Saturday, November 6, 2010

Owen Hargreaves Lasts Just Five Minutes as Fergie's Gamble Backfires

Owen Hargreaves cut a lonely figure as he left the field of battle at Old Trafford after just five minutes in Manchester United's 2-1 victory over Mick McCarthy's Wolves side.
The injury-plagued midfielder, making his first start in over two years, was disconsolate as he made his way down the tunnel to receive treatment. The hush of the crowd was telling with more than one United fan wondering if this was the last time they would ever see the England international wear red again.

A little over a year ago, Mick McCarthy, Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, sent a weakened side to Old Trafford in an effort to rest players for matches where victory would come much easier. United ran out as 3-0 winners, and the Irishman was pilloried in the media for taking such an approach to the game.
It was probably this game that swayed Sir Alex Ferguson into thinking this would be the ideal time to give Hargreaves a taste of what he had been missing for the last 25 months. The ex-Bayern Munich powerhouse returned to training in late September, and many felt that a runout in the Carling Cup was about all the action he would see this side of Christmas.
Wolves have been playing quite well recently despite a run of poor results. After last week's much needed victory over Manchester City, McCarthy decided that his side needed continuity if they were going to climb away from the relegation zone.
With that in mind, McCarthy sent out a very strong team and almost caught Sir Alex Ferguson on the hop.
The United manager had taken the game for granted and named one of the strangest looking Manchester United teams in some time. John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves were named in midfield while Gabriel Obertan and Park Ji-Sung found themselves playing out wide. Up front, the impressive rookie Javier Hernandez was favoured to the injured Dimitar Berbatov.
Wolves, sensing that a win was possible, dictated the early stages of the match. United’s game wasn't helped by Hargreaves going off after just five minutes.
Over the last two years, Hargreaves has only played one minute of competitive football. He has suffered from endless problems with his knees and has had the last rites performed on his career more than once.
The gamble with his player’s future shows gross negligence on behalf of the manager. Earlier this season Wayne Rooney was lambasted in many parts of the media for "holding the club to ransom." When you see how Hargreaves was literally thrown in at the deepened you can sympathise with Rooney all the more.
Football is a fleeting career at the best of times, and in players like Hargreaves, it has been cruelly shortened by injury upon injury. Having only come back to full time training five weeks ago, there is no way in hell that Hargreaves was ready to face a side like Wolves.
The Wolves have not been the most sympathetic of sides this season, and Hargreaves can thank his lucky stars that he was not another victim of Carl Henry.
With just four minutes on the clock and finding himself out in right midfield, Hargreaves stretched to cross the ball and pulled a hamstring. It was a typical injury to pick up after being out of the game so long, and is indicative of a player whose game has not yet reached the full mental fitness required to play professional football at the highest level.
The ineffectual Bebe replaced the injury plagued star, with the Portuguese giving an incredibly poor account of himself. Ferguson’s patience ran out after just an hour and Federico Macheda was introduced as United tried to salvage the game.
Bebe’s performance was shocking in every department. At this stage, he looks out of his depth and resembles a sprinter more than a footballer. His incredibly broad shoulders and thin legs are a huge disadvantage as he lacks mobility. Game wise, he has a lot to learn, and it will be a miracle if he gets more first team action in the immediate future.
Remember, this is the untried player that cost the same as Rafael van der Vaart at Spurs.
The visitors went on to dominate the half and often looked shocked to have so much possession of the ball. Their counter-attacking tactic was literally useless as they found themselves being the prime aggressor, dictating possession but not having the nous or creativity to do anything with it.
Park Ji-Sung's goal on the stroke of half time gave United an undeserved lead before ex-United youth Sylvan Ebanks-Blake restored parity. Kevin Doyle continued to enhance his reputation as one of the best centre forwards in the league, while Steven Fletcher really should have put Wolves in front after being set up by Chelsea loanee Michael Macienne.
The miss was to prove a costly one as Park Ji-Sung stepped in with his second goal of the game in the 95th minute of injury time. Manchester United's superb professionalism got them over the line after yet another poor performance. Despite not starting the season well, the Red Devils remain unbeaten and are now the only unbeaten team in England.
However, United's win was overshadowed by Hargreaves' injury. Ferguson admittedly gambled with his player, but the silver lining on the injury is that it was only a hamstring pull.
In other words, it is what is known as a secondary injury in the game.
Had Hargreaves' knee given in, the fears over his future might be justified. With the hamstring strain, the most he will miss will be around five weeks. During that time, he will still be immersed in the team and will be training daily in the gym.
Given his past injuries, it is fair to estimate that Hargreaves has a powerful personality. He does not give up easily and has had more than one chance to call time on his career over the last couple of years.
This will be a setback for him, but he should also take solace in the fact that he actually started the game and received the chance to take to the pitch. With that in mind, his efforts to get back before Christmas are likely to be doubled, and it would be no surprise to see him named in United's Champions League squad after Christmas if he can get game time under his belt.