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United aims to defend from the front at Hull

December 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United’s players return from a longer-than-usual Christmas break with little respite in the injury crisis that has engulfed Sir Alex Ferguson’s team in recent weeks. The Scot need no longer worry about a festive season drinking culture but will once again deploy a makeshift defence as United travel to Hull City hoping to improve on two defeats in the past three games.

Ferguson hopes to have either Wes Brown or Nemanja Vidic available for the trip to Hull, although both will definitely feature against Wigan in three days time. Good news also comes in the shape of Brazilian brothers Rafael and Fabio da Silva who, true to form, have each been injured in recent weeks.

However, Ferguson says there is little hope of Rio Ferdinand returning to the team in the near future. Ferdinand, who has appeared just five times this season, last week said there’s is “light at the end of the tunnel” is the search for a cure to a back injury that has plagued the defender for more than a year.

“We gave Rio an injection just over two weeks ago so we have to let that settle for a week then he can go back into the gym work and do some more core work,” Ferguson said.

“We are just hoping that pain goes away. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and it is difficult to put a timescale on a back injury. But I don’t think he is too far away.”

Ferguson says that the best form of attack at Hull is defence. It’s a strategy that United totally failed to enact in the 3-0 away defeat to Fulham last weekend or the 1-0 reverse at home to Aston Villa a fortnight ago. Indeed, Ferguson may revert to a more attacking formation against relegation-threatened Hull, with Dimitar Berbatov in contention to start along side Wayne Rooney despite a knee injury that requires an operation.

“Hull will be encouraged by the fact we have got defenders injured. They will certainly have a go at us,” he said.

“It’s always a dogfight down at the bottom of the table and, as usual, there are six, seven or eight teams involved in that battle.

“We looked fragile once we lost the goal (at Fulham). We got away with playing midfielders at centre-back once or twice, but it proved difficult.

“We have to make sure we are better attacking-wise than we were against Fulham. We didn’t make a lot of chances in the match, we had a lot of possession but it didn’t amount to anything.

“In terms of creating chances, we have to get that creativity, imagination back.

Ferguson says that the injury situation will return to some form of normality by the time United play cup games against Manchester City and Leeds United in the New Year. In the meantime the Scot’s side requires six points in the coming week to keep in touch with Chelsea, who continue to drop points in a season where none of the contenders achieved consistency.

United’s cause will benefit from the return of Darren Fletcher to the heart of Ferguson’s midfield, should either of the da Silva brothers be deemed fit enough to start against Hull. The Scot’s absent destructive abilities have exposed a soft underbelly to Ferguson’s defence in recent weeks.

Ferguson will also choose from Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes and Anderson in midfield, with Michael Carrick likely to reprise a role in central defence.

“I think losing to Aston Villa was a bitter disappointment, we made enough chances to win it. Winning your home games can stabilise you from bad results away from home,” Ferguson said Boxing Day.

“It’s unusual for us to lose two games in December, it’s not happened that many times but hopefully by the Leeds United (in the FA Cup third round) game we will have three centre-backs and we can then kick on and get back to our normal selves.

“The way the league is at the moment, I think Arsene Wenger said the other day you could lose seven games and still win the league this year.

“Someone pointed out the recognised top four have lost 41 points between them this season. Nobody would have bet on that.”

Wenger may be proven right in May but with Ferguson’s side slipping to a fifth defeat before Christmas last weekend the side cannot add a sixth at the KC Stadium Sunday.

Shapeless United thrashed at Fulham

December 20, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

On the day that Sir Alex Ferguson’s cross town counterpart received his P45, the Manchester Untied manager will put this defeat down to circumstance. But United’s humiliating 3-0 away loss to Fulham cannot be blamed solely on injuries to key staff. The burden of responsibility must also fall on Sir Alex.

United, lining up in the unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation deployed in Germany, were out of shape and sorts from the off at Craven Cottage. In more than 20 years at the helm the number of matches Ferguson has deployed three centre halves are counted on one hand. It was an utter disaster, with Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ritchie de Laet horribly exposed by a vibrant Fulham side.

Still, United actually started the match quite brightly with Antonio Valencia unlucky not to earn a penalty for a push in the opening minutes. Referee Howard Webb seemed unsighted as the Ecuadorian fell. In truth it was just about the closest United came to a goal in a dreadful opening half for Ferguson’s men.

Paul Scholes, sent off at the same venue last season, saw yellow for a reckless tackle that took both man and ball in the same movement. But Scholes’ place on the pitch is undermined more by the United legend’s wayward passing on days like this. Time has diminished little of the 600-game veteran’s talents but sadly they are now applied more inconsistently.

