Month December 2010

Month December 2010

Cronyism and the Fergusons

December 31, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 24 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will do anything to protect his sons. No news there. The question is – when does support turn into nepotism? For one, Jason, Ferguson has refused to speak to the BBC for six years. For another, Darren, Sir Alex delved first into Manchester United’s reserve squad then, with Ferguson junior’s sacking yesterday, senior turned off the tap.

Darren’s dismissal by Preston North End this week was with swift retribution by United today, whom ended the loan spells of Joshua King and Ritchie de Laet a fortnight early. Meanwhile, the club is actively seeking to end the season-long loan of a third United player, 19-year-old midfielder Matthew James.

Sir Alex’ patronage could hardly be more explicit. That three United players joined Preston simply to aid Sir Alex’ son was questionable in itself. The recall is a move that seeks neither to hide rank abuse of the loan system nor United’s youth policy, which is seemingly based not on the players’ needs but that of the Ferguson clan.

Preston chair Maurice Lindsay said that the recall surprised management at Deepdale, although United is within the terms of it’s contract with the Lancashire club. De Laet is on a short-term deal and King has a mid-season break clause, although James’ contract is different as the Bacup-born midfielder is due to stay with Preston until June.

“That has come as a bit of a shock to us and it’s a bit of a blow. Ritchie and Josh won’t now be available on Saturday,” Lindsay told North End’s website.

“We got a message from Manchester United that they have been summoned back immediately. Under the terms of the loan agreement they can do that, we recognise United’s legal right to do that.

“They would like Matty James back as well, but his contract is a bit different.”

Reports today indicated that United will seek to terminate James’ loan spell through legal means if necessary, such is Sir Alex’ anger at his son’s sacking after just 13 wins in 49 games for North End.

Not that the two immediate returnees have been a conspicuous success at Preston. Belgian defender De Laet has made five appearances for the Championship strugglers in the past two months, while striker King has scored just once in 10 games in all competitions.

James’ position is different though, with the talented England under-21 international a fixture in Ferguson junior’s side and clearly benefiting from regular football.

Realistically, with United out of the Carling Cup none of the trio will feature in the first team on recall and can only hope that another loan arrangement materialises in the January transfer window. Or Darren picks up a new job fast.

It’s not the first time Ferguson senior stands accused on nepotism of course. The Knight’s dispute with the BBC dates back to the broadcaster’s 2004 Panorama documentary, which ostensibly accused Jason – then an agent – of exploiting his father’s influence to sign United’s younger players to his agency books.

It was an accusation met with silence but neither denial nor legal action.

Thoughts of Cronyism aside, King, De Laet and James will genuine have cause to wonder whether United has their best interests at heart. After all Nicky Ajose has survived the dismissal of Brian Laws at Burnley and similarly Mame Biram Diouf remains at Blackburn Rovers despite Sam Allardyce’s controversial removal.

Of course, United has long since dispensed with any formal structure on transfers – permanent on temporary. Bébé’s acquisition in August is evidence enough of Ferguson’s continued ability of act on a whim, within the bounds of the Glazer family’s financial restrictions. It seems unlikely a call was made to Florida to sanction the loan recall.

The move also leaves Preston, struggling financially and five points adrift at the foot of the Championship, in serious trouble. Now under the stewardship of former Everton defender David Unsworth, Preston sacked Ferguson junior after the team picked up just 19 points this season.

“I was hoping this would never occur but when we’re approaching the new year bottom of the league and with the future of the club itself in serious jeopardy if we are relegated,” Lindsay told the Guardian.

“There clearly had to be some soul-searching and we had to tell Darren that for the sake of the club we needed a new manager. I went to his house for the sad task of talking to him and he was very dignified.”

After a second dismissal in as many seasons, junior has gone from the golden boy of lower league management to rebuilding a career now in tatters.

It’ll surely take more than his father’s patronage to fix this mess.

Fergie criticises ref but Reds take blame for seventh draw

December 29, 2010 Tags: , Matches 12 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson criticised referee Lee Mason for missing three infringements in Birmingham City’s last-minute equaliser last night as Manchester United slipped to a seventh Premier League draw on the road this season. The Scot was right to feel aggrieved with Mason missing a handball, offside and foul on Rio Ferdinand in the build up.

In truth though, United should have put the game to bed well before Lee Bowyer’s controversial 90th minute equaliser at St Andrew’s. Once again, United’s failure to retain a lead cost Ferguson’s outfit points and a chance to move clear at the head of the Premier League table.

