TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top Premier League action

Gallows humour needed as our Old Trafford misery grows

MANCHESTER UNITED

Never let it be said that United fans cannot do self-mockery. Halfway through yesterday’s increasingly dire second half, one colleague groaned “this team can’t create an effing thing!” Quick as a flash shot back his neighbour: “Be fair. It’s created panic, despair, anger...”

Another, anticipating defeat after Fabio’s red card, mused: “Good job the League Cup’s two legs, otherwise we’d be facing going out of three competitions in 10 days on Tuesday night.” Growled another: “I’ll remind you of that after they’ve stuffed us 3-0.” Sunderland is a tough place to go at the best of times, and a cold Tuesday night in gale-season on the harsh north-east coast during an ‘Old Trafford crisis’ is certainly not the best.

Sunday had begun with some deliberately downbeat quotes from Moyes to the press pack, widely spun as meaning United would not be dealing in the transfer market this window. In fact, if you study what he said, it was veering into politician’s territory. Not quite ruling it out by using the formulation “I think that...”

Wise heads nodded. This may be Moyes doing Woodward’s bidding, described by one Red writer as “under promise, then over deliver”.

After last summer’s farce, when all United’s boasts came to nought, they’ve clearly learned their lesson. And after yesterday’s defeat there’s one more lesson for Eddy and Dave to learn — if you think we’re going to accept ploughing on with this lot, unreinforced, for the rest of the season, we too can over-deliver with a figurative punch on the hooter.

We didn’t expect much when we saw the team. It had that “semi-rotated” feel that we hate when you’re clearly not fielding your very best, but haven’t gone the whole hog and played a straight second string. In fairness, Moyes had been placed in an invidious position of two games in 48 hours, which ought not be allowed to happen, and tomorrow’s is the bigger game. Not that this consideration would have been uppermost in the minds of the droves departing in their thousands after Swansea’s second. Talk about voting with your feet. Those Reds know the era of Fergie-time is truly over.

So here we are again, after 40-plus years, with the whiff of Wilf in the air. I’ve mentioned this before, I know, but the similarities still impress. Suddenly, tomorrow is feeling like we’ve skipped 18 months in six, and are now at that same point as Wilf in December 1970. Out of contention in every other competition, fans on the turn, and offered a way to Wembley, barred only by a very poor team from way down the league... gulp.

Of course, it is unimaginable to think that Moyes might emulate Wilf and get the boot if he fails in this semi-final. The Glazers may be evil, but they are clearly not stupid. For starters, there was no European Cup for United in 1971, and Moyes did achieve qualification from the group and has what ought to be a relatively straightforward route to the quarters in front of him. The right purchases in the window; the returns of RVP, Rooney and Carrick; Fletcher on the mend, continuing to impress. Ludicrous though it may seem to say after last night, it’s actually not too hard to envisage a brighter February. Getting safely from here to there is the worry.

Today will witness thousands of Reds sounding off and throwing toys in every arena possible, to be doubled in volume on Wednesday and beyond if Sunderland goes badly. And then we will all be back at Old Trafford next weekend to face the music together against the same team who’ve just humiliated us in what will be an atmosphere akin to the last gladiatorial bouts of a Roman games. Except I’m not entirely sure Moyes has a Russell Crowe performance in him.

CHELSEA

The transfer window is now open and we’ll see how true Jose’s emotive words regarding keeping Mata at Chelsea are.

He keeps insisting he doesn’t want him to go — but neither will he play him regularly in the “lesser” games such as yesterday’s cup tie against Derby.

As for the little Spaniard, although he has continued to keep his counsel, his frustration bubbled to the surface when he was substituted against Southampton. He didn’t play badly in any sense and probably thought it unfair he was sacrificed to bring on our talisman Oscar when it could have easily have been Hazard with similar results.

I can see both points of view, but I can’t see Mourinho’s reasoning for leaving him out of the Derby game.

This was Jose telling us loud and clear that, barring any catastrophes with Oscar, Hazard or even Willian then Mata will remain nothing more than a bit part player, and that really is a tragedy.

