Month January 2011

Month January 2011

Under Blackpool’s lights

January 24, 2011 Tags: , Matches 325 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faces an unpredictable trip north to Blackpool on Tuesday night, with Ian Holloway’s side notoriously durable opponents. Facing a backlog of fixtures, Holloway’s newly promoted side takes on one of England’s heavyweights at Bloomfield Road, with Manchester United seeking a five point lead in the Premier League.

Conforming to the cliché that there are no easy fixtures in the Premier League – despite Roberto Martinez’ best efforts over at the DW – the Tangerines are a resolute bunch, playing an attacking 4-3-3 system where the erratic finishing of Dudley Campbell is nevertheless imperative. The 29-year-old former Birmingham City striker’s tally of seven goals this season has largely repaid the club record £1.25 million fee.

Indeed, Holloway has done a fine job of turning what many thought of as Championship level players into Premier League survivors. In demand Scot Charlie Adam has starred but teammate David Vaughan is also has a player with a terrific range of passing. Across the board under-rated players have excelled under Holloway’s management, with Luke Varney integral to the side alongside Vaughan, Adam and Campbell.

Ferguson has taken stock of Blackpool’s remarkable rise, in which he hailed Holloway’s influence on the seasiders.

“No doubt the manager of the year so far is Ian Holloway,” said Ferguson.

“They’ve been a breath of fresh air – they’ve been positive and lit up the game… they are throwing four or five players forward into the box to get on the end of crosses all the time. They are really having a go and saying if we’re going to fail, let’s fail gloriously.”

The form book says Blackpool has won just one of its last six just as United hits top gear, but as Avram Grant can testify, in football anything is possible. It’s a fact of which Ferguson and his multi-millionaire players will no doubt be wary, especially given United’s nerve-racking performances away from home this season.

Ferguson will be tempted to rest his leading stars for the short trip to Blackpool but whoever the opponent the home side guarantees huge endeavor. It’s a fact illustrated by Manchester City’s recent fixtures against Holloway’s side. At Bloomfield Road it required David Silva’s ‘world class’ goal to beat the home side, while the return fixture was a tough 1-0 win for City.

Still, Ferguson may be tempted to rest Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, with each suffering injuries recently. Rafael da Silva returns after suspension but brother Fabio could come into the side or John O’Shea retain his place in any case. Meanwhile, Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson and Chris Smalling could all feature at some stage.

Chalkboard v BlackpoolHowever, with an FA Cup tie against League One Southampton to come next weekend Ferguson is under no pressure to make wholesale changes, with the Reds chasing a 27th unbeaten league game. It could be a high scoring fixture too – Blackpool has hit the net in every home fixture since Derby County visited in August 2009.

Meanwhile, Holloway’s preparations for the game have been hit by Adam’s transfer request after Liverpool submitted a £4 million bid over the weekend. The angry Blackpool manager hit out at Liverpool Director of Football Damien Comolli’s approach for the Blackpool captain.

“[Liverpool] have to come up with the right amount of money,” said Holloway, who confirmed that Adam will play against United tomorrow night.

“I don’t want to stand in his way, but they have to put up or shut up. [Comolli] ummed and aahed and apparently did not make much sense.

“Charlie loves this club and just because he puts a transfer request in doesn’t change that.”

Holloway must also face the leaders without Chris Basham, David Carney, Stephen Crainey, Billy Clarke, Matt Gilks and Malaury Martin. Even without the absentees it’s a daunting prospect for Holloway’s men, who have not hosted United for 36 years or beaten the Reds since 1963.

It’s a record few expect the Tangerines to improve on tomorrow night.

Blackpool – 433 – Kingson; Baptiste, Evatt, Cathcart, Eardley; Vaughan, Grandin, Adam; Taylor-Fletcher, Varney, Campbell. Subs from: Rachubka, Southern, Sylvestre, Harewood, Ormerod, Euell, Phillips.

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

Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Andy Newbold & Adam Watts
Fourth official: Mark Clattenburg

Blackpool – LLLWLL
United – WDWWWW

Qataris wait as Fergie repeats ‘no value’ mantra

January 23, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 42 comments

Manchester United has more than £150 million burning a hole in the club’s metaphorical pocket, the £243 million Payment-in-Kind (PIK) debt has been mysteriously refinanced and the Qatari Royal Family is apparently prepared to pay more than £1.5 billion for the club. All should be financially rosy at Old Trafford. Why then does Sir Alex Ferguson stubbornly refuse to invest in the playing squad, stating that the market lacks “value”?

