Manchester United travel to South Wales to take on Cardiff City on Sunday. The Red Devils are coming off their biggest win of the year over Arsenal and have rejoined the pack of teams who are challenging for this season’s Premier League title.
For United, the match against Cardiff City is one where football managers find the most difficult to prepare their team for: the game following a big win and against a team they “should” beat. Most teams find it hard to equal the levels of emotion and concentration they showed in the previous game. It’s almost a forgone conclusion that individual and/or team performance will relax in the next fixture. In any sport, this contest is referred to as a possible ‘letdown game’.
According to most experts, United entered the match against Arsenal as underdogs and had to answer questions about their performances on and off the field. Their defense was leaking goals, their midfield was being over-run and outworked by opponents, and people were questioning the tactics of manager David Moyes. It was also determined that United’s lack of activity during the summer transfer window had severely damaged the team’s chances of regaining the league title because the club failed to address its midfield and defensive needs. United’s critics were like vultures picking at a rotting carcass; swooping in from every direction to take a bite out of the wounded champions. Even the Red Devils’ opponents were smelling blood when they traveled to Old Trafford. Teams were no longer fearful of a rampant Manchester United scoring goals at will against them. Instead of being content with staying close to the champions, opponents were now attacking United and going for maximum points in the Theatre of Dreams. Lastly, United’s most loyal supporters were becoming uneasy. Blogs, message boards, and call-in shows were all being flooded with worried fans.
But in previous weeks (prior to the match with Arsenal), United had been showing signs that they were a club returning to form. Perhaps it started with the come-from-behind win against Stoke City a few weeks earlier? Or maybe it was the 3-1 victory at Fulham when United scored three goals in a blistering twenty-two minutes spell in front of their loyal away supporters who had packed the Putney End? Whatever the case, United had shown brief instances of their championship form. Quietly, the Red Devils and their supporters had been building momentum leading into the Arsenal clash.
United then put in one of their best 90-minute performances in over a year against the Gunners. The players dug-in and worked as a unit to shut down Arsenal’s attack while sending the Old Trafford faithful home buzzing following a huge 1-0 result. The three points catapulted United back into the title race and the performance was something people had come to expect from previous Manchester United sides.
Despite the constant barrage of criticism, David Moyes has remained poised during the club’s early struggles and the players are now playing with a chip on their shoulder. “People want us to fail because we’ve won the league so many times,” said defender Phil Jones. “United won the league long before I was here and everyone hates the best clubs, it’s as simple as that. But we enjoy that. We relish the test we get thrown at us week-in, week-out. It proves when people doubt us that we’re more than capable of standing up for ourselves and proving to people that’s why we were champions last season.”
These words had been previously stated by veterans Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs over the course of the early season. But for the first time this year (following their demolition against Manchester City and disappointing results versus Liverpool, West Brom and Southampton), United players are backing those words up with action. They are angry about how they and their manager have been treated; and United have a renewed focus. It appears the champions have grown tired of people kicking them when they were down.
Wayne Rooney has set the bar for the club by proclaiming United will make a “big push” until the New Year and fight their way back to the top of the table. With Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City all facing difficult challenges this weekend, United know a win at Cardiff could move them closer to league-leading Arsenal. They also are aware that a win this weekend, and a subsequent closing of the gap at the top of the table, would increase fear around the league that normalcy has in fact resumed in Manchester. Since previous United squads under Sir Alex Ferguson had a habit of starting the year slowly only to gain momentum leading into the busy holiday season.
United is also aware that Cardiff City Stadium will be a cauldron of noise come game time. The Welsh ground has already witnessed the defeat of their bitter local rivals, Swansea City, as well as a victory over pre-season title favorites, Manchester City. Recently, Bluebirds’ players and supporters have rallied around manager Malky Mackay who endured a trying start to his first season in the Premier League as his early success was undermined by Cardiff’s owner Vincent Tan.
Entering the match against Manchester United, Cardiff City supporters will be re-energized following the news that Mackay turned down a chance to interview with Crystal Palace about their coaching vacancy. A move that would have presented Mackay with an opportunity to reunite with his former head of recruitment, Iain Moody.
Former Manchester United player Fraizer Campbell will be chomping at the bit to score against his old club. While Welsh legend Craig Bellamy will be relishing an opportunity to take down the champions of England in his home country. Manchester United manager David Moyes will undoubtedly ensure his team is geared up for Cardiff’s scoring threats Peter Odemwingie and Jordon Mutch, while also preparing them for the set-piece abilities of Peter Whittingham.
Prior to their last match against Arsenal, some Manchester United supporters might have worried about a fixture such as this one. But order has resumed at Old Trafford and the impetus is with the champions. The matchup with Cardiff City represents a situation United has been in many times before. The Red Devils will be favorites against a team who is going to try and keep the match 0-0 for as long as possible, while hoping to score with their limited opportunities (like they did against Manchester City) or perhaps by profiting from a set-piece (as against Swansea).
Supporters concern has raised (again) since the Arsenal match due to the news that United will more than likely be playing without the services of the highly influential Michael Carrick, Phil Jones, and Danny Welbeck during upcoming fixtures. This new information has allowed United’s critics to once again jump up to question the ability of the club to compete on the highest level this season.
But despite the injuries, United still boasts a roster filled with players who have faced these kind of difficult circumstances before and somehow found a way to claw their way to a victory. Nemanja Vidic will return from his head injury to lead United into the encounter with Cardiff City and Rafael is lined up to return as well. There are also rumors that Darren Fletcher could make a surprise appearance as a substitute this weekend.
Manchester United still has momentum on their side and this weekend’s trip to Wales has all the makings of a classic Manchester United away win. There is no chance of a letdown at Cardiff.
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