Manchester United 2 Cardiff City 0
28th January 2014
This was still far from a vintage United performance, but it’ll certainly do for now. The Old Trafford crowd welcomed back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while saying a loud hello to Juan Mata, but it was Robin Van Persie, back from injury, who had the most important impact on proceedings, scoring a crucial early goal to put United in the driving seat and, although the journey thereafter was not without its wobbles, setting his side on course for an important three points.
The early goal came via the collector’s item of a penetrating Ashley Young cross that was met by Valencia, whose header hit the bar, only for the rebound to fall to Van Persie: his first effort was parried by Marshall, but the returning Dutchman got a second bite and make no mistake, his header looping over the beaten Cardiff keeper.
Van Persie came close to making it two just after the hour mark when he beat the arguably better-placed Giggs to Evra’s delightful reverse pass, before sliding his narrow-angled shot wide of the far post. Despite occasionally lively build-up play, however, United created little beyond this in the first half and there remained a familiar uneasiness in the air around Old Trafford in the run-up to half-time. Despite the boost of the early goal, United were again unable to apply sustained pressure on a Cardiff side that, frankly, looked there for the taking.
The visitors came out with greater purpose in the second half and United were pushed back and more than once forced into panicked clearances before a second goal gave the Reds a crucial cushion. It was a stunning effort too, Ashley Young cutting in from the left and, from outside the area, striking an unstoppable effort into the far corner. This sublime moment from the oft-maligned winger breathed some much needed life into United at an important stage of the game and crushed the momentum of Solskjaer’s team. Rooney then came on for Van Persie and began to add a further dimension to the attack: a deflected effort had Marshall scurrying across his goal only to see the ball loop just wide of the post. Soon after, Valencia’s shot was palmed onto the post by the Cardiff keeper as United sought to increase their advantage.
Although Cardiff made some enterprising forays into the United half, they never again looked likely to pierce the United rearguard, with Evans and particularly Smalling looking reassuringly resilient, and it was the Reds who came closest to scoring in the final stages, Januzaj – who’d replaced Mata late in the game – failing to hit the target from a classy cut-back from Evra before another effort from Rooney went just wide. The crowd once again sang Solksjaer’s name but left the ground grateful that, for once, a former hero left the Old Trafford pitch empty-handed. As it was, though there were unquestionably aspects of the performance that continue to require fine-tuning to say the very least, the good vibes emanating from the Mata signing were allowed to continue and we saw enough to look forward with considerable anticipation to what he, Rooney and Van Persie, plus of course the young Belgian who’s been carrying the team in their absence, might create together.