Belfast Telegraph

Away form is the secret of United’s improvement, says Jonny Evans

By Simon Stone

Jonny Evans does not believe the obvious failures of a derby disaster and Champions League humiliation should be allowed to obscure what has been an otherwise effective first half of the Premier League season by Manchester United.

Barring an unexpected setback against Blackburn at Old Trafford on New Year's Eve, United will begin 2012 on top of the table.

It may be only due to a quirk in the fixture list as Manchester City are not in action at Sunderland for another 24 hours but it still represents a significant achievement for Sir Alex Ferguson's troops.

Aside from the City debacle — which saw United hammered 6-1 at home — United have dropped points in just three other fixtures, allowing them to close in on their neighbours and make deep inroads into what had been a large goal difference advantage.

And for that, Evans feels United deserve a collective pat on the back.

“Compared to last year, the start we've had has been a lot better,” said the Northern Ireland international.

“We've picked up more wins already away from home than we did last year. Obviously the difference between us and Manchester City so far comes down to the game we played against them.

“Other than that, we've done really well.

“The teams we dropped points against last season away from home we've managed to beat this season, picking up points at places where we've previously found it really difficult.”

Yet, amidst a run of eight wins from nine since the City debacle, United have also suffered the calamitous Champions League defeat in Basle that sent them plunging into the Europa League.

It was an embarrassing failure for a club who had reached three of the last four finals, made all the more humiliating because when the draw was made, the Red Devils could not have picked a better group.

In Evans' refreshingly honest assessment, that may have proved United's undoing.

“The Champions League exit added to the criticism,” he said.

“We'd have liked to have had that group wrapped up at an early stage and maybe we took it for granted a little.”

Evans was speaking before he joined Sir Alex Ferguson's long casualty list by picking up a calf strain in the Boxing Day triumph over Wigan at Old Trafford. As the last orthodox central defender standing, Evans would have been expected to help carry the responsibility of ensuring United maintained a battle for honours.

Instead, it means a frustrating spell on the sidelines for a player who has just passed a century of appearances and felt he had returned to form after last season's disappointing performances.

“When I came back from pre-season I felt I hit the ground running,” said Evans.

“I was happy with my start to the season but obviously people will remember the Manchester City game, when I was sent off.

“But I have been happy with my performances.”

Little did Evans know his chance to build on them would be thwarted.

Now Ferguson is crossing his fingers Chris Smalling and Phil Jones recover from illness in time to face Blackburn.

If not, Michael Carrick will retain his place as an emergency defender, with the likelihood that 5ft 7in Patrice Evra will join him in attempting to subdue the threat of Ayegbeni Yakubu.

That hardly seems like a recipe for success. Yet it worked against Wigan, as that in-built determination that has been such a feature of Ferguson's teams down the years came to the fore once more.

“It's something the manager's built here,” said Evans.

“Even in training nobody likes to lose a five-a-side game.

“There is a real hunger here, you certainly don't want to get to the end of the season and have nothing to show for it.”

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