Month May 2011

Month May 2011

World salutes the great, the incomparable, Paul Scholes

May 31, 2011 Tags: Opinion 31 comments
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How apt of Paul Scholes to slip away on a family holiday while the world of football mourns his retirement. The little ginger kid with magic in his feet, who’d rather disappear into the shadows than listen to the inevitable plaudits. No celebrity for Scholes; no VIP restaurants, overpriced nightclubs, billboards or TV adverts; no post-match interviews with flowing man-of the-match-champagne; none of the hyperbolic media, nor the lingerie models hanging off his arms and on his every word. No hanging around to hear his praises sung. To Scholes it was always bullshit.

Just goals. Lots of them. And quality almost without peer in any midfielder of his generation. The flicks, tricks, 60-yard passes to feet. The 25-yard volleys, flying headers and ever so late tackles. The time and space on the ball that is such a rare commodity in modern football. And a humility that belies his ability. In 20 years, probably i50, Scholes will be remembered as one of the greats. Time, it is hoped, erases the vacuous and self-absorbed, but will always remember Scholes.

Sure, defeat to Barcelona at Wembley was not the high on which Scholes deserved to end his career, 17 years after his début in an low-key League Cup victory over Port Vale. But then there’s the suspicion that Scholes was equally at home in a park kick-about as the pinnacle of the world game. He retires on his own terms, one of the finest ever produced by United or anyone.

“I am not a man of many words but I can honestly say that playing football is all I have ever wanted to do and to have had such a long and successful career at Manchester United has been a real honour,” Scholes said today.

“This was not a decision that I have taken lightly but I feel now is the right time for me to stop playing. To have been part of the team that helped the club reach that 19th title is a great privilege.

“I would like to thank the fans for their tremendous support throughout my career, I would also like to thank all the coaches and players that I have worked with over the years, but most of all I would like to thank Sir Alex for being such a great manager, from the day I joined the club his door has always been open and I know this team will go on to win many more trophies under his leadership.”

Like all the greats there was an enigma to Scholes. For all the beauty there was, of course, the ‘dark side’, as Arsène Wenger so crudely put it. “A dirty little git,” Scholes’ former colleague Nicky Butt said, with more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek. The kid with asthma who conquered the world owed no little part to his aggression and steely resolve.

Scholes played more than 60 times for England; it would have been more than a 100 but for Sven Goran Eriksson’s negligent abuse of the midfielder’s role. In that the Swede sums up English reticence toward’s the technically gifted. “If he was Spanish,” said Barcelona’s maestro Xavi Hernández, “maybe he would have been valued more.”

If he was Spanish, one wonders, might he have been nominated for the world game’s greatest personal honours? Scholes is unlikely to care.

The Salford-born midfielder was always valued by his fellow pros though; from Zinedine Zidane, to Pélé, to Ronaldinho, United’s number 18 has always been a players’ player. No more so than Andreas Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi, who on the conclusion of Barça’s victory over United at Wembley sought out the wee man. Scholes took home the match ball, the opponents his shirt.

United will miss Scholes. Not solely for his contribution, although the midfielder’s brain still works faster than his legs, but for his ethic. He was, as Sir Alex Ferguson put it today, the embodiment of the United spirit.

There is unlikely to be another like him.

The Tribute Videos

1 – he scores goals galore; 2 – he passes the ball, a lot.

Scholes in Numbers

676 appearances for Manchester United
150 goals scored
66 caps for England
10 Premier League Titles
5 Community Shields
3 FA Cups
2 League Cups
2 European Cupa
1 Intercontinental Cup
1 FIFA Club World Cup

On Scholes’ retirement

“What more can I say about Paul Scholes that I haven’t said before. We are going to miss a truly unbelievable player. Paul has always been fully committed to this club and I am delighted he will be joining the coaching staff from next season. Paul has always been inspirational to players of all ages and we know that will continue in his new role.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