We as fans can see that the team has started to click now — that Jose has managed to stop us leaking goals and although not exactly free-scoring yet — we are certainly looking balanced and that a definitive first team is emerging.

So can we question Mourinho? I think yes — you can still trust and believe in the manager but question some of his decisions. He publicly stated that Mata had been training very well this week and all but confirmed he would be starting against Derby. Then he puts him on the bench. This does seem unnecessarily cruel.

This will naturally play itself out and, sadly, I can see no outcome other than Mata leaving us. One thing is certain, however, no matter what or who is offered in return, he must not be sold to one of our domestic rivals. And Benitez can forget about signing him as well.

We all know Chelsea and Mourinho have been chasing Wayne Rooney and that he in turn has been reciprocating by giving us a glimpse of his well turned ankle. But we must not make Mata part of any deal. They may be struggling at the moment but Robin van Persie will be back at some point and adding Mata to their armoury to feed the goal machine would be stupidity of the highest order.

It’s evident that Rooney wants to come to Chelsea and should United’s malaise continue he will not be persuaded to stay again.

Torres continues to work hard and I’m hoping Mourinho is planning on keeping him and playing him alongside Rooney or whoever. There have been a lot of false dawns but he still has the backing of the fans and Jose does seem to rate him. I also think it would appeal to the manager’s ego to get him back to being the goal-machine he once was.

We can’t underestimate the work that Mourinho has before him though. It’s not just a question of a striker and maybe a full-back and, hey presto, here’s your dynasty for the next 10 years — he has reiterated a number of times that he is here for the long term so there are a number of areas that do need addressing.

That said, he is not the type to cut of his nose off to spite his face. He will continue with the old guard as long as they are still up to the task — and that they seem to be.

John Terry especially is going yet through yet another renaissance and there are muted calls even in the media for Roy Hodgson to take him to Brazil. I’m not sure I’d like to see that — I’m sure he would be the first scapegoat hung out to dry should the England team choke — and he’s had enough vitriol thrown in his direction for five lifetimes.

But for me he is challenging Oscar for my player of the season at the moment, and all the while Gary Cahill is being moulded very much in his likeness.

Yes, things are good at the moment. We are far ahead of where I thought we’d be in our transition year and that is pretty much down to Jose. !

LIVERPOOL

Despite doing our damnedest to oblige the nation with more minnow mirth, we eventually overcame the mighty Oldham this time, but at one point the chuckling at Lambert and Allardyce was feeling rather premature.

The sight of Brad Jones triggered a few decidedly acrid flashbacks and Moses was as bad as ever, but the first sight of a predatory Aspas was worth the ticket. We couldn’t resist an Obi-Wan plea to you-know-who to make the game safe (not quite our only hope, it just seems like it). A fit Kelly, if such a phenomenon will ever exist, may eventually put pressure on Johnson. Sterling’s still quite lively and Gerrard’s got a few more minutes. A reasonable outcome.

New Year always turns thoughts to how the season has progressed. At the halfway stage it’s a case of so far so good, but not quite “there” yet.

Outsiders, especially Cockneys for some reason, always know a Liverpool fan whose arrogance booms at the slightest hint of recovery. Has he got a moustache, picks pockets and tells you to calm down too? Yeah, you need to stay away from that guy. The rest of us, especially those my age, can be trusted. When we see what we once saw, we’ll know it and won’t be slow in telling you either.

We’ll have to do something about the defence though and the midfield’s protection of same. The disregard for the clean sheet is particularly irksome. Check the teams who’ve got a goal back when we were two or three up; Palace, Sunderland, Cardiff, West Brom, West Ham. Notts County got two. Even Oldham came close.

Not a problem when the opposition lacks sharp teeth but it has bred a lack of resistance when it actually matters. In the Rodgers era we’ve gone ahead against City four times and have two points to show for it. That’s just wrong.

