Month May 2011

Month May 2011

Champions League final 2011: tactical preview

May 23, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 31 comments

With the Champions League final approaching, Sir Alex Ferguson must find answers to several key tactical questions ahead of the game at Wembley next weekend – from Manchester United’s formation, to dealing with Barcelona’s plethora of attacking options. In the first of a week-long series of build up articles, Rant’s Jay Shon looks at the key tactical decisions facing United ahead of the final…

With United generally being more defensive in Europe than in domestic games – Ferguson’s side is yet to concede away from home in the Champions League – one might be tempted into thinking that United might go for a 4-3-3.  Indeed, the Reds have used the formation featuring two ball winners and a deep-lying midfielder as the midfield trio in recent years.

However, with Darren Fletcher likely to miss the game after missing much of United’s run-in, Ferguson’s squad lacks a genuine ball winner in midfield to attempt the system. In addition, the second ball winner – Anderson or Darron Gibson – is known to squander possession. It is a sin that cannot be tolerated against Barcelona where possession comes at a premium.

In fact United is more likely to line up in a shape similar to the side’s that faced Chelsea and Shalke in previous rounds, although not in a 4-4-1-1 system.  It is a formation that requires wide players to work alongside central midfielders, as opposed to playing as pure attacking midfielders. Such placement will allow Barcelona’s full-backs too much time and space. Indeed, one of the reasons United lost the recent Arsenal game is because Nani and Ji-Sung Park couldn’t get at the Arsenal full-backs. The mistake cannot be replicated against Barça whose full-backs are even more dangerous than Arsenal’s. To counter, United must deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, pushing both Valencia and Park further forward.

With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs expected to play, ball winning is a concern for Ferguson. However, Park, Valencia and Wayne Rooney all do plenty enough running and tracking back to cover for lack of a dedicated ball winner in the central midfield.  Ultimately, United’s formation will be key – the Reds lost the 2009 final against Barcelona thanks, frankly, to the baffling 4-4-2 shape. Ferguson must not repeat the same mistake.

Meanwhile, United must also counter key Barcelona threats. Lionel Messi is acknowledged to be the most dangerous man in football and stopping the Argentinean is essential to a United victory. In the previous meeting, Messi was a deployed as a “false 9,” a centre forward who drops deep, to great effect. United could not cope with his movement and Messi was left free for majority of the game. There are no excuses this time as Messi has been used solely in the role this season. Ferguson and his players should be well prepared.

Perhaps the most obvious solution, since Barça plays with a lone forward, is to have one of United’s centre-backs to push into midfielder to meet Messi. However, with David Villa playing on the shoulder of last defender, leaving a gap in defence might not be the best response. Should United choose to take this route, full-backs Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva must either play extremely defensively to keep numbers at the back, or offensively, pinning back Barça’s wingers.

Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to play a high line and deny Messi the space to turn. United will be susceptible to quick balls over the top or exquisite through balls, both of which Barça are very capable of, but it’s a tactic that will work if United can maintain a decent amount of possession.

This Messi conundrum is caused because United’s midfield trio is matched by Barcelona’s inverted triangle, leaving no free man in either side’s midfield. It might just be that Michael Carrick, the more defensively aware of United’s central midfield duo, will have to drop deep every now and then to pick up the little Argentinian.

Another principal tactical threat to United comes in the shape of Dani Alves, who is widely considered to be the best attacking right full-back in the game. Given Sir Alex’s usual tactics over the years, Park will almost certainly be deployed to do a defensive job on the Brazilian. However, the gap that Alves leaves behind by him also presents an attacking opportunity for United. Barça play a very high line, which is compounded by the gap left in the Catalans’ right channel. It leaves Barça defense vulnerable to pace of Javier Hernández and Rooney. In fact, it might be worth a gamble by deploying Nani on the left to aggressively take advantage of this opportunity.

Hargreaves finally checks out

May 22, 2011 Tags: Opinion 43 comments

So the end is no longer near but final for Owen Hargreaves, released by Manchester United this summer. Four years and so few games later, Hargreaves departs Old Trafford having never fulfilled the potential that persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to part with £17 million in summer 2007. The 30-year-old midfielder made just 39 appearances for the club in fours years and has not earned a new contract despite recent speculation that he would remain at Old Trafford on a pay-as-you-play basis. It means that the former Bayern Munich man is free to find a new club from June. If any will take him.

Hargreaves was a key man in United’s run to Champions League glory in 2008 but the tendinitis which ruined a career had already set in by then. In truth United should never have acquired a player among the world’s finest destructive midfielders but whose injury record in Germany was far too suspect.

