I've blogged this before and I'll blog it again; Manchester United, in Paul Lambert's very own words, have scored drammatic late winners over and over again throughout the years but you never get used to it.
When Ryan Higgs guided that Ashley Young cross into the Norwich net, it felt as relieving and sensational as any late goal you would care to name. The thing with these late winners is not so much about the three points as it is the character that the young players get from this and the belief in the entire squad that they can go on and win the league. With just 12 games left, this was as vital a win as have been the ones against Arsenal and Liverpool.
That said, I thought we shouldn't have found ourselves in that position in the first place. Yes, we were away and yes Norwich did play well, but I thought we were a tad casual with the opportunities that came our way. You get the feeling that Welbeck could have done better with his chip that was cleared 'miles' off the line, then there was that free header that a striker of his abilities could put away with his eyes closed. The plus about him was something that Hernadez doesn't do quite well---his build up play. With Welbeck in the side, we're guaranteed a work ethic that relieves us of opposition attacks as he launches a move forward every time he has the ball. Then Hernadez himself cannot be faulted much for poor build up play because what he does best is fininshing----which is why I thought he really let himself down with that 'pass' of a shot in the first half that could and should have put us 2-0 up.
Thankfully though, the ten minutes we actually played were just about enough to see us get the winner. Special mention to David De Gea who turned in yet another brillinat display of shot stopping that has won him a few more admirers.
We've got a week to prepare for a Spurs game that will be every inch as nerve wrecking as those last ten minutes were.
Got to say that it's now becoming apparent that our failure to get a holding midfielder of natural ability is quickly affecting our European game. The EPL is by and large pacy and hence if you have decent wing play, its easy to overlook the need to have an anchorman in the middle. European teams however, are more cultured to exploit a weakness such as a porous midfield and its easy to see that Ajax were literally having a walk in the park in that department.
Our shortages in that department mean that our attacking players have too drop very deep when we do not have the ball so as to link up with the rest of the retreating team.
That said, we've been without the said anchorman for quite a while now and yet in recent seasons we've been top notch in Europe regardless of the team the manager put out. It's fair to say that most of the players we had out on the pitch were inexperienced and hence lacked that extra bit of tactical discipline to nullify the threat of our opponents. This season, we've played our European games more like EPL games. I can only remember the Ajax away game as when we turned out our custom made European approach.
Last night, we got away with it, against a team that lacked precision in the final third so hopefully we'll sort that out before the Athletic Bilbao game nest week. Old Trafford hasn't been our fortress this season and it's time we address that.
In other news, the EPL is back this weekend, with episode 26. We travel to Carrow Road on Sunday lunchtime and I have to admit, I'm already nervous. Here's why: City will, in all probability thrash Blackburn at the Etihad on Saturday evening leaving us with a must win game at what has become one of the most disturbing grounds to play at in the league. Norwich are no Swansea when it comes to the football they play but they have a sort of Everton in them that we witnessed first hand in the reverse fixture---which turned out as an embarrassing win. Quite frankly, on Sunday, I'd take an embarrassing win.
We've been through a tough spell of games domestically and done well so there could be a bit of complacency about the team, I feat. I really hope that the experienced players address my fears because it would sicken me if on Monday morning we find ourselves prioritizing the Europa League over the league.
Manchester United treated us to one of those node-off games last night as they virtually booked a place in the last 16 of the Europa League with a 2-0 away win at Ajax.
Optimists will call it a professional performance but even the manager couldn't help but be critical of his players that turned in a performance that was more akin to the drab UEFA Champions League performances than to the brilliant possession football we've been treated to these past few weeks.
Perhaps the fact that nearly all our injured returning players started could explain the lack of spark in our play. Tom Cleverely, Phil Jones and Nani were welcome names to the starting line-up but its fair to say that they were in it only for the match fitness.
As far as good performances went, I thought De Gea did a great job in goal yet again and its fair too say that he'll grow into a world class keeper.
Javier Hernandez got a goal but you could tell that his build up play a tad short of what Welbeck was doing with Wayne.
The most outstanding bit of news however was the injury to Antonio Valencia. He's been in the form of his life lately and now injury has ruled him out for another four or five games. It means that Nani and Young will have to step up quite quickly to take on from where Valencia left off.
Him aside, we seem to have a clean bill of health going into a quick double of fixtures next week.
