TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top Premiership action

A day that underlined the importance of Rooney

MANCHESTER UTD

For once, we old school traditionalists had nothing to complain about yesterday, apart from a slight quibble about the kick-off time. Every league team in the country had a St Stephen’s Day match (for the first time in eons) and ours turned out to be as seasonally bonkers as any from the Good Old Days.

Two down after a dozen minutes, a player scoring goals at both ends, comical defending, daft refereeing and dafter cards — and all sprinkled with a surprising amount of spice by two sets of players who really did not seem to be getting on, like hungover relatives who’d been locked up in one room together since Christmas Eve.

Away-day Reds were in suitably cracking voice too, giving the festive fave ‘12 Days Of Cantona’ multiple airings at top volume. It’s probably safe to say no-one in the current side will still be having his name sung so lustily in 20 years’ time, but, at least some of them stepped up to show some proper Red attitude when we were in danger of sinking with all hands after a quarter of an hour.

Rooney was inspirational throughout the rest of that first-half and has been, without question, United’s best player this season. One shudders to think where we would be today had Moyes not somehow managed to salvage the summer situation, after Fergie’s last-gasp hospital pass at the microphone on the day he bade his farewells.

So much credit has been lavished on Brendan Rodgers for hanging onto Suarez, but surely Moyes’ task was much harder? He’ll never get enough credit for winning the Spud Faced Nipper back because of all the other issues flying around this season. But if there’s one Old Trafford man to drink to on Hogmanay for one specific achievement, it’s to Moyes for turning Rooney back into a proper Manchester United footballer.

Moyes would like some more such “proper” players, starting next week, of course.

The front cover of the Christmas edition of ’Red Issue’ fanzine simply displays a mock-up of a David Moyes’ letter to Santa: “I know I’ve not been very good this year, but I promise I’ll be better. All I want is one left back, one midfielder, one...” — well, you get the drift. (And much as we’d all like to herald Darren Fletcher’s first start since his comeback as “being like signing a new player,” it really isn’t, y’know?)

Over the next four weeks of media onslaught, you are going to get bamboozled with the names of just about every foreign player who’s not nailed down to his club’s dressing room floor. Some of them you’ll have even heard of; remembering some of Fergie’s past impulse purchases, you should probably settle for merely hoping that Moyes has already heard of them.

One player in the team who would have absolutely nothing to fear from the arrival of any incomers is Michael Carrick who, as I predicted in my last column, made an unexpected comeback yesterday.

With Van Persie supposedly nearing fitness too, and the team quietly creeping up to within at least theoretical striking distance of Liverpool despite these recent injuries, you can see why some elements of what we call The Gaylords have even begun to suggest we’ve all been too premature to write off United as potential title-chasers.

They were all hiding under their scarves at five past one yesterday, as our defenders provided two good reasons not to get carried away, but you can almost see their point. So much depends on this window: if Eddy Woodward makes anything like the hash of this one that he did of the last, then you can all go back to settling for sixth place and the future Transnestrian delights of Spartak Metallika.

Next up are Norwich away, and the sort of game ‘Fergie United’ used to treat in prospect as straightforward points-fodder, without a qualm. If only we still had the luxury of such arrogance, perhaps: but this is more fun, is it not? Every game is like a Christmas present from your eccentric old uncle: it could be Meccano Deluxe — or two mouldy old oranges...

ARSENAL

TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top Premiership action

St Stephen’s Day footie is always one of my Christmas highlights and there are few better places to enjoy it than at a dilapidated, old-fashioned ground like the Boleyn. It’s a shame to think that it won’t be long before the Hammers decamp for the posher but sadly more antiseptic environs of the Olympic Stadium.

Mind you, it’s always an outing that’s more pleasurable for the three points that we’ve grown accustomed to taking from our East London neighbours. The Irons made a decent fist of putting up a good fight and it took two goalkeeping cock-ups to really light the torchpaper, of what was up until then a disappointingly tame derby.

I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Mark Noble. He didn’t really deserve to end up on the losing side, after his tireless graft dominated the middle of the park in the first-half.

However, one sensed that it wouldn’t be too long before the floodgates of our undoubted superior ability eventually told, but it took the wake-up call of West Ham taking the lead just after the break, to lend our forward play the necessary urgency required.

