For as long as I can remember, Manchester United do not give up. They do not know when they’re beat. They once again demonstrated this battling attitude at Southampton’s Saint Mary’s with two very late goals to claim a dramatic victory.
Robin Van Persie’s injury time header completed his hat-trick and an unlikely comeback. However, the elation felt in those final couple of minutes cannot hide what was a very poor United performance for the majority of the game.
The game started well for The Reds. Dictating the tempo and having the vast majority of possession, they knocked the ball around with ease and patiently waited for a chance to arise. Unsurprisingly the first chance fell for Van Persie after he latched on to a Michael Carrick pass. Unfortunately the angle was tight and he couldn’t finish.
The early domination, however, soon began to wain. With this, Southampton began to look dangerous going forward and put some testing balls into the United box. The Saints confidence grew quickly and it wasn’t a big surprise when Ricky Lambert rose above Rafael at the back post to head past Anders Lindegaard. Rafael, who had been excellent last weekend, on this occasion found himself slightly too narrow and as a result couldn’t adjust to the threat Lambert poised.
This was arguably United’s strongest defence. Consisting of Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, it was very surprising at how vulnerable they looked. Perhaps not helped by this being the first time Vidic and Ferdinand have played together since the Serbians injury last season, and perhaps not helped by a bizarre decision by the manager to drop De Gea for his “mistake” last weekend. However, you would still expect better. Evra was once again very disappointing, though he did have his work cut out down the left. Danny Welbeck was position on United’s left hand side, but he is not a wide player and his natural instinct was to come inside. This did leave Evra exposed.
United’s response to going a goal down was swift. The Reds took control of the ball again and Shinji Kagawa came close to providing the equaliser. However in the 25th minute it was United’s new goal scoring hero, Van Persie, who cushioned Antonia Valencia’s cross on his chest and unleashed a fierce left foot shot into the bottom corner.
It would have been expected that United would now dominate the remainder of the half in pursuit of the goal that would see them take the lead. However, Southampton showed themselves to be a very well set up team who pressed United hard. With little time on the ball United began to get sloppy with their passing. It began to get rather frustrating to watch.
Having got United rattled when in possession, Southampton also sensed the vulnerability in their defense and came forward confidently again. It was The Saints who had the majority of the chances before the half time whistle. Lambert is a strong lad who can play as well as he can use his strength, and Vidic found it an extremely tough afternoon. Adam Lallana was also a threat with some creativity in the midfield.
United on the other hand had very few chances. Their poor passing at the vital moment didn’t inspire confidence. Valencia appeared to be the person who could unlock the Southampton defence with some good balls into the box. It was one of these crosses which did lead to United’s best chance before the half time whistle; Evra found himself fee at the back post but his powerful header was saved well by Kelvin Davis.
Given the poor first half it was surprising that at the start of the second half United didn’t get any better. Once again Southampton pressed and forced United into mistakes with the ball. The bright spark was some lovely interplay between Van Persie and Kagawa which ended with Kagawa beating the keeper. Unfortunately though the shot just went wide of the goal to let our opponents off the hook.
With United not playing well it was a massive blow when Southampton regained the lead in the 55th minute. Another mistake on the back post, this time Evra out of position and therefore unable to move properly towards the ball before slipping, allowed Morgan Schneiderlin a free header which gave Lindegaard no chance.
Rather than responding to going behind as they did in the first half, by taking control again, this time they were shell shocked and had their keeper to thank for not falling further behind almost immediately. Jason Puncheon ran at Evra inside the box before easily turning him and firing a shot which Lindegaard saved at his near post. He was then called into action a couple of minutes later to prevent Lallana from scoring.
Ferguson had seen enough. Off came Cleverley and Kagawa, on came Nani and Scholes. United were now playing their more familiar 4-4-2 formation and looked far more comfortable. This was the key moment in the game. Paul Scholes may not have taken the headlines after the game but for Van Persie, the manager and everyone watching it was his contribution which turned the game around. Scholes allowed United to now retain the ball and was putting together some clever balls which came close to splitting open the Saints deep lying defense.
United’s ball retention was aided somewhat by Nigel Adkins decision to take off their three best players, and their three best forms of attack. As a result they had little going forward and set very deep. However, they still proved to be very difficult to break down. However Scholes influence, pared with Hernandez (now on for Welbeck) running the channels, momentum was building and there was still hope even with just a few minutes remaining.
Before the dramatic final few minutes, which saw Van Persie become an instant hero, he was the villain of the piece. A wayward pass from Southamptons keeper was picked up by Nani who burst into the box. He turn and squared to Van Persie who cleverly waited for a lunging tackle and won a penalty for United. Still playing poorly this was the opportunity United needed, and with more than 20 minutes remaining a goal now would make United favourites to come away victorious. Van Persie stepped up to take the spot kick himself. What happened next was unforgivable, he tried to cheekily chip the keeper but got it all wrong. His soft chip was to the keepers right and gave him all the time in the world to claw it wide. Van Persie later admitted to it being an awful penalty and he unforgivably changed his mind at last second.
This though did provide United with the momentum they needed. Finally United’s pressure told. When a corner wasn’t cleared properly Valencia played a short pass to Rafael who picked out an unmarked Rio Ferdinand in the box. Ferdinand was some twelve yards out but got a strong head to the ball which beat the keeper. His effort came flying back off the post though, but Van Persie reacted quickly to sweep the ball into the unguarded net.
No time for celebrating though, Ferguson was waving his players back for one last onslaught. With 4 minutes added on to the ninety, United continued to flow forward. With 2 minutes of injury time elapsed a corner was won. We are not renowned for scoring from corners but this time Nani beat the first man to find Van Persie who superbly arched his body to enable him to powerfully head the winner, his hat-trick and his 100th league goal.
This match game was classic United. They may have played poorly but the desire and commitment to win won through in the end. Issues in The Reds defense and midfield have been highlighted though. These issues can now be looked at before our next game, where as most importantly today we have not lost any further ground when for a long time it looked as if we would.
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