Manchester United effectively penciled in their name in the Champions League group stages with a 3-1 victory over Club Brugge at Old Trafford last night. In what turned out to be the club's highlight game of the season so far, Memphis Depay's virtuoso brace and Marouanne Fellaini's late third sealed an entertaining victory.
Given the choice, would we have it any other way? Save for the unfortunate own goal that Michael Carrick scored, most of what happened at Old Trafford last night seemed to play into the fairytale of what we could have only hoped for ahead of kick-off.
For starters, Louis van Gaal retained the same team that got the away win at Villa Park on Friday night. Although it meant that there was no place in the team for fans' favourites Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger, it laid method to van Gaal's plans for Manchester United's plans this season. Only this time last year, the Dutchman was trying out formation number 4 of 878 to come throughout the season. Expensive new signings were still coming in and we were far from knowing who of the players were trusted to do what by the manager. Therefore seeing United last night line-up in a 4-2-3-1 with similar personnel from the game before, finally gave the impression that for all United's successes and failures to come this term, it will at least be with a plan. Now we can say with confidence and evidence that LVG knows what he is doing.
The biggest relief though came with a chance crafted within the first minute of play when Juan Mata played in Adnan Januzaj to provide a cross for Wayne Rooney. Although the chance went begging, it was a first glimpse of the zip about United's play. There was not much about the control and cautious possession that had characterised United's opening couple of games. This was end to end stuff, plenty of chances and finally the style and entertainment that we have longed for under Louis van Gaal.
It seemed though to have been partly the doing of the visitors. Club Brugge, for all their miserly statistics, came out to play. Their pressing game unnerved United at the back in the first half and there seemed to be an ever present danger that United would give away more than just the one away goal. Thankfully,
Mike Chris Smalling was, according to Rio Ferdinand, in beast mode to snuff out most of the danger at the back. Indeed, that Sergio Romero, despite trying hard to cause himself a problem or two, had little to do is testament to the leaps and bounds United's defenders have made. Here was them faced with real pace through the middle and on the flanks and yet they seemed to hold their own. Certainly, this is far from a makeshift defence. Daley Blind's seamless fit alongside the Englishman with able cover on the flanks in Darmian and Shaw has made United look better at the back than the evidence suggests. The worry remains that there was, for instance, no cover for the central defence positions on the bench.
United were not as comfortable in the middle in the first half as they were in the second. Michael Carrick was replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger at the break and suddenly Brugge couldn't lay a finger on United, at least not with the frequency they seemed to do in the first half. It should count for something when you are the premier league's most decorated player and perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the impact the German had in the second half. Having lasted a first full competitive 45 minutes, expectations will grow even further to see his name included from the start when team-news for Saturday is released at 11.45am BST.
For all the above positives, none was bigger than the performance of Memphis Depay on his European debut for the club. The Dutchman was among those to suffer when the shackles were fully on in the opening two games but last night, he finally had the stage to answer the question about why United pushed out the boat for him. And boy did he do so! And then some!
Not since the days of Cristiano Ronaldo have United had a Number 7 that could lift his team, lift the fans and become a genuine game changer in a virtuoso display. There are times under David Moyes and certainly last season under Louis van Gaal when that Michael Carrick own goal would have seen United feel sorry for themselves, sink into their shells to reflect on the misfortune that had befallen them. Memphis ensured United were behind for just the five minutes with a couple of goals that should effectively close the selection for the club's Goal of the Month.
We shouldn't have to compare him with Cristiano Ronaldo, but it's a comparison that will inevitably keep surfacing as long as he keeps putting up such performances. Certainly, the fact that he's only 21, an age when Cristiano was barely a fraction of what he is now, adds to the weight of expectation. Ronaldo though is a man of inhuman belief in his abilities. We know Memphis has a belief about him but, as in everything else, the pudding is in the consistency. The reason Jose Mouriho looked foolish placing Eden Hazard above Ronaldo was simply because of that bottom-line. Hazard will score and assist a hat-full of goals en-route to guiding his team to a title, but Ronaldo will score and assist a dozen hat-full of goals en-route to breaking his own record charts as well as lead his team to a trophy. At some point in his career, Memphis will have to face that jury of consistency. He still has age on his side to develop into whatever he wants to become and there is an admirable arrogance about him. Certainly, lining up a 37 yard free-kick and going for goal last night was every inch Cristiano-esque arrogance.
Ultimately though, it should hold the lad in good stead that his European debut is being compared with that of Wayne Rooney back in 2004. The joy he enjoyed with Luke Shaw on the left should soon be of particular concern to opponents coming up against the pacy forward.
It wasn't all about Memphis last night you know! Javier Hernandez finally made a playing return for Manchester United, replacing Adnan Januzaj for the last quarter of the match. I thought it was the kind of substitution that Louis van Gaal should have made in each of the opening two games. Why?
For starters, Club Brugge seemed to struggle with the mobility of United's flanks but there was not so much trouble being caused by Wayne Rooney's movement. He is not the off-the-shoulder striker anymore but Chicharito is just that. It was evident that he stretched the Club Brugge defence so much so that his movement (albeit away from goal) resulted in a second yellow card for defender Brandon Mechele. From the 75th minute, Chicharito is hardly the striker you want to see coming on and that is perhaps why van Gaal might have pocketed a trick by opting to keep the Mexican as a reserve striker as opposed to selling him.
Marouanne Fellaini came on to add a crucial third goal that had proved elusive all second half. That United opted to hoof the ball up in the final stages rather than keep playing their way into Brugge also highlighted a third dimension of play available to LVG. More than anything, it will hold the club in good stead going forward that the manager has Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C--as all good managers should have.
Wayne Rooney improved from his showing at Aston Villa but has now gone on a record 9 match scoring drought. His performance on the night at least afforded him complements from the manager but it is worrying that the highlight of his match was a deft back-heeled flicked-on to provide Memphis with a glorious chance to score a hattrick.
Old Trafford lived up to its famous atmospheres on European nights but that a apart of that was due to the excellent away following for the visitors. What with the away fans chanting Liverpool's 'You'll Never Walk Alone' to the United faithful, setting the stage for a battle in the stands as well as on the pitch.
It could, in all probability, turn out that the third goal by Fellaini is the one that will ultimately send United through. Club Brugge showed enough on the night to cause concern to United defending a 2-1 lead next week. The pressure ahead of that game is now fairly absent and should therefore allow United execute their counter-attacking game plan away better.
Attention quickly returns to domestic business on the Saturday in yet another early kick-off for the visit of Newcastle. Different test, same levels of application required.
Labels: UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE