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Feb 102014

“It was just like playing against a Conference side!” ——-Dan Burn

“There was only one winner in the game, and that was Manchester United!” ———David Moyes

Manchester United 2-2 Fulham
Manchester United v Fulha 019 Carrying 81 CrossesLongball: If it was good enough for your Grandad and mine, it’s good enough for David Moyes! 56 years I’ve been watching United and I include the abject misery and utter boredom of the Sexton years. In all that time, I have never seen Manchester United play the kind of primitive Hail-Mary long ball they played last week and yesterday. Manchester United put in 81 crosses in the game, the most by a team in any Premier League match since 2006, but just 18 of them found a team-mate

Had you been a United fan watching this game up till, say, the 75th minute, you’d have deliriously settled for a draw. Then for two delusional minutes, as they gave you the footballing equivalent of the prostate massage and scored two sweet goals, you forgot about being such a delirious sissy. But ironies abound at the new Manchester United. If last week’s long-ball United were adjudged by their manager to be ‘unlucky,’ just what this week’s right adjective would be is beyond my gobsmacked vocabulary gift. Playing against the bottom-placed club is always difficult for any champion. Desperate to survive, that bottom-feeder is prone to turn psychopath, brawling for every ball as team members play way above themselves to impress scouts so they’ll be recruited to other clubs on the cheap after relegation. The Mexican football commentator, Gabriel Kantor, calls this ‘Tony Montana Syndrome’ after the gangster who went down in a blaze of glory, machine gun in hand, at the end of the movie Scarface. Believe me, Fulham did not show an ounce of anything resembling Tony Montana syndrome—well maybe Steve Sidwell—they simply put ten men behind the ball and chanced very occasional counterattacks, two of which succeeded.

The subsequent fallout is still the stuff of nightmares. United and their manager seemed on the verge of a much-needed win after Steve Sidwell’s opener had been answered by late goals from Van Persie and Michael Carrick. That was until Darren Bent’s equalizer in the fourth minute of added time, which followed a weak attempt at a headed clearance from Nemanja Vidic, once again again exposed United’s soft underbelly.

After already losing eight times only halfway through the season, United started as if last week’s reverse to Stoke City and the previous penalty shoot-out loss in the Semifinal of the League Cup to Sunderland were meaningless. With Rooney, Van Persie and Mata out there, what could go wrong at Old Trafford against a team whose highest-scoring player is a mediocre-at best-defensive midfielder, Steve Sidwell?

Attack attack attack: United did! Cross after cross after cross. “Absolutely predictable,” United’s ex-first team coach and now Fulham manager Rene Muelensteen called it. Instead of the lumbering pairing of Aron Hughes and Brede Hangeland, Meulensteen trusted his newly acquired fellow Netherlander Johnny Heitinga and the 6’5” rookie Dan Burn and they came through. “The boss told us what to expect,” Burn told the press. “It was just like playing a conference side.”

46 crosses United were put into Fulham’s box in just the first half, but the lack of ability in our wingers and full backs to find anyone began to take on a sort of shrugged-off Tommy Cooper-like hilarity as Ashley Young in particular, but Rafael, Da Silva, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata also, could find no one. Thus it was no surprise at all and seemed completely predictable that the sleepwalking Darren Fletcher, surely dreaming of a bathroom with gilt padded walls, a grand lavatory with a soft padded seat and three-ply toilet paper in the 19th minute, paid no mind to the Cottagers captain as he skipped into United’s penalty area. Easily located by Spurs’ German reject Lewis Holtby, his lob, watched with admiration by Patrice Evra, Sids, the ginger journeyman, was perfectly placed to fire a sweet volley past a shocked David De Gea.

Over the hour that Sidwell’s volley went unanswered, United’s frustration was utterly palpable. A tinker here and a tinker there and Moyes had Valencia come on at right back, moved the tortured Rooney back into midfield and tried utilizing the speed of Januzaj and Hernandez to break down Fulham’s ten-man-in-the-box tactic. Amazingly, however, the tragic 1950s-era stratagem of punting Hail Mary mortar shots–again, a Premier League record of 81 crosses!–didn’t work. Does the Emperor own no clothes? Well, Messrs. Round, Neville, Ferguson, Woodward and Gill weren’t saying, although I did wonder what that aging white R & B huckster, Mick Hucknell, had to say to the Gaffer as matters played out.

72862179 020990796 1 Carrying 81 CrossesHaving saluted the sore heads of Heitinga and Burn, massive praise should also be directed at Fulham’s yeoman goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg. Locked in combat for starter position in the Holland national team with Newcastle’s Tim Krull and Swansea’s Michel Vorm for the privilege of starting in the World Cup, Stekelenburg made repeated reflex saves. During one nail-biting sequence we suffered the existential realization that it was going to be one more sad day for the red devils when a Carrick blaster snaked through a thicket of players before Stekelenburg somehow managed to dive and save ited. He then palmed away Van Persie’s follow-up for a corner, and, from this, Vidic’s header off a softly hit Young corner went straight into the Dutch custodian’s hands.

I did say Moyes’ tactics don’t work, didn’t I? Oh, no, I was wrong. For two fatal minutes, Fulham seem to begin flailing with fatigue. 78 minutes in, Robin Van Persie equalized with a close-range finish from one of Mata’s few successful short passes. Then, two minutes later, a loose bobbling ball bounced off Kieran Richardson’s backside and Carrick’s 20-yarder was deflected into the top corner of the net, and the Stretford End went berserk. That was nothing compared to Stekelenburg’s fantastic saves from Rooney at least three times, Fabio and Mata which all followed while Fulham huffed and puffed toward a second-wind. So the question was: Could we get away with it?

With ten minutes to go, Fulham looked exhausted and seemed to be reeling. Yet instead of executing the obvious—-which ought to have meant getting the ball to comfortable ball-handlers like Januzaj and Mata—United repeatedly began walking the ball this way and that off the back foot, usually from Carrick to Vidic to Smalling and Valencia. This allowed Fulham the desperate chance to breathe that they needed, so that four minutes into injury-time, when Nemanja Vidic nonchalantly made a header off a bouncing loose ball, Sidwell sprinted in to win the ball and tapped it softly to set up Kieran Richardson. Richardson’s goalbound drive took an upward trajectory which surprised David De Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper could only manage a weak effort at parrying the ball and there was Fulham’s freshly substituted striker, Darren Bent, completely unmarked and free to head home from five yards and tie the game at 2-2.

David Moyes, now that he truly knows 100% for sure that Sir Alex Ferguson, David Gill, the board and the Glazers will under no circumstances embarrass themselves into confessing they made the wrong choice, is in the driver’s seat. At the same time, our Glasgow-raised ginger hard-man, will be back like a jack-in-a -box, confident that, having beaten Arsenal once already, restoring morale for Wednesday’s trip to the Emirates is a cinch, and he can win. Opponents with psychological issues of their own after taking a 5-1 hammering from Liverpool, Arsenal are prone to schizophrenic polarities of extreme vanity and relentless self-pity that overshadow United’s by far, especially if things start to go badly at the Emirates. They will be eager to make amends for their humiliation at Anfield, but, United, forced to play a contained midfield game, may stand a better chance of turning the tables on Les Gooners than many think. Well, you never know!
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Ivor Irwin

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