Manchester United 2-0 Cardiff
It took six minutes. Six minutes for Juan Mata to demonstrate his worth to Manchester United, six minutes for him to link, albeit circuitously, with Robin van Persie and conjure a goal at Old Trafford.
Unfortunately, this being the David Moyes edition of the champions, it was not until the 59th minute that they could feel safe, thanks to a cracking goal by Ashley Young.
Even so, baby steps, baby steps. By the time Mata began tiring late in the game — the odd mistimed tackle here, a rare misplaced pass there — few were in any doubt that they had seen the debut of a future Manchester United great. Mind you, they have been starved of good news around these parts of late.
Quick off the mark: Robin van Persie took just six minutes to put the hosts a goal to the good after his return from injury
Much-maligned: Ashley Young made it 2-0 with a long-range shot
Unhappy return: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was welcomed warmly on his return to Manchester, but failed to take any points back to Wales
Man Utd: De Gea 6, Rafael Da Silva 6, Smalling 6, Evans 7, Evra 7, Valencia 7, Jones 6, Giggs 6 (Cleverley 71, 6), Young 8, Mata 6 (Januzaj 85), Van Persie 7 (Rooney 63, 7). Subs not used: Lindegaard, Hernandez, Fletcher, Kagawa.
Goals: Van Persie 6, Young 59.
Manager: David Moyes 7
Cardiff: Marshall 6, McNaughton 5, Caulker 6, Hudson 6 (Turner 69, 6), John 5, Noone 6 (Daehli 78), Medel 7, Mutch 7 (Kim 52, 6), Whittingham 6, Campbell 6, Bellamy 7. Subs not used: Berget, Turner, Eikrem, Gunnarsson, Lewis.
Referee: Craig Pawson.
Mata was not brilliant but he was better than many expected, having played no football for close to a month, and his pass which set up United’s first goal earned him considerable credit. He collected the ball from the defence, deeper than a conventional No 10, but he immediately demonstrated a counter-attacking instinct that is the hallmark of this club.
A perfect crossfield pass to Patrice Evra and United were away. His cross was headed against the crossbar by Luis Antonio Valencia then ricocheted around the penalty area pinball style. Out it came and was followed up by Van Persie, whose effort was saved by David Marshall; out it came and was followed up by Van Persie, whose header, second time, gave the goalkeeper no chance.
So it wasn’t an assist, or even the assist for an assist, but had Mata not applied his singular vision to the build-up, United would not have been able to play with a safety net for so long; and those little buffers are important these days.
This is a team with the jitters, but Mata is a cool customer and on the ball did the simple things well. Another deep cross could have advanced the gap in the 19th minute but Young failed to get the necessary touch at the far post.
Promisng start: Mata showed a cool head on his first appearance for Manchester United
Pulling the strings: Mata unleashes a typically crisp pass as the Spaniard made his Old Trafford bow
He is better from distance, it would seem. In the 59th minute, Young ensured Cardiff would end the night where they began — bottom of the table — with a goal that banished the memory of some insipid performances and dubious falls this season.
Ryan Giggs is now just 10 games shy of equalling Slavia Prague goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka’s European record of 969 appearaces for one club.
He received the ball on the left, cut inside, kept going and finally unleashed a shot across Marshall that flew in at the bottom corner from 25 yards. It could have been three 15 minutes later, but Marshall tipped the ball on to the far post after Valencia tried to curl one past him from inside the penalty area.
The problem for Mata, obviously, is that he is the first. There will be improvements, a transformation most likely, and Manchester United will be better than this. Until that happens, however, there will be spells — as there were here — when they are being pegged back by Cardiff City and the new man is left to wonder how soon it will be before he belongs to a team who just brush inferiors aside.
It does not help that, for all his improvement, David de Gea is still a goalkeeper vulnerable to an old-fashioned up and under — and Cardiff, being Welsh, are not averse to a bit of that. De Gea made a very intuitive save with his feet from a Mark Hudson header after Peter Whittingham’s 24th-minute corner, but it is worth noting that Cardiff would not have had the chance at all had De Gea come for a cross that looped up by his far post.
Dutch treat: Van Persie (right) nets the opener with this precision header
Letting fly: Young unleashes an unstoppable drive to make the points secure for David Moyes’s side
Changing of the guard: Wayne Rooney replaced Van Persie in the 63rd minute
Perhaps his reluctance was explained soon after when he did attempt to deal with a similar effort at his near post, only to fumble the ball over the byeline.
It means United are never allowed to feel comfortable with a single goal lead, mindful that it might take only one half-chance against the run of play. De Gea as good as cost United a place in the Capital One Cup final in his last game, remember.
Injuries have played havoc with Moyes’s best-laid plans this season, but even so seeing Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in the heart of midfeld indicated the improvement required in the depth of this squad.
Giggs is defying nature to continue as a Premier League footballer, while Jones is in most minds a centre-half out of position. He may yet make this role his own — but he needs to have a run in the team, not a succession of emergency turns.
Certainly there is work to be done strengthening United’s trunk, as was demonstrated when Jordon Mutch strode through the middle without hassle before releasing the ball wide to Craig Noone, who cut inside but shot wastefully over.
Plucky resistance is no use to Cardiff as the weeks pass, though. The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done little to reverse their fortunes.
It has gone down well with the United fans, though, and it was noticeable that his name was sung by the home crowd more forcefully than that of Moyes, Wayne Rooney, Van Persie and even, yes, Mata. He got more namechecks than he did at the Cardiff end too.
Still got it: Ryan Giggs (right) made his 800th start – and 959th appearance – for Manchester United at the ripe old age of 40
It’s that man again: Sir Alex Ferguson took his seat in the Old Trafford stands
Sage advice: Rooney and Solskjaer share a moment after the final whistle
Yet no manager has ever survived on the love of the common people and it is plain Cardiff have an uphill task to survive in the league without an obvious cutting edge. They had good possession without greatly troubling United, and most teams can give them at least the odd scare these days.
At least they looked like Cardiff, though — their shirts a vivid deep blue due to the clash of the red that owner Vincent Tan appears to find so uniquely lucky.
‘We’re Cardiff City, we’ll always be blue,’ sang the visitors.
They most certainly will be if, come the end of the season, Solskjaer is still a bigger hero at Old Trafford than he is in South Wales
Source : Daily Mail