Month December 2011

Month December 2011

Carrick’s renaissance

December 18, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 39 comments

Michael Carrick’s goal against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday was 70 games coming; two long years since the Geordie midfielder had last struck for Manchester United in any competition. In that time, for all Carrick’s understated excellence, the midfielder has struggled both to maintain the form of pre-2008 and a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Indeed, such was the former Tottenham Hotspur man’s perceived slump that many United supporters had called time on the 30-year-old’s career. No longer, with Carrick demonstrating his renewed value to the cause over the past two months.

Excellent once again in United’s 2-0 win at Loftus Road, Carrick not only scored United’s vital second, but demonstrated the kind of dynamic drive that many believed he had lost. The goal may have been rare, but the performance wasn’t a one-off either – Carrick excelled against Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend. Ditto in the Reds’ win at Aston Villa, and in many of United’s matches post defeat to Manchester City in October.

Indeed, in the absence of so many central midfielders – Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, even Darron Gibson – Carrick’s reassuring presence has been vital to the club’s resurgence, domestically at least, over the past two months. But few supporters, even the most ardent Carrick supporters, would have predicted the midfielder’s mazy run and calm finish in west London on Sunday.

“The last time I scored a goal from inside my own half was probably when I was playing under-12s!” said Carrick.

“It just seemed to open up for me and I kept on going and going and thought: ‘Why not?’. It was great to see it go in. We had so many chances in the game, so many opportunities to get a shot on target… I was starting to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. So I was delighted to see it go in, though, even if the run seemed to take forever.

“We were definitely a bit disappointed [at half-time]. We created a lot of chances but the final ball just didn’t go our way. We were wary because we knew the game was still on a knife-edge. In those situations all it takes is one goal and the game changes. That’s why it was crucial to score a second goal. Even after that we had chances to score more. Hopefully we can add that to our game and score a few more in the future.”

Carrick has always excelled at rotating possession, easing United from defence into attack, and the player has offered far more protection to United’s back-four than he is given credit for. But the Geordie’s lack of dynamism, and his perceived passivity, has held the player back, both at United and for England. The player’s performance in two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona was so underwhelming that it genuinely shocked.

Moreover, it is a truism that Carrick has never completed a 30 game Premier League season, and only once started more than 40 games for the club in all competitions over a campaign. It is not enough for a player who is fit more often than not; a player whose talents have not always come to the fore.

The question now is not whether Carrick can become the player so many United fans miss in Roy Keane, but the performer the side has rarely seen for two years. After all, Carrick, now into his 30s, isn’t going to become the Irish midfielder overnight, and for that many fans will never come to lionise the £16 million player. But he could, if this form holds, once again form a central plank of United’s campaign for a 20th domestic title this season.

“When Michael Carrick scored that second goal I think that put it to bed,” said Ferguson of the midfielder’s run and shot against QPR. “He’s supposed to sit in the middle of the pitch. I’ll maybe have to fine him! But he’s right bang on form, Michael, he’s been terrific in the last few weeks and we’re pleased with that.”

Alongside Phil Jones in midfield, Carrick has been given additional freedom to break forward, using his attacking as well as those defensive skills. Meanwhile Jones, criticised by Keane for a lack of focus after United’s 2-1 loss to FC Basel in the Champions League a fortnight ago, has added energy to the centre of the park in Fletcher’s prolonged absence, even if the pairing is not nearly as creative as many supporters would like.

“Phil is only 19 years of age but he’s got tremendous potential and he has great energy,” added Ferguson of the £16 million capture from Blackburn Rovers.

“You saw today, he’s up and down the pitch making fantastic runs through the middle, he could have scored two or three today. He hit the post, the goalkeeper made a good save, his energy is really important to the team at the minute.”

Jones will eventually move back into defence this season, and the natural central defender’s occasional lack of positional sense in midfield will be more sorely tested than against Wolves and QPR. Each is genuinely in a relegation dog-fight. After all, Jones’ least impressive performance of the season came, arguably, in central midfield against Liverpool earlier this season.

In the meantime the Preston-born player is providing an excellent foil to Carrick, whose personal renaissance is well underway. The question is: will it last?

Reds without nine for London double-header

December 17, 2011 Tags: , Matches 54 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will be without almost a team of first team players for two visits to the Capital this week as Manchester United’s injury crisis intensifies. Captain Nemanja Vidic and midfielder Darren Fletcher have each been ruled out for the season, while more than half-a-dozen other players are unlikely to travel to London this week. The absentees mean Ferguson will reshuffle in defence and midfield as United aim to hit the Premier League summit with a victory over Queens Park Rangers on Sunday.

But Ferguson has seemingly ruled out dipping into the winter transfer market despite the rash of injuries that threaten to disrupt United’s season. Indeed, injury to Darron Gibson in Thursday night’s reserve match leaves Ferguson may leave Michael Carrick as the Reds only senior central midfielder for the trip south. However, Ferguson says that the club will not buy unless a player already on Ferguson’s target list becomes available.

