United’s battle against big strikers
After the general euphoria of a stunning second-half Manchester United comeback had died down, Sir Alex Ferguson will have left Villa Park on Saturday night with a familiar feeling.
It wasn’t the satisfaction of knowing that a trip to this happiest of hunting grounds for him had yielded three points in the most dramatic fashion.
Never mind that Manchester United’s manager departed Villa Park undefeated for the 17th time in succession, his 11th victory in that sequence having been chalked up courtesy of the half-time introduction of Javier Hernandez, the catalyst for the triumph.
No, for at least the third time this season, he spent a rather uncomfortable 90 minutes watching a big striker torment his centre halves.
It was a trend started by Marouane Fellaini at Everton. Then Rickie Lambert pushed Southampton within sight of a victory at St Mary’s.
On Saturday evening it would not be stretching a point to say that young Belgium forward Christian Benteke smashed Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling all around Villa Park.
It is a theme that is almost becoming as common as United’s rousing call to arms.
This wonderful fightback was the eighth time this season that Ferguson has watched his side claw their way to victory from a losing position.
While that speaks volumes for the character and mental strength that is an essential part of the make-up of any player who crosses the threshold at Old Trafford, it would be easier for everyone concerned had the problem not arisen in the first place.
In the continued absence of Nemanja Vidic, neither of Ferguson’s centre halves on Saturday relished the prospect of going head to head with a player whose strength and aerial ability unsettled them from the first whistle.
Indeed, it was almost comical when Smalling attempted to use his upper body strength to knock Villa’s targetman off balance in the final minute of the first half.
The former non-League defender lay sprawled on the turf, clutching his shoulder in a lame attempt to spare his embarrassment as Andreas Weimann swept home Benteke’s subsequent cross for Villa’s first goal.
Five minutes into the second half, Benteke had pulled away from both players — presumably neither fancied coming second best to him for the umpteenth time — allowing Stephen Ireland to send Gabby Agbonlahor away to set up Weimann to score Villa’s second.
That should have been that.
But Paul Lambert’s side remain a work in progress and Hernandez exploited a lack of know-how in the home ranks. There had been no urgency prior to the Mexican’s introduction at half-time for the woefully ineffective Ashley Young.
Ferguson’s situation will be improved when Phil Jones returns to training this morning. Jones will certainly be a more viable alternative than using Michael Carrick as a stand-in defender, as Manchester United’s manager has in the past.
Moreover, it is a weakness that will have been noted at Carrow Road where Grant Holt will have watched Saturday’s proceedings with interest.
Roberto Mancini might also now be wondering if he should be unleashing Edin Dzeko against the neighbours at The Etihad next month.
At least Hernandez has caught the eye in United’s attack. He looked sharp, hungry and capable of getting behind a Villa defence which had looked comfortable with the play in front of them during an impressive first-half show by the hosts.
‘It’s Manchester United’s lucky story,’ said Hernandez, who left clutching the match ball after scoring twice and forcing a Ron Vlaar own goal with a shot across goal.
‘You know that. Every time you never want to give up, not until the end because the games are 90 minutes and you need to fight until the last minute.
‘It was unbelievable to score three goals. This is one of my best moments at the club. But we need to improve. We are conceding a lot of goals.’
It goes without saying the striker’s observation will not be lost upon Ferguson. – Daily Mail