Reds defy odds, critics and themselves



Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Manchester United’s performance in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday as one of the very finest in the club’s history. It is, perhaps, over-egging this particular pudding but there is no doubt the Scot’s side has reached a hitherto unobtainable peak. It is one that few could have foreseen through the first six months of the season, where United so often played without the ‘stardust’ that has become the club’s moniker. It is a phrase, first coined by Didier Deschamps, that Tuesday’s performance threatens to make irrelevant.

Creative, attacking and assured in possession, United was everything at the Veltins Arena that was missing from the side’s play in so many matches earlier this season. Think back to insipid draws with Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion in the autumn, where United’s midfield was not only outpassed but was arguably criminally understrength for a club with pretensions on four fronts.

That may well be a truism, after all much of United’s creative midfield play came from converted 37-year-old winger Ryan Giggs and striker Wayne Rooney on Tuesday night. Yet, there was a spark and swagger that Ferguson’s workmanlike outfit has not often demonstrated against top quality opposition this season.

Indeed, Ferguson praised United’s passing in western Germany, where the Reds maintained nearly 70 per cent possession and created a score of genuine chances, only to be denied by the brilliant Manuel Neuer.

“We’ve had some fantastic performances in Europe and Juventus [in 1999] will always be high on the list but this certainly ranks as one of the best,” Ferguson said in the aftermath, whose side is now within touching distance of a fourth Champions League final of the Scot’s reign.

“Our concentration and the intensity of our play and the speed of our passing was outstanding. It was a really top performance and credit to the players for having the belief in themselves and the trust in one another.

“It was a fantastic atmosphere but it never cowed them once. They kept on playing their football. They had confidence and trust in each other. I think we are coming to a peak. We’ve shown not only throughout this campaign but the past few years that we’ve got a way of playing away from home.

Much of United’s record away from Old Trafford – in Europe at least – is based on the side’s patience and ability to defend with high quality. Indeed, at times United defends in numbers, with Michael Carrick excellent on Tuesday in screening in front of the back-four. Then, as a pair, there is no better than Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

“It is a different tempo at times and requires really good concentration,” adds United’s manager.

“Credit to the players. They have shown that throughout the campaign. But over the past two or three years we have got a way of playing in Europe away from home. It requires some experience of course. The most important thing is to have confidence in possession of the ball. We seem to be better away from home in Europe than anyone else.”

But the real surprise in Gelsenkirchen was United’s outstanding creativity. For much of the campaign Ferguson’s side has struggled to match quality opposition from the centre of the park; the aforementioned early season draws saw United outplayed by the mediocre. In fact, Ferguson’s failure to strengthen despite Paul Scholes’ ageing legs and Anderson’s stultified progress was undoubtedly a failure, whether born of financial paucity or misguided strategic thinking.

Yet, the Scot also takes much credit for the change in United’s make-up in recent weeks, for it has been a significant one, both in attitude and personnel. Those early season draws, especially on the road, were marked by a timidity in the Reds’ play that was certainly not the ‘United way’. By Tuesday, United was liberated, with Rooney pulling the strings from deep, Giggs bursting forward from central midfield and Javier Hernández creating cataclysmic gaps in Schalke’s back-four.

Rooney is once again central to United’s cause, despite months of on and off-field drama involving the former Evertonian. No 34-goal haul this time out but now returned to his natural position, far deeper than the 25-year-old played at any point last season, Rooney has become United’s creative heartbeat. And he is absolutely aided by Hernández’ presence in the side.

Cruel on Dimitar Berbatov perhaps but United simply could not have made this tactical change with the Bulgarian leading the line, slowing play and allowing the opposition to defend deep.

The changes have created a new dynamic. Despite post-Christmas losses to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, there is now a confidence coursing through collective veins. It is born of a tactical change and a defiance of critics, both those in the media and closer to home. This is a team now greater than the sum of its parts, finally inspired by its leading star.

“I remember before the home game against Bursaspor [last October], which we won 1-0, people were saying it was the end of the empire, the end of Manchester United, the worst team ever,” said defender Patrice Evra last night.

“I said, ‘Sometimes you have to pay the musician at the end of the show, not before’. Tonight there was only one side on the pitch but the players, everyone, was a little bit frustrated because we were thinking, ‘How can we go into half-time without scoring a goal’ when you create a lot of chances like we did in the first half. But, in the end, 2-0 away in a semi-final, not bad.