Indeed, was it not for the inconsistency of rivals, United could surely not sustain a league challenge with an away record that boasts just one domestic win all season.

“It was handball. There was [also] a foul on the centre-half. “He [Nicola Zigic] went right through the back of him [Ferdinand]. If the ref can’t see that, what chance have you got?” said Ferguson of Birmingham’s equalising goal.

“That’s where we expect – to get a referee who sees that. If you can’t see that, what chance have you got?”

Yet, United was nothing like as fluent against the Brummies as in the win over Sunderland on Boxing Day, despite Dimitar Berbatov’s 14th goal of an increasingly profitable season. The Bulgarian’s strike from the edge of the opposition area on the hour should have paved the way for a second United win of the Christmas programme. But as in early season games against Fulham and Everton, United gave up two potentially precious points at the death.

“I think it is terribly harsh,” added Ferguson.

“I think we outplayed them in the second half. We deserved to win the game, we were the better team. Maybe we should have finished them off. We just lacked a bit more care in our final pass and finishing.”

United began the match seeking to leapfrog Manchester City, whose win earlier in the day had taken the Blues top of the Premier League for the first time this season. Birmingham’s dogged perseverance – and luck at the death – means United regain top spot once again if only on goal difference from Roberto Mancini’s outfit.

In any case, the match was never likely to offer the Reds three easy points, with the Brummies having lost just once in the past 23 games at St Andrew’s.

Indeed, United struggled to break Birmingham down for much of the match, with former Red Ben Foster too rarely called into action. Chances came infrequently – Ryan Giggs almost scored with an attempted cross, while Berbatov’s neat exchange with Darron Gibson created the visitors’ only goal. Foster made just two further saves in a match that offered too little to footballing purists.

Perhaps most striking though was Wayne Rooney’s role – pushed to the left of United’s five-man midfield for much of the game, albeit with a license to support Berbatov in attack. The move limited Rooney’s attacking opportunities and his failure to hit the net means the former Evertonian is still yet to score a goal from open play this season.

United’s obvious lack of natural width also blunted the visitors’ edge. With Park Ji-Sung at the Asian Cup until February, Nani not fit for the trip to Birmingham and Antonio Valencia out until the Spring, Ferguson requires find additional options – quickly.

That Ferguson does not trust options already at the club suggests the Scot may dip into the market this January. Gabriel Obertan sat out the game on the bench, while £8 million Portuguese winger Bébé failed to make United’s matchday squad.

For all the obvious weaknesses in United’s squad Ferguson’s outfit remains in pole position heading into the third fixture of Christmas week.

“At this moment there are five or six teams who are all contesting that area at the top but if you get to new year and you are in that front position then you have a great chance,” added Ferguson.

Should United win at West Bromwich Albion tomorrow night, the Scot’s side will indeed be in that position with Arsenal fragile, City inconsistent and Chelsea in the worst run of form since the Roman Abramovich ear began.

The problem – points on the road are far from guaranteed.

Match Facts
Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Bowyer, Larsson (Hleb 69), Gardner, Ferguson, Beausejour (Zigic 82); Jerome (Phillips 85).

United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Gibson (Hernandez 90), Anderson (Fletcher 73), Carrick, Giggs, Rooney; Berbatov.

Attendance – 28,242
Man of the Match – Berbatov

Possession: Birmingham 55% – 45% United
Attempts: 8 – 10
On Target: 3 – 4
Corners: 4 – 4
Fouls: 10 – 11

Reds look to avoid St Andrews Blues

December 27, 2010 Tags: , Matches 75 comments

Manchester United arrive in Birmingham for the second fixture of a busy week in high spirits. Top of the Premier League, unbeaten and with rivals dropping points, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team aims to capitalise on a profitable period. Yet, former Red Ben Foster stands in the way of a just a second Premier League win on the road this season.

Ferguson should welcome back both Nani and Darren Fletcher to the traveling party, with the pair missing United’s comfortable win over Sunderland on Sunday. The Portuguese has a minor hip complaint while Fletcher is suffering with a heavy cold. However, United will be without winger Park Ji-Sung who has departed for the Asian cup until February, while John O’Shea misses out.

With Birmingham now an established Premier League outfit United can expect a tough fixture, although the Brummies have not emerged victorious from the tie since 1978. Still, Foster has gone some way to re-establishing his reputation following a difficult spell at Old Trafford in the past two years.

“Going down there is always a difficult place to go to,” said Ferguson. “They have always had a strong home record and are difficult to beat on their own ground.”

