Saints make United suffer

Posted by Mark Payne

Patrice Evra sets up Wayne Rooney for his second goal of the nightAssociatedPatrice Evra sets up Wayne Rooney for his second goal of the night

Despite the buccaneering intentions of Sir Alex Ferguson's forward thinking line-up, this was not the walkover it was intended to be. For the umpteenth time this season Manchester United fans bit their fingernails through a finish. They crossed the line here as victors, but this newly invigorated Southampton will fancy their chances of returning for the fixture again next year.

Earlier in the week, discussion had again returned to the quality of United's strike-force and how it might better the famous quartet from the 1998/99 season. Fergie decided to conduct his own experiement here and sent out a team including Rooney, van Persie, Welbeck and Kagawa.

United promptly conceded and reminded everybody that football teams need balance. The brutally muscular forward line United possess is always a menace, but it can be undone by carelessness in defence. Michael Carrick and David de Gea miscommunicated to gift Southampton a goal in the second minute. These things happen in football. They happen a lot to Manchester United.

With Mario Balotelli leaving Manchester City this week, Roberto Mancini could be forgiven for glancing across town with an envious eye. In the early stages, United's attacking foursome had pinned back Southampton, despite their comedy opener, and recorded 70% possession for United after half an hour.

By the end of that period Wayne Rooney had scored his 137th and 138th goals for United and overtaken George Best in the all-time scoring charts. Not bad for an evening's work. Shinji Kagawa, whose feet and brain move faster than most people's eyesight, gloriously set up his first. Kagawa was given a standing ovation when substituted in the 71st minute. They know good footballers when they see them in these parts.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Fergie said before the game. "They played really well against Everton, who are at the top of their game and playing really well." Having gained the lead and gone in for half-time, United must have felt pretty good about themselves. In the second half, they almost threw it away.

Southampton's bright yellow shirts and blue shorts give them the look of Brazil '82. You would need to be pretty generous to compare their football, but United's inaction after the break helped the Saints get close.

New manager Mauricio Pochettino, who has excellent initials, made two substitutions that brought the game to United and made a tremendous difference. De Gea glared at Carrick. Carrick glared at van Persie and Southampton started attacking with abandon.

Despite a legitimate van Persie goal being disallowed for offside, United were nowhere. It was a precarious 45 minutes and the home side longed for Paul Scholes's presence to kill the game. By the end they were hanging on by a thread. But it was enough. Again. And United are seven points clear. Again.

Nobody seems convinced by this Manchester United incarnation but the season has matured now. As things stand, they are on course to equal their best ever points and goals scored totals. They make us suffer for it though. They don't know any other way.

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