What United did on their holidays….

These days, what with summer tournaments like the World Cup, European Championships, Copa America and  Gold Cup and major clubs conducting high-profile pre-season tours to all parts of the globe, June is really the only month when there’s not much football being played  in the northern hemisphere – except on the beach.  The Champions League Final was played on something like the  28th May this year and by the end of the first week in July, most of United’s multi-national squad were back at Carrington getting weighed and measured and starting the process of winding themselves up for the coming season. 

The only exceptions were the likes of Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia who were away playing in the Gold Cup  and Copa America  respectively, plus the likes of Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and new signings Phil Jones and David De Gea, who had all been involved in the Euro U-21 tournament in Denmark.  All of the above were given extended rest after their summer exertions, though all of them except the injured Valencia later joined up with the United squad on their US Tour.  Also missing from that tour was Darren Fletcher, who has yet to recover from the mystery virus that afflicted him in the spring.

United’s tour of the States was an unreserved success on the pitch; they breezed past 3 MLS teams in Boston, Seattle and Chicago, trounced an alleged MLS All-Star team in New Jersey, then finished off by beating a weakened Barcelona team in front of 81,000 people at the Redskins stadium in Landover, Maryland, about a half-hour from Washington DC.

United v Barcelona in front of 81,000 people…….in the USA….mind-boggling…..

Everyone got some time on the pitch except Hernandez, who didn’t join up with the squad until New York and then suffered a diplomatic concussion to quiet the hordes of Latino fans for whom he has become an idol and who wanted to see him on the pitch.  In total, the team scored something like 20 goals and conceded only 3 in the five matches they played.  As to who prospered and who didn’t, Danny Welbeck did enough to suggest that he will see plenty of first-team action this year, goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard played sufficiently well  to indicate that he should be considered as a serious challenger to the expensive De Gea.  Ashley Young started the tour brightly, though faded in the later games and Tom Cleverley showed some promise though he didn’t seem to get as much time on the pitch as he had on the 2010 tour of the USA.

Back in Europe, several of United’s squad were off in Amsterdam in midweek playing in Edwin van der Sar’s Testimonial jamboree, which featured no less than 3 games and saw some great Dutch players of the recent past – Bergkamp, Overmars, Cocu, Davids – turning out to see Edwin off.  I have to say that Marc Overmars looked in great shape and looks as though he should still be playing – well, he’s only the same age as Ryan Giggs.

Over in Manchester a couple of nights later, 76,000 people packed into Old Trafford for Paul Scholes’ Testimonial against a New York Cosmos team made up of young unknowns, old lags like Fabio Cannovaro, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires and imported ‘ringers’ like Robbie Keane and Brad Friedel.  As is so often the case with Testimonials, the game itself was largely irrelevant, but there was a notable first-team debut for Paul Pogba, who came on to replace Scholes after about 75 minutes.  I’ve always likened Pogba to a young Vieira, so it was more than a little odd to see them tussling for possession in the midfield.  Scholesy left us with one final moment of genuine magic; a 25-yard screamer into the top corner to open the scoring in a one sided  6-0 United win.  He even consented to a centre-circle interview with announcer Alan Keegan after the final whistle and, in typically understated fashion, said that he hoped he’d left the fans with ‘a few decent memories’.  More than a few, Paul, more than a few.

One last thunderbolt from Paul Scholes…..

And so to Wembley. Time was when the Community (neé Charity) Shield used to be the traditional ‘curtain-raiser’ for the English football season.  The F.A. Cup Winners played the League Champions and we started to realise that the summer was coming to an end.  This year, the Scottish leagues are into their second week already and most tiers of English football below Premiership level got started on Saturday.

United’s serial success over the last 20 years has meant that they have probably been involved in the Community Shield more than any other club.  Not many of these games really stick in the mind, though I do recall one stunning demolition of Newcastle in Eric Cantona’s final season and a couple of feisty encounters with both Chelsea and Arsenal.   Today’s game against City was shaping up to be a little different.  After all, they beat us at Wembley in the F.A. Cup Semis back in April and most pundits are of the view that they could well be United’s biggest challengers this coming season.  So, maybe revenge  and local pride was on United minds and both managers would have recognised the opportunity to lay down the proverbial marker ahead of next weekend’s Premier League kick-off.

