Much talk at the moment is if Manchester United have the title all sown up. Certainly, they have done much to put themselves into a commanding lead at the top of the table. But talk of paying out and writing names on trophies is very premature, as last season should have proved.
That is not to put too much of a dampener on the excellent performance yesterday. It was a great game to use as a barometer for the progression of the United squad as a whole, considering how Everton were able to beat the league leaders at Goodison on the first weekend of the season.
This is now a team that has gelled to a much greater extent. The defence, with the return of Vidic and the evolution of Rafael has improved a great deal with De Gea looking more solid in goals than he did a few weeks ago. This fixture last season saw a host of errors by Rio Ferdinand, a factor that was non-evident on Sunday. The midfield was also effective, at least in large segments. Phil Jones managed to stifle the threat of the thuggish Fellani, and Carrick was adept at passing it about. Everton were able to pull the formation apart on occasion, but into the gap would usually step Ryan Giggs, having probably his best showing this season, notching a well-worked goal for his trouble.
Rooney may not have scored, or even had any shots on target, but he still played very well minus some briefs flashes of temper he should have out to bed ages ago. His tracking back was immense, and the Everton right flank was constantly being harassed by him. RVP struggled just a little with the Toffee’s offside trap, but Everton were springing that way too high up the pitch, and it was inevitable that he would manage to stay onside for one of the through balls.
Everton, much like Southampton the other week, maintained possession and passed it around the United area for long spells, but due to the great work of the defence and the supportive midfield, they were unable to actually test the keeper more than twice. Everton lack a certain something, maybe a truly stand-out striker, that prevents them from breaking into the top four.
It was a surprise to see so many first teamers not only play, but play a full 90 minutes before the resumption of Champions League activity. Real Madrid have struggled in their domestic league, and have matched Manchester United’s defensive frailties and occadsional stuttering. United are more than capable of beating them, and will hope to avoid a repetition of the hounding Spanish opposition gave them last season in the Europa League. The midfield battle will be crucial, with Carrick needing to maintain his dominating form. Whoever is given the job of tracking down Ronaldo – I suspect the Jones/Fellani experiment might have been a dry run for something similar mid-week – will have a hell of a job. A score draw will suffice.
Elsewhere, Spurs and Arsenal managed to give themselves some breathing room over Everton by racking up wins. There seems to be some debate on whether Bale is as good a player as some claim he is. He has pace, he has flair, he has finishing, what more do you want? I’m not sure how much he can expect to progress at Spurs though, and I suspect we’ll see him in different colours – red, blue or light blue – soon enough. I would expect Arsenal to still be snapping at the heels of Chelsea as we come up to the run-in.
For all the money that QPR have spent on new players, they still couldn’t prevent an assured Swansea, under the bargain of the decade, Michu, walking all over them. Doomed. If Swansea could add a handful of decent players this summer, they could be an Everton/Spurs level team before too long.
And then there is Manchester City. Every team has bad days, but that was a hell of a bad day. With their defence and goalkeeper wobbling big time, City were easy prey to a confident Southampton team that could have gotten something off United if they had only had greater attacking acumen. They were able to exploit the vast holes in City’s defence easily enough, and that 12 point gap (apparently, no team has lost that sort of lead with 12 games left) is a massive one. City have a more difficult schedule overall than the league leaders over the next few weeks as well, so there is a real possibility of that gap increasing before United have to start playing the “big” games again. As for Southampton, I wasn’t a fan of their manager swap, but they appear to be playing better and are inching away from relegation trouble.
I didn’t see the Ireland/Poland game, by choice, but I can appreciate that new players were tired even if the system was the same old nonsense as it always has been. The defence is porous and the midfield ineffective under the long ball, but at least there are signs if life in the likes of Hollohan. Any positives coming out of the game were overshadowed completely by yet another Trapattoni man-managing foul-up in regards Stephen Kelly. I have very little hope for the Sweden/Austria games.