“He’ll be missed greatly. I just heard the news this morning. We knew he’d make a decision but didn’t think it would be this quick. We’re all sad to see him stop playing. He’s been great for United and England and he’ll be missed by all of us. But he’ll be a big miss for us. He’s the best I’ve played with and against. He’s only small but it’s so difficult to get the ball off him. Every United fan will miss him.” – Wayne Rooney

“It is very sad day for Manchester United fans around the world. We all know that Paul was one of the players that came through the ranks of the academy system in the 1990’s and has established himself as one of the greatest players to ever wear the United shirt. It is very important that the club keeps its association with these great players and we are delighted that Paul will join the coaching staff.” – David Gill

“All I can think of is what an absolute tragedy that we have to be without him – he is such a fantastic player, a beautiful player to watch – and we will miss him certainly at Manchester United. But I think more from the game’s point of view that he was just priceless – he had vision, he could see instantly where people were and I used to sometimes hear people gasp when he made a pass that was just so pinpoint. “He’s just a fantastic player – a beautiful, beautiful footballer – and at Manchester United we’ve been very proud that he played for us.” – Sir Bobby Charlton

On Scholes’ career

“He is the best midfielder of his generation. I would have loved to have played alongside him.” – Pep Guardiola

“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.” – Xavi Hernandez

“I tell anyone who asks me – Scholes is the best English player.” – Laurent Blanc

“An amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.” – Roy Keane

“The best? Without any doubt it has to be Paul Scholes. He knows how to do everything, and he is the one who directs the way his team plays. On top of that, he has indestructible mental strength.” – Thierry Henry

“There isn’t a player of his mould anywhere else in the world.” – Glenn Hoddle

“If you ask footballers to pick out the player they most admire, so many of them will pick Paul Scholes. He’s the most consistent and naturally gifted player we’ve had for a long, long time.” – Alan Shearer

“Scholes is one of the most complete footballers I’ve ever seen. His one-touch play is phenomenal. Whenever I have played against him, I never felt I could get close to him.” – Eidur Gudjohnsen

“Every one of us is just trying to become as good as him. Everyone can learn from Paul Scholes. I’m not the best, Paul
Scholes is.” – Edgar Davids

“He is the one whose level I aspire to. He is the best player in the Premier League.” – Cesc Fabregas

“The player in the Premiership I admire most? Easy – Scholes.” – Patrick Vieira

“I can’t understand why Scholes has never won the player of the year award. He should have won it long ago. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t seek the limelight like some of the other ‘stars’.” -Thierry Henry

“He’s almost untouchable in what he does. I never tire of watching him play. You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get. One of my regrets is that the opportunity to play alongside him never presented itself during my career.” – Zinedine Zidane

“Paul Scholes would have been one of my first choices for putting together a great team – that goes to show how highly I have always rated him.” – Marcello Lippi

“Good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and the red shirt.” – Socrates

“I’m saddened because I think we as spectators, not only in this country but right through out Europe and the rest of the world, will be missing one hell of a footballer.” – Ray Wilkins

“Paul Scholes is my favourite player. He epitomises the spirit of Manchester United and everything that is good about football.” – Sir Bobby Charlton

“Without question, I think Paul Scholes is the best player in England. He’s got the best skills, the best brain. No one can match him.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

Gill promises investment as Reds aim to close Barça gap

May 30, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 64 comments

Manchester United’s thumping defeat to Barcelona on Saturday night threatened to spoil the Reds’ victory parade through the city today. Even so around 150,000 lined Manchester’s streets for the party, which celebrated a 19th domestic title, if not the European Cup. Yet, as United’s supporters delight in another Premier League triumph – the 12th of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford reign – questions have inevitably been drawn of the club’s ability to compete at the very highest level. A level to which Barcelona set a new standard on Saturday night.

Indeed, the manner of Barça’s victory at Wembley was so overwhelmingly superior that United’s response cuts to the very heart of the club’s place in Europe’s hierarchy. Runner-up in Europe’s elite competition is no shame, of course, but the gap between United and the best is evidently far wider than hoped. The question of whether United can close that gap is one to which supporters will look for answers over the summer.