Along the way there have been all too many false dawns. He played just over 30 seconds of United’s end-of-season fixture with Sunderland in May 2010; the only football he played last season. The latest comeback lasted a little longer – six minutes. Such is the Canadian-born midfielder’s luck with injuries in recent years that even that action, against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford last September, was cut short in cruel circumstances. It was Hargreaves first start for United in more than two years.

Hargreaves began on the right side of midfield against Wolves; the role he played so effectively against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final. The comeback was fleeting though. As Hargreaves played an ambitious ball forward he clutched his left buttock, with his hamstring tweaked and his afternoon’s work over.

The injury against Wolves appeared to sum up Hargreaves time in Manchester. The midfielder traipsed towards the South West corner of the ground and the sanctuary of the home dressing room without the merest glance over his shoulder. Perhaps fearing the indignant reaction from the bench, perhaps it was simply the embarrassment of yet another false dawn. After all Hargreaves’ cost to United, with just 26 starts and 13 substitute appearances, approaches £800,000 per game, or £31 million over the past four years, including transfer fee and wages.

Yet, for all the financial waste United has greatly missed the player, who has never genuinely been replaced by Ferguson. There’s also no denying the time and effort Hargreaves has put into making a comeback from two operations at Dr. Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic to cure persistent patellar tendinitis.

The cruelty is only magnified with the knowledge that many of the player’s problems were not of his own making. When Hargreaves broke his leg playing for Bayern Munich against Arminia Bielefeld in September 2006 the player returned just four months later, appearing during the last two months of the Germans’ campaign. The rapid return ultimately proved disastrous though.

When Hargreaves moved to United in summer 2007 there was little sign of the problems to come but the player would come to blame his speedy return to action and poor injury management by Bayern for the stress placed on both knees. Initially United treated the problem with rest and injections – Hargreaves appeared in 34 games in all competitions during the 2007/8 campaign, scoring a vital penalty against Chelsea during the Champions League final shoot-out that season.

But the curly-haired midfielder appeared in just three games the following season before the pain in his knees forced the player into the hands of the surgeon. The stars’ knees, described as “the worst ever seen” by Steadman in 25 years operating on injured sportsmen, were to show significant degeneration. It led to surgery on his right knee in November 2008 and the left the following January.

Now the midfielder faces a fight to save a career in any form, which has once promises so much. There has been speculation about a return to Canada with MLS outfit Toronto FC, while clubs in England and Germany may take a risk on the player. Indeed, while it Ferguson who has made the final decision on Hargreaves’ future, the Scot believes the player can return.

“This has been a difficult decision knowing how hard the lad has worked to win back his fitness,” said the United manager on Saturday. “But we have made it in the hope he will be able to resurrect his career elsewhere.”

Ultimately it is a cold-hearted decision by the club but one that comes as little surprise. There is, of course, nothing but sympathy for the player who has effectively played no part in the team for three years. Yet United, as the phrase goes, is a cynical club. Today fans bid farewell to Hargreaves; tomorrow attention will turn to his replacement.

Party begins as Fergie leaves plenty in reserve

May 21, 2011 Tags: , Matches 54 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will defy the Premier League and Blackpool’s relegation rivals to put Manchester United’s interests first as the Reds close out the domestic season on Sunday. With the Champions League final less than a week away, Ferguson will field a side of fringe players against Ian Holloway’s relegation-threatened side, despite the threat of a Premier League fine.

It’s a decision for which Ferguson has few apologies with Barcelona able to field reserve sides in the club’s final three La Liga outings. But with up to nine full internationals in the side, Ferguson expects his men to beat Blackpool and end any potential argument with the Premier League over fielding a weakened side.

Ferguson has previously fielded experimental sides in games crucial to relegation-threatened sides, including United’s 1-0 loss to West Ham United at Old Trafford in 2007 and the Reds’ narrow victory over Hull City in 2009.

“Obviously everybody expects me to leave players out and that will be the case,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“I have to think about next week, I have to juggle the balls and make sure I get the right mix and keep the right energies for Barcelona. There are players who need a game anyway. Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Anderson will all play. So will Berbatov, Evra and Van der Sar.

“We’ll do our fairest to make sure there’s no criticism of the club. The only thing you could be criticised for is if you lose a game and it affects other teams. That’s when you should be put under scrutiny for the team you picked.

“Against Hull [in 2009] we played all the young players and we won 1-0, so there was no reason to criticise the selection on that occasion. This time it will be the same again. We have to make sure we win.”