“It is how you handle the situation,” claimed Ferguson.

“Buying in January has seldom been a route we have taken. Unless a player we have always been interested in comes along – and there is no sign of that at the moment – it is not suitable for us. We are not going to panic; we have enough experience among the staff to cope with these things.

“We still have players who can wear the red jersey and they will wear it with complete confidence. Vidic’s character and energy are a loss. Darren is a big-game player, he is a loss, but we have enough players who have experienced everything that is coming in the second half of the season.”

Ferguson’s obstinance, whether directed by a genuine belief in the resources still available or the reported lack of transfer funds, means that United will continue to field an unconventional midfield. Carrick is again likely to be joined by Phil Jones in the engine room on Sunday. Contract rebel Paul Pogba could make the bench, as could youngsters Larnell Cole and Ezikiel Fryers.

QPR v Manchester United, Premier League, 17 December 2011, Loftus RoadHowever, Ferguson’s options are increased by one, with Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov available for selection against Neil Warnock’s newly promoted Londoners. Berbatov should make United’s bench, with Danny Welbeck partnering Wayne Rooney in attack. Meanwhile, Brazilian full-back Rafael da Silva is back in training and could feature over the Christmas programme, although the 20-year-old did not travel to London.

Despite the extended injury list Ferguson is in confident mood, with United having never lost to QPR in the Premier League. The clubs have not met since 1996, although QPR did beat United 4-1 on New Year’s Day 1992 with Dennis Bailey scoring a hat-trick.

“I always enjoy going to Queens Park Rangers,” added Ferguson.

“It’s always a good atmosphere and we used to be able to get a bigger support than normal. They used to give us one section – the one behind the goal and then part of the side, which always meant we had about 6,000 fans. We have a good record there and I hope we can continue that. They’ve done well and given themselves a chance of staying in the league by investing and bringing in a few players. It’s going to be a hard game.

“Queens Park Rangers have invested the right way. Neil Warnock realised that when you get into the Premier League you need big players. That gives them a better chance because it’s an unremitting league in terms of the demands, particularly for teams coming out of the Championship. Strangely, Norwich, Swansea and QPR have done well and adapted to the demands of the league. The rest test, though, is in the second half of the season.”

Meanwhile, QPR striker DJ Campbell could start for the first time in two months after featuring from the bench against Liverpool last weekend. However, defender Anton Ferdinand is a doubt, while perennially injured Kieron Dyer will miss the rest of the season.

The absences do little to help Warnock’s cause, with QPR sat comfortably in mid-table but suffering poor form at Loftus Road this season. Indeed, only three Premier League teams have a worse home record than the Hoops, while Warnock’s men have lost four of the last six in the league.

This should, despite United’s problems, add up to three points for the visitors. Victory will take the Reds above Manchester City to the Premier League summit for an afternoon at least.

Match Facts
Queens Park Rangers versus Manchester United, Premier League, Loftus Road, Sunday 17 December 2011, 12 noon.

Likely Line-ups
QPR (4-4-2): Cerny; Young, Gabbidon, Orr, Traore; Wright-Phillips, Faurlin, Barton, Mackie; Bothroyd, Helguson. Subs from: Putnins, Hill, Connolly, Derry, Buzsaky, Smith, Campbell, Taarabt, Puncheon.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Jones, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fryers, Park, Pogba, Valencia, Cole, Diouf, Giggs, Macheda, Berbatov.

United: WDLWLW

Performance stats

  • United won 4-1 against Wolverhapton Wanderers last weekend, with Michael Carrick covering the most ground for the Reds at 6.79 miles;
  • Rooney scored twice in the match – his 10th and 11th goals of the season – and helped the Scouser regain top spot in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index from Robin van Persie;
  • Nani’s goals were his fourth and fifth for United in the league, and the midfielder rose 13 places in the Index to seventh;
  • Rooney struck ten shots on target in that game, the most any player has in a single game so far this season, but the striker’s influence stretches beyond goalscoring. The former Evertonian has completed 409 passes in his opponent’s half this season. To put that in context, the next highest total for a striker is Luis Suarez’ 296, with the pair having played almost exactly the same minutes on the pitch;
  • Meanwhile, QPR lost to Liverpool last weekend. Alejandro Faurlin covered the most ground in that game with 5.4 miles. Faurlin’s total for the season is now 97.42 miles and he should pass the 100 mile mark against United;
  • Goalkeeper Radek Cerny earned praise from Neil Warnock having stepped into the side. The Czech goalkeeper has made 19 saves in his three appearances so far this season;
  • Former Manchester Ciy winger Shaun Wright-Phillips hit the post against Liverpool as he continues his search for his first QPR goal. Wright-Phillips has had 32 efforts at goal so far this season, and contributed 22 dribbles and 17 crosses.

Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: D Cann, A Garratt
Fourth Official: A Marriner

Rant Cast 92 – Thursday nights, Channel Five

December 16, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 4 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s upcoming Europa League campaign. We talk Premier League – reviewing United’s victory over Wovlerhampton Wanderers last weekend, and the games with QPR and Fulham to come this week. And we ponder the latest twist in Ryan Giggs’ ongoing court battle with Imogen Thomas. We also talk transfers – who might United buy in the winter window. Or more accurately, who United will not.

With apologies for the slight loss of fidelity on Ed’s audio this week.

This week’s exit theme tune is ’12 Cantonas’ – Helen & Natasha.

Hit us up with any feedback below or follow the pod on Twitter: Paul – @UtdRantCast, Ed – @UnitedRant.

Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review!

Welcome to hell: the Europa League

December 15, 2011 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 will take place in UEFA’s Nyon headquarters on Friday. It is a tournament from which Manchester United will be conspicuously absent. But lurking in the vast auditorium, suffering Gianni Infantino’s wooden delivery along with millions of TV viewers, will be United’s ceo David Gill. The Reds’ chief will take the “punishment,” as Sir Alex Ferguson called it, of watching the party to which his club is no longer invited. And then comes the sideshow: the draw for the much maligned Europa League.

A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the Europa League group stages. It has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.

Reorganised in 2004 and then again in 2009, the Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. What the competition cannot generate in media income, it seemingly makes up for in longevity. Indeed, Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches, including Thursday night’s fateful draw with Danish side Odense at Craven Cottage. To win the tournament United must play a further nine matches, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest.

While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to offer a parachute to clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s perceived relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.

Aside from Friday’s draw, the real intrigue for United supporters is how seriously Sir Alex will take the competition. After all, amid the disappointment of losing to Basel a fortnight ago, the temptation must surely be for United’s manager to rotate his resources in Europe. The Premier League is now Ferguson’s principal focus, although some might argue, with considerable justification, that rotation is the reason United is in this situation to begin with.

In truth, Ferguson is highly unlikely to field his strongest side until the tournament reaches its semi-final stage. Yet, the Scot, stung by Michael Platini’s defence of his baby, back-tracked on seemingly critical observations about UEFA’s second-tier competition. The Scot last week claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that “the Europa League is a good competition and a strong competition.”

“You only need to look at the teams left in it,” added the 69-year-old. “It’s a competition we want to win. We’re in it and we’ll try to win it.”

Time will tell how truthful that statement is. After all, Tottenham Hotspur have hardly taken the competition seriously this year. One wonders why United might buck that trend.

However, should the Reds survive three rounds with a side likely to contain a number of fringe players United supporters may well feel a tingle of excitement. After all, this is a competition that the club has never won. Worse still, Liverpool is a three times winner of a tournament that used to garner far more respect.

And once United is paired with that unknown Eastern European minnow in the round of 32, Gill will kick into action, raising the usual post-draw platitudes of “excitement” and “challenges”. Fans, of course, may think differently, especially when Basel is drawn in the Champions League. Then it might kick home just what United will be missing in the second half of the season.

Who could United draw?

Dropping out of the Champions League this season with United are Manchester City, Ajax, Valencia, Olympiacos, Porto, Trabzonspor and Czech side Viktoria Plzen. Perhaps only the final pair will relish the additional games and minimal income.

Meanwhile, joining the eight Champions League failures will be those already qualified from the group stage, including some familiar names: PAOK, Standard Liège, Hannover 96, PSV Eindhoven, Legia Warsaw, Sporting Lisbon, Stoke City, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Braga, Atlético Madrid, Schalke 04, Twente, Anderlecht, Lokomotiv Moscow, Lazio, Beşiktaş, Steaua Buscharest, Salzburg and Wisła Kraków.

With a final round of matches on Thursday night, four further teams could still qualify: Club Brugge or Birmingham City, Tottenham Hotspur or Rubin Kazan, AZ Alkmaar or Austria Vienna, Udinese or Celtic.

And the draw could mean a tough fixture for United or, worse still, a lengthy journey to Eastern Europe. Ferguson will certainly not relish a tie with Lazio, Atlético Madrid or Lokomotiv Moscow, for example.

However, United cannot face seeded teams, group winners or sides from the same national association in this round, ruling out City, Olympiacos, or Valencia, who are seeded former Champions League teams. Standard Liege, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Beşiktaş, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Schalke, Twente or Anderlecht are each group winners. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s side will not play Stoke or Spurs, in the unlikely event that the Londoners qualify.

Poll: Should Ferguson spend in January?

December 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Polls 63 comments

Manchester United has suffered a December horribilis, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side dumped out of the Champions League, Nemanja Vidić ruled out for nine months after a shocking triple knee ligament injury, and now Darren Fletcher laid-low with a serious long-term bowel disease. While the European loss robs United of glory, and revenue, player absentees ensure Ferguson’s side is weaker for the Premier League season.

