Month May 2009

Month May 2009

Time to think required after demoralising Euro loss

Ed May 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o’s opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.

United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.

But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.

Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.

Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward.

Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.

Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.

But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.

And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?

Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.

Champions League final: key battles

Ed May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Top matches are decided in the details. Forget tactics and coaching – it will be the one-on-one battles that will decide the Champions League final this coming Wednesday. Win most of these and United take home the cup once again.

Lionel Messi versus Patrice Evra
Messi is the planet’s most in-form player, with 37 goals from 48 games this season. His mesmeric dribbling skills and ability to fashion a goal from almost nothing has been devastating in both the Champions League and La Liga this season. However, Evra can proudly point to shutting the little Argentinian out of both legs of the 2008 Champions League semi-final. Evra, with the support of Rooney on the left, will have to be at his very best. One chance is all it takes for Messi, even if his record against English sides is unimpressive.

Samuel Eto’o versus Nemanja Vidic
The big Serb has had is best season in a United shirt and will expect to win this battle. While Eto’o’s record this season – 32 in 45 games in all competitions – is outstanding, Vidic will expect to win individual battles both in the air (there wont be many) and on the ground versus the Cameroon international. However, the Serb will need to read the game as well as ever if Barça are not to pass their way through United’s back-four.

Xavi Hernandes verus Michael Carrick
Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament Xavi has been in wonderful form this season but then so has Carrick. While many used to criticise the former Spurs man for failing to take control of games it’s hardly that can be leveled this season. Carrick’s passing has been influential and his creativity essential to United’s form this season. However, it will be Carrick’s ability to read the game and break up attacks just outside United’s area that will be essential to this duel. Win this one and Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession with be thwarted.

Thierry Henry verus John O’Shea
Many regard O’Shea as United’s weak link but the Irishman has had a solid defensive season. His attacking qualities are limited and his passing sometimes short of the class expected in a Red shirt, but O’Shea is unlikely to let United down against Henry. O’Shea will need to keep close to United’s central defenders and show Henry the line – this will test the Frenchman’s true fitness after returning from a knee injury.

Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gerard Piqué
Some say that United’s Portuguese winger has had a bad season but 25 goals in 49 games in all competitions, playing predominantly wide right, says otherwise. More to the point, Ronaldo is coming into very top form at just the right time. His pace, power and movement were far too good for Arsenal in the semi-final. Piqué, the former United defender, has matured admirably in his début Barça season. And his ability to bring the ball out of defence compared favourably with the great Franz Beckenbaur. But the final will be his biggest test yet, and without his normal central defensive parter Rafael Marquez the onus will be on the youngster.

Wayne Rooney versus Carles Puyol
If Barça deploy the club captain Puyol at right back as many pundits expect then Wayne Rooney will be the sternest test for the ageing defender. It would not be unfair to say that Puyol’s legs are going and he will need ever bit of experience to stop United’s marauding striker, who has been brilliant cutting in from the left in the last two months of the season. It may not be his favourite position but if he is not burdened too much trying to double up on Lionel Messi, Rooney should have a field day.

Champions League final 2009: preview

Ed May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

United take on Barcelona in this year’s Champions League final in what many are billing the ‘dream final’. Europe’s two best sides meet this Wednesday in Rome with United chasing their fourth European Cup win, potentially a second in succession. With world-class talent on display in both teams, and a commitment to attractive, attacking football, all the ingredients are in place for a classic final.

United arrive in Rome on the back of 25 European games without defeat and in tremendous form late-season form, both domestically and in Europe. With only long-term absentee Owen Hargreaves and the suspended Darren Fletcher missing from the match-day squad, boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest headache will be who to leave out. The manager will want to strike the right balance between countering Barcelona’s obvious attacking threat, and taking advantage of Los Cules’ weakened defensive line-up. 

Somewhat surprisingly, for a squad boasting the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, United scored just 68 goals in the Premiership during 2008-9. While the Reds were the most potent home team in the country, Fergie’s men scored just 25 times on the road, reflecting a pragmatic tactical approach away from Old Trafford. With that in mind, it seems likely that Ferguson will pick a team that focuses on United’s defensive strength, while providing options for the team on the break.

Barcelona come into the game having scored more than 100 times in La Liga alone, and swept all before them in Spain’s domestic league and cup competitions. But Los Cules arrive in Rome with concerns surrounding their defence, with first choice full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended. If that wasn’t bad enough news for Barça boss Pep Guardiola, central defenders Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez are both injured and out of the match. Moreover, former Barça midfielder Guardiola must gamble on the fitness of star players Andreas Iniesta and Thiery Henry. While it seems both will start the match after taking part in recent training sessions, a thigh and knee injury respectively, mean that neither player will be 100% for the match.

United are likely to go man-for-man against Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The back five picks itself with veteran Edwin van der Sar in goal, John O’Shea and Patrice Evra at full-back and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Irishman O’Shea is likely to get the nod ahead of Gary Neville and Wes Brown at right-back, who have both only recently returned from injury, and the talented but inexperienced Rafael da Silva.