Whatever the team selection, or indeed final result, United’s players will pick up the Premier League trophy after the game. It will provoke a party that is saddened only by retirements of Red legends. While Edwin van der Sar will play his last ever match at Old Trafford there is an increasing belief that Paul Scholes will also hang up his boots. Although Ferguson confirmed a new contract has been put to the 36-year-old midfielder, the player’s reticence is widely understood at Old Trafford.

Two of Scholes’ successors, Anderson and Darron Gibson, may play in central midfield, although Darren Fletcher is also set to start on the long road towards full fitness. The Scot is an outside bet for the Champions League final, although with barely 90 minutes reserve football behind him after two months out with a mystery virus Fletcher’s role is more likely to be consigned to the United bench.

Manchester United v Blackpool, 22 May 2011Meanwhile, Ferguson will select van der Sar, with the 40-year-old Dutchman having missed United’s draw with Blackburn Rovers last weekend. The ‘keeper has just two matches to play before bringing down the curtain on a wonderful career that has taken him from Ajax to United, via Juventus and Fulham.

“He has been fantastic. Absolutely sensational,” added Ferguson.

“Edwin’s professionalism and dedication have been fabulous. A goalkeeper’s training is completely different from an outfield player. It involves diving about the goalmouth all the time, saving shots and blocks. It is hard to imagine a normal person being able to do that when they were over 40. But he is special. He has something inside him.

“Some people have a certain quality that involves them needing to be a winner all the time. That is what Edwin has been. He has had a great career. He has won four titles with us, Wembley will be his fifth European Cup final and he has more caps than anyone else in Holland. It has been a fantastic career and he is going out at the very top.”

Ahead of van der Sar, Ferguson is likely to field a largely second-string back-four, although Patrice Evra may play after missing two matches with a hamstring problem. Wes Brown, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans will probably make up the defensive unit.

Meanwhile, both Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández will sit out United’s final Premier League game of the season, affording top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov a rare start. The Bulgarian is level with former Red Carlos Tevez in the Premier League scoring charts but has rarely started since Hernández’ emergence in the past three months.

“Javier Hernandez has made it difficult for me to put Dimitar above him,” Ferguson added.

“His performance levels, goals, freshness and pace are fantastic. Dimitar understands that. He never complains. He will play on Sunday and hopefully he will be the top goalscorer.”

Blackpool can win, draw or lose and still be relegated depending on other teams’ results and, perhaps understandably, Holloway has few concerns with United fielding a second-string side. The Blackpool manager had threatened to resign after the Premier League fined his side £25,000 for making 10 changes against Aston Villa earlier this season.

Relegation rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn face each other in the Midlands, Birmingham City face Tottenham Hotspur in London and Wigan Athletic go to Stoke City,

“I believe we can do it, whoever they [United] put out,” said Holloway.

“Maybe the main man up there has written a story that would probably beat Cinderella. All that matters is the dignity, the pride we’ve showed, getting back on track. That’s four games unbeaten, and anyone who’s seen the last four games can tell that Blackpool are back and looking like we did at the start of the season. That was really important to us.

“Blow me down with this fairytale we’re all on, this story that has been unfolding for the last two years. We’ve got to go to Manchester United and probably get a win, and that might not even be enough. I believe it will be, though, because Wolves are at home to Blackburn.”

The Blackpool manager has a full squad from which to choose and may go with the side that beat Bolton Wanderers last weekend.

Meanwhile, for United the party can begin in earnest, even though many of the players who brought a 19th domestic title to Old Trafford will sit out the game. For two – Scholes and van der Sar – it may well be a sad farewell.

Match Facts
Premier League. Old Trafford, Manchester. 22 May 2011, 4pm.

Teams
United – 442 – van der Sar; Brown, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Obertan, Anderson, Fletcher, Nani; Berbatov, Owen. Subs from: Kuzsazck, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, O’Shea, Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, OShea, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez.

Blackpool – 442 – Gilks; Crainey, Eardley, Evatt, Baptiste; Southern, Vaughan, Adam, Puncheon; Taylor-Fletcher, Campbell
Subs from: Cathcart, Beattie, Ormerod, Kingson, Cathcart, Phillips, Reid, Harewood, Ormerod, Beattie.

Officials
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant referees: Peter Kirkup & Dean Mohareb
Fourth official: Mike Jones

Form
United – WWLWWD
Blackpool – LLDDDW

Berbatov: United’s flat-track bully

May 20, 2011 Tags: Opinion 34 comments

There are few debates more intense within the confines of Manchester United’s support than that of Dimitar Berbatov’s past, present and future. Like Marmite and anal sex, Berbatov is an acquired taste. It is a debate that rages still, even though the 30-year-old former Tottenham Hotspur striker jointly leads the Premier League scoring charts.

