Portsmouth 0, Manchester United 1: Fletcher's golden goal for flair-free United keeps Pompey in basement
Tuesday 26 August 2008
As his prospective transfer reaches that unpleasant endgame where threats are made and conditions are set, Dimitar Berbatov can rest easy in the knowledge that Manchester United are demonstrating how much they need him with every match they play. Wanted at Old Trafford: one prolific striker capable of applying killer touch to free-flowing attacking football.
United's first win of the season was a game that they dominated but their winning goal was instantly forgettable: a hectic combination of Sol Campbell's heel, Darren Fletcher's thigh and Sylvain Distin's right boot propelled the ball into the Portsmouth net in an untidy fashion. There was no hiding the fact that without Cristiano Ronaldo this particular attacking ensemble are not capable of making quite the same racket they once did with the man who scored 42 goals last season.
Berbatov, of course, is no Ronaldo and there is still some way to go before Sir Alex Ferguson is welcoming him to Old Trafford. The United manager hinted yesterday that he believed his squad was good enough without any additions which may be a threat to Tottenham to cease their hard bargaining over Berbatov. "There is only a week to go in the transfer window so you start to concern yourself a bit," Ferguson said. "We have shown we have a good quality of player here and we would like to add to it obviously."
In the meantime, Ferguson is determined to make good on his promise to Wayne Rooney to play him as one of two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation although it is open to debate how long he will keep that up should Berbatov arrive soon. There was precious little in what Rooney did last night to suggest to Ferguson, or the watching Fabio Capello, that the England striker is capable of scoring the goals that the injured Ronaldo scored for this team last season.
Yet for the squandered chances in front of goal, there are still times when the only response to United is to sit back and admire them, although Portsmouth did their best to resist the temptation last night. Carlos Tevez was the visitors' outstanding player, and it was he who created the most around the Portsmouth area. Patrice Evra got behind Glen Johnson more than once and Paul Scholes was the pick of the midfielders. It should never have been in doubt as a result but there will be more anxious games than this while United struggle to score goals.
Starting the season against Chelsea and Manchester United was a tall order for Portsmouth although it is not the results that will give Harry Redknapp cause for concern, it is the nature of his new team that will nag away at him. In Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe, he has two expensive England strikers in his squad now and he wants to play them both although Portsmouth's success was founded last year on a durable 4-5-1 formation that was the cornerstone of their win in the FA Cup at Old Trafford.
Crouch got the worst of the decisions from referee Chris Foy last night, including one that led to the goal, although he also will have felt that the service from the wings was hardly the best. "We played one up last season and it suited us because we were hard to beat," Redknapp said. "Everyone else plays one up, United do, Chelsea play that way as well. I bought two strikers to play them together. Like everybody else in football I think that Defoe and Crouch are a good combination but only time will tell."
In his pre-match interview with Sky Sports, Redknapp unfortunately referred to Fratton Park as "Upton Park" which is another reason why the Pompey fans are finding it difficult to ignore the reports that Upton Park is exactly where the Portsmouth manager could be going if Alan Curbishley gets the sack. An innocent slip perhaps, but it does nothing to settle the nerves during a tricky start to the season.
Last night Redknapp also had to play centre-half Distin at left-back, and the new Arsenal loan signing Armand Traoré, a left-back, on the left side of midfield. His side started impressively with a shot on goal from Papa Bouba Diop within the space of ten seconds and they threw themselves at the visitors in the early stages with an energy that was all but exhausted by the second half. In those crucial early stages, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic kept them at bay.
Defoe and Crouch had been industrious, carving out one decent chance in the 25th minute when Defoe chipped a ball into his strike partner and Evra rescued the day for United with a late saving tackle. Younes Kaboul, restored to centre-back having made his debut against Chelsea in midfield, missed with a header from the resulting corner. But while Pompey failed to get behind the United full-backs, their opponents were too strong for Distin and Glen Johnson.
On 31 minutes, and deep in United's half, Crouch challenged Scholes where, for reasons best known to himself, the referee Foy gave United a free-kick. After a long sequence of passes, the ball was worked left and Tevez played in Evra behind Johnson. As the ball came into the area, Fletcher and Campbell lunged and the ball cannoned off the United man and beat David James. Distin tried to clear it on the line but failed. His was the last touch but the decisive ricochet came off Fletcher's leg.
It was in the second half that United's power shone through. This fixture was their second league game last season, a match which they drew and in which Ronaldo was sent off - not until their fourth match did they win a league game. "They are still perfectly capable of winning the league without Berbatov," Redknapp said. "I'm sure they will end up with Berbatov and be even stronger. There are two teams who will probably slug it out for the league title and we have played them both already. These two will be the teams to beat."
On Friday, United face Zenit St Petersburg in the European Super Cup final although you would not bet on Berbatov being in a red shirt by then. It will be a close run thing come the closing of the transfer window on Monday night but there can hardly be a greater priority at United at the moment.
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