For all the plaudits Sir Alex Ferguson has received over the years, yesterday all of the praise must be heaped on Sven and the backroom team as they completely out thought and out manouevered their United counterparts.
The line-up (given the injuries and suspensions) was perfect and the gameplan (clearly learnt in the light of the defeat against Arsenal) was spot on - to soak up all of the pressure in the opening fifteen minutes before counter-attacking to our strengths and utilising a wonderful performance from Benjani in the lone striker role as he dragged Ferdinand out of position time and again, allowing for Ireland, Petrov and Vassell to support and utilise the space afforded them.
I do think Ferguson missed a definite trick and got his team selection all wrong though. Clearly he must have seen Arsenal exploit us down both flanks, yet (with Rooney's absence) played (and kept) Ronaldo in far too central a position. Perhaps with a nod to nostalgia he opted for a (on paper) attacking line-up in midfield of Ronaldo, Giggs, Nani, Anderson and Scholes, leaving - to his cost, Carrick and Hargreaves on the bench, allowing for plenty of space between their defence and midfield to be exploited, which we duly did.
To single out individuals yesterday is difficult - and perhaps unfair, but as I mentioned in my preview on the blog, Hamman was a key player and I thought he was outstanding yesterday. It is often said great players seem to play the game with so much more time than everyone else -and whilst not annointing him as a world great, Hamman plays the game with such ease and with such calmness that it cannot fail but be a lesson and inspiration to the likes of Gelson, Johnson and Ireland. Speaking of Ireland, playing in the 'hole' behind the front man, more than compensating for the loss of Elano he turned in one of his most impressive games of the season so far, combining the inventiveness required along with supporting the midfield with his defensive responsibilities and linking superbly with Benjani.
Where the likes of Vassell, Bianchi, Samaras and Mpenza had gone (and largely failed) before him, I thought Benjani shone. Whilst appearing lightweight, he held the ball up well but most impressive for me was his movement in how he took Ferdinand with him and linked up superbly with Vassell, Petrov and Ireland. A definite impressive debut and no doubt won over a few of the doubters (myself included from my Observer preview) out there.
Whilst United had the lions share of possession and territorial advantage, in the areas where it counted they rarely threatened, and any danger that did occur was easily nullified by the duo of Richards and Dunne who earned the plaudits from the MOTD2 crew last night.
As for United, without Rooney they struggled and for the hype of Ronaldo (for the excellent talent that he is), without Rooney alongside him he does not appear able to carry a team forward when it really counts in the manner that the worlds true best player - Kaka, can do. Scholes and Giggs looked shadows of the players that have troubled us so much in the past and whilst never one for sentiment, Ferguson does run the risk of prolonging their United careers just that step too far.
One thing that will get slightly lost in yesterdays victory is just how important it was to pick up three points in the race for fourth spot given the wins for Villa, Everton and Portsmouth and that Liverpool were held at Chelsea. A win in a fortnights time at home to Everton could well put us fourth with just ten games remaining in the season and above all, this victory could really provide the impetus and springboard for this side to finish the season ona real high note.
A final note on yesterday regarding the minutes silence. I did expect it to be observed impeccably and so it was borne out. A lot of credit has come our way for the behaviour of the fans, but perhaps next time it would just have been nice not have been condemned by the media as a whole before an event even occurred.