My life’s the disease.

Friday 14th December. From a caff in a retail park. Enough.

Mourinho moaning at a presser. God what a yawn! His joylessness, his deathly narcissism. That ever-present, insulting hostility.

He’s been magnificent, of course – back then. When his energy felt irresistible and young. When his players loved him. When he really was a coach and mentor supreme.

Now he just moans. At an ungrateful universe, at fans, at the media. His contempt for everyone, for their lack of appreciation, is extraordinary. It swirls around him – around those pressers – like a virus. More than anything else, these days, it defines him.

It’s a given that contemporary journo’s are pretty much unable to ask Proper Questions of our elite managers but Mourinho’s brutishness marks a depressing low, on this. He’s out to bully all of us – those who dissent, those who query, those who recognise his tapering, diminishing powers. It’s both fascinatingly pathological and appalling.

Once he had a real, positive presence. He could motivate, in those critical, private moments; pitchside at the training-ground; pre-match. He was coruscating and undeniable – the most proactive coach on the planet. Scorching and soaring; at half-time, re-invigorating, re-ordering if need be.

Now the sense is of something – someone – utterly uncoupled from the will and the heft of those days: a man cruelly, manifestly unable to shape outcomes. Yes, he’ll make those subs; yes he’ll mull darkly and tinker… but nobody’s listening. Or worse – nobody believes. United are drifting and flailing and falling in front of the world.

Distantly, some bathos.

It may be that Jose always secretly wanted to lead United; there may be a touch of melancholy around that? He knew, he felt the weight of all that history.

What if he got to them eight years or so, ago? When he was a great. When the club were ripe for another round of their trademark, lungbursting, emoting glory. When he could have shaped it.

Now, he just can’t. Look at Rashford. Look at Pogba. Look at Mata. Lost, in their different ways. Painfully short. Crying out for skilled, sensitive, inspirational man-management. Lost.

We’re drawn into something inescapably moral, here: riled, provoked. Because United-era Mourinho makes many of us strike out towards something freer, better, more generous. (He’s a symbol, after all). You don’t have to be old-school to want football to break out – philosophically and in practice.

Who cares if we sound like romantic old fools? Imagine Rashford under Redknapp, or Klopp, or anyone with the heart, the soul, the essence, the interests of football coursing through their veins. Imagine being unwilling or unable to unweight that fabulous bundle of talent!

Mourinho appears to be both – appears both reluctant and professionally incapable, now, of both. If things were different, we might be sorry for him. But no. His loss – that descent into irrelevance, impotence – feels directly related to his own, sullen withdrawal. In a cruel universe, Jose is suddenly deservedly feeble.

The coach can’t play but he – she – builds the environment,   makes the whole bigger and the individual better. Mourinho’s blunted bravado kids no more: he’s a coach who can’t or doesn’t want to coach, preferring instead to count down the days to salvation – to the next ‘window’.

Things are brutal. United are beyond flawed, beyond what is acceptable. It’s gone.

The manager may get yet another major job – who knows? But this club (and arguably football) don’t need him; not anymore. He should have gone some time ago.

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Strange ghosts.

Juventus United; as big as they get?

Yes and no. Yes Juve have a certain megastar and some authentic *players* but United, United are strange, or estranged, or something. There’s a consensus – remarkably, perhaps – that this team has some quality (of course) but few of the qualities we might associate with proper Red Devils.

Go through the side and see how many settle into the kind of glorious-amorphous, universal United of the Ages. Or even the Plainly Fit to Wear the Shirt Eleven.

De Gea, certainly, Pogba potentially. Otherwise, I like the case for Mata as the kind of player United should pick and – strangely? – Luke Shaw for his ambition, his vital surges.

Beyond that, who? Rashford and Lingard plainly not yet. Martial? Good currently but not for me. Young, almost, but like Valencia, more a committed Pro than a truly high-level player. Matic a tremendous foil to theoretically enable the full-on rampant unleashingment of a brilliant attacking midfielder – but merely  a goodish international water-carrier, in himself.

More than this lack of quality, United lack direction, sustained energy – lack soul.

This feels like a betrayal and is understood that way by many – inside and out of the club support. The manager’s Trumpian darknesses – utter self-obsession, cynicism – have robbed the Mighty Reds of their romance and, frankly, much of their enduring appeal.

