Nani's Brilliance Masks Manchester United's Non-Existent Midfield

Nani was good and Rooney and Torres the bad and ugly, but the way Chelsea created chances proves that Fergie might live to regret not bolstering his threadbare central midfield...
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On Sunday afternoon the Premier League presented its own version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in the game between Manchester United and Chelseaat Old Trafford. Heroically clad in the poncho was Nani; the precise marksman. The villainous role was shared between Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney for inviting a tedious re-examination of the laws of physics. While doing the Eli Wallach thing was Ashley Cole; a chameleonic supporting thespian who could easily have been cast as the antagonist. In what was a pulsating and memorable 90 minutes, the good guy naturally headed off into the sunset, with a bottle of bubbly and the man of the match award.

Not since 1985 had Manchester United won their opening five league games. Those five made up half of an auspicious ten-game winning streak which signalled such an auspicious start under Ron Atkinson that even Alan Brazil scored in a 5-1 rout of West Bromwich Albion. Back in the present, United’s exuberant adolescents matched the mavericks of Big Ron’s side against a lively Chelsea side in what was ironically their least convincing league display of the campaign since the opening day grind at the Hawthorns.

When Javier Hernández knelt for his habitual pre-match prayer, it wasn’t answered as quickly as in April against the Blues, but Manchester United, so often a second-half team, continued their newfound penchant for prolific first-half performances via some ruthless finishing. Some stats are worthless, some are overrated, but Manchester United had three attempts at goal in the first 45 minutes and scored three times, as if to illustrate the fundamental difference between them and their opponents.

Yet the scoreline flattered them. Two of the goals were offside, Rooney’s was a tap-in via a fortunate deflection and twice David de Gea denied Ramires when the score was goalless and at 1-0, before Nani’s Exocet sucker-punch on 37 minutes. Atypically for the Portuguese, he was also a defensive asset as he regained possession on a number of occasions which perhaps signals Ashley Young’s influence on his fellow winger.

In the blue corner, André Villas-Boas last week showed his disregard for reputations by dropping the profligate Torres, and did likewise for the Champions League encounter against Bayer Leverkusen with Frank Lampard, although that was more obviously a ‘rest’. On Sunday however Lampard was unceremoniously hauled off at half-time, in place of the more nimble Nicolas Anelka, in what was surely sentence for his feeble 45 minutes. The obituary writers have copped some flak for sharpening their knives and topping up their pens with vitriol in light of Lampard being dropped for England against Bulgaria, but his return in the turgid Wembley win over Wales gave the doubters further credence. And Sunday may have signalled lights out for his influence on Chelsea too.

With United’s midfield predictably loose the Blues were often guilty of not providing their attacking triumvirate quickly enough, with Lampard again guilty of not keeping up with the tempo of an enthralling and frenetic Premier League match. And then unforgivably in his own area he made a meek to non-existent attempt at marking Chris Smalling for United’s opener, showcasing defending that was as damning as the linesman’s incompetence.

Sir Alex Ferguson asserted post-match that sometimes his team ‘weren’t playing with any midfielders’ (in which case, why didn’t he buy some?)

Chelsea were nevertheless adventurous and this United side is prone to sloppiness. Sir Alex Ferguson asserted post-match that sometimes his team ‘weren’t playing with any midfielders’ (in which case, why didn’t he buy some?), which possibly enhanced how menacing Chelsea were in the final third. But the Reds’ slackness was finally exposed when Anelka’s arrival made an instant impact in the second period.

His ball through to Torres was wonderfully imaginative, but it capitalised on United’s occasional frailties in the absence of the experienced Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic – often they were as secure as UBS – as Phil Jones reacted too slowly and then Jonny Evans did likewise. Torres scored classily to announce that he had re-found his potency, even if a later event was to define his performance.

The Spaniard was actually terrific throughout. As fruitless as the first-half was for Chelsea, he was a constant threat. Belatedly, his assets that had made him comfortably the most complete striker in the world were on display again as he utilised his pace to devastating effect and bullied his opponents rather than vice versa. It was further proof (as if it were needed) that it really is either Torres or Drogba for Chelsea, and with the £50m man now finding form, he has to be undroppable.

Ironically for such a great game of football, it will be best remembered for those two misses. Rooney’s penalty was David Beckham in Istanbul-cum-John Terry in Moscow as his curious run-up, which leaves him vulnerable to suffering imbalance, came undone. Following his choke at match point he was shot for the rest of the afternoon, and Ferguson didn’t hide his dismay at his complacency, correctly querying his run-up (‘I don’t know what he was doing there,’) and chastising a ‘bad pass’ for substitute Dimitar Berbatov when a fourth goal should have been routine.

Half an hour later, Torres trumped his opponent as he entered the Ronnie Rosenthal pantheon of great misses. The aesthetic confidence he showed to dummy De Gea, coupled by Jones’ exasperation at the inevitable deficit-reducer makes it an even more memorable fluff. The Fernando Forlán nickname will probably be re-aired especially since Ferguson impressively recalled one of Diego’s great howlers in a pre-season friendly against Juventus eight years ago.

Ashley Cole added the ugly with his needlessly thuggish challenge on Javier Hernández, which also reflected badly on referee Phil Dowd’s interpretation of what a foul should constitute. Cole’s right leg deliberately followed through for the full impact and he was subsequently lucky to receive only a booking.

So it was perhaps fitting that someone with the capabilities to exude wickedness was eventually defeated. Especially since it was good-guy Nani who, time and again, was too quick against his nemesis in the Mexican standoffs.

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