Sunday September 14th, 2014

Louis van Gaal had seen the videos. He knew Manchester United did not need Radamel Falcao to beat QPR.

There might be a temptation to squeeze every drop of value from a player who might leave next summer and whose one-year rental will cost United £24 million ($39 million) in wages and loan fees. But there are questions over his knees. Why risk him against a QPR defense that seems to have been constructed out of tissue paper?

United cruised to a 4-0 victory.

In any case, Van Gaal had a couple of fresh pieces of expensive prime filet to serve up to the starving United fans. Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo made their United debuts and Angel di María made his home debut

Rio Ferdinand, returning to the scene of his greatest triumphs, seemed unsure whether he was at Old Trafford as a defender or as a fan and spectator. The rest of the visiting defense wasn’t much better.

QPR’s players stood and gawped as Di María’s long free-kick, clearly meant as a cross, curled into the goal. They stood and stared as Wayne Rooney set up Ander Herrera for the second. They stood and watched as Rooney picked his spot. Ferdinand stood and played Juan Mata onside for the fourth. QPR stood still a lot.

QPR made Di María look world class, allowing him to tear through their midfield on his home debut.  They made Mata look like the brilliant playmaker of his first season at Chelsea. Most of all, Ferdinand’s struggles made Van Gaal, who threw the center back out of United, look like a genius. It was sad to see.

United, so sluggish in its first three games, suddenly looked up to speed. Its passing had zip. Di María brings speed across the ground. Against a team as lethargic as QPR, the question is whether United simply looked fast because the opposition was so slow.

Punchless QPR struggled to get out of its own half. Yet on the few occasions that it did, United’s creaky, leaky, defense wobbled.

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An awful mix-up between Rojo and David De Gea presented Matty Phillips with an open goal he could not hit. When Armand Traoré set up Niko Krancjar for a shot at the start of the second half, it looked like a carbon copy of the Herrera goal, with United’s defense impersonating QPR. De Gea did what Robert Green could not, and saved.

So desperate are the Old Trafford crowd for a glimpse of the old stardust that the fans in the vicinity gave Di María a standing ovation as he walked over to take a corner after an hour.

By the time Falcao came on in the 67th minute, the game was won. The fans could “ooh” and “aah” like pre-teen girls seeing a pop star. They asked him to wave. He did. They asked Rio to wave. He didn’t.

If there was a moment that summed up the game, it came in the 84th minute. As Green parried a shot by Blind, Ferdinand and Falcao were side by side at the edge of the area. Falcao moved. Ferdinand stood still.

Falcao could have passed to set up a tap-in for Robin van Persie, instead with Green diving at his feet, the striker took a low percentage shot straight into the goalie’s body.  

In the final seconds, Van Persie did try to set up Falcao, but passed behind him. Fitting all the egos into one team may prove tricky. On Sunday it didn’t matter.

United’s first victory in a real game under Van Gaal puts it  on the heels of its greatest enemies, Liverpool and Manchester City. It will have to really find some speed to catch Chelsea.

Short Corners

Falcao will have to move fast to catch his former team-mate Diego Costa. Costa scored three more goals as Chelsea, after being outplayed for the first 44 minutes, beat Swansea, 4-2. He has hit seven in his first four Premier League games. Costa has limitations, but he is an excellent fit for an excellent team.  So good is the midfield behind him that he knows if he makes intelligent runs and takes up dangerous positions, his teammates will find him. So good is his finishing that the midfielders know that if they make the pass, they will get an assist.

The last Liverpool teen wonder, Michael Owen, played 44 club games in the season he turned 18. By the end of the season he turned 20, he’d played 120 (and 24 England games). It took its toll. After he turned 26, he never played more than 33 club games in a season. Brendan Rodgers is right that he needs to rest Raheem Sterling, who turns 20 in December and has already played 63 games for Liverpool. The problem is that Liverpool lacked creativity as it lost at home, again, to Aston Villa. How many points will Rodgers sacrifice now to ensure that in his mid-20s, Sterling is fit enough to play more than Owen did?

Danny Welbeck took five shots in his Arsenal debut and did not score. He hit the post when one-on-one with Joe Hart. It would be easy to focus on his much-debated finishing. Yet everything else suggested he is an excellent fit at  Arsenal. He worked like an ant. He held and distributed the ball well. He distracted the Manchester City center backs with his physical approach. Arsenal lacks height and Welbeck generally defended well from set pieces. Playing in a central role, his scoring ratio will climb toward his England rate of one every three games. And whatever his faults, Welbeck is at least as good as Olivier Giroud.

The British media seemed to agree on Sunday that Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini had “raged ” at the referee Mark Clattenburg after the 2-2 draw at the Emirates. “Blasts” and “slams” were other the headline words. Perhaps Pellegrini smashed chairs in the privacy of the press conference. When he faced the TV cameras and quietly listed his complaints -- a missed penalty and fouls in the lead up to the Arsenal goals – he was rueful rather than raging. Pellegrini keeps his cool. That makes him perfect for City but less than ideal for the British tabloids.

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