The Catalan giant’s success is based on a straightforward two-sided strategy; build the most productive youth academy on the planet, while investing heavily in the transfer market. Indeed, while six of the starting team at Wembley were trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s much-lauded academy, the club has also invested hugely in the transfer market over the past decade, while also baring the largest wage bill of any football club.

In response United has only two options: plan for immediate needs and work towards a better tomorrow. In this United’s historic strategy is not wholly different to Barça’s, with the Reds seeking to augment lavish spending with talented youngsters trained at Carrington. More recent austerity has seemingly curbed the club’s net transfer spend at a time when the academy is producing a relatively limited crop of first-team-ready youngsters.

In this both United’s chief executive David Gill and his club manager offered hope and a prescient warning today. Gill, a staunch supporter of the Glazer regime which has drained around £400 million out of the club in the past five years, hinted at heavy investment this summer. Meanwhile, Ferguson warned that Barcelona will continue to enjoy a structural advantage if the Football Association continues to control youth development policy.

“It will be a busier than usual summer this year,” Gill told MUTV, with United set to confirm deals for David de Gea, Ashley Young and Rafael Varane in the coming week.

“I will be going away at some point in June and be back for the start of our tour but I will be on with player stuff for the next few weeks I am sure.”

The question on most fans’ lips is whether Gill and his paymasters will sanction heavier spending on proven talent, in addition to youth’s promise. After all, while Barça has produced a rash of outrageously talented players from La Masia, the club also spent around €90 million on Danni Alves, Javier Mascherano, Eric Abidal and David Villa in recent seasons. That figure does not include the €65 million largely wasted on Zlatan Imbrahimovic in summer 2009.

Whether United’s response is more ambitious than the aforementioned De Gea, Young and Varane is as yet undecided. After all, while uncontested newspaper reports speculate at heavy summer investment in addition to that trio, recent history suggests otherwise. Gill’s assertion that his summer will be “busier than usual” could yet be another of the executive’s empty platitudes.

Meanwhile, United continues to invest in youth development, although there has been scant reward in the past decade. Of the current first team squad only Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson have emerged from the academy in the past decade; an embarrassing return relative to Saturday’s opponents.

Of course this season’s FA Youth Cup winning side may yet produce rarefied talent to compete at both domestic and European level, although precedent suggests that it is unlikely. United’s two teams to reach the Youth Cup final since the ‘class of ’92’ – 2004 and 2007 – has produced not a single first team regular at Old Trafford, let alone a talent to match Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.

It is a failure Ferguson blames on the FA’s regulatory framework for youth development in England, especially the so-called 90 minute rule. The regulation stipulates that Premier League academies cannot take on boys that live more than 90 minutes drive away from the club’s base at Old Trafford.

“People have to understand the mechanics of the industry we are working in,” Ferguson said today.

“We are only allowed to coach youngsters for an hour and a half, they [Barcelona] can coach every hour of the day if they want to. That’s the great advantage they have got. It is a fantastic philosophy.

“We hope that in years to come our coaches will be able to spend more time with young kids, to teach them the basics, the technical abilities and the confidence to keep the ball all the time. We are good at it, but not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time. It is a wonderful challenge and we should always accept a challenge.”

Yet, any revision to the rule will bring no immediate reward as United continues to look abroad for the best in world youth talent. Of the Youth Cup winning side seven hailed from the Greater Manchester area, while the other four were brought in from overseas. The trend may yet swing towards ever greater global imports as the club seeks to circumvent FA regulations.

More to the point, despite the talented youth team, none will immediately augment United’s side. If the gap between United and Barça is to be bridged than Gill’s wallet will be in repeated use over the next two months. It was, no doubt, a conversation pondered as United’s victory parade idled past the crowds today.

Morning after the night before

May 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 34 comments

Time heals but a second resounding defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final is a pain that will not subside easily; the heavy hearts hardly aided by a collective hangover.

Thousands gathered, both at Wembley and in bars, clubs and hotels across Manchester and the country. Indeed, thousands of Reds descended on London, whether they held match tickets or not. The need to be part of the experience was overwhelming. The anti-climax as realisation set in that United could not, would not, defeat the Catalan giants was just simply cataclysmic.

