With only two Premier League encounters played this weekend Manchester United will be cursing what was clearly a missed opportunity. Provided with the chance of going top on the first Premier League weekend of the year this should have been an opportunity to be relished.
What was in fact witnessed was a performance again lacking in quality and an admission that a draw in a must win game was enough. We cannot take anything away from Birmingham City who are on a fantastic run of form with their manager Alex McLeish taking much of the credit for this. They have had good recent results including draws at home to Chelsea and away at Anfield and currently sit level on points with the Merseyside club. On the face of it a draw in this fixture may not be a bad result. The huge problem however is the context of the result. Following the nature of the loss in the FA Cup this was the first real opportunity for United to show that was just a freak result and that they still have what it takes to mount a serious challenge on the Premier League title.
However, after some good play by Wayne Rooney early on United looked bereft of ideas up front and allowed Birmingham back into the game which provided them with their goal not long before half-time. Two forwards who are yet to prove themselves as truly Premier League class were able to bully the centre half partnership of Jonny Evans and Wes Brown. It is correct to say that these two players, especially in the case of Evans, have been struggling with injury but two international footballers of their talent should be coping much better when challenges of this nature are placed in front of them. The longer United continue without either Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand in the starting line up the more unlikely the prospect of another Premier League trophy remains.
Rooney again deserves mention for his industry and graft but he was all too often isolated as the lone striker. Many newspaper reports following the match felt that Dimitar Berbatov had been dropped following the Leeds match but it has subsequently been confirmed he was missing due to injury. Whether the Bulgarian would have started the match if fit is a question that is open for serious debate. Berbatov has only managed six goals all season and despite being hampered by injury has still managed 23 appearances. This return is simply not good enough considering the transfer fee paid for the Bulgarian. In what is his second season at this club and fourth in the Premier League in total his form has simply been too inconsistent for a club of this stature.
The other striking option available to Sir Alex Ferguson is Michael Owen a man who seems to have lost the trust of his manager. When bringing the former Liverpool man to the club Sir Alex highlighted the potential that he can bring in terms of goal scoring coming from the bench and when squad rotation is required. In recent weeks the Scot has highlighted the inability of Owen and Rooney to play together and has often chosen Danny Welbeck as the first choice attacking substitute and even to start games over Owen – although Welbeck did play on the left against Leeds. Owen was again an unused substitute leaving him frustrated as to where his next opportunity may come from.
With the lack of a partner for Rooney Sir Alex elected to provide the support from the wide areas again, a tactic that showed much promise in early December. The problem against Birmingham however, was the omission of Ryan Giggs. Giggs has not featured consistently of late which is more down to his age and injury concerns than his form with Ferguson clearly feeling he needs to keep his star fresh for the end of season run in. This may be the case but with the recent performances United need him now. Ji Sung Park is a willing worker and has done well in his United career often picked for the defensive cover which he provides but when a real attacking performance is needed he is often lacking.
The trio of Giggs, Rooney and Antonio Valencia combined extremely well when United looked to be hitting some form last month and it has been no surprise that United’s recent form has dipped when these three have been kept apart. With Berbatov likely to miss this weekend’s encounter at home to Burnley due to an exploratory operation it is imperative that Giggs is on the pitch from the start. A draw in this match should not have been a good result as nothing other than a win was required to remind the rest of the Premier League that this United side are in fact true Champions and can still stake a claim for another Premier League title. What in fact was witnessed was another poor performance and an admission that to come away with a result that was clearly lacking was enough.