Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tykes test United on mixed night for Reds youngsters....

So then following Sunday's 'no show' at Anfield, the champions bounced back with a just about deserved two nil win at Barnsley in the Carling Cup last night, thanks to goals by Danny Welbeck and Michael Owen. United are through to the next round and with rivals Manchester City likely to be in the draw what chance a quarter final meeting? It if happens, interest levels in the lowly 'Fizzy Pop Cup' will rise markedly... and then some.

So what of the performance at Oakwell? Fergie likes to give the kids a chance in this competition, especially in the early rounds, last night was no different. Gabriel Obertan made his first team debut and so all eyes were on the Frenchman, who did quite well in the first-half, but faded in the second period. Obertan, has the build of former Fergie 'fledgling' Luke Chadwick, it is to be hoped he doesn't follow in his footsteps...

The two da Silva brothers started and played the whole 90 minutes. Fabio was steady at leftback, but not overly impressive. Rafael played in the centre of midfield and after one or two nice early touches, like Obertan he faded and was largely anonymous.

Macheda was given a rare start and he failed to impress and looked slow off the mark at times - it is be hoped rumours of stardom going to his head plus alleged off the field antics are not going to hinder his progress after such a promising start to his career at United.

Danny Welbeck scored early doors with a regulation header from a corner, but in truth the marking was nothing short of criminal. Welbeck does some things quite well at times. Against Barnsley, his best moment came in the first-half when he took the ball out of the air with one touch a la Berbatov, but that moment of brilliance was spoilt by what happened next as he took the wrong decision when Michael Owen was better placed for a pass. It's too early to tell if Welbeck will develop into the finished article, he needs to beef up and he needs to improve in just about every aspect of what it takes to become a top striker - if doesn't improve he will follow the likes of David Healy out of the Old Trafford exit door.

Owen was United's star man in attack, whenever he actually managed to get on the ball, unlike Welbeck, he usually found someone in a United shirt. However, the former Newcastle striker had another mixed night in front of goal; he missed one excellent chance, but he more than made up for that with his late second-half effort when scoring with a textbook Owen goal.

Ben Foster was in goal and at times you could almost sense tension between himself and the defenders in front of him. Following a run of dodgy first-team games and his subsequent axing, the England stopper looks like a bag of nerves, but to his credit he made one truly world-class second-half save when he looked beaten all ends up.

Jonny Evans and Wes Brown were in harness in the centre of defence and they didn't cover themselves in glory, because the Tykes could easily have scored four in the second half, but a combination of Foster's 'keeping and poor finishing ensured there was to be no upset at Oakwell.

Gary Neville received his marching orders following what looked like a rash challenge. Neville went over the ball, but didn't follow through - if had done he would have broken Adam Hammill's leg. It looked as though Neville thought about it, raised his leg but in a split second came to his senses and pulled back from the brink, but by that time it was too late because in real-time it just looked bad. No wonder Fergie didn't defend his club captain in his post-match interview, but in truth it really wasn't such a bad challenge and Hammill needed no treatment whatsoever.

All in all, we didn't learn very much about those on duty at Oakwell, at least not from a United perspective. Ho hum, bring on the Bitter Blues.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

One step forward...two steps back.

You would think they had won the cup the way they celebrated, but I can confirm Liverpool were only awarded three points for their win against United on Sunday.

As I start to digest the result from Anfield, I feel it would be easy to blame the referee for his inconsistent decisions throughout the game. But for such a committed contest in an intimidating atmosphere, he could have got a lot more wrong than he did, and he never truly lost control. He easily could have done though, with the Liverpool fans baying for blood every time a United player went in for a tackle.

No, what United lacked was desire, a desire Liverpool had - no doubt borne out of the frustration of four straight defeats. And in the end what they lacked in fluid attacking play, they made up for in aggression and commitment, and I admit a moment of class from Torres.

As for United, it just looked flat. I felt Fletcher was missed in the centre of the park - Scholes was out muscled too easily. I also felt the lack of a target man meant our options were limited; this game was always going to be won ugly and we didn't have the players to do so.

