United on top but plenty to ponder

Our Nick Hext reflects on Premier League leaders Manchester United's 2-1 win over Southampton.

Last Updated: 31/01/13 at 02:22 Post Comment

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Manchester United lead the Premier Leagu

Manchester United lead the Premier Leagu

It isn't too bad to be seven points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League without reaching top gear.

Manchester United must certainly feel that way after the 2-1 victory over Southampton saw them pull further ahead at the summit.

It was a similar story to plenty of United's wins this season. Falling a goal behind sparked them into life but it was far from the end of the story once the Red Devils took the lead.

Southampton produced a second half display of poise and power - helped hugely by the half-time introduction of Steven Davis and the returning Adam Lallana - to give the hosts plenty of nervous moments.

It would be an exaggeration to say United were completely on the ropes but there were a few last-ditch tackles and a very strong save from David de Gea to keep out a free-kick from Rickie Lambert, who produced another top top-flight display.

That save won't stop the critics going for De Gea. And there are certainly issues for Sir Alex Ferguson to ponder with his first-choice goalkeeper.

The Spaniard was at fault for Jay Rodriguez's goal, although Michael Carrick's backpass didn't do him any favours, and still doesn't control his box enough to spread confidence throughout the side.

Could there be a surprise? Tim Krul's reputation at Newcastle is still fairly high despite the Magpies' current problems and there will be a scramble for Victor Valdes' signature when he leaves Barcelona.

Sky Bet go 3/1 the Barca shot-stopper makes the move to Old Trafford before the start of September.

That is a decision for Ferguson to ponder during the coming months but there is certainly interest to see how he manages his squad for the remainder of the campaign.

Replacing Chris Smalling with Rio Ferdinand gave United a bit more security at the back against Saints but recent history suggests it won't be possible for both the former Leeds man and Nemanja Vidic to last the rest of the season without injury.

That means pressure will continue to be put on Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans. United have missed having their old stagers in defence but the younger trio shouldn't worry about that and instead have to show just why Ferguson has invested faith in them.

It's been no surprise to see Celtic midfielder Victor Wanyama linked with a move to Old Trafford. Anderson couldn't take control of Wednesday night's clash and there is certainly room in the United ranks for an all-action player in the centre of the park.

That is another issue that will wait until the summer - at which time we will know more on the futures of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs - and it's certain Shinji Kagawa's long-term Old Trafford future is in the centre of midfield.

Both the Japan international and Danny Welbeck operated diligently from wide areas against Saints but it isn't in their comfort zone and it would be a huge surprise if Antonio Valencia isn't to the fore in key games.

Maybe Nani will get a run of games?

Or maybe not.

Wayne Rooney's two-goal salvo will hearten all Red Devils fans and it's the level of striking talent at Ferguson's disposal - as I have written about previously - that makes it unlikely the advantage in the title race will vanish.

Never say never - last season showed us that at plenty of junctures - but Manchester City need a lot more improvement than United do for the remainder of the campaign.

And that's from a seven-point deficit.

The Real Madrid Champions League tie will provide a really interesting test for United and Jose Mourinho's men still provide a big challenge as the 1-1 Copa Del Rey draw with Barcelona shows.

If they get through that it really could be a momentous season for United.

The FA Cup is still up for grabs - a competition United haven't won in 10 years - and the prizes on offer will have some supporters salivating about a treble.

That's a big ask but it was in 1999 as well, wasn't it?

As for Southampton, it's clear that the spirit of the club hasn't been broken by Nigel Adkins' controversial departure and the confidence should be there that they can avoid the drop.

The Saints fans were firmly behind the team at Old Trafford and there is a lot of goodwill invested in a squad full of players who have helped them make the massive leap up from League One.

Morgan Schneiderlin was one man to really catch the eye. It's clear his battling displays in the centre of midfield will be key to staying out of the bottom three and his partnership with Jack Cork can continue to evolve.

This wasn't a night for Gaston Ramirez to shine but he may well be the Saints' trump card.No other side in the battle for survival has a player like the Uruguayan with the X-Factor - QPR will point to Adel Taarabt but Ramirez looks better to me - and Mauricio Pochettino is sure to do his best to bring out all the playmaker's talent.

Time will be the judge on whether it was the right call for Saints to change manager - although there's no doubt it was a decision Adkins didn't deserve - and chairman Nicola Cortese will hope to have the last laugh.

He certainly will be smiling at the end of the season if Saints can replicate their second half performance against United in the battles to come.

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