Should the Bulgarian hit the net against Blackpool at Old Trafford this weekend, and go on to win this season’s golden boot, it will rightly be hailed as a fine personal achievement; one central to United’s success this season. Indeed, Berbatov has scored more winning goals than any other player during the campaign. Quite literally, without the Bulgarian, United could not have won the Premier League this season.

Yet, despite the wonderful talent, dig a little deeper and the player’s record does not hold up under scrutiny. It leaves fans and admirers, including your writer, in a quandary on how to assess the £30 million man’s history at United. The inescapable feeling emerges that for all the wonderful talent on display, Berbatov simply hasn’t delivered on the £30 million promise.

The bare facts are this: Berbatov has scored 21 goals in 40 games in all competitions this season. It’s a fine record at any level. However, the tally includes none in the Champions League nor any against the current top four, unless the Community Shield is generously awarded competitive fixture status. What’s more, of Berbatov’s 21 Premier League goals the Bulgarian has scored against just five teams in the top half of the table – Newcastle, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and Fulham.

The player’s record this season in scoring predominantly against lower-ranked teams – seven came against relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool – is mirrored across his time at Old Trafford. In fact against other members of the current top four – Arsenal, City, Chelsea – Berbatov has just two goals in 20 games over his three years with United. Include Tottenham and Liverpool in that list, and the Bulgarian has seven in 34. It is not impressive.

Moreover, for a ‘creative’ player Berbatov has just five assists in all competitions this season. It’s a pattern oft-repeated, with just six in 2009/10 and nine the previous campaign. Nani, by contrast, has 18 this season alone.

Then there is the player’s record in the Champions League, which is frankly embarrassing for a man with pretensions to be among the world’s best. True, Ferguson rarely selects the player in the latter stages of Europe’s premier competition. But then again, there is an obvious reason for that – the Scot does not feel compelled to include the Bulgarian.

Is Berbatov simply a flat-track bully, performing against lower-ranked sides but failing to deliver at the very top-level? The creative stats, together with Berbatov’s goal record, mean that it is hard to come to any other conclusion. He is, after all, a truly a ‘world class’ talent, in all that the cliché means, but one with a record that is simply not good enough to justify the £30m transfer fee.

However, if we accept that United simply over-paid for a player who has not delivered Ferguson’s oft-vaunted value then it is possible to view the player in a different light. At a near club-record £30 million Berbatov is a man that simply must deliver game and championship altering performances. He does not, possibly cannot, do it against the very best.

Halve the fee and Berbatov feels less of a square peg in a round hole and more an essential part of Ferguson’s squad system. After all, while the Bulgarian has now been eclipsed by Javier Hernández, balance is an essential part of United’s success. Berbatov offers both experience and an excellent goal return against mid to lower-ranked sides, and a different kind of approach to Ferguson’s other attacking options.

Yet, there will be questions about the striker’s future. This summer is perhaps the last opportunity for United to make a return on the player, who is out of contract in June 2012. Although the Reds have a one-way option to extend Berbatov’s contract to 2013, the player’s advancing age means that a big fee is unlikely to come once this summer’s window closes.

Ferguson is not thought to be countenancing a sale even though he has Federico Macheda, Danny Wellbeck and Mame Biram Diouf set to return after spells out on loan. With Michael Owen out of contract, the Scot is canny enough to know that experience counts for something.

Whether fans will ever see the very best of Berbatov again is doubtful though. Hernández is now Ferguson’s first-choice to partner Wayne Rooney in attack, relegating Berbatov to a bit-part role. That fact also means that United will almost certainly never full justify the huge outlay on a player who is only likely to decline in performance from here on in.

Rant Cast 73 – farewell Edwin

May 20, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment

On this week’s edition regulars Ed and Paul look back on United’s championship sealing draw with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, praising the Reds resilience this season. We look ahead to the party against Blackpool and talk summer transfer silly season.

We say an Old Trafford farewell to Edwin van der Sar and ponder whether this really could be Paul Scholes’ final campaign in a Red shirt. Will there be ‘floods of tears’ at Old Trafford if the Ginger Prince confirms retirement?

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 cast@unitedrant.co.uk or comment below.

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast.

Subscribe on iTunes now.

Youth on the agenda as Reds face Cup Final

May 17, 2011 Tags: , Matches 67 comments

Manchester United’s unique affinity with the FA Youth cup continues tonight as Paul McGuinness’ boys take on Sheffield United in the final first leg at Bramall Lane. It has been eight years since United last won the trophy, which the club has held a record nine times, but with arguably the most talent group since the ‘class of ’92’ there are high expectations of a United victory over two legs.