I won't buy into all the talk about how Evra should not have done what he did at the final whistle on Saturday because I doubt anyone would have put up with the hell he's been through these past few months.
Firstly, to be racially abused, then condemned for reporting it, then being branded a liar, then being booed for being racially abused----and you still want the fellow to walk off his moral victory parade like nothing ever happened?
Since Saturday, Liverpool and that donkey have apologised for their behaviour so its not quite worth going into the whole fiasco all over again but the Dippers will be well aware of the damage that has been done to their brand.
Enough of them; Unite were brilliant again on the day. We've played Arsenal, Liverpool (twice), City and Chelsea over the past month or so and I can't recall us having a terrible outing----the kinds that saw us lamenting our midfield showings.
It's safe to say that the manager struck gold by convincing Paul Scholes to give us another few months. I mean, who would have thought that we'd have Tom Cleverely fit but fail to accommodate him in the middle?
Wayne Rooney seems to have hit another purple patch as he's made it 4 goals in a week. Let's hope this one lasts all the way through May. David De Gea yet again pulled off a points winning save by denying Johnson what looked like would be the equaliser. He's managed to silence one or two critics for now. Hopefully he regains much of his confidence now.
So after being written off heading into the sticky run of games we've been involved in, we've managed to come away with all of 7 points out of 9. If we can maintain that level of performance even in the so called easier games, we will ensure that City will have sleepless nights in the run in.
For now though, a first taste of Europa League football.
I can't quite remember us having so many goal laden games between the top teams in the EPL. It's usually picky and tight with a ll sorts of tactics from the managers chocking the life and entertainment value out of the games. This season though, it's been anything but.
However, at 3-0 down yesterday, the game kind of had that look of a one-sided affair, at least in terms of the scoreline. We've been magnificent throughout this big game period but have been unfortunate at times so the the trend seemed destined to go on until Sturridge brought down Evra in the box. Wayne Rooney made it 3-1 and suddenly it was game on.
I couldn't believe our luck when Webb pointed to the spot again, this time because Welbeck was tripped by Ivanovic. Wayne made it 3-2 and now the game had an inevitability about it. On came Scholes and Chicharito and before long it was 3-3. The Mexican yet again turning up with the goods in an important fixture.
There was all of 7 minutes left after Hernandez drew us level and at that point, given how well we'd played, I wanted the fourth goal. Sadly it wasn't to be but in the end, I'll take the point, if not for the fact that we never really seem to get anything out of games at Stamford Bridge regardless of what form we're in. So given that at one point we were 3-0 down, kudos to the team for not letting their heads drop and chipping away to ensure that we take a point from a ground we usually get nothing from.
We've got Liverpool on Saturday next and given that right now we have most of our players back, I'd like to think that only a win will do for us on the day.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS!
P.S LEST WE FORGET: FEB 6 1958.
Paul Scholes put in a masterclass of a performance yet again as United eased their way to a 2-0 win over Stoke at home on Tuesday.
Albeit the goals did come from a couple of spot kicks, United easily controlled the game and nullified any threat whatsoever that Stoke could muster. I thought that the passing and vision of Scholes was world class and now I'm beginning to wonder if he is worth a contract extension. I mean we could still go out and finally buy his replacement in the summer but let's face it, no midfielder on the market at the moment can pull the strings in the middle the way he does, even at that age.
Berbatov and Hernandez each did well to convert a spot-kick but I thought the Bulgarian should have got a third if not for wasteful finishing.
Special mention to Paul Pogba for coming on and showing why he deserves a place in the manager's squad every week. Let's face it, none of the midfielders that we have at the moment have it all in their locker the way he does. In his 20 minute cameo, he showed that he could hold the ball, win the ball, pass the ball with precision, ghost late in the box ready to pounce on a loose ball. That is the kind of player we need at the moment and although he's only 18, if he's good enough, he's old enough.
We've got to go to Stamford Bridge on Sunday---a ground we've not won at in the league since 2003. We've been unlucky lately there so we're due some good luck. The injury crisis became something like a nightmare with the news that our first two goalkeepers were injured and sick respectively but it is expected that we'll have Wayne, Nani, Young and possibly Cleverely available for selection on Sunday. We need all the fit bodies we can muster for Sunday.
Darron Gibson did us a huge favour by thumping one into the Citizen's net and hence allowing us to go into the weekend joint top. Couldn't have had a bigger break going into two difficult fixtures!
Onwards and Upwards!