When Dimitar Berbatov drove the ball into Richard Kingson’s goal to complete Manchester United’s turn-around at Blackpool during the week, there was a near-nationwide shrug of resignation at what is starting to feel like the inevitability of their coronation as the Premier League champions. That sort of performance, the digging in and refusing to accept a defeat that had seemed destined to slip away from them, was championship form coming from a team that, if history can act as a guide to anything, usually gets better during the second half of the season. The bigger question is that of whether a team that has not looked outstanding for much of the season can now push on and finish it unbeaten. This Manchester United team, however, isn’t the Manchester United team that played on Wednesday night and the Blackpool manager Ian Holloway may have cause to take a sharp intake of breath at the side that Alex Ferguson has chosen for this evening’s match.
Presumably, Ferguson’s defence will be that he selected a team that he believed could go out and win this match and the argument that “people want to see the stars play” doesn’t hold much water, either. Southampton, formerly of the Premier League but now trying to fight their way back up from League One, won’t care that much should they beat them at St Marys this evening. Certainly, the television news shots of the queues outside the ground when tickets went on sale last week seemed to indicate that no-one in Southampton could give a damn about whether their opposition is to field a full first team or not. For Southampton, at which the memories of three unbroken decades of top division football might just be starting to fray at the edges somewhat, this is an opportunity to grab that feeling of occasion that comes with the visit of the biggest clubs again.
To an extent, this match is something of a curiosity. Southampton’s relative fall from grace means that it falls between several different stools. A modern, all-seater ground and a crowd of 30,000-odd people means it doesn’t feel like a “David vs Goliath” cup match. Furthermore, Southampton make a mockery of the two division gap between the two sides with a first half performance of maturity, composure and tactical astuteness. Michael Owen has the first decent chance of the match for United, a curling shot that drops wide of the Southampton goalkeeper Bialkowski’s post, but Southampton have already had a goal disallowed for offside and, as the game progresses, they start to impress their pattern on the game in midfield. If football at the top level is all about the planning, Southampton’s tactics are controllingl the balance of power in the critical middle third of the pitch.
Five minutes from half-time, Southampton take the lead. There has been a feeling that it has been coming, and the Manchester United defence fails to clear a cross from Butterfield, allowing Richard Chaplow to drive the ball past the Manchester United goalkeeper Lindegaard and into the roof of the net. It’s nothing less than their first half performance has deserved, and this continues well into the second half. As the match ticks past sixty minutes, though, the tide of the game begins to turn. Alex Ferguson replaces the hopelessly ineffectual Darren Gibson with Ryan Giggs. Their midfield immediately looks more balanced, and they begin look more threatening. It takes just seven minutes from Giggs’ introduction for the damn to break. Obertan crosses from the left-hand side and Michael Owen turns the ball across Bialkowski and just inside the far post to bring Manchester United level.
Southampton react as well as could be expected to the goal. They pour forward in numbers and are nearly level when Harding flashes a low shot across the face of goal and wide. Southampton, though, have had their chance and with thirteen minutes kleft to play they fall behind. Ryan Giggs catches the Southampton defence out with a ball through for Javier Hernandez and Hernandez, in spite of stumbling and ending up on his backside, still manages to poke the ball under Bialkowski and in. Just as there was for Blackpool last week, there is no way back for Southampton. Their chance has come and gone, and the final fifteen minutes Manchester United are comfortable against a team that has run out of ideas and had its fight knocked out of it by their comeback.
Plenty of people have commented on the relative ordinariness of this year’s Manchester United team and of how it may be some sort of outrage if they do finish this season unbeaten. Tonight, Alex Ferguson put out a scratch team, but it was – yet again- sufficiently imbued with the culture of imperiousness that Ferguson has built over the years at Old Trafford to be able to pull themselves out of hole that they had dug for themselves with a mediocre performance in the first fifty minutes or so of this match. Commentators are, arguably with justification, accused of throwing around platitudes in saying comments such as, “they just don’t know how to lose”, but there may be something in this. There is certainly admirably stubborn about this team, and complements Ferguson’s tactical nous. They have the sporting intelligence to be able to change if he needs them to. This evening, Manchester UnitedUnited were struggling, so he made the necessary changes. Introducing Ryan Giggs was enough to tip a balance of power in midfield that had been looking like it would be enough to produce a surprise. They remain the team to beat in England. Will anybody be able to do it in the Premier League or the FA Cup this season?
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