If ever a game showed how far we have got to go before we can realistically challenge for the title, this was it. We were comprehensively outplayed in every area of the park. Not only outplayed, but out-thought and out-fought. In every aspect we were second best. After the game, John Terry said that he was so embarrassed that he could not wait for the final whistle so he could get off the park quickly. The fans felt the same way, with the Matthew Harding upper emptying fast.
To be honest, we have played poorly all month. Even the wins against Derby and Everton were unconvincing, while the draws at Ipswich and Blackburn further served to demonstrate our brittle spine and woeful lack of creativity. Ranieri’s got a busy summer ahead and he is going to have to pull more than a rabbit out of the hat to make us more than rank outsiders. At the moment we are forever living in the shadow of Arsenal and United and are in danger of becoming the Premiership equivalent of Serie A’s Parma — perennial underachievers. Where have we heard that before?
This game started off brightly. With a full house in hearty voice despite the ridiculous midday kick-off time, the Blues attacked the Shed End. For the first ten minutes we were all over United like a rash and although our final ball let us down it seemed that there would eventually be only one winner — us. Our passing was crisp, our movement fluid and our wing play a menacing threat.
On the eleventh minute, Ferguson changed tactics. Instead of a compact 4-4-2, he spread the midfield and defence as wide as possible to counter our wing play. This tactical change effectively destroyed us as an attacking unit. With two red shirts seconded to Gronkjaer every time he got the ball, Jesper faded into obscurity. On the opposite wing, the incredulous appearance of Zola as a winger was made to look even more laughable as Gary Neville and Nicky Butt marked him out of the game. With Blanc and Brown easily mopping up the frustrated long balls that were pinged towards Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen, we died a slow and tortuous death.
Ferguson’s tactics have been the same for years and it seems strange that other managers have not copied his style. Man United are a well-organised and well-drilled unit that plays like a team — when the opposition has the ball, the red shirts hunt in packs to reclaim possession. Two players are placed on each winger rendering them useless. Two strings of four players are then placed behind the ball, making penetrative passing nigh impossible. Then, with Giggs, Van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer and Scholes ready on the counter attack, United put the opposition to the sword for a quick kill.
And so it came to pass. On the 16th minute, a free-kick was pushed inside to Scholes who cracked a thirty-yard drive into Cudicini’s corner. It was a clever free-kick and quite simply a world-class goal, although the wall could have done better.
With the crowd silenced and the Blues’ heads dropping, United played the rest of the first half at a canter. They were different class and just before half time a quick counter saw Van Nistelrooy steal in behind the defence to make it 2-0. That was after Cudicini had already saved another one-on-one against the Dutchman.
You might at this point ask where Jimmy and Eidur were. Answers on a postcard please, because they did not have a shot between them all game. At half-time, Ranieri made the only substitution he could — Zenden on the wing with Zola moved inside to partner Jimmy (with Eidur hauled off). It had all the impact of a tea bun thrown at an Israeli tank — pathetic.
The second half became a more painful display of United’s dominance. They pinged the ball around at will with Nicky Butt outstanding. The Reds finished us off late in the game when another quick breakaway saw Giggs thread the ball to Solskjaer who tapped into the net.
On this display, United could win the European Cup. On this display, Chelsea could win, well, sweet FA.