“The only thing that can stop us is if we don’t respect that team again. United played well because we respected that team. Before the game we got everyone together and said, ‘We are not playing against Schalke, we are playing to reach the final’. That’s why we played with that spirit, that mentality, and we win that game.

“Wazza, when he plays behind the striker he is very dangerous because he has more touches of the ball and Wazza can create the goal as well and can score. He enjoys playing that position and it is a good benefit for the team.”

Barcelona almost certainly awaits in the Wembley final, with the Catalan giants having beaten Real Madrid 2-0 in the Spanish capital on Wednesday. Pep Guardiola’s side is brilliant; arguably the best of any in the past 20 years. But with a defence that has not conceded away from Old Trafford in European competition this season and a confident Rooney pulling the creative strings, United at least stands a chance.

Six months ago few would have believed the turn-around possible. Not least, one suspects, Rooney himself.

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  • http://none ian

    Well I got it wrong. I thought that De Gea was the must have keeper but after watching that SAF must bust a gut to persuade Neuer to sign. Perhaps, like Ozil, it is not possible but that man looks to be the son that the Great Dane never had. The match tells us that its always good to have superstars but you need “men to do a job” like Antonio Valencia & to a lesser extent Park. A final thought from one who remembers vividly Dennis Law’s debut at OT, that man Hernandez -it might be an heresy- is starting to remind me of the first King.

    • Victor

      I don’t understand why Law is held in such high esteem by United fans.

      Didn’t he switch to City and help relegate United?

      It is pure hypocrisy then to criticize Tevez. He never said anything against the fans did he? Only the manager.

      • http://damiangarside.com Damian Garside

        Denis Law has always been my favourite United player, though Cantona and Kanchelskis follow close behind. He was an irresistible force, someone capable of conjuring goals out of nowhere, blitzing the best defences and making them look as solid as wet tissue paper. There was something about him that was a perfect fit for a team desperate to generate a new kind of magic after the horrible loss of great players in the Munich tragedy.

        Remember too that he was at City BEFORE he joined United too. But also remember that the famed backheel was pure instinct and he made it clear that there was no personal celebration in scoring the goals which people thought sent United down, but which did not actually do so. I think that Tevez was a united player at heart and still had a big role to play for us, but that the United management thought otherwise, or just baulked at the money involved. So no anger at Tevez either from me, and no hyporcisy. Other United fans may well say somethign similar.

  • Gibraltarian

    Excellent article. Balanced. I agree that SAF deserves immense credit. The team are a reflection of him and his winning mentality but our shortcomings could have been solved, or at least abated, if we had purchased a creative midfield player during the summer. I also worry about the tactics we will employ against Barcelona in the final if everything goes to plan. They are strongest where we are weakest – in the middle of the park. Do we match them 4 3 3 or play the same system we played in Germany? Will Carrick and Giggs be able to live with their brilliant passing game? I was in Rome when we lost to Barcelona and our tactics on that day were poor. SAF will need to get the tactics absolutely right if we are to win but hey this time round getting to the final is a bonus as I did not expect us to.

  • Geno

    Awesome performance by the Red Devils on Tuesday night, but Schalke were really poor. Arsenal are a spineless team with nothing to play for, yet the match on Sunday will be a lot tougher than what we faced in Germany last Tuesday which just goes to show how pathetic Schalke were. A few thoughts:

    - I would like to see Utd try to sign Neuer, who was immense, but I expect Bayern to get their man. Neuer and De Gea are both young keepers with long careers ahead of them, but I think they are in very different positions when it comes to staying in their home countries at this time. Neuer is the the German national keeper and is on the brink of joining arguably the biggest team in Germany, with good prospects of regular tilts at both the Bundesliga title and participation in the Champions League (admittedly they are a long way off both this season but I would argue this is a bit anomalous). De Gea on the other hand would need Casillas, Valdes and arguably Reina to be unavailable to get the gloves for Spain, and plays for a side that has no realistic hope of winning La Liga. There’s a lot more upside for De Gea to come to OT than for Neuer.

    - Rangnick must feel like a mug for not telling his players to kick lumps out of Carrick. As immense as Utd were on Tuesday, it would have been interesting to see how good they would have been if Carrick had been closed down and couldn’t get his passing game going. I exzpect Utd would have won anyway, but if the scoreline was 0-1 at least they’d be going to OT with some hope of somehow pulling off a miracle.

