Manchester United draw to within two points of leaders Chelsea in the Premier League title race following a hard fought victory over Hull City at the KC. Wayne Rooney had a hand in each of United’s three goals but not before the Scouser had gifted the home side an equaliser in another tough away fixture for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men this season.
In truth Ferguson leaves Hull with a sense of relief after the home side made a competitive match of the fixture despite gaining just two points in the club’s previous five outings. No longer is United sweeping the lesser lights of the Premier League away but with the return of a back four actually composed of defenders, Ferguson’s men were able to win without excelling.
Rio Ferdinand is missing for the foreseeable future but Sir Alex named Wes Brown, Nemanja Vidic and Rafael da Silva in the starting eleven for the match. It meant a return to the heart of United’s midfield for Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, whose absence has exposed the side’s soft underbelly in recent weeks.
Another restored to the side, Ryan Giggs, created United’s first chances by first firing just over the bar with a left-foot volley and then curling a free kick just wide in the opening minutes.
Rooney then stung Boaz Myhill’s gloves in the Hull goal with a fierce left-foot shot before intricate United football released Rafael through the middle only for the ‘keeper to block the Brazilian’s effort one-on-one.
While Giggs’ looked tired on his return to the United side – and Dimitar Berbatov had little impact until a late goal – at least Ferguson was able to count on Wayne Rooney to score the visitor’s opening goal. United’s leading marksman struck home Fletcher’s superb curling cross from the right for his 14th of the season, with Giggs providing little more than nuisance value at the near post.
United of old might have laid waste to Hull’s fragile defence but Phil Brown can take heart from a spirited comeback by the relegation-threatened home side. Alan Wiley, officiating in his first United match since Ferguson questioned the Staffordshire-born referee’s fitness to do the job in October, handed the Tigers an equaliser following Rooney’s error. The Scouser, fresh from giving United the lead, promptly lost company with the ball yards from his own goal. In the melee that followed Rafael barged over Jose Alitidore in the box, enabling Craig Fagan to score from the spot.
But United was always a major threat on the counter despite Hull’s best efforts to score a second. Ji-Sung Park, Giggs and then Rooney contributed to restoring United’s lead as the visitors’ lightening-quick break resulted in Andy Dawson turning the Scouser’s cross into his own net.
Moments later and Rooney threaded a final pass through Anthony Gardner’s legs to tee up his Bulgarian strike-partner for a simple tap in. Berbatov acknowledged Rooney’s brilliance in turning around not only his side’s fortunes but a potential ‘hairdryer’ moment in the dressing room had United not pulled off the victory.
“It’s a relief,” Rooney told Sky Sports.
“When they got their equaliser it was a mistake by myself. It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me and it’s not a nice feeling. I didn’t want to let down the lads though I was more worried about what the manager might say. But thankfully we got the win, which I’m pleased about because the manager would not have been too pleased.”
The victory moves United to within a win of Chelsea in a season where none of the leading sides have found any consistency. United’s five defeats in the Premier League before Christmas is the club’s worst run of losses in nearly a decade but Ferguson’s side could conceivably top the table by New Year’s Day.
With the club’s injury list finally easing now is the time for the Scot’s side to mount a series of victories if a fourth Premier League title in a row is to head Old Trafford’s way.
Rooney is central to that ambition.
“He (Rooney) was a threat all game; his penetration behind their back line was very good,” the United manager said.
“Yes, he made a mistake with a wayward ball for their goal but that was his one bad moment and otherwise I thought he was exceptional. He’s a natural winner and he’s always got that determination to do well. He would have been sicker than anyone that he made a mistake but he rectified it in a nice way.
“It’s looking more and more like it’s going to be a really tight league.
“It’s certainly different because we are seeing some unusual results. Experience will come into it. The team that steers clear of injuries will also have an advantage. Other than that, if you make mistakes in this league you are going to get punished. If we can eradicate mistakes we have a great chance.”
