The Reuters global sports blog
Two defeats and one scrappy draw amid a hat-trick of pitiful performances in as many heavyweight bouts showed in no uncertain terms just why Manchester United manager David Moyes lamented over a tough Premier League start for the English champions when the fixture list was drawn during the close-season.
Sunday’s comprehensive 4-1 drubbing by cross-town rivals City, which followed a 1-0 defeat at Liverpool and a tame goalless stalemate with Chelsea, exposed all the chinks in the armour of a squad who won their 20th league title last season thanks to the scoring prowess of Robin van Persie and the firm steering hand of Alex Ferguson.
Neither played any part in the derby.
The prolific Dutch striker pulled out with a groin strain while the trophy-laden Ferguson, who welcomed the prospect of no longer suffering by the touchline when he retired last season after 27 years in charge, must have felt at least some of the pain suffered by Moyes in what has become an extended baptism by fire for the former Everton manager.
After all, Ferguson hand-picked the fellow Scotsman for the job.
As my colleague Martyn Herman pointed out, only the long-standing winners’ mentality and the seemingly perennial ability to grind out results in the face of adversity papered over last season’s cracks at United, which have come down on the ill-prepared Moyes like a ton of bricks.
Manchester United fans, players and manager Alex Ferguson will no doubt be fuming for a few more days about the controversial nature of their Champions League defeat by Real Madrid before the club’s attention turns to Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
But even the referee’s decision to send off Nani when a booking seemed sufficient could not overshadow the graceful manner in which Cristiano Ronaldo handled the occasion of knocking out his former club at a ground where he is apparently still adored.
Former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said recently it was his dream to take over as manager at Old Trafford one day and if he fulfills it in the foreseeable future, the 39-year old Norwegian could coach a lethal finisher that is almost a carbon copy of himself from his playing days.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez made an immediate impact after joining United in the summer of 2010, helping the club to their 19th league title with more than just a few vital goals.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson rued what he called an unfortunate 3-2 defeat by Tottenham, United’s first to the North London side at Old Trafford since 1989, but the truth is that you can only ride your luck for so long.
Fortuitous wins against Southampton, Fulham, Galatasaray in their Champions League opener and especially at Liverpool, coupled with the opening day defeat at Everton, should have warned Ferguson that United’s relatively good start to the season belied their obvious weaknesses so effectively exposed by Spurs.
Frank Lampard said he never doubted Chelsea would win the penalty shootout against Bayern Munich in Saturday’s enthralling 2012 Champions League final, although they trailed in the spot kicks after Juan Mata’s early miss, while the hero of their astonishing victory Didier Drogba firmly believes it was Chelsea’s destiny to cover themselves in glory.
And rightly so one might add, having suffered an exact reverse four years ago on a rainy night in Moscow, which ended in agony for Chelsea after they were ahead in the penalty shootout against Manchester United only to see the elusive trophy snatched away by their Premier League rivals after John Terry’s barely believable miss.
If it was a last-gasp attempt by the wily and trophy-laden 70-year old Scot to outfox his Italian counterpart Roberto Mancini, it backfired spectacularly as United were second best throughout the contest and were lucky not to have lost by a bigger margin.
Still refusing to accept that his team are in the driving seat to win the title after overhauling an eight-point deficit to go top on goal difference with two games left, Mancini appears to have unnerved Ferguson with his pre-game rhetoric just as he emphatically won their tactical battle on the pitch.
Three weeks ago it seemed the Manchester derby would be little more than a dead rubber after City’s 1-0 defeat at Arsenal left champions United eight points clear at the top, in a commanding position to clinch their 20th league title and their fifth in the last six seasons.
But a rollercoaster Premier League title race produced yet another twist after United’s 1-0 loss at lowly Wigan, followed by a rip-roaring 4-4 home draw with Everton in which they threw away a two-goal lead late in the game, let City back into the title race after they had squandered a seven-point lead over United with their own dip in form.
Anyone who might have assumed the deteriorating form of English clubs in Europe since Manchester United won the 2008 Champions League resulted from a convergence of misfortunate circumstances such as tough draws or mounting injuries to key players has been emphatically refuted.
Come Thursday, the Premier League might be left without a single club to represent it in either the Champions League or the less fancied Europa League, where Manchester rivals City and United were not just beaten but also played off the park last week by rivals many of their fans will have considered second-class opposition.
The clock said 68 minutes, and no one at the Emirates Stadium in north London was looking at the action on the pitch as the fourth official held aloft his lit-up board to signal the re-introduction of Thierry Henry to English football.
Ten minutes later and he’d scored the game’s eventual winner. Comebacks don’t get this good this often.
There was the usual hushed silence and then sudden intake of breath heard in Nyon on Friday, though not for the Champions League Round of 16 draw but the first two ties of the Europa League Round of 32.
Holders Porto will play mega-rich Manchester City, they were the first two names out of the little plastic balls when UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino was finally able to open the second after Davor Suker had tried and failed, and Ajax Amsterdam will take on Manchester United.