Manchester United's luck runs out as Norwich loss cements title doubts

The Red Devils had lost only one of their last 10 Premier League games before defeat against the Canaries but had often relied on individuals to get them out of trouble
By Oliver Platt at Carrow Road

This result was coming. Since losing to Everton at the conclusion of the Premier League season's opening weekend, Manchester United had lost just one match in the top flight in 10. They were top of the table and scoring for fun but doubts lingered.

United did not resemble a championship-winning team but a collection of outstanding attacking individuals. Antonio Valencia and Robin van Persie had picked up where they left off last season, while Wayne Rooney was not so much among the goals but thriving in a deeper-lying role. Chicharito emerged from the bench to change the course of a match.

The defensive concerns were shrugged off because the strikers continued to grab the headlines. Despite having shipped 14 goals in three miserable games against Fulham, Liverpool and Chelsea, Norwich City had conceded only two more than their visitors in total going in to Saturday evening's encounter at Carrow Road. Now the difference is just one.

MATCH FACTS | Norwich 1-0 Man Utd

 On Target
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Anthony Pilkington's second-half header did the damage. Anders Lindegaard, in for David de Gea, who was recovering from the removal of his wisdom teeth, looked on helplessly as the ball sailed over his head into the far corner.

De Gea has had his bad days but Lindegaard, although not at fault for the goal, did not look like much of an alternative. He kicked straight to Alexander Tettey, who should have made him pay more decisively, in the first half before contriving to completely miss a routine punch after the break.

Van Persie's radar looked off, too. Twice his normally reliable left boot failed to connect with chipped passes dropped into his path. He turned for a second attempt on the second such occasion but shot weakly at John Ruddy, who was outstanding but most severely tested by his own centre-back when Sebastien Bassong inadvertently sent a header towards the top corner.

Chicharito was as anonymous as he had been brilliant against Villa and Valencia struggled to escape the attention of Javier Garrido, a former Manchester City left-back who was highly impressive and created the goal with a cross far better than anything that the Ecuadorian mustered all evening.

When these players are well-marked or off-colour, United badly lack direction. They set out in a 4-4-2 that often looked more like a 4-2-4. Ashley Young, who lacked any kind of confidence or spark, was little better than Valencia. There was no alternative route to goal through the middle of the pitch.

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Michael Carrick, as always, probed from a deep role but found little to aim at in front of him. Ryan Giggs was simply ineffective for the majority of the game. His quality has not and will not fade with age, as evidenced by the delicate pass that freed Van Persie. But defensively, and even as a passing option for others, he now offers little and his contribution in other areas does not seem significant enough to justify a place in central midfield over the likes of Anderson.

It was surprising that Paul Scholes was not introduced before the 69th minute. United looked better thereafter, although still they struggled to carve out clear-cut chances. It was too late, anyway. Sir Alex Ferguson's apparent resistance to the idea of bringing in a world-class central midfielder continues to baffle.

"Norwich deserved their win because they worked so hard for it, although we had a lot of possession and one or two half chances," Ferguson told ESPN. "We didn't create enough great chances. It just wasn't our night."

Perhaps it was just a one-off. It is certainly difficult to imagine United dropping points at home to QPR next weekend. But it was a one-off that cost them their grip on first place and it should be taken as a warning. They have been fortunate and too dependent on individuals so far this campaign and, over the course of a season, that will not do.

There are indications, too, that Manchester City may, belatedly, be hitting full stride. The defending champions' home form, despite their own mixed displays, has remained mercurial and improved with a 5-0 thrashing of Aston Villa that was somewhat more convincing than their rivals' effort against Paul Lambert's team a week earlier.

This is not a truly great Manchester United team but the idea that they could simply score their way to the Premier League title has, too, started to unravel. Villa was a close escape and Norwich represents a potent warning. Winning after playing badly is the sign of champions, as the cliche goes; United looked far from capable of doing that on Saturday.

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