At the back Rio Ferdinand still looks out of sorts. He was far too slow for the opening goal and I'm sure if Sir Alex Ferguson had the players available he would seek to give him a rest. But he doesn't so we have to hope he can play his way back into form.

It’s turning out to be a mixed month and although I think the side is yet to click properly, the erratic form of the other sides around us means we are not slipping behind the leaders. It seems like the top four are taking turns to upset the football odds and lose at the moment.

However, we still need to compete because any more performances like Sunday, which should have required no motivation, and it seems a safe Premier League bet that we will again fall short.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Marriner sinks in Anfield atmosphere as Liverpool expose glaring United weaknesses...

United deservedly lost 2-0 at Liverpool on Sunday, going into the game all the talk was of crisis at Anfield, the focus was on Rafa Benitez, but when the final whistle blew the focus of attention had switched to the performance of rookie referee Andre Marriner and Manchester United, who were pretty much second best all over the pitch.

Andre Marriner is not the first referee to buckle under the pressure of the Anfield crowd and he won't be the last. It was Marriner's first really big game and he failed the test, it wasn't the fact that he sent-off Vidic and Mascherano, because he was right to do so.

Marriner was guilty of giving Liverpool too many first-half decisions, he booked Patrice Evra for his first poor tackle. In sharp contrast, Lucas committed a catalogue of equally poor challenges yet his name did not enter the referee's notebook. Dimitar Berbatov was also booked in the first-half, it was another harsh decision by an in-experienced referee.

There were other questionable decisions; Ryan Giggs was fouled inside the Liverpool penalty area, and Carragher could have been sent-off late on in the game, but Marriner gave the benefit of doubt to the home team when denying United a spot-kick and only issuing a yellow card to the Liverpool defender.

Marriner was poor throughout the game and no doubting whoever makes these appointments will argue the case for promoting an in-experienced referee in a bid to gain experience. How else will they learn?

Whatever the questionable performance of Marriner, United cannot use that as an excuse for their own shortcomings, this against a Liverpool team that had lost four games on the spin, as it turned out, it was the visitors who looked out of sorts and short of ideas.

In midfield Fergie had elected to start with Scholes and Carrick with Giggs and Valencia on the flanks. Scholes guilty of wanting too much time on the ball and he very nearly cost United in the first half when he lost possession on the half-way line.

To suggest United were totally out-played would be wrong, because they had an equal share of possession; the problem was there was no cutting edge up front. Berbatov didn't look interested and Rooney didn't look 100% match fit.

Ferguson has a major selection dilemma with this squad, he cannot realistically start with a lone striker, because none of his current first-choice forwards are best suited to playing in 451/433 formation, if he does, against a top team at any rate, the opposition will easily regain possession quickly and the ball will keep on coming back at United's midfield and defence.

Without any question the most suitable formation for this United squad is 442, however, Fergie doesn't currently have two monster central midfield players to call upon. Scholes was excellent against Stoke City recently, but on Sunday against Liverpool he was found wanting, he didn't have the legs and so it came as no surprise that Fergie eventually substituted him in the second-half.

While 442 should be Ferguson's preferred formation, until such times as Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher are both fit again, the champions will struggle in central midfield in the biggest of games.

By his own admission, Fergie could have signed Adebayor in the summer and he would have given United a different dimension, the manager could then have deployed 433/451. For whatever reason, Fergie kept his powder dry and instead he signed Michael Owen on a free transfer, he will probably never admit it, but his failure to sign the former Arsenal striker must surely go down as a major missed opportunity.

Torres scored the vital opening goal midway through the second period. The value of a powerful pacey lone striker was underlined by Liverpool's Spanish star, who was a constant threat to Vidic and Ferdinand.

It was evident that United's two central defenders were wary of the Spaniard's pace throughout and so it was vital the visitors didn't concede too much ground in front of the back four, but sadly that is how the opening goal came about as Liverpool mounted a swift counter-attack. Ferdinand couldn't live with the pace of Torres and Edwin Van der Sarr went down to early at his near post instead of standing big.