That Mourinho doesn’t, when it comes to it, give a toss about energy and style, is self-evident. That he really is past his sell-by-date, as well as past the moment where he deserves our respect, may be more a matter of opinion – but one I am untroubled by sharing. His team have sunk generally into the muddle of dourness and bad faith – or faithlessness – characteristic, apparently of the man. They are not United.

So this enormous occasion is strangely haunted, before we start, rather than brimful of evocation and memory.

Bung on the telly, half seven. Maybe half-hoping to see Roy Keane or Giggs or something which might light up that hope, that symbol, that reflex. Something lungbursty or flying-forwardy.

Nope. It may come, I suppose but BT, ludicrously, have Rio, Scholesy and Hargreaves on the settee; i.e wall-to-wall Proper United Blokes talking *realistic* shop. United ‘aren’t seeing the pictures’. There’s ‘no pattern’. We’re counting down to Juve v MU and it’s sounding quite dispiriting. Understandably.

Then The Mourinho Tunnel Interview. He’s not actually hostile on this occasion – merely typically ungiving. Hey but things could happen. Let’s watch.

De Gea’s birthday. 28. Won’t be here for his 29th, you’d think. Mata and Fred dropped, Lingard back, Herrera starts.

Moral victory for United as Szczesny flares a shockingly nervy strike out, about ten yards up the park. Pogba may be playing an advanced, central midfield role.

Lingard breaks out but the counter fizzles out. Cuadrado – right up there, for me as an over-rated player – gifts the ball to United in midfield but again no joy. However, after ten minutes, the visitors are looking decent.

First whiff of a chance falls to Juve, as Betancur is allowed a yard or two in the box – the shot deflected wide. Juventus now have a period of possession and some thrust, high up the pitch. Notable that the arch-stopper Bonucci ventures deep into the United box in open play.

United have predictably gone with Matic and Herrera central and deepish; 18 minutes gone and it’s working. The team shape seems good: Pogba freer. Positive energy around the pitch.

Dybala creates some minor fluttering at the heart of the United defence, following a beautiful first touch. In the aftermath Chiellini clunks Sanchez to offer the respite of a free-kick, thirty yards in front of De Gea. It’s alarm-less, in a good way, for MU.

I’m just thinking United look like a stronger side than they have done for months – a quality side – but then Matic swings a shockingly lazy pass to nobody, whilst trying to be the Cool Maestro in midfield. Embarrassing and possibly revealing in the moment, but no damage done.

Mourinho (if he does thrilled) will be quietly thrilled, on the half-hour. 0-0.

Out of nothing, Cuadrado beats Shaw too easily and his shot – deflected across Matic – is pawed into the six yard box by De Gea. Cleared.

First really poor moment from United follows. Smalling and Lindelof go missing as Khedira has time to turn and manufacture something, twelve yards out. His shot is scuffed, weakish, against the outside of the right-hand post. An escape – the first.

38 minutes. United beat away a series of corners and medium-threatening attacks. Dybala a central influence for Juve; Ronaldo peripheral, as is Pogba. (In fact Ronaldo is positive but peripheral, whereas Pogba is poor and the same. A concern).

As is the ease with which a further cross comes in from Shaw’s left flank. The young defender a tad befuddled, this time by some typically extravagant trickery from Ronaldo. Must apply himself – will get an earful during the break, I suspect.

The half closes with a corner for Juve, who have latterly been on top, without really opening up the opposition. The ball curls in but two clearing headers bring relief and the whistle.

Still no score; a good but not sparkling performance from Mourinho’s side. He will want more of that effective defensive shape, plus more involvement and more effect from the attacking midfielders in particular, second half. Juve are clearly strong but have not looked yaknow, *immortal*.

Dybala (not Ronaldo) looks to be their star. Early after the break he finds space in the box before arcing, turning and  swirling a shot. De Gea has no chance. It doinks against the top of the bar. It’s both a) the night’s finest moment so far b) the harbinger of a barrage from the United bench, aimed (I think) at Lindelof. Criminal to be ‘on it’ all over the field then sloppy in your own box.

58 minutes. The first sequence of play (or ‘plays’) for United for some time. Lingard and Martial involved – after a period of drift. Matic again flips a weird, lazy pass wide to no-one. No chance is fashioned but good.

