Manchester United 1 Blues 0 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 18 August 2009 By Richard Barker

"McLeish out!", I hear you cry. You're wrong to cry that though, because Blues actually weren't bad. They've got arguably the toughest game of the entire season out of the way, have been beaten in it (as most teams will when visiting Old Trafford) and have come away with some credit, some confidence and some positives to take forward.

After a pre-season that can be described as, at best, rubbish, I guess it was understandable that some Blues fans had their doubts about what this particular opener to the season may bring.

Such doubts were heightened by the fact that Blues' back four consisted of, from right to left, a full back who 12 months ago was sat watching Soccer Saturday with a can of lager in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other having retired from football, a centre half who had never played in the Premier League, a full back playing out of position at centre half who a year ago was brandished "a pile of rubbish" by the owner of the club and who a few months ago wasn't fit enough to last 75 minutes against Doncaster Rovers, and another full back making his debut who QPR recently deemed not good enough for their quest to finish 15th in the Championship.

In truth, concerns that it could be a mauling were understandable, but thankfully it never got to that.

There'd been changes at Old Trafford during the summer too, with Cristiano Ronaldo moving on and being replaced by a bloke from Wigan Athletic, as well as Carlos Tevez leaving for a bigger club and being replaced by an injured striker who struggled to get into a Championship team, not to mention the decision to designate the whole of the East Stand to disabled fans. Well, at least that's how it seemed judging by some of them in there.

United were always going to have a lot of the ball, and so it was, but Blues were well organised in a 4-5-1 formation and made it tough for United. Cameron Jerome played as a lone striker in front of a five-man midfield with Seb Larsson wide right, James McFadden wide left, and Lee Carsley, Barry Ferguson and Keith Fahey in the middle.

As the first half wore on, United began to get on top a little more for a number of reasons. One such reason was their full backs began overlapping and adding to their attack, with Larsson seemingly unable to cope with Patrice Evra's forward runs leaving Stephen Carr exposed. Another reason was that (and if I've said it once, I've said it a million times) Jerome is pretty useless at holding the ball up. If you play him as a lone striker, you need to get him turning and running at the defenders into space, not relying on him with his back to goal to bring others into play. Most of his attempts at controlling the ball ended up being superb ten yards passes to Manchester United defenders.

Just as you sensed that a United goal was coming, a United goal came. Again, Blues were undone down their right and Wayne Rooney headed against the post. Luckily for Rooney and unfortunately for Blues, the ball rebounded straight back to him and he tapped it intp an empty net. Forty thousand tourists rose, applauded, checked the back of their programme to see who scored and took photos.

Quicker than you could say, "Daddy, why isn't Ronaldo playing" in Japanese, Blues nearly levelled as Jerome shot just wide (via a deflection) and from the corner Queudrue had a header cleared off the line.

The second half continued along a similar theme, but Blues were still giving as good as they got. Keith Fahey (who actually had a fairly poor second half after a decent first half) shot just wide, as United struggled to double their lead at the other end.

Blues introduced Garry O'Connor to try and hold the ball up a little more, and then gave Christian Benitez his debut. Benitez almost levelled only a few minutes after coming on when he beat United's offside trap and cut back onto his right foot. His shot was a little too close to Ben Foster though, who tipped it around the post for a corner.

Benitez looked lively, and importantly looked like he had a footballing brain, which may well be needed if he's partnering Jerome and O'Connor up front at various points this season. It was certainly a positive introduction for him.

Michael Owen should have made it 2-0 at the death, but Joe Hart saved well. Hart had a few shaky moments early on, but got better, perhaps galvanised by the chants of "City reject" from the tourists referring to his loan move from United's more illustrious and more famous neighbours.

United themselves didn't quite seem at it and I suspect that they'll have quite a struggle to retain their Premier League crown. If United with Ronaldo was a ham sandwich, selling him was like removing the ham from between the two slices of bread. Yes, it doesn't look a great deal different, but there's something pretty bloody important missing - something that made the sandwich what it was.

All in all Blues can take a great deal of credit out of the game. They were well organised, fairly resolute defensively (Roger Johnson played well and Queudrue not only shocked people by lasting the full 90 minutes, but he was also assured) and played some neat and tidy football at times.

However, having seen this game and the Sporting Gijon friendly, I do have some concerns about exactly where the goals are going to come from. Blues were hardly prolific last season at a lower level, and have only really added Benitez to the squad from an offensive point of view. Granted, Benitez could be superb and could be the difference, but he could also suffer from injuries, not settle and generally not be very good. We shall have to wait and see.

I think that there was a sense of writing this game off and viewing anything gained from it as a bonus, which was probably the right way to look at it. There are two huge games that come around very quickly, however, and I just hope that Blues are ready for those. At the end of the day, whether they're in the first three games of the season or the last three games of the season, Portsmouth and Stoke at home are two games you have to look to win if you want to have enough points to avoid relegation. I know it seems bizarre talking about games in those terms at this stage of the season, but as I say, it doesn't matter when they are - you get three points for a win now and you'll get three points for a win next April. Blues need points.

My concern is the defence, who were worked very hard at Old Trafford and looked to tire late on. Can Queudrue and Carr play three lots of 90 minutes in one week? Personally, I'm not so sure, and it does beg the question why a little more hasn't been done to help ease the situation? Blues signed two centre halves coming back from operations, one of whom still isn't fit, as well as another one that the manager clearly doesn't fancy and may never play. Something may happen before the Portsmouth game, but as I say, I do have a few concerns about just how the current imcumbents of the defensive roles are going to cope with what is a very big and very taxing week.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves though. Looking at this game in isolation, Blues can certainly take some positives. It wasn't stunning, it wasn't fantastic, but it was as good as people could have hoped for, I suspect, and it's certainly something to build on.