The gap between the back four and a light on numbers midfield was apparent on several occasions, throughout this encounter. It came as no surprise when the champions paid the price late on when substitute Ngog hammered the final nail in United's coffin in added time.

On a day of poor performances, United's two star-men were Michael Carrick and Atonio Valencia who could have scored late on, only to his shot hit the crossbar. Carrick's passing was excellent throughout, but he couldn't do it all on his own.

On the evidence of Sunday’s poor performance, United will fall short where the big prizes are concerned this season.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

United see off Russians, but Red Devils must be wary of wounded Scousers...

Football is as someone once famously said, a funny old game, in part, the game's unpredictability makes it what it is, but Fergie wasn't laughing when the Champions League fixtures were drawn and United were given a tough looking assignment in Moscow against CSKA followed by the biggest annual domestic grudge match of the season away at Anfield.

But here again things didn't quite turn out as expected, because United went to Moscow on Tuesday and it was a proverbial walk in the park. This years beaten finalists strolled to a 1-0 win thanks to Antonio Valencia's second goal for the club. It could easily have been the Ecuadorian's third goal for United since his summer signing, because he came within a whisker of giving the visitors' the lead when hitting the woodwork following some excellent inter-play with Nani on the edge of CSKA's penalty area.

If United fans are honest, CSKA were hugely disappointing on the night. However with some surprise results around Europe this week, there's no worries about unpredictability so far in Group B, which is shaping up to expectations with the champions and Wolfsburg occupying the top two places. United should have no problem qualifying for the next phase of the competition and going into Tuesday's game Fergie was able to rest Ryan Giggs, and Patrice Evra. Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney were also missing, with knee and calf injuries respectively.

In the wake of the win in Moscow - United's first against Russian opposition - Fergie has rightly been singing the praises of his squad for matching Ajax's fourteen game unbeaten run away from home in the Champions League, it's an impressive stat, United fans will be hoping it continues for as long as possible.

United face Liverpool on Sunday at Anfield and we can forget about current form because if there's one game the Scousers rise to it is the visit of the champions. Going into this huge fixture, both managers have injury problems with the likes of Torres and Gerrard struggling, while Rooney and Fletcher a big doubts for United.

After four defeats on the bounce Liverpool are desperate for a win and if comes against United it will quickly end all the talk of crisis at Anfield, the result could well prove to be pivotal from a Merseyside perspective.

For our part United know that winning will enhance the club's chances of retaining the title, and while it's far too early to be seriously talking about silverware, Fergie and the fans know beating Liverpool will harm them, with the loss of more league points, and the psychological effect of losing five games on the spin another reverse could be a significant point in their season.

For anyone hoping that Gerrard and Torres will miss the game, let us not forget that they both missed this fixture last season. Giggsy, we love you, but please do not commit the same offense again tomorrow...

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of attention on Michael Owen, he will probably start the game on the bench and is it too much to hope that he will be given a half-decent reception by the home fans - can pigs fly?

Owen is still struggling to find his very best form, he was very lucky last weekend against Bolton, quite how the ball ended up in the Trotters net is still a minor mystery, but with Owen on the pitch you always get the feeling that United do look more likely to score. No matter how badly he's playing, no matter how many chances he's missed, Michael Owen doesn't hide - and that is a strong point because as we saw against City in the derby he might take that chance. Nonetheless, Fergie is currently using Owen from the bench - as an impact player if you like - if the former Newcastle striker finds his true form the manager will no doubt review his strategy but for now expect the super-sub scenario to continue.

Against CSKA, Dimitar Berbatov was given the role of the lone striker, while United won, the ploy didn't really work and it highlighted the lack of options up front.
CSKA really were there for the taking, justice was done in the end, but when looking around Europe this week, what price a player like Pato in the red shirt of United?

While United have some problems up front, it's at the back where we will need to be rock solid on Sunday. Vidic will know he cannot take any liberties with Torres, not after last season, and please no more sloppiness from Rio Ferdinand.

If United's back four are solid, as ever, it should provide a platform to attack a Liverpool back four that has looked dodgy in all departments recently. In midweek Lyon exposed Liverpool down the flanks and it is to be hoped the champions are as strong as they have been of late down the left with Evra and Giggs linking up to great effect.