Manchester United’s players return from a longer-than-usual Christmas break with little respite in the injury crisis that has engulfed Sir Alex Ferguson’s team in recent weeks. The Scot need no longer worry about a festive season drinking culture but will once again deploy a makeshift defence as United travel to Hull City hoping to improve on two defeats in the past three games.
Ferguson hopes to have either Wes Brown or Nemanja Vidic available for the trip to Hull, although both will definitely feature against Wigan in three days time. Good news also comes in the shape of Brazilian brothers Rafael and Fabio da Silva who, true to form, have each been injured in recent weeks.
However, Ferguson says there is little hope of Rio Ferdinand returning to the team in the near future. Ferdinand, who has appeared just five times this season, last week said there’s is “light at the end of the tunnel” is the search for a cure to a back injury that has plagued the defender for more than a year.
“We gave Rio an injection just over two weeks ago so we have to let that settle for a week then he can go back into the gym work and do some more core work,” Ferguson said.
“We are just hoping that pain goes away. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and it is difficult to put a timescale on a back injury. But I don’t think he is too far away.”
Ferguson says that the best form of attack at Hull is defence. It’s a strategy that United totally failed to enact in the 3-0 away defeat to Fulham last weekend or the 1-0 reverse at home to Aston Villa a fortnight ago. Indeed, Ferguson may revert to a more attacking formation against relegation-threatened Hull, with Dimitar Berbatov in contention to start along side Wayne Rooney despite a knee injury that requires an operation.
“Hull will be encouraged by the fact we have got defenders injured. They will certainly have a go at us,” he said.
“It’s always a dogfight down at the bottom of the table and, as usual, there are six, seven or eight teams involved in that battle.
“We looked fragile once we lost the goal (at Fulham). We got away with playing midfielders at centre-back once or twice, but it proved difficult.
“We have to make sure we are better attacking-wise than we were against Fulham. We didn’t make a lot of chances in the match, we had a lot of possession but it didn’t amount to anything.
“In terms of creating chances, we have to get that creativity, imagination back.
Ferguson says that the injury situation will return to some form of normality by the time United play cup games against Manchester City and Leeds United in the New Year. In the meantime the Scot’s side requires six points in the coming week to keep in touch with Chelsea, who continue to drop points in a season where none of the contenders achieved consistency.
United’s cause will benefit from the return of Darren Fletcher to the heart of Ferguson’s midfield, should either of the da Silva brothers be deemed fit enough to start against Hull. The Scot’s absent destructive abilities have exposed a soft underbelly to Ferguson’s defence in recent weeks.
Ferguson will also choose from Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes and Anderson in midfield, with Michael Carrick likely to reprise a role in central defence.
“I think losing to Aston Villa was a bitter disappointment, we made enough chances to win it. Winning your home games can stabilise you from bad results away from home,” Ferguson said Boxing Day.
“It’s unusual for us to lose two games in December, it’s not happened that many times but hopefully by the Leeds United (in the FA Cup third round) game we will have three centre-backs and we can then kick on and get back to our normal selves.
“The way the league is at the moment, I think Arsene Wenger said the other day you could lose seven games and still win the league this year.
“Someone pointed out the recognised top four have lost 41 points between them this season. Nobody would have bet on that.”
Wenger may be proven right in May but with Ferguson’s side slipping to a fifth defeat before Christmas last weekend the side cannot add a sixth at the KC Stadium Sunday.
It’s that special time again, the period I look forward to a lot, the most magical time of the year for me and all those who love me.
No I am not talking about Jesus’ birthday party, but a much more significant event.
Yes fans, it’s the personal awards season again, the time when true recognition is given to me and all the other successful people who have helped shape the modern world.
This year has especially been great. I must thank the great people of earth, for voting me Bulgarian Man of the Year. A truly global award, second only to being BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
I have been receiving awards regularly throughout my life. This has not only helped me overcome my natural shyness, but has also helped me reach out and touch many people I would have otherwise ignored.
