Usually, no-one at Old Trafford looks forward to Southampton away. It’s a horrendous journey, their fans can be deeply unpleasant, and it’s hardly the glamour fixture of our calendar.
Even the mere sight of the club’s name gives me the shudders: to the strained eyes of a Red of a certain age, it’ll always read ‘1976’.
But yesterday, the old United Cup final that sprang fastest to mind was 1979’s, and not just because of the scoreline. An often poor, sometimes baffling, occasionally wonderful game, unforgettably gilded by a slew of goals and some outrageous last-gasp dramatics, as a team two goals to the good and in total control almost contrived to throw it all away. No Wembley ‘79 save came anywhere near the quality of De Gea’s first half wonder-stop, mind. That was 1973 standard. (One for the dads, there.)
Obviously, United would have been sunk by half-time without the interventions of the post, De Gea and our new Lyonnais lion. And a tip of the hat is surely also due to Schweinsteiger, once again displaying during the second half what we have been missing in midfield for at least five years: a leader’s grip.
The sooner he is made captain, the better. United’s problems remain clear — best indicated by the words ‘pace’ and ‘creativity’ — but the increasing influence of the old German, married to the stunning impact of the young Frenchman upfront, have brought a whiff of harbinger to this past fortnight.
A week ago, unlike the rest of us, ex-Saint Luke Shaw would have been looking forward to last night’s like no other game. I daresay it was the first one he looked for on the fixtures list.
Once again we are reminded of how long a week in football can be — about as long as one in politics — and of the cruel randomness of the footballing fates.
You may have noticed past glowing references in this column to a player who’d become a real favourite with matchgoing Reds, his impassioned buccaneering and commitment going down a treat in these thrill-starved Van Gaalian times. Typically, it was during one of his now trademark armed incursions deep into opposition heartlands that saw him felled.
“Just our luck,” growled one colleague later: “if we had to be deprived of someone for the season, why couldn’t it have been Rooney?” (Ouch. And I suspect he’ll have been confirmed in his prejudices by the Scouser’s total anonymity yesterday.) But then the brutal calculation of self-interest intervenes, as it always does for the football fan. Bluntly put, the specialist fullback is the least vital and therefore most expendable position in a team.
Moreover, we are not without cover at the back, thanks to our very ‘modern’ centrebacks who can adapt. Gone are the old days when the traditional grizzled ‘centrehalf’ would get dizzy “out on the wings” .
We also have Valencia and Young, both of whom can fill in when required, as indeed the former was last night.
In any event, the future of United’s defence was still a fluid work in progress. I happen to know, for example, that Red operatives were out in Lisbon a couple of days before Shaw’s injury, checking out a useful centreback. One hopes someone thought to pay Senor Mendes a courtesy call whilst they were out there, as I have also heard from snouts that Jorge suddenly has some intriguing things to say about Cristiano Ronaldo’s future.
More next week, perhaps.
Wretched Sunderland — bottom of the table, and badly so, as I write — visit us next week for what will therefore theoretically be our easiest game of 2015. Ha: what’s the betting we’ll still struggle to get past the ‘five shots on target’ mark?
But then, LVG might smirk, “as long as we’ve got lethal Martial on the pitch, do we need any more?” True. Although sometimes, Louis, one still wants what one doesn’t need...
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