Monday, September 22, 2008

Clock ticks for Reds top trio as woeful Riley inhibits United...

Going into the "the biggest game of the season so far" this weekend with Chelsea much had been made of the United's early season form. At Anfield last weekend, the Champions only played for 25 minutes; after that opening spell the home team took control and went on to win after coming back from a goal behind.

Liverpool were aided by an unusually card happy Howard Webb who sent-off Vidic for two yellow-card offences and booked three other United players. After the match Fergie suggested that the referee had caved-in under the weight of pressure from the Anfield crowd. It's hard to argue with that assertion given that Webb didn't book a single Liverpool player in a game that wasn't a dirty affair from either perspective.

Against Chelsea on Sunday, United once again took the lead in another blistering opening 25 minute spell, but once again the wheels fell-off as United lost control of the game which ended in a creditable draw. For his part the-man-in-the-middle, Mike Riley, was even worse than Webb the weekend before.

The sign of a great referee is when they do their work largely unnoticed; they do not constantly blow their whistle, they realise that they are NOT the stars of the show and importantly they know when and when not to brandish their cards.

On Sunday at Stamford Bridge Mike Riley did none of the above, he was pretty much hapless throughout and to coin a phrase he was a 'homer from start to finish'. Like the weekend before, once again we had an official who was too easily influenced by the baying home crowd.

Referees like Riley make trouble for themselves by dishing out cheap yellow-cards. United are not a dirty team, but you wouldn't believe that given that our players collected seven bookings at Stamford Bridge. I'd take exception with four of the United bookings. Scholes was presumably booked largely because of his reputation for being a poor tackler and not long after Joe Cole committed a worse offence but got away with it. Ronaldo and Ferdinand were harshly booked for questioning Riley and Evra was booked for "dissent".

One could argue that the United players need to keep their mouths firmly shut in this year of "respect", but if anyone seriously believes that the Chelsea players were not giving their collective opinions to Riley throughout this match then they are completely and utterly deluded. The net result of Reilly's poor decision-making and card-happy bookings left too many United players walking a tightrope, this coupled with the almost constant stoppages led to a game which did not flow.

No doubting Ferguson will be wondering if Keith Hackett had briefed Riley to wind-up the United manager, given that earlier in the week Fergie had publically blasted the referees’ chief over his alleged intervention in the decision to over-turn John Terry's red-card against Manchester City the previous weekend.

While United fans will agree about Reilly being biased towards Chelsea, few would argue with the Rooney booking which led to the challengers’ equaliser. These are troubled times for Rooney who is not playing well for United. By rights he should not have started the match against Chelsea as Carlos Tevez, the Reds best player thus far was benched in preference to the former Evertonian star - which in my view was totally unfair on the Argentine - if anything it should have been the other way around.

The fact of the matter is Ferguson is currently selecting Rooney on reputation rather than on current form, which is never a good situation for dressing room morale.

United fans love Rooney because he gives so much to the team, but on Sunday he lost the ball in his own half in dangerous areas and then committed fouls which heaped yet more pressure on the Champions. Rooney currently looks some way off his best, he doesn't look sharp.

Then we come to Dimitar Berbatov who has the look of a £30m misfit. Like Rooney, the Bulgarian is getting in the side on reputation, added to which he is new and Fergie would look stupid if he was left out. In fairness, the former Spurs star had no pre-season to speak of, it has been a baptism of fire given recent fixtures.

Nonetheless, Berbatov was brought in to be a target man, he was supposed to be the final piece in the United jigsaw, but right now he looks anything but a perfect fit. Worse still, Berbatov's arrival has currently had the effect of actually weakening the forward line given the Champions had to leave out Tevez, though wrong decision it surely was.

Many United supporters - me included - had reservations about signing the Bulgarian given he is lazy and right now those fears look warranted. Some Reds may even be wishing that City had secured the Spurs striker, if they do, that view is premature at this early stage. It does not alter the fact that Fergie has given himself something of a nightmare selection wise, but it raises the question how much time can he give Berbatov?