In Park’s absence Ferguson is likely to retain veteran Ryan Giggs, although Gabriel Obertan and Bébé remain options despite the pair’s limited activity at the top-level so far this season.

Indeed, Park’s absence – despite his many critics – will be keenly felt by United, with Ferguson retaining so few top class options in wide areas. Against a stubborn Birmingham City outfit, United’s lack of width could tell unless Wayne Rooney discovers not only his best form, but his shooting boots too.

“Wayne had a couple of tries against Sunderland,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“He was very unlucky with the chip and there were a couple of shots saved by the goalkeeper. He is getting there. The important thing is he is playing well. That is refreshing.”

However, Rooney is yet to score from open play this season – and not since 21 March – although the former Everton striker has played a noticeably deeper role in recent games. With United’s record on the road poor – just one win from seven Premier League games this season – Rooney might be crucial in turning around the record.

Indeed, there could hardly be a better time for United to win away from Old Trafford with Chelsea losing at the Emirates on Monday night. Rooney might just see the St Andrews fixture as an ideal moment to break his duck and fire the Reds nine points clear of Chelsea.

However, legend Giggs has warned against complacency creeping into United’s game despite the Reds’ outstanding recent form, which translated into a flowing performance against Steve Bruce’s Sunderland.

“You are obviously wary because of the way the league has been this year,” said Giggs.

“Anyone can beat anyone. We are thankful we remain unbeaten and confidence is high. But we realise that nothing can be taken for granted. It is a tough league and we need to be at our best in every game.

“We hope to get better in the second half of the season. Our form over the last few weeks has been really good. We looked sharp against Arsenal and Blackburn, and it was the same against Sunderland.

“Some of the play we produced, the one-touch passing and the movement, was great to be involved in.”

United’s performance in the first half against Sunderland was arguably the finest of the season – including the recent thrashing of Blackburn Rovers. Yet United, comfortable at 2-0 on the hour, eased off significantly. Whether complacency or expediency it is unlikely Birmingham will offer the visitors a similar level of comfort in front of the St Andrews’ crowd.

Meanwhile, Alex McCleish welcomes back former Arsenal star Alexander Hleb for United’s visit. The Belarusian has suffered with a hamstring complaint. McCleish, who played under Ferguson at Aberdeen in the 1980s, will also have Liam Ridgewell for the leaders’ visit.

Birmingham – 442 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome, Zigic. Subs from: Taylor, Derbyshire, Michel, Parnaby, Phillips, Gardner, Beausejour, Murphy, Fahey

United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Hernández, Macheda, Owen.

Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor

Birmingham – DWDWDL
United – WWLDWW

United’s new four four two – revisited

December 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 14 comments

This column previously discussed Manchester United’s new 4-4-2. The new system was still experimental at that stage but has come out kicking and screaming in recent games, with its notable lack of traditional width. This is to indulge the type of player that United has in abundance and to mask the Reds’ lack of a classy attacking central midfielder.

However, the formation is more accurately labeled as a 4-2-2-2 because United’s men on the wing are placed higher up the pitch than their normal positions in a traditional 4-4-2 and, crucially, don’t hug the byline. This is the new formation as used against Aston Villa and Tottenham.

In recent games, such as that against Sunderland on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson has gone one step further. Notice (below) the lack of activity in areas around the byline – unsurprising given the nature of new formation – and relative congestion in areas before the final third.

Source: Guardian Chalkboards

Wayne Rooney frequently dropped deep against Sunderland, often to wide left and central midfield areas. That is surprising considering that he was almost always deployed as a number nine last season. Dimitar Berbatov also worked the channels, especially wide right, or dropped deep into wide midfield. Consequently, the Reds’ strikers were often level with, if not behind, the ball entirely. Arguably, this new 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 is actually a 4-2-4-0.

The movement of United’s front men dragged Sunderland’s defence out of shaped and allowed the wingers and Anderson to take advantage. Sunderland simply could not cope with United’s fluidity and capitulated. Conscious of upcoming fixtures, United took it easy and settled into a more rigid formation to see out the game. There is no telling what the score could have been had Ferguson gone for the kill.

This isn’t the first time Ferguson has dabbled in striker-less formations. The trophy haul of 07/08 was largely the result of tactics similar to the one used against Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland this season. But it is rather telling that the Scot abandoned the system in favour of a more solid approach by bringing in Berbatov in the summer of 2008.

Striker-less formations are, simply put, a ploy to take advantage of clever movements. As such they take a lot of work to get right – the relative slow start in 07/08 can be attributed to the fact that Carlos Tevez, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo simply hadn’t clicked together.