Yet optimism grew as kick-off approached, aided by the Reds-only atmosphere and the liberal consumption of alcohol. Certainly,the Rant crew joined a packed bar in subduing any pre-match nerves with JD Wetherspoon’s finest. Sadly, the guest ale ‘Flight of Fancy’ was a more prescient name than expected. In hindsight, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops had always lived on hope more than expectation against Barça’s collection of world stars.

The 500-strong crowd in this corner of North West London seemed, anecdotally at least, to have collectively travelled south, driven perhaps by the need to be closer to Wembley and Ferguson’s embattled team. Around 25,000 United supporters held tickets to the game; perhaps as many again travelled to the capital simply to be part of the experience.

Yet, even in the unlikeliest of settings – a cookie-cutter chain bar set in a shopping centre – this group of Reds generated an atmosphere rarely experienced at Old Trafford these days. How the Scot’s men could have done with this passionate support just one stop north on the Underground.

The singing began more than two hours ahead of kick-off, with few United legends left off an impressive roster of chants: Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest, in addition to the current crop of heroes. The men’s bathroom rocked to the sound of “Tallest Floodlights,” while an elongated version of Eric the King will surely have been heard in the nearby leafy Hampstead streets.

Ferguson’s men seemed to respond to the overwhelming support in absentia, hurtling into challenges, pressing high and forcing Barcelona into more errors during the first 15 minutes than rarely afforded during 90 minutes of most Los Cules fixtures. Although United’s bright start didn’t last the team’s ticketless fans pressed on in applying the rousing soundtrack.

While Pedro Rodríguez’ opening goal quietened the din it was only momentary; Wayne Rooney’s equaliser simply brought the house down. There is something about supporting United that encourages even the burliest of complete strangers to embrace in sheer joy.

The Wetherspoon’s screening was organised by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with 15 other venues across Manchester and London also showing the match. Around 15,000 fans gathered at the events. Reports agree that the atmosphere from the Ramada Hotel in the heart of Piccadilly, to Ministry of Sound nightclub in central London to the Point, Lancashire County Cricket Club’s fabulous new facility, was consistently up-beat until defeat was all but confirmed.

Frustration set in of course and anger supporters’ anger turned to Barcelona players’ prevalence for hitting the turf early and often. Perhaps the dawning realisation that fans’ heroes were being thoroughly outclassed nipped any potential for trouble in the bud. Indeed, supporters’ weary resignation to defeat set in as David Villa curled in Barca’s superb third.

Then talk quickly turned to the summer and much-anticipated rebuilding. While some fans called for an immediate clearout – the knee-jerk element growing louder during United’s second-half drubbing – the truth is more nuanced of course.

United’s current evolution could be accelerated by investment in top-class talent; whether the expected arrival David De Gea, Ashley Young and Raphael Varane falls into that category is certainly questionable. Sadly, overwhelming supporter demand for a midfielder to match Barça’s quality is yet to be heard by United’s top management.

Yet in winning the Premier League by nine points and reaching the Champions League final Ferguson’s side has surely over achieved this season. This was seemingly widely recognised by pub-going fans on Saturday night, who came in hope rather than certainty.

Many of this group have been driven from Old Trafford by the Glazer family’s excessive pricing. Therein lies something unique about United. The passion has not died, even though ticket prices and debt-fuelled ownership have excluded many from matches. UEFA’s disgraceful decision to offer just 25,000 tickets to each club competing in last night’s final – at £80 to £300 a piece – is yet another symptom in the race to monetisation of the ‘people’s game’.

Events such as those organised by MUST may become more commonplace. The group’s Chubb Club is already a Manchester institution, now expanded to exiled Reds in London. For now, United’s weary supporters have the summer to contemplate what might have been but look back on a thoroughly enjoyable collective event.

Champions League Final 2011: preview

May 27, 2011 Tags: , Matches 259 comments

When Sir Alex Ferguson delivered his now infamous Pacino-esque half-time eulogy deep in the bowel’s of Camp Nou’s ‘home’ dressing room during the 1999 final, he told his startled players that six feet may be the closest they ever got to ‘ol big ears, the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. As startlingly brilliant his 1999 breed could be they only ever made on final, famously winning in injury time.