Roberto Mancini has clearly tired of the Carlos Tevez soap opera and has already brought in his countryman Sergio Aguero from Athletico Madrid as a potential replacement or possible partner if the peso finally drops with Carlito and he realises that nobody else is prepared to put up with his tantrums or pay his ludicrously overblown salary.

No Tevez today, however, as he’s yet to return to the city he said he’d never return to but is, apparently, expected back in Manchester  next week.  Also, no Aguero, who sat on the bench as an unused sub throughout today’s game.  The only new signing we did see from City was full-back Gael Clichy who obviously reckons he’s got more chance of winning trophies at Eastlands than he did with Arsenal.  Well, you have to admire his optimism.

As for United, they started with De Gea in goal and Chris Smalling preferred at right back to either of the Da Silva twins,  lining up alongside Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra  to combat a very tall and muscular City side.  Carrick and Anderson started in central midfield, Ashley Young and Nani were on the wings and Danny Welbeck was preferred to poor old Dimitar Berbatov as Wayne Rooney’s partner.

The story of the game is soon told; United dominated the first 35 minutes without creating too many clear-cut chances.  City then had a dominant spell where they scored twice through Lescott and Dzeko.  David De Gea could be faulted for both – particularly Dzeko’s long-range piledriver, where he was slow going down and was beaten by the pace of the shot.

0-2 at half-time, so no surprise that Fergie withdrew the plodding Carrick in favour of Tom Cleverley, but some surprise that Johnny Evans and Phil Jones were introduced in place of Ferdinand and Vidic.  Things began to improve almost at once, with Cleverley seizing the moment to increase the tempo and rhythm of United’s midfield exchanges and Jones looking assured at the back.

Chris Smalling got forward to steer home Ashley Young’s beautifully-flighted free-kick after 52 minutes, and just six minutes later United produced the move of the game, with the ball zipping to and fro between Rooney, Cleverley and Nani before the Portuguese winger clipped the ball over the advancing Hart from a tight angle to bring United level.

Chris Smalling scores to bring  United back into the game.

The final half-hour was tense and tight as City fought back.  Substitute Adam Johnson forced De Gea to beat away his powerful shot whilst  at the other end, Welbeck and the mobile Rooney continued to pressurise City’s defence, with Cleverley prompting from midfield and Nani threatening to cut through on more than one occasion.

With a penalty shootout looming, City fans would no doubt have been dreading one of United’s trademark eleventh hour killer goals, so it’s gratifying for me to be able to report that they got exactly that in the final minute of added time.  City won a free-kick on the right touchline just inside the United half.  As it came sailing in, the ball dropped to Wayne Rooney and he fairly leathered it upfield.  The covering defender was City’s captain and defensive rock, Vincent Kompany, but he took too long to control Rooney’s clearance allowing Nani to close him down.  Kompany’s attempted clearance ricocheted off Nani’s knee and United’s # 17 was away, rounding Hart with ease before sliding the ball into an empty net.  There was barely time for City to kick off again before Phil Dowd blew the final whistle.

Nani leaves Joe Hart sprawling as he races through to score the decisive goal at Wembley.

Of course, it was only a fairly meaningless pre-season ‘friendly’, but United’s fans will gleefully point out that City lost to a similar late goal from Michael Owen  in a League game at Old Trafford the season before last and will also bask in the joy of recovering and overturning  a two-goal deficit at a ground that has not been that lucky for us in recent years.   It also extends and reinforces the mythical status of United’s apparent ability to rescue lost causes with late goals that really began with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s immortal winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final and has gathered pace ever since.

For the fans, the bragging rights are re-adjusted, at least until the teams meet again in the Premier League.  For the coaches, Fergie will have walked away from Wembley with much satisfaction at the growing assurance being shown by some of the new young players he is bringing through, most of whom – apart from De Gea - did a great deal to enhance their growing reputations.  Roberto Mancini will no doubt reflect that his team were pretty thoroughly outplayed today and that City still have some way to go before they can really stand toe to toe with their illustrious neighbours.

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