Wayne Thanks the Lord
A lacklustre Manchester United failed to warm their fans as they overcame a tame West Ham on one of the coldest nights this year.
Maybe very few of us can imagine what it is like to start a match at minus-two degrees, let alone play 90 minutes or more. That is the only plausible explanation for a United team that, with a few exceptions, never got into second gear.
As United managed to sneak a win, we can say this was just like a training match. If West Ham had made something of the several attacks they had, we might instead have been branding United as disgracefully unprofessional.
For all the bluster in Sir Alex's interviews,the programme notes and the players' comments for the last 10 days that United are desperate to win the FA Cup, there was precious little evidence on the night.
Ryan Giggs tried in vain to drive United forward, supported by a few of his colleagues who may have been motivated by not wanting to spend any more than 90 minutes in the sub-zero conditions.
In fact at one point one might have concluded that they were trying to keep Jaaskelainen so inactive that he froze and was unable to save a surprise attack. Not to be. He remained confident and alert all night, as United shovelled one cross after another into his grateful arms.
There were few bright spots except the fleeting hope after the ninth-minute goal that West Ham might get a stuffing. There were plenty of talking points, however, and if Sir Alex wasn't hoarse from shouting at half-time, he probably was by 10 o'clock.
Ryan Giggs probably summed it up with his conclusion that there have been times when United would gratefully take a 1-0 win. This was the second time against West Ham at Old Trafford this season and both followed a similar pattern.
This time though being able to hold onto the single goal was less down to Sam Allardyce's defensive organisation and more to United's inept final balls and finishing.
Not a night for the connoisseur, but 10 changes; players rested for the Spurs match; job done and into the fourth round.
As a footnote, this was the first FA Cup match at Old Trafford for 677 days.
It is fair to say that Sam Allardyce and West Ham have not had the breaks against United this season.
He has got them well-organised at the back, and they are dangerous in the air from crosses into the box. But United have three times been ahead with an early goal and three times struggled to put the Hammers away.
Each time United have let them back into the game, and with more "rub of the green," they could have seriously embarrassed their more illustrious opponents.
The trouble is that once United had grabbed the late equaliser in the first leg of this FA Cup tie, you knew there was only going to be one outcome.
A 200-mile trip to a frosty Manchester on a sub-zero night with a six-pointer coming up against QPR at the weekend? Certainly not a banker away win.
And yet at half-time, 1-0 down, West Ham were 9-1 to draw the match and 35-1 to win it. My travelling companion was sorely tempted by those odds having watched the first half, even though they weren't able to conjure a decent goal threat from their numerous attacks.
The trouble is that Big Sam probably respects Sir Alex too much. They are certainly mates and say nice things about each other.
And Sir Alex himself was on the charm offensive this week about his mate Sam. After the match, they probably shared a bottle of fine red but may not have talked about the game itself.
OK, so Sam has this critical match coming up at the weekend, and he knew that Fergie could put out a second team at Old Trafford and win 4-0. But the team that the former Bolton and Blackburn manager fielded was pretty much a white flag of surrender.
Was it 3-5-2 or 5-3-2? Who knows, but playing a midfielder at centre-back and a few relative unknowns while the club captain sat on the bench said it all.
So Sam probably thought "we're not likely to get a result, so I'll give a few of the young lads a run-out and keep the team fresh for the weekend." Confirmation came when he removed their biggest goal threat in Carlton Cole.
United tried so hard to give West Ham a chance, but ultimately it was going to be a home win, whether comfortable or not.
Ryan Giggs was deservedly man of the match. He was, in truth, the only player who looked desperate to win. Some of his team-mates were desperately poor.
After the match, Sir Alex was in no doubt that Giggs can play at least another year. On this form, who would doubt it.
Maybe it's because he is approaching the end of his career that he is playing with a freedom and zest that reminds us just what a talent he was in his early 20s. In fact, with one of his mazy runs Wednesday night you wouldn't have been surprised to see him go all the way and score a goal like the "best ever" in the FA Cup against Arsenal.
Luckily he didn't, because if he'd taken his shirt off and whirled it round his head, he would probably have died of pneumonia.
But if United deserved to win at all, Ryan Giggs was the reason. Yes he gave the ball away a few times, but if some of his colleagues had played half as well and with as much heart, United would have won the match at a canter.
Let's be blunt. Even allowing for their ring rustiness, Anderson and Nani were poor. Valencia wasn't much better.
Rafael, however, had an excellent game again. How much he has matured this season alone. He doesn't go to the ground, reads the tackle, is up in attack when needed and back in defence when wanted. Yes, he occasionally suffers lost concentration like when Sturridge scored on Sunday.
Anderson played the pass of the match to set Hernandez on his way to cross for Rooney to finish. But the Brazilian spent the rest of the time he remained on the pitch giving the ball away or running into players and losing possession.
Why does he get injured so much, and why does he still blow hot and cold? Both this season and last there have been times when he's looked international class and run the game. Then, entrusted with midfield leadership like Wednesday night, he hands the initiative to the opposition.
And Nani...oh dear. Is his confidence shot to pieces? Does he still feel unloved?
Wednesday night he was the same frustrating player who managed to gift the Capital One Cup to Chelsea with his appalling judgement.
Yes, he had a superb drive kicked off the line, but he again couldn't judge when to cross and when to shoot—and his shooting was, that chance apart, woeful. He played enough of the match to be certain he won't be featuring against Spurs at the weekend.
Be thankful for small mercies.
Jones and Smalling
After Vidic's knock and Jonny's hamstring with Spurs coming up there was only going to be one central defensive pairing Wednesday night.
At last we got the chance to see both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in their proper positions—also how they would play together.
So, OK, United had some scary moments in defence, but in general they were sound and Smalling was excellent.
He just doesn't look comfortable at right-back, but he was commanding in the air Wednesday night, dribbled out of defence, could easily have had a goal and made a saving tackle on Kevin Nolan late on.
With all the talk about the likes of Hummels and Subotic it is easy to forget that the future of United is in safe hands with Evans, Smalling and Jones in central defence and Wootton and Keane in reserve after Vidic and Ferdinand retire.
Read this carefully.
This was Wayne Rooney's 10th missed penalty for Manchester United. And his worst so far.
He blazed it at least four feet over the middle of the crossbar, and Sir Alex's look summed it up.
It can't be a general lack of confidence. Wayne doesn't do that. But has he lost his bottle for spot kicks?
It's a dangerous vicious circle to be in. You miss a penalty so you try something different. The best takers slide it into either bottom corner or smash it into either top corner, where the goalkeeper can't touch it.
Rooney has tried placing it and blasting it without success. This was the second time this year alone that he has blazed over the bar.
Whether it's psychology or technique he's got to stop taking them. If Robin van Persie is in the team, then he must now be first choice. Otherwise, it should be Giggs or Cleverley.
Apologies if this sounds like a stuck record, but facts are facts.
United were losing control of a match they should have walked. Ryan Giggs was playing a blinder but couldn't cover every blade of grass. Midfield was being overrun from late in the first half, and the chickens were starting to lose their heads.
There was a desperate need for stability and calmness in the middle of the park. (No, not Paul Scholes, who could have been red carded for another X-rated tackle).
The manager saw it and brought on Carrick. The game was won.
He was everywhere, didn't misplace a pass, feinted and ran past defenders, played colleagues in and intercepted passes.
Above all, he is now regularly bringing an appreciative buzz from the Old Trafford audience.
For the last 15 minutes or so he produced a cameo performance as good as any in his career. He ran the midfield and calmed everything down. Let's hope he can do the same at White Hart Lane against his old club.