Tuesday 23 January 2018

Mediocre Manchester United lucky to find such generous hosts

Norwich City 0 Manchester United 1

Juan Mata celebrates scoring the goal for Manchester United. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
Juan Mata celebrates scoring the goal for Manchester United. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
Manchester United's Ander Herrera and Norwich City's Martin Olsson (right) battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal speaks with Timothy Fosu Mensah before he goes on as a substitute. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
United's Wayne Rooney in action against Norwich's Martin Olsson. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Paul Doyle

The scoresheet credited the winning goal to Juan Mata, but Norwich will know this was a self-inflicted defeat. The visitors were nothing more than mediocre, but kept up their challenge for Champions League qualification, thanks to wasteful finishing and goofy defending by their hosts, who will have to improve hugely in their final two matches of the season if they are to escape relegation.

The painful reality for Norwich is that they were not good enough to put away a United team who looked there for the taking. If one of the themes of United's season has been peculiar managerial decisions, another has been bad luck with injuries. The two blended here to make the blandest of cocktails, but Norwich contrived to enable United to enjoy the taste of victory anyway.

Louis van Gaal omitted Marcus Rashford and Danny Blind from his squad to allow them to rest in Manchester for the midweek game with West Ham - it was odd that a manager who cherishes control should leave himself so at risk of falling foul of the "law of Murphy" that he has bemoaned this season. Misfortune soon struck. Anthony Martial had to pull out of the starting line-up after injuring himself in the warm-up and then, shortly after kick-off, Matteo Darmian was carried off on a stretcher and had to be replaced by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.

Martial's absence was felt particularly acutely as without their ingenious young Frenchman, the visitors lacked speed and creativity. Wayne Rooney, recently deployed in midfield, was restored to the centre-forward role and confirmed he is no longer suited to it. Norwich's second-string centre-backs contained the England captain with little ado until a calamitous misjudgement by Sebastien Bassong gifted the striker the chance to set up United's goal.

Bassong was playing because Norwich have also had their share of bad luck: illness and injury forcing them to field their second-choice central defensive pairing as Ryan Bennett and Timm Klose watched from the stands. Those stands were awash with sunlight as the crowd generated a cheery hubbub aimed at helping their team climb out of their predicament. Norwich had frozen in their last home match, a potentially critical 3-0 defeat by Sunderland, but here they started brightly.

As the hosts swarmed over the visitors early on, Jonny Howson intercepted an attempted pass by Darmian and fed Robbie Brady, who galloped 40 yards forwards before offloading to Nathan Redmond. The winger's low cross was turned behind for a corner. Cameron Jerome flicked the ensuing set-piece on at the near-post and Bassong dabbed the ball towards goal from six yards, only for Rooney to boot it to safety.

One minute later, Jerome should have scored after a nifty dribble and cross from the left by Redmond. The striker met the delivery with a firm downward header, but it was too close to David de Gea, who saved with his feet. After that explosive start, Norwich fizzled out a tad; their will was strong, but their quality deficient. United were no better. One team was supposed to be challenging for Champions League qualification and the other trying to avert a descent into the Championship, but this was a meeting of sadly limited equals. It took the visitors 30 minutes to muster a shot on target, with Jesse Lingaard spooning an inadequate effort into the arms of John Ruddy from 25 yards.

United summoned more vigour after the break and began to exert more pressure around the home side's box. But they remained predictable and still failed to trouble Ruddy. The first real opening of the second half fell to Norwich, as Borthwick-Jackson fluffed a clearing header and, in doing so, presented Gary O'Neil with a shooting chance from 16 yards. But the midfielder swiped wildly at the ball, which wafted into the stands. Two minutes later, Dieumerci Mbokani, introduced from the bench as Norwich sought a winning goal, added his name to the list of dire finishers, botching his timing as he tried to head into the net from five yards.

Norwich are at risk of relegation because too often their bluntness up front has been compounded by brittleness at the back. So there was no surprise when Bassong misjudged the flight of a long pass from the back and allowed the ball to land in front of Rooney. Martin caught up with the striker to close off a shooting opportunity, but Rooney turned and offloaded to Mata, who shot into the net from 10 yards.

Alex Neil made attacking changes, but Norwich never looked like landing a punch. Five minutes from time Rooney offered Morgan Schneiderlin the chance to deliver a knockout blow, but the midfielder shot wide.


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