If the clock is ticking for Berbatov and Rooney it's fair to ask how much longer can Fergie rely on the mercurial talents of the ginger prince that is Paul Scholes? Granted the United midfield star was inhibited by Riley's unjust yellow-card, but once again the Reds engine-room fell apart after that opening twenty five minute spell.

Ferguson has been hampered by the loss of Michael Carrick who can string passes together, but it seems despite his age and other options like Anderson and even Possebon, Fergie seems intent on seeing out the season with Scholes at the heart of United's midfield.

Scholes can still do a job for United, he is a special talent, but the way United's engine-room has malfunctioned after the opening 25 minutes of two tough away games should be cause for concern. The situation up front is not helping one bit, the ball isn't being held up and as a result it is coming back at the defence almost constantly.

United had two other veterans’ on duty at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and their respective performances were in marked contrast. Edwin van der Sar had to be replaced following a hefty first-half challenge, but once again his handling was suspect, his replacement Tomasz Kuszczak was guilty of ball watching on the Chelsea equaliser and with Ben Foster out injured it seems that the Reds have problems in between the sticks.

Gary Neville was somewhat surprisingly selected over Wes Brown at right-back and while he has clearly lost half a yard of pace, but the veteran defender can be proud of his display given he gave his absolute all in the Red cause.

Neville was done for pace and out-tricked several times, he could have been sent-off if Ballack hadn't hurdled a late second-half lunge, but the England star saved United on numerous occasions. While there was much to admire about Neville's never- say-die fighting spirit, his distribution hasn't yet returned to what it was as he was guilty of some poor passing and crossing. Hopefully, if selected, Neville will improve.

Going into the game Fergie had done his homework on Chelsea; he deployed Hargreaves and Park to deny Chelsea's attacking fullbacks time and space. Fergie isn't known for his tactical nouse, but this plan worked a treat, Reds fans will hoping that the manager continues to find tactical solutions in a bid to retain the title.

Despite the late setback of the equalising goal - and Chelsea did deserve a point - the result should give United confidence that things can only get better providing that Fergie can keep everyone happy and fit.

Many among the media and our rivals were desperately hoping that by the end of the weekend the Champions would be nine points behind Chelsea - thankfully, it didn't happen. Let's hope that the United can build on the Chelsea result, we have the best squad, we just need to start winning again to prove it.

IF United are to retain the title they will have to do it the hard way, given the fixtures have been very unkind to the Champions - we will also have to overcome the referee's mafia too.

Man-of-the match: Ji-Sung-Park
Plonker-of-the-match: Mike Riley

3 comments:

  1. It was a great performances for a make-shift side. No offence, but any United team playing Fletcher looks bit-part to me. I am surprised you did not comment on Evans having a start and making a good account of himself.

    Berbatov's passing was horrible, it looked like he was playing football on the playground and not in Stamford Bridge.

    Ronaldo played like a new signing doing all the dives and making all the same elementary mistakes of not passing the ball early enough as he did three seasons ago. In fact, bringing him on disrupted United's relatively steadfast defensive setup as he felt no commitment to strengthening the backline, which is why Rooney might have felt he needed to overcompensate.

    Chelsea missed a whole host of chances and could have easily taken the game. Overall for me, it was one point gained, although if Ronaldo had not come on, it might have been six.

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  2. Uday,

    Evans did quite well it has to be said and so good for him.

    Despite your comments about Ronaldo on the defensive side of his game, he did present Rooney with a good chance to have won the game - which he spurned (again).

    Rooney is on borrowed time given his poor form of late.

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  3. Berbatov should be on the bench and replaced by Tevez.

    Scholes should be replaced at halftime by Ronaldo while Park Ji Sung should have continued until the end of the match.

    Rooney's performance should be further scrutinized as he does not look as sharp as before.

    Great job by Evans the newcomer. As for the Chelsea goal, the keeper should have come out for the ball!

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