Indeed, as United thrashed Birmingham City 5-0 at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon, Ferguson repeated the oft heard “no value” mantra, which many supporters have taken as a euphemism for Glazer-inspired austerity. That United has broken the £20 million barrier just once under Glazer ownership is symptomatic of a transfer policy that now focuses on the cheaper end of the market.

Yet, earlier this month Ferguson admitted that he wanted to “get one player” during the window, qualifying the statement – as always – with a warning about inflated transfer fees. But true to form in recent seasons, Ferguson has now ruled out any new signings in the January transfer window.

“I won’t be going into the transfer market during the present mid-winter window,” Ferguson told United Review on Saturday.

“I thought at one time that I would like to bring in just one player, but that has not worked out. I don’t feel that it is necessary to buy just for the sake of it because, as I say, I am more than happy with my squad.”

Yet, post-Wayne Rooney contract saga, noises emanated from the club suggesting Ferguson was handed a substantial transfer fund, with the Glazers spooked into action by the now infamous assertion that United “lacked ambition.” Indeed, many pundits painted Rooney’s eventual contract extension as a master-stroke by Ferguson; in one fell swoop he had secured his star player to a long-term deal and squeezed blood out of the Glazer stone.

Much has changed in the intervening two months though. Not only have Chelsea’s title aspirations crumbled in the ruins of poor winter form but United’s other rivals maintain no consistency either. If Manchester City had any pretensions on the title, recent defeats to Aston Villa and Everton have hardly helped.

Indeed, United’s two point lead over Arsenal could stretch to five with the game in hand being played against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday night. In this sense, with Antonio Valencia due to return in the Spring, Ferguson has no desperate need to enter the market.

Yet there is arguably some truth in the criticism Ferguson’s side has faced this season. Flat-track bullies at home; poor on the road. United’s unbeaten record, as Arsène Wenger recently mooted, owes more than a little to the swings of fortune. Defeat, after all, should really have come at Sunderland and twice against West Bromwich Albion.

In a mediocre Premier League, the true test of United’s quality will come in Europe though, with a tough fixture against Marseille to come next month. Even if the Reds progress, as Ferguson’s outfit should, then the best on the continent still awaits.

These truisms leave fans wondering whether Ferguson really did want “one player” in the window – a creative central midfielder – and has subsequently been over-ruled by a Glazer family now bent on squeezing every penny out of Old Trafford before they eventually high-tail it back to Florida.

After all, the rumours of a £1.5 billion Qatari bid for United have an increasing air of authority about them. The price, set at £1.5 billion when the so-called Red Knights came to prominence a year ago, has now apparently increase to more than £2 billion if reports are correct.

Even the Qataris, rich from the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas, have baulked at that price, which represents a 20 times multiple on the club’s profits. The figure would also equate to a profit on the asset of more than £1 billion for the Glazers.

Nice work if you can get it.

There must also be serious question marks about whether Ferguson will be allowed to drain United’s cash reserves this summer, as had been widely briefed. Talk of a £100 million summer transfer budget to ‘radically’ overhaul Ferguson’s ageing squad has now given way to the ‘no value mantra’ and – laughably – the presumption that United alone in world football is able to buck the market by buying low and selling high.

United makes stars; it doesn’t buy them, goes the phrase, which now has more than a little of the dark arts about it. The club can compete in the market, it simply chooses not to, fans are repeatedly told.

“We can compete for top players,” said Gill recently.

“People say we don’t, but we have bought well, and our goal at Manchester United is to make sure we develop our own players and also buy good players.

“Over time, if you follow Manchester United, you will know we have rarely bought the world star. We have made them world stars by playing for United and that will continue.”

Gill, of course, forgets that United broke the transfer records of one form or another in signing Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Rio Ferdinand and Dimitar Berbatov in the last two decades.

But what are facts when there’s a PR war to win?

