Sunday, December 17, 2006

United Lack Ruthlessness of Chelsea

A pivotal day, and no mistake. The gap at the top of the Premiership, hitherto contemptuously dismissed by Jose Mourinho, is now down to two points. In a tight title race - if this Premiership rivalry does continue in a nip and tuck fashion until its conclusion - it'll be the tiny details that matter.

Like, had Eggert Magnusson kept his powder dry for another couple of weeks and left Alan Pardew in his job, would Manchester United have met a West Ham side stumbling haplessly in the relegation zone, rather than the team which defeated them yesterday via a clear case of New Manager Bounce?

The Hammers were changed, but not unrecognisable. No - they bore such a striking resemblance to the effervescent side that skipped up the Premiership and into the FA Cup final last season that the recently sacked Pardew would be excused for suing Alan Curbishley for copyright breach.

Pardew's demise would have been unthinkable only a few short months ago, as his team's attitude to their return to the Premiership seemed to create a new model for newly promoted teams - one characterised by a fearlessness and wholehearted commitment to attacking football rather than craven protectionism.

Pardew lost the ability to draw such performances from his team, but they had plenty of that bite on show yesterday, and it was enough to expose the soft edges of Manchester United.

A few hours earlier Chelsea had responded to the slipping away of three points with a violent, retaliatory bludgeoning of the impertinent Toffeemen. Ballack, Lampard and Drogba's goals were all shows of strength, stunning strikes that denied Everton a well-deserved point.

United's response to West Ham's new-found fight seemed flimsy in comparison. They peppered West Ham's goal and ran at the back four incessantly; but there was something lacking from their advances - they seemed blunt, unthreatening.

Yesterday saw Cristiano Ronaldo at his worst for United. The graver the situation, the more inclined he seems to pointless dribbles and wasteful long range shooting. Just like in their defeat to Celtic, United were presented with a free-kick in an advanced area late on. And just as on that occasion, Ronaldo chose to shoot from distance, driving the ball into the wall, rather than clipping it into the box. The problem is not necessarily the decision itself, rather simply that the boy's temperament suggests that there is no way he would have the collectedness required to score at such a juncture.

That's not to pick on Ronaldo alone. Wayne Rooney hasn't played in the manner of the future great he is supposedly destined to become for some time. Scholes' influence was blunted by the rejuvenated Nigel Reo-Coker (how Pardew must fume at his erstwhile skipper's sudden reawakening), whose goal saw United's defence carved open alarmingly easily.

After United and Chelsea drew a few weeks back, we were by no means alone in suggesting that their squad would not have the depth for a successful campaign. A couple of days later, United thumbed their noses at this idea by comfortably defeating Everton 3-0, with squad players such as John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson all starting.

Yesterday demonstrated where their lack of options gets found out: not at Old Trafford or when they get a goal in front against opposition who lack the belief required for a comeback, rather in situations like yesterday, where a spirited side gets ahead of them. They never seemed to have the requisite ruthlessness within them that helped Chelsea to dismiss Everton.

All is not lost however. United's inability to break through West Ham yesterday looked like a situation tailor-made for the gentleman sitting behind Alex Ferguson in the stand. Henrik Larsson took in the match yesterday; the Swede's arrival looks as well-timed as any of the forward runs with which he made his name.

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