    - Against Barca, I’d play with the same line-up as we had on Tues except I’d swap out Carrick for Nani and I’d put Park in the middle with a roaming brief to harry Messi and mark him out of the game. I reckon Park’s the only player we’ve got with the energy to track Messi all round the park. I think it will take a moment of genius to win it against Barca, which is why I’d play Nani instead of Carrick. As wrong as Nani can get it sometimes, he can also deliver on occasion.

    • http://damiangarside.com Damian Garside

      I like this line of thinking (Park to blot out Messi). Clearly we will have to come up with a special plan to take Barca and have a good slice of luck (where we almost scored early on in 2009, we would probably need to get a goal early on at Wembley). I hope Fergie puts his creative hat on.And no sentimental player choices! I think the league could be closer than we expect (but not as close as I was suggesting in the satirical comment that I posted here a few days earlier which caused a furore) UNLESS we beat Arsenal — then Chelsea will start to think of their cause as hopeless when they come to OT and we will get at least a draw off them very possibly a win(the win that does them in).

      Would have preferred Madrid in the final, since United/Madrid is a rivalry that has longer history.And to play against Mourinho again and Cristiano.

  • Wil

    Geno, interesting point with Park marking Messi. It was a while ago, but back in 2002 when South Korea beat Portugal 1-0 in the World Cup. It was Park who man-marked Figo (who was arguably one of the best player in the World at that time) out of the game. If Park can do it again with Messi, Utd. will have a great chance in the final.

    I’ll probably stick with the same team though and have Giggs and Park swap positions while defending. As this depends on where Messi plays.

  • Swapnil

    i know shalke were poor but a game like that could do wonders to carrick’s confidence!!!

  • Ashish

    How has United and Fergie able to perform well and get the results with such stunning consistency this season has absolutely shocked me considering that this was more or less the same team that won the Carling Cup last season and had a lot of so called shortcomings.

    Credit must be given where it’s due and United certainly deserve more credit than what they are receiving at the moment.

    It will certainly be interesting to see whether United have learnt the lessons from the 2009 final and play much better as they did 2 years back.

  • http://none ian

    You all seem to have forgotten that Fletcher should be up & running soon. He has been the first choice mid-fielder in the last few seasons. I thought that Anderson had his best match against Everton; for the first time he looked a class player from first to last; even if no goal threat. I’m afraid, whatever team we put out against Barca, & whatever tactics, if they have all their key players it’s going to be an uphill struggle. We have dangerous players, Nani, Hernandez, Rooney & Valencia. Defensively they are not the best team in the world. We would have to hurt them with few chances we got. Personally I thought Real were pathetic & unless they come up with some adventure in Barcelona I think that Jose is going to be looking for another job. For God’s sake I hope its not with us.

  • Will

    Park tracking Messi could work. Fletcher may be fit again by May 28th. How we missed him last time around. Fabio looks hugely promising too, and he stays on his feet!

    The PL will go the last weekend though.

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    If Ferguson had made this rant… or if Mourinho had said this, while manager of United… they’d be banned for many games…
    http://www.skysports.com/video/inline/0,26691,16427_6901274,00.html

    “Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and ching’ tu madre! Come out from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.”

  • uncleknobheadforfucksake

    Blog Commenter said:
    I don’t understand why Law is held in such high esteem by United fans.

    Didn’t he switch to City and help relegate United?

    It is pure hypocrisy then to criticize Tevez. He never said anything against the fans did he? Only the manager.

    absolute fucking cunt

    whos this fucking cunt, ban the cunt, fucking little bollocked faced tosser cunt fucking cunt

    • Victor

      Heh, I could play better than Law in the English kangaroo league of the 70s.

      • Hasan

        Where were you all these years.. Busby could have done with a player better than the first United player to win the Balon d’Ore or saved himself the British record transfer fee..!

        Listen you despicable cunt when you know nothing about this club or football in general, why repeatedly open your trap and show everyone the gobshite that you are.