More importantly United remains a creative player short in central midfield. Ferguson’s mind has changed on that one. Supports must hope he has no cause to regret it.

Scholes returns for Blues clash

January 22, 2011 Tags: , Matches 98 comments

Paul Scholes makes a welcome return as Birmingham City visit Old Trafford this afternoon. The 36-year-old playmaker has missed almost two months action with a groin problem but start for Manchester United’s second fixture with the Midlanders inside a month. With Manchester City in action this evening, United can move three points clear in the Premier League with victory over Alex McCleish’s outfit.

However, manager Sir Alex Ferguson must compensate for Rafael da Silva’s absence at right-back, with the 20-year-old defender serving a one-match suspension following his dismissal against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The Brazilian escaped further censure after an FA hearing on Thursday handed the defender an £8,000 fine and a warning about his future conduct following an angry reaction to Mike Dean’s decision at White Hart Lane.

John O’Shea, who played for the reserves during the week, Wes Brown or Fabio da Silva could come into the side in Rafael’s absence.

“Replacing Rafa is something I’ll have to consider, plus one or two other changes,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.

“Fabio could possibly come in. John O’Shea and Wes Brown are back in training and played for the Reserves, so they’re both available. Other than that, everyone is OK.

“Paul Scholes played an hour in the Reserves and he was on the bench at Tottenham. I was ready to put him on before Rafael got sent off.

“The Birmingham games in the last few years haven’t produced a lot of goals. Hopefully we can change that trend. Our home form has been very good this season, and it has to be now. It’s kicking on time.”

Rafael’s loss is a measure of the progress the 20-year-old has made this season, with the Brazilian now a permanent fixture in Ferguson’s side, prompting Gary Neville’s likely retirement in the summer. Wes Brown is also set to move on in 2011 but Ferguson has ruled out any departure on loan this winter.

However, Scholes’ return boosts United’s creative options, which were conspicuous by their absence at Spurs last weekend. Superb defensively, United created just four shots on target against the Londoners. Ryan Giggs is also likely to play, with the Welshman confirming he is seeking another year’s contract with the club.

Chalkboard v Birmingham CityAnother key creative outlet could return to Ferguson’s squad in the Spring, with Antonio Valencia making good progress on the long road to recovery from a broken ankle sustained in September.

“Antonio is doing well now, he has started his running programme and he’s out with the physios every day, which is a big step forward,” said Ferguson.

“He’s been given the all clear from the doctors, so he’s under our complete control now. That’s great news.

“I think possibly towards the end of February he should be back in the first team squad. That’s a big boost to us.”

Ferguson will resist the temptation to rest Wayne Rooney though, despite the player’s continued below-par form. The striker misplaced 50 per cent of attempted passes against Spurs and has scored just one goal from open play all season.

Meanwhile, Birmingham City arrives in Manchester having not scored at Old Trafford for 30 years and lost nine times in a row at the Theatre of Dreams. But McCleish’s outfit earned a point at St. Andrews on Boxing Day, with Dimitar Berbatov scoring United’s only goal before the home side secured a controversial late equaliser.

For Birmingham, Cameron Jerome and Sebastian Larsson are available after both missed last weekend’s derby with Aston Villa. And Ben Foster returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his £6 million move south in the summer. However, key defender Scott Dann has been ruled out through injury until the summer.

Should United avoid defeat it will stretch the club’s unbeaten Premier League run to 26 matches, across two seasons. United is only the seventh in top-flight history to remain unbeaten after 21 league matches. Nobody at Old Trafford will countenance a change in that record today.

Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Ridgewell, Murphy; Bentley, Larsson, Gardner, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome. Subs from: Fahey, Zigic, Bowyer, Taylor, Jiranek, Beausejour, Mutch, Phillips, Derbyshire.

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

Referee: Mike Jones
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Madley
Fourth official: Phil Dowd

United – WDWWWD
Birmingham – DLDLWD

United didn’t go for Özil – here’s why

January 22, 2011 Tags: Opinion 52 comments

Mesut Özil followed up an electrifying World Cup by replacing Kaká, the second most expensive signing ever, in Real Madrid’s first XI. Moreover, the German midfielder moved to Madrid for a paltry €15 million – quite probably the best deal of the window. The former Werder Bremen player was heavily linked with Manchester United and many fans were understandably disappointed that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t bid for the playmaker, given the need for a creative central midfielder.

