Red Devils dig deep to deny Saints
To the uninitiated, one of football's sillier sayings is that you can score too early. Sometimes, the mistake is simply scoring at all. Southampton can testify to that. They have led thrice in their two games against Manchester United and emerged with a currency that cannot be traded in their bid for survival, earning plaudits rather than points. They have riled United and drawn the regular response.
Condemned to the Championship on the final day of the 2004-05 season by a United comeback, Southampton have now been beaten courtesy of two more. Mauricio Pochettino, the 11th temporary, or supposedly permanent, Saints manager since that May day, suffered his first loss at the helm of a fast-evolving club. During administration, relegation, elevation and revolution at St Mary's, United, with an obstinate reluctance to change, have retained their reputation for reviving their fortunes. It has been particularly pronounced this season.
This was the 12th time they have conceded first in a league game, but a ninth comeback victory meant a familiar formula was followed. United are seven points clear of Manchester City. They have gained a massive 27 points from losing positions.
Yet United's timing of the fightback was awry. Rather than basking in the glow of one of the finest half-hours of attacking football they have played this season, they too scored too early, had to defend and ended with an acute sense of relief. "In my experience of going for championships, there's always a game where you say we were a bit lucky, and I think it was one of these nights," Ferguson said.
The 71-year-old often sends for the cavalry - this time he was trying to raise the drawbridge to keep Southampton out. Nemanja Vidic led a late rearguard action, making a brilliant block from Rickie Lambert, as he sought to protect a fragile goalkeeper.
He had an old ally. With an hour gone, there was an unusual sight: the Old Trafford public are accustomed to see Rio Ferdinand playing on the pitch or sitting in the stands, but rarely warming up on the touchline. He made just his fourth substitute appearance in 11 seasons of Premier League football for United, and he was needed in a nervous finale. "We should have at least had a draw from the game," Pochettino said.
Brutally unfair as Nigel Adkins' dismissal was, the Argentine manager provided grounds for his appointment. His half-time double substitution changed the match, and his gameplan of pressing United as high as possible had them flustered.
"I am really proud and happy with the way we played in the second half," Pochettino added. "That is how we want to play going forward." It brought them respect but no reward.
"Southampton in the second half was the best performance anyone has had here this season," Ferguson added, though with the caveat of blaming the Old Trafford pitch.
Closing down had yielded Southampton an opener that was a decidedly mixed blessing. Incisive passes are an increasing feature of Michael Carrick's game; this time, however, it was a Saints goal he created. Jay Rodriguez anticipated his under-hit ball, the brittle David de Gea's dislike of physical contact surfaced as he made a feeble challenge, and the Southampton winger placed the ball into the unguarded net.
With three minutes gone, Southampton were ahead. After ten, they could have been behind. Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, two men who covet the same the No. 10 position, dovetailed beautifully. The Japanese, operating as an inside left, was the provider of a deft, dinked pass for Rooney to equalise; he then struck the post from the striker's backheel.
United were playing at pace, with urgency and invention. Patrice Evra launched a series of forward raids, Kagawa darted into space and Rooney seemed sharp. "We could have been four or five up at half-time," Ferguson said. Robin van Persie, for once, had neither a goal nor an assist, though he had a pivotal role in what proved the winner. His free kick was met by Evra - when will opponents realise he is an aerial threat? - and, with Jos Hooiveld ball-watching, Rooney had a tap-in.
In a season during which he has ranked a distant second among United's attackers, he has passed the Best. George Best scored 137 league goals for United; Rooney now has 138. "If Chicharito [Javier Hernandez] and Wayne and Robin get us 20 goals each [this season] we are in business," Ferguson added.
The top scorer almost had a 23rd. Indeed, the closing stages would have been more comfortable if Van Persie's header not been wrongly ruled out for offside, seconds after Artur Boruc made a magnificent stop to keep the Dutchman's earlier effort out.
Southampton had prepared to face England's most prolific marksman by borrowing Barcelona's training ground. Not that Pochettino picked up any tips. "Barca have a player in Messi that can score 100 goals a year, so what advice can I get?" he said. How much, Saints may wonder, does he actually need?
MAN OF THE MATCH: Patrice Evra. Excellent going forward before the break, he was also solid in defence thereafter. After a slow start to the season, his form has improved over the last couple of months.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Mixed. They played some terrific attacking football for the 30 minutes after Southampton scored, but looked too open even then. Rooney's brace surely re-established him as Van Persie's partner in attack, but Ferguson's lack of a specialist defensive midfielder was highlighted when Phil Jones was moved from right-back to partner Carrick in a bid to stop the Southampton onslaught in the second half. Having dismissed De Gea's critics as idiots, Ferguson rejected the chance to praise his unconvincing goalkeeper. The Spaniard made a fine stop from Lambert's free-kick, but Ferguson said: "That was the one save he made."
SOUTHAMPTON VERDICT: Much improved after the break when Steven Davis, in particular, was excellent, they also welcomed back captain Adam Lallana after a two-month lay-off. Based on this performance, things bode well - but the relegation six-pointers against Wigan and QPR were always the key games.