Led by the talented but troubled Ravel Morrison, United overcame Chelsea 6-3 on aggregate in a two-legged semi to reach the final. Victories over Liverpool, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Portsmouth have taken the young Reds to a first final since 2007.

And it is a competition in which Sir Alex Ferguson places great faith, with the current youth team potentially forming the nucleus of United’s senior squad for years to come. Indeed, in Morrison, Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Will Keane, McGuinness’ team boasts youth talent of the very highest order.

The quartet could hardly be in better hands; tracking those players’ progression from youth, to reserve, to the first team, is a process that Ferguson clearly relishes.

“One of the greatest privileges of being a manager is playing a part in the development of young players, watching them grow in confidence and ability,” said Ferguson.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with many exceptional young players but the class of ’92 was unique; their success is a tribute to their talent and this club’s belief in the power of youth.

“Over the past decade we’ve worked on bringing young players into the team from elsewhere. But we still like to produce our own young players and I think there are several in the present youth team who are doing really well.

“The likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison, you see them doing very, very well, so it will always be the case that we put our emphasis on young players coming through. It gives you a nucleus to protect the future.”

Ferguson will attend tonight’s match alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, who won the competition himself three times in the mid-50s. That side would become the Busby Babes, destined for glory until the Munich air crash robbed the team of so many stars.

Forward nearly half a century and United’s FA Youth Cup winning side of 1992, and losing finalists in 1993 and 1995, produced the core of the Reds’ side for more than a decade. Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes have each played in the FA Youth Cup final and gone on to record international honours.

Success at youth level is no barometer of a player’s future career though. Indeed, Ferguson believes that the ’92 side is unique in its ability to produce so many future stars:  “I’m convinced no group of players will ever make such an impact on the English game as did the class of ’92,” the Scot told MUTV this week.

The Scot has a point. Of those young Reds who won the cup against Middlesbrough in 2003 none carved out long-term careers at United, although Phil Bardsley, David Jones, Kieran Richardson and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake still ply their trades in the Premier League.

Yet there is a sense in which the current crop is the most talented in a generation, offering a mix of local boys and imports from further afield. Certainly, while McGuinness’ side possesses outstanding individual talent, it is very much a team in the United tradition. The semi-final comeback from a first leg loss to hammer Chelsea’s youth 4-0 at Old Trafford was testament to that.

Yet it is a youth system in transition. In recent times the club has increasingly sought to bring talent in from abroad. After all, recruiting young is a financial imperative in a globalised sport that places a price premium on established talent. The challenge now has become not only identification of talent but one of integration both into local culture and the ephemeral ‘United way’.

In time United’s youth teams may increasingly be filled by youngsters acquired through the club’s global partnerships; the route Rafael and Fabio da Silva have taken into United’s first team, which effectively saved the club millions in transfer fees.

That argument is for another day though. For the moment the focus is on the here and now, and the chance for another crop of Untied youngsters to carve out their own piece of Reds history.

FA Youth Cup Final, first leg. Bramall Lane, Sheffield.17 May 2011, 7pm.

Johnstone; M Keane, Thorpe, Fornasier, McGinty; Cole, Tunnicliffe, Pogba, van Velzen, Morrison; W Keane. Subs from: Cofie, Lawrence, Ekangamene, Coll, Massacci, Daehli, Wilkinson.

 

Ferguson looks to United evolution

May 16, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 91 comments

Time, they say, waits for no man. There is a proverb no truer in football, which has the fortunate habit of punishing those who rest on laurels. While Manchester United’s achievement in topping the Premier League during a transitional phase is remarkable, Sir Alex Ferguson will know there are areas for improvement. Indeed, with retirements set and question marks hanging over several squad members, Ferguson could well be in for a very busy summer.

The great Scot’s transfer market activity depends on the Glazer family’s attitude to the market of course. The club’s recent financials showed strong growth in commercial revenue tempered by flat ticket sales quarter-on-quarter. Most importantly perhaps more than £100 million was sat in United’s account as of late March, with a strong start to the new financial year expected due to the club’s Champions League run. As ever, United is a financial powerhouse, with an awful balance sheet.

But whatever the budget available Ferguson is keen to continue a rebuilding process that has successfully integrated Javier Hernández, Chris Smalling and Fabio da Silva into the side this season. The trio, together with returning loanees Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, add an increasingly youthful look to United’s squad.

It’s required. After all, Gary Neville has already retired, Edwin van der Sar is due for the same fate and the smart money says Paul Scholes will follow suit. Meanwhile, Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves are each out of contract in the summer.

