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We can still beat Manchester United twice this season!


John
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We left the ground disappointed at not doing the league double over Manchester United this season despite our four point haul being the best we have produced against them since season 1995-96. That’s progress!

Manchester United played like the Champions they were last night. Not by producing silky skills that left us breathless (although Rooney did show the fine player he is as at times as he always does) but through their determination not to leave Villa Park without a minimum of a point despite playing much of the game with only 10 men. They are not the team of last season or of other recent years as although they still have a confidence and resilience; they no longer have that air of invincibility. For me Chelsea despite their occasional frailties away from home will look a better and more exciting side at times between now and the end of this season, as may Arsenal. But, if they are still within touching distance of the title with six games to go they will for me be the more likely of the three to put a run together.

But enough of them, this point was as important a point for us in the race for fourth as it was for them in the race for the title. They made up a point on Chelsea last night but we made up a point on both Liverpool and Spurs. We are now two points off fourth spot with a game in hand of two of the three teams who we will be doing battle with for a Champions League place. Sure three points would have been better. But, if someone had offered us four points out of six from our games against Manchester United at the start of this season would any of us have really said no?

We started strongly enough, traded early blows with our Cup Final opponents and then took an early lead. But, within 4 minutes they were level through a fortunate own goal and 6 minutes after that were down to ten men. Did we grow tired as the game wore on or did we take our foot off the pedal when we came up against 10 men (as we did for some time in the semi against Blackburn) or did we surrender the initiative by not putting the second half pressure on them they would probably have been anticipating and playing a more containing game?

In the second half we did not push players forward to support our breaks from defence when they did arise and kept a solid defence which often left Gabby isolated and players with a lack of options when moving forwards that led to the ball being played back to retain possession. Of course they deserve some credit for being well worthy of a point on the night and even when down to 10 men they remain both a threat and tough to beat but there remains the question of whether through a desire not to be beaten last night we lost what was an opportunity to win it and take three points rather than one.

My player ratings from a game that both sides were in the end content with a point from are:

Brad Friedel – 8 – MOTM - Brad’s performance last night and his performance at Spurs at the weekend have made it as difficult for Martin not to play him in the forthcoming Cup Final as it will be for Martin not to play Brad the Younger whose displays between the sticks in earlier rounds did so much to get us to Wembley. Made a very good save on 34 minutes when he pushed over a good shot that Carrick hit from the edge of the box. He then did well to come off his line quickly and to get to the ball on the edge of our box when Rooney had seemed a good bet to get to the ball first. He then denied Rooney again on 75 minutes when he got one hand to a fine effort from England’s premier striker who had been looking to chip him from just outside of the box with Brad off his line.

Carlos Cuellar – 8 – Nodded a good Downing cross on which finished just over the bar on 13 minutes and then five minutes later opened the scoring when after a threatening Downing ball in went through his legs before it came back to him from a defender and he did very well to direct a good header over Van der Sar and under the bar. Solid defensively as well as producing his usual threat when he ventured up front.

Richard Dunne – 8 – Took the captain’s armband when Petrov left the field and once again played like one. Might have won the game on 91 minutes when he could not quite get to a fine ball into the box from Downing that just needed a touch to go in.

James Collins – 6 – Again not quite at his commanding best but he was up against Rooney and was unlucky that Giggs’ 22nd minute shot which was otherwise going wide deflected off him and into the back of the net rather than somewhere else.

Luke Young - 7 – Solid at the back and another good performance although playing out of position pending Warnock’s return.

Stewart Downing – 6 – Good delivery of balls into the box last night and had a hand in most of our not very numerous threats on Van der Sar’s goal.

James Milner – 7 – Fed by Gabby on the edge of the box on 57 minutes and took the ball just inside of the box before hitting a decent shot that Van der Sar needed to stretch to reach. Again worked hard for much of the time within his own half without making quite the impression he usually does on our games.

Stiliyan Petrov - 6 – Nani’s foul on him on 28 minutes led to his assailant getting the red card and so, missing the Cup Final at the end of the month and I suspect ultimately led to our captain needing to be replaced through injury on 63 minutes.

Fabian Delph – 7 – Looked our most effective midfield player until he was replaced by Big John on 57 minutes. Was prepared to run towards the opponents back line at pace, used the ball well and was unlucky to be the one that made way as Martin looked for a change that would place some pressure on their ten men during the last third of the game.

Ashley Young – 6 –Was brought down by Evra (who otherwise mostly had the better of him) for the free kick that led to our goal and did a fair share of hard running and hard work in his own half during the game.

Gabby Agbonlahor – 6 – Worked hard enough on his own for much of the game and with limited service and support from other areas.

Substitutes:

John Carew - 5 – Replaced Fabian on 57 minutes and made little impression on the game up front in the same way as he had at Spurs although he had more than a shout for a penalty when he went down with both Evans’s arms around him inside the box. Will need a swift return to form if he is to make a Wembley appearance as Emile seems well ahead of him on current form and Delfouneso’s claims for a place grow stronger with each first team appearance that he gets.

Steve Sidwell – 5 – Replaced the injured Stiliyan on 63 minutes and rose well to connect with a good Downing cross on 85 minutes but his header was off target. Did little else positive during the time available to him.

Up the Villa!

John Lewis

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