Michael Laudrup paused to consider an appropriate response to the eye-raising suggestion, which Sir Alex Ferguson had just offered outside, that one of the Swansea City defenders could have killed Robin van Persie with what had appeared to be an unintentional clearance into the back of his head. "With the ball?" Laudrup replied. "Well I don't think he meant killing him, literally. We all know that when your pulse is 180 you can say things during the game you don't mean."
And in that moment you gave thanks for the cultured dignity of the Swansea City manager because another of those post-match verbal guerilla wars, which Ferguson is good at instigating when his team haven't played terribly well, should not have overshadowed an afternoon of very fine football. United hit the woodwork twice and ultimately looked like they might take the points but Swansea ran things beautifully for a good half-hour or so, either side of the break, and emerged the moral victors.
It was like a scene from the Alamo by the end, with Laudrup's prize goalscoring possession, the new Premier League top scorer Michu, camped back protecting midfield in the rearguard, as Ryan Giggs's 15-minute substitute's cameo threatened to unlock for United what Gareth Barry had delivered at the death for Manchester City 24 hours earlier. But it was that period of Swansea predominance which lingered in the mind last night, when the stadium lay deserted and the rugby posts were immediately erected for the next fixture at this remarkable haven of sporting industry. Wayne Routledge, Jonathan de Guzman, Kemy Agustien and Leon Britton provided a quality in midfield which at times pulled Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick apart. It was just puzzling, having also taken points from Chelsea and Liverpool and beaten Arsenal, that Laudrup should remain in such survivalist mode, speaking last night of the next match at Reading as the one that counts.
Ferguson had never even heard of Michu when Laudrup picked him up from Rayo Vallecano in the summer and joked before the game that he was going to "have a word with the scouting department". He wasn't the only one who knew a little more by the time United's team bus swung out of town. Nemanja Vidic, starting his first game since September, had a very uncomfortable first 15 minutes with the Spaniard in tow and was twice chasing in his tracks as Agustien – who delivers a 40-yard pass with remarkable consistency – sent him through.
United had begun to run the game by the time Patrice Evra put them ahead, capitalising on Laudrup's side's serial weakness from set pieces to lay his head on a corner which Ben Davies missed. But the Swansea team so daunted by Ferguson's players here a year ago were just not in evidence and the United defence, whose vulnerability Laudrup had alluded to on Friday, certainly was. Another trademark searching pass from Agustien – excellent in his first start since a serious car crash – was spun off by Routledge for De Guzman, unmarked, whose shot was blocked straight for Michu, unmarked, to tap home the equaliser. Vidic's return has been long-awaited but it does not offer defensive guarantees.
United's desire to retain the six-point Christmas advantage, which they have only twice bettered in Ferguson's 26 years at Old Trafford, was set against the quality and boldness of Swansea's football. It turned what followed into something like a pinball game, in a mesmerising second half. Only in the last 15 minutes did a late United winner begin to assume that old inevitability. The bold move to withdraw the excellent Britton, for Ki Sung-yueng, didn't seem to help Laudrup much because Agustien struggled with the additional responsibility. Ferguson played his part, too, sending in Giggs to make an immediate creative impact, but it was a mark of United's frustration on an afternoon when they were fractious and generally out of sorts that Ashley Williams's clearance into the prone figure of Van Persie caused all hell to let loose. Van Persie, who immediately tried to tear strips out of the Welsh defender's shirt, was also justifiably booked by referee Michael Oliver, whose handling of the game rendered Ferguson's subsequent barbs about his youth deeply unreasonable. Oliver is 27 years old.
Wayne Rooney, rampaging around the fray and already cautioned, was withdrawn minutes later for his own good after a very poor afternoon. There was not exactly mutual warmth between player and manager when he left, Ferguson having already raged at the striker's squandering of a good second-half chance. Williams's emotions – he punched the air after the free-kick which followed the melee was blocked – were more of a force for good.
Williams was also pivotal to the doughty Swansea resistance as United poured men forward in liquid pursuit of the elusive winner – and Chico Flores even more. United also now know a bit more about that particular Spaniard – another good piece of summer business by Laudrup.
United's cause was helped by Swansea's determination to contribute to their demise after that by frequently gifting easy possession. But Paul Scholes couldn't add anything to the onslaught. He managed to look poor and get booked, despite arriving as late as the 86th minute, while Laudrup's players held out. "We absolutely battered them and we are very unlucky," Ferguson said last night, though no one had heard that interpretation of the game in time to put it to Laudrup. It is hard to imagine he would have graced it with much of a response.
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