By contrast Ferguson’s current generation faces their third showpiece in four years. The final of Europe’s Premier Competition no longer a rarity but, incredibly, now habitual. No more so for his 2011 generation, a team reportedly among the Scot’s very worst in 25 years at Old Trafford. How the team has made a mockery of that prediction this season.

It is this sense of over-achievement – the underdog spirit if you will – that has seemingly reduced the pressure on Ferguson’s men ahead of Saturday night’s Wembley final. Win or lose, United has never been favourite, perhaps even among the club’s own fans, to lift this year’s Champions League trophy.

Yet Ferguson, often to the media’s audible derision, has always backed his charges to come good this season. It is, according to many pundits, a team without “stardust”. Not so says the Scot, who firmly believes his players hold the ability and temperament to beat the team many regard as history’s best, on United’s ‘home’ soil.

“We have players who will all like this stage,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“In terms of Rooney’s progress in Europe, he is much more mature than he was in 2009. And others too. The experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is vital. Our experience, and our progress in Europe this season, gives us a good chance.

“Barcelona have fantastic qualities but I think our qualities will show through as well, which could make it a really good game. We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. We maybe made one or two mistakes last time, but not this time. We were disappointed we lost the game but it isn’t a matter of revenge, it is about our own personal pride.”

That preparation has included a two week period in which the Premier League was won but Ferguson did not allow the intensity of focus to drop. Indeed, the manager’s stronger-than-expected line-up against Blackpool last week belied an understanding that too many players were undercooked when United lost to Barcelona in 2009.

And while Ferguson’s line-up will surprise few, the manager has promised a fresh tactical outlook having been out-thought by Pep Guardiola’s men in Rome. Pre-eminent in Ferguson’s mind is a nagging feeling that United failed to give a true account of itself in the Italian capital, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez a glittering array of attacking talent that failed to spark

“We did most of the work before the Blackpool game [last Sunday] – and winning the league the previous week helped us that way,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“The players have to trust themselves and trust each other because I trust them. I know they’ll do the job right. This team has unity and our record in Europe this year is good. We’re used to playing in Europe, we have that experience and we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved this year in Europe.

“There could be a lot of excitement, there’ll be a lot of good football. We recognise the quality of our opponents: it’s unwise to go into a game not preparing for how your opponents play, their strengths and weaknesses.”

Manchester United v Barcelona, Champions League Final 2011, 28 MayMuch will depend on whether United can retain enough of the ball to hurt Barcelona, whose ability to dominate games has, if anything, increased in the two years since these sides last met. The Catalan giants have managed more than 70 per cent possession on average this season, meaning United will almost certainly be on the back foot most of the night.

Yet, it is easy to forget United’s positive start in Rome, where Park Ji-Sung would surely have scored in the opening seconds but for former Red Gerard Piqué’s last-ditch tackle. It is that positive outlook that Ferguson has instilled in his troops over the past fortnight.

This should reflect in the Scot’s team, whose natural instincts against big European opposition is to pack midfield. However, with Darren Fletcher unlikely to make the United 18-man squad, let alone the starting team, Ferguson’s hand is somewhat forced. Wayne Rooney is likely to partner Javier Hernández in attack, with the former Evertonian dropping deep into midfield when needed.

With Ferguson’s selection dilemma solved, the rest of the Scot’s team almost picks itself. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will form the heart of United’s midfield; Antonio Valencia will edge out Nani for the right-wing berth; Fabio da Silva is expected to play at right-back ahead of his brother Rafael.

Tactically Ferguson’s team has worked on pressing high up the pitch where United will attempt to cut of the supply to Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi by suffocating Barça’s ‘starters’ – Piqué and Sergio Busquets.

It is a tactical flexibility that owes much to Ferguson’s respect for Guardiola. While the men are no friends – Ferguson retains far more affection for José Mourinho – the elder man recognises the outstanding team Guardiola has built.

