COLUMNIST KEN BUCKLEY
It has to be said that, in the first half, it was United that carried the greater threat — as could be gauged by Howard having to acrobatically tip a cross from Ji-Sung Park away as it threatened to become a mis-hit cross that went in; then the keeper made a great block and from a Ronaldo poke that hit a post, the Tevez follow up was flagged off-side. Our defence was as resolute as ever and it needed to be as United went all out for a breakthrough.
Amidst this United pressure, we did play some decent stuff ourselves especially down the left but Baines, when put in, either delivered a poor cross or there were lack of numbers in the box. There were periods of play were we matched anything that United offered but the 18-yd line seemed to be the demarcation line of any further progress.
Just as I had thought going in at half-time still 0-0 would be a result for us, another United attack got to the heart of our defence and into the box. I saw Carrick go down and the ref give a penalty and no real complaint from our lads. Ronaldo duly despatched and what had been a feisty fighting performance saw us with the task of breaching the stongest rearguard ever, statistically speaking, and without a recognised striker — that looked daunting.
The goal put a different complexion on the second half as United were content to mop up anything we offered and break when they could; this tactic almost brought rewards as Carrick burst into the box and went down in a tackle with Lescott but the ref ruled no pen.
Tevez had one over the bar and one that Howard saved low down. We continued to be industrious in the middle third and a couple of chances came our way via fouls within range but for Arteta to fire very wide with one and produce little more than a back-pass with the other.
We really needed to find a cutting edge and, to this end, the manager replaced Fellaini with Big Vic with about twenty mins remaining. Yet, for all our midfield toil, we just could not get anything going in their box, whilst at the other end Howard had to be alert as a Tevez free kick hit the wall but looped dangerously and he did well to tip over.
In the last quarter, we tried and tried but were in truth toothless and the United defence mopped up all threats. At the final whistle, the travelling Blues gave the lads a great reception for a truly battling performance that had resulted in a defeat only by the margin of a penalty.
Man of the Match for me was Tony Hibbert; he may not be the greatest going forward but against teams like United... hell, you need to be able to defend, and he did it against all who came within range. whether it be Ronaldo, Tevez, Park or Berbatov — none got the better of him.
Overall, I was left a little frustrated; we demonstrated excellent defensive skills and no small measure of midfield build-up but the lack of a cutting edge against the best was very evident — and I don't mean to demean Cahill or Fellaini at all as they certainly put the shift in... but against opposition like this, you can really appreciate the the necessity of having top-class strikers receiving good service as tonight the big difference was the pressure United were able to put into the box compared with ourselves.
Certainly no cause for 'doom and gloom' as our performance tonight would have been sufficient to see off many a team and playing against such a side as United should allow the board and manager to analyse the differences and realise that we are not that far off with this squad; some twenty to thirty million pounds to be spent wisely by the manager would put us in contention to eat from the top table. The challenge is there, can it be grasped? If not, then I suspect the league finishing positions of 5th, 6th or 7th may continue for some time.
Liverpool next, a derby where form can go out of the window but I suspect we may need to be able to fashion more than one goal. But, hey, this is football and who knows what will happen over the 90 minutes... or maybe extra time and pens — I for one can't wait.
See you there.
UP THE BLUES
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