“There’s a responsibility as the manager of Manchester United,” Ferguson told MUTV after United sealed the Premier League at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.

“It doesn’t go away. I’m not changing anything. I’m not going to take it easy because we won the title. Hopefully we’ll be better next season. Hopefully we’ll be adding two or three players in the summer. We’ve got some young players coming back like Welbeck, Cleverley and Diouf and we want to be better. I think the ambition of the club doesn’t alter.

“One league title opened the door for us because we won the Double the next year with a great team and since then we’ve carried along in the sense that we’ve always been challenging for the title. It’s an amazing feat. For 19 years we’ve been competing for the league.

It’s an incredible achievement and every young player that comes to the club gets engrained into the fabric of that. Chris Smalling’s got his first medal, so have Darron Gibson and Chicharito. It’s a wonderful experience for them because they are the future.”

But Ferguson’s soliloquy on youth cannot mask the challenge ahead. Not only from the resurgent Liverpool and big-spending Manchester City, but Chelsea and Arsenal. While Roman Abramovich will surely sanction another transfer-market splurge for whomever he brings in as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor, Arsène Wenger has spoken recently about bringing much-needed experience into his side.

Should Ferguson be successful in bringing in “two or three players” most pundits point to a new goalkeeper, creative midfielder and left-winger as priorities in reshaping an already burgeoning squad. Should, as expected, Hargreaves leave the club, then Ferguson may also seek a tough-tackling midfielder.

Yet, with so many youngsters now pushing for a place in Ferguson’s side, or the wider squad, the Scot hardly needs any more fringe players. Indeed, most supporters will look forward to United attracting the “world’s top players,” as Wayne Rooney put it last October.

United’s fixation with David de Gea should see the 21-year-old join the club in June, unless the 21-year-old Spaniard decides his immediate future is with Atlético Madrid. Ajax’ Marten Steklenberg is an experience back-up should plan A fail.

Meanwhile, silly season press reports have frequently linked United to a huge offer for Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder, with the 26-year-old Dutchman finally ready for a Premier League move. The player’s huge fee and even bigger wages will almost certainly put the kibosh on any deal with United.

Similarly, another oft-lauded creative player, Tottenham Hotspur’s Luka Modric, will not be moving to Old Trafford this summer. With Spurs unwilling sellers, and the player in no mood to rock the boat, Modric will again be wearing white in 2012. Lille’s Eden Hazard might be a more realistic option, although the Belgian is also coveted by Wenger and a host of other European clubs.

The Reds have lofty ambitions for the vacant left-side attacking role, where Park Ji-Sung has performed well in recent weeks but faces little competition. Here Udinese’s outrageously gifted Alexis Sanchez is a long-admired player within the Old Trafford hierarchy. City’s come-hither eyes and bloated wallet could yet scupper the deal, which those of a more cynical bent might add is convenient for the normally parsimonious Glazers.

Finally, Ferguson is set on bringing a defensive or utility midfielder into the squad this summer. This is true despite reports United has offered Hargreaves a pay-as-you-play deal. With no naturally destructive player in the Scot’s squad it would, arguably, be negligent for United to not look at the position.

Here Everton’s Jack Rodwell has long been coveted, although the players average form this season has brought criticism from the Goodison Park faithful. Moreover, the young and English normally command a price premium, which might bring Stade Rennais’ Yann M’Vila into sharper focus. With Rennes now unlikely to qualify for the Champions League, the French international is almost certainly available.

Whatever the names coming in the summer, Ferguson has little doubt where the challenge is coming from next season.

“It was Liverpool’s time in the ’80s, it’s our time now and we always expect them to challenge us and we also expect Manchester City to challenge us. The great thing about us is that we accept challenges. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

It’s a contest that promises to be even more keenly fought in 2012.

United 19 – 18 Liverpool: a pictorial history

May 15, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 20 comments

Manchester United and Liverpool have exchanged championships since the early 1900s. While the rivalry has intensified in modern times, and with it the desire to beat the rivals from down the East Lancs Road has also grown stronger, the competition has always been keen.

Indeed, the two clubs were on an roughly equal footing – in terms of league wins at least – up to the 1970s before Liverpool’s period of domestic and European domination took hold and they Merseysiders scored 11 First Division titles while United languished in relative domestic-title obscurity. Inevitable decline set in at Liverpool though and United has now romped to 12 Premier League titles without reply from the Anfield outfit.

Here Rant selects some of the highlights from the more than 100 years of rivalry…

United 0 – 1 Liverpool, 1901

Liverpool’s rise from the second division culminated in a first Football League championship in the club’s history.