Juve respond, Ronaldo curling in a cross from the left which Shaws attacks courageously before Cuadrado can strike.

Wow. A stunner. Bonucci drives an innocous but decently-weighted ball beyond United’s defenders. Ronaldo reads the path of the ball as it drops from over his shoulder. He volleys it, majestically, past the keeper. It’s godlike.

Drawing breath (and watching the re-run) we can certainly criticise the United defence – it was too easy. But bollocks to that. It was magnificent, it was Roy-of-the-Rocers, it was Top, Top Level.

Within two minutes the score might be two, as United shake off the shock unconvincingly. Juve, you sense, might blow most teams away after that; why would United be any different?

Sure enough, Ronaldo puts one on a plate for Cuadrado… who hoiks over from ten yards, max. It’s opened up and there is real danger, here: Lindelof not alone now, looking lost in space.

Rashford is in for Lingard. There looks no way back, for Mourinho’s men, despite an improved performance. Mata and Fellaini on – somehow the reds need to get from likely losers to unlikely winners. A second for Juve seems more likely.

It really does… but United hang in there… and Mata curls in a beauty to make it 1-1!

Ridiculous, but resulting from some sharp, skilful play by Martial, who had played wall pass ping-pong to create the opportunity.

88 minutes and Young lifts and curls another free-kick from out wide on the left. The keeper flaps, Bonucci fumbles and the ball is in the home net again. Unreal.

Gets more so. Two minutes later and Rashford is absolutely in but blazes against the keeper. Poor miss, in truth.

Doesn’t matter. As the ‘surefire cruise’ to a Juventus victory from woah, fifteen minutes ago doesn’t matter. United have only gone and won it.

Almost hilariously (but not quite) Mourinho stokes the anger of the home crowd, provocatively posturing on the pitch. Predictable perhaps, that even this fabulous finale is not simply a moment for joy for him – that it needs to be about him.

He will and should take some credit, mind. Despite a ver-ry mixed performance from Pogba and lightweight or perhaps more exactly uninfluential contributions from the likes of Lingard and Sanchez, United scored a famous and important win, built on good team shape and application.

They were competitive, they defended well as a team and when United’s central defenders were exposed, they scurried around and recovered. Juve deserved to be 2-up after about 75 minutes but United pegged them back: then they nicked it.

As a purist and sucker for that romance we talked of earlier, I’m chuffed for Mata. His free-kick was a waving of the wand, a delight. He can do this *from nowhere* – he can twinkle. ‘Course he can; he’s United.

United.

Unscientific poll. How many of us wondered about watching United on telly but were then partly entrapped by Football Focus… and partly repelled by how poor and under-charged Mourinho’s Listless Posse were, in the first half hour, at Bournemouth?

In scooting past, let me say I really did enjoy FF: it felt engaging and bright and kinda warm; unlike United. Nice features and Alex Scott and Dion Dublin – okaaay, despite not being strikingly inventive or original, maybe – were again genuinely good company. Unlike, we may be tempted to add, United… or Mourinho.

Okay, as I write MU have replied to Bournemouth’s deserved but nonetheless shockingly poorly-defended strike, making it 1-1at half-time. So they’re ‘in it’. In fact they could be metaphorically buried, already, and possibly their manager too, had the entirely possible scoreline of Bournemouth 3 Manchester United 0 been realised.

The fascinatingly authentic, raw and yet intuitively smack-on pairing of Redknapp Snr and Scholesy are currently unpicking United’s performance – presumably before an irate Gary Neville bursts into the studio, wielding a meat-cleaver.

Second Half. A whiff of urgency, following (surely?) another tirade from Jose the Furious. Luke Shaw bursts forward, collecting a decent return from Martial – should score but for a slightly heavy touch. But, as both Fred (who had pitifully thrown himself, earlier, feeling hands on his back) and Mata are unceremoniously hoiked around 55 minutes, the game has utterly changed.

Logic twists around this. It’s plainly true that United are suddenly a force – meaning Mourinho’s roasting has worked. Yet it’s also self-evident that there should have been no need. Young’s fabulous, bar-rattling free-kick and Herrera’s curler, plus the general, stirring re-boot, simply should not have been necessary. Not at Manchester United. Not at any team which manifestly needs to show some affirming, nay validating grit.