“For a young coach, he’s changed the way they play and brought a maturity to the team,” Ferguson said of the 40-year-old coach.

“From beating us in Rome to the present day, you can see that maturity. He’s changed the way they press the ball; for a young coach he’s done fantastically well and has a good presence. He played for Barcelona, which helps, and with the history of Dutch coaches there, he’s made a big step forward for Spanish coaches.”

Meanwhile, Guardiola has few selection worries save for left-back where captain Carles Puyol is expected to play out of position. Eric Abidal, now fit after undergoing surgery for a kidney tumour, is not thought to be match-ready, while Maxwell is out-of-favour. The selection may offer United a glimmer of hope, especially after Antonio Valencia’s outstanding performance against Ashley Cole in the recent victory over Chelsea.

Yet, if that sentiment is essentially pessimistic in tone then Ferguson is having none of it: “We have a great chance. We always focus on what we can do ourselves and we hope to attack – we have players who can do that.”

It’s a belief that few fans – United or otherwise – would be wise to bet against in this most unpredictable of campaigns.

Match Facts
Champions League Final. Wembley, London. 7.45pm, 28 May 2011.

Barcelona – 433 – Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa. Subs from: Bojan, Jeffrén, Keita, Milito, Maxwell, Afellay, Adriano, Abidal, Fontàs, Olazábal.

United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Kuszazck, OShea, Fletcher.

Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Assistant referees: Gabor Erös, György Ring
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian, Tamás Bognar
Fourth official: Istvan Vad

Barcelona – WDWDDW
United – WLWWWW

Rant Cast 74 – this is the one

May 27, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment

On this week’s Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul review United’s Premier League victory over Blackpool, talk youth development with @ManUnitedYouth and preview the Champions League final this weekend.

In a bumper length show we discuss tactics – heart versus head rationalism – drinks meet-ups, and a Red invasion of London. We answer your Twitter questions, offer a shout out to the Facebook crew and cross our collective fingers for the right result at Wembley on Saturday night!

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

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

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast.

Subscribe on iTunes now.

Champions League Final 2011: Rant @ London drinks

May 26, 2011 Tags: , , Shorts 25 comments

The United Rant podcast crew will be attending the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust drinks event in London during the Champions League final this weekend. There are several meet-ups planned across the capital and in Manchester – we’ll be at Weatherspoons O2 Centre, near Finchley Road tube station in London, for the duration.

Fans can buy tickets for any of the events from MUST – there are venues across Manchester and London. We’ll be at venue #11 and all profits from ticket sales go to the trust. Tickets guarantee entry for pre-match drinks for those going to the game at Wembley (with easy access via the Metropolitan Line), plus a screening of the match and after-party for those who are not.

Join us where we’ll be recording supporters’ views before, during and after the match for the Rant Cast!

If you can’t get to Finchley Road these other Manchester and London events are taking place, all bookable via the MUST website (or here for the Fabric nightclub event).


  • Ramada Piccadilly
  • Palace Hotel
  • Copper Face Jacks
  • The Point – OT, Lancs Cricket Ground
  • The Crown
  • The Quay House, Salford Quays
  • Mint Lounge, Manchester


  • Wetherspoons, O2 Centre, Finchley Road
  • North Star, Finchley Road
  • Walkabout, Finchley Road
  • Fabric Nightclub, Farringdon
  • Trinity Bar, Harrow
  • Sattavis Patidar Centre  (pre and post match party, NOT showing game)

Champions League Final 2011: former Red Piqué, now central to Barça’s cause

May 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments

When Gerard Piqué told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was leaving Old Trafford in summer 2008 the Scot’s anger almost prevented the £5 million transfer to Barcelona. Piqué, thought Ferguson, had gone behind his Manchester United manager’s back to secure a move ‘home’. The incident very nearly ended the deal. Ferguson relented and three years on Piqué is no longer a United reserve but essential to both new club and his country.

In many senses its a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old, who spent four years in Manchester and appeared 25 times for the club, but failed to make a breakthrough into Ferguson’s first team. Having won at European and World level in the past three seasons, Piqué has achieved far more than anybody could have predicted for the unassuming Barcelona-born player.

