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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 3 – The Curse of the Black Spot


The TARDIS crash lands in a wardrobe. Beloved outfits are callously clobbered from their hangers and crumpled beneath the weight of Time Lord tech. Beyond the doors lie in wait neither lions or witches but the Doctor’s most terrifying foe yet. Amy and Rory will have wished they’d stayed at home. The spine chilling tunes of My Chemical Romance make it through the Doctor’s atmospheric filters, numbing even Amelia Pond’s fiery ginger heart with angst and melancholy. Outside in a teenage bedroom the curse of the blackheads lurks in the shadows.

Thankfully this wasn’t the plot to Episode 3. Pirates are about as far from serious adolescent tedium and clouds of Clearasil fumes as it gets. This was a fantastical and traditional romp, and in many ways a return to a classic Who episode formula that Moffat’s era has largely abandoned. Doctor picks up distress signal, Doctor lands in middle of dangerous situation, Doctor seems to work out what’s going on, Doctor works out what’s really going on is scientific and alien related, Doctor fixes things and moves on.

Some commentators are already calling this episode predictable and disappointing, but for me it was the most enjoyable of the series so far. I understand why for some a light hearted and often comic dash about a “becalmed” pirate ship is a rather lifeless contrast with the bombastic, secret stuffed opening two parter. But as I said last week, Day of the Moon was something of a letdown for trying to do too much, which affected its strength as a standalone story. The Curse of the Black Spot was a self contained and entertaining tale, that kept the key things that make the new Who so, so much better than the RTD period.

There was once again a wonderfully realised childhood fear and fancy, that has become Moffat’s trademark. He didn’t write this episode, but Stephen Thomson wrote the second episode of Sherlock, The Blind Banker, so the two have history. Last night’s theme was reflections. There is something scary about a reflection, particularly when it distorts or is not clear. Also when you think you see something that you can’t have done in the mirror image of your surroundings. I remember imagining as a child that mirrors could act as gateways, as they do for Lily Cole’s Mermaid here and also that there was a whole new world on the other side.

The Guardian’s weekly blog calls these ideas “high concepts” and I believe that these lifted the fun of the episode to a new level. There were some good red herrings in the plot that were difficult to work out and it was nice that even the Doctor’s reasoning took mistakes to progress, after he initially thought the creature could only appear through water. Then of course the big reveal was that there was another ship, a space ship, sending out a signal from the same place. This was typical Who as the historical fun and detail of the pirate ship was contrasted brilliantly with a sci-fi sick bay. The seemingly supernatural goings on of course had scientific explanations. The idea of a computerised nurse so fiercely protective of her human charges was an interesting commentary on the limits and excesses of technology, and Lily Cole’s turquoise illuminated figure had convincing and captivating FX.

The pirate ship setting, whilst not as impressive as the American locations of the series opening, nevertheless retained an air of higher quality about it. This wasn’t the Doctor running around a quarry or a council estate as he tended to do under RTD. Hugh Bonneville clearly relished playing a pirate and there were some good performances from other members of the supporting cast of swashbucklers. Cole did well despite not having a single line to say. Most of all this episode was a refreshing change of tone from the seriousness of the American episodes, with Rory mucking about under the influence of Mermaid song and Matt Smith unshackled from ambiguous and sexual banter with River Song to simply be a scatter brain genius. Having said this he still had chances to show his range in scenes with Bonneville and then in that climax with Rory and Amy. He continues to impress.

Twitter went mad as the show reached its climax. The general feeling was that a Time Lord who has been round the block a few times would know CPR. I agreed that this was ridiculous. They could have still had a dramatic moment with the Doctor helping Amy. He’s called the “Doctor” after all. The falseness of this moment undermined some of the other strengths of the episode. But they did certainly achieve drama once again and question the strength of Rory and Amy’s love for one another for the umpteenth time.

