The Manchester Derby was arguably the most boring game in the fixtures history leaving neither team with much to shout about. Such was the pre-match hype that unless the ghost of Jack Duckworth popped up to scissor kick a last-minute winner, there was always a sneaky feeling it was going to be an anti-climax.
Roberto Mancini claimed that holding United to a draw shows his side are closing the gap on them- which by that logic must mean so are the likes of Sunderland, Bolton, WBA, Everton and Fulham. Although it was hardly a success for United there were arguably more positives to take from the game for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, particularly in the midfield battle.
While Paul Scholes delivered yet another master class in controlling the game from the centre of the park and Darren Fletcher was his usual barnstorming self, it was Michael Carrick who seemed to get most of the plaudits. Carrick has been a polarizing figure at United ever since he arrived with some calling him an unsung hero while others claim he’s a liability who can go missing in big games.
I’ve always publicly defended Carrick, while at times privately expressed certain frustrations with him, particularly at the back end of last season when it all seemed to go wrong.
After the recent game against Spurs, I was back in the Carrick fan club praising his performance as mature and exactly what was required in the context of the game. Against City he at first frustrated me a little, as did most of the United team, with a reluctance to face the opposition goal and try and pick out a real telling pass. However as the game wore on so did Carrick’s performance and he was more willing to try move the ball forward, although Scholes was my personal man of the match, I can understand why many went for Carrick.
The last two performances seem to have given Carrick a bit of much needed breathing space at Old Trafford as all of a sudden the rumours of a imminent sale now seem far-fetched.
The main criticism I’ve had of Carrick in the past is that for a player of his ability he doesn’t dominate big games enough. He can sometimes seem to fade into insignificance in the real big tests and I can understand the argument put forward that he’s never quite got over that night in Rome.
One player who can never be accused of going missing in big games is Darren Fletcher, in fact there’s the argument to be made that Fletcher’s problem is he doesn’t perform as well against the lesser teams as he does against the big boys.
Like Carrick, Fletcher’s been on good form in the past two games, if the words ‘master class’ are a compulsory affix after the word Scholes, then ‘another barnstorming display by ’ must prefix the words Darren Fletcher based on recent performances.
Fletcher’s been a little inconsistent at times this season, but seems to have hit top form just as United sense the title race is definitely on.
With Wayne Rooney’s absence, Dimitar Berbatov, Ji Sung Park, Nani and Chicharito have stepped up and delivered at the business end of the pitch, while Rio Ferdinand’s return and the absence of John O’Shea in the back four has made the defence look a lot more solid.
The question against Aston Villa tomorrow is can United’s midfield cope without Paul Scholes? Or should that be without another Paul Scholes master class? Against Spurs Scholes only figured for less than half an hour and prior to his entry Carrick and Fletcher had both done a excellent job of marshalling the midfield. Although his presence was missed, United coped without him.
Tottenham are known for their strong midfield, and a Scholes-less United coped admirably until he joined the fray.
Scholes’s booking against City -which is now mandatory for all officials refereeing a United game, means he’ll miss United’s trip to Villa park.
Dealing with the likes of Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton should prove a lot easier than stopping Rafael Van Der Vaart, but when it comes to creating something can Fletcher and Carrick take charge of yet another must-win game?
The smart money says yes, after all both players have been on form lately and Villa struggled against Blackpool’s reserve team last time out.
However, it may not all be all plain sailing as the game against Sunderland showed, when Scholes was stifled United seemed to run out of ideas. The same happened against WBA, United looked far better when Scholes was on the pitch but his twenty minute cameo wasn’t enough.
If Carrick really is to continue his rehabilitation in the eyes of some of his detractors-and possibly even Fergie- then grabbing the Villa game by the scruff of the neck would be the perfect chance.
Fletcher’s tackling-or anti-football as one rather bitter manager called it- is world class, and when it comes to breaking down attacks there’s few finer. If Fletcher can help move the ball forward from midfield and maybe add to his two goals or two assists against Villa, then this weekend could prove that while Scholes will always be missed, his absence can be survived.
One game against a fairly average Villa side is hardly likely to convince Fergie he doesn’t need to spend to replace His Royal Highness of Gingerland, it could however show that at least for the remainder of the season United have the squad to cope when he’s unavailable.
With 25 PL games remaining after the Villa one, Scholes is destined to miss at least three due to suspensions- we all know it’s gonna happen, so tomorrow is the perfect opportunity to show that there is a plan B for United’s midfield.