It might have been an entirely different story, if the Hammers had made more of their couple of breakaway opportunities after Carlton Cole poached the lead immediately after the break. But after Theo’s effort bobbled through the arms of the Irons’ hapless keeper, there followed a scintillating 10-minute spell of football that sealed this victory. It left us comfortably savouring the remainder of our “jingle-bells” away-day, with a two goal cushion that was unlikely to be threatened by Sam “Allardici’s” striker-shy outfit.

It remains to be seen whether the Gunners can carry forward such festive cheer to St. James Park on Sunday. But with a fit Podolski returning to the fray like a man possessed, I feel somewhat more optimistic about our chances of surviving the hectic fixture schedule with our confidence (and perhaps our table-topping perch) intact.

Losing Aaron Ramsey and the forward thrust he lends our midfield was a blow, but with Santi returning to some form, pulling the strings in the middle of the park and with the likes of Wilshere having served out the suspension for his one-fingered salute, it’s not like Arsene is short of options in the middle of the park. However if Lucas can provide Le Prof with the opportunity to give Giroud a breather, without us having to count on the self-serving Bendtner, this could prove a big bonus.

Meanwhile, the sooner Koscielny returns, the better, as I remain far from convinced by our team captain playing in his stead. In fact, I’m not really sure I like the idea of Vermaelen retaining the armband, as judging by yesterday afternoon’s display, I’m not sure the Belgian centre-back is truly “on board”, seeing him sitting lazing on his backside in the West Ham penalty area, while our hosts were on the counter.

Yet it feels a bit “bah humbug” of me to be complaining considering we’ve ended the day still sitting pretty on top of the league. Moreover, one of the benefits of bowling over to East London for three points on St Stephen’s Day is that I was back home in time to savour most of the day’s late game on the box. If I had to stake my life on it now, I’d have to admit that with their formidable strike-force, Man City do look certain favourites. Yet I remain convinced that Pellegrini’s mercenaries will continue to display the inconsistency that will ensure they continue to drop points on their travels and with the title race so open, it only remains for one team to string a decent run together, in order to draw away from the chasing pack. Who knows, it might just be the Gunners.

CHELSEA

TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top Premiership action

After a pretty decent performance against the North London cry babies, I thought we might have turned a corner. We looked a pretty decent, organised unit and certainly a match for Arsenal — even without a striker (had we had a striker I have no doubt we would have won the game).

But then we go back to bad habits against Swansea — it’s like Groundhog Day — have all the play, score a goal — and then proceed to miss a plethora of chances and get increasingly panicked and retreat deeper as the game enters the final third allowing the opposition back into the game. The players seem to exude an aura of unease which in turn is picked up by the fans and to be honest it’s all pretty stressful.

All that said, we can’t really complain too much — given the gaps we have in our squad — to still be considered league contenders. Most level headed Chelsea fans probably didn’t expect us to win the league anyway this season.

What I was thrilled to see this week was the re-opening of hostilities with Wenger and Arsenal. Jose has been too quiet and too well behaved for my liking since he came back.

I’m not sure if these are orders from on high or whether Mourinho made a conscious decision to be lesscontroversial — either way, it’s not him and I don’t like it. I want him to be confident, arrogant even. I want us to be hated again — the hatred was at the heart of the siege mentality which in turn was central to our attitude on the pitch. All of that was very noticeable by its absence until the jibes at Wenger. He had also irritated Pellegrini with his OTT celebration when he jumped in the crowd to his conveniently placed son. Don’t think for one moment that this was a spur of the moment action — Mourinho perceived City as potential title winners so made the opening gambit in the mind games.

It will be interesting whether he tries this with Rodgers. I imagine having studied under Jose, the Liverpool manager will be more aware than most of Jose’s tactics and would most probably not fall for them — but you never know. I’d like Mourinho to start his mind games as it would be interesting to see how Rodgers would handle it. He was given a pretty easy ride last season by press and fans alike and this season he apparently walks on water — although how good would Liverpool be without Suarez?

Looking at Suarez and also City’s various options up front makes me bemoan our deficiencies even more. Eto’o was woeful against Swansea — he tried his best but sadly his best comes up painfully short and I don’t think this is lost on his teammates.

