Blanc's spell curses United

All but Barthez at fault in abject display by champions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the blue half of Manchester, they had been awaiting the result at Old Trafford for alphabetical reasons as well as the chance to revel in red misfortune.

Take the first letter of the teams Manchester United have lost to this season in the Premiership – Bolton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea – and it makes... You can work it out yourself.

Yesterday, Laurent Blanc was a reason for United's fifth domestic reverse in Sir Alex Ferguson's long goodbye, but he was not alone. David Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud van Nistelrooy, you name it, they underperformed miserably in a display that had a poverty of slum dimensions.

The statistics as well as the performance were damning. No team has lost five games before Christmas and won the Premiership, and the last time United lost 3-0 at home in the League was August 1992.

"Every team makes errors but we are making a habit of it this season. It's becoming our Achilles' heel," Ferguson warned in the programme. "I can certainly tell you that those involved have put their hands up in the privacy of the dressing room."

Yesterday, so many hands were up in the air that Old Trafford looked like a class of incontinent infants.

Ferguson said he would not name the guilty in print, but he did so by omission. He dropped Gary Neville and Mickael Silvestre, a simple response to a woeful display at Highbury six days earlier but one that carried a heavy admission of the problems that beleaguer his team.

To bolster a defence so feeble it barely deserves the description, Roy Keane, arguably the best enforcing midfield player in Europe, was withdrawn to the rearguard and Wes Brown pushed out to full-back. The difference was negligible.

Keane was magnificent, the embodiment of snarling obduracy, but around him the back four were a shambles. Brown was away from the heat of the defence's core but he had not escaped his errors and his distribution was dreadful. His positioning, too, was suspect and Graeme Le Saux had half a pitch to play with in the build-up to the corner for Chelsea's first goal.

To be fair to Brown, who began the season regarded as one of England's finest young defenders, he could have been drawn inside to cover Blanc. The latter's lack of pace means he has to drop so far off opposing strikers they can turn at their leisure. At times, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen were so far from any markers it was difficult to know whom to blame.

But if Keane could not bring order to defence, his absence in United's midfield left a chasm. Beckham was drawn like a lovesick youth to the shoulder of Celestine Babayaro, and was more of a liability for straying offside than a force for creativity.

It was difficult to remember more than two crosses from his flank. The contrast between this display and the dynamism of his appearances for England was so stark it was surprising Ferguson's patience lasted 75 minutes before deciding to substitute him.

Veron, meanwhile, was confirming a growing suspicion that glorious gifts can sometimes harm if they cannot be assimilated. United spent £28m for him to be the conductor in a team of virtuosi but, if he had picked up a baton yesterday, he would have dropped it. It was his mistake, a hopelessly optimistic pass, that gave Hasselbaink the chance to put Chelsea 2-0 ahead.

The visiting supporters were in their element. "Are you Tottenham in disguise?" they asked, supplementing their scorn with, "You should have gone on strike".

There was only one crumb of comfort for United. Fabien Barthez, the clown of Highbury, was exemplary.

Comments