Month January 2012

Month January 2012

Oh, Ravel

January 31, 2012 Tags: Opinion 42 comments

The great white hope is dead; long live the next over-hyped Manchester United youngster. At least that’s the prevailing message today, as revisionism kicks in among the United fan base. Indeed, Ravel Morrison’s move to West Ham United has ended one of the most enduring dramas at the club. While the transfer also comes as a huge disappointment to many who have followed the youngster’s career, it is also a truism that the club and fans move on quickly.

The hugely talented 18-year-old – billed as everything from the new Paul Gascoigne, to the best Englishman since Paul Scholes – will no longer represent United after agreeing a permanent move south. It is a move all too inevitable since Sir Alex Ferguson and the club’s coaching staff decided late last year to part company with young Morrison. But this is a story with no clear narrative, encompassing high finance, personal ambition, and one seriously challenged young man.

The bare bones are these: Morrison has moved south for about £650,000 up front, rising to £2 million should certain performance targets be met. With Morrison’s contract running down, United had no stomach for the lottery that is the transfer tribunal. West Ham have a low-risk talent who could bloom into something far more valuable.

Meanwhile, the player will earn nothing like the erroneous figures reported in the press recently, with Morrison’s starting salary of £12,000 per week only rising in increments to £65,000 should the player become a huge success and promotion achieved. Morrison must attain performance and playing targets over the course of a four-and-a-half year contract to earn the big bucks on offer. Agents Nick Rubery, for Morrison, and Barry Silkmann for the Hammers, have certainly done well for their clients.

The player, who was also subject to bids from Newcastle United – rejected – and Bolton Wanderers – accepted – this window, officially completed the paperwork around 9pm on Tuesday evening, posing for the obligatory signing photo.

“I’m really pleased to have signed,” said Morrison on completing the deal.

“The move has happened very quickly and I’m looking forward to hopefully moving up to the Premier League with West Ham soon. I’m an attacking player and I’m hoping to get the fans on their feet. “ met with Sam Allardyce this morning and he welcomed me to the club. I also played with Robert Hall in the England team and I know him well so that will be really helpful to have someone here that I know.”

The transfer details are the easy part though in the multi-faceted story of how one of the finest talents of the past generation has left Old Trafford. “Too good to fail,” MUTV co-commentator Paddy Crerand once said. Indeed, it is not without just cause that Ferguson has regularly praised the Wythenshawe-born player’s magic feet and superb balance. Talents, some may argue, wasted at Championship level.

Yet, here is a player with the world at his feet who too often gave the impression of caring little for the game that should make him a millionaire. While Morrison’s tendency to drift out of matches has improved, to some extent, with age, the player’s attitude to training has irked far too many at Carrington. Coaches, senior pros, such as Paul Scholes, and particularly Ferguson have all spent time attempting to pull the player back from the brink.

It hasn’t worked though. “I don’t know why the United fans rave about Ravel,” one youth teamer reportedly told fanzine United We Stand recently. “When he can’t even be bothered to get out of bed in the morning.” The player, having been told he would make the first team squad should he attend every training session for three months failed even that seemingly simple task.

Running concurrently through Morrison’s time at Old Trafford has also been a series of off-the-field problems, including two appearances in court for assault and witness intimidation, and a 12 month referral order. None of which had previously precipitated Morrison’s removal from the club.

Then came the move that often drives change: Morrison changed agents last summer, from Colin Gordon at Key Sports to Nick Rubery’s Prostar Sports Management. It was a move widely thought beneficial in Old Trafford circles. Indeed, Rubery had no part in driving the widely reported, but factually incorrect, stories about Morrison’s outlandish wage demands.

Surprisingly, Ferguson chose his pre-match press conference a fortnight ago to lambast the youngster for an “unrealistic” financial requirements. It was an unseemly smear against a youngster whose principle gripe in recent months has been lack of playing time in the first team. True, Morrison has only himself to blame for not making the first team picture. The talent was always there; the attitude perhaps not.

Ultimately is was United, and not Morrison, that chose the path that has led this multi-talent youngster not to the lights of Old Trafford, but to Upton Park. Rejection will hurt the youngster. Failure to turn Morrison’s life and career around will injure Ferguson just as acutely.

Strange then that Ferguson should choose to bring money into the equation when, by all accounts, the Scot was the last man standing in the Morrison camp at Old Trafford. Every other coach had simply given up on the player. But with the manager’s sponsorship of Morrison’s progress, also comes culpability. Failure here was perhaps simply too hard to take.

This is also a highly troubled young man, whose apparent links with criminality have never been far from the surface. At West Ham, under Sam Allardyce’s guidance, Morrison will find a close Ferguson ally. There will be no secrets left in the closet for the Hammers to discover later.

But moving a division lower, and 200 miles south, is a chance, or perhaps a sign, that the penny has dropped. Morrison’s talents will surely be on display sooner rather than later, with West Ham riding high in the Championship Allardyce.

The rest is up to the player. Far from home – far from the distractions of Manchester – Morrison may well find a new focus. Salvation, the player hopes, will come in East London. That is if the bright lights and loose cash of the London lifestyle does not get to the youngster first, cynics might add.

Here’s where the frustration comes in of course. If Morrison does make it to the game’s summit, with the accompanying wealth, fame and adulation, there will be more than a small corner of Manchester with a rueful smile. His is a talent that absolutely should grace the highest stage. If only he wanted it badly enough. If only the demons inside could have been defeated.

It is this regret – anger if you will – that has led to no little revisionism in recent days. Suddenly, gone is the great hope. Ravel, it is now said, is a “fool”, “stupid” or, worse still, “greedy”. None of this is true.

And with little delay, and no ceremony, Ferguson will move on. The fans will move on too. The new hero may already have been born, with French midfielder Paul Pogba putting in a staring cameo appearance against Stoke City on Tuesday night.