He was given a number of chances yesterday including two which were absolutely gilt edged but failed to convert either. I think if the option was Eto’o or not playing with a recognised striker I would take the latter, as controversial as that may be.

Torres continues to work hard with very little return in terms of goals. Jose historically doesn’t like putting players out against their former clubs — he believes the players become too selfish, too emotional and fail to follow instructions.

However, given our lack of options and the fact that he didn’t play against Swansea I imagine Jose will have little choice than to play him this weekend.

The transfer window will be interesting — we cannot wait until the summer for reinforcements. We fans need to accept we will not be able to get the players we need for the long term at this time, but perhaps a couple who will allow us to get to that finishing line in a respectable position. Then in the summer — who knows. A cheeky bid for Suarez would amuse me - just to annoy the Scousers & Gooners.

That said, given our propensity to turn goal machines into lame ducks simply by handing them a blue shirt, we’ll need at least one back-up plan.

LIVERPOOL

TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top Premiership action

Every Christmas Eve is the same; ghosts in doors, down chimneys or through windows.

“Look how horrible you’ve been, how rotten you are, change your ways” blah blah.

I pack the kindle now, remember to look apologetic occasionally and try to get asleep at whatever ungodly hour they’ve finished.

One scene from the past piqued my interest; a trip to Stoke last year. “Witness your angry countenance Ebenezer” (starting to think they’ve mistaken me for somebody else). “Hear the foul words about your manager” etc.

‘It’ had a point. Look; I loved Kenny, and they’d dumped him mercilessly for this mouthy, puffed-up popinjay who’d only won 25 points from 19 games. The exact tally that convinced everyone Hodgson was useless and expendable.

So yes, my language was salty. The ghost of Christmas present kept focusing on my misery but neglected to mention the Reds’ admirable recovery and 100-plus goals during 2013. No perspective, some spirits…

There’s been quite a turnaround. Not so much that people shut up about our dependence on Suarez or expected us to emerge with any credit from the Etihad, obviously.

As with our trip to Arsenal it was built into an ultimate proving or disproving of our credentials. How many of these to come? If we keep doing it surely we must be doing something right?

It began as petrified rationalisation but I started to believe the only result capable of proving anything different to what we already knew about ‘New’ Liverpool was a win.

Watching Arsenal there the other week may have resembled the Christian in front of you kicked into the arena for lion snacks, but it wasn’t. It was only for three points.

Having made the first part of our journey to the top in double-quick time, it’ll be a crying shame if people forgot it and cried their eyes out at a setback everybody saw coming.

Isn’t there something to be said for the fact that, once we leave the plastic palace on Sunday, only Old Trafford should really scare us? We know this league has banana skins stashed everywhere, but when it comes to the run-in most clubs would want ours.

I’m never fully convinced by City, after decades of their ineptitude. Even recently their manager had the same brain-fart that saw Ball relegate them in ’96. We were once brothers; merely sympathy for their sharing oxygen with ‘them’ of course, yet a Manc’s still a Manc.

As early as 2008 their lotto win meant they were taunting us about swiping our players. They sneered we could keep Kuyt moments before Dirk got the winner!

That is my City and it always will be.

The hour before the game felt odd, wanting other teams to lose for our benefit rather than petty malice. The spiteful settled for laughing at Everton (it’d been a while) and rechristening Flanagan’s replacement “Cissokuh-oh”.

He wasn’t too bad really, but others must indulge their cult worship of Sakho. Not for me, I’m afraid. We played well generally against physical, skilful opponents and weren’t second-best at all.

The game ends and you’re not discussing flaws. We’ve come a long way.

2014’s work needs to focus on defence. We scare even the best teams at the other end, but that breakaway goal so close to half time is the dictionary definition of naivety. Before that we were too brittle on corners. It would be nice to protect a lead for longer than seven minutes; Skrtel too busy grappling to jump and head clear. Like a normal person…

Trying to save games with Moses and Aspas represents the gap we need to close with a fraction of the resources.

However it was hard to be angry with a performance full of pride and no little skill.

Onwards and (hopefully) back upwards.


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