In midfield Ryan Giggs is set to start in place of the suspended Fletcher. With Giggs offering less protection for the back four than Fletcher, both Michael Carrick and Anderson will retain their places in an attempt to counter Barça’s attacking midfield three. It means no place for veteran Paul Scholes, ten years on from the final he famously missed against Bayern Munich in 1999.

Up front Ferguson is likely to stick with the semi-final winning trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park. While nominally Ronaldo is likely to start the match through the centre, the forwards will operate as a flexible three in attacking positions, with Rooney and Park offering greater protection for United’s full-backs than Ronaldo. This will mean disappointment for both Tevez and Berbatov, who are likely to remain on the bench.

Barcelona will have to shuffle their pack due to injuries and suspension. While Victor Valdes is a certain pick in goal, Guardiola’s biggest problems lie in the back four. Carles Puyol is likely to come in at right-back, with midfielder Yaya Toure alongside former United player Gerard Piqué in the centre. Guardiola will choose between veteran Brazilian Silvino or midfielder Seydou Keita at left-back.

The Barça boss is likely to gamble on the fitness of key man Andrea Iniesta in midfield, alongside Euro 2008 player of the tournament Xavi Hernandez and new Spanish cap Sergio Busquets, who will provide some counter to United’s power through the centre of the park. 

Should Henry win his fitness race, he will take up the left-sided attacking slot, with Samuel Eto’o through the middle and the brilliant Lionel Messi starting from the right. Should Henry not make it, it is likely Iniesta will push further forward and Keita come into a central midfield position.

United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson, Carrick, Giggs; Park, Ronaldo, Rooney.

Barça: Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Toure, Silvino; Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets; Messi, Eto’o, Henry.

Next season starts now

Ed May 20, 2009 Tags: Opinion 2 comments

How do you improve on being English and World Champions, and European Cup finalists? It’s a difficult task you may say but to re-state the old cliché, to stand still in football is to go backwards, so improve United must. In fact Ferguson may need to recruit in all areas of the pitch to replace aging stars, departing players and failed imports.

Inevitably there will be squad changes this summer. The headline casualty will be Carlos Tevez, who is certain to leave to the highest bidder, rather than stay at Old Trafford. But while Sir Alex will need to make some important decisions on the make-up of next season’s forward line, he must also look at other areas of the pitch.

In goal Edwin van der Sar will start the 2009 – 2010 season as number one but at 38 years of age it seems likely that it will be his last year as a professional. Behind him few fans have faith in Polish stopper Tomasz Kuszczak as the great Dutchman’s long-term replacement. At least as a rarely used back-up he can’t do much damage. United’s other reserve, Ben Foster, has plenty of talent but with almost two years out of the game through injury and lack of opportunities there must be serious doubts as to whether he’ll ever make it at United. For his own sake, Foster will need to leave on loan once again next season. With Thomas Heaton likely to leave the club permanently, Sir Alex may look to recruit a third-choice ‘keeper.

In defence there is a short-term question mark over the right-back position, with Rafael da Silva suffering in the second half of the season. While he undoubtedly has huge talent, his defensive inexperience has been exposed on more than one occasion. Moreover, with Gary Neville approaching the end of his career, Wes Brown rarely fit, and John O’Shea most fans’ idea of a decent reserve, so long as he doesn’t have to play every week, then Ferguson may need to recruit.

At left back, O’Shea aside, there is no proven back-up to Patrice Evra. While Fabio da Silva’s talent may well be equal to that of his brother, his injury record has restricted his first team opportunities to just a couple of cup appearances. The arrival of a back-up left full- back would be no suprise.

In midfield, United should be able to welcome back Owen Hargreaves into the fold, which will be a massive bonus to the team, if not to Darren Fletcher’s hopes of continuing this season’s good form. Elsewhere, there will be concerns over the aging legs of Paul Scholes and to a lesser extent Ryan Giggs but there will be one final season in the sun before Sir Alex needs to think about bringing in extra reinforcements.

There is of course the left-sided Zoran Tosic, recruited at a cost of £8 million in January, who has been on a long-term fitness and strength building regime at the club. Next should see the introduction of the Serb to more first team action.

However, there must be a question mark over the long term future of Luis Nani, whose form has been fitful this season. At best the Portugese winger flatters to deceive. At worst, he’s a liability. He has talent but it has almost never been harnessed in a United shirt. The potential arrival of Wigan’s Antonio Valencia, for a shade over £15 million, will not only allow Cristiano Ronaldo to play more games in a central position next season, but potentially end Nani’s spell at the club.  And if it doesn’t, the arrival of the talented but raw Serb Adem Lalić in January 2010 may just be the final staw.

Which leaves the forwards – and that’s an old story!

Bitter Benitez lacks any class

Ed May 17, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion No comments

Has there ever been a worse loser in the history of the Premier League than Rafael Benitez? It’s hard to recall a losing manager more bitter, or buried deeper in a pit of denial than Liverpool’s Spanish coach. As United claimed a record equalling 18th Enlgish title yesterday, Benitez refused to congratulate Sir Alex Ferguson on the victory. We shouldn’t be suprised. In the final analysis class shows in defeat much more than in victory.

