Deep down I think we all knew after Craig Bellamy had scored his 90th minute equaliser, that the referee would give United as long as it took to score again.Ã‚Â And so it proved in the sixth minute of four minutes injury time. Probably just as well Owen scored then otherwise we could still be playing right up until Wednesday’s game with Fulham.
How often does a manager whose team are chasing the game in injury time feel confident enough to make a substitution, knowing that he’ll get extra time allowed for it? Only at Old Trafford.
The timekeepers can come up with justification for their extra extra time, with time for a goal celebration here and time for a substitution there, but it’s not normally applied in full. How long did Mr Atkinson allow for Owen’s celebration when City needed to score?
When it was introduced, the whole point of having the fourth official show the amount of added time was to remove the mystery of how long is left, and any resultant controversy about late goals. In this match it failed. It’s been suggested before that a separate official should be responsible for the time-keeping, as is the case in rugby. Apparently most referees back the idea. Timekeeping is an unnecessary distraction for the man in the middle. Displaying the remaining time on the video screens would add to the drama and remove the controversy.
Having got that off our chest, we can reflect on a game where Bellamy and Given were truly heroic. De Jong wasn’t far behind, but these performances and the three equalisers shouldn’t mask what was in many regards a disappointing performance. We started badly and in the second half reverted to the bad old days of being unable to retain possession.
There were questions to be asked about Mark Hughes’ second half tactics and substitutions. Whilst the gamble to play Tevez paid off in the first half, the Argentinian should surely have made way in the second when his lack of fitness was clearly apparent.
City were pinned back and desperately needed an outlet, but Tevez wasn’t able to provide it. Apparently he was about to come off when United scored their third. Hughes had left it to late. Petrov should have been brought on and Bellamy moved into the middle by the hour mark. Even after Bellamy’s second, it would have been worth taking off the Argentinian. His tired header conceded possession and led to the final goal.
David Pleat in The Guardian offers a good analysis of where we went wrong tactically in the second half. Moving Ireland to the left flank and leaving us under-manned in the middle isn’t something I’d like to see repeated when we’re under the cosh.
From the beginning we weren’t switched on and conceded territory even before the first goal. Richards had spent to long talking over the previous incident with Toure and was horribly out of position, unable to stop Evra. Even then it was unclear how Rooney’s footwork managed to account for both Toure and de Jong going to ground in an almost comic fashion.
The equaliser came out of the blue, when Foster failed to shepherd the ball back into his penalty area. Surely he would have known about Tevez’s harrying? Apparently not, and a nicely weighted pass from the Argentinian allowed Barry to do the honours. The former Villa man deserves credit for his finish as to often we’ve seen this kind of chance fluffed.
City took confidence from Foster’s gift and for the rest of the first half were able to give as good as they got. This culminated in Toure’s expert tackle of Rooney, surge forward and intelligent lay-off to Ireland. Stevie was aware of Tevez in a better position and the Argentinian only had Foster to beat. His big moment: he took a touch, and fired past the keeper… but not the post. Our chance to take the lead was gone. It would be unfair to say this miss cost us the match, given United’s domination of the second half.
Depressingly, United started the second half as they did the first, with a goal. Not for the last time, they easily worked a position to get in a cross from our right and Barry was outjumped by Fletcher for a simple header. Again it looked ominous, but again City struck back. Tevez laid the ball off to Bellamy who feinted to return it, before heading to the corner of the penalty area and unleashing a tremendous shot beyond Foster and into the top corner.
From then on it was one way traffic with City unable to retain possession and put together many meaningful moves. The central defence was having to deal with to many crosses and it was no surprise when Fletcher got a second. The blame this time could be attributed to Toure who didn’t get high enough to head clear.
Finally we had a substitution with Petrov making a belated appearance for the sacrificed de Jong. We started to show some improvement with Petrov flashing a ball across the face of the goal. A quicker reaction from Richards could have seen him steer it in. Our chance seemed to have gone, but Rio Ferdinand had other ideas. He gifted the ball to Petrov, who instantly released Bellamy. Ferdinand gave a futile chase, while Bellamy drove towards the six yard box, went past a diving Foster and just as it looked like he’d gone to far, turned the ball goalwards. Another brilliant strike from the Welsh captain.
90 minutes was up, but we know the rest, with some panicky defending culminating in Tevez conceding possession, and Giggs picking out an unmarked Owen to score. Questions can be asked of Toure and Richards as to who was supposed to be picking up the striker.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“In the end we feel really frustrated and, if it is not a too strong word, robbed because the ref has played seven minutes.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Craig Bellamy has finished on the losing side. He has scored two goals that will probably never be bettered in his career. To be on a losing side is very difficult for him and the team to take.”
“It always hurts to lose to a last-minute goal, especially after we looked like we would get a well-deserved point. Not many teams are going to come here and score three. We’ve made another statement by doing that.
“We deserve a lot of credit for that but at the same time we have to look at ourselves because we conceded four goals at the other end. We have to have a look at that, it’s obviously something we have to improve on.”
“There are no excuses. We are pros and we have to look at ourselves collectively and as individuals and realise that it just wasn’t good enough.
“We look at each other and we’ve made mistakes. We started the season with four clean sheets and now we’ve conceded goals. We have to correct that.”
City could take pride in coming back three times and only losing to a goal in the 96th minute, but there are also important lessons to be learned:
- Despite the clean sheets in the first three League matches the defending still needs to be tighter.
- Substitutions need to be made to head off danger, not left till after something has happened.
- The team-play of United when they attack is something we need to emulate. They always have players available. We were only dangerous on the break.
- The ability to mount sustained pressure until the opposition cracks. This has been a hallmark of Fergie’s success, and previously that of the great Liverpool sides. We can only do this once our team-play improves.
The upcoming Premier League games against West Ham and Villa will both be tough tests where we can see how well the lessons of this match have been learnt.