Fletcher’s absence means that Ferguson is down to just two fit senior central midfielders, with wingers, defenders and strikers expected to fill the void before Anderson and Tom Cleverley return at some point in 2012. Meanwhile, the loss of captain Vidić leaves United’s manager with Rio Ferdinand as his only experienced central defender. But should the United manager enter the transfer market in the coming window?

Should Ferguson spend in January?

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Fletcher mystery runs deeper than a virus

December 13, 2011 Tags: Opinion 21 comments

Darren Fletcher’s Manchester United career has been struck with significant ill fortune amid the trophies and personal glory since the Scotsman’s début a decade ago. Indeed, the Dalkeith-born midfielder’s first appearance for the club came almost two years after manager Sir Alex Ferguson had intended to deploy the then very callow youth. That the Premier League blocked 16-year-old Fletcher’s proposed introduction against Aston Villa in 2000 was perhaps a marker for a career to come. Since then Fletcher has suffered a serious leg injury during his youth, and then later ridicule from the terraces, a missed Champions League final and now a serious chronic illness.

On each occasion the midfielder’s determination, arguably far greater than his natural talent, has taken the 27-year-old to the very top of the game. Yet Tuesday, after officially announcing an extended absence from the game, Fletcher’s career is at more risk than ever. Suffering with an inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, the Scot is to take an indefinite period on the sidelines; a huge blow both to player and club.

“Over the past year he has had several absence periods which we have attributed to a viral illness in order to respect his right to medical confidentiality,” read a United statement issued on Tuesday.

“Darren has, in fact, been suffering from ulcerative colitis (a chronic inflammatory bowel condition) for some time preceding this. Whilst he was able to maintain remission of symptoms for a considerable period this has proved more difficult recently and Darren’s continued desire to play and his loyalty to both his club and country has probably compromised the chances of optimising his own health and fitness. He has therefore accepted medical advice to take an extended break from the demands of training and playing in order to afford the best chance possible of achieving full remission once again.”

The Scottish captain first became ill last March, missing two months of the run-in with what was then described as a ‘mystery virus’. We now know it was nothing of the sort. But signs that Fletcher’s condition was serious were clear on the player’s return against Schalke 04 in the Champions League last May, with the Scot appearing gaunt having lost more than a stone in weight. Fletcher’s appearance had changed too, with the medication reportedly bloating the 58-cap international’s features. It is now clear the midfielder returned far too soon.

“The biggest thing was the weight loss,” admitted Fletcher in September.

“I lost close to a stone which for someone like me — I don’t have a stone to lose — was massive. That was the biggest thing, building my strength back up and putting my weight back on was a real struggle. I was stuck in bed for two weeks. But I had constant reassurance from the doctor that it was a bit of bad luck, a combination of different things that had a domino effect which set me back.

“I am a positive person so I expected to be back the next week, then it was a week later, and then I thought the next week. I just had to eat as much as I could to try to put it back on but even that is a struggle for me. I just ate as much as I could, protein shakes, meal replacements drinks.”

Fletcher’s absence, perhaps for the remainder of the current season, comes soon after captain Nemanja Vidić was ruled out for the campaign with injury. With Anderson out until the Spring and Tom Cleverley past New Year, Ferguson will now face up to life without a significant chunk of experience through his team’s spine. More to the point, the Scottish manager is facing a crisis over midfield numbers in the coming months. Even for a club of United’s size, the dual absences are a crushing blow.

Indeed, the question of whether United will now enter the transfer market in January – or at least entertain the thought – is a crucial one. After all, reports that the Glazer family has placed the club cheque book into lock-down are widespread and well sourced.

It is almost impossible, with the club’s senior central midfield options reduced to Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson, for Ferguson to now claim, as the Scot so often does these days, that he is happy with his resources. Throwing 37-year-old Ryan Giggs and Korean winger Park Ji-Sung into the mix hardly inspires confidence. Indeed, United’s options are so thin on the ground that Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones have been pushed into central midfield in recent weeks.

But United’s statement also raises plenty of questions. After all, the club has now admitted that not only did the medical team know of Fletcher’s condition well before Tuesday’s statement, it deliberately concealed it over the past nine months. The lack of veracity, even if Fletcher’s condition was obscured for reasons of privacy, will raise eyebrows. The cloak of secrecy only served to generate speculation.

Moreover, there is now an admission that deploying Fletcher has worsened the player’s condition. On the face of it, the club’s acknowledgement reflects poorly on the institution. After all, if United’s medical team knew of the player’s condition then it will also have advised – or been advised of – treatment options, presumably including the lengthy rest now prescribed. The question, coming so soon after Owen Hargreaves alleged mis-management of his own long-term problems, is a pertinent one.

Then there is the curious case of Fletcher’s contract, with the player signing a new four-year deal on much improved terms in May. It is perhaps the first known case of the normally parsimonious Glazer family extending a hand of financial generosity.

Further details will emerge in the fullness of time, but until then Ferguson is another man down, and a player’s career hangs in the balance.