Ironically, it was the low transfer fee that prevented the Reds from going for the player. Last summer Özil had just a year left on his contract and Werder was eager to cash him in before the Bosman ruling kicked in. The low asking price brought about strong competition for the German – Barcelona, Chelsea and Madrid competed with United for his signature. Given the financial constraints placed on each of these clubs it seems probable that a higher asking fee would have scared them away.

Dwight Yorke was bought in 1998 because Ferguson “felt we [United] had reached a stage where we needed a forward player capable of changing a game on his own, someone with the ability and confidence to take on an opponent and beat him. I looked around and the two best players in that area in my view are Ronaldo and Dwight Yorke.”

Ronaldo, whose agent had offered the player to United, wanted outlandish wages and the Scot opted instead for the former Aston Villa forward. Indeed, Ferguson has always maintained a clear and rigid wage structure. Ronaldo isn’t the only player that United missed out on because of the club’s wage structure but it has ensured a harmonious dressing room – financially at least.

With relatively meager sums being mooted by Bremen, Özil and his agents were in position to demand high wages – more than €100,000 per week net. By comparison, Wayne Rooney was on £90,000 pounds gross, with United ready to negotiate a contract – subsequently rejected – for the former Everton player. It left very little room to maneuver vis-à-vis German’s wages.

While Rooney complained about the lack of class signings in his now infamous post-transfer request press release, ironically, it could very well have been his own greed that prevented United from signing Özil.

The German’s eventual salary is perhaps even reasonable though, considering that Joe Cole earns not far short. Had United really wanted him, the Reds probably could have forced the transfer. So why didn’t United bother with the Turkish-German?

Tactically it would have been very hard to assimilate Özil. He is a classic trequartista who floats between the lines and has never played deeper or more disciplined role. Arguably the former Bremen player would have found it very hard to fit into the 4-4-2 based systems Ferguson has always used. The Scot has never experimented with central systems like 4-3-1-2 and 4-1-2-1-2.

Indeed, 4-2-3-1 is probably the only formation that United could deploy to fit in Özil and existing players. Even then, it would have been very difficult to play the system consistently and keep the squad happy with so many strikers on the books.

That isn’t to say Özil would not have fitted in at United at all. There is a long history of trequartisti playing as a second forward – Maradona the most famous example of all. Özil has also played closer to the strikers than to central midfielders at Madrid, and nominally despite lining up as a 4-2-3-1, Germany resembled 4-2-4 in the 2010 World Cup.

Özil can get away with that in German national team and at Madrid because of the strong midfield behind him. Whether United can put out a midfield duo as strong as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso and Khedira is a doubtful.

Özil remains an inconsistent player though. He had his best game in World Cup against Australia, where the Aussies played to his strengths by deploying a ludicrously high line. England also gave Özil a hand by playing a rigid 4-4-2 that left a gaping hole for the 21-year-old to exploit.

However, in games against Serbia, Argentina and Spain, Özil was quiet. The midfielder’s weaknesses were also found out in November’s Classico, where the German was deployed little deeper to pick up Xavi Hernández. Özil fumbled the defensive task and was unceremoniously substituted at half-time.

Indeed, there is an argument that classic trequartisti, although they continue to exist, are less influential due to more organised defenses. These players contribute little defensively while putting a great burden on others. Against the minnows, trequartisti can get away with doing little harrying; not so against the proper giants.

This remains a perennial problem with recruiting South American playmakers. For example, 4-3-1-2 remains the formation du jour in Argentina, where there is a sense of artistry about the game. Teams are built around playmakers and they are given ample room and time to strut their stuff.

South American playmakers find Europe, where players are more robust in closing them down and tactics are much less homogenous, extremely difficult. A long line of “next Maradonas,” such as Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola, who failed to make big impact shows just how difficult it is being trequartisti in Europe.

However, Cesc Fabregas and Luka Modric epitomise the newer breed of playmakers. The core of these players’ attributes remains similar to their cousins – excellent technique, passing, movement and reading of the game – but modern playmakers tend to be much more mobile, who do not shirk their defensive duties. Instead of floating, modern playmakers remain more central and often attack the box rather than work the channels.

