Shaky Starts, Sharp Strikers and Schadenfreude

It’s been what I’d describe as a good week for United fans. Wins at the weekend over Stoke and on Tuesday against Braga have seen the reds maintain a decent start in the league, and on the brink of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League respectively.

The mouthwatering prospect of the clash at top of the table Chelsea at the weekend on the horizon gives reds something to really look forward to (and get nerves up to fever pitch), with both sides looking formidable going forward, if less so at the back. Also for those of you, like me, who enjoy a bit of Schadenfreude, seeing Chelsea, Arsenal and City all lose in the Champions League, meant that this week can barely get much sweeter.

The Braga game was a strange one. This annoying habit United have acquired this season of going behind, often within a couple of minutes, came back to bite once again as Brazillian striker Alan put the Portuguese side two up in no time. Of course, this gave United plenty of time for a comeback, and they duly delivered thanks to a brace of headers from the recalled Javier Hernandez and a scrappy yet effective effort from Jonny Evans, coming from a corner, which is a happy habbit the reds seem to have picked up this term, having spent years being completely useless at scoring from set pieces.

Sir Alex has already acknowledged that his team cannot keep falling behind, and he’s quite right. They’re not going to keep getting away with it, particularly not at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, and on the rare occasions United have taken the lead this season they’ve always looked in total control. It’s probably an issue of concentration from the whole team, not just the backline, as these early goals seem to be coming from set pieces (Fulham, Spurs, Braga springing to mind), and teams will know to immediately put pressure on United and try and catch them napping. It certainly seems to be more of a mental thing as opposed to anything technical and only time will tell if this can be eradicated. If United do secure qualification through the group stages of the Champions League, they will certainly have to dispose of the habit as the away goals rule comes into play.

However the Braga game did once again show a tremendous fighting spirit in United, and an attacking flair which has been at the forefront of United’s game all season. Neither were epitomised more than by the performance of Hernandez, who had his best game in a red shirt for quite some time. He looked sharp and cool (and remarkably onside) when pressurising the opposition backline, and his general play was summed up by a determined tussle on the left wing as United countered in the second half, completed with a Scholes-esque outside of the boot pass to Nani who was only denied by a smart save from Beto. The little Mexican has certainly enhanced his claims for a start alongside Robin van Persie in West London on Sunday.

Thos fighting qualities will need to be shown in abundance if United are to close the gap on leaders Chelsea to a point on Sunday. You could say the reds are due a win at Stamford Bridge, given the last time United took all three points away at Chelsea was in 2002, in a 3-0 win with goals from Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United will need all of Scholes’ cunning again if they are to topple a Chelsea side who have looked in remarkable form in the league this season. Their ruthless last half-hour demolition of Spurs on Saturday was a demonstration of the threat carried by their frontline, particularly their “man in the hole” Spaniard Juan Mata.

However, Mata’s opposite number on Sunday, Wayne Rooney, has been settling nicely into his role since returning from injury to find Robin van Persie was hammering the goals in, and the “number ten” role suits Rooney nicely. He played a few games in midfield last season, and did well, but his role in behind the Dutchman seems an effective way to make the most of his considerable talents and playing mentality. With van Persie as the main striker Rooney won’t score as many goals as he did last term, however with his industry and ball playing ability, he may finally have found his niche.

Of course United’s visit to Stamford Bridge last season was a cracker, with the reds coming back from 3-0 down to rescue a point thanks to two Rooney penalties and a Hernandez header. This wasalso, of course, the game which turned round the season for United keeper David de Gea, who pulled off an extraordinary save from a Mata free-kick late on the game. Hopefully Sunday will bring a repeat of the entertainment from that game and the character United showed, but with the reds taking all three points this time. Maybe we could take the lead aswell for a change.

Up The Reds

Danny has just started up his own Manchester United blog, Matt Busby’s Aces . Alternatively, you can follow him on Twitter here.

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