There's pretty much nothing less surprising than Manchester United beating a below-average opponent at Old Trafford. Of late though, it could be said that nothing would be more surprising than United actually looking world class in the process. Well, surprise.
United's 7-1 party against Blackburn Rovers was their biggest league victory since January of 2008, when Cristiano Ronaldo netted a hat trick, Carlos Tevez contributed a double and the Red Devils bashed Newcastle 6-0.
This time around, Dimitar Berbatov — whose one month post-Liverpool hat trick grace period of not being bashed in the media or rumored to be on the way out had recently come to an end — did what Ronaldo and Tevez combined to do, and was even a good Paul Robinson save from standing atop Premier League scoring history with a double hat trick.
It wasn't Berbatov's handful of goals, though, that was what made the day so special for United. It wasn't the fact that Wayne Rooney looked more like himself than he has since last March and contributed to multiple scoring efforts either. It was that United finally looked like United at their best — as a unit.
Early in the season, the team had been riddled with defensive shortcomings, relying on the likes of Nani and Berbatov to outscore opponents before letting teams level the scoreline late.
In the last six weeks or so, Berbatov disappeared, and it was the form of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the back that had kept the team afloat.
On Saturday, everything clicked. Manchester United came forward in waves, dominating the ball — but with an intent that they had lacked since Rooney's scoring run of nearly a year ago. Rooney and Berbatov linked beautifully down the center.
Nani absolutely dominated the right, but not in the individualistic manner that he often can be accused of. Park Ji Sung controlled the left wing as well, and was all over the field — leaving his imprint on every moment of the match as he does when he is at his best.
Patrice Evra's return to form at left back continued to evidence itself as he too continually joined in going forward and nearly scored for the second time in as many weeks. Rafael showed that he has developed into a quality Premier League right back at just age 20 — worthy of the Brazil call-up that he received in August.
Vidic and Ferdinand dominated as always, and the often out-of-favor Anderson and Michael Carrick did what the lauded Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher have failed to do for United this season — make the team play its best.
It was vintage United — brutally exact in formation and passing, mistake free, and imminently capable of individual brilliance. While Nani is no Ronaldo, his influence on the game was eerily similar to what Cristiano offered in 2007-08. He made football look easy — for himself and for his teammates.
Of course, Nani has often looked capable of filling Ronaldo's role, if not his shoes, but Berbatov had really never appeared the man to replace Tevez until Saturday. Berbatov has always scored beautiful goals and been capable creating brilliantly for others. He's been likely to disappear in games, only to reappear for a moment to butcher a should-be goal. Against Blackburn, he was omnipresent — tracking down balls all over the field — and he was mistake free — his teammates never once had to make faces at him.
There's no denying we've seen flashes of all of this before — such as Berbatov's Liverpool hat trick — but we've never seen him quite like this, and we haven't seen United like this in far too long for Sir Alex Ferguson's liking. We had begun to question whether or not United was simply the league's fifth-most talented team being taped together tenuously by Ferguson, or if they actually were capable of being something special. At least on Saturday, they were.
In truth, a thrashing of Blackburn is a thrashing of Blackburn, not Chelsea, but many of United's opponents have led up to matches with calls of "We don't fear you." Now, with major tests against Arsenal and Chelsea looming, United have prevented either from rationally making that claim.
United may revert to dull form again next week at Blackpool, but they've at least proved what they can be, and even at their dullest, they aren't nearly as flawed as their biggest rivals in London have been. They have now matched their 1998-99 29-game unbeaten streak — mostly on the strength of calculated, workmanlike performances, but with a flurry of excellence at the end. In that way, the 29-game streak could even be called a near-perfect reflection of what Manchester United is. Accordingly, they must again be considered league favorites.
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