Crucially, modern playmakers are just as comfortable playing a little deeper alongside other central midfielders. In fact some, like Modric, find deeper roles more comfortable since it affords him more time and space to dictate the game.

However, 4-4-2 remains a valuable tactic for United; it is a great shape to press and deploy a high line. Moreover, United will always face sides looking to sit deep and must execute a plan B to deal with these tactics. It suggests that Paul Scholes’ heir must be comfortable playing in Ferguson’s preferred system. Modern playmakers fit into such systems comfortably, where trequartisti struggle.

Arguably, that makes Javier Pastore – rather than Özil – the best candidate to replace Scholes. He’s very much a modern playmaker.

Rant Cast 57 – Go Cosmos?

January 21, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

In this week’s edition of Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul look back at United’s recent draw with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and look forward to the match with Birmingham City this weekend. We talk transfers, ponder developments in United’s youth team and do Eric Cantona a favour…. by picking a New York Cosmos XI for 2011!

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

We welcome your input – send all feedback to or comment below.

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast.

Subscribe on iTunes now.

It’s up to you, New York, says Cantona

January 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments

Publicity stunt it might well be but Eric Cantona’s signature with the once defunct New York Cosmos certainly caught the headlines today. The club unveiled the 44-year-old former Manchester United striker as its new Director of Soccer, with, “overall responsibility for all soccer-related matters, including the proposed first team.”

It is of course a telling line – proposed first team – as the Cosmos has neither a ground, coach, team nor any fixtures to play. Re-formed in 2010, the club is a revival of the original New York Cosmos, which played in the North American Soccer League from 1971 to 1984.

Little more than a branding exercise until the ‘franchise’ – in the awful American parlance – is potentially granted a 20th MSL license in 2013, the Cosmos has built much of the club’s internal structure anyway.

Save for a team that is.

But in one sense the vision is a romantic one. The club of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and former Manchester City ‘star’ Dennis Tueart, naturally appeals to Cantona’s maudlin tendencies.

“I am very honored to join the legendary club New York Cosmos. It’s a big project, a wonderful project,” said Cantona, who scored 82 goals in 185 games for United.

“The Cosmos are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It’s kind of a mix between football and art.

“In addition to my artistic engagements, I will do everything that I can to help us first find our way to regain the number one position in the United States, and then for us to become one of the best clubs in the world over the coming years.”

Whether that dream is fulfilled depends heavily on entrance to the MLS, a closed shop with neither promotion, nor relegation. It is expensive too, entailing a deposit of $10 million, a license fee of around $75 million and proven funds to build a new stadium in the New York metro area.

It’s a dream that has more than a hint of reality though after a season in which TV viewing figures for the MLS Cup Final fell sharply. After more than a decade of progress, the competition needs another big market team to follow Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps for the 2011 season, plus the introduction of Montreal Impact in 2012.

“The focus is firmly on New York for the 20th MLS team,” Dan Courtemanche, MLS vice-president, told the Telegraph.

“There are multiple potential ownership groups and the New York Cosmos is one of those groups.

“But even if the Cosmos were to break ground on a new stadium tomorrow the 20th team is likely to be three to five years down the road, though.”

The New York Cosmos could well provide the impetus the MLS needs though, with plans for a stadium in Flushing, Queens well advanced providing finance can be raised.

The ‘franchise’ owner, Paul Kemsley, who effectively bought rights to build a club with the Cosmos’ name for $2 million, is upbeat too, claiming stellar names on the club’s executive management.

In addition to Cantona, Pelé is Honorary President and former Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry a Board Director.

“Three years ago, when I first had the idea of reviving The New York Cosmos, I couldn’t have dreamt that we’d be able to attract an icon the likes of Eric Cantona,” said Kemsley, Chairman of the New York Cosmos.

“He was one of my heroes during the 1990’s and is a further endorsement to the tremendous global attraction and power that The New York Cosmos carries. Our name already resonates throughout the world.”

Empty words without a team or playing field of course but the celebrity pull of the Cosmos, who played in front of more than 50,000 in its 1970s heyday, is still strong.

