Man United 0 Southampton 1: Dusan Tadic claimed the late goal that kept Southampton on course for the most improbable Champions League bid in recent Premier League history while ending Manchester United’s recent resurgence in emphatic fashion.
The Saints’ first victory at Old Trafford for 27 years, their first ever in the Premier League, was fully merited and halted an 11-match unbeaten run that had left United and their new manager Louis van Gaal dreaming of even challenging Chelsea and Manchester City for first place over the second half of the season.
Indeed, as Van Gaal deals with the second guessing that will inevitably follow his role in this second home reverse of the season, one suspects the pragmatic Dutchman would hurriedly accept a guarantee of a fourth-placed finish were it on offer.
United failed to produce a single shot on target while Radamel Falcao failed to merit even a place on the bench, one of a number of key van Gaal decisions that back-fired.
Angel di Maria was utilised as a central forward, alongside the ineffective Robin van Persie in a tactic that clearly failed against one of the division’s best defences. Wayne Rooney was unable to involve himself sufficiently from his new, deeper midfield role and, with Falcao glaring by his absence, United finished the game with a strike force of Rooney and Marouane Fellaini.
“No,” said Van Gaal emphatically when asked if he regretted his non-selection of Falcao. “You have to compare players before the match and, after the match, you can say that if a particular player had participated you could have won, but you shall never now. It was a bad result. We were the dominant team, without creating chances. We didn’t give any chances away — maybe in the first minute — then out of nothing they scored. Then we changed the style and we have created three open chances.”
Nevertheless, the bare facts are that this morning United are on the same total of points after 21 games as they were at the corresponding stage last season — a point Van Gaal testily refused to discuss.
With the Rooney-Fellaini pairing, like the van Persie-Di Maria one that preceded it, failing to produce a shot on target, Southampton were full value for their 69th minute winner as Tadic found Graziano Pelle whose shot struck the foot of the right-hand post. The ball rebounded kindly for Tadic who, 16 yards from goal, steadied himself before picking the perfect place in which to place his shot.
Tadic, whose entrance as a 64th minute substitute for debutant Eljero Elia was delayed because he had left his shirt and shin pads in the dressing room, duly celebrated by whipping off his jersey, earning a yellow card from referee Phil Dowd, although the Serbian hardly looked concerned.
For, if there were doubts over Southampton’s credibility as top-four finishers then the manner in which Ronald Koeman outsmarted his countryman van Gaal surely removed them.
“This says a lot about our ambitions and the position we have in the table,” said Koeman. “Today we showed we can beat ‘big ones.’ We had that feeling against Chelsea, a bit more against Arsenal.
“It was important at the end of December that we got a point against Chelsea, three points against Arsenal, that makes good belief among the players and that’s always what you need if you’re not a big club — the belief of the players, they’re not afraid about the name, not afraid about the stadium. If we keep the spirit, keep the togetherness, then we can keep in front in the table.”
The game — if not the outcome — might have been vastly different had Southampton scored with their first attack of the game, inside the opening minute, as full-back Nathaniel Clyne flashed a shot across the face of goal.
But hopes that such an early attack might be a foretaste of entertainment to come were badly misplaced. The out-of-position Di Maria threatened the goal with a couple of long-range shots in the first half but not until they were a goal behind did United truly look capable of beating Fraser Forster.
Unfortunately, the best three chances all fell to Juan Mata who spoiled a solid enough performance with some woeful finishing. After 78 minutes, when Forster flapped at a Daley Blind cross, Mata arrived at the far post but could only volley back across goal and wide; a minute later the same United pair combined for Mata to clear the cross-bar from six yards and, six minutes from time, Antonio Valencia pulled the ball back for Mata who sent a shot bouncing wide from 16 yards.
MANCHESTER UNITED (3-1-4-2): De Gea 6; Smalling 5, Jones 6, Blind 5; Carrick 7; Valencia 6, Rooney 6, Mata 7, Shaw 5 (Blackett 64, 6); Di Maria 5 (Fellaini 72, 6), Van Persie 5 (Herrera 60, 6).
SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): Forster 6; Clyne 7, Fonte 9, Alderweireld 6 (Gardos 21, 6), Bertrand 6; Schneiderlin 8, Wanyama 7; S Davis 7 (Reed 80, 6), Ward-Prowse 7, Elia 6 (Tadic 63, 8); Pelle 8.
Referee: P Dowd 6.
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