In terms of the ongoing secrets of the series, I much preferred how this episode handled them. There was a random appearance from the same woman Amy saw in Episode 2 and the Doctor pondering that fluctuating pregnancy scan. But the secrets were slipped into a great story, rather than taking centre stage and becoming too numerous.

Next week’s show, mischievously entitled The Doctor’s Wife (River Song wasn’t in the trailer, but then given the hints being his wife always seemed too easy), looks extremely promising. It could improve upon the simple fun of this show by touching on the Doctor’s fascinating past with more “high concepts”, still being a standalone story and hinting at those continued secrets. Bring it on.

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DVD Review: London Boulevard


The trailer for London Boulevard at the tail end of last year promised the best kind of British gangster flick; slick, stylish, smart, sexy and darkly funny. A disappointingly short run in cinemas and a lukewarm critical reception suggested that something didn’t quite click though, despite the stellar cast and seductive snippets of footage. Perhaps audiences anticipated more of the same; substitute Ray Winstone for Michael Gambon and Colin Farrell for Daniel Craig and you essentially get Layer Cake. But I was inclined to disagree with the tepid expectations because of interesting parallels between criminality and celebrity.

Farrell plays Mitchell, a cockney con straight out from serving three years for GBH. He explains he was merely involved in “an altercation” (he educated himself through hordes of books inside) and that he’s no thief. He’s trying to convince Keira Knightley’s paparazzi besieged actress to employ him as a bodyguard, after he uses his street smarts and hard as nails attitude to help a friend of hers avoid a nasty scuffle.  Mitchell eventually takes the job protecting the star from crude happy snappers, whilst simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to remove himself from friendships drawing him back into London’s underworld. Without even trying he rapidly builds a reputation for himself that Ray Winstone’s crime boss wishes to utilise.

I found the idea of a gangster tied to his life by the contracts of violent deeds and debts, compared and contrasted with a celebrity trapped by fame, an extremely interesting one. Neither can easily escape those aware of their existence and constantly keeping tabs on them. The relationship between Mitchell and his globally known actress had the potential to provide a refreshing lens through which to view a swaggering, traditional gangster story.

And at times the angle is slightly different. Some of the dialogue between Knightley and Farrell, particularly when they slip away to the countryside, is both full of black humour and believable observations about their determined destinies. But sadly most of the dialogue is ordinary and predictable and has indeed been seen countless times before. Farrell’s performance is neither fantastic nor a failure, merely passably cut off and charismatic, in keeping with the genre. He is suitably cool. Most disappointing is Knightley, who despite looking the part with a withered and thin appearance, never truly inhabits a role that must be close to the reality of her life on occasion. She ought to be capable of more than caricature with such personal experience to draw on.  

For me the main problem with London Boulevard was that it boiled down to an endless simmering. The stylish and often mildly funny build up was pleasing enough for a while, but only because it seemed to hint at the plot coming together and igniting at some point. It never really does. The climax on offer lacks intensity and urgency. With funny, vivid performances in supporting roles from David Thewlis, Ray Winstone, Ben Chaplin and Anna Friel, London Boulevard ultimately lets down an impressive cast of capable Brits. As well as the audience.

Mrt’sblog First Anniversary Special: An ignorant review of The A-Team


A year ago this month I started this blog. I had always written and always wanted to write. I’d always imagined my life with some form of writing in it and hoped that I could do it for a living. And now thanks to this online archive of my work, I do live to write; about films, politics, football, books, television and more. I lack a particular speciality but so many things interest me that even if it hinders the expansion of my readership I cannot see myself settling on the one subject. And even with my scatter gun approach this blog has grown into something I couldn’t have envisioned a year ago.

I write regularly for a film website, Flickering Myth, that’s stuffed full of quality contributions. Recently it celebrated its own anniversary, a second birthday, not long after placing high in several online polls of movie sites. Occasionally I contribute to the national football blog, and epicentre of passionate debate, Caught Offside. My political pieces join those from other politically active and intelligent thinkers of the younger generation over at Demo Critic. Links to all these sites that are worthy of regular visits, can be found in my blog roll to the right.

