Going to Old Trafford and beating the reigning champions was always going to be something of a pipedream. Often times, we’ve produced impressive performances in a losing cause (most notably in our first game in the Premiership, that Cup game where Zat Knight hit the bar from almost inside in his own half and last season when we scored two fine headed goals), but last night was pretty predictable. Predictable because faced with United’s quickness of feet, speed on the break and clinical finishing we fought manfully and went down bravely.
The keyboard warriors have been hammering Steven Davis since the final whistle sounded last night and, for once, they seemed to have a point. He has seldom produced the kind of performance that would justify the £4m we paid to Aston Villa in the summer – too often dallying on the ball, being in caught in possession or simply handing golden chances to the opposition. He made a critical error in the build up to the first goal after it looked like we’d cleared the danger, deciding that instead of heading the ball away from the danger area he’d nod it to that pesky little Portuguese winger. After all, it’s not as if he can finish.
Other than a Dejan Stefanovic mistake that allowed Ronaldo to power in a second, there was little to fault in the performance. Certain players weren’t exactly impressive – for example, Paul Konchesky looks rusty after his lay-off, although he won’t be facing wingers of the quality of Giggs and Ronaldo every week – but the team’s overall application was good. Given that the vast majority of the commentators and pundits expected us to be cannon fodder, we actually contributed a lot to what was a fairly entertaining game. Granted we showed up ten minutes late – and were indebted to a couple of fine saves from Antti Niemi – but had Kuqi stuck away that chance towards the end of the first half (as I felt sure he was going to) then the game could have had a different outcome.
In all honesty, as we fight against the relegation battle – the pundits on Radio 5 Live kept reminding me that we were only two points above the relegation zone – it will not be defeats against the likes of United that will relegate us. Losses to the likes of Sunderland, Birmingham, Derby and Bolton will hurt us more. What I do appreciate is that we seem a little more robust on our travels and that Sanchez now seems to recognise some of the faults in his side. Who can tell if the Chris Baird experiment is over but young Elliot Omozusi certainly let nobody down at right-back, showed a couple of neat touches and didn’t look overrawed at right back.
And whilst we still protest against the absence of Alexei Smertin (who was missing again in central midfield), somebody should offer a few kind words about Danny Murphy. I was uncertain of his value when he signed, believing that we didn’t really have the strength in midfield to carry another luxury player, but he’s beginning to turn me round. Last night, he showed some fine distribution and an eye for goal that very nearly brought us an equaliser, but the underrated side of his game is the way in which he helps out his defence. Perhaps at Liverpool and Spurs – stronger Premiership sides – there wasn’t the need for him to suport his back four, but last night found him not only linking the ball but working hard to win the ball back. We’ll need such tenacity if we are to succeed where so many Fulham sides have failed at Goodison Park on Saturday.
And that’s where the focus must be now. The games against Liverpool and Manchester United, although thrilling for the players and the fans who don’t usually gourge themselves on a diet of top-flight football, were always likely to be exercises in damage limitation. We came close to nicking a point at Anfield and on another night we could have got something against United. But we need to win on our travels – sooner rather than later – or we’ll get sucked deep into the relegation mire. Christmas is going to be crucial this year and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping we have a good one.
This was a quick skate through my main thoughts before a lecture in about twenty minutes. Hopefully, I’ll be back later to offer a few more observations. Meanwhile, have a read through my player ratings and remember that the comments box is open if you want to leave your own thoughts.
Antti Niemi: Excellent once again. Made a couple of blinding saves from Tevez before our defence woke up and still has to be considered our number goalkeeper. 7
Elliot Omozusi: Once again, I was impressed with the young right-back. He looked comfortable on the ball and his neat touches certainly helped settle a few nerves. Didn’t look out of place facing Giggs and Ronaldo and reminded me of a young Liam Rosenior when he made his debut against United. 7
Dejan Stefanovic: Looked a little suspect. Fluffed a couple of clearances and lacked the mobility to be able to effectively marshal the United forwards. He’s not one for the future, but certainly more dependable than Knight before him. 6
Aaron Hughes: Much of the credit for shackling Rooney and Tevez should go to Hughes. He looked solid all night, often in the right position to make crucial clearances or tackles and it happened too often for it just to be a coincidence. Looks a snip at around a million. 7
Paul Konchesky: Probably his poorest game for us. Whilst he did what he had to do defensively, the most disappointing thing for me was that he got into four or five good crossing positions and failed to deliver. 5
Steven Davis: Woeful. His careless header conceded the early goal we couldn’t afford to give away and his performance didn’t really pick up from that moment on. His distribution was poor and tackling almost non-existent. It seems remarkable that Smertin can continue to be overlooked. 4
Danny Murphy: Did well. As I mentioned in the main piece, he helped out our overworked defence (displaying a side of his game I simply hadn’t seen or noticed before) and offered plenty going forward. A little unfortunate that his long-range shots didn’t bring greater reward. 7
Clint Dempsey: Showed glimpses of what he could do down the right, but wasn’t persistent enough against Evra. Worked hard but I wasn’t surprised to see him pulled off once United double their lead. 6
Simon Davies: Worked hard and was responsible for a few of our good things going forward, but also frustratingly gave the ball away at crucial times. Not as good as his performances earlier in the season but he was far from the worst offender. 6
Hameur Bouazza: Simply anonymous. Offered very little and if it wasn’t for our paucity of resources on the left he’d be looking a long spell in the reserves. 4
Sheffqi Kuqi: Worked hard up front but lacked the killer instinct to put away the chances when they came. How he missed that header I’ll never know. It was his John Salako moment. 5
David Healy: Didn’t have an awful lot of service to feed on and missed the one chance that came his way. 6
Seol Ki-Hyeon: Replaced Bouazza and was hardly noticed. 6