“Eight changes” – of what, kit? Once every 12 minutes or so, to maximise bird-pulling possibilities/employment of backroom staff? Of formation? Of tack, or strategy, or manager? (Now we know it can’t be that). No, this phrase that seemed to resonate so, from the Five Live commentary from Lisbon was merely a matter of numbers – superficially. Playing numbers; meaning players who are good enough to wear the red of United, away, in the Champions League, in what is likely to be the most challenging fixture of their group stage.
But I’m even more than usual an unreliable witness. In fact no kind of witness, other than the aural kind, following the infuriating refusal of our antiquated telly to trap ITV. (For some reason the channels are slipping away like a soapy ball circa 1968 from under Bill Foulkes’s boot.) And rather than sling the thing out into the street, after having the kids take turns to hold down the 1 on the remote – which worked for about 30 seconds – I spoke gently to the telly and doinked it, reaching for the laptop… and Five Live.
Which is rarely a disappointment.
And so, whilst other senses were engaged with the business of wolfing down pasta/tuna/pesto – or P and T as it is affectionately known in our house – my ears tell me that a proper European night was unfolding in balmy Lisbon. Atmosphere; chances; flashes of brilliance or that diaphragm-gurning fear of such brilliance from their number 8/9/delete where appropriate. A stunning home goal, with Johnny Evans critically drifting when an admittedly special pass unzipped him. A rare but welcome sharp finish from everybody’s favourite shagger, Ryan Giggs. (Blimey girls, imagine how sexy the boy Ryan would be if only he could have… finished?)
United are ludicrously tooled up in the penetration department. Though I didn’t actually see them I believe Berbatov and Owen were amongst the predators left unspent on the bench – this in addition to the part-used Nani and Hernandez. A small digression here, before I go onto further labour this point about United’s absurd luxury of gifts…
I was on the Llyn Peninsula only the other week when who should almost bump into me – presumably in some crass attempt to get my autograph – but M Owen esquire. He looked small, young and very fit; end of. He will clearly have few opportunities but the otherwise supra-dull Mr Owen will, in his boringly defiant way, surprise no-one with a couple of significant, well-taken goals (Carling Cup/late on in Champions League matches?) and I for one, will be pleased for him.
But how far will the fizz and the flash and the alround foxy-in-the-boxiness of United take them this campaign? Evans’s blunder will not be a solitary blip on the defensive charts – though he will feature less once a) senior players are fit, if ever and b) Fergie realises he has to pick Jones ahead of him… everytime. Over recent seasons United have been pretty close to outstanding but you would fancy top players to expose their defence. Vidic can be made to look poor by pacy strikers catching him flat-footed; Evra’s defending for the last year has been, in my view, consistently shocking; Ferdinand is often imperious but more often absent.
However, to Ferguson’s great credit, United have been about attacking for aeons. As soon as you give them the ball, they are a threat. Amongst his other undoubted gifts, Rooney’s pace is at times unplayable. A simple one-two may be executed, leaving a defender utterly out of the game as the formerly balding one bolts for the return – or the return of the return. Hernandez is that precious thing the natural snaffler of sharp chances. Nani can play, no question, but needs a kick up the arse and most of us would like to give it to him.
On the one hand the team is manifestly brimming with goals… but hilariously there are a few dunces in the corner in this regard – Carrick/Fletcher/Anderson certainly, and to a lesser extent, Giggs. But to answer my question… United are looking better than last year and I like the freshness (and the challenge) Jones and Smalling are putting out. If they remain impregnable or their relative inexperience is not significantly found out then the reds are serious candidates – as in truth are City – for the last four. Barcelona remain favourites.
Back to Lisbon and a draw probably acceptable to both sides. A match with momentum and colour and something of that special atmosphere. A proper European night then, honourably competitive; one to cap with a walk on the coast path and a humbling perusal of the stars. In reality it’s thirty yards up and down the road, with the dog snorting snail-traces; bats though.