Here's hoping for a good performance at Anfield and a winning goal from Michael Owen - we can all drink to that tonight.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Priceless old guard and 'beach ball goal' make it good day for champions...

United bounced back to the summit of the Premier League following Saturday's 2-1 win over Bolton, it was by no means a classic performance, but the champions just about did enough to seal the points thanks to a deflected first-half header by Michael Owen. Atonio Valencia finally got his name on the score-sheet to make it two-nil before the break. The Ecuadorian drilled home his first goal for the club after good work by Gary Neville.

The build-up to Valencia's goal was just as impressive as the finish; it wasn't that long ago that Gary Neville being written off, but against Bolton we saw glimpses of the 'old' Neville who was at times back to his best.

While the contribution of Neville and Valencia for United's second goal was impressive, the men tasked with raiding down the opposite flank proved to be an even bigger thorn in Bolton's side. Time and time again Giggs and Evra linked up to great effect which led to the champions creating a number of good goal scoring opportunities.

Time defying Ryan Giggs has been restored to the left-flank and he's been a revelation, so much so that Nani isn't getting a look-in at present - given the age difference, it's a huge compliment to the Welshman who looks to be getting even better.

Following the high-profile departures of Ronaldo and Tevez and the manager's modest summer signings, there has been a temptation to write-off United with Fergie seemingly over-reliant on Giggs, Scholes and to a lesser extent Neville. It's far too early to be talking about United retaining the title, but so far so good.

United wouldn't have been top of the League if it were not for the fact that Chelsea slipped up when losing 2-1 at Villa. On a day of much hilarity where our main rivals are concerned, the manner Villa's two headed goals were of the sort you'd expect to see at schoolboy level - Chelsea's marking was non-existent.

Villa's win over Chelsea earlier on in the day meant that if United could win they'd go back to the top of the table. The Champions were made to work hard for three points against a hard working Bolton side who created a number of chances themselves. Kevin Davies once again proved to be a handful and with Nemanja Vidic out injured it was Jonny Evans who was given the rarely easy job of marking the Bolton striker. Davies and Taylor missed a couple of good goal scoring opportunities. United's luck finally ran out when they conceded a goal in the 75th minute as Taylor made sure it was a nervy finish for the champions.

In the end United were relieved to hear the final whistle and to cap off an almost perfect day, news that Liverpool had lost to Sunderland thanks to a deflected "beach ball goal" made it really happy Saturday night.

The evening entertainment continued on BBC Radio 5 Live, the 606 phone-in show is hosted by massive Liverpool fan Alan Green; his first caller was predictably Liverpool supporter, who was extremely unhappy about the 'beach ball goal', which not surprisingly proved to be the main talking point of the evening. No doubting United fans will have been roaring with laughter throughout the night, especially after finally seeing TV replays of what is undoubtedly one of the funniest moments in the history of the Premier League.

Next up United travel to Moscow to face CSKA on Tuesday and then it's Anfield on Sunday. Following the hilarity at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, what price on Michael Owen scoring the winner against his old club in front of the Kop? :0)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

England need Rooney, but not as much as United need 'the white Pele'...

Surely Manchester United supporters cannot be the only fans who hate these god awful international breaks’ - it's enough to drive you to drink. With England set to take on Belarus and having already qualified for next year's World Cup Finals', the media are desperately short of material - no surprise then that we are being told Rooney is 'key' to Capello's chances of glory next summer, not exactly news is it?

Apart from Fergie's attack on Alan Wiley, the reaction and apology that followed there hasn't been a reason to read the sports pages or tune into Sky Sports News.

As far as Rooney (aka the white Pele) is concerned, he's picked up an injury which means he will thankfully miss the Belarus game, but hopefully he'll be fit to face the Trotters this weekend when the real action starts again.

While Rooney misses out tonight, Rio Ferdinand has retained his starting place following another dodgy performance last weekend against Ukraine and all eyes will be on the United defender who cannot afford to keep on making high-profile mistakes at club and country level.

