It was a case of Chicharito at the double as Manchester United finally exorcised their early season demons, rid themselves of their “Hyde” and finally got back to being Jekyll with a trademark last gasp winner at Stoke City. The Mexican striker scored in the first half then struck with just a few minutes left to snatch all three points after Tuncay had levelled for the hosts.
A tumultuous week at Old Trafford that started with an all too familiar surrender of points and featured the Wayne Rooney bombshell ended with the more conventional unconventional 85th minute at the Britannia. Days after speculating that it would take a shake up of epic proportions – the like of which we witnessed this past 7 days – there is a real belief that the late, late winner could prove to be a turning point in United’s season.
Injuries to Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Ryan Giggs and Anderson meant that the selection was always going to be forced; we have speculated on Stretford-End.com about the possibility of deploying either Rafael or Evra further forward; today, Patrice Evra occupied left hand side as Sir Alex Ferguson decided to stick with a 4-4-2 formation.
It was effective, too. The Red Devils early counter attacking philosophy looked like it might pay dividends as they managed to outnumber the Potters on a number of occasions; as early as the 8th minute, Berbatov led the charge, playing Nani wide. The in-form winger crossed to the back post where Chicharito unselfishly headed back, unfortunately no-one was there to convert.
After controlling the early exchanges, United taking the lead had an air of inevitability about it. Patrice Evra gave Nani the short option at a 27th minute corner, returning the ball to the number 17, who crossed it to the far post – Nemanja Vidic headed back across goal, and Chicharito, with his body turning away from the ball, demonstrated supreme instinct to flick his head backwards and “head” the ball into the top corner. It was the second opportune goal that the Mexican had scored, after his “face goal” on his debut against Chelsea.
Matthew Etherington did almost benefit from Edwin van der Sar going walkabout from his goal, but the Stoke midfielder’s 40 yard effort never troubled the United goal, and Chicharito almost benefitted from a goalkeeping misjudgement at the other end, charging down a Thomas Sorensen clearance, but the ball went over. Before the end of the first half, there was time for Gary Neville to fortunately escape a red card on his 600th appearance, after two mistimed tackles. The former United club captain had a case when he argued his first yellow card was harsh; but he most certainly should have been booked for his second.
Patrice Evra was involved in two opportunities that almost doubled United’s advantage before the break, but his header from a corner, and quick movement from a Scholes free kick amounted to nothing.
Neville’s stay of execution lasted around 4 minutes, as he emerged onto the pitch for the second half, only to be replaced by Wes Brown before the restart, following an amusing exchange with Sir Alex Ferguson.
It was clear that the visitors faced their biggest 45 minutes of the season so far. For the first part of the second half, both sides appeared cagey, with Evra’s two penalty appeals – one for a deliberate “nudge” by Rory Delap, and the second for a handball shout on Robert Huth. Neither could be described as conclusive, though – and it was van der Sar who was the next unusual source of attack, with a huge throw that found Berbatov on the half way line. His cross was met by Chicharito who shot wide with an outstretched boot.
The game entered the last 10 minutes, with Michael Carrick being introduced for O’Shea as Evra moved to left back, Darren Fletcher to right midfield and Nani shifted to the left side. It was impossible to escape the feeling that it was potentially a huge 10 minutes in United’s season, and it took just 60 seconds or so for the doom and gloom to return. Paul Scholes’ uncharacteristic loss of possession (after being 3rd most accurate midfielder this season, and the highest in a two man midfield) was punished when Tuncay received the ball wide left, cut inside Evra and hit a smart shot into the top corner, leaving van der Sar helpless.
United were left with the same questions they have been asked so many times this season. Could they somehow recover from a setback, after seemingly being in comfortable control of a game? Could they find a find a way to fire themselves up and show the character that the club is renowned for, rather than the stumbling side bereft of ideas, impetus, penetration and confidence of the last few weeks?
The answer should have been inevitable and easy to predict; the improved form of Patrice Evra that seems to have been the simple switch of an “on” button on Tuesday afternoon, and the commanding display of Nemanja Vidic after teething problems adapting from natural leader to actual leader, suggested the conceded goal was merely one of those rare blips that happens from time to time. It was no surprise that it was Evra, having moved to left back, who was in the box on the 85th minute, waiting for the cross after some imperious work from Berbatov. A miskicked Evra overhead kick was severely punished in September at Goodison Park; it was a sign of the times that one here resulted in the winner, as Chicharito was able to pounce just 6 yards out to convert what turned out to be the winner.
A late corner that Sorensen charged up for was the worst United had to deal with, and Nani almost added gloss to the score with a 20 yard effort – but Sir Alex Ferguson was just understandably delighted to see his side get their first away win of the season. It’s too early to say whether this will indeed signal a shift in United’s fortunes, but the change in attitude and mood surrounding the club, and the steely resolve among the players, suggests this could well be a turning point.
Ratings : van der Sar 7, Neville 6 (Brown 7), Ferdinand 7, *Vidic 9, O’Shea 6 (Carrick 6), Nani 7, Scholes 7 (Obertan), Fletcher 7, Evra 8, Berbatov 7, Chicharito 8