Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Punchdrunk United down and all but out of Europe...

Sir Alex Ferguson's nose will likely be a deeper shade of purple this morning given he will no doubt have hit the bottle hard after another woeful home performance by the current champions of Europe, because going off what happened at Old Trafford last night and in United's previous three games, the Red Devils could be knocked out of the Champions League quarter final next week in the return leg following a 2-2 draw with Porto.

Going into what turned out to be a good game for the viewing neutral, but a nightmare for United supporters, Fergie had warned that Porto would represent tough opposition - that view wasn't necessarily shared by the fans given that in the previous round we had knocked out Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.

Ahead of the game, there were fears that there might well have been repeat of the diving and cheating that was all too evident when United last met Porto in 2004. Questions were also raised about referee Konrad Plautz, who was said to be card-happy, but truth be told the man-in-the-middle gave a near faultless performance and Porto were excellent from start to finish.

United for their part were once again awful, but unlike against Liverpool and Aston Villa recently, it was the visitors who took the lead through Rodriguez who was a danger throughout. The manner of Porto's opening goal was to say the least disappointing, because once again it was United's own sloppy play that directly led to the goal. Jonny Evans failed to effectively deal with what should have been a regulation clearance and instead gifted possession back to this visitors - this after Ronaldo had lost the ball cheaply moments beforehand.

Just 48 hours earlier Aston Villa had given United a torrid time when going into a 2-1 lead at Old Trafford on Sunday in another energy sapping match, but against the odds late second-half goals by Ronaldo and Fredrico Macheda led to an unlikely victory.

Against Porto, after shooting themselves in their collective feet in the opening minutes, instead of United fighting back strongly, it was the visitors who looked more likely to go on to score yet more goals. We will never know what might have happened in the context of this Champions League tie and the rest of the season if Evans had not given that ball away, but what we do know for sure, is that United are now in big trouble.

Old Trafford is supposed to be a hostile arena for visiting teams whenever the club plays in Europe - it wasn't the case last night - for long periods of this game the home crowd did not get behind the team, not until late on at any rate.

If the fans were nervous about the team’s prospects they have every right to be, because quite frankly the game could be up in the Champions League and quite possibly in the League and FA Cup too.

The team that looked capable of conquering all before them just a few weeks ago is not functioning. Paul Scholes was restored to the engine room, having had the benefit of two weeks preparation for this game, but sadly his legs are no longer working in tandem with his genius level football brain - his passing in the first-half was dire.

Scholes wasn't the only player who fell way below expectations; John O'Shea, Carrick and Fletcher were all sloppy on the ball. Park's lack of genuine star quality was once again in evidence as he huffed and puffed but failed to deliver any meaningful contribution in this game.

At times in the opening 45 minutes it was like watching a pub team play, United were that bad. That said, much credit to Porto who were closing down United all over the park and whenever the home team managed to get the ball wide on the flanks there was almost always two defenders who in turn blocked any would be crosses into the box.

At the other end, the player known as the Hulk was playing like a human battering ram and United struggled to contain him throughout the game, he was the biggest difference between the two teams because from start to finish he was a thorn in United's side and a constant threat.

United were extremely fortunate to go into the half-time break on level terms after Rooney levelled against the run of play following Porto's only real mistake of the night.

The second-half was much better from United's perspective as Ronaldo and Rooney worked for the team and gave the home fans a degree of hope. United's collective passing was much better too, but on balance the visitors were still the better side.
However, once again against the odds and the run of play United scored late on following the introduction of Tevez after he scored quite brilliantly following a clever flick-on by Rooney.

With just a few minutes to go it looked as though United would be going to Porto defending a slender lead, alas it wasn't to be, because Mariano Gonzalez (89) scored with a little help from John O'Shea.

A draw was a fair result, United certainly did not deserve to win this match, nor did Porto deserve to lose it.

So what has gone wrong with this United team, the same one that a few weeks ago looked unstoppable? Was it the Liverpool defeat that led to the current slump? Have United been guilty of trying to win too many competitions? Has player fatigue and injuries taken their toll?

My own view is that it's a combination of all of the above. The defence which had been hitherto rock solid, but has now conceded 10 goals in the last four games looks to be all but shot to pieces confidence wise - the same can be said of midfield.

In the absence of Rafael da Silva and Neville, Fergie has had to rely on John O'Shea who has been very iffy in many recent games. Against Porto, Patrice Evra was caught out of position on too many second-half occasions and looked jaded/knackered. Instead of being the cornerstone of the back four, Vidic, had a complete aberration against Liverpool and paid the price with a costly suspension and course Ferdinand is currently out injured.

