10 points

Step up Wayne Rooney and show your class, thank you very much.  With Rooney slotting home the winner as the end of the Manchester United away match against Fulham at Craven Cottage loomed menacingly, the Red Devils opened up a 10 point lead over their closest chasers: Manchester City.

And, Chelsea lost, so it’s going to be a good day today.

Tomorrow morning (7:30AM my time here in California) I’ll wake up and watch the “game before the game” as the networks are billing it: Manchester City against Liverpool.  “The game” is, of course, the Super Bowl.  Which I will only be watching if I have nothing better to do, though I do always feel some pull to watch it because it is such an expectation, a social norm – it is just what is supposed to be done.  But, I don’t really care about the outcome… perhaps I will root for the 49ers because they are from California.

In the game before the game, I do care about the outcome.  Will City win and reduce that gap back to 7 points, will Liverpool win and keep City pointless, will the two sides draw?  I don’t really want either team to win… but since there will be points awarded at the end no matter what, I think I’m leaning towards a City loss or a draw.

That is a testament to viewing City as more of a threat and definitely as the only team out of the two who has a chance of giving us any trouble on the run in this season.  Gone are the days when Liverpool was challenging.  I think they will turn things around in another season or two, but will they ever reclaim their past glory?  Will they ever go on a run of succesful seasons like United has put together in the last 20 years?  I doubt it.

But, those are thoughts for a different day.  Today I’m going to bask in the glory at the top of the Premier League knowing our competition is falling away behind us.  I’m going to revel in the fact that at the end of the game we had four strikers on the pitch: Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck, and Chicharito (Javier Hernandez).  I’m going to be smiling about the great saves that DeGea came up with in goal for us today and the clean sheet he was able to keep.

Yep, it’s going to be a good day.

Down to 9

I don’t even know what to say, or write as the case may be, in regards to the Manchester United and Chelsea match yesterday at Stamford Bridge.  There were goals, and hard tackles, and slick passes, and yellow cards and red cards and good calls and bad calls.  I guess when I break it down like that all that is left to say is that it was a football (soccer) match.

United got off to a flying start.  Unlike the previous games where they’ve allowed the other team to score first, this time the first goal was an own goal.  So, the other team still scored first, just the column the point showed up in was different: for United, rather than against.  Then United pulled ahead with a beautiful goal from Robin Van Persie after an end line run by Antonio Valencia where he drilled a cut back to the penalty spot for the waiting striker to sweep home.

I was off my couch, fists pumping the air, and cheering in whispers.  (As excited as I was I didn’t want to risk waking my sleeping wife on her one day of the week to sleep in.)  Joy.  Pure joy.  Two goals up in 15 minutes away to Chelsea.  This was the United I knew we could be.

Then it all fell apart.  Chelsea found their passing game and camped out in the United half for a very long stretch.  David DeGea made some saves.  United went on the odd forray forward on counter attacks.  Chelsea looked dangerous, and after a foul by Wayne Rooney in a dangerous position, Juan Mata curled home the free kick superbly passed the outstretched fingertips of DeGea to finish off the first half.

Some of my previous elation had subsided.  But, my beloved Red Devils were still a goal to the good and though we’ve had some hard luck at The Bridge before, perhaps we could hang on to that for the next 45.  Perhaps we’d come away with the 3 points and close the gap at the top of the standings.  I still had hope.

The second started much as the first half had ended and Juan Mata, Oskar, and Ramires combined well to slot home the equalizer.  Mata and Oskar showed impressive ball control to keep a dying play alive and then pass in an exquisite ball for Ramires to head home.

Looking for the silver lining I at least noted that DeGea wasn’t at fault for either of the goals scored against him.  He has improved in his time with United and hopefully he will continue to do so.  But, I found myself hoping for us to just hang on.  I’d settle for splitting the points. 

Then everything completely fell apart.  Ivanovic was sent off with a straight red for tackling Ashley Young from behind as the last defender – thus taking away a clear goal scoring opportunity.  This temporarily brought Chelsea down to 10 men.  Yes, temporarily.  Very temporarily as less than five minutes later Fernando Torres was sent off for receiving a second yellow for simulation.  That was a harsh call as it appeared that Johnny Evans may have clipped him or if Evans didn’t clip him than Torres was just trying to avoid getting his legs broken and had gone to ground in the process.  He didn’t dive.  But that’s not how the ref saw it and off he went.  Chelsea was down to 9.

At this point I was very conflicted.  I thought we might have a chance to snatch the winner but a referee had once again ruined a football match.  Then it got worse.  I know what you are thinking, “How could it have gotten worse?”  Right? 

Well, super sub Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored the winner for United.  In all fairness to the assistant referee and the main referee the play happened, bam, bam, bam, but he was offsides when the ball was played to him and the goal shouldn’t have counted.  That’s not what I wanted.

I’m happy with got the 3 points and are now a single point behind Chelsea.  I’m glad United got their first victory at Stamford Bridge in a decade.  I’m happy with how the team played.  But, I wanted us to win on our own merits.  I’m tired of the stories claiming we have the referees in our pockets.  I’m tired of the great plays from either team on the pitch being pushed aside so the talking heads and other pundits can berate the performance of another referee.

But, in the end, it was a football match: there were goals, and tackles, and cards, and saves, and slick passes.  The ref got some calls right and the ref got some calls wrong, and despite it all, I was still entertained.  I guess I can’t ask for more than that, can I?

3 points the (extra) hard way

As the game started I found myself thinking, “We are going to give up an early goal…”

And for the 8th time this season (in 12 matches) we did.  90 seconds into yesterday’s Champions League group stage contest between Manchester United (England) and Braga (Portugal), the Red Devils’ defense was caught flat (again) and Braga took the lead.  This left United needing to get the 3 points the hard way.

But their play didn’t immediately improve.  Within 20 minutes Braga had scored again and the Red Devils found themselves two goals down; needing to get the 3 points the extra hard way.

As has been the case so far this season the offense came to the rescue of the defense (good interplay between Rooney and Van Persie and Kagawa) and a lucky goal by Chicharito and we were back in the game.  It’s not entirely fair to say that it was a lucky goal: Hernandez got into a good position, it was a fantastic cross, and the striker rose well to meet it and head it back across the frame.  But it was lucky because it went in off the body of the keeper who had done well to cover the space.

Then (another) lucky goal, this time from Johnny Evans, and the Red Devils were back on level terms.  Again it was a fantastic cross into a dangerous area and our defender found himself in a good position but a swing and a miss later and the chance seemed to have been lost.  A luck bounce of a Braga player found the ball back at Evans’ feet who had the presence of mind to prod it towards goal where the goal keeper saw it late and had no chance of stopping it from crossing the line.

Finally, the winner, was a deserved goal.  Another brilliant cross and Chicharito was on cue again to head it powerfully past the outstretched reach of Braga’s keeper.  It was the goal the Red Devil’s deserved based on their possession and attacking threat the entire second half of the game.

So, 3 points in the bag and 9 points out of 3 games so far in this year’s Champions League; leaving United in prime position.  That’s fantastic.  But questions are being asked of our defense, by an admittedly weak group, and so far we don’t seem to have the answers other than starting 3 strikers and hoping they can keep on form…

Will that continue to work in the remaining group stage games?  Will that work when we face stiffer competition in the knockout rounds?