As for Fergie, the referees' boss wants him banned from coaching - that response is as ridiculous as the initial attack on Wiley. No doubting Fergie will be hammered with a massive fine, but no way will he banned. According to reports Fergie believes it's 90% certain the FA will throw the book at him, I think he's wrong here, surely it's 100% certain? Apparently, Fergie also thinks the refs and the FA have it in for him - which is a bit odd if true because he started this row and so he cannot really grumble on this occasion.

In other news Rafael da Silva has made a welcome return to action along with new signing Gabriel Obertan in the 3-0 win over Oldham in the Manchester Senior Cup, so it's looking good on the injury front.

After tonight we can look forward to ending our collective snoozefest and look ahead to pasting "Wanky Wanderers" this coming weekend.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Referees' chief wants Fergie sanctioned

The head of the referees' union Alan Leighton wants Sir Alex Ferguson banned for claiming referee Alan Wiley was not fit enough.
Fergie lambasted Wiley after his display in the draw with Sunderland FC and has since apologised for any embarrassment his remarks may have caused, but Leighton is keen to see the United chief is given more than just a slap on the wrist.
"A punishment should be a UEFA-type coaching ban, which is more than a touchline ban," said Leighton.
"A UEFA ban involves a ban for a greater period of time during, before and after a game."
Ferguson is sure to incur a hefty fine and a touchline ban at the very least after the FA asked the Old Trafford boss to explain his comments by 16 October.
However Leighton is keen to see Ferguson slapped with a ‘coaching ban’ which will prevent him from contact with the players for a significant amount of time before during and after matches.
Ferguson’s comments have certainly touched a raw nerve. The usual criticism about referees’ decision making is often brushed off because of the objectivity involved. But Fergie’s attack on Wiley’s fitness essentially questioned his credentials as a referee.
Referees are physically tested regularly throughout the season and the Prozone stats from the game suggested the official had in fact run further than around half of the Premier League players on the pitch.
Suggesting the official was lacking fitness - a compulsory attribute to do his job - was also questioning the integrity of the referees’ association and a huge oversight from Fergie.
His comments were though made in the heat of the moment and that will be argued, but whether his apology will be enough to see him escape punishment is unlikely.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rio Ferdinand: From defensive rock to Mr Bean - the sorry slide continues ....

No doubting Rio Ferdinand would have preferred it if the BBC had not belatedly gained access to highlights of England's World Cup qualifying defeat against Ukraine last night in Dnipropetrovsk. Not for the first time this season the England centre-back was found wanting and according to the 'expert pundits' by rights should have been sent-off for a foul on Artem Milevskiy just 13 minutes into the game. In the end, it was Robert Green who received his marching orders for bringing down the Ukraine forward.

Luckily for England, Shevchenko's resulting spot-kick hit the post, but the focus of attention has rightly been on Ferdinand's failure to deal with a regulation interception and clearance in the build up to Milevskiy's run on goal. In the end, it didn't really matter because England still lost the game following another defensive mistake, this time by Ashley Cole, but Fabio Capello's team were down to 10 men for most of the game and for that Ferdinand must take the blame.

Uncharacteristic defensive lapses have started creeping into Ferdinand's game - he was shocking for United in the Champions League final, and was equally poor for England against Holland. However, nothing compares to his error late on in the recent Manchester derby that led to Craig Bellamy scoring, in so doing equalising to make it 3-3, luckily for the England defender Michael Owen saved Ferdinand with an injury time winner on that occasion.

To be fair to Ferdinand he's been suffering with injuries, but that cannot explain what are lapses of concentration and basic errors of judgement that have absolutely nothing to do with injuries - anyone who'd beg to differ would be deluding themselves.

There has been talk that Ferdinand fancies a move to Barcelona, if he carries on making silly mistakes Fergie might well drive him to the airport providing he is clutching a £20m Barca cheque in exchange.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The ironic man who trousered a fortune from sale of United has 'concerns' over Glazers' departure...

He was often lampooned for his disgusting alleged antics, which include peeping under the ladies toilet door; he is also the man who was willing to sell the club for 'peanuts' to Michael Knighton.