So why the bore and then the bollocking?

We find ourselves – inevitably(?) – with Mourinho. What’s the quality of his work, his influence, these days? Should he stay or go?

I think he should go. His influence, from Press Room to touchline, is somewhere between sour and outright malignant. His squad is certainly dispiritingly ordinary – go look, I just did – but the bloke has had years and extravagant funding towards improving it. The Coach sets the culture and mixes the chemicals: both are currently baleful.

88 minutes done. Might I be saying something else, had either Rashford or Lingard converted reasonably straight-forward chances? Absolutely not. Rashford’s disappearing presence speaks volumes around Mourinho’s exhausted capacity to inspire… but hang on.

As I write this the lanky, recently gawky-looking number 9 – previously a thrillingly energetic and directly protagonistic ‘handful’, remember – bundles a winner. Six yards out, having chested down rather unconvincingly, Rashford converts… and charges to the corner-flag to bury himself in the love (and relief) of the fans. There is the love of ‘one of our own’ in the air.

So extraordinary. United were useless then ‘in it’ then on top: somewhat crudely or gracelessly on top. Then they won.

That this wasn’t the kind of win that great teams manufacture through temporary blips goes without saying. Mourinho’s United are joy-sappingly ordinary. For me – he goes.

 

 

A loaded gun won’t set you free.

There’s something about the moment that brings Joy Division to mind. It might be autumn; or the desperate cynicism around politics and society; the suspicion that something’s falling away – something profound, like goodness, maybe?

Lots of things feel hollowed-out or skein-like or like some web you want to wipe away… and the things that often mitigate against all that – arty stuff? Sporty stuff? – are kinda being psychologically outgunned, or disproportionately swallowed under by the Looming Dark.

Blimey. It’s come to something when a wee something on Utd City starts out like that. But, laughably or not, it does feel like legitimate context, because Mourinho, because Crass World Pressure, because Rooney, because there are stats all over indicting Guardiola(!), because The Death of Caring is upon us.

We don’t care about big things like human decency so why would we care about footie? Football doesn’t care about us, so why we would we bother back? What further proof could we need that the world is bollocksed when it *does appear credible* that Wayne from Toxteth, the last of the street footballers, might be off to China to rot in his armed apartment? How much  more can our idealism be snuffed out, when it’s so dead?

Something about Manchester United used to speak against this. Something in their redness, their pace, their invincible energy.

We all know half the world needs to hate them but even some of those guys felt the surge when a bloke name of Best ran with it. Then Bryan Robson and Cantona and Kanchelskis and Giggs. Charging. More out of instinct than instruction, more in joy than in calculation. This went right past tribalism: it was received as brilliance – something to be aspired to – okaay, maybe as well as hated.

Now, amongst other things, we have a manager who lives joylessly – ‘disastrously’ he calls it – in a posh hotel. And he daren’t go out. Throughout the Premier League we have poisonous rather than inspirational expectation and a kind of moronic appeasement to yet dumber, broadly ever more unaware players and agents. (Of course there are honourable exceptions but players generally must take a lump of blame for the utter separation between themselves and the fans).

Players seem greedy, lazy, arrogant and more-or-less dishonest. More interested in getting their opposite number red-carded than scoring. More interested in drawing a pen than scoring. Staggeringly unaware of how ordinary they actually are. Staggeringly not bothered.

This is somewhere between a cruel view and an average view of football’s things, I think. Maybe I should add that I grew up in a football family and that my grandfather was an MU player before injury cut short his career. So I’m not entirely an outsider, railing with neither authority nor understanding. I get football: I do not enjoy drifting from it.

On Mourinho I’m more dispassionate than most, being clear that he has been a great of the modern era but not hugely enamoured of his playing style. I think the possibility he may have wanted to be at United ‘all along’ is mildly fascinating and that *whatever happens* he must get three years, if he wishes it that way. However, whilst accepting that despite the obscene transfer spending before he arrived, there were faaar too many players at the club simply unworthy of the shirt, I am shall we say concerned(?) that he has not yet addressed that fundamental imbalance: more – that he may not have improved it.

The very crudest view would suggest that if you have a practically unlimited budget you should be able to straighten things out. Crude but trueish. And Mourinho may. He may, though, need more time than many of the proponents of that view might imagine, or allow.