Scholes was not alone in his woes however with nearly half the team deployed out of place. It’s one thing compensating for injuries; it’s quite another disrupting the shape of the side.

Still, Untied kept possession well in the first quarter of the match. Darron Gibson, now a permanent fixture in the side, shooting wildly when set up by Wayne Rooney. The hype of recent long-range efforts encouraging the Irishman to shoot when a pass is a better option.

But Fulham was always in the match and Bobby Zamora crossed for American Clint Dempsey to draw a fine save from Tomasz Kuszczak in the United goal. The Polish international, playing in his seventh match in a row, then produced even better from Zoltan Gera’s header minutes later.

Fulham’s opening strike came from Danny Murphy, so often United’s tormentor in the past. And it was Scholes who gifted possession to the former-Liverpool midfielder to strike home from 20 yards at the midway point of the half.

In attack, Rooney and Michael Owen were playing like a pair of strangers as they so often did for England, while Fulham offered threat in every forage towards United’s goal. The visitors have rarely been so shapeless.

Rooney headed wide and Gibson shot over when he could have passed as United’s strategy of hope bore little fruit. Indeed, Fulham could have doubled the lead before half time with Gera and Zamora combining once again for the former West Ham United striker to head wide.

The match was then over just 19 seconds into the second period when Fulham doubled the advantage. Duff’s cross to the back post, met by Dempsey’s neat touch was gleefully slammed home by Zamora.

All belief drained from the United players. Why should there have been any – they were never in the game. It was cruel on de Laet, cruelly exposed at the top-level.

As always United sought a way back into the game as Dimitar Berbatov and Fabio da Silva entered the attack. It finally ignited a flame in the visitors with Valencia testing Mark Schwartzer in Fulham’s net, Rooney shooting wide from Berbatov’s smart pass and Scholes slashing well wide from the edge of the area.

But then came the denouement as Irishman Duff lashed home Zamora’s chested pass for Fulham’s third. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough.

“I hope today is not too damaging. I hope it doesn’t cost us the league,” Ferguson told MUTV in summary.

“We have to get our defenders back to give us a proper chance of going for the league. If we get them back we’ll be back in it. The quicker they’re back the better.

“The medical team and physios are working overtime to get them back, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, that’s for sure.”

Ferguson, without seven defenders today, undoubtedly needs good fortune in the season of good-will. Sometimes, however, he needs to help himself too.

McCarthy slammed as United ease home

December 16, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United scored an easy victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers last night but controversy surrounded Mick McCarthy’s decision to field a second-string side against the champions. With empty Old Trafford seats and a downbeat atmosphere, United ran out comfortable winners in what was little more than a training match.

Wolves manager McCarthy made no less than 10 changes from the side that had so impressively beaten Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend. It was an approach, said McCarthy, born of necessity such was the effort deployed by the Midlands’ side in that victory.

On the pitch United rarely moved out of second gear, even though Sir Alex Ferguson had restored the striking partnership of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. With Wes Brown ruled out with a hamstring injury Ferguson handed full Premier League debuts to Ritchie de Laet and Gabriel Obertan.

Predictably United took the game to Wolves from the off with Rooney forcing ‘keeper Hannemann – the only visitor to survice McCarty’s cull – into two smart saves within the opening quarter hour. Wolves’ Stefan Maierhofer then almost turned Darron Gibson’s cross over his own line, before Rooney and then Vidic missed openings for the home side.

Even so the visitor’s inexperienced defence held out for half an hour before gifting United the opening goal. Almost inexplicably Ronald Zubar’s hand met Gibson’s cross from the right and Rooney lashed home the resulting penalty. It was the United number 10’s 13th strike of a productive season.

While complacency and a generally flat atmosphere were the biggest threat, United ruled the point moot shortly after the interval when Vidic met Gibson’s corner to head home his first of the season. Few teams find a route back from two down at Old Trafford let alone Wolves Reserves.

And United completed a low-key night’s work when Antonio Valencia met Berbatov’s superb over-head flick on the half volley to strike home the third. It was a wonderfully worked goal that deserved a more prominent night than this.

“I only decided to change the team after Saturday’s result,” McCarthy said after the match.

“All the player effort-ratings that our fitness coach works out were 9.5s or 10. We need to play at that level to get results against top teams and we can’t do it on a Saturday and then also on a Tuesday.

