Carrick puts United in cruise control
Manchester United 2-0 Sheffield United'Scandalous. A disgrace.' Neil Warnock's words are rarely measured. They certainly weren't when Gareth Southgate rested players and his Middlesbrough side lost to Manchester City, as that precis of his comments shows. His appraisal was rather different when a depleted Sheffield United, making five changes and prioritising Saturday's trip to Charlton, enabled Manchester United to extend their lead at the Premiership summit.
There is, of course, a difference. Boro may be expected to beat relegation strugglers at home whereas Manchester United are quite capable of overwhelming Sheffield United's first team. A Blades victory at Old Trafford would have been, according to Warnock, 'the result of the decade'. A 2-0 defeat, though respectable, was not, and he opens himself up to accusations of hypocrisy.
'I suppose last night if you'd said we'd lose 2-0 I'd snap your fingers off,' said Warnock, while praising his somewhat changed team. 'I thought we defended really well. We weren't good enough in certain situations, but not many teams are against Man United. I didn't want us to be made fools of. I worked very hard on the tactics.'
Few expected this match to determine the destination of the title but Sir Alex Ferguson, having learned the lessons of Portsmouth, fielded his strongest available team and was rewarded with the points. While Kieran Richardson, awful at Fratton Park, was introduced, it was a consequence of Patrice Evra's withdrawal rather than a matter of choice.
'The performance was economical,' said Ferguson. 'We didn't kill ourselves, which was important. At 2-0 we ran the clock down and kept the ball. I said to them at half-time 'be sensible'. They [Sheffield United] were quite happy with the result, I think.'
The route to victory was paved by an unquestioned choice. Michael Carrick has quietly grown in authority and now looks at ease in his surroundings.
The way in which he exchanged flicks with Ryan Giggs suggested a player fully attuned to Manchester United. His role had altered, too. Against a side of limited intent, an anchor midfielder can be superfluous. With a more attacking remit, he excelled further forward.
Within four minutes, he was rewarded for his advancement. After Alan Smith held the ball up, Cristiano Ronaldo supplied the pass for the midfielder to deftly beat Paddy Kenny. Carrick is in a rich vein of form especially, and unusually for him, in front of goal. This was his third in as many games and a certain class has been apparent in each finish.
He was seen in a more familiar guise a couple of minutes later, supplying the perceptive pass from deep that Wayne Rooney met, eluding Robert Kozluk before being denied a goal by Kenny.
For 49 minutes, the prevailing emotion of the evening for Rooney was frustration, whether at the Sheffield United goalkeeper or the referee Rob Styles, who rightly cautioned him. Then Giggs opted to come infield, delivered a precise pass and all was right in the world of Rooney in the space of two touches. The first was to cushion the ball, the second a fierce strike across Kenny.
With the Rooney-Ronaldo axis in full working order thereafter, they could have scored more. For the visitors, this was a damage limitation exercise. Had Kenny not saved wonderfully from Ronaldo and Giggs and but for a series of brave last-ditch challenges, it would not have been deemed a success. As Manchester United had scored 11 goals in their previous two games, it may qualify as one.
They could even have had a consolation goal when Michael Tonge clipped the bar at the end but, veering between 4-5-1 and 5-4-1, theirs was never a particularly progressive system.
Ferguson was much criticised two years ago when he favoured 4-5-1. Yet the 4-2-3-1 that was integral to the destruction of Roma now appears their most potent formation, with Rooney, Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs forming an interchangeable trio behind Smith.
His Sheffield United counterpart found had no such support. The lone frontrunner was Luton Shelton, making his first start for the club. The Jamaican's previous experience of Old Trafford was 48 minutes as his country lost 6-0 to England before the World Cup. One glance at the teamsheets may have induced fears of a repeat.
Warnock's latest striker was a handful, showing himself to be enterprising and displaying plenty of acceleration. Given that Shelton himself appeared to have little idea where his solo runs would take him, United's new-look defence had an awkward task.
As a one-man attack, he at least kept Tomasz Kuszczak, deputising for Edwin van der Sar, involved, though, when he should have worked the Pole, he blazed well wide. It followed a move begun by Matthew Kilgallon, who emerged from defence to turn creator.
Later, when Shelton scythed his way through, referee Styles deemed Gabriel Heinze's challenge legitimate. It was not. 'People say it could have been a penalty,' conceded Ferguson.
Warnock added: 'You hope you get the big decisions. Rob said he couldn't 100 percent give a penalty. He says it was his decision, he didn't want the linesman to come into it and I don't understand that. Obviously I'll be seeking clarification. Similarly, I didn't understand [Steven] Gerrard's penalty the first day of the season with Rob.'
Given the ease with which Manchester United won, it was a comparatively busy night for the official. He also cautioned Ronaldo and Chris Morgan after a contretemps where, as both had raised their arms, he would have been entitled to apply a stiffer punishment. For Warnock, the ultimate penalty at the end of the season is relegation, and he can argue his team selection will help avert that.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Carrick
Effectively decided the match within the first five minutes and maintained his recent high standards for the rest of a match where, like his side, he was often in cruise control.
MOAN OF THE MATCH: Colin Kazim-Richards could have been dismissed for one misjudged tackle against West Ham on Saturday. Perhaps he should have been for raking his studs down Patrice Evra's leg. Instead, the player to depart was the Frenchman, stretchered off. 'A bad tackle,' said Ferguson.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Job done. Their six-point lead is restored and Chelsea face a considerably harder game, at West Ham, to halve it.
SHEFFIELD UNITED VERDICT: Perhaps the most vocal group of visiting supporters at Old Trafford this season certainly made themselves heard. With Watford and Wigan still to visit an intimidating Bramall Lane, they could have their say in the relegation battle.
BACK FOR BORO: Ferguson is confident that John O'Shea and Rio Ferdinand will be fit to face Middlesbrough on Saturday, meaning Darren Fletcher and Richardson will not be needed to act as makeshift full-backs.