Liverpool 1901

United 0 – 2 Liverpool, 1906

Liverpool earned a second title in five years despite losing the opening four games of the season. The Merseysiders won impressively with two games to go.

Liverpool 1906

United 1 – 2 Liverpool, 1908

Led by the irrepressible Welshman Billy Meredith, who had earlier been signed from Manchester City, United secure a first Football League championship.

United 1908

United 2 – 2 Liverpool, 1911

A second Football League championship for manager Ernest Mangnall, who would defect to neighbours City a year later. He is the only man to have managed both City and United.

United 1911

United 2 – 3 Liverpool, 1922

The first of two championships in a row for Liverpool, with the Merseyside club winning by six points. United finished last in the first division and suffered relegation.

Liverpool 1922

United 2 – 4 Liverpool, 1923

Liverpool romped to a fourth English crown, winning the first division by six points. Meanwhile United failed to earn promotion from the second division.

Liverpool 1923

United 2 – 5 Liverpool, 1947

Liverpool, led by Scottish inside-forward Billy Liddell, won the first postwar championship by a single point from United. Liddel went on to score more than 200 goals for the Anfield club.

Liverpool 1947

United 3 – 5 Liverpool, 1952

Matt Busby’s first championship, with giant defender Bill Foulkes leading United to triumph. The Englishman played more than 600 games for the club and would later survive Munich.

Bill Foulkes

United 4 -5 Liverpool, 1956

Busby’s second championship as the blossoming ‘Babes’ flourished, with Tommy Taylor leading the strikeforce. United also ventured into Europe, a decision that would shape a club and spawn an obsession.

United 1956

United 5 – 5 Liverpool, 1957

Back-to-back wins for the ‘Busby Babes’ as Dublin-born inside forward Billy Whelan fired United to the title. ‘Liam’ would die at Munich aged just 22 having scored more than 50 goals for the club in a fledgling career.

United 1957

United 5 – 6 Liverpool, 1964

Bill Shankley’s Liverpool beat United to the title by four points. In an open race, the Merseysiders lost 11 games to United’s 12. Shankley would win two further championships as one of the club’s longest serving managers.

Liverpool 64

United 6 – 6 Liverpool, 1965

Denis Law scored the goals to take the title back to Old Trafford. Law, a £115,000 signing three years previous, scored 237 goals in 404 games for United before joining City in 1973.

United 1965

United 6 – 7 Liverpool, 1966

Liverpool took the First Division trophy back down the East Lancs Road the following year, with United 10 points behind the Merseysiders. Remarkably, Liverpool won the title with only 14 squad players.

Liverpool 1966

United 7 – 7 Liverpool, 1967

Law scored 25 goals as United return the title to its rightful home at Old Trafford. It would be United’s last English championship for 26 years as Liverpool came to dominate the domestic and European game.

United 1967

United 7 – 8 Liverpool, 1973

Shankley’s last title as Liverpool manager was the first of 11 Liverpool titles before United returned to the top of the English game.

United 1973

United 7 – 9 Liverpool, 1976

Liverpool’s domination of the English game was well underway by the mid-1970s. It proved a first major trophy under Bob Paisley by narrowly beating Queens Park Rangers to the title.

Liverpool 1976

United 7 – 10, 11 Liverpool, 1977-79

Paisley won the first of what would prove to be three European cups and secured the First Division title, narrowly, from City as Liverpool maintained their preeminence. Meanwhile, United sacked Tommy Docherty in ’77 for having an illicit affair with the club doctor’s wife. Liverpool regained the trophy in 1979 as United lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final.

Liverpool 1977

United 7 – 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 Liverpool, 1980-88

Liverpool’s domination of the 1980s was almost total, with the Anfield club winning six First Division titles and two European cups. United’s faithful enjoyed a good record in the domestic cups but second best was always hard to take.

Liverpool v United 1983

United 7 – 18 Liverpool, 1990

The last of Liverpool’s championships before decline set in. The Merseysiders, still led by Kenny Dalglish, beat Aston Villa into second place, with United engaged in a relegation battle for much of the season.

Liverpool 1990

United 8 – 18 Liverpool, 1993

Hallelujah! United reached the promised land once again after 26 long years. Ferguson’s side won the title without kicking a ball, but in truth Steve Bruce’s two injury-time goals to beat Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in April 1993 proved the catalyst.

United 1993

United 9 – 18 Liverpool, 1994

One of United’s toughest ever sides, led by the irrepressible Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes strike pairing. The side won the first double in United’s history, beating Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final and retained the Premier League trophy.

