Never Say Never Again

The news yesterday that Paul Scholes is coming out of retirement for Manchester United, as if he were Clark Kent regaining his powers in Superman II in order to save Earth from his arch enemies, is surprising and yet typically bizarre in week where Sol Campbell was considered a suitable cultural commentator on Channel 4 News and Alan Green discussed football on Women’s Hour.

It was surprising in two aspects.

Firstly, most business that has been completed in recent transfer windows is usually widely speculated about in advance. At the end of the last summer window Sky Sports News were constantly talking about transfers that never materialised, with some journalists (past, present and budding), then repeating the headlines in Tweets as if they were fact. Perhaps it is a style of shoddy journalism to be expected in an age when Britain’s biggest selling paper last week led with a front-page headline about a typo on a tweet from a smart-phone, but it also highlights how below the radar the Scholes deal was.

Secondly, even if it is true that Scholes initiated the comeback, it shows more than a hint of desperation for a club who are still reigning League Champions and only three points of the top of the table. When Scholes announced his retirement, United fans spoke of the need to replace him, yet he only started 16 League games last season. And his return now, as Daniel Taylor immediately noted, was United’s first signing of a central midfielder since 2007, a legacy of the debt The Glazer family have put on the club, which could in turn be signalling the decline in their footballing fortunes, after dominating the English game for the best part of twenty years.

United’s first half performance in yesterday’s third-round cup-tie at Manchester City didn’t look too shabby though. An opening goal of high-quality by Wayne Rooney was vital against a City side who have laboured when chasing games against both Napoli and Villareal at home this season. By the time they were 3-0 up they had a real chance to put City to the sword, who by then were down to ten men, and stunned. They sensed blood at the end of the first-half, but the fourth didn’t come, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s anger and analysis were spot-on in his immediate post-match interview: their sloppiness allowed City to look better then they were in the second-half, and they were the ones who finished the game with momentum.

The win was important though. It is United who are in the next round of the cup, with another draw, away at Liverpool, that will suit ITV’s ad space sellers very nicely indeed.

City, who just a few weeks ago, were talking at their managerial press conferences about their prospects of winning the Champions League, are now out of another major competition, with the pressure set to concentrate on their title challenge, for which they have seemingly been Champions Elect for the best part of the season, and yet are only three points clear of second place. Last season’s FA Cup was their first major trophy since 1976, and if they are still within striking distance as the season closes, it would be no surprise if they are caught.

However, as Ferguson knows, United had the chance to really shatter City’s nerve yesterday. A couple more goals in the second-half would have detracted from the significance of City’s own big win at Old Trafford, and would have served as a reminder to everyone, especially themselves, that they are fallible. Which of course they are.

After 180 minutes of failing to break down either West Brom or Sunderland, City’s players stopped running as Sunderland broke away in injury time, just eight days ago. The home team scores, leaving Manchini looking just as tired and beaten as his players in his post-match interview. It was a point that could be vital, as well as a psychological scar that could have been widened yesterday had they been really put away by United.

Manchini made a couple of good changes at half-time yesterday that made it hard for United to get behind their defence, and they had the benefit of the referee bottling giving a second United penalty that could have extended their lead. United enjoyed plenty of possession and only allowed City to get beck into the game by giving the ball away cheaply, which the European opposition City have struggled against this season, haven’t done. In fact it was Scholes who was culpable for the second goal with a mistake that if it had been made by Michael Carrick, would have led to widespread criticism from his many United detractors.

Sergio Aguero remained a threat for City in the final third, a real quality cutting edge, and a benefit of City’s multi-million expenditure. The addition of him aligned to the confidence gained from winning the FA Cup last season led City to play a more expansive game then last season which has taken them to the top of the table. Their recent winter blues have coincided with English teams finally learning how to play them, primarily by keeping possession and players in position. Machini’s tactical flourish yesterday conversely was based on defending first and hitting a United team who were already in front on the break. And United let them do it too easily.

City had got back to winning ways after the defeat at The Stadium of Light against Liverpool in mid-week, but the two legs in the League Cup games against the same opposition without Kompany (pending an appeal) and the Toure brothers will still be a test, in a Cup they are expected to win.

United have accumulated points since their heavy defeat at home to City in the League, but their recent defeats, to deserved winners Blackburn and Newcastle respectively, as well as their losses to Basel, Crystal Palace, and City in the League, show that they are very beatable. Both City and United, as well as Tottenham, all now have a points total that would have put them top at this stage last season. Yet, yesterday was a reminder that both the top two are far from invincible.