Give up while we’re ahead

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Latics 1-2 Manchester United
Saturday 14th October 2006

For the first 15 minutes of this game Paul Jewell must have been pleased. His side looked like they finally understood what he’d been trying to tell them for the last 3 months. They pushed and pressured United in every part of the pitch, were direct without being long and, most of all, took the game to their opponents. For that first quarter of an hour it was almost like last season all over again, but then the real Manchester United stood up.


The man of the moment ahead of this game was Leighton Baines. His performances for England U21s had won him plaudits and triggering speculation of a call up from Steve McClaren for the trip to Amsterdam in November. Just to underline the point Baines rattled in his first Premier League goal, only the third of his career, within five minutes of the start. Evra’s handball 30 yards out provided Latics with an early chance to surprise United, and it was Baines that made the most of it, his straight rising shot evading Scholes’ block and beating Van der Sar through sheer force.

If that was the wake up call for United they must have knocked the alarm onto snooze. Latics continued as they’d started and although there were hardly a flood of chances, Landzaat, De Zeeuw and Scharner all had reasonable opportunities to extend the lead. It was only after the ‘out of form’ (my backside) Rooney rattled Kirkland’s crossbar that United started to take the game seriously.

Once Alex Ferguson’s men shook off the early kick off cobwebs there was a feeling of inevitability about proceedings. Rooney’s influence started to grow as he covered every blade of grass to cajole his team mates into following his example. Latics were coping with that but it was more manful struggle than measured response. As the United threat grow, the home team withdrew into their collective shell and the defence became quicker to fall back and slower to spring forward with every successive attack.

When the break finally came Latics were still, possibly, value for their 1-0 lead. United had most of the possession but chances had been restricted, Latics had spent much of the half on the back foot, but without significant cause for panic.

The second half saw the introduction of Ryan Giggs and a switch to 4-4-2 for the visitors and it worked. Latics had no response to either United’s skill or hunger and on the face of it simply gave up. Possession and position were conceded too easily as panic and basic mistakes became the pattern of play. Within 5 minutes of the restart, despite still holding the lead, Latics looked a beaten side.

What little of the initiative remained with Paul Jewell’s men evaporated when Lee McCulloch replaced Henri Camara. A move designed to shore up the midfield, but one that failed. Shortly after came the four minutes that killed the game. First with Vidic’s header (another player to score his first against Latics?) and then with Saha’s superbly taken finish United delivered the sucker punches that delivered the result and allowed them to relax and think of Europe.

There had been little threat from the Blues since the early exchanges and so it continued. The only question that remained was whether the result would become embarrassing. In the end the answer was no, but not really from any effort on Latics’ part. United had clearly eased up following their second goal and were still able to cope with the efforts of a side that looked lost. The game was wrapped up in injury time when the visitors’ best players on the day combined to make it 13 goals conceded in the 4 games between the two sides. Rooney’s ball setting up Solskjaer to stumble into the box and slot past a wrong footed Kirkland.

How many games hinge on the half-time team talks? In Latics’ case it seems that it’s every one. How many times a season do we see a poor half followed by a good one? Not as many as we see a good half followed by a poor one. Whatever Jewell had to say, it was no match for Fergie’s hairdryer and almost straight from kick off you knew the game was only going one way.

The 16 or so thousand home fans might have left the JJB with a bad taste in their mouth, but the second half capitulation masked some positives. The opening suggested that Latics are capable of performing at the level of last season, the 30 minutes that they’re capable of holding good teams.

As much as the first half showed promise the second was disappointing. At no stage last season, not even at 4-0 down at Old Trafford and Cardiff, could ever say that Latics gave up. Ok so the opposition here could end up winning the title and the result is nothing to be ashamed of, but once they hit top speed too many royal blue shirts slumped at the shoulders too quickly, when you look for the man to drag them out of the trough there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the pitch.

Maybe that does the team a disservice, but can anyone tell me that they see it differently? The excuses are over for a few weeks, there’s a clear run of games and against teams that Latics could reasonably expect to get some points from. These are the games that will define the prospects come may and decide how strong a hand Paul Jewell has to play once the market reopens.

If they can match Saturday’s first half performance in those games, then the plaudits will be out again come December and the frustration that we’re feeling now will be forgotten. Let’s not think about the alternatives!

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