I suppose I should update the “About” section for this blog, written over a year ago now. It’s very vague and as I’ve already said I still lack a specific focus; but I do now commit a great deal of time and hopefully productive energy to these articles and reviews. In the coming months I plan to attempt progressively more ambitious projects for the site. I’m aware that my blog is still perhaps only properly read by a few sympathetic friends and the odd one-off viewer. But for even one person to find my work and appreciate it means an awful lot. Perhaps someday the better pieces in this catalogue can provide a helpful showcase of my promise and interests.

I know this post is proving to be rather self-indulgent. It’s a bit of a drawn out and elaborate begging routine I suppose; a plea for anyone who likes anything at all they see here to come to stay at the virtual home of my mind again sometime.  It’s especially grovelling when I throw in that today I’ve attempted to connect the blog to Twitter, a social phenomenon I’m unfamiliar with, in order to spread the word. You can “follow” me, like the obsessive and drooling delusional stalker you are, by clicking this link: http://twitter.com/Mrtsblog#

For me, writing this post is also quite soppy and loaded with sentiment. Because a year on from the start of my blog, my life is very different and drastically altered. I have both changed and remained the same. My views and opinions have evolved, whilst some values remain steadfastly in place. Most pathetically of all, I am far happier than I was a year ago. To quote half an advertising slogan, “the future’s bright…”. Against seemingly gloomy odds I’ve found a chunk of satisfaction and a handful of essential ingredients I had always lacked to be happy. This blog was part of the undulating and youthful, but ultimately tame, journey of the past year for me. At one time I felt the need to vent on here as if it were a diary. Now I look back on that as naive and immature. That part of me has evaporated and I look to the future with a grateful smile on my face. Older and wiser with those that I’m close to.

“SHOOT ME NOW!” you cry with stinging tears of irritation burning your angry face. Unfortunately I still have a tendency to ramble on a bit. I apologise for that overemotional detour. But I assure you I’m getting to the point. In fact, I’m about to get this infant’s birthday party started (it’s ok because I’m the parent). If I have such a thing as a “regular reader”, they may have wondered, and continue to do so, why this blog is called “Mrt’sblog”. I know from the handy stats tool provided by Word Press that every now and then the odd fan of The A-Team or Mr T stumbles across the green expanse of my page , via Google or other equally able (but let’s face it less well known) search engines, probably only to leave rapidly with a sense of disappointment. You see I never watched the original TV series of The A-Team and I’m not even much of a fan of Mr T himself.

The incredibly snappy, but uninteresting story behind this blog’s name, that proves brevity is rarely a virtue, goes as follows: an old History teacher of mine, one I still have fond recollections of, started calling me “Mr T” at some point during lessons, purely on account of my surname beginning with that letter of the twenty-six strong crew that is the alphabet. There was lots of what a certain type of annoying person might call, “legendary banter”, in these lessons. I cultivated with unhealthy and unnatural pride a slight cult of celebrity around this Mr T persona at school, with those in my class fully aware of my hotshot funny man status, solidified by the teacher’s jokey approval. It’s a level of fame I miss. Yes reader I live a narrow and dull existence. But then when starting out in the mysterious entity of the blogosphere, stretching tentative tentacles in exploration, unsure of what exactly to do with my own blog, I recalled the nickname from school and adopted it on a whim. Anything was preferable to exposing my shy face as it is to the world.