“What you saw tonight was the best team we had available. I’ve got 21 players to choose from, that was my first team.”

But the former Republic of Ireland manager’s decision made a mockery of the match and, indeed, the Premier League as a whole. Without competition, there’s little point. Not that Ferguson is one to complain about three easy points that have taken United level with Chelsea at the top of the table.

“Wolves made it very difficult for us. I wasn’t over-surprised at the changes they made; they’ve got a massive game against Burnley coming up [on Sunday],” the United manager said somewhat diplomatically.

“We’re lacking a bit of continuity with all the changes we are having to make. Wolves did well to stop us playing.”

Ferguson will be more concerned with an injury crisis that sees no sign of abating. In addition to Brown’s hamstring, Nemanja Vidic left the field with a calf strain on the hour. United faces a tough fixture away at Fulham on Saturday and once again the Scot will go into the match without four central defenders.

Wounded United wary of Wolves’ bite

December 15, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United taken on Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford tonight with the pain of defeat by Midlands neighbours fresh in the mind. Aston Villa’s 1-0 win in Manchester on Saturday evening has not only kept United behind Chelsea in the title race but inflicted the club’s first home defeat of the Premier League season.

On the face of it Wolves, lying just above the relegation zone in 17th place and already beaten in the Carling Cup at Old Trafford this season, offer the right kind of challenge for a United team keen to bounce back. The Midlanders arrive in Manchester hoping to match their more illustrious neighbours but expecting little more than a defeat. While Mick McCarthy’s men hope to build on a superb win at Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, the club hasn’t emerged victorious at Old Trafford since February 1980.

In attack Sir Alex Ferguson can choose from a full complement of strikers, with fit again Dimitar Berbatov vying with Michael Owen for a place in attack alongside Wayne Rooney. Surely the manager will deploy two strikers against relegation contenders Wolves.

United will also welcome back Edwin van der Sar, who is match-fit after missing six games with a knee injury. Although the Dutch legend faces a tough challenge displacing in-form Tomasz Kuschack in the United net.

If match-fit Rafael da Silva, who trained this week with the first team, will allow Ferguson to deploy Darren Fletcher in midfield. Also fit are Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown, who will surely face an easier night than that handed down by Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young on Saturday.

Ferguson may also feel that it is time to hand French winger Gabriel Obertan a full Premier League début on the left-wing with Nani blowing his opportunity to impress against Wolfsburg and Park Ji-Sung woeful in the defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday.

However, former United striker Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, says that Wolves will be gunning for a result at Old Trafford, a ground he left aged just 20.

“We got promoted with a lot of good players and we’ve signed even more over the summer,” said the striker who made two appearances for United before being sold to Plymouth Argyle for around £200,000.

“We won the Championship last season so we’re not short of quality players. Obviously the Premier League is a different level but there’s no reason why we can’t compete at the top.

“As a unit we’re a good strong team and we’re still pretty confident after winning the league last season.

“I don’t have anything to prove. I had a really good time at United but I moved on and I’ve tried to shape my career elsewhere. I had a terrific education at Old Trafford and they were great years.

“I learnt a lot from moving up to Manchester at a young age and I got the chance to work with top coaches and top players. It taught me a hell of a lot and set me in good stead for what I’m achieving now.

“I have really special memories, including little things like the digs I stayed in when I arrived. There aren’t many better places to learn how to play football, that’s for sure.

“The club has a great tradition of nurturing young players and helping them either break into the first-team or have successful careers elsewhere.

“I feel privileged that I was able to sample that and go on and forge a career elsewhere.”

It’s a challenge United’s defence must meet if the team is to regain some momentum in the Premier League race. Chelsea’s poor form – no wins in four matches – means that the weekend defeat is merely a blip in an altogether inconsistent season. Anything less that a resounding win tonight and that blip will look more like a major roadblock.

Phelan: we’ll all drop points

December 13, 2009 Tags: , Shorts 1 comment

Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan insists that the Premier League’s leading teams will all drop points this season. Phelan’s comments came after United failed to capitalise on Chelsea’s draw at home to Everton yesterday with a fourth loss of the season – 1-0 loss to Martin O’Neil’s Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

“The competition is of a higher standard this year,” said United’s assistant manager.

“There are a lot more good players about and plenty of good teams who are very well organised.

“There is nothing easy and every team will drop points.

“Nobody likes to lose but last week we were five points behind Chelsea, now it is three, so in that respect we are a little bit better off.”

United’s defeat was the fourth for the Premier League champions this season – fifth in all competitions – following defeats to Burnley, Liverpool, Chelsea and Besiktas.

