By the time Juan Mata fully settles into this United side, orchestrating the play and dictating passes mere mortals can’t see, we will, hopefully, all look back to tonight and break a polite, almost embarrassed smile, at how low-key the Spaniard’s debut in a Manchester United shirt was.
That is not to say that United’s record signing disappointed in his first outing for his new club, but to classify tonight as a “dream debut” would be to get carried away too soon and too quickly.
Throughout his first 83 minutes as Manchester United player, the £37.1m-man showed glimpses of the class we’re all hoping to get accustomed to in the next few months and while his flame only seldom burnt, the former Chelsea man delivered a solid performance nevertheless, one good enough to granting him a standing ovation as he was replaced by Adnan Januzaj with only seven minutes left.
Greeted upon his arrival onto the pitch by the sort of raucous reception only football fans desperate for a bit of good news can deliver – and one which only just surpassed the hero’s welcome dedicated to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on his return to Old Trafford – Mata’s arrival inspired United to a bright start.
The tactical conundrum over the Spaniard’s position had filled newspaper inches since rumours began filtering of a possible move to Old Trafford, and David Moyes’ first tactical instructions to Mata saw the former Chelsea player deployed in the number 10 position, just behind the returning Robin Van Persie.
Having missed 11 games, the Dutchman was eager to reclaim his reign and took barely six minutes to do so, his header finding the back of the net, after Antonio Valencia’s header had crashed against the bar and David Marshall had parried Van Persie’s follow up.
The move had begun with a brilliant cross-field pass from Mata, who looked intent to impress on his debut but soon found that being surrounded by Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Ashley Young isn’t quite the same thing as exchanging passes with Oscar, Eden Hazard and Frank Lampard.
United’s familiar midfield problems emerged yet again in all their terrifying glory, with Ryan Giggs the only member of the midfield four eager to drive forward but sharing Mata’s problem of not having anybody to pass the ball to, given Jones, Valencia and Young took turns to determine who was the most static among themselves.
United’s promising start – Van Persie’s was United’s first goal in the opening 25 minutes of a Premier League match at home this season – soon petered out, while Cardiff tried to create a few problems to Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans with a series of crosses that piled pressure on United’s rearguard, but failed to generate any clear-cut chances.
The second half began in similar fashion, with the Stretford End serenading Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and reminding everybody that he was much better value for money than Alan Shearer, while Cardiff fans, bizarrely, thought appropriate to forget about being bottom of the league to remind us that we’re “going to win fuck all”.
To each their own, but at least United have Ashley Young.
Every Red’s favourite pantomime villain decided that Mata had been awarded enough time in the spotlight and grabbed the second half headlines all for himself, cutting inside from the left before unleashing a thunderous strike that flew past Marshall and into the bottom corner of his near post.
With United 2-0 up just before the hour mark, Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverley replaced Van Persie and Giggs, before Valencia squandered an excellent counter attack by wasting time in the box, though he forced Marshall into a rather excellent save and Rooney and Januzaj both went close to get on the scoresheet.
It wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of imagination, but after enduring a dismal end to 2013 and an even worse start to 2014, Moyes and his men will hope to ride the feel good factor generated by Mata’s arrival and Rooney and Van Persie’s return for a little longer.
Now, if only United could go into Saturday’s game with a new central midfielder in their ranks…