As I’ve said then, there is no connection to The A-Team. The music of course is iconic. As are some of the catchphrases. But for people from my generation the tune is unavoidably accompanied by two moustachioed fun-runners singing “ONE-ONE-EIGHT! ONE-ONE-EIGHT!” in oddly booming voices, offering to solve rare and strange occurrences. Equally the more memorable one-liners and personalities that no doubt originate in their best and purest form from the TV series, have tended to only crop up for me in adverts. Such as Mr T urging me to “Get some nuts” and rush out to buy a Snickers from the turret of a tank. Unfortunately I don’t own a tank and I don’t think my arms would be long enough to reach down to the counter and pay from way up there, perched on the gun. So I declined his command. Also I don’t like nuts.

Knowing that my blog’s birthday was coming up though, I decided its present would be a short and ignorant view of the film The A-Team from last year. I promptly elevated the DVD to a top priority title on Love Film and hoped it would arrive before the end of the month. Luckily I just about scraped the deadline. Hopefully my blog won’t hate me too much for missing the precise date.

THE A-TEAM opens spectacularly and the action is pretty much non-stop throughout. The bigger action set pieces are heavily reliant on shameless CGI effects. Normally this would ruin a film for me, but the core characters that make up The A-Team are so likeable and funny, bouncing off each other and generally not taking things too seriously, that you can look past the blatant lack of realism or stunning visuals most of the time. There’s something inexplicably endearing about these men falling about inside a tank as it supposedly hurtles through the air. At times I swear my eyes just saw actors mucking about in front of a green screen, but that’s still funny right?

I think I’ve stressed quite enough I know nothing of the original A-Team, so I am judging this film purely on its own merits. For all I know it could be an absolute travesty for fans of The A-Team, but to me the casting of the key players and the dynamic between them worked well. Liam Neeson is always assured in my opinion and here we see a funnier side to him. The suitably named Quniton “Rampage” Jackson takes on the Mr T, B.A. Baracus role, and more than looks the part. Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are excellent as the quirkier members of the foursome.

The highlight of The A-Team for me was a scene in which the loony Murdock, played by Copley, is broken out of an asylum by his fellow team members. Murdock is sent a film to watch with 3D glasses and the film plays with a jeep hurtling along a road, only for it to burst through the wall to the amazement and delight of the patients, sporting their retro 3D specs. Murdock promptly escapes, wearing his set of specs, exclaiming as the team are shot at that the bullets look so lifelike in 3D. In a film full of simple gags, here was some physical, action packed humour that also doubled up as cutting satire of the current 3D trend.

All of the action in The A-Team is fun, if not groundbreaking or gripping. A scene with abseiling, gun toting baddies on Frankfurt skyscrapers with lots of smashing glass is quite inventive and hard hitting though, whilst still having the laughs present throughout the story. The plot itself is fine but uninspiring, as the gang attempt to clear their name and reclaim some stolen plates for printing US dollars. Patrick Wilson as mysteriously named CIA agent Lynch is particularly wonderful and amusing. He gets many of the best lines and delivers them in the believable style of a man with the heart of an easily impressed teenager. Watching an explosion from a satellite view, he gasps “wasn’t that just like Call of Duty?”. I may have missed many A-Team in jokes, but there were lots like this one that were up to date enough for the modern generation. Generally Wilson plays a refreshingly cynical and hilarious shady villain.

The A-Team was a film that exceeded my expectations. It’s a perfect pick me up and two hours of harmless fun with even recurring jokes like burly Baracus’ reluctance to fly, still making me smile by the end.

Happy first Birthday blog! Finally a post relevant to your name.

Why I’m not applauding Crawley’s fairytale moment


It was a weekend of clichés. The FA Cup was restored to its place at the top of English football and in the hearts of millions of fans. Thousands poured forth from homes not usually filled with the sounds of football chatter to watch David vs. Goliath encounters. Communities came together and embarked on quests to places suddenly rendered exotic wonderlands. Who would have thought Manchester could seem such a distant, unattainable paradise?

There were shocks across the board. Even in an all Premiership tie in London, eye brows were raised as the holders Chelsea were dumped out. But the novelty attractions lay elsewhere in the form of so called minnows taking on the swaggering, mega-bucks big boys. Leyton Orient snatched a replay with Arsenal. And of course there was the tie of the round.