IF United's defence had been at full strength and playing like it was a few weeks ago, then the outlook could still be rosy, but like the rest of the team as a unit it is not functioning well.

In midfield if you keep on giving the ball away, you end up chasing the game which is precisely what happened against Porto and if your players are already suffering due to tiredness, it will not be long before your energy reserves are running on empty which again is precisely what has been happening in too many recent games.

Injuries and tiredness are definitely conspiring against United at present, but given that Fergie recently suggested this is his strongest squad ever, then it's fair to question that assertion. I personally vehemently disagree with Fergie's views on that point.

Fergie is now facing something of a dilemma, does he pick his strongest team at the weekend for the trip to Sunderland, or does he pick a team in preparation for the must win Porto game? He will do his very best and that is all we the fans can hope for.

Once the dust has settled on the events of last night Fergie will hopefully realise that drawing wasn't such a bad result, because although United conceded two goals and it was one of the worst first-half performances in Europe at Old Trafford for a very long time, United now know that they have to go to Porto and win - we are up against it - on the face of it, the odds are stacked against it happening given no other English team has won away at Porto.

But to end this on something of a positive note, United are not the best at defending a slender lead; is it not better that we know we have to win rather than Fergie confuse his players with tactics which would unlikely work especially in the event of Porto scoring early, is it not better knowing that you simply have to score more goals than the opposition?

United can still turn this tie around, but the players are going to have to dig deep for it to happen and everyone is going to have to play their part.

7 comments:

  1. MU was as lucky as Atletico Madrid, not loosing the match. And, just like the spanish side, english fans can not see beyond their own belly. Budget doesn't win games. By playng on sunday and talking about Barcelona instead of worrying about Porto, shows that Ferguson thought Porto was going to Old Trafford only to ask Ronaldo's autograph.
    Once again, you don't learn with the past, you are not humble and you will lose in a week.
    Greetings from Portugal, from a proud Porto supporter.

    PS - sorry about the misspelling.

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  2. I don't have a problem with your spelling, but if you had actually read what I have written instead of venting your spleen you would recognise that I have given Porto a lot of credit.

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  3. Dear James: I read what you wrote and I agree with you. My criticism goes, not to you, but to Alex Ferguson, english press and fans before the match. After the match, only a blind man could not give us credit. I also remeber 5 years ago, when Ferguson said we bought our titles at Tesco...

    PS - if you sell Ronaldo to Real Madrid, it's the best thing you could do.

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  4. The ref had a great game only from a united perspective.

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  5. Azulao,

    With reference to five years ago; you will recall that United had a perfectly good goal disallowed by the referee at Old Trafford. The Porto players were also guilty of professional time wasting, diving and conning the referee too, the result at Old Trafford has left many United followers with bitter memories.

    So last night it was refreshing to see Porto come to Old Trafford and take the game to United and there was little time wasting - as a result you won't find many United fans complaining about the result and so here again your comments are a bit off the mark about the English.

    Fergie comes out with a lot of crap, anyone who has followed United for any length of time will acknowledge that. However, on this occasion you are wrong again because in his press conference prior to the game he paid tribute to Porto when stating that this was going to be a difficult tie, he also talked about Hulk and one or two other Porto stars.

    With that said, Fergie could be forgiven for thinking ahead after knocking out Inter Milan in the last round, but the United manager knows from past experience that you cannot take anyone for granted in this competition.

    I think Porto might well go through and if that happens I hope you go on to win the competition.

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  6. I have no idea whats going on with United in the past two or three weeks, I simply can't make anything of it but a complete loss of focus.

    Let's hope Ferguson turns it around, unless its him who has lost the focus. He notably admitted that he picked the wrong team for the Vila game.

    Looking increasingly 'vulnerable' eh?

    We're just going to have to hope for United now, but we can be rest assured that United always do it the hard way so let's see.

    Regardless, its been a fabulous season despite the squad being below their best. The outlines of a future squad are being drawn vaguely with the emergence of Evans, the Da Silvas, among others who have begun showing their potential. Ronaldo is joint-topscorer, and all of us are rightfully questioning his commitment. Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov have scored 8-9 odd goals each too, key ones at key moments moreover.

    So United have been a strange contradiction this season, let's just hope it ends well.

    The Liverpool-Chelsea game was astounding too, Chelsea seem to have come out of their shell with Hiddink, playing with Mourinho-esque confidence. I'm not sure Liverpool suppporters would mind so much now that they are knocked out, they can focus on the title race.

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  7. Uday,

    As ever, you're right on many issues, United have been something of a contradiction this season.

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