Sunday 17 December 2017

United walk with angels

'Little Pea' provides divine inspiration in answer to own prayers to kill off Chelsea challenge

James Lawton

James Lawton

IF YOU wanted a cameo of Manchester United's extraordinary -- and the rest of English football has now to face the fact -- triumphant season, it surely came in the minute that saw Javier Hernandez rise from his knees in the centre circle like some pilgrim at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and then bound through the Chelsea defence for the goal that surely delivers his team's record-breaking 19th league title.

All that we lacked was a single beam of light from the heavens.

Hernandez's goal came just 37 seconds into the most important Premier League game of the season but if that was a fragment of time, the point it made seemed to touch a little bit of football eternity.

Whatever you think of this United team, even if you consider its success represents one of the sharply lesser peaks in the history of English champions, it is impossible to argue with the habit of mind that created it.

It is one that simply understands how to win in almost any circumstances. Translating this massive stride towards the title into evidence that Barcelona can be given a serious challenge -- and perhaps even defeat -- in the Champions League final at Wembley later this month may still be something of a reach, but there is no doubt that United once again produced at the right moment a killing belief in their own ability to get the right result when it matters most.

A week ago United looked like a team who had forgotten how to play seriously cohesive football. Yesterday they showed a hunger, especially in a first half in which Chelsea looked most intent on signing the death warrant of their embattled manager Carlo Ancelotti.

Hernandez leapt up from his prayers and raced on to the lacerating pass from the inspired Park Ji-sung to score the goal that landed like a mailed fist on Chelsea's confidence and created an immediate argument between Ancelotti and the most guilty defender, David Luiz.

Luiz, ironically enough, was at the centre of Alex Ferguson's ferocious attack on referee Martin Atkinson when Chelsea set the most serious mark against United's chances of stepping beyond Liverpool's haul of 18 titles with their victory at Stamford Bridge.

Ferguson argued that the extrovert Brazilian should have been dismissed for a spate of fouls, and crowned by one on Wayne Rooney, but yesterday Ancelotti did the job for him at half-time.

Luiz seemed reluctant to accept any culpability after United took over the game so quickly and so devastatingly but his sense of reality and his manager's differed so sharply that it was his compatriot, Alex, who reappeared for the second half.

Fernando Torres, who as expected was left on the bench by Ancelotti as he sought to retrieve his lingering hopes of staying at Stamford Bridge beyond one curt end-of-season conversation with owner Roman Abramovich, also appeared in the second half.

However, it was still Didier Drogba who represented the chief threat to United after Nemanja Vidic headed home another brilliant reinvention of the best of his youth by the eternal Ryan Giggs.

United had some anxiety in the second half, perhaps inevitably after leading by two goals and so many points at half-time, and this intensified briefly when Frank Lampard reduced the lead. Still, United found again the easy-flowing momentum of the first half and if Rooney had been anywhere around his sharpest Chelsea would surely have been put out of their misery long before the end.

As it was, Rooney could only reflect on another moment of indiscretion which seems certain to be brought to the attention of the FA disciplinary committee. So soon after his suspension for bellowing an obscenity into a TV camera and microphone, Wayne gave the V-sign to the Chelsea corner of the ground after its noisy reception of his exaggerated reaction to a tackle by Park.

It was a gratuitous gesture by the player who slips into raw anger at disconcerting speed. However, this was the day when a majority of United players elected to walk with the angels.

None of them did this with the formality of the devout and brilliant 'Chicharito', who has now scored 20 goals in his first season, but there was no shortage of clean-cut heroes.

Michael Carrick found some of his sweeter touches, Giggs was Giggs, a one-man battle against the march of time, and on the flanks Park and Antonio Valencia produced performances of consistent coherence and competitive bit.

For United it was a huge, penultimate stride into another piece of history. For Hernandez it was, quite literally, an answer to his prayers. And then for Ferguson you have to say it was just another piece of successful business -- another reason to hang around. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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