United’s unanswered questions

  • Why did Fletcher play on with a condition that, in hindsight, was so serious?
  • Did Fletcher, as intimated in United’s statement, insist on playing in May and then August, or was any pressure brought to bear on the Scottish international?
  • If the player insisted on playing, why did United’s medical team not intervene? Was he cleared to play?
  • Why has United now broken typical club protocol, and Fletcher’s privacy, to announce the player’s true condition and absence?
  • Why is an extended break now the prescriptive cure if was it not in May? Or August?
  • Why was the player offered an extended contract when his long-term fitness was in doubt?

What is ulcerative colitis?

UC is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which affects the large intestine. The sufferer usually displays constant diarrhea mixed with blood, although the condition is intermittent, with periods of exacerbated symptoms, and periods of remission. From the NHS:

The colon, also known as the large intestine, absorbs nutrients from undigested food and passes out waste products through the rectum and anus in stools (faeces). Ulcerative colitis causes the colon to become inflamed (swollen) and in severe cases, ulcers (painful sores) may form on the lining of the colon. These ulcers can bleed and produce mucus and pus. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis can range from mild to severe, with the condition being very unpredictable.

Symptoms can flare up and then disappear (go into remission) for months or even years. At its most severe, the entire colon can become inflamed (known as pancolitis). This form of ulcerative colitis is particularly challenging to treat. The causes for the condition are unknown, though research suggests that both environmental and genetic factors are involved.

Ulcerative colitis is an uncommon condition. It is estimated that there are ten new cases a year out of every 100,000 people. There are currently 100,000 people in England with ulcerative colitis. The condition normally appears between the ages of 15 and 30. The condition is more common in white people of European descent, especially those descended from Ashkenazi Jewish communities (Jews who lived in Eastern Europe and Russia) and black people. The condition is much rarer in people of Asian background. The reasons for this are unclear.

The outlook for most people with ulcerative colitis is usually quite good. Symptoms are often mild to moderate and can usually be controlled using medication. However, an estimated one in five people with ulcerative colitis have severe symptoms that often respond less well to medication. In these cases, it may be necessary to surgically remove the colon.

Reds move on, but will it last?

December 11, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 14 comments

When Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side was thrashed 6-1 by rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford in late October the talk, naturally, was of moving on. United needed to get beyond the freak result, establish some measure of stability, and, most of all, tighten up at the back. To some extent the Reds managed to do that domestically, winning xx and drawing one of xx games up to and including last weekend’s victory over Aston Villa. The football wasn’t pretty, but Ferguson’s side did a solid job of building a rennaisaince.

Then came FC Basel and United’s Champions League exit on Wednesday. Blame the result on bad luck; blame it on lack of quality. Whatever the cause, and whomever the culprit(s), United simply had to take steps towards recovery on Saturday when Wolverhampton Wanderers visited Old Trafford. Indeed, Mick McCarthey’s side was surely the perfect tonic for a bruised United, having failed to win at the Theatre of Dreams for more than 30 years and, more recently, having lost seven of the last 10 in all competitions.

True to the script Sir Alex wanted United thrashed a meek Wolves side, which caved in all too easily. Goals from Wayne Rooney and Nani will have boosted the Reds’ confidence – and goal difference – as the home side racked up an easy 4-1 victory on Saturday. True, McCarthy’s side possesses nobody of Xherdan Shaqiri’s excellence. Nor Marco Streller, Alexander Frei, Nicolás Gaitán, and Pablo Aimar, who have each caused United so much pain in Europe this season. But a win, in the circumstances, is a win nonetheless.

No wonder Ferguson wrote off Wednesday’s loss as bad luck – however disingenuous – and praised his side’s performance against the Midlanders.

“I was well pleased with the performance, our attacking play was terrific and we could have scored a lot more goals,” the United manager said.

“Goals are what we are about really, and today was a fillip in terms of pushing us on in the league. We are coming up to an important part of the season now and a win like this puts us in good fettle. On Wednesday we worked our socks off and didn’t get a break. Today we worked our socks off and we did get the breaks. There’s no question that what happened on Wednesday was a massive disappointment, but some of the young players will be able to learn from that experience. Some of them have not suffered a bad defeat before, and in the long term it could be good for them.”

Moving on from Wednesday has become a theme, with Ferguson rightly eyeing a favourable fixture list during December as United’s opportunity to close the gap on Manchester City in the Premier League. Indeed, more than one player confronted personal demons against Wolves, with out-of-form Rooney scoring twice, and Nani recovering from an inconsistent spell for bag a brace.

And in Phil Jones, the 19-year-old defender Ferguson has pushed into central midfield, the Scot has a determined performer who suffering in the St Jakob-Park cauldron last week, only to recover more than a semblance of pride against Wolves

“The manager said the most important thing was to move on, and that’s what we did,” 19-year-old defender Phil Jones said.