One eye will be on Upton Park though, with a secret hope that a newly arrived youngster will eventually live up to that huge promise.

Reds’ rallying cry for Stoke clash

January 31, 2012 Tags: , Matches 110 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has backed his squad to recover from FA Cup defeat at Anfield just three days ago, with the Scot’s Manchester United side facing Stoke City at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. The fixture offers Ferguson’s side a rapid opportunity to put the loss in Liverpool to one side and continue the pursuit of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League. Yet, with 11 players likely to be on the sidelines for Tuesday’s fixture, Ferguson’s side must recover the hard way against a typically committed Stoke outfit.

United’s record against Stoke at Old Trafford – eight wins in a row dating back to 1981 – suggests a routine three points. But with Ferguson’s players once again bruised by crushing defeat at the weekend, the Scot will do well to raise his troop’s spirits. Indeed, it is a season in which ‘recovery’ has been discussed far too often for some supporters’ liking: after heavy defeat to Manchester City in the league, when United crashed out of Europe, and now FA Cup disappointment.

Yet, Stoke, says Ferguson are unlikely to give United an easy ride at Old Trafford despite the poor record over the past 30 years in the Reds’ back yard.

“You know what Tony Pulis’ teams are like, they’re always the same with one hundred per cent commitment,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.

“They all get stuck in and you have to cope with that. I quite enjoy that. When we used to play Wimbledon, at the beginning when they first came into our division, nobody enjoyed playing against them. But then I started and my team started to enjoy it because it was a challenge, a physical challenge in the way they played and a physical challenge in terms of trying to take control of the possessions and play your football.

“Stoke are a different team altogether from Wimbledon, obviously, but they still have the same quality of never giving in; they keep going, so it’s a good challenge for us.”

Manchester United versus Stoke City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Tuesday 31 January 2012, 8pm.Ferguson is again without half a squad’s worth of injured players. Long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Fábio da Silva and Nemanja Vidic are definitely out. Meanwhile, United will also be missing Ashley Young, Nani, and Rio Ferdinand, while Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones are unlikely to be risked.

Uncertainty also surrounds Ferguson’s choice of goalkeeper. While the much criticised David de Gea phoned in sick this week, Anders Lindegaard left training  in a protective boot on Monday. The crisis may mean a recall to the squad for the long forgotten Pole Tomasz Kuszazck, who had been widely expected to leave the club this transfer window. Reserve Ben Amos could start.

Despite the ongoing injury crisis Ferguson maintained an upbeat mood this week, backing his players – especially the club’s much maligned midfield – to drive United towards a 20th domestic title come May. Indeed, in Tom Cleverley significant strategic hope is being placed, with United having failed to sign a midfielder of note for the past four seasons.

“Cleverley is doing a lot of running. He’s nowhere near the first team at the moment but he’s doing a lot of running,” confirmed Ferguson of the midfielder who has played just 58 minutes football since 10 September.

“Michael Carrick’s form has been unbelievable – he’s been playing fantastic – and we’ll also have Giggs, Scholes, Cleverley and Anderson, so that’s a great group of midfield players that will definitely help us. He’ll be a terrific boost. It will be great to get the boy back because I think he’s special.

“I expect (Young) to start training in the middle of the week, so he’s on his way back. Cleverley is two weeks behind that. Anderson will be ready this week, too. He’ll start training with us on Monday or Tuesday and then it gives me a collection of midfield players that should cope with anything that happens in the run-in.”

Meanwhile, Stoke arrive in decent form, some 12 points beyond the relegation zone, safety already assured for another season. But Pullis may be without winger Matthew Etherington who has a groin injury. Cameron Jerome could make his first start of the year after scoring last week.

Yet, for all Stoke’s progress the focus is squarely on whether United can remain in touch at the top of the Premier League. With Manchester City away at Everton there is a realistic chance that Ferguson’s men will gained ground on the Blues. But to do that, United must overcome both mass injury and the obvious disappointment of the past week.

“Every player at this club knows what’s expected. When you’re at Manchester United you know defeats like that aren’t acceptable. We don’t need anybody else to tell us that. We know it deep down,” adds defender Jonny Evans.

“We’ve played really well against Stoke in the last few games, both at home and away. I think we’ve dealt particularly well with their long throw-ins. There isn’t much of a run-up at Old Trafford on the side of the pitch, which will probably help us. We’ve beaten them comfortably over the last few seasons but they’re improving all the time and nobody ever looks forward to playing against Stoke.

“They have a different approach to the way most teams play. People have this preconception of them and think that because they’re a big side they’re a dirty side. But that’s not the case at all. I think they’re hard but fair and Tony Pulis goes out of his way to make sure they don’t cross that line.”

And that may well be a relief to the few remaining United players not yet injured! Yet, there is no doubt the fixture is pivotal to United’s hopes of silverware this season. Indeed, it is the first time in the Premier League era that United has been out of the Champions League and FA Cup by this stage of the season. Anything less than a comfortable win tonight is unthinkable.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Stoke City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Tuesday 31 January 2012, 8pm.

Potential Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): Amos; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Park; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Kuszazck, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Lingard, Pogba, Keane, Berbatov.

Stoke (4-5-1): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Pennant, Palacios , Whitehead, Delap, Walters; Crouch. Subs from: Begovic, Wilkinson, Whelan, Jones, Fuller, Etherington, Jerome.

