Tuesday, October 25, 2011
United's shot in the arm
Mark Lomas, The EBB Stadium
After two torturous days of chain e-mails inviting them to phone helpline number 0161 61 61 61 and reporting that Coleen Rooney had enjoyed an afternoon watching 'Six and the City' on Sunday, Manchester United fans were able to begin the healing process after watching their team book a place in the Carling Cup quarter-finals with a ruthless victory over League Two minnows Aldershot Town.
The scars of Sunday's Manchester derby humiliation will remain for some time and chants of "we're going to win 6-1" inevitably tested the thickness of United's skin after Dimitar Berbatov's opener for United. Sir Alex Ferguson has certainly encountered many setbacks during his quarter-century at the club, but has time and again proven adept at picking his players up.
The Scot was keen to stress before the game that everyone has already put Sunday's defeat behind them, though one feels a more realistic diagnosis of United's state of health can be made after this weekend's visit to Everton.
Cup competitions have offered United solace in the wake of derby thrashings before; their last 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford 85 years ago was immediately followed up with progress in the FA Cup at Tottenham's expense, and when City won 5-1 at Maine Road in 1989, Portsmouth were seen off in the Rumbelows Cup before their next league outing. And so it was to be in 2011, too, as Dean Holdsworth's Aldershot side were put to the sword in a disappointment for those neutrals eager to see a giantkilling.
The former Bolton and Wimbledon striker had tasted victory three times against United during his playing career - a heroic FA Cup fourth round victory with the Dons in 1997 the pick of them - but there was to be no upset for his charges in front of a capacity crowd of 7,044 at The EBB Stadium. Nonetheless, the home supporters were determined to enjoy what was the biggest night in the 19-year history of the club - formed out of the ashes of Aldershot FC in 1992 after they went out of business - and they cheered every shot, corner and free-kick like it was a goal. After the match, Holdsworth toasted the efforts of his players, having been given a "lovely bottle" of wine by Ferguson.
"I am very proud, and the team will be hungry for more occasions like this,'' he said. ''We saw the quality on the pitch out there for United and knew it was going to be a tough night, but from the groundsman right the way through to the fans, everyone associated with the club was magnificent."
Holdsworth's tactical intentions were made clear from the start: a short viewing of the tape from United's last outing would have highlighted the Red Devils' vulnerability in dealing with counter-attacks this season. But, while City had the triumvirate of David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero pulling the strings, Aldershot's trio of Michael Rankine, Jermaine McGlashan and top scorer Danny Hylton were never going to cause quite the same problems.
Against a United XI containing seven full internationals - including Berbatov, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Owen - the Shots sat deeper than the bunkers littered across the town's army training bases. Holdsworth's formation more closely resembled 4-6-0 than its supposed 4-5-1 and Vidic and Phil Jones regularly strolled unopposed across the halfway line with the ball at their feet.
It was not all plain sailing for United, though, and they survived an early scare when Hylton, who boasted six goals in his past six games prior to Tuesday night, picked Park Ji-Sung's pocket but failed to race clear thanks to a crucial interception by Jones. Four minutes later and Alex Rodman also came close to bearing down on goal, but was scythed down by Nemanja Vidic - who may well have found himself on the receiving end of a second red card in as many games had a different referee been in charge.
However, Aldershot's resistance was broken on 15 minutes when Berbatov finished off a fine passing exchange involving Mame Biram Diouf, Tom Cleverley and Park, United's forgotten man calmly placing a left-foot shot past Ross Worner. Having played just 126 minutes in the Premier League this season, it would have been fairly understandable had Berbatov cut a frustrated figure. But he proved a consummate professional, putting in an encouraging display and even hungrily tracking back to tackle on a couple of occasions. As half-time drew near, he turned provider for strike partner Owen, who had initially released him with a pinpoint diagonal ball, to roll in a second and put the game to bed.
When Antonio Valencia smashed home United's third just after the interval, it was a clear the fairytale was no longer achievable but the Shots fans continued to cheer their team on through a dull second half. It seemed they may have had a dream goal to celebrate, but Luke Guttridge fired wide and the Shots couldn't claim a consolation to repeat the 3-1 League Cup scoreline that George Best, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law achieved for United when the two sides last met 40 years ago.
While United march on to the quarter-finals and return to Premier League action at Everton this weekend, Aldershot will be brought back down to earth when they host Crewe Alexandra in League Two. But there is no doubt the Shots' moment in the Carling Cup spotlight will live long in the memory of everyone involved with club.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov. For someone who has played just minutes this season, Berbatov showed that he definitely hasn't lost his touch. The Bulgarian's deftness of control is a joy to watch in close quarters and he didn't shy away from the physical challenge of facing a quartet of defenders determined not to make things easy for him.
ALDERSHOT VERDICT: They had no real alternative but to defend deep and though it worked to stifle United, especially for long periods of the first half, it was never going to yield a positive result, and Straker had a nightmare at left-back. In the creative Danny Hylton and pacy Jermaine McGlashan, though, they certainly have two players who look capable of performing at a higher level.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The arrival of the team-sheet saw a frantic increase in traffic to Google from the Aldershot press box, as the assembled journalists checked the credentials of a very youthful United bench, but an experienced starting XI had a walk in the park at The EBB Stadium. Tom Cleverley's return provides the Red Devils with a welcome midfield boost, while the much-hyped pair of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison looked assured in their second-half cameos. The players Ferguson sent out took care of business and he can celebrate reaching a seventh Carling Cup quarter-final in ten years, not a bad return for a manager who has often been accused of not taking the competition seriously.
PESSIMISM PERSONIFIED: With the press box over-subscribed, a select few journalists had the pleasure of sitting among the home fans in the North Stand. But while it was great to share in Aldershot's big night, those around us who were getting behind the team were drowned out by a veteran Shots supporter and his incessant criticism of his team. Note to Mr Furious: Lighten up!