United’s points-per-game average of 2.125 this campaign compares poorly to the 2.37 gained last season in winning an 18th championship. On current form United will finish the season with around 80 points – the club’s lowest points total since finishing third in 2005.

Cautious United defeated by Villa

December 13, 2009 Tags: , Matches 8 comments

Aston Villa won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1983 to halt United’s charge towards the Premier League summit. Chelsea had earlier drawn with Everton but Villa inflicted United’s first home defeat of the league season. Sir Alex Ferguson bemoaned “just one of those days” but in truth it wasn’t good enough from the home side

The Villain’s began the match with intent, winning two early corners and causing United’s reformed defence far more trouble than Wolfsburg had in midweek. Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic, restored to the heart of United’s back-four, added experience but it was Ashley Young, pitted against makeshift right-back Darren Fletcher, who caused most problems.

Young was central to Villa’s opener, headed home by Gabriel Agbonlahor on 20 minutes. The England international beat Wes Brown in the air to score his fourth against United in as many seasons.

Surprisingly, Ferguson reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, leaving Wayne Rooney to lead the line, with Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia in support. It meant no place in the starting XI for Dimitar Berbatov or midweek hat-trick hero Michael Owen.

However, Rooney stoked controversy when he found the referee’s book for diving just minutes after the goal. The Scouser’s lack of protest served only to prove the referee correct.

United continued to create chances though, with Valencia wasting a good opportunity and Michael Carrick forcing a good save from Brad Friedel in Villa’s net. Rooney then went close with a shot thundered against the underside of the bar from six yards out.

At the interval Giggs made way for Owen but the former Liverpool striker lacked the sharpness demonstrated in the midweek Champions League victory. Berbatov and Darron Gibson soon joined the fray but United continued to miss chances as Martin O’Neill’s side defended doggedly.

United’s final ball had been poor throughout but when Carrick found Berbatov six yards out the forward miskicked horribly to waste a good opportunity, before Brad Friedel pulled off a spectacular save to deny the Bulgarian international minutes later.

“Second half I think we deserved something,” Ferguson told ESPN.

“There wasn’t much in it first half, they probably just shaded it and deserved the goal. Second half we pummelled them, had a lot of good chances and didn’t get any. It’s just one of those days it wasn’t going in.

“It’s not an easy league. I say that time and time again. If we get to January within touching distance of the leaders then we’re in with a great chance.”

Nevertheless, United wasted a great opportunity to join Chelsea on 37 points and the manager must take much of the blame. Sir Alex’ decision to field a defensive formation, opting for Park instead of Owen or Berbatov, backfired spectacularly. While Gibson did little to impress after three matches in the side, the trickery of Gabriel Obertan may have offered the penetration United lacked on the day.

It was Villa’s first victory over United in a decade. More tellingly, perhaps, it was United’s fourth Premier League defeat this season.

Team: Kuszczak, Evra, Brown, Vidic, Anderson (Gibson 68), Giggs (Owen 46), Park (Berbatov 63), Carrick, Fletcher, Valencia, Rooney

United replay Avram’s penalty ‘mare

November 29, 2009 Tags: , Matches 3 comments

The Manchester United bus left the South Coast bound for home just two points behind leaders Chelsea after a storming second half performance blew away the home side in rain-swept Portsmouth. Four goals, including a hat-trick from Wayne Rooney, and Ryan Giggs’ 100th Premier League strike were enough to hand United all three points.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men arrived in pursuit of another maximum haul to maintain their challenge of Chelsea at the head of the Premier League. And controversy, which almost inevitably follows the team, reared its head once again with three penalties awarded by referee Mike Dean. Wayne Rooney dispatched two for United, while Portsmouth’s Kevin Prince Boateng scored for Avram Grant’s side, as the visitors reprised Ferguson’s last confrontation with the new Pompey manager.

United, once again without Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar and Jonny Evans, rode out Portsmouth’s early fire to take the honors. It must have been pleasant viewing for Sir Alex, forced to sit in the stands for comments made about Alan Wiley in September.

Ferguson’s forwards – Rooney, Giggs and the increasingly impressive Antonio Valencia – in particular stole the show. The mesmerising interchange and dynamic play more reminiscent of United in earlier seasons than this.

It was perhaps fitting then that the reds’ opening goal was fashioned by Valencia and Rooney’s lightening quick break. It was far too good for former-Manchester City midfielder Michael Brown who crudely hacked down United’s striker. Grant’s post-match protests were as false as Portsmouth’s stay in the Premier League is precarious.