For Cantona’s part it seems unlikely that the new role is a day-to-day post, rather another celebrity name to add credibility to the project.

Even so, anything that brings the great Frenchman back into the football world is a boon. After all, beach football is no substitute for the real thing, even if the former Leeds United, Auxere and Marseille player coached the French national team to a modicum of success in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup between 2006 and 2008.

Turning his back on the 11-a-side game barely past his prime, Cantona instead found solace, if not fame, in acting. He appeared in, among others, Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, and in Ken Loach’s brilliant Palme D’or nominated film Looking for Eric.

In recent years Cantona has also become more politically active, calling for a banking revolution and encouraging customers of the major banks to withdraw their money on 7 December 2010 in protest at the global financial crisis.

But it is the game that brought Eric to the fans and to the game he belongs. New York is simply the latest beneficiary.

The king, it seems, is no longer dead.

Youth seeks first cup in eight years

January 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments

When Manchester United’s youngsters won the 1992 FA Youth Cup few could foresee the domestic and international success that many of the group would experience in the decades to come. Nearly 20 years on and, remarkably, that side is still represented in United’s first team.

But it is to the current crop that eyes turn Wednesday night as the current under-18s take on West Ham United at Upton Park in the FA Youth Cup fourth round.

Following the age group’s 3-2 cup win over Portsmouth last week, the club’s sights are firmly set on just a third success in the competition since the ‘çlass of ’92’ triumphed with Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the side.

Hopes are high in the group too, with more than one player already earmarked for accelerated development into the first team picture in the coming seasons.

“We have a decent team with one or two excellent players,” Sir Alex Ferguson told MUTV.

“I think we’re strong in the strikers department for example, where we have William Keane and John Cofie. Then we’ve got Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison [in midfield]. We have a chance this year, we’re hopeful.”

Striker Cofie – formerly on Burnley’s books before a controversial move across Lancashire in 2007 – can boast 13 goals already this season. Meanwhile, Keane excelled during the UEFA Euro under-17 championships last summer, with a touch and maturity belying his youthful age.

Perhaps even greater feats are predicted of Pogba though, a French under-17 international whose has been frequently compared to Patrick Vieira. In reality, although there are physical similarities – each is of French-African parentage, tall and sometimes uncomfortably gangly – the youngster has a far greater range of attacking skills than the former Arsenal star could ever boast.

Then there is the silky Morrison, who seems to glide effortlessly across the pitch and is arguably the most naturally talented midfielder to come through United’s academy in the two decades since Giggs’ peers burst onto the scene. Comfortable wide or through the middle, Morrison made a much-anticipated first team début in this season’s Carling Cup.

Indeed, if the 18-year-old attacking midfielder fails to make it at United it will surely be a factor of the company the player keeps and not a deficiency in talent. Euphemistically described as ‘baggage’ by football insiders, stories of trouble with the police first surfaced with an alleged arrest in May 2009. Rumours of an upcoming court date on charges of witness intimidation refuse to go away.

Whatever Morrison’s fate, fans may never again witness five players make it out of United’s academy and into the first team from one peer group again. Yet, history says at least one player will make it out of a successful youth side and into the first team picture. It’s an assessment Ferguson concurs with.

“Kieran Richardson was in the team when we last won the Youth Cup, in 2003,” said Ferguson.

“Before then we won it with Phil Neville and John Curtis in 1995, and of course, with the 1992 team. Let’s hope we have a good run this year.”

While United lost in the 2007 final, success has been inconspicuous in recent season, especially for a club whose association with the FA Youth Cup came long before ’92. Indeed, the club remains the most successful in the competition’s history with nine wins, including five in succession from 1953.

But if anything the club has found youth level far less forgiving than the seniors in recent years. The 28 years between the club’s 1964 success and ’92 was a barren spell that the ongoing eight year hiatus threatens – if not to match – then to ape.

Wednesday’s opponents also have a rich history in the competition of course, having won the competition on three occasions including the 1999 side of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick.

Paul McGuiness’ side is in decent form though. Aside from United’s victory over Portsmouth in the third round, the academy side returned to league action after a month off with a thrilling 4-3 home victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Carrington on Saturday.

A similar result on Wednesday will go a long way towards Ferguson’s goal of success this season.

