Monday, January 08, 2007
Solskjaer and Larsson strike to send Utd through
Manchester United have, over the years, become accustomed to rivals galore eyeing their assembled band of superstars with more than a touch of envy, the Old Trafford outfit’s conveyer belt of imperious talent often, and quite rightly, the talk of the town come any given season’s final reckoning.
As the dust settles on United’s last gasp 2-1 FA Cup third round victory against Aston Villa, many observers are already predicting that, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges still alive and kicking in three competitions, May 2007 may yet be another momentous occasion for a club synonymous with enjoying more than its fair share of happy times.
Indeed, amid the obvious euphoria and bright predictions that followed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time winner and a man-of-the-match performance from new kid on the block Henrik Larsson, there can be little doubt that this victory for the latest generation of Red Devils was earned through sheer hard graft and determination - vital and potentially glory grabbing additions to a locker already packed to the rafters with flicks and tricks.
A collective rolling up of the sleeves soon became the order of the day as, under leaden skies, United’s neat build up work was all too often ruined by a profligacy in front of goal that threatened to test the patience of even the most ardent Stretford End inhabitant.
Amid a morass of first half mediocrity, Larsson continually provided the brighter moments. After a week of intense media hype, the dazzling Swede, all sumptuous touches and incisive passing, wasted little time in showing an expectant audience that he still has the guile and fitness to shine on the biggest of stages.
"I'm delighted for Henrik. I wanted to find out about his fitness and sharpness and he has proved that with this performance," said an ebullient Ferguson after the game.
"I think he can score some very important goals during his time with us. He's done that throughout his career. Eric Cantona did the same thing and I think Henrik can make a big impact too."
From a delicate, early chested pass that fellow front man Wayne Rooney could only blast over, to a powerful shot that Gabor Kiraly did well to beat away, Larsson quickly played his way into the hearts and minds of the United faithful, his standing ovation when substituted testimony to the stature of his first outing in the famous red shirt.
Ten minutes after the break, the former Celtic and Barcelona star struck with deadly accuracy from twelve yards to give his new employers the lead their play just about deserved. Found by Rooney, United’s number 17 beat Kiraly with ease before embarking on a wild celebratory run. How Old Trafford roared.
Moments later, Ryan Giggs brushed the Villa bar with a deftly taken free-kick and Cristiano Ronaldo hammered a shot into Kiraly’s side netting. Below par or not, United were edging ever nearer to a place in the next round. Or so they thought.
Woeful under David O’Leary, Villa are developing nicely under the wily Martin O’Neill and came close to restoring parity midway through the second period when the impressive Gary Cahill powered a header narrowly wide of Tomasz Kuszczak’s post.
Sixteen minutes from time, Milan Baros, with the host defence pushing out for offside, found himself free in the penalty area. The Czech Republic international’s subsequent strike powering past a flailing Kuszczak to send the travelling Villa hordes into raptures.
Solskjaer on for a tiring Larsson was, however, to provide the last twist to a fascinating day when he lashed home a late, late winner that squirmed under a decidedly embarrassed Kiraly.
With Larsson scheduled to spend another three months at the cutting edge of United’s challenge for silverware, the future for a team already six points clear at the Premiership’s summit, through to the UEFA Champions League’s last 16 and with the whiff of FA Cup glory in their nostrils, appears to be rosier than ever.