Knives were being sharpened. The hounds on twitter were barking and frothing at the mouth. Fingers were poised over keyboards, tablets and smart phones ready – hoping, more like it – to spell yet further doom in this newest and most joyously vulnerable iteration of Manchester United.
Everyone so wanted Chelsea to roll into the Theatre of Dreams and heap more misery upon us.
There was a palpable anticipation that this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut would steamroll over the top of a hapless, lost and hopelessly outmatched shadow of a once great giant of the game.
Scratch anticipation, it was expectation that hung over the Salford Quays. ‘How many will Chelsea put past this lot?’ the online “inferiorati” guffawed.
I’m happy to say that any savage condemnation and damning to mid-table mediocrity for all eternity will have to wait another week.
It was a match that started and ended in frenetic fashion and, most pleasingly, for the first time in what feels like an inexcusably long time Manchester United were at ease going toe-to-toe with a well-credentialed opponent.
There was no apparent apprehension as to how we’d approach the contest, nor was there a build-up full of mismanaged and mangled motivations.
Louis Van Gaal broke from convention by not promising the press that we’d “make it hard for them,” because he understands that’s the minimum expectation of any visiting side to Old Trafford.
Chris Smalling was assured at centre-half, though I was as relieved as he would’ve been that we were spared the rather worrying test of Diego Costa.
David De Gea continues to wow, his ascent to “world class” validated by an utterly spectacular save to deny Eden Hazard, a stop that unfortunately and unfairly counted for nowt not thirty seconds after it was made.
Adnan Januzaj looked like the player we saw for most of last season, where his form lit up many a dark Red Devils performance. He was direct, played with pace and looked lively in a rather decent first half. For the first time in what has to date been a trying season there was a purpose to his game.
Luke Shaw was steady without being spectacular. His awareness, positional sense and work rate all worthy of commendation following a couple of naïve early showings in red.
Marouane Fellaini looked vaguely like the player we thought we’d bought just over fourteen months ago. Tasked with nullifying the resplendent talents of Chelsea puppeteer Cesc Fabregas he won his duel hands down.
The Spaniard was unable to provide any of the drive upon which Chelsea have built their most impressive displays, something which was down almost exclusively to the big, bruising Belgian.
We need to remind ourselves any renaissance of the giant man with the giant hair, pointy elbows and sometimes awkward feet accounts for a mere one-hundred and thirty-five minutes of playing time. Caution need be observed before any premature congratulations, but already he’s been more comfortable, effective and worthwhile than all of last season.
Only problem? Juan Mata is looking less and less like the player we need.
Wayne Rooney’s remarkable brain snap, a careless and wholly unnecessary scything down of Stewart Downing, seemed a short-term solution to what loomed as a pressing puzzle.
How do Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Robin Van Persie and Juan Mata function in the same line up?
Do we sacrifice the natural abilities and inclinations of one or more to shoehorn them all into the same front line? Do we compromise on the functions and demands of specialist positions – Rooney or Mata out wide – so to cram as much top-tier talent as possible into the one area, cross our fingers, close our eyes and hope it clicks?
They all do their best work centrally, something they’ve established over long and profitable careers operating through the middle of attack.
Only Rooney, who surrendered many of his own strengths to selflessly accommodate the emerging phenom of Ronaldo, has truly excelled so far removed from the comfort and security of his preferred role.
With Falcao unable to take his place – disappointing given his one-man hatchet job on Chelsea in the 2012 Super Cup – and Rooney serving the final game of his three-match suspension, Mata had an opportunity to prove his quality.
It was an opportunity to prove he is not a luxury item, but an essential part of this side.
Unfortunately he was unable to press his claim.
At the moment he’s not the milk and bread. He’s the box of Cornetto’s you pick up as a treat for later.
He existed on the periphery of the game for the most part, an early and exquisite pass to find Di Maria on his own in the box, was his only notable contribution when on the ball.
Maybe it was just one of those nights that good players have. You know the sort, where try as they might they just can’t find the right groove. Perhaps, but it wasn’t a one-off showing, was it.
[su_box title=”Square Pegs, Round Holes” style=”noise” box_color=”#da170f” title_color=”#29322a”]Juan Mata has scored 8 goals in 21 league appearances for Manchester United since joining from Chelsea for a fee of £37.1m in January this year.[/su_box]
Credit to him, Mata never stopped working, tracking back and doing his bit when we weren’t in possession – though that might have more to do with Mourinho’s criticisms of his willingness to do so.
Given his three-match audition in the absence of United’s skipper, a chance that was precisely what he needed to play where he wanted and influence games as we know he can, one cannot say he grasped the opportunity offered to him.
Tepid displays against both Everton and West Brom weren’t what he needed, with last night the third strike that will surely result in a return to the bench, at least in the short term.
He lacked the creativity and ingenuity that is his trademark in all three outings, often opting to go sideways or backwards rather than go for the opposition’s jugular. He was no more a threat to our Premier League rivals than I was sat at home on the couch.
Maybe that’s a bit nasty, it’s not that Juan Mata is incapable of playing good football for Manchester United. We’ve seen him do it. It’s just disappointing to reflect on his form during a period in which he had every possible incentive to step up and deliver.
In the end he’s struck out looking when he should’ve been swinging for the fences.
There’s no way known the man who made his name wearing number 8 for United will have lost any sleep watching the incumbent wearer of that jersey over the past few weeks.
I hate lowering myself to baseless, unsubstantiated speculation, but if reports are to be believed and a player the ilk of Arturo Vidal or Kevin Strootman, something we genuinely need, could be secured in exchange for Mata it’s something we need to consider.
Not because the Spaniard isn’t a brilliant footballer, but because he’s not what we need to get better and to where we need to go. It could be a more expensive manifestation of the curse of Kagawa, but more than ever football is a brutal business and one must be ruthless if they want to reach the summit.
Written by Sean Peter-Budge.