It’s that most magical time of the year, as the yuletide song goes, and football certainly gave us a good dose of that old black stuff yesterday. The game’s often inexplicable unpredictability remains arguably its greatest asset, as thousands of grinning, headshaking fans in red and white at both ends of the Sheffield ground were joyfully reminded.
With 20 minutes to go last night, I wondered whether Senor Pochettino was sat watching at home, eagerly polishing up his CV. And in the dugout at Bramall Lane, poor glum Ole must have thought: of all the moments this season to be having a stinker.
Consider that your predecessor has just bounced back to life and looms waiting for revenge in 10 days’ time, whilst your likeliest successor has just become teasingly available ahead of schedule.
And yet that is precisely the moment when you contrive to get your line-up, formation, and tactics all wrong, errors compounded by some of your “great lads” displaying either incompetence, cowardice, lack of preparation, or laziness. None of which reflects well on their coaches and manager.
But then fast forward eight minutes and … “wtf?!” as the kidz say.
Gutting though it was to see two of the three points then slip back out of our hands at the death — where is VAR’s spoil-sportingness when you actually want it? — those 500 seconds of repeated explosions will live long in the collective memory. How marvellous, too, that new favourites such as Williams, Greenwood, and James were all so heavily involved in the wunderblitz.
In the cold light of day, we can perhaps concede that Ole made a mistake in taking Martial off and sitting back at 3-2. Indeed his credit/debit account of decision-making for the whole of Sunday would make for troubling reading.
Nevertheless, this was an early festive season showing of The Great Escape to relish. Imagine where Ole would have been this morning had the game finished 3-0, as it seemed far more likely to do after 70 minutes?
But before we move on, let’s have one thing right. That first 70 minutes was an absolute disgrace, and served especially to remind us why Rashford and Martial continue to be skating on the thinnest of ice. Unwelcome surprise returnee Phil Jones, naturally, fell face-first onto the ice and then sank at half-time. One can only hope we never see him again. And more displays from Pereira as witless as his one yesterday, and we might be happy to see him iced too.
Speaking of freezing Reds defying death, many will get to experience this trial for real this week in Astana. I looked up the weather forecast for Thursday and thought it was a misprint. But no, that hugely terrifying temperature really is the expected *maximum*. Reds accustomed to Manchester mildness will be staggering around stunned in such conditions whilst full of temperature-disguising alcohol, reminding some of us of the Red Army euroaway classic in Vienna, 1996. The state of some of our soldiers that night … “eh, d’you think this is frostbite?” slurred one Red to me, holding up a hand alarmingly blue with cold — yet still gripping his chilled pint pot. “No, more like Snakebite, mate.”
It’s a huge trip, and a game that’ll be physically gruelling, which does make one fear for the subsequent Villa match on Sunday. This is not exactly the most robust squad we’ve ever had, and their fitness issues are
notorious. United are at least addressing this; I am told new physio department appointments are imminent after half-a-dozen shortlisters were interviewed last week.
I know, I know; if only recruiting players was so conventionally straightforward. Ole has already signalled that he may be giving up hope of proper signings in January, despite the club briefers’ insistence that — yawn — ‘a warchest’ is available.
Instead, there is talk of one or two loans. Might one of those be an endlessly-linked Welsh-flavoured luxury, marquee-sized to Woodward-friendly proportions? I’ll leave you to judge whether you’d deem that to be a great Christmas present.
Me? If it’s coming from Spain, I’d still rather have an orange…”