Indeed, four largely stagnant years away from home could have shaped a career in a very different way. Yet, the former-Barça youth team player, who graduated from the same La Masia academy as Lionel Messi, is far from bitter about his experience under Ferguson’s tutelage.

“It was a difficult time and there were hard moments when you don’t understand why you’re not playing,” Piqué told

“But they had two great central defenders, Rio and Vidić, so it was tough for me to get a chance. It was still a great experience to play there with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, van Nistelrooy. I went there when I was 17 and came back when I was 21. The Gerard who went was very different to the one who came back.

“With Sir Alex we talked openly, and I never had a problem. Although I didn’t play a lot, I had a good relationship with him. Then I got the offer from Barcelona and I went up to him and told him ‘It is a pleasure to play here, but I would like to leave’, that I wanted to go back home. He tried to convince me otherwise, but he understood.”

When the player returned to Catalonia, far from being farmed out to the ‘B’ side as many expected,  Piqué was thrust into the centre of Barça’s defence alongside the incomparable Carles Puyol. It was a tough baptism of course; from playing in front of 500 at Moss Lane, Altrincham for United’s reserves to the intimidating Camp Nou atmosphere on début against Wisla Krakow.

Yet, in the intervening years Piqué has not only established himself in Pep Guardiola’s side but become the mainstay of the Catalan’s defence. The former-Red will marshal Barça’s back-four against United, with Puyol expected to play at left-back in Eric Abidal’s absence.

It is a role that Piqué will no doubt relish having already been a key man in Barça’s 2-0 victory in Rome two years ago. After all, the goal saving tackle on Park Ji-Sung with barely a minute gone almost certainly changed the game in the Catalans’ favour.

Not that his former team-mates ever had any doubt about the player’s ability; only the opportunity Piqué may have been afforded in a crowded United squad.

“Everyone knew Piqué had talent,” adds Rio Ferdinand.

“But English football is different. If you asked him if he could have been where he is now if he had been playing for Manchester United, he would probably have said ‘I don’t know’. When you get a chance, you have to take it. He has gone to Spain, is winning trophies with Barcelona and is doing fantastically well, so you have to give him credit for that.”

Piqué’s essential contribution to Barça is not only defensive though. In the Catalan giant’s tiki-taka style Piqué is the man charged with starting the next wave of Barça attack. It’s a role that will bring the player into direct conflict with Wayne Rooney if the United forward begins the game in the deep-lying ‘number 10′ role.

Piqué, who has real turn of speed despite the casual style, will also be a key man in combating Javier Hernández’ explosive pace. This is true whether Piqué lines up alongside 33-year-old Puyol or former Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano.

It is, however, Rooney who draws Piqué’s focus. Understandable perhaps, given the friendship the pair struck up in Manchester. Indeed, Rooney sent the defender a message of congratulations after Barcelona knocked Real Madrid out of the competition at the semi-final stage.

“He is one of the best strikers in the game and has scored a lot of goals,” Piqué said of his former teammate.

“I will have to concentrate hard to not to give him space. I have a good friendship with him but we both want to win this game and we will be fighting for our own interests. Rooney congratulated me on Twitter the day after we eliminated Madrid. It was always difficult playing against him in training as it is with Messi now.”

It is a battle that may shape a final. The boy who at 17 would call his mother to say “everything was fine” when in the reality he was holding back the tears has come a long way. It is the man now central to Barça’s cause who may break United’s hearts.

Champions League Final 2011: Fergie’s selection dilemma

May 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 41 comments

Manchester United’s chances of beating Barcelona in next weekend’s Champions League final may come down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s selections in two or three key positions. Indeed, the Scot’s deployment of Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung could decide whether United takes or concedes the initiative at Wembley; perhaps even if the Reds secure a third Champions League title under Ferguson’s management, or not.