Pompey restored parity within minutes though and this time Ferguson had genuine cause for complaint. Stand-in ‘keeper Tomasz Kuszczak punched away Jamie O’Hara’s free-kick but – apparently on the advice of his assistant – Dean point once again to the spot. Nemanja Vidic punished for shirt pulling so minor it could barely have tickled Portsmouth’s Frédéric Piquionne.

Sir Alex, in the stands, would surely have risked a further touchline ban had the Scot been allowed within 50 yards of the official.

“The linesman has put the referee under terrible pressure and he has to listen to the linesman who is 50 yards away,” Ferguson said post-match.

“You see these things every weekend in the penalty box. If you are saying everyone who wrestles at a corner or tugs at a jersey concedes a penalty kick then that’s fine. But it doesn’t happen that way and this linesman has changed the whole course of normal decision making.

“So it was a very disappointing result for us to get a penalty against us in that situation. Half-time came at a good time for us and the important thing was to keep our discipline and composure and play our football.”

Indeed, Portsmouth buoyed by the goal, briefly threatened to make a real fist of the tie. But United’s second half response – led by the wonderful Giggs – was far too robust for Grant’s side.

The visitor’s second, fashioned by the Welshman and converted by Rooney, came just moments after the restart. Giggs’ perfectly weighted through-ball, converted in a single motion by Rooney, was the epitome of the winger’s class on the eve of his 36th birthday.

And it was Giggs’ persistence in robbing Piquionne in the Portsmouth area that led to Dean awarding United’s second penalty. Giggs, hacked down by the Frenchman, offered Rooney the chance to convert United’s third and his personal hat-trick.

But Giggs, star of the show, rightly took the plaudits with a stunning fourth to round off United’s victory. Patrice Evra, fouled on the edge of the Portsmouth area, stepped aside – as did Rooney – for the red legend to fire the set piece low to Asmir Begovic’s right.

Just wonderful from the birthday boy.

“Ryan Giggs is an exceptional player. A rarity. He will play for two years yet,” said Ferguson in praise of the Welshman.

“Happy Birthday. He’s had it 36 times in his life, wait until he gets to 67. I think he’ll be retired by then.

“So many things were happening (in the match). It is a great result for us and some of the football was good. In the second half we kept our discipline and the ball very well and deserved the win in the end.”

And while Rooney and Giggs rightly take the praise, Ferguson can also be happy with the performances of Valencia – bright, direct and skillful on the right-wing – and Kuszczak in goal who made three top-class saves.

Bells tolls for Pompey as United visit

November 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United visit Portsmouth this weekend seeking to build on the win over Everton last Saturday. Sir Alex Ferguson, who will sit in the stands for the match following his FA-inspired touch-line ban, will face new Pompey manager Avram Grant. But Ferguson may have to do without a half-dozen key players as his injury list refuses to clear up.

Rated doubtful for the match are Dimitar Berbatov and Edwin van der Sar with knee complaints, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea who have a troublesome thighs, Fabio da Silva with a stiff groin and Rio Ferdinand who is out, as usual, with a sore back. Long term absentee Owen Hargreaves is unlikely to play until this side of Christmas.

The list means that Ferguson is likely to pair Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown in central defence, whom the Scot was keen to praise this week.

“I think most people recognise that [Brown is] a natural defender, and you’ve got to also pay tribute to the lad that he keeps coming back from the serious injuries he’s had over his career,” Ferguson said at his Friday press conference.

“He’s had two cruciates, a broken ankle, calf injuries … last season he had a very staggered season in terms of interruptions into his consistency.

“But the previous season he was our most consistent defender, in the year when we won the cup [Champions League] in Moscow.

“Now he’s fit again and is looking fantastic. He gets better all the time.

“Players always need a run of games to get the consistency in the timing and tempo of their game correct. We’re seeing that at the moment, so long may it continue.”

Patrice Evra, assured of a place at left-back, will start but the manager must choose between Rafael da Silva and Gary Neville on the right side of defence. The Brazilian teenager looked uncertain at left-back against Besiktas in midweek but is likely to play as Ferguson seeks to attack a belleagered Portsmouth defence that is without England goalkeeper David James.

Meanwhile, should van der Sar fail to recover Ferguson could stand by Ben Foster in the United goal. The ‘keeper, beaten by a deflected effort on Wednesday night, could do with a confidence boost after a tough few months.