Performance Stats

  • United kept pace with league leaders City with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the last Premier League game at the Emirates;
  • Michael Carrick covered the most ground for United in that game with 6.06 miles, while Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck scored for the Reds;
  • Valencia’s goal was just his second of the season, but the winger has also contributed an impressive eight assists;
  • Valencia has the joint second highest number of assists and the fourth best minutes per assist in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, with one every 139 minutes;
  • Ryan Giggs has the best minutes per assist rate in the league, with an assist every 117 minutes (seven in total);
  • Welbeck’s goal was his sixth of the season in the Premier League from 34 attempts. He has achieved 74 per cent of shots on target, the third best percentage on target (among players who have had more than twenty efforts at goal);
  • Nani has now delivered over 100 crosses for United (105), topping the Index, 28 crosses ahead of second place Sebastian Larsson;
  • Meanwhile, Stoke’s last Premier League outing was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion;
  • Peter Crouch covered the most ground for Stoke in that game with 5.8 miles;
  • Cameron Jerome scored Stoke’s goal in that game – just his second Premier League strike of the campaign.

Form
United: LLWWWL
Stoke: DWWDLW

Officials
Referee: Mike Jones (Chester)
Assistants: P Kirkup, A Garratt
Fourth Official: C Foy

Patience required for de Gea’s time to come

January 30, 2012 Tags: Opinion 29 comments

Fans, so the cliché goes, can be fickle. Indeed, supporters’ frustration, together with social media’s immediacy, has created the impression that Manchester United fans swing from one instant reaction to the next. One mistake, a poor game, let alone defeat, results in a tsunami of opinion, often debased to mindless vitriolic abuse.

The rush to judgement frustrates at times; a point articulated in January’s United We Stand by editor Andy Mitten. Yet, few supporters’ opinions are formed with the agenda that often dominates the mainstream media. Cruel as supporters are at times, the opinions proffered on Twitter, blogs, Facebook and other communities rarely come with a sense of premeditation. It is both a strength and weakness of the medium.

This dichotomy may not be one United goalkeeper David de Gea is considering today, barely 48 hours after both media, and some supporters, criticised the 20-year-old Spaniard for his part in United’s defeat to Liverpool at the weekend. Indeed, while de Gea has a reasonably active Twitter account it is almost exclusively used in the Spanish language. Given the views expressed by some on Saturday, this is surely for the best.

Yet, a handful of albeit noisy Twitteratti holds no candle to the mainstream media when it comes to damning judgement. This includes broadcaster ITV whose commentary team of Clive Tyldsley and Jim Beglin were so quick to lambast the former Atlético de Madrid stopper. Blamed instantaneously for both goals by co-commentator Beglin, de Gea was quickly fingered as United’s key weak link.

So too has the print media, with stories of de Gea’s quality – or lack thereof – following the youngster since debut in pre-season. This was a story simply too good to miss.

That said, at times de Gea looked concurrently nervous, furlorn and robbed of all confidence at Anfield. Routine crosses were dropped, while the Spaniard’s normally outstanding distribution suffered too. It has been a testing campaign for the youngster, as it was always going to be.

Still, two days later and the rush to judge seems as erroneous now as it did then. Objective review of Liverpool’s two goals at Anfield places the blame at the doorstep of others, with de Gea suffering for the mistakes of his back-four. Indeed, Liverpool’s first, nodded home by defender Daniel Agger, was largely thanks to an unchallenged header. The host’s second came when Patrice Evra wondered out of position and allowed Dirk Kuyt a free shot inside the area.

It is a point hammered home by perennially injured striker Michael Owen, who took to Twitter to defend his younger colleague.

“One comment on yesterdays game. Don’t agree with all this negativity towards De Gea,” Owen Tweeted on Sunday.

“Admittedly he has made a couple of mistakes this season but listening to some people you would think he had a nightmare yesterday. I’m not having either goal was his fault. The problem is, once you get labelled, mud sticks and now any tiny mistake is magnified. Other keepers make similar mistakes and nothing gets said.

“The lad will be a top keeper, he is only young. Harsh to blame him for everything. The fans know he needs their support, his confidence needs boosting. I’m sure he will repay that support for years to come.”

Indeed, even the very best have suffered in the harsh spotlight of the United net. Even the greatest, Peter Schmeichel, suffered a testing first campaign at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Edwin van der Sar made several glaring errors in a otherwise outstanding six seasons with the club. The opening goal of the 2009 Champions League final, for example, saw van der Sar beaten at the near post – a goal scored with barely a murmur from supporters.

Anders Lindegaard, the Spaniard’s immediate competition for a spot in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, has made errors too, although of the less obvious variety. Recall the Dane’s weak hand as Robin van Persie shot across, but very close to, Lindegaard at the Emirates.

de Gea’s real mistake, it seems, is to have built a reputation far too early in his United career. Earlier this season, thanks to Edin Džeko’s long-range strike at Wembley in August, de Gea’s goal was peppered from outside the area. Now, the opposition simply plans to beat up on the slightly built youngster. Liverpool repeatedly launched long balls into the United area.

Reputations in this sport are far harder to dispel than create – a truism that Tyldsley, and especially Beglin, have bought into.

Yet, those who have watched de Gea blossom from Atléti B teamer, to the teenager who was such an important part of the club’s 2010 Europa League win, will remain confident. Ferguson and his coaching staff, who spent months tracking the Spanish under-21 international, will surely remain stoic in the face of media onslaught.

Surely de Gea’s troubles have everything to do with confidence and a lengthy period of adjustment, rather than shortage of talent. Thrust into the spotlight, under pressure to succeed one of the very greatest, and miles from home, there can be no surprise that de Gea has not yet fulfilled his potential.

The question, of course, is how quickly the ‘keeper will find his feet, given the right environment and support. The player is certainly not helped by an ever-changing back four, goalkeeping rotation or, indeed, Ferguson’s rather odd decision to recall the ‘keeper amid the intense heat of an Anfield cup tie.

Yet, others are unsure about de Gea’s make up, including former Red Paul Parker.