United 1994

United 10, 11, 12 – 18 Liverpool, 1996-99

United’s domestic dominance in the mid-to-late 1990s was broken only by Cantona’s suspension in 1995, which enabled Blackburn Rovers to win the Premier League, and 1998 when Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford. Liverpool, meanwhile, hired and fired Graeme Souness and Roy Evans. The decade ended with United winning an historic League, FA Cup and European Cup treble; a feat Liverpool has never achieved.

United 1999

United 13, 14, 15 – 18 Liverpool, 2000-03

United’s dominance of the English game continued unabated into the new decade, with Ferguson’s side winning by huge margins in 2000 and 2001. Under Gerard Houlier the Merseysiders achieved something of a renaissance in the cup competitions, although Arsenal provided United’s main domestic competition.

United 2003

United 16, 17, 18 – 18 Liverpool, 2007-09

José Mourinho’s introduction at Chelsea, together with Roman Abramovich’s petro-billions, wrested control of the Premier League to London. But led by a new wave of attacking talent – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez – United won three Premier League titles back-to-back and the European Cup in 2008.

United 2008

United 19 – 18 Liverpool, 2011

Knocked off their perch at long, long last. For the first time in the history of these two great clubs, United is now ahead on league titles won.

United 2011

Fergie and players celebrate title 19

May 14, 2011 Tags: Matches 12 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson acclaimed his Premier League title winning team as Manchester United drew 1-1 with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park to seal a 19th domestic championship. The 69-year-old Scot, celebrating his 12th title in charge at Old Trafford, said that his players’ fighting spirit brought them through to eclipse Liverpool as the most successful club in England. Ferguson’s players also revelled in winning a 12th title since the Premier League’s inception in 1992; the most dominant club in modern English football.

Sir Alex Ferguson

“It’s a fantastic performance by the lads,” said Ferguson, who reiterated that he has no intention of retiring this summer.

“The players worked their socks of to get the result we needed. It wasn’t an easy game; we were 1-0 down after giving away a bad goal, but we kept on going and that’s one of the great qualities they have, they don’t give in.

“In the 80s it was Liverpool’s time. When I came down I never thought I’d achieve what we have done, but I always looked at getting that first title. Getting the first one opened the door for us, and we’ve had some great teams after that.

“I can’t believe it. I had a great spell at Aberdeen in fairness, I had a great time up there, but it was always time for me to move on at some point and I couldn’t have picked a better club. This was the ideal club for me, there’s no question about that. It was the only club in the world that matched what I needed at the time.”

Ryan Giggs

“It’s a tough league to win and you can see by the celebrations it’s still as special as ever,” said Giggs, who like his manager now has 12 Premier League titles.

“This is what you live for. This is why I’m still playing at 37 for these moments. It gets better and better. It’s a pleasure to play in this team, the spirit is brilliant and we want to win trophies. We’re champions and we’re in the Champions League final, it’s a rubbish team!

Maybe early on in the season we weren’t playing great football, but since the turn of the year we’ve played some good stuff and we deserve to be champions.

“It’s great. If you look back 20 years we were nowhere near Liverpool. To overturn that kind of deficit is great credit to the club, to the manager and the players who have been involved. It’s great to be in front of our biggest rivals.”

Wayne Rooney

“I was terrified, the ref took a long time to give it,” Rooney said of the penalty that effectively won United the title.

“I had to compose myself, [but] I’d been practising all week. For me personally, being an Everton fan, to win a 19th title is special. After the year I’ve had, with the ups and downs, this is for the fans and the team.”

Javier Hernández

“It’s brilliant. It’s awesome. I’m very happy,” the 20-goal Mexican told Sky Sports.

“It’s definitely more than I could have imagined. Every game, every day in England, has been happier than I dreamed. It’s unbelievable. I have dreamt about this moment and I am enjoying it a lot. It really is unbelievable. We’re the best team in the world.”

Dimitar Berbatov

“Second title, it’s great,” added the Premier League top goalscorer.

“And even better this season because I scored many goals this season so I’ve helped the team win it. Hopefully I can play in the last game so I can score a couple more goals.”

Rio Ferdinand

“We missed out last year by a point,” said the former England captain.

“It was here [at Ewood Park] we pretty much lost the league so it was nice to come back here and get it done. We gave away a soft goal but we persevered and got our rewards. To get it done this week makes it easier for the manager, I’m sure.

“It’s a better league this year, teams have been beating each other from the bottom to the top which makes it more exciting for the fans. I’m delighted, it’s been a hard couple of years being out but if you work hard you get your rewards.”