So what better way to end this journey I have taken you on (for no cost), than by sharing with you my final piece of life advice. No it’s not the habit of accumulating awards, but something altogether more all embracing.
My final habit of successful people like me is habit #7: Spreading Yourself (for the ones who love you).
I always think back to my childhood cartoon hero Captain Communist, whose catchphrase was “Give it back to the people or the secret police will come and get you.” It is catchier in Bulgarian.
His wise words taught me from a young age that becoming more successful than most people, allows you to touch others in ways being normal can’t allow you to do.
Spreading yourself onto others is both a duty and a privilege of success; it is the direct result of all the great habits I have taught you to practice over this series.
From fans, to team mates, to lonely people, spreading yourself brings joy to all those around you. It is not complicated but very rewarding. It can take many shapes and forms and can be done at anytime and anywhere. Beware though, it can also be very time consuming, especially if you want to be an all round spreader like me.
So during this period of giving, you must take example from me, from Jesus, and even from the Manchester United defensive crisis, and let people in. Sharing success with those who have none is the noblest act a successful person can do.
With those wise words, I must go now. It has been a pleasure teaching you how to be more like me and live more successfully.
Believe in yourselves fans and in your hour of need, feel free to look at me for the inspiration that will guide you from the darkness to the light.
There is one small thing I ask in return. I think it is time you updated the famous song you all love to sing at Christmas, and here are the changes I think would work really well:
“….On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me, seven Berbatovs… and a Dimitar Berbatov!”
In this special Christmas episode of Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul talk about:
- Reviewing Fulham away
- Previewing Hull and Wigan
- United’s team of the decade
- Mark Hughes’ sacking
Stream the episode below or click here to download the podcast (right click > save as).
Email all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Just as Manchester City fans thought it was safe to raise their heads above the parapet the old comedy routine rolled out again. City’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi Royal Family around a year ago should have lifted the club to a higher level. Indeed, to raise standards over and above that of crosstown rivals Manchester United.
Mark Hughes’ brutal sacking this week has place a question mark over the club’s ethics.
Hughes’ departure, confirmed after reports leaked out of the club prior to the weekend’s 4-3 win over Sunderland, comes 18 months into the former-Wales and Blackburn manager’s tenure at the club. The odds never favoured the 46-year-old coach when, just weeks into his job, Thaksin Shinawatra, the disgrace former-Thai President, was forced out of the club.
When the Abu Dhabi-based Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development company completed a takeover of Manchester City on 1 September 2008 it did so with a promise of higher standards than Shinawatra could offer. As the very definition of a vanity buy, City’s standing in the world of football matters to the owner Sheikh Mansour al-Mubarak. It’s a footing that has taken a hit in the past week.
In an extraordinary press conference this week City’s beleaguered Chief Executive Gary Cook first denied that the club was seeking an alternative manager behind Hughes’ back and then admitted – in the same breath – that the Eastlands outfit had done exactly that.
“I think it is important for people to know that Roberto was only offered the job after the Spurs game; we negotiated on Thursday and finalised his agreement on Friday,” the utterly hapless Cook lied in a statement at the conference, Monday.
The former-Nike executive was then contradicted by his new manager, Roberto Mancini, who admitted to having met with City Chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak to talk about the job more than a fortnight ago.
“Two weeks ago Roberto met with Khaldoon,” Cook squirmed in an increasingly bad-tempered performance, culminating in a round of table thumping.
“After the Spurs game, there were further discussions on a more serious level. The [original] discussions were general. They were about football. We were considering our managerial options at the time. It [the manager’s job] was discussed in general terms.”
Cook, remember, is the executive who said with a remarkably straight face that AC Milan had “bottled it” over a proposed £103 million transfer of Brazilian midfielder Kaká last winter. And it was Cook, whose position is now untenable, who happily allowed Hughes to take charge of City at the weekend knowing the coach was a dead man walking.