Portsmouth, who overlooked Sir Alex’ son Darren for the vacant manager’s post this week, lie bottom of the Premier League after a shocking series of results. The club’s fate is hardly suprising given the South coast outfit’s player sales over the past year.

In fact, while sacking Hart was almost inevitable, it was the very definition of papering over the cracks. That United will face a Portsmouth side almost unrecognisable from that which took to the field under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship is far more instructive.

The club’s fate now lies in Avram Grant’s hands. Yet in the former Chelsea manager, Portsmouth has chosen not only the least charismatic coach in the Premier League but a man who has achieved close to nothing in a career defined by mediocrity. The appointment came as little surprise though. Indeed, Paul Hart’s fate was surely sealed the millisecond Portsmouth push Grant back through Fratton Park’s doors. The hand, no doubt, of Grant’s good friend Pini Zahavi.

Yet Ferguson was quick to defend Grant, whom he beat to the 2008 Champions League.

“Avram is a football man and there is no doubt he will be glad to get back into the game,” Ferguson said this week.

“He has a task on his hands because his team are bottom of the league. But hopefully he can manage it. Portsmouth have some very good players. I have looked at their videos and they may be in a false position.

“But being bottom of the league does create a reaction from owners and management of a club.”

“It doesn’t matter which club it is, when you have a change of ownership there will be a certain amount of disruption. You get new policies coming in, or there might be a new financial outlook. You can see how it can have an effect on the pitch.

“Owners of a club don’t like to see their team at the bottom of the league. That is the danger position.

“If you are third or fourth bottom you think everything will be OK but when you see your team going bottom it creates a dread about where they are going to be next season.”

Kind words. Bu three points on Saturday and United will contribute heavily to Portsmouth inevitable relegation. The club, which in 2008 won the FA Cup under Redknapp’s stewardship, overspent heavily on meagre revenues in recent seasons and is paying the price.

Not the first club to ‘chase the dream’ and come out the wrong side of a debt mountain.

Hungry United chew through Toffees

November 22, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United returned to Premier League action after the international break and moved to second place in the table with a convincing win over Everton. United, dominant for long periods, opened the scoring through Darren Fletcher’s outstanding volley and never looked back as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men kept Chelsea’s lead to five points.

Fletcher beat Tim Howard with a swerving shot that flew into the top corner. A candidate for goal of the season from the Scotland Captain. The goal came after some excellent full-back play by Patrice Evra, who’s cross found Antonio Valencia in the box for the Ecuadorian to knock down for Fletcher just outside the penalty area.

United’s midfield general, criticised for his performance in the 3-0 thrashing of Scotland by Wales last weekend, showed excellent composure to score with a volley that even Mark Hughes would have been proud of.

Louis Saha, on his first return to Old Trafford since his move to Everton, then tested van der Sar with a shot on the swivel with the Dutchman equal to the strike. United’s former striker seems to have put his fitness issues behind him with his fifteenth appearance of the season.

Everton introduced Yakubu Aiyegbeni for Dan Gosling at the interval and the Toffees’ best chance of the match fell to the Nigerian. The striker outmuscled Wes Brown before beating van der Sar with a low shot that went inches wide. The substitute then played Tim Cahill behind United’s back four, with an alert van der Sar quick off his line in producing a smothering save.

But United continued to dominate. Wayne Rooney’s shot, picked up by Ryan Giggs at the corner flag, eventually found Michael Carrick on the edge of the box who slotted home to double the home side’s advantage.

United wrapped up the victory when Paul Scholes set up Valencia, who’s shot deflected off Leighton Baines to leave the Red Devils five points adrift of Chelsea.

United will take heart from the performance, even if Everton was as poor as United good. But there is a concern with Michael Owen, who started the match but failed to make an impact. The former-Liverpool striker created a couple of good chances but does not look as if he is enjoying his football at the moment. The striker’s lack of goals looks as if it’s starting to take a mental toll.

United, who will look to continue this form throughout December, will be in a good position to mount a serious title challenge when Chelsea loses the heart of its team to the Africa Cup of Nations in January, according to Ferguson.

“We have to look at all the games as must-win now,” the manager said.

“We need to get on a run and be somewhere near the top of the league by New Year’s Day. Then, in the second half of the season we can have a real go and give ourselves a chance.”

The United manager was also effusive in his praise of Fletcher, who’s outstanding strike started proceedings for the home side.

“Darren is an improving player.

“Each year we have seen his performance level go up and up and it is still doing so.

“But I have to admit I did not expect that goal [against Everton]. It was really well taken.”