“It was not really the Spaniard’s errors that were the problem for me; I thought his mistakes for both goals were relatively minor and he was undone by some poor defending,” adds Yahoo! pundit, Parker.

“What really bothered me was his apparently complete lack of confidence. It makes me wonder if he will be able to handle the scrutiny he is under at the moment. When most goalkeepers make mistakes they get angry – nearly all offer some sort of reaction. De Gea doesn’t do anything at all. He is expressionless, and looks lost.

“Peter Schmeichel made the odd howler, which usually stemmed from making a rash decision – but at least he did something. De Gea’s mistakes come from not doing anything. He freezes, and appears indecisive.”

It is an astute observation by Parker, but one that does not chime with de Gea’s performances in Madrid, where the player’s confidence and maturity so often came to the fore.

It is a cliché, but at just 21 time is certainly on de Gea’s side. For Ferguson and United the equation is different. Taking de Gea out of the firing line now necessitates an extended spell for Lindegaard, a solid if unspectacular ‘keeper whom few will bracket among the very best of his profession.

The delicate balancing act of weighing de Gea’s development against United’s immediate priorities will continue. Good job, then, that in Ferguson the ‘keeper has a manager who is unlikely to bow to media pressure, whether from the mainstream or grassroots.

Evra stands tall in the cauldron of Liverpool’s hate

January 29, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 104 comments

The match did not conclude well for Patrice Evra, with the Manchester United captain allowing Dirk Kuyt to run inside and score Liverpool’s winning goal at the Kop End on Saturday. Indeed, by the end of a tortuous 90 minutes Evra looked mentally and physically shattered; beaten both by his opponents and fatigue. Yet, at no moment was the French defender defeated by the melting pot of vile – at times overtly racist – hatred directed by Liverpool’s supporters. Standing proud to the end, Evra’s side may have lost an FA Cup fourth round encounter, but the defender completed the game riding the highest of horses.

Catalysed by Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool’s hierarchy, Anfield’s regulars jeered the United number three’s every touch. This much was expect given the extent to which Liverpool has sought to, and largely succeeded in, regressing race relations at the club over the past three months. Few stood back from the organised cacophony; hate was not only directed at Evra, but deemed universally acceptable.

“There’s only one lying b*stard,” sang the Kop, echoing Liverpool’s ongoing defence of Luis Suárez – that Evra simply fabricated an allegation of racial abuse in October. This was a song delivered without irony, given that Dalglish, Suárez, Kuyt, and director of football Damien Commoli were each caught changing their stories to the independent Regulatory Commission that sat in judgement of the Liverpool striker.

Yet, it was no surprise that Liverpool manager Dalglish chose to categorise 90 minutes of abuse as nothing more than “friendly banter.” After all, the 60-year-old Scot has proven to be as unreconstructed as they come, having chosen to smear Evra, as Dalglish’s own evidence to the Commission demonstrated, right from the very start of the affair back in October.

While the atmosphere was deeply unpleasant, far worse was to come from Liverpool’s once proud supporters than mere noise. Shortly before half-time one supporter was caught on camera aiming a ‘monkey gesture‘ towards Evra. It was an image posted on this site, and to Twitter. Within minutes the picture had spread throughout the football community.

Merseyside Police confirmed on Saturday evening that a 59-year-old man from North Wales was arrested following an ‘alleged’ incident at the match. The supporter was taken to a local station for questioning.

Yet, there has been not a word from Liverpool about the incident. So quick to launch a smear campaign against Evra, the Football Association or any other party deemed to have wronged the club; so reticent to decry racism in genuine terms.

One wonders whether the club will ever come to understand the very real damaged caused by its reaction to Suárez’ sanction. Liverpool, and Dalglish in particular, not only failed to apologise for the striker’s racist abuse, but the club has now sponsored a new wave of race hate among its fan-base. The latest incident is the third this season, beginning with Suárez, and including the disgraceful abuse of Oldham Athletic defender Tom Adeyemi earlier this month.

In keeping with the pattern, Dalglish praised Liverpool’s supporters on Saturday.

“The fans are entitled to support their team, absolutely no problem,” claimed Dalglish on Saturday.

“I don’t think there was anything there that was untoward. I think both sets of fans were a magnificent advert for their clubs. Both clubs can be very proud of the fans they have here. There was a good bit of banter between both fans, which is brilliant because you don’t want to take that away.”

But the genuine concern is that Evra’s contemporaries will now be less inclined to report incidents of racial abuse given the furious reaction extracted from Liverpool supporters by their club. It is a concern touched on by a media community now growing restless at Liverpool’s approach to race relations.

“I found it horrible, I found it a very difficult day to report on,” Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Northcroft told Sunday Supplement.

“I live in Liverpool and my partner is black and she’s found this very uncomfortable. We know black friends who are Liverpool fans and they’ve also found it very uncomfortable. What we had yesterday was a black player being booed and barracked and targeted by the Liverpool fans and called a liar. And for what? His crime was to have complained about racial abuse the last time he was at the stadium. That particular case was upheld by an FA commission, but he’s being targeted and treated as a villain.”

Meanwhile, Evra, although clearly drained by the fixture’s intensity, reacted not once to the bile from the stands. Indeed, the 30-year-old has behaved with a quiet dignity throughout, keeping largely silent in the face of supporter-driven hatred, and media scrutiny.

But Evra’s silence has only been in the public sphere, behind the scenes the Frenchman proved not only to be a forthright and credible witness, but a genuine leader. Yet, with the defender so heavily abused just a day after QPR player Anton Ferdinand was sent a bullet in the post – presumably by a disgruntled Chelsea supporter – questions will be asked about football’s ability to deal with racism in the future.

“Are we saying if you make a complaint about racial abuse you’re going to get a bullet sent through the post to you or you’re going to get called a liar by 40,000 fans?” added the Mirror’s Oliver Holt.

