Thursday, 1 October 2015

UNITED UP AND RUNNING IN EUROPE

Chris Smalling wheels away to celebrate his match winner


Make no mistake about it; this was, in many ways, Manchester United's most crucial game of the season to-date. There's still four Group-stage matches to play before winter but the context of those four games was heavily reliant on the outcome of the Match-Day 2 last night.

That the fourth seed in the group is the third best German team always meant that United were in a trickier group than it appeared. Indeed, after two games, and true to prediction here, all teams are on three points with a similar goal-difference. The current standings could be a foreboding of the tussle to get out of the group that we could be subject of in December.

At least though, United have avoided the doomsday scenario of no points after three matches. Juan Mata from the spot and Chris Smalling ensured that the Reds got their Champions League campaign back on track.


On the Match
United started nervy, uncertain in just about all departments and it was shocking but also of little surprise when Wolfsburg took the lead in the 4th minute. Caligiuri took his goal as calmly as you would expect at this level but Antonio Valencia was so miserably out-of sync with his defence that he could have played the entire Old Trafford on-side if they were on the pitch.

The Ecuadorian does 'a job' at right-back but at this level, his ineptness at defending is so blatantly exposed. Not that Louis van Gaal was willing to risk it into the second half. Ashley Young came on in the second period to allow Matteo Darmian a return to his favoured role with the Englishman filling in at left-back.

The visitors' goal served to settle United who went about getting back into the game----a mission that was accomplished within the next 55 minutes since going behind. The frustration, highlighted by the manager at the end, was how wasteful United were infront of goal. Memphis Depay twice shot/headed at the keeper whilst Wayne Rooney denied Anthony Martial what would have been a brilliant assist when he blazed over an unguarded net. Juan Mata was unlucky to find the head of Dante with a drive otherwise destined for goal whilst Martial himself pulled a shot wide after creating for himself space with fancy footwork.

All were good chances in open play but it was a penalty that brought United level. Juan Mata, still enjoying his run as penalty-taker supreme, placed his shot so far to Benaglio's bottom right corner that even if he had dived the way, he wouldn't have gotten to it. A penalty is as good as if the keeper guesses right, you should still score. So far, Mata's technique gives little room for a save which means it might be a while before he loses his status as the number one choice.

The Spaniard turned provider eight minutes into the second half with a sublime flick into the path of Chris Smalling to score what turned out to be the match winner. Mata's contribution to the side since March has been ever so consistent that he is now firmly one of those players the manager cannot afford to leave out of the team. He has thrived as an inside-right winger that gives him the freedom to roam into his favoured number 10 role but perhaps more crucially make him a difficult player to man-mark for the opposition.


On the Sub-Plots
It's three times now that I have watched Chris Smalling land with his leg at an obtuse angle causing a painful impact with the turf. The Englishman seems to go airborne without a contingency plan of getting back to the ground. Careful Chris!

Fans join Rooney to react to a bad miss
Wayne Rooney yet again served up a below par performance, so much so that it increasingly appears that the team is performing in spite of him rather than because of him. Take it this way: Any other player would have been dropped if he put up as many lacklustre performances as the England captain. However even a Wayne Rooney on poor form should score when presented with an unguarded net. The biggest let-down about that chance was that Martial had done ever so brilliantly to create a good chance.

Most fans would rather see Wayne Rooney dropped now. My biggest concern for him though is that Louis van Gaal, despite being protective of him so far, is also a ruthless man. IF, and that is a big 'if', Wayne were to be dropped from the side, I find it hard to believe that van Gaal will let him back in if the team is doing well without him. It could invariably be the beginning of the end for him. Robin van Persie was seemingly well placed in the van Gaal hierarchy of strikers until a run of dire performances saw him shipped out at the first opportunity. van Gaal has a track record of not looking back on his decisions.

Sometimes decisions with the manager appear to move slow, but when they get into their stride , it's at the speed of light! The captain is lucky that he retains a blank cheque to 'buy' his way back into grove but after throwing a drink at the telly over that missed chance, I immediately felt a shade of sympathy when I saw how Louis van Gaal furiously scribbled into his note-book in the immediate aftermath.

Matteo Darmian dipped in form for games against Swansea and PSV but he has come along just fine in the last few games. He has slotted in comfortably when asked to play left-back and has now switched between left and right twice in a row including in-game without dropping in quality. We forget. Class is permanent.


On the Bottom-Line
United have done pretty well in September. That PSV freak result stands out as the only low point and they can now look forward to taking on the challenges of October head-on with confidence from a number of wins under their belt already. If the performances are not consistent, at least the results are and that is by itself good enough for now.  

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