How do you want to play this? Shall we ignore the fact that there were two teams on the pitch and focus on United’s success or shall we give condescending praise to Latics for bothering to turn up? Well, the media seem to have both those angles covered well enough without me having to bother. They even seem to have boxed off the ‘United were lucky on the day’ angle, if not with as much seriousness as someone wearing blue tinted glasses may treat the refereeing decisions that went the way of the champions.
In reality, this was a game where Latics went toe-to-toe with Salford’s finest, gave a good account of themselves but never really caused the visitors any real difficulty. It’s not like we flattered to deceive the game was a fair reflection of both team’s abilities. In short, Latics are now a decent side, but to the same extent, nowhere near in the same class as United.
It’s the small things that make al the difference, the way that panic spread amongst the players when United were on the attack. Witness Paul Scharner’s attempt at a back heel and Boyce’s subsequent challenge for the penalty and the Austrian’s mad dash to cover a player leaving the bus wide gap for Rooney to slide Giggs in for the second.
Ok, so they could be put down to simple lapses in concentration, but from a side that hasn’t conceded at home in ages, they’re too much out of character to go unmentioned. Look at the finer detail and you’ll see even bigger differences and not just in the little flicks, from the likes of Scholes, Rooney and co, that you wouldn’t even dream of seeing from our lads.
If there was one moment that summed it up it was when, with Koumas nicely positioned twenty yards out, setting himself to shoot, Michael Carrick, one of United’s more pedestrian players, came from nowhere to nick the ball before Koumas had even completed his back swing. And that wasn’t a one off, three or four times, in similar positions, players in red shirts showed speed of thought to deny Latics chances, without having to resort to block tackles and panic defending.
Not that I’m on a down about that. United didn’t win the championship for no reason and the greatest compliment for Latics is that none of the United team or bench felt particularly comfortable with their position until they got their second. With Chelsea in the lead down in London, a bit of luck for Latics could easily have seen our neighbours potless.
As strange an end to the season as this was, any Latics celebrations clearly muted by the joy of the opposition, seeing the team in this context provided a nice footnote to proceedings, an opportunity to judge just “how far we have come” since the dark days of October/November. The verdict is a good, if worrying, one.
Latics now have the core of a squad that, with careful addition, could, at the very least, not have to bother with the relegation fight next season. A bit more creativity in midfield and a cutting edge up-front and we could be chasing Europe for at least some of the year. It might sound like nonsense, but such mid-table twiddlings would be a real step forward.
The worrying aspect is that Latics’ form in the second half of this term has brought attention to those very players that we would be relying on to achieve that stability. On this showing we probably won’t be getting any faxes from Old Trafford over the summer but history suggests that offers from the likes of City, Spurs or Villa might be equally hard to ignore for our paymasters.
It’s the way of the world for small teams like ours, you get through one battle and there’s another around the corner. Steve Bruce will have no time to rest on the laurels of his achievement, there might be a few weeks off for the players, but for the manager and his team next season has already begun.
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