Manchester United 1 Chelsea 1 comment: Glimpses of the old United slowly being restored

Van Gaal changed his ways in an attempt  to make some headway and it worked

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The Independent Football

Manchester United will tomorrow stage one of their glitzy corporate sponsorship events to celebrate their “official timekeeper” and there is some significance about that. A late goal to send Old Trafford into a state of delirium and a chest-thumping Robin van Persie ripping off his shirt suggest a little of the old times has been restored to a team which had not managed a goal after a game’s 62nd minute before this week. They have now salvaged two late draws in the space of six days.

Of course, scorelines don’t always tell the full story. The state of delirium revealed a stadium and a striker who could barely believe what they had got away with. The equaliser preserved United from the ignominy of a 13-point deficit with the leaders but the 11-point deficit doesn’t quite explain the full gulf in class. There is still cause to reflect on the consequences of United’s decision to look beyond Jose Mourinho after their manager’s seat fell vacant 18 months ago, when he would actually have given the earth to call this stadium his own.

The goal which had seemed decisive underlined that. Louis van Gaal has spent £150m for his mission to re-teach United to play with their “brain not their feet” yet Mourinho only needed to reach for the tried and tested: the 36-year-old striker whose return has been sneered at bit. Didier Drogba demonstrated in the instant it took him to rise and head in the goal – the nudge in Rafael da Silva’s back, the powering leap which the defender hardly bothered attempting to match – that it was not Mourinho sentiment that brought him back to Stamford Bridge.

And after he had struck, United barely ventured back into the game before the faintest clip imaginable on Angel di Maria earned them the free kick and the dismissal of Branislav Ivanovic – absent when needed to meet the decisive aerial challenge of Marouane Fellaini. All of the game’s electricity came from Eden Hazard. Mourinho would not talk about that freekick. He really didn’t need to.


But there was more than the customary post-match propaganda about Van Gaal’s suggestion that some belief is restored to this group of players. He told a story on Sunday night of how he had laid instructions for Saturday evening’s Clasico match to be screened at the team base - Manchester’s Lowry Hotel – and his delight that 17 out of the 18 squad members had turned up. “I have never had that experience before,” he reflected. They look like a group who can watch such a match without fear. United have accumulated one point fewer after nine games of this season than the corresponding number under David Moyes but their first half performance – ambitious and never meek – placed them in a different class to those desperate days of last winter.

In the lifeless goalless draw between these sides last season, United were locked in a survival mode. Here, for 45 minutes, there was purpose: Luke Shaw doubling up with Adnan Januzaj down a left flank where Ivanovic was besieged.

There was pragmatism in the midst of all that. Fellaini is not the type of player Van Gaal has ever had much call upon and when he summoned him to his office before the season started and said ‘start again’, there was no great optimism in the manager’s mind that it would work out. But he was a necessary accoutrement to this team – a player added to quell Cesc Fabregas’ distribution, which to a point he did, and to add aerial strength in a defence which Van Gaal feels always seems to be smaller than the opposition’s. He was also an aide to Daley Blind who lacked the pace to contend with Chelsea’s attacking impetus at times.  It means that United’s first half was bright, overall. Di Maria might have set it off on a positive course if he had buried a crystal clear chance in the opening moments, when Juan Mata floated a ball which Fellaini had just foraged out of a congested area. It was not a defining afternoon for Britain’s most expensive footballer.

drogba-goal.jpgThe defensive errors which have stalked Van Gaal through the early months of this season were never far away. Rafael and Chris Smalling have never looked to be of the standard that Sir Alex Ferguson proclaimed them to be. Why 5ft 8in Rafael was billeted to mark Drogba on the right side of the six-yard box, rather than the taller Van Persie, was a mystery which the manager did not resolve when he declared after the match that “you can be tall and [still] not defend.” Van Persie, back on the goalline, should have dealt with the header, too.

Van Gaal looked marginally the more anxious of the two – the one watching his back - on Sunday night. “I don’t know what he has said…” he said, suspiciously, after following Mourinho in to the press conference room, probably expecting to be told that the younger man had asked where the justice had been in United’s equaliser. Mourinho had actually been the soul of tact. “What’s the difference [between us and them]?” he replied when asked if United can still win the title. “Ten points? Then yes….” But they cannot and will not overhaul them. For United, some old qualities are restored. For Chelsea, the indomitable march will go on. They are in a different league.