Sunday, January 4, 2009

Southampton-United: Sleep-walking to victory

The magic of the FA cup proved more legend than reality as the spell was unbound on 35 minutes when Southampton, already down 1-0, were reduced to 10 men.

United travelled to St. Marys on the south coast today hoping to quench a relative goal draught. Sir Alex Ferguson named a typically second-string yet competitive side, seizing the opportunity to rest an overworked Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung as well as a still recovering Paul Scholes.

Carlos Tevez was absent on the team-sheet while young English striker Danny Welbeck got a rare starting chance to further impress with partner Dimitar Berbatov as Wayne Rooney occupied the bench.

Anderson partnered Michael Carrick in the center for the Mancunians, but the Brazillian has found his form this year sagging noticeably despite featuring prominently in his rookie campaign, the double-winning season at United last year.

Ronaldo benefited most perhaps from a mental and physical break. The best player in the world for the 2007-2008 season enters this new year doubtfully in the top three wingers in Manchester. Teammate Park and Manchester City's Robinho and Shaun Wright-Phillips have all played at a higher level this term as Ronaldo struggles to deal with the pressure his brilliance last season inevitably yielded.

Southampton started more spritely, with the Championship side forraying forward without too much result throughout the first quarter hour.

Giggs' first corner kick from the right side invariably swung out beyond the eight-yard box. However, Nani's attempt on 19 minutes swung naturally onto an open O'shea, who's header was saved point blank only for Wellbeck to nod in the rebound as United went ahead 1-0.

A reckless challenge from 19-year-old Scottish striker Matt Paterson ended all hopes for Southampton and neutral fans alike as he was shown straight red from referee Mike Reilly after 35 minutes.

Directly after the restart, an otherwise innocuous free-kick from Nani turned into a United penalty as a member of the wall raised an arm intentionally. Nani himself slotted home the resulting spot-kick as the game grew more and more predictable.

Giggs and Carrick came off 10 minutes into the second half in favor of Gibson and Possebon as the outcome grew closer to being foregone. Rooney joined the fray gratuitously after 65 minutes as United played in a testimonial to their own dominance, really.

The youthful South Coast outfit, bereft of capital and mostly devoid of any experience, was beset as the Red Devils casually besieged their side of the pitch. Darren Gibson finished from eight yards after an easy run from Rooney down the left side to score the final goal, making it 3-0 at full-time.

55 minutes of playing a man down did no favors for the small Championship club, but with an average age of around 21 in the starting line-up such mental lapses are likely to be quite commonplace.

United advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup to host Tottenham for the second straight year. Their next match is away to Pride Park in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Derby County.

Little more could be said or extrapolated from an easy victory for the Reds. With another simpler match midweek, most key United players should be well-rested for United's next Premier League fixture, a prize-bout at home to Chelsea at the weekend.

Van der Sar: [7] He didn't have much to do. How cliche.

Neville: [8] Another very solid match from the veteran; should be rewarded with a new contract shortly, according to his Scottish boss.

Vidic: [8] Composed. He is playing more with the ball at the back with Ferdinand absent; it's the one part of the Serbian's game which could use improving.

Evans: [7] Also quite composed, although he did have one mental lapse which resulted in a good Southampton chance.

O'Shea: [7.5] The Irishman enjoyed himself today. Filling in temporarily is no foreign concept to the squad player who has earned his paycheck this holiday season.

Nani: [7] Against inferior opposition, he had some joy. But, largely he is still as raw as when he joined the team two years ago May. He dribbles too much and makes poor decisions. Great athlete, though. How far will that get him?

Carrick: [6.5] Didn't do much. Rarely played the ball forward, virtually always preferring the safest route ultimately. A bit boring, really.

Anderson: [6.5] Glimmered into and out of the match throughout, alternating between lively and idle.

Giggs: [6.5] Some very strange finishing marked his day, and generally, as with most of his teammates, Giggs did just enough to keep this match comfortable.

Wellbeck: [7] Played well enough; there were hints of offside on the goal, but a tie should go to the attacker. Otherwise didn't look out of place playing against other teenagers, as you'd expect.

Berbatov: [7] Languid. Lazy. Serene. Call it what you will, but Berbatov has uber-class, as they say in Leverkusen. His unwillingness to shoot from any sort of range is a little alarming. He likes to play like a midfielder, as if United don't have enough strikers like that already (Rooney, Tevez). Berba held off Southampton defenders with the utmost ease today, but should have demanded being on the score-sheet against an overawed side.

Subs: Rooney [7] Energetic and goal-hungry.

Possebon [6] Anonymous and/or rusty.

Gibson [7] Swung in some crosses. Scored a goal. Should enjoy a few pints.

The only magic involved today was in the marketing and advertising as we all geared up for upsets; any chance of one here dissipated with the sending-off. United were careful not to over-exert themselves; I will be careful to do the same next time I find myself looking forward to a FA Cup third round match.

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