It’s absolutely right that we plebs holler for some accountability or value – Pogba cost how much?!? – we’re entitled. We aren’t responsible for the monstrous salaries so we feel we have moral superiority over and above the usual shareholder/propper-upper stuff. This judgemental fervour is surely both contagious and dangerous – hiking up passions from the reasonable to the wild.

In this context it’s asking a bundle but us fans might still need to consider our contributions – vocal or otherwise. We need to think about how essential it is that players feel good, in a role, in an environment.

Bringing us back – in the United case – to Mourinho. The manager is the environment. His job is to select, after providing some tactical input and (mainly) creating an understanding; a zone of comfort in which players (sorry but this is still the best phrase) express themselves.

Mourinho has traditionally found a way – often magnificently, through sheer force of personality and brilliant proactivity – to win through, here. Sometimes via adversarial routes, sometimes by getting players (and fans) to love him. Intriguingly, right now, the universe is for the first time doubting his virility. It’s threatening to de-Specialise him. Tonight, against City, becomes a meaningful test.

Or it would if (sor-ree sponsors!) this cup meant anything. We saw from Liverpool Tottenham that it’s become a reserve team fixture. Plus, in this case, a bit of family malice. They’re’ll be a lot of hot air but this result does not matter: performances will.

Haven’t seen the line-ups yet (6.20pm) but hoping on the one hand for Mourinho to think more Fenerbache than Liverpool and unleash – or at least offer the possibility for – some Manchester United football. For me this means no Fellaini. (Fellaini goes, from Old Trafford, along with Memphis and Rojo and the others on your list, right?)

Longer term, there’s a slate to wipe clean. Ibra was always a short-term fix, the Rooney Question needs to be addressed and half the defence needs shipping out again. I think Shaw – if he can ever stay fit – is a player and Bailly was looking good but I am not convinced Smalling, however much this goes against the grain of contemporary thinking, is good enough for a proper, elite-level MU. Sorry but I’m just not.

Whilst we’re into the radical sweeps I’d like Mata and Herrera to get a generous run together. If this squeezes out Lingard for now, fair enough. Pogba stays in there. Rashford plays often – rotating with Martial and Ibrahimovic. Crucially, they are freed up, to dash, to charge, to play without fear – because they are Manchester United.

And now, as we fizz or freeze… kick-off.

One v One?

So this one is peculiar. In that, well, can anyone of us remember a time when teams quite like this – i.e. so-o close to being unworthy of the brand – competed for the Unofficial Championship of the Wooorrrrr-leda? Well – Lankishire. And okay I know prob’ly four-elevenths of Utd is nearly brilliant (guess which bits?) but such is the ragged nature of a) their defence and b) Liverpool that that provocative farker of an opening question stands. United are nearly shocking but third… and Liverpool are almost completely shocking and nowhere.

Fair enough?

Ok I did say provocative farker. Lately Manchester United have cartwheeled or blundered into a run of victories where that proper MU footie – the full-on whirligig carnival, the attack-attack hurricane – has held a giddy sway over woe, embarrassment and self-destruction. Flashing directness from Di Maria with Rooney and Mata popping passes from an almost convincing hub; Fellaini (remarkably) playing as though he intermittently remembers the gist of it all; De Gea pinning things together or, yaknow, doing that saving the day thing ‘keepers do. Liverpool meanwhile have been so shot that it’s bloody fascinating.

Rodger’s team are so far from the swelling and relentless brilliance of much of last season that even those of us who expected a drop-off have joined the flummoxed zillions. On the one hand we accept that losing Suarez and Sturridge would be massive for any side but how to explain the utter disappearance of the zest, the belief, the running, the teaminess? Extraordinary.

Given that the first imperative for any manager must be to sort the buzz – the environment – around the team, the dip in positive energy that’s occurred at Anfield is mind-boggling -and a serious black mark against the previously burgeoning Rodgers. As we speak, a whole host of spotty Sports Psychology students must surely be hypothesising rhythmically around the phenomenon.

OOOH- has he simply lost the dressing room? Aaah – is the almost casual decency and articulacy of the man longhand for ‘he’s just too soft?’ Do-oooo the players think him one-dimensional as a bloke and as a coach? Wordy and scrambled? I-i-i-i-sss the essence of this that Rodgers lacks physical presence in a scrap, or does his list of strategies read a) attack with pace, beeeeeeyah) poop yer panties if this doesn’t work? And OH SWEET JEE-SUS why the utter vacuum where Liverpool used to be, eight, ten months ago? Why?