He failed again when trying to sell United to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, he was eventually forced to resign as United's chairman in 2002 over alleged engagements with prostitutes in Brazil, Britain and Switzerland - this while on club business - that man is of course Martin Edwards.

This week he voiced his "concerns" about what may well lay ahead if and when the debt ridden Glazer regime decide to sell the club. However, given the vast fortune the Edwards' family have plundered from the sale of United shares, it comes as no surprise that no one particularly cares about Martin's ironic comments about the Glazers'. This is 'bear shit's in woods territory’; the die-hards have been saying it since 2005, what's more the paying fans have more credibility than Edwards and his gravy train sort will ever have.

Shock horror: Fergie apologises to Wiley...

As predicted on this blog, Fergie has made a public apology to Alan Wiley for his senseless comments about the referee's fitness. You do wonder if this apology has been made voluntarily, or more likely has it been made in a bid to water down the FAs punishment that will surely follow? Whatever the reasoning for Fergie's apology it is most welcome and it's to be hoped he thinks twice before going on the offensive in future in front of the TV cameras.

In a statement on the club’s official website Fergie had this to say "I apologise to Mr Wiley for any personal embarrassment that my remarks may have caused.
"I intend to contact him personally after I return from a trip overseas."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fergie hoist by his own petard...

So then, Fergie has dug a rather big hole for himself, it will serve him right if the FA make an example of him following his ill-timed and ill-thought out attack on referee Alan Wiley. Fergie claimed last Saturday's referee was 'unfit', yet ProZone's stats showed that only four United players' covered more ground than the man-in-the-middle.

There's no doubting that some Premier League referees have been on the portly side, I refer to now retired Jeff Winter and Graham Poll, however, ProZone's stats confirm that overall fitness levels have improved since referee's turned professional.

There's also no doubting the standard of refereeing in the Premier League often leaves a lot to be desired, but given United have made a habit of scoring important goals in added time as they did in the recent Manchester derby and again against Sunderland on Saturday, then Fergie's decision to attack Wiley following the game was not only ill-timed, but also on the evidence of the ProZone stats plain wrong.

Fergie's attack on Wiley beggared belief, given the champions were chasing the game in added time, it also defied all logic - what was there to gain? You do wonder if Fergie was rattled about the team's poor performance against the Black Cats. Unconfirmed reports are claiming the United manager had a dressing bust-up with goalkeeper Ben Foster; the row was allegedly over Sunderland's second goal scored by Kenywne Jones.

Fergie will more likely be given a huge fine and do not rule out a grovelling public apology to Alan Wiley, if he's man enough to admit he was wrong then good on him, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Berbatov: I disappointed myself

Dimitar Berbatov has admitted his debut season at Old Trafford was a disappointing one.

The Bulgarian frontman arrived from Tottenham for £30.75million with a big reputation after netting over 40 goals in two seasons at White Hart Lane, but the 28-year-old failed to deliver consistently for the Premier League champions.

He managed just nine league goals last term from 29 starts and came in for heavy criticism from United pundits and fans alike.

But Berbatov is eager to make up for lost time and is happier with the form he has showed this season.

"In my first year I was disappointed in myself. I need to say that," berbatov told The Daily Mirror.

"It was a big pressure for me and maybe I failed myself. I think I wanted to prove myself to these supporters.

"You must remember, they are used to [George] Best, [Bobby] Charlton, [Eric] Cantona. I am just Dimitar.

"I am more pleased with my overall game in this second season already.

"I feel that I have integrated myself better into the team. I am much stronger, much fitter. But I still wish I could score more."

Berbatov, who has netted two goals from six starts this season, showed some impressive touches in midweek against Wolfsburg and has helped increase the Man Uniteds odds of winning.

Michael Owen’s injury allowed Berbatov to replace him after just 20 minutes and the Bulgarian looked lively as United came from behind to sink the German champions 2-1.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Rooney looks knackered as United steal point: Fergie ref fitness carping ill-timed

Manchester United were made to fight hard for a point at Old Trafford on Saturday in the early evening kick-off, and once again the champions came back strongly late in the game, but on this occasion they had to settle for a point thanks to Aton Ferdinand who deflected Patrice Evra's injury-time effort into his own goal.

