I finally managed to get my hands on some home tickets to see United play in the Champions League so I made the trip up to Manchester yesterday. Despite the disappointing result and performance on the night, it was a trip worth doing. Every time I manage to get up and see United play at Old Trafford, I find myself in awe of how amazing the stadium really is. Benfica fans were in full voice even 30 minutes before kick-off and they didn’t let up for the full 90 minutes, so the atmosphere was buzzing but United weren’t capable of capitalising on the night and find themselves in a tough position going into the knock-out stages.
1. Coming top of the group is out of our hands. The 2-2 draw with SL Benfica last night means that although both teams remain level on nine points, UEFA ruling stipulates the use of head-to-head results rather than goal difference to determine the winner of a group should points be level at the end of the group stage. The only way that United can now top the group is if SL Benfica don’t win their last group game against Otelul Galati and United overcome Basel in Switzerland. Any other combination of result means United cannot win the group and if Basel manage to beat us, then we will go crashing out of the competition before we even reach the knock-outs. Finishing second in a group will always lead to a tough opening round of 16 fixture and I have a gut feeling that this year we will draw Real Madrid.
2. The performance of Berbatov. Well, they say football is a game of two halves and Berbatov epitomised that cliché last night. In the first half, after the unfortunate opener, Berbatov and Young played well together and complimented each others games quite well I thought. Berbatov seemed up for the game and for the first time in history, I saw him sprinting back and getting a cracking slide tackle in. His good work was rewarded when he got the equaliser for United and nearly immediately set Young up for an instant second but Young couldn’t finish his chance. The second half, however, was an entirely different kettle of fish. He was clearly frustrated at the way the game was playing and it was reflected in how he played individually, rarely venturing away from being up top on his own and he was seemingly happy to wait for chances to make themselves. Fabio should of squared him the ball when he spurned his chance and although Berbatov’s first time volley was one of the best chances we had to win the game, it was hardly an easy one to convert. So, if the first half did Berbatov good then the second half more than cancelled it out. Another 90 minutes from Berbatov and no change to his status in the pecking order of strikers at United. Sold in January? According to SAF, he will be getting a one-year contract extension but the way things are going with his form, we might be seeing the last few games from DB9.
3. The performance of Carrick. Fantastic. When you get to watch a match in person, it is amazing how differently you will see individuals performances but Carrick was just playing out of his skin from the first to last whistle. Simply put, he is the best midfield player we currently have available in the squad. His dogged game in the middle of the park gaining and retaining possession helped United to a 61% lion’s share over the course of 90 minutes and he was the only link United seemed to have between defence and attack. Fletcher, even though he scored, was missing every other pass and seemed out of sorts but Carrick was his usual calm and collected self. He even pulled out some fantastic through balls and longer passes that had seemingly vanished from his game and if it wasn’t for him battling in the middle, then United would have been easily over run by a Benfica side who were clearly more comfortable playing the passing game than United were on the night.
4. United without Rooney. I’ve said it before but I will say it again, United are toothless without Wayne on the pitch. When he is there, United play through him – players look up to try and find Rooney and he instils a level of confidence into his team-mates because they know that the attack can continue through him. When he isn’t on the pitch, we seem to lose any fluidity going forward: we seem lost when we try and build attacks because we don’t seem to know where to pass the ball, it just seems far too ad-hoc. Berbatov has never excelled as a lone striker and that showed in the last 45 minutes, as we got ourselves into good wide positions on many occasions but failed to make any decent chances out of most of them. It is not good that United are seemingly growing dependent on the impact that Wayne Rooney has on the team because if he gets injured, then United will struggle be the creative force we need to be if we are to keep in touch with City.
5. Where is Jones’ best position? I literally can’t decide. Every time I see him playing as right-back, I am in awe of his galloping runs down the wings that always penetrate at the heart of opposition’s defences. Every time I see him playing as centre-back, he seems to have the mentality of a veteran, rarely being caught out of position, and last night was no different. I was itching to see his first goal in a United shirt but I didn’t want to see it ricochet off his leg into his own net. Most young players of his age would have let their heads drop after scoring an own goal just four minutes into the match but he just seemed to shrug it off. He deputised for Vidic well and if not for the two moments of madness that led to both of Benfica’s goals, I felt that United’s defence looked firm and strong. He is undoubtedly one of the best players in his generation and it is satisfying to think that I will have watched his growth as a United player from the very start. Am I getting ahead of myself? Possibly, but if Bobby Charlton can say that he is the closest thing to Duncan Edwards he has ever seen, then I will happily jump on the bandwagon.