        A shame that someone of the stature of Law needs to be defended on a United blog.. You bitter cunt/scouse basturd/pseudo United supporter straighten your facts. Dennis Law had played for City even before he joined United. He spent his best years alongside George Best and Bobby Charlton (the Holy Trinity, but you wouldn’t know). He was released by the club after injuries and age had reduced him as a player. And United were heading for relegation even if Law hadn’t scored that goal. Even as recent as last week he spoke of his dread of having scored the goal that relegated United (as it turned out, it wasn’t even the case). So you insolent tool don’t compare him to that bitter Argie cunt who stills keeps mouthing off..

  • captainhormone

    ffs….law was at his peak in the 60′s you fucktard

  • http://none ian

    Just hope that Mourinho never is considered as manager here. Yep SAF has a massive ego -& the top managers probably need that- but Mourinho considers himself bigger than the game itself. Talk of conspiracies, plots (all totally unfounded) -innuendo & spite- he deserves a long ban. I cannot see how Real with all “their glorious history” & constant claims of superiority to all their rivals -especially Barca- can possibly retain him. He is getting close to being a laughing stock & not far off a raving looney.

  • http://none ian

    D. Law.
    Stats rarely tell the full story & with Law they do not. He scored 237 goals in 398 matches for United as a number 10. Although he was with the club for about 11 years he was only at his peak for the first six of these. A bad knee injury cut down his pace & sharpness -his chief assets- & he became a shadow of the great player he had been. Certainly in the top ten of United’s players of the last fifty years.

  • stainingred

    Denis Law was an absolute fabulous player, one of the holy trinity with Bestie and Charlton. He never wanted to go to City, the bastard Docherty sold him and he had no option. View the goal he scored for City when we were relegated and you will see the the despair on his face, NO CELEBRATION. As Ian says in the top 10 of our players over the last 50 years and he will always be the only KING of the Stretford End who totally adored him

  • Stephen

    Maybe it’s just me being a bit of a pessimist but is this not the same Schalke side who hammered Inter at the San siro? I don’t want to get carried away until we are there.

    A couple of things have come out of the last few days. Fabio is a potentially great right back. Fergie trusts Valencia more than Nani, and I never want Mourinho to run our club.

  • squigels

    Blog Commenter said:
    I don’t understand why Law is held in such high esteem by United fans.

    Didn’t he switch to City and help relegate United?

    It is pure hypocrisy then to criticize Tevez. He never said anything against the fans did he? Only the manager.

    That is the most retarded thing, I have heard in a long time.

  • herbie simms

    Everyone is spot on with Park marking Messi. You see how he looked in the world cup playing for Argentina when he is closely marked. Don’t give Messi any room to play and we can beat them. Park is very good in doing specific jobs in big games and whatever job SAF gives him to do, he does it well. And yes the team that played against Schalke minus Carrick, must play Nani instead with Rooney playing central attacking midfielder just behind Hernandez. Rooney links up quite well with Hernandez and his new role of playing just behind Hernandez is causing all sorts of problems to defenders. Definately cannot start Berbatov as the lone striker up front. He will have to start as sub. Have to feel a bit though for Berbatov as he is the leading goal scorer but here lately cannot make the starting eleven. If Berbatov does stay at United, during pre-season warm-up games is to play Rooney as an attacking central midfielder and Berbatov and Hernandez up front. And then there’s Wellbeck to come in. We could see Wellbeck and Hernandez up front. If Berbatov does leave, will SAF bring in the HULK from Porto and sell Wellbeck to Sunderland?

  • kramer

    you’d have to put 2 men on messi to mark him out to be honest, and that’d leave space for pedro, villa etc.

  • steggo

    Denis Law was one of the greatest players ever to play for United. He didn’t want to go to City (and don’t forget Denis had played for City before his move to Torino) and besides United were relegated long before his goal went in. On the other hand Tevez was a money grubbing little shite (as City will find out this summer).
    Denis Law is a legend and always will be.Any half wit that says otherwise is either a footballing moron or a Liverpool/City fan.

  • herbie simms

    Barcelona will go into the game as heavy favorites to win but that normaly does not playout that way. They will be over confident and I fancy United especially since the game is at Wembley and United just played there recently. I don’t think they will lose twice on that same field in the same season.

  • captainhormone

    squigels said:
    That is the most retarded thing, I have heard in a long time.

    Sq…get used to it..this victor has an ego the size of Abramovich’s latest yacht…….but the cock the size of a flea

  • Pikey McScum

    He is one of the Jungle Cats after all…