Are we entering the realm of the never-satisfied supporter again? Surely, when the other team is deflated, you go for the throat? Now I’m singing an entirely different tune. Perhaps some kind of compromise is in order, a blend of different stratagems rather than a one-size-fits-all philosophy that becomes as inflexible as a concrete overcoat and just as unhealthy?

Of course you run the risk of any alteration scuppering what you’ve already gained. Change is scary but therein lies the greater glory and Brendan, not averse to looking at himself in the mirror I suspect, must roll the dice eventually.

On our day we can put on a show and those days are increasing in frequency. They more often than not centre on Suarez and he (or rather, his absence) constitutes the second wave of outsider attacks and doubts. In our defence we won seven games during the last ban, but some of it was unconvincing and trust in Sturridge diminished once he wore his yellow streak with pride for England. Gerrard has been on the downslope for a while now too.

Suarez is competitive at international level. Semi-finalists in the last World Cup, they stand a chance of matching that despite a troublesome group. At club level, not so much.

That contract obviously contains something in his favour, and while 70 plus points would indicate improvement it’ll all be for nought if we’re fifth and Suarez leaves. There’d be money in the pot for sure, but can it buy the magic he’s regularly provided for three years? You’d have to seriously doubt it.

So despite a quality 12 months of football we’re still worried about stuff. Just the way we like it. Resting on laurels is for wimps.

ARSENAL

It’s amusing to remember a few months back when many pundits were pondering a potential shift in the balance of power in North London. Arsène Wenger was being spoken of as a spent force, ready for his pipe and slippers and Spurs were about to usurp our perennial consolation prize as Champions League qualifiers.

Mercifully, any prospect of this Orwellian nightmare coming to pass has been safely put to bed for yet another season and the world continues to turn on its axis as the Arsenal cruised into the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday in a euphoric triumph over the old enemy. In fact, if I’m entirely honest, compared to some of the blood and thunder North London derbies of yesteryear I was a little disappointed our guests didn’t put up more of a fight.

It might’ve been a different story if Eriksen had shot across goal, instead of trying to beat Fabianski at his near post early on, or if Greedybayor hadn’t gone down like Bambi with the goal at his mercy in the second half. But considering the pre-match butterflies, the fact these were the only two memorable heart-in-the-mouth moments stands as testament to the unexpectedly comfortable afternoon it turned out to be.

Still it was a great occasion with the atmosphere at our often all-too-sterile stadium ramped up umpteen notches to the point where one is left wondering why we Gooners have to save such an intimidating racket for Spurs and can’t create the same cauldron-like intensity at every home game. It was a baptism of fire for the brother of a Gooner pal of mine from the USA who was attending his first ever football match. Sadly, I had to explain to him afterwards that it was all downhill from here because any other game at our place is likely to be disappointingly dull by comparison.

With Walcott playing up front, backed up by Gnabry, Rosicky and Cazorla, my first thought was that we weren’t exactly going to win any aerial battles. But as Mark Twain once said: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” and with Sherwood naively sticking to his preferred 4-4-2, Spurs’ neutered Rottweilers in midfield were overrun by our feisty Jack Russells. In fact I was relieved when Wenger eventually retired Jack Wilshere, as he was tearing around looking to start a row with anyone in a white shirt, determined to demonstrate how much this derby match meant to him and looked an obvious candidate for a red card.

Yet it was young Serge Gnabry who gave us the sort of vitality Spurs so obviously lacked. Positively bristling with energy and intent he had the composure to put the first all-important goal on a plate for Cazorla. I wanted to go home there and then but needn’t have worried, as the expected reaction never materialised and any concerns I might’ve had evaporated once Mertesacker was restored to our defence for the second half.

Doubtless Theo was getting untold stick from the Spurs fans in that corner of the ground and with hindsight his somewhat smug reaction from the stretcher might be deemed irresponsible because it nearly started a riot amongst the Neanderthal Lilywhites as he was carried along the length of the Clock End stand behind the goal.

Nevertheless it made for hilarious viewing from where we sat and, far more importantly, with Bendtner limping off against Cardiff the week before, no matter how hard Arsène tries to keep his poker face, circumstances are contriving to force his hand this month.


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