We all saw this coming, didn’t we? As inevitable as a downtrodden, grating performance against a team for the lower end of the league, we managed to provide the viewing public with our usual level of effervescence, quality and general comfort in the company of the elite. And don’t get it twisted – these are still the elite.
Without the benefit of West Bromwich Albion being in the top flight, the annual release of fixtures becomes an exercise in preference and priority. It’s entirely up for debate. Some may just want to know who we have on the opening day. that limitless, magical day of endless possibilities. Me? Manchester United, without doubt, is the fixture I first looked up. It was a little disappointing to have to wait so long in the year to host them, but the way things have transpired, it’s gone down an absolute treat.
It’s always an interesting proposition playing the same team twice in quick succession. The muscle memory for each side is still there. You can still visualise all of the gaps, the brick walls, the opportunities and the dead ends in full, vivid technicolour. Hell, most of us – let alone the two teams – have video footage of the whole shabang from the FA Cup still recorded on our Sky digiboxes. I managed to watch the whole thing yesterday morning and my word was it a drab first half – the atmosphere had clearly boggled my mind during the game.
This couldn’t be said of the first half last night. United had turned up and shown us a great deal of respect. There appeared to be a bit of skullduggery going on with their initial squad listing. Diogo Dalot was way down the list of players, in what would ordinarily be suggested as a forward position, but he lined up in what was quite obviously the wing-back slot, with Ashley Young tucking in as a right-sided centre back. The United side struck no fear as a line-up, but we reacted slightly awkwardly to this match-up in formation. There was also a clear sense of getting stuck into us – as soon as we threatened to break we were smothered at every opportunity. Scott McTominay’s inclusion clearly had this in mind, but they had the added bonus of a firmly struck shot from the edge of the box nestling into the bottom corner from the totem pole midfielder.
For a short while we were frazzled, amazed at the fact a Top 6 side had actually turned up intent on stopping us play our game. What is this lack of arrogance from one of the exalted group? But one thing you can count on from the boys in Old Gold, is that we won’t be steamrollered by anyone. We weren’t hanging on here per se, but we did need to hold off a pretty firm challenge, which involved Rui Patricio preventing Jesse Lingard from doubling the lead. With a rearguard as strong as ours, we always stand a chance.
We needed a trigger though, something to kick us into gear. Even Joao Moutinho was stroking short corners directly out of play. It ended up coming from a red shirt in the end. The delightfully named Fred (amusingly pronounced Fredgi in Brazilian Portuguese) had built himself quite the reputation in Ukraine playing for Shakhtar Donetsk, so much so that they never truly missed Fernandinho when he departed for the blue-half of Manchester. Perhaps this is what triggered Ed Woodward to splurge so much cash their way, a kind of copy car move – sign Brazilian midfielder from Ukraine and the trophies will rain down. Ha. Word has it that Shakhtar were laughing all the way to the bank with the bags of cash United sent over to them. Here, he was caught like a rabbit in headlights as our diminutive little terrier Joao Moutinho bore down on him. A couple of passes later and the ball was in the net. The virtues of pressing high will always be evident – most goals are scored within three consecutive passes. It’s not often that teams score off long, slowly built passing moves (we’ve got that covered too, though).
This seemed to give us the boost we needed though. We all of a sudden remembered exactly what we were about, who we were playing and what we had done to them just a couple of weeks ago. Man United playing three at the back? That’s our bag! Try as they might, they can’t do it better than us. Young as part of the back three? Ryan Bennett would have scoffed at the pale imitation of his role. The second half started with another boost in urgency but we were again grateful for Patricio, palming away a McTominay header. United were posing quite the physical threat, with a midfield of walking, talking trees, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Walking being the operative word though – Paul Pogba spent a large portion of this game ambling around, wondering what on earth this scurrying presence around his feet was. The second half was like an episode of Tom and Jerry, with Moutinho simply two or three steps ahead of the World Cup winner throughout.
What really stood out though, was despite the added security of an extra defender, Jimenez and Jota still had the run of the field for all intents and purposes. These two, skating around the final third like Torvill and Dean, graceful but deadly in all that they do. There isn’t a pairing functioning to the same level as them in the league for me right now. United’s defence is nothing to write home about in the context of the club, but they were visibly shaken any time the pair of them got close. This all led to the downfall of Young, and what a treat it was to witness The Real Special One hand out the 100th red card of his career – Molineux, where dreams come true.
For a while, when up against ten men, little seemed to go on. I actually felt Ruben Vinagre and Diogo Jota being removed from the fray were slightly negative moves. Man United were there for the taking, we had our foot on the throat – why not go in for the kill? On this occasion, Nuno got his choice right. For all his good work, Vinagre does have issues crossing the ball. Jonny, in his place, sent in a wicked in-swinger which United failed to deal with. From my seat I then simply couldn’t tell what happened, but we all knew once the celebrations had started. It was a comedy of errors, with the unfortunate Smalling taking the brunt of the flak out of this one. But this is all a symptom of fear and worry. Just look at Phil Jones’ face as he watches the ball squirm it’s way towards the goalline. If that’s not a face of fear, I don’t know what is. It certainly scared the crap out of me.
The rest of the game was a procession. Ole kept turning round to hear his name being called, but it was just sending another United player chasing a shadow. One day I’m sure it will sink in that we’ve done this to them. This club, throughout my years a background to my footballing youth, glory hunter after glory hunter claiming to be a supporter, from school all the way through to University. How the mighty have fallen. How little old Wolves have puffed their chests out, grown a pair and muscled their way in. Much of the talk pre-match was of how we may have our eye off the ball, how Wembley was on the horizon and how this game was a divot in the road for us to avoid. We went in, confronted it head on and came through it, carrying this mighty club on our backs. We’ll take you to Wembley boys, but we’re dropping you at the gates. Semi-finalists only from there on in.
It would have been a crying shame for us to go into Sunday on the back of the meek surrender to Burnley. That’s not how you approach such a fixture. We all wanted that Alex Rae at the Madejski moment. Perhaps Chris Smalling falling on top of the ball, and shovelling it into his own net will come to be the precursor to an historic day out.
I’ve waited a lifetime for this, as many others have. Our day in the sunshine, with another in prospect. I want one more day in the sunshine, thank you very much.