Both starting team and bench remain a dilemma for Ferguson, whose instincts in recent years may draw him towards a conservative selection against the Catalan giants. But if the Scot, who is competing in his fourth Champions League final, wishes to augment midfield with Fletcher, for example, then it may be at Hernandez’ expense. The dilemma is all the more acute for Fletcher’s very recent return to fitness and the Mexican’s outstanding form during the end-of-season run-in.

Ferguson’s decision could be coloured by United’s experience in 2009, where Barcelona simply passed around Michael Carrick and Anderson in the centre of the Reds’ midfield. The theory that Fletcher’s energy and destructive quality would have changed that game’s nature have long been espoused. And should Ferguson bring the Scotland captain into the side for Hernández’, Wayne Rooney will likely be asked to play as United’s  lone forward.

Fletcher will face a late fitness test to see whether the Scot can take part or not. He faces potential heartbreak for a third time – the 26-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute as United won the trophy in Moscow, May 2008 and missed the 2009 final through suspension.

“Darren has had a difficult time,” assistant Mike Phelan admitted on Monday.

“A Darren Fletcher up and running and firing on all cylinders gives us a hard job of picking the team. It is never easy to come back when you have been out for so long. Now we will recover him and see where he is at in a couple of days’ time.”

But Ferguson has alternatives, including deploying the formation used against Chelsea in this season’s quarter-final, or bringing Fletcher into United’s midfield at Giggs’ expense. Should the United manager decide energy is more important than Giggs’ guile against the Catalan giants, Fletcher or Park could find themselves deployed centrally in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

That is one theory at least.

Yet, it is almost inconceivable that United will enjoy more than 40 per cent possession against Barça whatever the midfield combination Ferguson deploys. After all few, if any, opponents have been able to break up the Catalans’ ‘passing carousel’ by deploying agricultural tactics in recent seasons.

If Ferguson takes this view, he may indeed choose to focus on United’s positional play instead, asking Carrick, Park and Giggs to drop deep when needed, with Rooney augmenting midfield and Hernández attempting to run behind Barça’s atypical high defensive line. Should United enjoy enough possession, of course.

It’s a formation that will allow United to maintain the partnerships that have proven so successful in recent weeks – Rooney/Hernandez and Giggs/Carrick – and enable the former Evertonian to continue at ‘number 10’, where he has returned to form.

Elsewhere, Ferguson will probably choose between brothers Da Silva at right-back, although there is still the chance, fitness permitting, that the Scot will go for experience with John O’Shea. The remainder of Ferguson’s back-five – Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Namanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – picks itself.

But it is not only the starting XI that will cause Ferguson sleepless nights over the next five days. There is also fierce competition for a place on the bench, with just seven substitutes allowed in the Champions League squad. With Ferguson’s men almost fully fit up to eight of the squad will miss out on a place in the matchday party altogether.

Indeed, regular first teamers including O’Shea, Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans may be fighting for a place on United’s bench. Meanwhile Darron Gibson, £8.3 million Bébé and new goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard are likely to miss out altogether. It is not inconceivable that only one of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov will make United’s subs list, with the former-Liverpool man arguably more impactful off the bench but the Bulgarian the club’s top goalscorer.

Whatever the selection, Ferguson is keen to sure his team remains positive. It may just swing the Scot’s decision towards an attacking starting XI.

“Yes, I concede Barcelona are favourites in many people’s eyes,” said 69-year-old Ferguson.

“They have a super side, rich in experience and yet youthful enough to give them a good balance. But it is a challenge we are eager to meet. Don’t write us off. We have the players to win, too, and while praising Barcelona is something that comes naturally, we will be making our own contribution.”

“It is the biggest game of the whole year. We know what it feels like to go to the final and lose. It was one of the saddest moments of my career. I am sure all the players won’t forget that.

“We know we are facing a very, very good team and we have to be physically and psychologically ready. Against this Barcelona team you have to be intelligent. They have qualities but we will try to work on their weaknesses, expose them and try to win the game.”

And the answer to whether Ferguson’s men can rise to that challenge is just five days away.

United XI? – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernández

Subs? – Kuszazck, Rafael, Smalling, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov

Missing out? – Owen, O’Shea, Evans, Obertan, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Hargreaves, Amos, Anderson