Date:Sunday August 16 2009
Oh, here we go again. Nothing changed in the summer, it seems: the league opener against Birmingham was very, very similar to countless of last year's 1-0 wins.
There is a belief that United are very, very efficient against the so-called lesser sides of the competition and you may say that statistically we are. But if you actually watch the games you'll be forced to conclude that all too often we make it hard for ourselves by missing too many chances and letting the opposition off the hook.
And really, once again we had only ourselves to blame. Birmingham defended well and worked hard but we carved them open almost at will; Joe Hart looked less than assured in goal - only our inability to take our chances prevented us from achieving a much more comfortable win.
It was a blow that Rio Ferdinand had to miss the game because of a calf injury so our defence looked very unusual: Fabio, Evans, O'Shea and Evra lined up at the back. Carrick's exclusion was another surprise: we do not yet know why he wasn't even on the substitutes' bench but he did not make it, neither did Park, leaving the stage clear for Nani.
The Portuguese was, once again, one of our poorer performers but for most of the first half it looked like it would not matter. There were two quite sticky moments after we took the lead but Jerome fired wide from a good position and Evra headed a flick-on off the line after a Birmingham corner. But apart from these incidents, it was all United and we should have been out of sight by half time. Rooney worked very well with Berbatov and Valencia looked lively even though he should have taken more risks.
Our goal on 34 minutes was preceded by some excellent build-up play and Rooney was both lucky and unlucky: unlucky that his header rebounded off the post but lucky that it landed at his feet again and he only had to tap it in.
Right on stroke of half-time Nani and Evra combined fantastically to set up Fletcher who somehow blasted it high and wide from 10 yards out, from a clear chance. It was a shaking-your-head-in-disbelief moment and also the last moment of the first half.
Giggs replaced Nani at the interval and a much more focused and brave Birmingham came out and started to cause us some problems, especially as the presence of the two old men in midfield started to show on the game. Still, we should have had a penalty when Berbatov was clearly fouled inside the box; Rooney headed wide from a good position; we had plenty of blocked shots and near-misses.
But it was frustratingly familiar: all too often our players opted for another pass instead of shooting or waited until the defenders got back or took just one touch more than necessary. Bad decisions and profligacy, again - it was the same with Ronaldo last year and the same without him this time around.
Even Michael Owen was affected: he came on as a substitute for Dimitar Berbatov who played reasonably well and should have wrapped the game up on 92 minutes when sent clear by the excellent Rooney - man of the match by a mile - but fired straight at Hart.
It did not matter, in the end, in no small part thanks to Ben Foster who was confident this time around and made an excellent save earlier, denying Christian Benitez who beat Brown with embarassing ease inside the box before firing from a difficult angle.
At least we started with a win this time, unlike in the last two seasons. But we must be more focused in front of goal, we must improve our decision-making inside the box - every single player was guilty of letting good opportunities pass them by. We weren't agressive enough, we should have been more direct and determined. We were meek in front of goal, that's the truth and that's what we have to cut out and quickly.
Date:Sunday August 16 2009
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