“We’re trying to empower black players not to put up with this any more, and yet we are in danger – because of the reaction that has happened and the vilification of players who have done nothing except complain about being racially abused – of pushing things back to a conspiracy of silence.”

In this Liverpool is highly culpable, as is the FA for allowing one of the country’s most venerated club’s to become a force not for unity, but division.

“Football at times can be like pantomime, you can boo the referee if you feel he makes a bad decision and you boo a player if you feel he has feigned an injury or made a bad tackle and you can live with that,” PFA chairman Gordon Taylor told talkSPORT.

“But when you are booing a player because he has made a complaint that was upheld by an independent panel, you worry that it is going to put off anybody complaining again because of the backlash and furore we have seen.

“That’s just what we don’t want because there is no point in having a campaign to eliminate such a highly sensitive issue as racism if it is going to get drowned out by the backlash.”

In that there is a lesson. Suárez’ punishment may have sent the proverbial message that racist abuse on the pitch is not acceptable. Perhaps it is now time for the Uruguayan’s club to face a similar judgement.

Fergie urges calm for Liverpool cup clash

January 28, 2012 Tags: , Matches 5 comments

Amid the tension and media interest generated by Luis Suárez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra in October fans could be forgiven for losing sight of the sideshow this weekend: the fight for a place in the last 16 of the world’s oldest cup competition. Yet, the simmering hatred ingrained into Manchester United’s rivalry with Liverpool has an added dimension this weekend, with the visitors’ first outing at Anfield since the Uruguayan’s transgression in October. It makes for a fascinating FA Cup fourth round tie; one in which the subplot still threatens to grab all the headlines.

Sir Alex Ferguson may be unwilling to talk about Evra – in public at least – but there is little doubt that Liverpool’s actions in both vociferously defending Suárez, and fingering Evra for the Football Association’s eight match ban of the striker, has irked the Scot. Ferguson’s aggressive dismissal of media questioning on Friday is all the tell any supporters need.

It is not as though one has to look far beneath the surface to uncover the deep emotions that this tie has always uncovered. Mutual resentment did not require Suárez’ actions to bubble up from beneath the surface, and spill over the edge from rivalry to hate. Yet, October has certainly catalyzed the process; acting as a reference point for one of football’s most divisive encounters.

Will hate spill over into something more on Saturday? Certainly with tensions running so high both Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish were circumspect in their comments on Friday. Despite this the damage has surely already been done by the Anfield club: Evra, United’s captain, can expect to ride the gauntlet of abuse on Saturday. None of it is likely to phase Senegalese-born Evra.

Meanwhile, United supporters, just over 5,000 of them, were urged to be “loud and witty” but no more by Ferguson. Travelling fans will need every ounce of restraint in an encounter that needs no kindling.

Supporters need only recall the last occasion United last visited Anfield in the FA Cup when Alan Smith snapped is right leg in two places, and home fans saw fit to charge the striker’s ambulance. It was no isolated incident in a long history of dark moments between these two clubs.

Liverpool versus Manchester United, FA Cup fourth round, Anfield, Saturday 28 January 2012, 12.45pm.There is a football match, of course, and if Ferguson’s men are to secure the FA Cup for the first time since 2004 they will have to both overcome the odds and history. Indeed, with up to 11 players injured, Ferguson’s men must win the hard way if United is to beat Liverpool at Anfield for the first time in almost five years.

“It’s a massive game for both clubs. There’s a tremendous profile around it,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“As Steven Gerrard said yesterday, there is a responsibility on the players to behave properly and also both sets of fans. We want to make sure we are talking about the game, nothing else. It is something you want to look forward to. That is what I intend to do.

“I always think home draws make you favourite. In my time there haven’t been many cup ties between the clubs. It’s one to look forward to and I think the players will follow that.”

Ferguson would not be drawn on Evra’s role, although there was never any question of the French defender being left out of United’s side on Saturday. Indeed, Ferguson has steadfastly refused to discuss the affair, even in the wake of the FA Regulatory Commission’s damning indictment of Suárez.

Instead, Ferguson was keen to talk up supporters’ responsibility on Saturday, both for maintaining order in a testing atmosphere and for driving United towards victory.

“Our fans were terrific there this season. The issue of clubs reducing the number of tickets for our supporters has been going on for quite a while now. It has become a convenient way of selling their hospitality. But the stewards have a difficult enough job as it is. We should be helping.”

Whatever the distractions United must win a tie without a team of absentees. Long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher and Michael Owen are joined on the sidelines by a plethora of senior pros. Ashley Young, although back in training, is not ready to take part, while Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand will not be risked.

Meanwhile, United waits on news of winger Nani’s injury, with the club fearing a broken metatarsal bone. Wayne Rooney, who hobbled away from United’s victory at Arsenal last week, may not be risked, and Michael Carrick faces a late test.

Despite the absentees Ferguson’s men head into the tie with one of England’s most in-form forwards in Danny Welbeck. The once gangly kid has grown into a Premier League striker of the highest class over the past 18 months. United will surely need the Longsight-born forward to be at his dynamic best on Saturday.

No wonder Ferguson singled out the 21-year-old England international for praise.

“We were always aware of Danny Welbeck’s ability as a kid,” added Sir Alex on Friday.

“It was just a matter of waiting for Danny to develop into a man and we’re seeing the signs now. He has a great physique but I think there’s still more to come. I don’t think he’s finished growing yet. Our stats show there’s still a bit to do before he becomes a complete adult in a physical sense. He has a good attitude but then he should – he’s a young player with an opportunity at Manchester United.”

Should Rooney not make the tie as seems increasingly likely – the Scouser has not trained all week – Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández will compete for a place along side the United youngster. With so many injuries Ferguson’s back-four picks itself, although the Scot must choose between Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Paul Scholes in central midfield.

Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Dalglish will be without Suárez, with the Uruguayan serving the sixth of an eight match ban. Jay Spearing may return to the squad, although Dalglish is unlikely to make many changes from the 11 that knocked Manchester City out of the Carling Cup on Wednesday.

Yet, despite Liverpool’s mixed recent form the Anfield side has not yet lost at home this season. Dalglish’s side has recorded five wins and eight draws at Anfield, although the side is struggling to keep in touch with the top four. Yet, there can be no room for any doubt that Liverpool’s players will up the mediocre level of commitment displayed, for example, in the recent defeat to Bolton Wanderers. Hostility from the stands will surely be met by passion on the pitch.

It is incumbent on Ferguson’s men to quieten both.

Match Facts
Liverpool versus Manchester United, FA Cup fourth round, Anfield, Saturday 28 January 2012, 12.45pm.

Potential Line-ups
Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Henderson, Spearing, Adam, Gerrard, Downing; Carroll. Subs from: Doni, Bellamy, Kuyt, Kelly, Coates, Rodríguez, Carragher, Aurélio, Shelvey, Flanagan.

United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Hernandez, Welbeck. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Cole, Fabio, Lingard, Keane, Scholes, Berbatov.

Form
Liverpool: LWWDLD
United: WLLWWW

Officials
Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Howard Webb

United Rant Live: Liverpool v United

January 27, 2012 Tags: , , Matches 259 comments

Liverpool versus Manchester United is the biggest game of the season at any time, but an FA Cup game at Anfield, with 5,000 travelling Old Trafford regulars, and all the drama surrounding Patrice Evra, means this fixture has an extra dimension.

For the second time on United Rant, the podcast regulars will be live blogging a game this season. Join in on the comments below or Tweet us. Paul – @UtdRantCast and Ed – @unitedrant.

The game kicks off at Anfield on Saturday, 28 January 2012, 12.45pm GMT. We’ll be with you around 45 minutes before the whistle!

Page will automatically refresh every 20 seconds or hit F5.

 

[liveblog]

Rant Cast 98 – a battle between good and evil

January 27, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast No comments

On this week’s Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s fine win over Arsenal at the Emirates. We talk about Arsenal’s demise, injuries, tactics and Danny Welbeck’s fine form. It was a win that kept United in touch with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, but at what cost?

We ponder the latest speculation surrounding youngster Ravel Morrison, answer your twitter questions and look forward to a big week ahead. United visit Liverpool in the FA Cup on Saturday, in a match that is sure to have the most hostile atmosphere, for all the wrong reasons. Then Stoke City visit Old Trafford on Tuesday as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men seek three vital points in the league.

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!

Welbeck: from awkward kid to United’s star turn

January 25, 2012 Tags: Opinion 17 comments

The finish was calm, the celebration familiar, as local-boy-done-good Danny Welbeck wheeled away having smashed home Manchester United’s winner at the Emirates on Sunday. The strike was yet another on an increasingly upward trajectory in the 21-year-old’s career. Gone are the legitimate doubts about whether Welbeck is ‘United’ quality. Indeed, fitness permitting, Welbeck is now Sir Alex Ferguson’s first choice to lead United’s front-line.

Welbeck’s development has accelerated faster than almost anybody, Ferguson aside, could have predicted. The Scot has always believed; the fans had many doubts. But gone is the gangly striker, with the suspect first touch, that Ferguson used to deploy on the wing. Now, the Longsight-born youngster is a complete forward in his own right.

Welbeck’s pace, movement, and the ability to finish mark the nine goal striker out as, potentially, a genuine star turn. Whether that comes this season or later, there is nobody quite like Welbeck in the United squad.

“I think Danny’s brilliant, and it’s fantastic for his confidence that he’s starting so many big games,” says former United striker Andy Cole, who scored 121 goals in 275 games for the club.

“Javier Hernández has been injured and has been finding it tough to repeat what he did in his first season. Sometimes your second season is your toughest, I went through that myself. Danny has come in and grabbed his chance with both hands and he’s playing very well. He’s playing with confidence and getting goals too.

“You might say I was a bit of an old-fashioned centre forward when I played, in that I always wanted to try and run in behind defenders and get chances that way. To see Danny doing that is great. He can play in front of defenders as well, but when he runs in behind them he causes a lot of problems.”

That Welbeck has his nine goals from just 16 starts this season, and another six appearances from the bench, says much for the rapidly increasing strike rate too. After all, the forward had ability, but just 13 goals in more than 60 games for United, Preston North End and Sunderland prior to the current campaign prompted questions about Welbeck’s propensity to hit the net at the highest level.

But the forward offers more than goals. Running the channels, turning central defenders and, arguably most important of all, enabling Wayne Rooney to drop a little deeper, has allowed United’s forward play to evolve this season. Much as Mexican forward Javier Hernández won plaudits last season for some stunning finishing, scoring 20 in all competition, so Welbeck has added even more to United’s all round game in the current campaign.

No wonder Welbeck has become such a popular figure in the dressing room.

“Danny has a knack of scoring good goals this year for us and at vital times. That’s a great asset for us to have,” defender Chris Smalling told the Manchester Evening News.

“This year he is getting his chance and he is such a threat. He causes defenses so many problems and he did that again against Arsenal’s. It is great for us. He has come on leaps and bounds. He has always had his pace and ability to finish, but he is so much stronger these days. He is a proper Premier League striker now.

“He has come in and joined the show and if he keeps this form up to the end of the season he is going to be great for us and he’ll do well for United and, hopefully, for England in the summer.”