Ferguson has had many intense rivalries over the years. There isn’t a coach on the planet more schooled in falling out with his closest rivals. But even Arsene Wenger at his most myopic was able to grudgingly congratulate Sir Alex Ferguson on each of United’s Premier League wins. Jose Mourinho was positively gushing with praise in comparison to Liverpool’s loser. United’s manager, meanwhile, has famously sent a case of fine wine to each of the very few victors other than himself in the Premier League’s history.

Benitez? According to second-placed Benitez Liverpool are the better side, United bought the title, referees are all United fans, and the moon and the stars were out of alignment. Sounds like you’re talking out of Uranus, Rafa.

This coming from a man who  spent £7 million on a third choice left-back, and £20 million on a striker he refused to play, as part of a £200+ million splurg over the past five years. And he has the gall to claim United’s success is built on money. Perhaps the defeated Benitez would have faired better actually coaching his side, rather than choosing to pile the pressure and focus on his own team with a truly insane “facts” rant about Sir Alex. At least his scally players don’t want to beat each other up. Oh.

The truth is that Benitez, after spending a fortune, has still failed to land Liverpool the title. But he could have. United started the season slowly, coping badly with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo through injury and the integration of Dimitar Berbatov into the side. Add to that the multiple inuries to defensive personnel and the burden of playing in the European Super Cup and the World Club Cup, and this was Liverpool’s best chance of landing the Premier League in nearly two decades. But Liverpool’s failure of a manager blew the Scousers’ chances with a consistently cautious approach at home, and his January meltdown.

United meanwhile will be even better next season, whether Carlos Tevez stays or not.  The Reds’ yougsters – Nani, Anderson, Rafael and Fabio da Silva, Danny Wellbeck, Johnny Evans, Rodrigo Possebon, Zoran Tosic and Federico Macheda – will all be a year more mature. Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo are still only 23 and 24 and still getting better. And that’s without spending a penny in the transfer market, which Ferguson will do if the right man comes along.

Beating Liverpool once against next season, to land a record 19th title, will be all the sweeter for watching Benitez melt down again. Now that’s a fact.

Gambler Fergie Hits Jackpot

Ed May 16, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion 1 comment

Manchester United won a record-equalling 18th English championship – their 11th in the Premier League – after a scoreless draw against Arsenal at Old Trafford this afternoon. The draw takes United an insurmountable seven points clear of Liverpool. And despite the bleating emanating from United’s rivals down the M62, the Reds thoroughly deserve the title after a producing the most consistent attacking football throughout the season.

United’s victory is in no small part down to Sir Alex Ferguson, whose propensity to gamble by throwing on forwards has helped United pick up crucial points when it looked like none were coming. Forget any talk about injuries to Gerrard and Torres, in the final analysis Sir Alex’ bravery in consistently throwing on four forwards when the chips were down was the real difference this season. With United’s 18th title, not only has Fergie knocked Liverpool “off their fucking perch” but he has trampled all over their dying corpse. Ronnie Moran, Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier, Rafael Benítez… you all came and tried but your boys have taken one helluva beating over the past 19 seasons.

The season didn’t start out that way of course. With Cristiano Ronaldo recuperating from an ankle operation and Dimitar Berbatov settling into the side, United started slowly. The team lost to Zenit St. Petersburg, Liverpool and Arsenal, alongside draws with Newcastle, Celtic and Aalborg among others, all before Christmas.

The Red’s victorious trip to the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan late December seemed to galvanise the side though, not least the defence, which went 14 Premier League games without conceding a goal as Rafa Benitez went into meltdown. The Liverpool manager started moaning about his now infamous “facts” on January 8th and seemingly hasn’t stopped since. But the only affect Benitez achieved was to throw his team into the bear pit and magnify the pressure. It backfired in the most spectacular way and has helped to leave Liverpool without a trophy once again.

Ferguson has seen it all before of course. When the pressure was applied it was United, not Liverpool, nor Chelsea, and never Arsenal that came up with the answers time and again. Late and often unlikely winners against Bolton, Stoke City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, to name but a few, have bought enough points for the title and some to spare. More often than not the gaffer was prepared to put Carlos Tevez, Waybe Rooney, with the aforementioned Ronaldo and Berbatov on the pitch all at the same time. United’s comeback from two goals down to win 5-2 against Spurs at home seemed to sum up a season. Throw two vital goals from 17 year old Federico Macheda the mix and every roll of the die came up double sixes. In the same situation Benitez would have thrown on one of his squad’s 12 left backs.

Let’s hope Fergie has the right numbers once again a week Wednesday in Rome.

One more point

Ed May 15, 2009 Tags: , Shorts No comments

Arsenal head to Old Trafford for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off, with United needing just a single point to clinch an 18th League championship – their 11th in the Premier League. If the Reds get the draw or win they need it will be the culmination of an outstanding second half of the season. Chasing five major trophies, United are within a point and a game of clinching four. Should the Reds pull it off, the season will rank amongst the very finest in both the club and manager’s histories. And with Arsenal in Manchester, it could be a fitting match in which to clinch the Premier League – just as the Gooners did at Old Trafford 2002. Not revenge as such, but sweet all the same.