Rangers' rope-a-dope approach fails as Reds lurch into life
On a day when the main focus of attention was a man sitting in the main stand, overcoat turned up against the Manchester weather, Manchester United reminded us that there was also the small matter of the Premier League leadership to play for. Play they did, eventually, to regain it for now from their neighbours City, though only after an hour of play as sluggish as any in recent memory.
Conceding first, as is their tantalising habit, they reacted by running in three goals in eight minutes to underline the need for Harry Redknapp to invest in a centre-half as soon as "Auld Lang Syne" is sung; Michael Dawson, who played under him at Tottenham and almost joined Queens Park Rangers in August, being the obvious choice.
Rangers seemed to have developed a strategy of conceding corners, then breaking out against an undermanned United defence to cause problems. They won a corner that led to Jamie Mackie scoring, but from the next two corners at the other end Jonny Evans and then Darren Fletcher – starting a League game for the first time this calendar year after his serious illness – headed in. Javier Hernandez, one of two substitutes brought on after Mackie's goal, scored the home team's third.
So the bottom club were on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline for the second successive week, but the attitude and application were a world away from the dismal home defeat by fellow strugglers Southampton that effectively sealed Mark Hughes's fate last week.
Mark Bowen, who had followed Hughes everywhere until the latter was driven out of the club on Friday, took the lead role in the technical area for Rangers and did media duty afterwards. "We did well up to a point but then the roof caved in with individuals not doing their job from set-pieces," he said.
Each team had made five changes for their different reasons. Bowen, assisted by Eddie Niedzwiecki, had started some of the old-stagers from the Championship such as Clint Hill and Shaun Derry, who worked as hard as expected in denying United for longer than expected.
Sir Alex Ferguson, annoyed by the 1-0 defeat at Norwich last weekend, was able to recall Wayne Rooney, although for that first hour he was as ineffective as anyone. "We were a bit lethargic in the first half," Ferguson admitted. "Losing a goal sparked us to life a bit and for 15 minutes we were terrific. We expected Queens Park Rangers would have a surge of determination and enthusiasm, which happens when a team loses its manager, and that's exactly what we saw. They were very determined and worked hard."
Ferguson felt the difference was the introduction at the same time as Hernandez of Anderson, whose driving run from midfield set up the former's goal.
Redknapp, used to Spurs and even West Ham and Portsmouth having a go when at Old Trafford, was forced to sit and watch his newest charges sitting back, though he must have been grateful that United were initially so far below par.
In the first half, one save by Julio Cesar from Rooney with his knees and a swivel and shot into the side-netting by Robin van Persie were the only nasty moments for travelling supporters who have seen the managerial change they wanted. It was nevertheless a shock when Kieron Dyer was allowed to take a short corner, receive the ball back and send in an angled shot that Anders Lindegaard could only prod out to Mackie's feet.
That poke at the crocodile proved ill-advised. Danny Welbeck headed one corner across goal for Evans to nod in and Fletcher rose highest to head in the next one, celebrating with understandable enthusiasm.
Hernandez's finish was as cool as we have come to expect and Redknapp had left the ground before Hill's header was cleared off the line by Rafael da Silva.
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