Saving face indeed.
Amid the skullduggery City at least confirmed the club’s true intentions this week. Despite earlier talk of building for the long-term, Hughes’ dismissal after the club set the former-United striker a sixth-place finish this season reeks of short-termism. Rumours abound that Mancini does not expect to stay at the club past this summer. This makes sense if, as third choice for the job behind Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho, he does not lead the club into the Champions League.
Despite this few tears were shed for Sparky, who has proven himself a less than amiable manager. With Blackburn and Wales Hughes drew over-achieving performances from under-talented players. With City, Hughes was not able to control the egos of superstar players such as Robinho, Elano and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Like Glenn Hoddle with England before him, Hughes the manager may have fallen into the trap of great players turned coach. The frustration of working with players that do not share Hughes’ work ethic led to dressing room conflict.
More recently Hughes fell out with Arsene Wenger, who refused to shake the Welshman’s hand. The striker, who scored 129 goals in 345 league games for United, also took great delight in the City’s “Welcome to Manchester” poster in Deansgate this summer. Sir Alex Ferguson called it a “small club mentality” – probably where Hughes fits best as a manager.
As for City, the club has rapidly become the Real Madrid of the Premier League, albeit with no history of silverware. Sheikh Mansour will sanction unlimited spending, while managers will surely come and go. They always have at City. This time expectations are set a little higher.
Just not, it seems, when it comes to the ethics of managerial employment.
Manchester United has suffered six defeats in all competitions this season and the worst injury crisis of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career. But his side lies just four points adrift of Chelsea in the Premier League, faces AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16, takes on Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi-final and will play Leeds in the FA Cup Third Round.
What do you think United will win this season – choose as many as you like…
Manchester United’s loss to Fulham at the weekend marked the midway point of the Premier League season and – in terms of defeats – United’s worst position at Christmas since 2001, when the club finished the campaign in third. But Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is just a point worse off than at the same time last season, having scored plenty of goals in the process.
Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 United has lost more games in the first half of the season only once, in the aforementioned 2001 season. On the face of it the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in the summer, together with Ferguson’s decision not to invest heavily in the transfer market, has affected on the team’s performance.
In the biggest Premier League matches, for example, United has struggled. Fixtures against other members of the so-called ‘big four’ – Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea – have been significant. While United beat Arsenal, Ferguson’s side lost to Chelsea and Liverpool. In truth, the Scot’s team were highly fortunate to get a result against – on the day – a superior Arsenal side.
In Europe United eased through a surprisingly weak Champions League Group B, although the number of goals conceded at home is a worry. Milan in February and March will provide a far sterner test of United’s credentials.
Tactically, Ferguson has flitted between a rigid 4-4-2, with Antonio Valencia proving a major success on the right-wing, and 4-5-1 typically deployed in the ‘biggest’ matches and away from home in Europe. But the Scot’s frustrating devotion to the lone striker has so often left Rooney isolated and frustrated.
Yet, Ferguson’s team has taken to the task of replacing Ronaldo’s goals with gusto. With 37 scored in the Premier League alone, United is well ahead of comparable feats last season even if there is some lethargy about the team’s displays at times.
Comparisons with the previous campaign are moot though. At this stage last season Ferguson’s men had already played each of the eight rivals that finished directly below United in the Premier League. It was a fixture list that Ferguson bemoaned.
This time around, United’s fixture list is much more balanced and the 37 point return to date will need hefty improvement in the second half of the season if United is to realistically challenge for the title. 85 points will probably win the title in a highly competitive season.
It’s a challenge that Ferguson’s sides have often met in the past. The question is, will the 2009-10 vintage be good enough to do it?
- Edwin van der Sar: United’s great Dutchman has played just five times in the league following finger and knee injuries. Whether it’s age or bad luck, United has missed both van der Sar’s composure and talents. 5/10.
- Tomasz Kuszczak: PIG has really come into his own in recent matches producing stand-out performances in matches against Portsmouth, West Ham United and Fulham. 7/10.