West Ham United v Manchester United, FA Youth Cup fourth round, Boleyn Ground, 7pm.

The defence has it

January 17, 2011 Tags: , , , , Opinion 23 comments

Should Manchester United complete a 19th domestic title come May it will have little to do with star player Wayne Rooney. Nor, though influential, will Nani take the plaudits. Ditto Dimitar Berbatov, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Anderson. Much as United’s attacking players can take overdue credit for becoming the division’s the second highest goalscorers, it is the defence that will win it.

Indeed, so imperious have captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand been this season that there is surely no better central defensive partnership in world football. Coupled with Patrice Evra’s status as the finest left-back on the planet, Rafael da Silva’s rapid progress and Edwin van der Sar’s assured composure and United may well land the title despite a paucity of creative options.

United’s strengths and weaknesses were exposed against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, with the Reds watertight in defence despite playing the final quarter with 10 men. At the same time, United created too few chances to win at White Hart Lane as the visitors drew an eighth Premier League match on the road this season.

No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of his back five, whose control over Rafael van der Vaart, Peter Crouch, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon was almost total. That Spurs managed just two strikes on target is symptomatic of just how well marshalled Vidic’s colleagues are this season.

“The kind of pressure we were under were just long balls into the box really,” claimed Ferguson today.

“With Ferdinand and Vidic as your centre-backs you know you can cope with that. They were fantastic. The whole back four did really, really well.

“In the context of Tottenham’s home record this season and the performances they have given, we have got to take it as a good point for us.”

Even Rafael, harshly sent off for a second bookable offence with twenty minutes to go, drew praise from colleagues for another mature performance that largely kept Bale at check.

Should United win the title by that single point gained in London then Ferguson will be have much to celebrate. Yet, it is not a single season transformation in United’s play that has seen the Reds become so secure at the back. Critics can – and do – point to the fundamental change in United’s style over the past decade, from the side that scored three against Barcelona, twice, in the swashbuckling 1999 season, to the often overly cautious outfit we see today.

While United did not exactly morphed Jose Mourinho’s Inter at Camp Nou circa Spring 2010, there have been times when the Reds have performed a passable impression. It is not the ‘United way’ perhaps but one that fans have become accustomed too over the past decade.

Part of United’s metamorphosis over the years is down to Ferguson’s obsession with performing in Europe. Largely it has worked. Yet, much of the Reds’ style this season is surely down to the dearth of attacking creative talent in the squad, with Rooney too often anonymous, Nani still inconsistent, Antonio Valencia injured and Paul Scholes’ legs finding no friend in father time.

It showed against Spurs, with the Reds managing just seven shots – on target or not – in the match. No enough for the pretenders to Chelsea’s thrown. Similar sterile performances have been evident in many of United’s away fixtures at home and abroad this season.

“We didn’t bother them too much,” admitted Ferguson

“We had one or two good opportunities at times when we got to the last third of the field but we just didn’t quite have the cutting edge. In the second half Anderson attacked the back four four times and maybe his selection of pass or a shot on goal would have been better.”

It is, always has been and one wonders whether it always will be the Brazilian’s principal failing. For a player so widely touted – including by Ferguson himself – as the natural successor to Scholes, Anderson does not score, nor create goals or even retain possession more than three-quarters of the time.

In defence United’s resources will be stretched in coming games, with Rafael set to miss at least one match, possibly more, after the Football Association charged the 20-year-old defender with improper conduct today. Little wonder after the youngster both disputed referee Mike Dean’s erroneous decision and then refused to promptly leave the field.

“It was Mary Decker and Zola Budd,” said Spurs’ manager Harry Redknapp in the Brazilian’s defence.

“He was just running and he has clipped Benoît’s heels. He has not broken his stride and stuck a leg out, saying ‘I’ll trip him’. He was trying to get out of the way.”

But with Rafael out, John O’Shea injured and Wes Brown all but forgotten at Old Trafford, Ferguson may turn to the Brazilian’s brother Fabio, who featured in United reserves’ 8-0 win over Bury this week. Often touted as the more talented sibling, Fabio’s progress has been hampered by Evra’s outstanding form and persistent injuries.

