By Rasheed Abu Bakar
Manchester United hobbled past Southampton and over the finish line to restore a seven-point lead over closest rivals Manchester City with a 2-1 victory on Thursday morning.
If you want an example of how to win ugly, this was it. While there were pockets of good play in the first half, United were mostly second best throughout the game (to be brutally honest, I thought they were awful in the second half).
Southampton got off to a dream start after Michael Carrick and David de Gea combined to give Jay Rodriguez the easiest of tap-ins. As predicted, that woke United up and within five minutes, Shinji Kagawa’s through ball found Wayne Rooney who slotted home pass Saints ‘keeper Artur Boruc. Rooney later put United in the lead with a simple close range effort after Patrice Evra rose highest from a Robin van Persie freekick.
Theater of Nerves
After Rooney put United in the lead, I expected Alex Ferguson’s men to go all out and increase their goal difference - before this game, the Saints had leaked a total of 28 goals on their travels.
Unfortunately for United, under the new stewardship of the highly-rated Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton took the game to the home side and dictated play in their favor; they were winning 50-50 tackles and showed more desire.
Boruc had little to do and United registered their first effort on goal in the second half only in the 70th minute. The so-called Theater of Dreams looked like the Theater of Nerves. Apart from the brilliant save from Van Persie’s header and his timely charge to foil Rooney, United’s frontmen barely troubled the Polish ‘keeper.
Whether it was astute play by Southampton or the frail United midfield, the men in red had very little spark in their play and looked as though they ran out of ideas moving forward.
Starting on the left wing, Shinji Kagawa looked most threatening in the first half and the Japanese midfielder is slowly showing signs of the talent he possesses. His quick feet will be an asset, as his physique usually lets him down against the more beefed up-midfielders in the league. He could have extended United’s lead, but saw his shot hit the upright.
While he has made it clear he prefers to play behind the main striker, the nippy attacking midfielder looked impressive when deployed on the wing. We saw more of him running at defenders and he looked more confident with the passing around the box.
Old Trafford pitch
In his post -match interview, Ferguson spoke about the field and how dry it was in the second half. It has been a common sight to see sprinklers watering the pitch before games at Old Trafford but on Wednesday night, brown patches without grass were still evident. As the game wore on, the dry pitch became a problem to United’s passing game as the players had to take an extra touch before passes, thus allowing Southampton to close them down quicker.
Interestingly enough, could this pose a problem for United in the remaining seven home games of the season? Old Trafford has always been a litmus test for opposition teams in the league. The 75,000-plus capacity stadium is one of the largest and most daunting in Europe and coming away with a point or three is usually considered a huge achievement for the opposition.
United’s home record is admirable and one of the best in Europe but if the pitch is going to restrict the passing game that Ferguson preaches, who knows; United might just fall short. Chelsea and Manchester City are due in May and April respectively along with Everton, Norwich, Swansea, Aston Villa and Reading.
There will be more twists and turns in the lead-up to the title for sure, but I can only hope that when United stutters, City and Chelsea do the same.