“We moved on quickly and showed what we are capable of. The fans were 100% behind us and that’s exactly what we needed. Everyone at the club was incredibly disappointed on Wednesday, but there’s no point dwelling on it. It’s gone, and now there are other things to play for. It’s a credit to the lads. It was a terrific performance after the disappointment of midweek but we have picked ourselves up quickly and gone again. It was a spirited performance and hopefully we can push on from here.

“Wayne was brilliant again. Just because he hasn’t been scoring doesn’t mean he hasn’t influenced the game because the things he does off the ball are terrific. People don’t take that into consideration, but he has been playing terrifically well for us. Nani was also terrific.”

While United successfully ‘moved on’ against McCarthey’s tepid outfit there are far greater challenges to come. After all, United has failed in the club’s two toughest challenges of the season to date – at home to City, and qualification from the Champions League.

The Reds will surely confirm the renaissance in fixtures against QPR, Fulham, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers during December. Yet, January begins with a visit to Newcastle United, followed by the FA Cup fixture against City at Eastlands. Then there is the visit to Arsenal, before back-to-back games against Chelsea and Liverpool in early February.

And whatever the structural imbalances in Ferguson’s squad it is highly unlikely that the Scot will dip into the transfer market this weekend. More unlikely still that the Glazer family will dig deep to sign the kind of high quality central midfielders that are so patently required.

“It is very difficult to buy players in January,” Ferguson said.

“You don’t just want to buy any player simply because it gives you another player. If you are going to buy, you want to buy someone who can make a difference. We have only had maybe four or five signings in my time here in January: Louis Saha, Andy Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra. It is not a consistent route for us to buy in January, simply because of all the disadvantages. There are a lot of issues there and there is nothing in my mind at the moment.”

With Anderson too often injured and always inconsistent, and Tom Cleverley unlikely to be fit until well into the New Year, Ferguson is left to find his best combination in midfield. December should provide the boost to confidence United’s 69-year-old manager seeks. But the real challenge will come in the New Year, with the tougher fixtures to come. Will United’s familiar failings raise their head again?

Fergie rues Nemanja loss ahead of Wolves visit

December 9, 2011 Tags: , Matches 58 comments

Manchester United will be without captain Nemanja Vidić for the remainder of this season after Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that the 29-year-old Serbian ruptured his left cruciate ligament against FC Basel on Wednesday night. News of Vidić’s prognosis adds to a growing list of absentees ahead of United’s weekend Premier League fixture, with manager Ferguson missing xxx first team players for the Midlanders’ visit to Old Trafford.

Losing Vidić, easily United’s best player this season – subjectively, or by any objective measure – is a huge blow to United’s ambitions in the three competitions that Ferguson’s outfit will still contest. Indeed, the news capped off one of Ferguson’s worst weeks in the past five years after United was knocked out of the Champions League.

But with a busy Christmas period coming up Ferguson says that United’s squad will cope with the loss – both of Vidić and to Basel in Europe’s premier competition – starting against Wolves on Saturday afternoon.

“We thought it was a bad one,” Ferguson said of Vidić’s injury.

“He’s out for the season. It’s not unexpected but it’s still bad news. He’ll see a specialist on Monday to work out the progress of when he has the operation. It won’t be immediate as we have to let the swelling come down. We’ll now have to choose between Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. I thought Rio had his best game of season on Wednesday. His experience will be vital.

“[Vidić] is a loss and we missed him in the early part of the season for five weeks with his calf injury against West Brom. He’s such a dominant character, particularly his defending in the penalty box. That’s always a strong feature of his game.”

Manchester United versus Wolverhampton Wanderers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 10 December 2011, 3pmIn the Serbian’s stead will step one of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans or Phil Jones, with the Northern Irishman favourite for selection. But central defence is only one of Ferguson’s selection headaches; the Scot will also be without strikers Michael Owen and Javier Hernández, midfielders Anderson and Tom Cleverley, and full-backs Rafael and Fabío da Silva.

However, the Scot’s options are supplemented by Michael Carrick’s return to the side, after the Geordie missed United’s European defeat through suspension. Dimitar Berbatov, who has missed two matches with a calf strain, could feature from the bench. Fit again Danny Welbeck is likely to start along side Wayne Rooney in attack. The Scouser has not scored in eight matches since netting a double against Otelul Galati in the Champions League, and not from open-play since 18 September.

Meanwhile, Ferguson defended his under-fire players, after United departed the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 2005 and dropped into the Europa League. Despite summer calls from supporters and pundits to invest in experience, Ferguson has long trusted his squad’s young stars – blaming the media “hounds” for placing the club in the spotlight following Wednesday’s defeat.

“When the likes of Giggs and the other young lads came in to the side, they came in for criticism early on, particularly against Aston Villa [in 1995]. We’ve experienced that many times over the years,” added Ferguson.

“But the Wes Browns and John O’Sheas and Darren Fletchers all became the foundation of the club and that’s what will happen with these young players. They’ve achieved many great things so far. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck have played for their country – they will be the foundation of the club in a few years’ time, there’s no question about that.