Indeed, a summer trip to Poland and Ukraine appears inevitable, with Peter Crouch out of favour, Andy Carroll still in the goalscoring doldrums and Jermaine Defoe second choice for his club. Making his début earlier this season, Welbeck now has three senior caps to add to the 14 earned at under-21 level. And on current form Welbeck could well reprise his blossoming club partnership with Rooney at international level. When the Scouser returns from a much debated two match ban, of course.

But international glory – or disappointment if history is any lesson – will come later. For now Welbeck will play a key role in United’s unlikely hunt for three trophies this season.

It is every fan’s dream of course – the local boy, wearing the United shirt, scoring the winner among those whom would have been his heroes. But for the supreme talent Welbeck possesses that is.

“I was over the moon scoring the winner against Arsenal,” said the forward on Sunday.

“I am getting a starting berth up top with Wazza in behind me. I think we are forming a great partnership and I am looking forward to carrying that on. The team worked tirelessly all the way through the game at Arsenal. It was a great team effort and we were delighted to get the three points.”

But it isn’t all dreams come true. Welbeck’s injury record is suspect, a fact that will hamper the player if it continues. The forward would not be the first player to miss their full potential because of poor luck with injury. Moreover, the player is still growing according to his manager. Whether greater bulk will take the edge of Welbeck’s pace is another concern.

Yet, having overcome a late teen growth spurt, and Osgood-Schlatter disease that threatened the player’s knees, few will bet against Welbeck facing up to any challenges that come his way.

“Danny’s fantastic,” Ferguson said after United’s win at Arsenal.

“His work-rate, movement all the time on the shoulder of the defender or ready to run through. Really he could have scored five, he was through four times. He’s unlucky but he’s got the important goal and has continued his run in the first team, that is up to nine goals or something like that. For a 20-year-old he’s playing really well.”

That he is; and now a central cog in United’s machine. Supporters will be thankful then when the 21-year-old puts pen to a new lucrative contract at some point this season, ensuring the player’s long-term future at Old Trafford.

Be witty, be loud – just don’t mention Suárez

January 24, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 11 comments

It recalls that classic Fawlty Towers episode. You know the one, where Basil does everything he can to ‘not mention the war’ as a group of German tourists visit his ramshackle hotel. Except, of course, the bit about not mentioning the war. Sir Alex Ferguson appears to have heeded that particular, if farcical, lesson this week, writing to fans attending the FA Cup fourth round tie with Liverpool at the weekend to appeal for good behaviour.

Fair enough one might think, with the tie likely to be even more tense than usual, and supporters’ groups keen for a full ticket allocation to be restored at Anfield. Curious though that Ferguson chose to complete the letter, sent to just over 5,000 fans, without a single mention of the Luis Suárez affair. After all, the fallout from Suárez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra, and subsequent eight match ban, will still be felt at Anfield on Saturday even if the Uruguayan is absent.

Indeed, Suárez is one of the key reasons the tie has been shifted to an early kick-off, with the Football Association calling on the clubs to maintain order.

“FA Cup ties are tense affairs at the best of times,” Ferguson wrote in the letter to travelling United supporters.

“Add in the fact that Manchester United against Liverpool is the biggest game around and it becomes even more so. Your support is vital to the team and down the years that has been especially true at Anfield. But please put the emphasis on getting us into the next round and giving the sort of support you are famous for – positive, witty and loud.

“I wrote to fans attending the away match in October urging them to co-operate with stewards and officials at Liverpool so we can make a strong case for restoring our allocation for future United games at Anfield. The fans did almost everything asked of them that day and as a result, we have a much improved allocation for this important FA Cup tie. Please do everything you can to continue that good work and protect next season’s allocation.”

Ferguson continues, much as he did in October, to demand that United supporters respect local stewards and Anfield’s ground regulations. It’s a short-hand admonishment for those United supporters that neither sit nor keep the gangways clear at away fixtures.

In that narrow sense Ferguson’s appeal is perfectly sensible. Diligent work by supporters’ groups such as IMUSA and MUST, keen to stem a rising tide of reduced ticket allocations at away matches, will only pay dividends when United’s opponents run out of ammunition. Yet, Ferguson’s letter does not quite hit the mark either; not in the current climate, not with the stench of Suárez’ actions still hanging over the tie.

Indeed, the Suárez affair continues to place a strain on relations between Liverpool and United. The Anfield club released a series of inflammatory statements after the lengthy sanction to the Uruguayan was handed down by an FA Regulatory Commission. Liverpool’s repeated briefing of media outlets during the two month wait for a verdict is known to have irked Ferguson. Liverpool went on to slander Evra, accuse the FA of institutional conspiracy, and fail to even partially understand the nation’s mood. It is an episode that has brought shame on a once proud club; one of England’s oldest and most successful teams.

Meanwhile, Evra, United’s captain for the season, is bound to receive the ugliest of receptions at Anfield, all in the name of ‘supporting’ the Frenchman’s abuser. Few on Merseyside, it seems, will understand the irony when the all-too-inevitable barrage of abuse heads the defender’s way.

This is, of course, where Ferguson’s communication with supporters this week falls short. The legendary manager is also likely to dodge questions on the subject during his Friday press conference. Unlike hotel owner Basil Fawlty, Ferguson is simply not going to mention the war.

In reality the match will be dominated by talk of Suárez’ actions and eventual ban. The atmosphere, fuelled by Liverpool’s bloody-minded defence of the striker, is bound to increase tension between supporters. One can only hope that hostility does not extend beyond the verbal, to something far more sinister – much as it did the last time United visited Anfield for a cup tie in 2006.

Meanwhile, Evra will mercifully not face the burden of shaking Suárez’ hand on Saturday lunchtime, with the Uruguayan facing the sixth of an eight game ban. That pleasure will come when the sides meet in the Premier League next month. Liverpool’s players, meanwhile, will likely perform their usual trick of significantly increasing the intensity of performance against United. Few Anfield supporters will recognise the side that lost so tamely at Bolton Wanderers recently.