Could be that Liverpool don’t have that many good players. And/or that when the squeeze came on at the death of last season things conspired to expose them; they were unlucky but they were (mentally) weak. Or could be Ar Brendan is simply failing to motivate the group – evidently failing?

From Gerrard’s freakish slip to the trauma-fest at Palace, the suspicion does burn that Liverpool bottled it. They nose-dived from the carefree to the lamentably vulnerable and if they haven’t stayed entirely in that same, hideous, crushingly calamitous groove, they have stayed crap .

You can blame individuals or individual moments for last season’s non-consummation but that collective truth – that Liverpool couldn’t quite hack it – persists.  Corrosively.

People laughed when I singled out Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling for failing to bury Palace midway into the second half of that tumultuous, decisive fixture. They said it was ‘obvious’ the defence blew it (as though I didn’t know that). We all knew the back four was Liverpool’s achilles throughout the season but in that key moment a tad more composure, a tad more ice in the veins from front players would’ve seen Liverpool beyond any sniff of a comeback. For me it was a critical sign that they lacked that essential, murderous edge; they were too close to the ordinary humans chasing after them.

This is history and I’m not (actually) arguing that it is central now. It is present but not central. It may have been causative but today/this season ain’t about scars, it’s about current lack of ease, pattern… and therefore form.

Rodgers has failed to bundle or bully or mould his much-changed group into anything close to a bona fide top four side. There is no comparison between what his attack might offer on Sunday with what Suarez and Sturridge and a flying Sterling offered last year.

Lambert, honest and competent as he is, serves more as a symbol than a striker. He can and will get goals, but he is one-paced and limited; he will rarely electrify the Kop or anyone else. His former club-mate Lallana is arguably theoretically closer to the required pedigree but has played poorly and looked like just another gifted but bland dilettante.

Liverpool have gone from being so tremendously free-flowing they didn’t need to think about nuts/bolts/assembly, to being a side with no engine and no personality. Even Gerrard has only occasionally or momentarily thrown off the slough through sheer force of will. Rodgers must take responsibility for this.

On the other side on Sunday is Van Gaal, a man who may be fluking or scrambling his way somewhere brilliant or precarious. He knows McNair and Rojo and Blackett and Evans and Shaw and Rafael and Jones and Smalling may all fall short of the mark. Against Liverpool he may well pick three of them plus Carrick and genuflect his way ostentatiously through the contest knowing god may not help him.

For United, everything is a gamble. They have quality going forward but they have no consistency – and they still have no defence. Whether they will attackattackattack against their despised rivals will be one of many questions pondered between now and the outbreak of hostilities. The Dutch bruiser-sophisticate could claim a maniacal but spirited offensive is the only way to go given his options and the relative distraction of his opponents. This could mean a fabulous goal-fest or a simple, deflating loss, as United get undone on the break – six times.

Or, we could get a proper North-West derby game. Loaded with bile, low on quality (this one could get very low?), notably unattractive.

Van Gaal is trying to get his side to zip the ball about; he wants great movement as well as instinctive early passing but this demands confidence. As we have seen with Liverpool there’s nothing as infectious as doubt, so United must hope that touches are sure and folks don’t go missing – both may be at issue Sunday afternoon. I can already hear LVG eyeballing his tetchy superstars and setting out the mantra – you supply the dodgy Dutch accent.

We have to believe. When we pass – yes! Believe. When we press – yes! Believe. When we accept the ball under pressure – believe. We can win the game. We are positive. This is what we do.

Van Gaal will find more quality – almost certainly from outside the club – and then he will build.  Even in the chaos of now there is undeniable momentum.

Sunday could be a day where all things may be so subsumed in the vortex that the personnel barely matter. Liverpool will naturally want to still the storm and United surf it. Rodgers nor Van Gaal should have to stir the blood of their players but the two gaffers will still need to perform. Wonderfully, the challenge may revolve around the degree to which one bloke can influence and inspire eleven others. Meaning a very real, very feisty one v one.

Currently, this would favour Van Gaal and United.

Eight changes…

“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.