Tuesday 12 December 2017

James Lawton: Chelsea big threat to flawed 'gang of two'

James Lawton

James Lawton

Just a few weeks ago it was a raging suspicion. They had set up a league of their own, a Gang of Two, but now Manchester United and Manchester City have a lot more to do than merely enforce local supremacy when they collide at Old Trafford on Sunday.

They have to show that they were building more than illusions when they took a grip at the top of the Premier League, United when they came with a rush of creativity and youth and City, especially, when they cut last year's Champions League heroes Tottenham to pieces in front of their own people.

This week the sense that such impressive momentum was dying on the vine was checked only by the coolness from Wayne Rooney, at the penalty spot for United and Sergio Aguero's late intervention for City.

They were strikes of certainty that lifted pressure on two decidedly underwhelming European campaigns -- but hardly vindication for those of us anticipating a two-horse race in England from the first furlong.


At Old Trafford the requirement now from both teams is evidence of regained authority, a show of cohesion that was critically missing in this week's action -- and in United's case a disturbing suggestion of a flattening, if not declining, trend.

For United, despite the promise of young Tom Cleverley and the sometimes startling eruptions of Nani, it may be a problem that can be resolved only in the January transfer window.

Alex Ferguson no doubt has plenty of reasons to congratulate himself over his summer business. Phil Jones is plainly a player with a massive future, even if some of his defensive work has hardly begun to match the conviction and fluency of his attacking game. Ashley Young has already proved a player who can respond to the big occasion -- and a new challenge.

Danny Welbeck's recall to Old Trafford has provoked new respect for his coltish promise.

However, what Ferguson didn't achieve during the last transfer window is something that in disappointing performances in the Champions League and at Stoke and Liverpool has become increasingly apparent.

United didn't get the player whose absence had become increasingly critical with the decline of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs' advance into an Indian summer which, while brilliant at times, has also provided considerable evidence that United cannot expect him to run out the old string for too much longer.

The player is someone like Wesley Sneijder. Or Bastian Schweinsteiger -- the kind of player who goes on to the field assuming that he will take command. That United continue to need such a player was dramatically highlighted last spring in the Champions League final against Barcelona, when the great axis of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi achieved effortless ascendancy and the great Giggs suddenly looked, well, rather old.

For the moment United's debt to Rooney is huge. His implosion while playing for England in Montenegro, and the decision to withdraw him from the Liverpool game, was a shocking blow to the gathering assumption that he had hit one of the great points of his career -- a man who had outrun all the doubts and confusions of his life and his football.

In Europe this week he repaired some of the concern -- but what might happen to United if he was absent for one or another reason?

It would make them a much lesser team, one lacking that point of assurance which can prevent a dip turning into a recession. City, despite this season's progress in the domestic campaign, are not immune from such an issue.

Aguero has blown through the dressing-room and onto the field like an invigorating wind and there are times when Yaya Toure appears both willing and able to provide the power and self-belief without which an assault on the highest ground is futile.

But then the Carlos Tevez scandal perhaps illuminated a wider problem. While City have accumulated the talent to ransack a team like Aston Villa, their tendency to turn in on themselves remains worryingly pronounced.

On the scale of insurrection set by Tevez in Munich, Adam Johnson's protests against his first-half substitution against Villarreal scarcely made the graph. However, it reminded us that manager Roberto Mancini has yet to feel the glow that comes when a team announce that they know entirely who they are and quite what they are doing.

Yes, City have made some major strides -- but the one needed most is unlikely to come at Old Trafford without a big improvement in both patience and conviction.

Aguero's relish, his apparently sheer enjoyment of the game, is one huge encouragement after his return from injury. So is the creative force of David Silva, who played superbly in the derby game last season which United carried only because Rooney substantially re-launched himself as a major player with a goal of magnificent vision and timing.


But then City will need all of Aguero's elan and Silva's touch if they are to make a significant statement at high noon on Sunday.

Rooney -- you have to believe -- will be hell-bent to re-establish his hard-won credentials as a player reliable both in his natural brilliance and his consistent influence on the big games.

What both teams have to acknowledge is that they have surrendered much of the momentum that for a while seemed, in Premier League terms, unanswerable anywhere outside the city boundaries.

It's a reality only underlined by the promise of the renovation at Stamford Bridge under way in the hands of young Andre Villas-Boas. Most critically, he has brought fresh invention and bite to a midfield that was growing old in the traces.

It's something that United, particularly, have a need to counter. They have had plenty of creative moments, but there's a more pressing need now. It is the capacity to run a game, take it by the throat. That was the promise of high summer.

Now, in the chill of autumn, it's one that has to be revived with some urgency. This is more than a derby match. It's the challenge to make a much-needed statement of renewed and serious intent.

Irish Independent

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