Club Focus – Manchester United – Tough trip to Stoke after lacklustre cup performance

Sir Alex Ferguson elected to pick a completely different starting XI than that which started Sunday’s derby match for the visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Carling Cup on Wednesday evening. This may have been a so-called second string but no fewer than eight internationals started the game for United, with the likes of Michael Carrick, Nani, Michael Owen and Gary Neville all on the pitch from the beginning. Tomas Kuszczak replaced Ben Foster in goal and the exciting young prospects Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda – following their recent international commitments – took their places in an attacking line up.

Following the dismissal of Fabio da Silva after half an hour of the encounter for a professional foul on Michael Kightly – one which the only complaint in the United camp was from Neville that the young Brazilian didn’t leave the pitch quick enough – United were forced to withdraw Macheda for Ritchie de Laet to provide the extra defensive cover. It began to look more of an uphill task for the Red Devils but in truth Wolves never came at them until the introduction of Kevin Doyle late on. It was a lacklustre performance from United and took one moment of magic with Welbeck and Owen exchanging a one-two, enabling the 18-year-old to slot coolly past Marcus Hahnemann. It was a well taken goal by Welbeck, but was his only real bright moment of a frustrating performance.

Another player who often frustrates the United faithful is Polish stopper Kuszczak and the Wolves match proved no different. His shot stopping is fantastic which he again proved, saving acrobatically from former United player David Jones in the first half, but it is the problems he has in commanding his area which are so frustrating. The former West Brom man did not come to collect or even challenge for one corner all evening, electing to stay on his line. This lead to the midlanders causing United problems from set plays with a great chance falling to George Elokobi. Kuszczak is rumoured to be in line for a start in Saturday’s trip to Stoke after Ben Foster’s glaring errors against Manchester City and if this is so he must be ready to face a barrage of crosses and long throws flying into his six-yard box. Dealing with these situations is the weakest part of his game and so the communication will have to be spot on between him, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand for United to come away with a clean sheet.

Ferdinand was an unused substitute against Wolves following his second outing of the season against City at the weekend. He has struggled with injuries of late and his inability to play two games on the bounce is frustrating his club manager who made the comment that he has “one game back and picks up another injury when he really needs more games”. In fact, the 30-year-old has only appeared in 30 of the past 52 matches for both club and country which is a worrying statistic for all United fans. It is likely that he will start against Stoke with his manager hoping he can come through this match unscathed. Jonny Evans has been a more than capable replacement with many believing he may be further on in his development than Rio was at the same age. But it is imperative for United to keep both Ferdinand and Vidic fit and playing together regularly as they are arguably the best defensive partnership in Europe.

United did not defend well at all against City with the manner of the win overshadowing many of the problems at the back. Each of the Sky Blues’ goals came from individual errors from United and could have been avoided. The pivotal axis on which United claimed last season’s championship was the form of the back five culminating in the long run without conceding. Although Evans was present in many of these games, the Ferdinand and Vidic partnership will need to be kept together regularly and with Edwin van der Sar expected to be fit for the home game against Sunderland on Saturday week, keeping these three together on the pitch will be extremely valuable to a successful campaign.

The forgotten man of Old Trafford, Owen Hargreaves, has been spotted back in training at Carrington this week and may be in line for full fitness by November. The Canadian-born midfielder has been in America in the hands of famous knee expert Dr Richard Steadman in a bid to recover from a long term tendonitis problem. In his first season, Hargreaves forged a strong early partnership with Anderson and was later used on the right hand side of midfield fully utilising his pace, energy and fantastic cross. Sir Alex has named him in the Champions League squad highlighting his importance to the side and it is in this wide role where we may see him flourish as he offers more going forward than the likes of Park Ji-Sung and is extremely adept at protecting the full-back behind him. All United fans will be wishing him a speedy recovery to full fitness and a regular place in the first team.

Manchester United Club Focus

Welcome to Manchester, Michael – July 29
Goals from midfield the order of the day – August 5
Respect the consistency – August 12
Injury plague piles pressure on forwards – August 18
Usual slow starters living up to their reputation but is there cause for concern? – August 22
Enter the Champions – August 25
Anderson and Vidic pledge their allegiance – August 28
Win fails to hide Rooney’s need for a wingman – September 1
Ferguson sticking to his guns – September 4
Fingers pointed towards Old Trafford – September 8
Legal issues and a tough trip to north London – September 11
The two sides of Paul Scholes – September 15
A win in Turkey and a derby day to come – September 18
Fletcher revels in the “best derby of all time” – September 22
Tough trip to Stoke after lacklustre cup performance – September 25

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