive on three fronts at this point in the season.. However, it is clear that Sir Alex does not want to take chances with the gap he has gained in the league, and has shown it is of absolute importance to regain the title from their rivals. Although there is a risk with this, it is also understandable as he would not want a slip in a similar fashion to what occurred last season, with an point gap thrown away late on.The opportunity to extend the lead, however temporarily, is not to be missed and his side delivered with a professional victory over a Norwich side that defeated them at Carrow Road earlier.
2) Shinji Kagawa answering his critics
Shinji Kagawa has not had the easiest of starts to life at Old Trafford. Brought in during the Summer after a superb season in Bundesliga, expectations were high. Fans saw glimpses of what he can do until an injury set back. Recently he has come in for some criticism, with some noting he is not yet yup to the physical demands of the Premier League and has yet to fit into the United set up. On Saturday, starting out on the left, he endured some frustration, as did the rest of the side, with passes not quite finding their mark and moves not quite coming together as hoped. However as the game wore on the Japanese midfielder seemed to grow into it. His movement was sharp and passes more accurate. As he moved more centrally he became greatly involved in United’s attacking play and pounced on Van Persie’s touch on the ball from Valencia’s cross. His second and third goals oozed confidence with slick finishes.
Any suggestion that Kagawa was signed for the sake of selling shirts is an unfair reflection on what he is capable of. It would be fair to say he is still adapting to the game in England, and one can be fairly confident his influence and impact on the team will continue to grow as he establishes himself further in the squad.
3) Clean sheets a more common occurrence
David De Gea has not conceded in 447 minutes in the Premier League. Considering all the concerns that were expressed regarding United’s back line at the start of the season, that is a very impressive statistic for the young Spaniard. There are many factors one could attribute to this. David De Gea’s growing presence in the United goal both physically and in stature. His rising confidence and important contributions to results in the form of saves in recent games. The return of injured defenders to provide more options. The use of a familiar central defensive pairing. This final point is particularly noteworthy. I do not think it is any coincidence that with the return of Vidic saw a sense of stability return to the back line. His leadership at the back as well as his efforts are a welcome addition to the back. Not only that, but with Rio Ferdinand, Evans and Vidic regularly playing there is a greater familiarity between the defenders and goalkeepers. Less rotation leads to greater stability and this has helped produce clean sheets of late.
On Saturday, De Gea did not have a save to make as United controlled proceedings well. The only moment of trouble was when Martin shot over, with a free kick awarded United’s way anyway.
4) Were United trying to be too clever at times?
It must be said that United’s passing at times was slick and linked well to set up moves. It was fast paced and easy on the eye. Not only that but the whole team seemed more confident, with Valencia notably looking more effective than he has done in recent weeks, playing his part in the first goal. Rooney, although not having the best of afternoons for much of the game, was involved in the goals and ending the game with a phenomenal strike. However, one particular point of criticism from the game was what appeared to be a tendency to almost pass the ball into the net. It felt as though at times one too many passes were being attempted on a day when some passes were not connecting as they should anyway. It made for frustrating viewing in a game where United had control.
Fortunately, just before half time a resilient Norwich side were broken down for the opening goal. Although 4-0 is a dominant scoreline in a game where United were the side in control, it was probably not the game that the final score suggested. The second, third and fourth goals came in a flurry towards the end, with United not necessarily running riot and throwing shot after shot at Bunn. However, all in all it was a pleasing result for fans in a game that could have been extremely difficult. It will provide the team with plenty of confidence going into Tuesday’s clash.
5) Ryan Giggs to play his 1000th on a special occasion
It is fitting that Sir Alex Ferguson has given Ryan Giggs the opportunity to play his landmark game in such a huge match in the Champion’s League. Having just agreed to play on for yet another season, it is merely a tribute to his standing in the squad and the part he still has to play in game. Having been given an ovation at the Bernabeu, one expects the reception he receives from the Old Trafford faithful to be huge. With the game set at 1–1, there is all to play for, and fans will be hoping that he, along with everyone else, gives their all to ensure progress.