“They had a nasty experience on Wednesday but they know they have the trust of me and my coaches, and they will not be hounded because of one bad performance. Time will prove us right. We’re not the only club in the world that can’t have a bad result. Everyone gets them. How you recover from them is important and it’s good for our young players in particular.

“It’s a situation we have to deal with. I don’t think anyone relishes seeing criticism of themselves. But I’ve said it time and time again: you only need to lose two games here and the hounds are out. It [the criticism] is something I don’t really follow, to be honest, because I know the work we’re doing here is the right work. The players we have here are the right players. We always want to be better, we want to be perfect, but you never can be perfect. Perseverance is necessary to try and achieve that, and that’s what this club is good at.”

That road will start on Saturday against a Wolves side that has lost seven of its last 10 fixtures in all competitions. However, Mick McCarthey’s side comes into the fixture on the back of a win against struggling Sunderland last weekend. Midfielder Karl Henry will start after serving a one-match ban, but defender Jody Craddock has a hamstring injury and is likely to miss out. Roger Johnson could come back into the side.

And despite Wolves’ renaissance last weekend Ferguson could hardly hope for a better opponent to begin United’s own recovery. The Midlanders’ have not won at Old Trafford in 31 years, and victory for the hosts will bring Ferguson’s side to within two points of leaders Manchester City.

United begins a run of five Premier League games, all against teams in the bottom half of the table, before a tougher run of fixtures in the New Year. Meanwhile, City faces games against Chelsea and Arsenal in the next fortnight. It could prove a pivotal month in the Premier League title race.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Wolverhampton Wanderers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 10 December 2011, 3pm

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Fryers, Gibson, Park, Valencia, Diouf, Macheda.

Wolves (4-4-2): Hennessey; Ward, Johnson, Berra, Zubar; Edwards, Hunt, O’Hara, Jarvis; Fletcher, Doyle. Subs from: De Vries, Elokobi, Stearman, Hammill, Milijas, Ebanks-Blake, Guedioura, Forde, Elokobi, Doherty, De Vries.

United: DWDLWL
Wolves: LLWLLW

Performance stats

  • United recorded another 1-0 win in the Premier League game against Aston Villa, with Phil Jones scoring his first senior goal in 63 appearances. Jones has recorded just nice efforts on goal, including his goal against Villa, this season;
  • Nani covered the most ground for United in the game against with 6.85 miles, and the Portuguese also provided the cross for Jones’ goal. Nani remains the most prolific crosser of the ball in the Premier League with 56 crosses delivered, while team mate Ashley Young has made 45 crosses;
  • Despite losing his top spot in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index Rooney remains the striker who has done the most for his colleagues, completing 361 passes in his opponent’s half, more than any other forward in the league;
  • United has scored 31 goals so far this season from 208 efforts at goal, a conversion rate of 15 per cent. However, rivals Manchester City has scored 48 goals from 252 efforts, a conversion rate of 19 per cent;
  • For the visitors Steven Fletcher scored twice late in the second half to rescue three points for Wolves against Sunderland last weekend;
  • Fletcher’s goals were his fourth and fifth of the season, an efficient conversion rate with the striker making making just 17 attempts at goal this season – a 29 per cent conversion rate;
  • David Edwards covered the most ground for Wolves against Sunderland, with 6.8 miles, but Karl Henry is the club’s hardest worker over the season, averaging 7.29 miles per game.

Referee: Michael Oliver (Ashington)
Assistants: C Breakspear, D Bryan
Fourth Official: C Foy

Rant Cast 91 – pride of all Europe?

December 9, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 8 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s elimination from the Champions League after defeat to FC Basel in Switzerland. We ponder the consequences for the team, the financial implications, and discuss where it all went wrong. We also review United’s Premier League victory at Aston Villa last weekend, and look forward to the Reds’ tie with Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford.

This week’s exit theme tune is ‘Glory Glory Man United’.

Hit us up with any feedback below or follow the pod on Twitter: Paul – @UtdRantCast, Ed – @UnitedRant.

Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review!

It’s the midfield, stupid II

December 8, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 63 comments

When Bill Clinton successfully beat George H. W. Bush senior to the White House in 1992, the former Governor of Arkansas did so seemingly against the odds. The end of the Cold War, and conflict in Iraq, ensured foreign policy dominated the headlines at a time of intense national pride. But in assessing the contest, Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville correctly determined that it was not the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that would determine the November 1992 election, but the dollar in ordinary Americans’ pocket.

It was, to paraphrase the sign hanging on Clinton’s Little Rock campaign office, the economy, stupid, that would send the Arkansan to office. Clinton’s win, barely a year after Bush had received 90 per cent approval ratings in the polls, was gained on a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ needs than his predecessor could ever muster.

Six weeks after Manchester United’s humiliation in the derby, one wonders whether the club, like Bush, is on the precipice of acceding to a superior force. In Europe, given the result against FC Basel on Wednesday night, United already has.

