Monday, November 15, 2010

United Stumble On Undefeated

Hard to believe it after Sunderland swept Chelsea aside, but until the whirlwind finale of Saturday's game at Villa Park, it seemed the performance of the weekend was going to be Aston Villa's.

Ok, this is by no means a vintage United side, but nobody had really shown them up either. They had drawn a lot of games but nobody had come out and played them off the park.

After a dull, goalless first half, Villa came out and battered United. Pressing hard in midfield, springing quickly onto the front foot. Stewart Downing looked a player for once, tortured Wes Brown and swung in teasing crosses. Albrighton headed one just wide. Collins hit the bar, Agbonlahor a post. United could barely mount a meaningful attack.

Finally the home side took a deserved lead, when Brown shoved Ashley Young over after Agbonlahor had, in a signature move from recent encounters, left a sluggish Nemanja Vidic floundering. Young buried the penalty, minimum fuss. Minutes later, Villa struck a classic counterpunch. Macheda lost the ball, Villa zoomed forward. Young fed the onrushing Downing, whose cross was perfect for Albrighton, the finish a formality. The goal recalled Germany's swashbuckling football from the World Cup and seemed to herald the end of United's inexplicable unbeaten record. Their performance had been abject and they were getting the roasting they deserved.

But this is United.

They may lack the class of Ferguson's great United sides but they have character, because Ferguson's teams always do. When Villa lost the attacking impetus, United responded, as if a switch had been flicked. Ferdinand had already had an effort cleared off the line before Fletcher's clever back flick was whacked in by sub Macheda. The writing was on the wall for Villa, who have a wretched record against United.

Still, they were unlucky. Downing drove down the left again, cut in onto his right and unleashed a piledriver that shaved VDS's bar. The near miss probably only cemented the sense of destiny in the minds of both sides. Sure enough, Nani duly redeemed his otherwise poor display with a peach of a ball, left-footed to the back post, and Vidic arrived on cue to nod it in.

Five or so minutes still to play, it seemed inevitable that United would complete the turnaround, but Villa stood firm for the remainder. Obertan did pierce their rearguard, only for Friedel's face to stop the ball finding the net.

So another away draw for this stuttering United team. Had they come from 1-0 down to salvage something having played badly and been lucky not to concede more, you could call them flukey, but you have to give grudging respect to any team that recovers a 2-0 deficit. And surely only United could play THAT badly for more than 70 minutes, and still find the belief to salvage something from such a gloomy position.

Absurdly, having played so poorly, they could feel frustrated at the end not to have plundered three points. But their frustration will have been tempered on Sunday, watching an unfamiliar, flat Chelsea get flattened further by a top-notch Sunderland performance. United have fallen well below their self-set standards this season, but they are still in touch at the top, and we all know how United tend to get after Christmas...

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