Which brings us back to Ferguson’s letter. Well meaning no doubt, but ultimately lacking the bite that it might have given the circumstances.

Ferguson’s Letter

Sir Alex Ferguson letter

via @TuftyMUFC

Reds’ win leaves title race on the edge

January 23, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 3 comments

The bookies will tell you today that Manchester City is now odds-on for the Premier League title after recording an injury time win over Tottenham Hotspur at Eastlands on Sunday afternoon. The win, together with Manchester United’s away victory at Arsenal, leaves City three points clear with 16 games to go. But even if one of the Blues’ toughest remaining fixtures is now out-of-the-way, with 100 per cent home record still intact, the contrasting manner of the two Manchester clubs’ victories says much for how the prevailing wind may now be blowing in the Premier League.

Indeed, City manager Roberto Mancini was thankful for some overly generous refereeing decisions, and Spurs’ inability to finish chances, for the 3-2 victory in east Manchester. Meanwhile, United traveled south to face an Arsenal side that had been the country’s in-form outfit until recent defeats to Fulham and Swansea City. The Reds emerged with a stunning victory in the capital.

City’s plentiful resources, together with United’s ongoing – and lengthening – injury list dictates that Mancini’s side remains logical favourites for the title. But United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his players emerged from the Arsenal encounter with confidence sky-high, believing that the ‘noisy neighbours’ can be reeled in before the season is out.

“It was important to win after City had won their game, but the manner in which we won was the more pleasing thing for me,” admitted Ferguson.

“I think we won in the right way – we played really adventurous football, we were positive and had great belief in ourselves. I’m delighted to see that at this important time in the season. What we need to do is stay on City’s coat-tails. Football is a funny game. The game at City today tells you things can happen and there will be changes [before the end of the season]. We’ve just got to stay on their coat-tails.

Should United stay in touch, both sides will look to the derby on 28 April at Eastlands as a potentially title deciding encounter.

In the meantime, United dominated against Arsenal for long periods, although the Londoners’ attacking response after half-time almost gained Arsène Wenger’s men a result at the Emirates. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s youthful verve and Robin van Persie’s predatory finishing brought the Gunners back into the game. For a moment, with defeat a real possibility, United stared at the precipice. The ensuing six point gap, had Arsenal won, would surely have handed City the title.

But as the momentum swung back in United’s favour on Sunday afternoon, with Wenger aiding the process by removing Arsenal’s best player in Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Reds’ confidence visibly grew. By the time Danny Welbeck lashed home from Antonio Valencia’s mazy run and cut back, there was no doubt about whether United would leave the Emirates with three points.

Ferguson gambled on an attacking formation, despite so few resources at his disposal, and came up trumps once again. The victory leaves United’s players believing that domestic title number 20 will be lifted at Old Trafford in May.

“I think (our gameplan) was to go straight forward, it makes a lot of pressure on the left-back and the right-back and that’s what we did,” captain Patrice Evra told Sky Sports.

“It was a good performance from the team. I think in the second half there were 15 minutes where Arsenal played very well, but we kept strong and had good shape, and after we scored a nice goal. The most important thing for us was to win. Three points were really important if we want to win the title.

“I always say the league is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We are still behind City but we have to keep going, keep winning games and I’m really confident in the team because everyone is working really hard and when we play with the United spirit it is difficult to beat us.”

Victory was United’s eighth on the road this season; a record that is five points better than any other team in the division. It is a series all the more remarkable for United’s poor form away from Old Trafford last time out. And the prevailing mood among the United squad now appears to be one of remorseless pursuit, ensuring that each victory brings pressure to bear on the club’s title rivals.

“I think we had the tougher game because it is always more difficult to go away, and we’ve got the three points,” added veteran midfielder Paul Scholes.

“There’s still three months of the season to go and hopefully we’ll be in the right place when the time comes. Obviously City are going well at the minute but we are only three points behind and funny things can happen towards the end of the season. We just have to make sure we look after ourselves and get the right results.”

That goal is not helped by the ongoing injury problems at the club. Long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher and Fábio da Silva missed the trip south. As did defender Rio Ferdinand, whose back problem has flared up once again. History dictates that the veteran could be out for anything from days to weeks.

Further bad news came during the game when Phil Jones turned over his right ankle. Ferguson confirmed that the £16.5 million former Blackburn Rovers defender will miss “weeks” of the season after damaging ligaments. It could not come at a more inopportune time, although Jones’ injury is hardly surprising given the heavy workload the teenager has faced this season.

Worse still, Michael Carrick played through the second half with a tight hamstring, while Nani did not complete the game after hobbling off with a late ankle problem. The Portuguese winger left London in a protective boot.

Add potential injury to Wayne Rooney into the mix and Ferguson is likely to heavily rotate his team for the FA Cup fixture with Liverpool next weekend. It leaves United to cope, once again, without a plethora of stars. Yet, the ongoing injury problems have seemingly galvanising Ferguson’s squad spirit. Them against us, has become us against the world.

Indeed, injury aside, there were few downsides to victory in London. Ferguson’s team emerged from the Emirates not only with the points, but a genuine sense of momentum in the title race. City may have also won earlier in the day, but Mancini’s side was more than a little fortunate to do so. Add Mario Ballotelli’s inevitable lengthy ban for stamping on Scott Parker’s head, and the Blues could face yet more pressure.

“Soon enough, if we keep ticking these wins then they’ll crumble,” added defender Chris Smalling, who was immense as Jonny Evans’ central defensive partner in London.

“It was a massive win for us. Even at 1-1, we all knew that we really needed to win this game because of what happened earlier, and I think we showed real character.”

It is the very same character that may bring Old Trafford the Premier League trophy come May. Much against the odds and prevailing wisdom.