Rafael gets an early bath on Saturday
Manchester United were reluctant participants in yet another drama in their soap-opera season against Reading on Saturday, see-sawing between defeat and victory in a Premier League match that served up seven goals before halftime.
The expectancy at the interval that this was going to be the forerunner to a cricket score was short lived, as the unpredictability that has characterised their season so far reared its head again and the second half remained goalless.
I say unpredictability, but perhaps we should say that their unpredictability has actually been the only predictable thing about United this season.
The bonus on Saturday was the apparent return to form of Wayne Rooney, who, by his own high standards, has been somewhat erratic of late.
Two goals, albeit one from the penalty spot, should be a great boost to his confidence and a huge relief to Sir Alex Ferguson.
I think it would be fair to say that, despite a prolonged winning sequence which, along with a drop in form of their main rivals, has led them to sit pretty, three points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League, United have baffled supporters and pundits alike with the inconsistent performances of many of their players.
Rafael da Silva, who, up to Saturday, had probably been the team’s most reliable defender, had an absolute stinker and was sensibly substituted for Chris Smalling before halftime. He looked upset but can have no complaints about his manager’s decision.
Anderson, like Rooney, can be a match winner with his electric pace and ability to leave opponents trailing in his wake, but he can also, at times, be frustratingly wasteful with the ball.
The Brazilian has yet to convince me or Sir Alex that he deserves a regular starting place. Similarly, the currently injured Nani, who is the perpetual subject of transfer rumours, has dropped down the pecking order at Old Trafford and is no longer an automatic choice.
Patrice Evra has improved from a poor start to this campaign, but Sir Alex must be hoping that Alexander Buttner makes swift progress, or he may be forced to dip into the market for another left-back in January. (Please, God, that it isn’t Ashley Cole!).
Other players, such as Ashley Young, who did well on Saturday; Tom Cleverley; Danny Welbeck; Shinji Kagawa; and Darren Fletcher, have yet to firmly cement their places in the team, giving Sir Alex a headache when it comes to selecting his best 11.
His centre-backs have really picked themselves due to the injury crisis, which is, thankfully, starting to abate and give the manager a few more options.
The goalkeeping issue seems far from settled, although you get the impression that David de Gea is the preferred choice, a thought possibly reinforced by a less-than-convincing performance from Anders Lindegaard against Reading.
Overall, then, it seems that United are where they are despite, rather than because of, the way they are performing and that they have yet to settle into a consistent rhythm.
They are relying on the indisputable gap in class between themselves and the majority of their opponents to dig their way out of trouble when the going gets tough.
I suppose it’s the dream ticket to win when you are not at your best, knowing there is potentially still plenty left in the locker, and perhaps we shouldn’t, therefore, be too worried about their prospects.
With Chelsea dropping off the pace and rumours abounding that Avram Grant is being sounded out as potential overseer of all things football at the Bridge, the soap-opera theme continues.
How many times have we seen characters apparently killed off (e.g. J.R. Ewing in Dallas) only to be resurrected when the ratings drop?
You feel this is a similar scenario at Chelsea with the previously discarded Grant potentially returning like some sort of latter day Messiah to save the Blues.
Rafael Benitez, red tie flapping in the breeze, isn’t happy about the prospect, and you sense (or do I mean hope?), from a Manchester perspective, that things are beginning to go a bit pear shaped down London way.
I wouldn’t be foolish enough to write off Chelsea this early in the season, but January can’t come soon enough for them to strengthen an underperforming squad and try to haul themselves back into contention.
The feeling in the football world that the Premier League is rapidly becoming a two-horse race gives this weekend’s Manchester derby extra significance.
The way things are going, virtually any result is possible.
A win for United would open up a six-point gap going into the festive period; a win for City evens it all up. You feel that both would probably settle for a draw, but are either club capable of playing for a draw at the moment?
As the opening credits roll on Sunday, the identities of the heroes and villains in the latest episode of our Premier League soap opera will be anybody’s guess, and the outcome a lottery.