Sunderland had raced into an early well deserved first-half lead through Darren Bent; for their part United were very disjointed, and worryingly, Wayne Rooney was particularly disappointing throughout.

Recent encounters between the champions and Sunderland have rarely been memorable, but Saturday's second-half action was especially absorbing, just five minutes after the break Dimitar Berbatov brought United level with one of the most secular goals of the season. The Bulgarian striker scored with a bicycle-kick from an excellent John O'Shea cross.

From that point on it looked like it was only a matter of time before United scored a vital second goal, but against the run of play the visitors broke away and took the lead, this time thanks to a Kenwyne Jones header following an excellent cross from Andy Reid.

Going into the game Ferguson had elected to make several changes to the starting eleven that won in midweek against Wolfsburg; out went Rio Ferdinand along with the man-of-the-season so far, Ryan Giggs, and Ben Foster was restored in goal.

Of the changes, the decision to leave out Giggs was entirely in-keeping with Ferguson's policy of resting his ageing midfield generals. As for resting Ferdinand, the United manager gave two plausible reasons, "he's played three games on the trot and he is likely to play in England's two games this week".

It was a sensible decision to leave out Ferdinand given his well documented injury problems; with Owen out injured and Macheda seemingly out in the cold, it's such a pity that the manager doesn't have another first-class striker to call upon so that Rooney could be rested too.

Against Sunderland Rooney was jaded and off the pace, he gave away possession cheaply more or less ever time the ball went near him. However, much credit should be given to Steve Bruce's players who worked hard at closing down United all over the pitch.

Rooney could easily have found himself in disciplinary trouble for what looked like a clear attempted stamp on an opponent. In his post-match comments, Fergie attacked the fitness of referees' in general - which is fair comment - but on reflection and when the manager sees a replay of Rooney's spiteful kick, he might take the view that he should be thanking referee Alan Wiley, rather openly attacking him.

While Fergie's carping about the general standard of referee fitness is valid, his timing was bonkers. United recently won against City deep into injury time, they nicked a point yesterday in injury time - notwithstanding the fact that on both occasions the officials were totally vindicated regarding the amount of added time, there must be a serious danger that sooner or later one of the men in the middle will take revenge on United and the manager by calling time early when the champions are chasing the game.

Part of the problem is manager's talking to the media immediately following the white-hot heat of battle, Fergie's views on the standard of referees' fitness would be viewed more constructive if they were made in general terms and not in the wake of action.

Fergie's comments aside, the main talking points from this game are likely to once again focus on the performance of Ben Foster; some pundits are claiming the England 'keeper could have done better with both of Sunderland's goals.

However, my opinion is credit should on this occasion be given to the opposition strikers, as both goals were well taken and well worked. Nonetheless, Foster looked shaky yesterday and as early as the opening minutes there appeared to be a lack of communication between the 'keeper and Vidic. Every time the ball goes back to Foster, you can feel a sense of nervous apprehension, because Foster isn't instilling any confidence when coming off his line, his kicking is suspect, especially with his right foot. The jury is very much out on Foster and you do wonder how much longer Ferguson will keep faith.

The performance of Nani gave yet more ammunition to his many detractors. At one point in the game his stats read 6 attempted cross 0 delivered. Like Foster, you wonder how much longer Nani will be a United player.

Danny Welbeck was given a rare starting place, but did little to suggest he deserved to.

It wasn't all bad, but choosing the man-of-the-match would have been a tough decision from a United perspective, Patrice Evra would have received my vote.

United didn't play well against Sunderland, but in the end they could have snatched a victory which says a lot about the champions because even when they're playing below their best they can still take something from a game in which the opposition played well.

United have recently come through their sternest of tests to date with wins against, Arsenal, Spurs and City, but the next two Premier League away games at Liverpool and Chelsea, will provide the ultimate domestic challenge - let us hope Rooney is back to his very best.

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