It was the dream draw on everyone’s speculative lips as the balls were swirled and plucked. No one quite expected it to really happen, despite the FA Cup’s notoriety for such things. Non-league Crawley Town, netted a huge financial windfall from the grandest theatre of football in the land, not to mention an unforgettable “day out”.

I say “day out” because it was always going to be more than that. United’s FA Cup jitters have become commonplace in recent years and Crawley were up for the occasion. They’re also a team studded with players that could play at a higher level, bought for sizeable sums in non-league terms. Crawley are now reaping rewards that are not merely financial. Thanks to holding the Premier League leaders and the world’s most famous team to a mere 1-0 win, they have secured a place in the hearts of countless neutrals and established themselves on the football map. Many would say they deserve the plaudits for a fearless second half display in which they dominated a team far above their standing.

I am reluctant to praise Crawley and refuse to join in the enthusiastic congratulations. Yes they played well at Old Trafford and reasserted the reality that the so called stars of football can be little better than a well organised, galvanised lower league team in a one-off match. Yes they gave hope to other small teams hoping for a break and injected life into the dreams of youngsters. Yes they hinted at the FA Cup’s ongoing ability to charm and surprise. But the manner in which they progressed from the previous round tarnished the innocence of their fairytale moment for me.

Until they burst onto the scene courtesy of an FA Cup run, I’d not heard of Crawley, the so called “car park for Gatwick” of the non-league. I don’t follow non-league football so I have no bitterness about their supposed Manchester City like spending to propel themselves towards the football league like an unfeeling big stack bully. But I saw the highlights of their triumph over Torquay.

The behaviour of the Crawley players in that game was nothing short of shameful. There was talk of the squad showing disrespect by warming up in the home side’s goalmouth prior to kick-off and of spats between the managers behind the scenes. On the pitch Crawley displayed evidence of dirty tackling and unsporting tactics alongside promising bouts of impressive football. Worst of all were the school boy tantrums surrounding two missed penalties.

Crawley players literally fought each other in fits of moody rage for control of the ball and the right to have a go from the spot. They tugged at each other’s shirts and unmistakeably swore. They abused the referee and demanded cards for their opponents. It was an ill tempered match and Torquay also had a sending off, but those two petty squabbles over penalties highlighted Crawley’s immaturity, arrogance and disrespect.

There’s been all the usual talk about the “magic” of the FA Cup surrounding Crawley’s tie with Manchester United. But for me if there is such a thing as FA Cup magic a key ingredient of it is the good behaviour and pure innocence behind the lowly sides’ valiant and courageous displays. There’s an assumption these days that it’s the money at the top of the game that breeds the bad side of football. I didn’t believe this to be entirely true. But the arrogance and disgraceful behaviour demonstrated by Crawley against Torquay, that sets such an unsporting example for watching youngsters, seems to suggest that even an injection of cash lower down the leagues can lead to behavioural problems and dissent in the dressing room.

It’s a worrying trend of excessive wealth tainting all corners of the game, given greater weight by Leyton Orient’s chairman Barry Hearn’s plans to fly his squad to Las Vegas as a reward for securing a replay with Arsenal. On the surface this is far more acceptable than Crawley’s shocking antics on the pitch and simply a part of another cup fairytale. But why isn’t a replay with one of the country’s greatest teams reward enough? It seems football in itself isn’t enough anymore. After the ludicrous transfer window the last bastion of pure football, the FA Cup, appears under threat too. Cup glory is becoming a trendy badge, an accessory or piece of bling, rather than something honourable, innocent and valuable all by itself.

Javier Hernandez: United’s missing link


Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.

But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.

The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.

And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.

What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.

For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.

Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.

The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.

Old heads see off new faces at Old Trafford…just


It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.

All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.

For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.

Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.

Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.