- Ben Foster: Billed as Foster’s breakthrough season, with van der Sar starting the campaign in the treatment room. Instead, Foster’s patchy form has relegated the former-Stoke ‘keeper to third choice at Old Trafford and probably out of England’s World Cup squad. 4/10.
- Gary Neville: Two years on the sidelines means that Neville is little more than a back-up player these days. If he can stay fit long enough to do the role, which at the moment he can’t! 4/10.
- Rio Ferdinand: The England defender’s fitness and form have deserted him this campaign in what has been his worst season in years. There is genuine concern about long-term decline, which will only be answered if the former Leeds United defender can return fit and healthy. 5/10.
- Nemanja Vidic: The giant Serbian started the season injured and is finishing the year in the same predicament, which has hardly helped his form. 6/10.
- Patrice Evra: United’s best defender by miles, Evra continues to entertain on and off the pitch. Officially the world’s finest left-back – something United fans have known for a while. 9/10.
- John O’Shea: The Irishman finished the previous campaign as United’s first choice right-back and his current absence is being felt. Solid and dependable as ever. 7/10.
- Wes Brown: The Mancunian has missed more games than he has played, although this is hardly a new phenomenon. As always Brown excels when fit. 7/10.
- Jonny Evans: The Northern Irishman has performance admirably when called upon and looks every inch a centre half of the highest quality. An ankle injury has hampered his season. 7/10.
- Rafael da Silva & Fabio da Silva: The Brazilian brothers have hardly played because of injury. Each has talent in abundance but a propensity for injury will hamper their progress. 5/10.
- Antonio Valencia: The former Wigan Athletic wide player is one of the real bonuses of United’s season. The Ecuadorian has grown in confidence and influence as the season has progressed. 8/10.
- Nani: The Portuguese winger has been as bad as Valencia has been good. Undeniably talented but frustrating in equal measure. Looks as if his time at the club is up. 3/10.
- Park Ji-Sung: Injury has restricted the South Korean to a handful of appearances and the winger’s performance against Aston Villa one of his worst ever in a United shirt. 4/10.
- Gabriel Obertan: The Frenchman looks a real gem of a find by Ferguson and his scouting staff. The challenge for Obertan is to transfer promise into performances against the best opposition. 7/10.
- Paul Scholes: The Ginger Princes’ performances have been inconsistent this season as age increasingly plays a part in the United legend’s game. Brilliant against Tottenham Hotspur, woeful against Fulham. 6/10.
- Michael Carrick: The Geordie started the season on the sidelines but has grown in influence over the campaign. His emergency stint at centre half was impressive until a dreadfully inept display against Fulham. 6/10.
- Darren Fletcher: The Scot was United’s best midfielder until forced into an emergency role as defender during the recent injury crisis. The sooner Fletcher is back in the centre of the park, the better. 9/10.
- Anderson: The Brazilian began the season out-of-favour with Ferguson demanding more from the former-Porto player. But Anderson’s performances have steadily improved and recent matches suggest the midfielder is ready to take a step up. 7/10.
- Darron Gibson: The Derry-born midfielder has forced his way into the side during the recent injury crisis, scoring against Spurs and West Ham. But as the cliché goes, the jury is still out on whether the midfielder has the talent to take a permanent place in the side. 6/10.
- Ryan Giggs: PFA Player’s Player of the Year, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, United’s Player of the Year, soon to be Sir Ryan Giggs, all round nice bloke and probably the next Pope. 8/10.
- Dimitar Berbatov: Some brilliant performances not supported by the weight of goals expected of a £30 million player. World class but four goals in 20 games is not enough. 7/10.
- Wayne Rooney: Moments of brilliance only tarnished by the Scouser’s desire to do it all himself, especially when deployed as a lone striker. 13 goals in all competitions suggests that the former Evertonian can break the 25 goal barrier this season. 8/10.