The formation is also very demanding on the team. Without a man or two up-front to relieve pressure the team must move up and down the pitch in unison to keep hold of the ball – a pressing game with a high line ensues naturally.

In addition, fluid formations don’t lend themselves to a defensive game. Players don’t stick to their positions so they must constantly assess and adjust the marking scheme – a very demanding task. As such when things go wrong for striker-less formations, they do so spectacularly. AS Roma, the first European side to consistently use such a system under coach Luigi Spaletti, found out the hard way at Old Trafford in April 2007.

This new 4-4-2/4-2-4-0 clearly isn’t going to be used in big games though; Sir Alex is too risk-averse to attempt it. However, the new formation does give United a potent weapon to combat sides that look mostly to defend.

Recent tactical developments suggest that Sir Alex is intent as ever on pushing for European glory. As mentioned, striker-less formations require extensive work in training. The fact that Ferguson has committed the hours necessary indicates that he desperately wants to take advantage of Chelsea’s poor form by building a comfortable lead in the Premier League.

With a safety net in place the Reds will be able to concentrate more on the European challenge come the knock-out stages. The longest serving United manager is no saint – the Rock of Gibraltar incident and the resulting association with the Glazers will forever accompany his achievements – but even his harshest critic cannot deny his insane desire to win.

Reds win to keep pressure on rivals

December 27, 2010 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United remains top of the Premier League after beating in-form Sunderland at Old Trafford. Dimitar Berbatov’s double in a bright performance leaves United six points clear of Chelsea, with the Londoners in action against local rivals Arsenal tomorrow. Only woodwork kept the score down as United began the Christmas programme in style.

Berbatov headed United in front within five minutes and scored a deflected second on the hour as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side wrapped up a routine win. It gives the Scot’s side considerable momentum ahead of matches against Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion before the turn of the year.

United, still unbeaten and with two games in hand over City, head into the new year in ominous form, despite rarely hitting the heights this season. Still, Ferguson was naturally delighted with United’s performance against the Mackems.

“We are hitting good form, the football was fantastic. We could have scored five by half-time,” said Ferguson, with United two points clear of Manchester City.

“Some of the interchanges and the combination play was very, very good.

“We were more economical in the second half. We want to be ready for Birmingham because they did not play on Sunday and will be fresh.”

Ferguson left Darren Fletcher and Nani out of the squad with minor injuries, although both should be available for the trip to the Midlands on Tuesday. But with Berbatov and Ryan Giggs restored to the side following United’s win over Arsenal a fortnight ago Ferguson’s outfit was in full flow during an entertaining first half. 

Indeed, Giggs was central to the opening goal, with the Welshman creating space for Wayne Rooney and Berbatov heading home his 14th goal of the season from the Scouser’s cross. The Reds could have scored more before the half-time break, after Rooney’s delightful chip missed Craig Gordon’s post and Anderson slammed a shot against the Scot’s bar.

Giggs and Anderson – twice – could have increased the home side’s lead as United threatened to run up a cricket score. Sunderland hung on but in truth this was as one sided as it gets.

For all United’s dominance Steve Bruce’s outfit remained in the match though and Asamoah Gyan could have brought an equaliser when he fired wide from an angle.

It proved a false dawn, with Anderson superbly combining with Berbatov on the hour for United’s second, albeit via a fortunate deflection off Anton Ferdinand. The Bulgarian then almost added a third – which would have been a second personal hat-trick of the season – as United noticably eased down in the final 30.

Ferguson hauled off his leading scorer though, with three matches inside the next week and the Bulgarian’s job truly done. Indeed, the Scot saved special praise for the £30 million former Tottenham Hotspur star.

“He knows there are times we like to play with one up front and he understands that we have to sometimes change things around. But his form has been terrific,” the boss said.

“He has now scored 14 goals, which is a good return – if we get two players to score 25 goals between them then we have a great chance.”

If Berbatov scored United’s goals then Anderson was argubaly the star – for an hour or so – with the Brazilian finally flourishing after three largely frustrating seasons in Manchester. The 22-year-old midfielder offered energy and invetion as United missed out on an overwhelming victory at Old Trafford.

“Particularly Anderson today played very very well,” said assistant manager Mike Phelan.

“He has risen to the challenge, shown a lot of good forward play. I thought he made some excellent through-ball passes and possibly could have scored.”