With Rafael set to miss fixtures against Birmingham City and potentially Blackpool in the coming week, Fabio’s ability to integrate into United’s outstanding back-five will be severely tested. As will United’s title credentials.

United secure eighth away draw

January 16, 2011 Tags: , Matches 42 comments

Manchester United drew an eighth Premier League game away from home this season as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit survived the last quarter with 10 men at White Hart Lane. Rafael da Silva saw red in a vibrant encounter with Tottenham Hotspur but Ferguson’s side saw out the match to stretch an unbeaten league run to 26 matches.

But the game at White Hart Lane ended in controversy with Rafael’s red card, who twice appeared harshly judged by referee Mike Dean. The youngster picked up a yellow card for a first half tackle in which the Brazilian appeared to win the ball, and then a second for inadvertently tripping Spurs defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

The second red of Rafael’s career may have proven a steep learning curve but for the home side’s failings. For all the home side’s possession Harry Redknapp’s outfit failed to either create enough opportunities or take the limited chances that came Spurs’ way.

Indeed, having seen his team harshly reduced to 10, Ferguson is entitled to be satisfied with the point even if United’s record away from home is the worst of any potential champions in the past 20 years.

“It was a tough game and Tottenham are in great in form but they didn’t really create any chances today,” said Ferguson, whose side returns to the top of the Premier League on goal difference from Manchester City.

“We’ve got games in hand but we’ve got to win them. We’ve got to go to Chelsea, we’ve got to go to Blackpool and they’re in great form at the moment. It’s an exciting run in.

“It’s about winning games and keeping your nerve. Today, defensively, we kept our nerve. Given the performances that Tottenham have had at home it was a great performance by us today.”

The Scot had selected an attacking looking line-up for the trip south, with Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic returning after missing the cup tie with Liverpool last weekend and Wayne Rooney paired with Dimitar Berbatov up-front.

The selection was prescient in a game that began with a cup tie flavour as both sides sought to attack in numbers. Yet, for all the good possession in midfield neither United nor the hosts could force clear-cut openings.

Rooney seemed way off the pace though, even if the former Evertonian also created two chances in his first game back after a fortnight off with injury. First the 25-year-old wasted an early opportunity after Berbatov’s fine pass and then Rooney forced a save from home stopper Heurelho Gomes after the break.

The home side’s progression in recent seasons reflected a game in which rapid one and two touch passing dominated. Indeed, the home side created two presentable chances with first Peter Crouch firing narrowly wide from Alun Hutton’s fine centre and then Rafael van der Vaart heading Gareth Bale’s cross into the side netting.

If anything United improved after the break as Michael Carrick flicked a header just wide and Gomes saved at full stretch from Rooney.

Rafael’s red 20 minutes from the end saw the visitors revert to a more cautious approach but Spurs – much as Redknapp’s side has progressed – failed to break United down. For that Rio Ferdinand and the magnificent Vidic take huge credit.

“I think we had to be solid today, it was a good defensive display,” added United ‘keeper van der Sar.

“On the ball we could have brought more but that’s a compliment to Tottenham. I had a couple of free kicks to save but they didn’t hurt us much. Defensively it was great.

“It’s an ok result today especially going down to 10 men. It was a high pressure game for him [Rafael] but he’s only 20 and he’s looking forward to many more years at the club.”

Yet, while the 20-year-old full-back learned much from the dismissal against Bayern Munich last season he will take little from Dean’s actions today.

“I don’t need to discuss that, you can see for yourself,” said Ferguson dismissively. “I don’t need to discuss the referee.”

Little wonder. An honest assessment would surely bring little but another touchline ban. Yet, despite the frustration Ferguson will take the point as United head into the final months of the season in pole position. Trips to the Emirates and Stamford bridge follow, but with two games in hand on City it is now United’s title to lose.

Match Facts
Spurs – 4411 – Gomes; Hutton, Gallas, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Palacios (Defore 18), Modric, Bale; Van der Vaart; Crouch.

United – 442 – Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani (Anderson 61), Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs; Berbatov (Hernandez 78), Rooney.

Attendance – 35,828
Man of the Match – Vidic

Possession: Spurs 58% – 42% United
Attempts: 15 – 7
On Target: 2 – 4
Corners: 8 – 2
Fouls: 9 – 18