Sunday, March 1, 2009

United win a piece of silverware

Manchester United emerged triumphant in a penalty shoot-out once again to lift a major trophy as they beat Tottenham 4-1 on penalties to win the Carling Cup after a 0-0 draw in extra-time.

A Carling Cup final triumph over Tottenham may not quite have the same resonance as the Champions League success they enjoyed at the Luzhniki Stadium but it was enough to maintain hopes of an unprecedented quintuple.

Indeed, taking into account last season's phenomenal achievements, United now have five trophies on their mantelpiece, including the Community Shield, and their hunger is some way off being sated.

Goalkeeper Ben Foster saved Jamie O'Hara's opening spot-kick for Spurs, and David Bentley's miss allowed Brazilian midfielder Anderson to slot home the decisive kick.

It was something of a surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson should name Rio Ferdinand as skipper.

The England defender had not featured for a minute of United's run to Wembley, with Nemanja Vidic having more of a claim on a starting spot.

As it turned out, United were glad of Ferdinand's presence as their defence came under increasing pressure from a Spurs outfit that started slowly, then gradually improved as the opening period wore on.

Although Luka Modric enjoyed plenty of possession in his role as playmaker, Aaron Lennon created more problems.

Lennon had plenty to prove, especially to those, including the watching England coach Fabio Capello, who feel the winger's delivery is not good enough.

Lennon showed he was up for the contest by fizzing past Patrice Evra before drilling a low cross to the edge of the six-yard box where Roman Pavlyuchenko might well have completed the notable achievement of scoring in every round if Ferdinand had not slid in to clear.

The flying Yorkshireman had switched wings by the time he floated over another cross for Pavlyuchenko that invited a firm header. Unfortunately the striker was unable to test Foster, who had won the battle with Tomasz Kuszczak to replace Edwin van der Sar.

Until he was helped off in extra-time, Lennon was the brightest attacking player on view, overshadowing a United strike force kept at bay by Ledley King and Michael Dawson.

In the absence of Jonathan Woodgate, who pulled out with an Achilles injury, King was superb, a throwback to the days when he was such a key figure for England under Sven-Goran Eriksson.

In his first major final Darron Gibson came mightily close to putting the Red Devils in front. However, while his shot was too much for Heurelho Gomes, it also flashed wide of the Brazilian's left-hand post.

Ferdinand was also a mere couple of inches away with a dipping volley that nestled on the roof of Tottenham's net.

Nani had the best chance though, letting fly with a snap-shot that threatened to creep in at the corner, only for Gomes to get down to make a fine save at the near post.

Unfortunately for Pavlyuchenko, he could not locate his radar at half-time. He skied a terrible free-kick way over the crossbar and while his effort could not be faulted, it was no surprise when he made way for O'Hara.

Jermaine Jenas was much closer when he tried his luck, although United had regained a semblance of authority in midfield, where Anderson's presence left Carlos Tevez on his own up front.

Tevez had gone close with an instinctive back-heel as an off-target Jonny Evans effort flew towards him and his industry matched that for which Wayne Rooney - ruled out by a virus - is so renowned.

Up to that point, the major let-down was Cristiano Ronaldo, who just could not get into the game and was booked for diving for the second weekend running.

On this occasion, the FIFA World Player of the Year was unlucky. It is debatable whether King's penalty-box challenge was a foul. There was, however, no debate over actual contact.

Given Joe Hart, now second-choice goalkeeper at Manchester City, was in the squad that tackled Spain last month, Capello was probably more delighted than Harry Redknapp to see Foster keep out a goal-bound Lennon effort 20 minutes from time.

It was the nearest either side came to breaking the deadlock until the final seconds, when Ronaldo finally broke free of his shackles and crashed a brute of a shot against the post.

Tevez glanced an extra-time header just wide, with Darren Bent drawing an excellent feet-first save out of Foster later on.

But there was no salvation from the penalty lottery which both teams have profited from over the past 12 months.

This time, it was United's turn. Foster emerged the hero with a save to deny O'Hara and Bentley's miss, combined with Anderson making it four out of four from the spot for the Red Devils, meant the trophy headed to Manchester.

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