It’s the one area of Anderson’s game that is yet to improve as the former Porto star continues an unlikely renaissaince. Little more than a year ago and the 22-year-old seemed certain to leave. More performances like this and the Brazilian international could even become central to United’s ambitions at home and abroad this season; perhaps even repaying some of the £17 million fee it took to bring the youngster to Manchester.

Yet it was another day on which Rooney failed to score. The Scouser has hit the net just twice this season from 12 appearances, both from penalties. Despite another decent performance United cannot but be worried that the £30 million forward continues to labour.

Not that former United defender Bruce had any doubts about the day’s deserved winners.

“I have heard it said that United are not playing that well,” said the Mackem’s manager.

“Well, they are unbeaten for six months, so that is not a bad statistic is it? They are top of the league, with games in hand, and history suggests they always get better in the second half of the season. I wouldn’t bet against them, that’s for sure.”

Match Facts
United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Anderson (Gibson 63), Carrick,  Giggs (Hernandez 63); Berbatov (Macheda 63), Rooney.

Sunderland – 433 – Gordon; Bardsley, Onuoha, Ferdinand, Zenden (Angeleri 88); Malbranque (Cook 82), Henderson, Riveros, Elmohamady; Bent (Meyler 69), Gyan.

Attendance – 75,269
Man of the Match – Anderson

Possession: United 50% – 50% Sunderland
Attempts: 15 – 6
On Target: 10 – 2
Corners: 5 – 9
Fouls: 3 – 10

Rant Cast 53 – Christmas Special

December 25, 2010 Tags: Rant Cast 4 comments

In this festive edition of the Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul discuss the highs and lows of 2010, a year in which disappointment on the pitch has been match by some players’ behaviour off it. But as the club heads into 2011 we finish on a high, with United top. Will it be so after matches against Sunderland, Birmingham and West Brom?

Stream this episode of the podcast using the player below or click here to download the podcast (right click & save as).

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Reds almost fit for Black Cats visit

December 24, 2010 Tags: , Matches 3 comments

Michael Owen, Anderson and Nemanja Vidic return to the Manchester United squad as the Reds welcome Sunderland to Old Trafford. Without a game in two weeks, United face not only the in-form Black Cats but potential ring-rustiness too. But manager Sir Alex Ferguson is boosted by additions ahead of the festive period.

Anderson and Vidic would both have missed United’s visit to Chelsea last weekend bar for the fixture being called off more than 27 hours ahead of the Sunday afternoon fixture. If the postponement suited the home side, then Ferguson will no doubt be grateful that the flu virus that has swept the United camp for the second time this season has now dissipated.

Meanwhile striker Owen says that he is available for all United’s festive fixtures, which include visits to Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.

But whatever the personnel United faces no easy task against Steve Bruce’s rejuvenated Sunderland outfit. After all, a stunning 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge came barely a month ago.

“In all the time I have been at Manchester United, I could probably point to six perfect performances. Steve will look at that in the same way. It was one of the stand-out performances of the season,” said Ferguson.

“They were absolutely brilliant and could have won by six or seven. It is a reminder that we are dealing with a team that has that kind of ability and drive at the moment. We are in for a particularly hard game.”

Danny Welbeck, who scored at Stamford Bridge, is ineligible for the Old Trafford match under FA rules. It’s a blow to Bruce who has seen a front three of the 20-year-old on-loan striker, Darren Bent and £13 million signing Asamoah Gyan score 20 times this season.

Indeed, Welbeck has performed superbly for the Black Cats, overcoming an abortive loan spell at Preston North End last year. Talented but showing few signs that he could grow into a role at United, the Longsight-born striker may yet have played his way into Ferguson’s plans next season.

“In his spell around the first team in the last couple of years, Danny never played more than four games in a row. It was imperative that he went out on loan and played regular football,” said Ferguson.

“In the last couple of years he grew so big, so quickly, Danny was weak in some parts of his legs, which created a lot of problems for the boy.

“But you look at him now and see the growth. He has filled out and is very powerful. He is handling the physical part quite easily and has been one of Sunderland’s best players.”

Owen stood in the youngster’s way last season of course, although given that the former Liverpool player out of contract in June it is almost inconceivable that the 31-year-old will still be at Old Trafford should Welbeck return permanently. Meanwhile, Owen says he has been fit for three weeks after a hamstring injury sustained in October. The veteran is now behind Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Federico Macheda and Javier Hernandez in the United pecking order.

Ferguson will be without John O’Shea and Paul Scholes though, with both men suffering groin injuries in recent weeks. Scholes, who may yet be offered a one-year contract extension, hasn’t played in more than a month and is unlikely to feature in any of United’s festive programme.

Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Bruce has promised to attack United, despite a record that reads no win at Old Trafford since 1968 and a rash of injuries and suspension afflicting his squad. In addition to Welbeck, Bruce is missing key defenders Titus Bramble, Michael Turner, Anton Ferdinand and John Mensah, while Lee Cattermole is – almost inevitably – suspended. David Meyler and Frazier Campbell are also sidelined.

Bruce’s former manager Ferguson simply hopes United remains top by the time Liverpool visit for the FA Cup third round on 4 January 2011.

“My aim is to try and be top by January 4,” he said.

“By that time, the top of the league will have taken shape.

“Maybe, because of the weather, it is difficult to think everyone will have four games. But if we do, and we are top, we will have done well.”

If United manage it, history suggests the title is heading for Old Trafford.

Sunderland – 442 – Gordon; Bardsley, Elmohamady, Onouha, Richardson; Malbranque, Riveros, Henderson, Zenden; Bent, Gyan. Subs from: Mignolet, Angeleri, Da Silva, Carson, Noble, Adams.

United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Park; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Giggs, Hernández, Macheda, Owen.

Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Stuart Burt & Adam Watts
Fourth official: Andy Woolmer

United – DWWLDW
Sunderland – WDLWDW

Brilliant Nani told to focus on Reds

December 23, 2010 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Nani’s progress over the past year is remarkable, sSo much so that the Portuguese winger confidently expects Manchester United to win the title, while being nominated for next year’s Ballon D’Or. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, keen to keep his player’s feet on the ground, has warned the 24-year-old that success with United comes first.

Indeed, Nani is arguably in the top three most influential players at the club. On this season’s evidence he is United’s single most creative force. Not that the winger has ever been short in a measure of confidence; just application, with maturity coming late to the former Sporting Lisbon player.

“It is easier for me to stand out now that Cristiano Ronaldo has left,” said Nani somewhat frankly week.

“He is a fantastic player who got all the attention and deservedly so. I loved playing alongside him and we got on well. But it is also true that when he left it freed up space for other players to shine. I saw an opportunity to demonstrate my qualities and to show the people here what I can do.

“I know I can become a better player and my aim now is to get on the list of nominees for next year’s Ballon d’Or – the world player of the year prize.”

As much as Nani has improved, from an eternally frustrating talent to one with genuine end product, he is some way short of the truly destructive force that is Ronaldo, or indeed the mesmeric skills of Lionel Messi. Let alone exhibit the consistent influence of this year’s Ballon D’Or favourite Xavi Hernandez.

Ronaldo, for example, is La Liga’s Pichichi with 17 goals in 16 games this season. Messi meanwhile has 25 goals in all competitions. At this rate the brilliant Argentinian will score 50 in the campaign – a truly stunning feat.

The question is, of course, whether Nani can improve further, winning the biggest games for United at home and abroad. Does the 24-year-old have the raw talent to match Ronaldo and can he add even greater end product to his game? Certainly Nani has a long way to go if the stats prove anything if the winger is match his peers at the very top of the game.

In 2008/9 the winger scored 10 and created four in 31 games for the club and country in all competitions. The stat was eight and nine respectively in 33 last season. Good but certainly not great by any measure.

Improvement is coming – to date Nani has nine goals and 11 assists at close to the half way mark in the current campaign. If an end season target of 20 goals and a similar number of assists is any measure, it will surely put the player in the frame for domestic personal honours.

Global recognition could follow but perhaps only if United does well in the Champions League this season. That of course comes with no guarantee.

But person honours are a goal that Ferguson has little time for and certainly not when it comes to Nani who is only now, more three seasons into his United career, is beginning to justify the £17 million transfer fee.

“I am not too worried about the Ballon D’Or to be honest,” said the United manager.

“His aim should be to be successful here. The ability was always there. He has got a tremendous instinct for the game. He is two-footed, quick and brave. He never misses a training session and always wants to play.”

“When we bring young players to the club, you hope maturity comes quickly. In the case of Nani, it has been a bit slower. Now we are seeing some good signs. He is improving, as players do as they go along here, and hopefully it will continue.”

Ferguson is right of course. Statistics are one thing, maturity and consistency quite another. Nani is a star at United but arguably because this is the weakest pool of talent at the club for the past five years. Add Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and younger versions of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, and an in-form Wayne Rooney to the squad, and suddenly Nani is no longer a star asset.

It’s something, for all the bravado, Nani will do well to remember in the months to come.