In the period since City scored six at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has seemingly become ever more recalcitrant, stubbornly grinding out single goal victories – domestically at least. In the face of an ever-growing injury list, with the side’s rhythm broken by recurring absentees, United’s ability to win ‘when playing poorly’ is – as the old cliché goes – the stuff of champions. Points gained now could well have a significant impact come May, even in the darkness of the ‘morning after the night before’.

Yet, United’s performances since 23 October have been mired in the kind of sparkle-less midfield performance that – aside from a short period at the current campaign’s start – has become increasingly the norm. A new emphasis on midfield structure, built around the admirable Michael Carrick, and not the injured Tom Cleverley’s pass-and-move creativity, has replaced the free-flowing football played in August and early September. In truth those memories are now long gone; August an exception that proves the rule.

This observation is not new – supporters and pundits alike have complained of a glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad for years. Paul Scholes, ageing and increasingly pushed to the margins, always needed replacing. Roy Keane and Owen Hargreaves are long gone. Ferguson’s midfield is, even for the most optimistic Reds, at least two high-class players short.

Increasingly, Ferguson has taken to experimentation in search of a solution. Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung have each been deployed in central midfield in recent games. The position is unnatural to all of them.

And so to Wednesday, when United crashed and burned at St Jackob-Park, and Ferguson’s side was sent packing into the ignominy of the Europa League. In midfield Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones made up the odd-couple central midfield.

The Scot’s outfit did almost everything bar score the required goals, but in truth most supporters will have seen this coming. And in assessing the devastating loss, thoughts necessarily turn inwards, for this has been a failure of the club’s own making.

“It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League,” defender Patrice Evra said succinctly.

“I play for Manchester United to be in the Champions League. It’s a catastrophe. We feel very sad but we deserve to go out. “It’s a big disappointment. Since I played with Monaco, I’ve never been out in the first round. We played with fire. Against Basel at home we were winning 2-0 and we drew against Benfica as well. It’s not about tonight, it’s about the competition. We threw away that qualification. We should have woken up earlier in this competition.

“It feels like a dream. I feel I will wake up tomorrow and we will have qualified. But it is not a dream, it is the reality. Even if it is a friendly, when I pull on a United shirt I do my best to win that trophy. I play for Manchester United to play in the Champions League but some players dream of playing for United in any competition and you have to respect that.”

The question now is not whether the “embarrassment” will provoke a “response,” as Ferguson put it post match – supporters can expect no less – but specifically what that might be. For surely the United manager cannot believe his side did not try hard enough, or has more to give? Many supporters will argue that the response, if there is to be one, must come in the market to address the structural problems in the Scot’s squad.

It is worrying, then, that the Glazer family is unwilling to release funds this winter for midfield reinforcements, if the word on the street, currently doing the rounds, is to be believed. It is a truism that United was interested in Internazionale’s midfielder Wesley Sneijder in the past summer, only for the deal to flounder on the Dutchman’s substantial wages. Any move for Luka Modric was ended at the conceptual stage once the Croatian’s fee was established at more than £30 million on the open market.

Across town City acquired Samir Nasri at great expense from Arsenal, adding to the exceptional talents already at Eastlands, including this season’s best player, David Silva. That City’s vast array of midfield talents contrasts so starkly with Ferguson’s meagre resources is all the more disappointing for Reds keen to stave off the rising Blue Moon. To underline City’s riches, Nasri, also a target for Ferguson in the summer, has spent much of the campaign held in reserve by Roberto Mancini.

City’s midfield quartet of Yaya Touré, James Milner, Gareth Barry, and Silva, ran rings round United at Old Trafford. Just as, one might add, Barcelona had at Wembley in May. Anderson and Darren Fletcher failed against City, just as Carrick and Giggs succumbed to the Catalans six months earlier. Benfica and Basel have demonstrated that even clubs supposedly one tier down can more than match United. One wonders how many lessons it is going to take?

How much criticism is reserved for Ferguson, who dragged his limited squad to a glorious 19th domestic title last May, depends on how far you believe he is culpable for the marked decline in his midfield resources. One version paints Ferguson as the visionary, transforming his squad through vibrant youth, and investing in Cleverley as United’s next great playmaker. An alternate casts the Scot as the Glazer family’s lickspittle; a carpetbagger’s lackey, beholden to owners that are unwilling to invest in the club’s playing resources unless costs are cut elsewhere.

Which brings us back to Clinton. In ’92 the American people, who should have been emboldened by the Cold War’s end, and impassioned with militaristic pride at the successful conflict in the Persian Gulf, instead threw out the old regime and invested in the promise of a bright young southern lawyer. Ferguson is unlikely to cast aside the dead wood in his midfield, but it is, to borrow a now hackneyed phrase, the midfield, stupid, that will ultimately end United’s quest for 20 – as it has in Europe – unless something changes. And fast.