- Michael Owen: The free transfer is doing exactly what Ferguson expected of him – better than a goal every other game (in terms of minutes on the pitch that is). Very little impact – Wolfsburg aside – when starting matches. 7/10.
- Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda: Neither of United’s young strikers has played as many games as expected this season. A loan move will be beneficial for the Italian while Welbeck spearheads United’s Carling Cup campaign. 6/10 and 5/10.
On the day that Sir Alex Ferguson’s cross town counterpart received his P45, the Manchester Untied manager will put this defeat down to circumstance. But United’s humiliating 3-0 away loss to Fulham cannot be blamed solely on injuries to key staff. The burden of responsibility must also fall on Sir Alex.
United, lining up in the unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation deployed in Germany, were out of shape and sorts from the off at Craven Cottage. In more than 20 years at the helm the number of matches Ferguson has deployed three centre halves are counted on one hand. It was an utter disaster, with Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ritchie de Laet horribly exposed by a vibrant Fulham side.
Still, United actually started the match quite brightly with Antonio Valencia unlucky not to earn a penalty for a push in the opening minutes. Referee Howard Webb seemed unsighted as the Ecuadorian fell. In truth it was just about the closest United came to a goal in a dreadful opening half for Ferguson’s men.
Paul Scholes, sent off at the same venue last season, saw yellow for a reckless tackle that took both man and ball in the same movement. But Scholes’ place on the pitch is undermined more by the United legend’s wayward passing on days like this. Time has diminished little of the 600-game veteran’s talents but sadly they are now applied more inconsistently.
Scholes was not alone in his woes however with nearly half the team deployed out of place. It’s one thing compensating for injuries; it’s quite another disrupting the shape of the side.
Still, Untied kept possession well in the first quarter of the match. Darron Gibson, now a permanent fixture in the side, shooting wildly when set up by Wayne Rooney. The hype of recent long-range efforts encouraging the Irishman to shoot when a pass is a better option.
But Fulham was always in the match and Bobby Zamora crossed for American Clint Dempsey to draw a fine save from Tomasz Kuszczak in the United goal. The Polish international, playing in his seventh match in a row, then produced even better from Zoltan Gera’s header minutes later.
Fulham’s opening strike came from Danny Murphy, so often United’s tormentor in the past. And it was Scholes who gifted possession to the former-Liverpool midfielder to strike home from 20 yards at the midway point of the half.
In attack, Rooney and Michael Owen were playing like a pair of strangers as they so often did for England, while Fulham offered threat in every forage towards United’s goal. The visitors have rarely been so shapeless.
Rooney headed wide and Gibson shot over when he could have passed as United’s strategy of hope bore little fruit. Indeed, Fulham could have doubled the lead before half time with Gera and Zamora combining once again for the former West Ham United striker to head wide.
The match was then over just 19 seconds into the second period when Fulham doubled the advantage. Duff’s cross to the back post, met by Dempsey’s neat touch was gleefully slammed home by Zamora.
All belief drained from the United players. Why should there have been any – they were never in the game. It was cruel on de Laet, cruelly exposed at the top-level.
As always United sought a way back into the game as Dimitar Berbatov and Fabio da Silva entered the attack. It finally ignited a flame in the visitors with Valencia testing Mark Schwartzer in Fulham’s net, Rooney shooting wide from Berbatov’s smart pass and Scholes slashing well wide from the edge of the area.
But then came the denouement as Irishman Duff lashed home Zamora’s chested pass for Fulham’s third. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough.
“I hope today is not too damaging. I hope it doesn’t cost us the league,” Ferguson told MUTV in summary.
“We have to get our defenders back to give us a proper chance of going for the league. If we get them back we’ll be back in it. The quicker they’re back the better.
“The medical team and physios are working overtime to get them back, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, that’s for sure.”
Ferguson, without seven defenders today, undoubtedly needs good fortune in the season of good-will. Sometimes, however, he needs to help himself too.