Well, for the second time in a week, we did it the hard way! After the roller coaster ride at Bloomfield Road, we were treated to, or made to endure, another United comeback. Sir Alex, who cited his admiration of the Saints before the match, decided to make wholesale changes because of the fixture against Aston Villa on Tuesday; a gamble which nearly backfired.
However, it was the resilience and persistence of the United squad which grabbed the result. Ferguson made seven changes from the team that faced Blackpool and handed a debut to new signing, Andres Lindegaard, who was extravagantly sporting purple Nike Vapours (bit too flashy for a keeper). John O’Shea, the ever-reliable utility man, wore the captains armband and was left to chaperone the inexperienced back four.
From the onset Southampton were the more fluent team, thriving on the atmosphere and nearly got off to a dream start before the intervention of WC Final Assistant Referee, Mike Mullarkey who correctly disallowed their goal for offside. In the lackluster first half we saw Michael Owen play as an AM, sat behind Javier Hernandez and Gabriel Obertan, and his intelligent play produced some lovely moves but it was his cross/shot which nearly broke the deadlock, unfortunately bouncing off the inside of the post. Fabio was ever willing to bomb down the left hand side but he was left isolated as the team failed to utilize the wide areas. All three midfielders (Scholes, Anderson and Gibson) were guilty of giving the ball away too easily and failed to make an impact. Anderson, on numerous occasions, played sloppy cross field balls which left us vulnerable on the counter and the Irishman was guilty of making the wrong pass time after time. Towards the end of the half Southampton took control of the game, with the impressive Alex Chamberlain running the show but they failed to convert a free header six yards. Nevertheless they deservedly went into the changing rooms with a lead when Chaplow capitalized on his good fortune by slamming the ball into the roof of the net.
At half time it looked like United may be facing another early exit from the FA Cup. I suspect that in the 15 minute interlude Sir Alex treated the players to the hairdryer treatment, seeing as they came out very early from the changing rooms (a typical give away). The energetic Fabio was replaced by Wes Brown, making only his second appearance of the season, leaving us with four natural CB’s in defence. The second half continued where the first half ended and United’s lack of width simply allowed Southampton to pack the area when we did attack. Promptly on the hour mark Anderson and Gibson, who had been equally awful, were replaced with the Welsh Wizard and Nani. Showing his unending talents, Sir Ryan partnered Scholes in the middle and turned the game on its head. Suddenly, United were bossing possession and creating chances. In the 65th minute Obertan, who had been moved onto the right, tricked his way past Harding and put in a ferocious cross which was converted cleverly by Michael Owen. The cross deflected off the hand of Seaborne before it reached Owen but the referee, Martin Atkinson, had the awareness to see play pan out before blowing his whistle.
Despite the setback, Southampton continued to show pieces of brilliance, encapsulated in the intricate corner made between Chamberlain and Harding, which nearly put them back in the lead. However it was the evident that they were tiring and in the 76th minute, Michael Owen capitalized on a mistake by Dickinson and set Giggs free to deliver a brilliant pass to Hernandez who showed incredible improvisation to put the ball in the back of the net, while on the floor. The Mexican has now scored in every competition this season, including the Premier League, FA Cup, Community Shield, Carling Cup & Champions League. In the time remaining Nani was brilliant at keeping possesion and brought the only yellow of the game, when he was fouled in frustration by the Saint’s RB. Unsuprisingly considering his recent lack of match practise, Jonny Evans suffered with cramp at the end of the game but looked slightly unfit relative to how a Premier League CB should look.
Thankfully, the Saints didn’t repeat their heroics from 1976 and United won the match as they continue to show the strength and character of a great United squad. Hopefully, we can go on to win the FA Cup for the first time since 2004 and fill Van Der Sar’s medal collection with its one notable absence but for now we must look on to Tuesday night, when we welcome Gerard Houllier‘s (relatively) inform Aston Villa side, with their new £28 million forward. A match we will be hoping to win.