Month January 2012

Month January 2012

Reds face crucial Arsenal test

January 21, 2012 Tags: Matches 204 comments

It is another decisive weekend in the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Arsenal on Sunday afternoon, and Manchester City hosting Tottenham Hotspur for late lunch. The potential from the two results swing cannot win Manchester United the Premier League title, but as the proverbial sometimes goes, a six point gap come Sunday night would certainly go some way to sending the title towards Eastlands.

Ferguson will be thankful, then, that the United injury list is down to just the seven absentees for the weekend’s fixture as the Reds face an Arsenal side out of the Premier League race, but still possessing enough firepower to damage the visitor’s dreams.

That is to say little of the redemption Arsène Wenger’s men will seek after United’s humiliating 8-2 victory at Old Trafford earlier this season. It was a result that had some Arsenal fans calling for the Frenchman’s head, and ensures a far tighter match this time out.

“It won’t be as open as the last time. There is no chance of that,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“There won’t be a lot between the two teams. They have only lost six goals at home this season so we are well aware it is going to be a hard game. I just hope we can get the result we want and need. I have never used revenge as part of my motivation. It rankles but you have to forget it. I am sure Arsène did that. That is what I would have done anyway.”

The fixture should see the return of two old stagers in Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry, although the later is struggling with a training ground injury. Scholes may start in the absence of other midfielders.

Yet, the United manager says that old rivalries between the teams have died over the six years the Arsenal have gone without a major trophy. It is a period in which Chelsea and now City have challenged United for the Premier League crown, and not the north Londoners.

“I don’t think that [Arsenal not being a threat] is the issue. I think it’s because they are different types of teams,” added Ferguson.

“The type of player they had, the likes of Vieira, Petit, Henry, Tony Adams and Steve Bould, has been replaced by a different type now. It’s a younger player, a different type altogether. Arsène has not changed his philosophy and it has paid dividends for Arsenal over a long period. He is still trying to do the same things. He is still trying to entertain and to play their football their way. You have to go back five or six years for when it was last combustible, when Keane and Vieira had that slanging match in the tunnel.”

Arsenal v Manchester United, Premier League, Emirates, 22 January 2012, 4pmThe United manager will again be without long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić, but there is some brighter news elsewhere. The Scot will at least be able to call on defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at the Emirates, although Rio Ferdinand may again miss out with a troublesome back.

Anderson is likely to be sidelined too, although Ferguson had positive news on key midfielder Cleverley, who may be just three weeks away from a competitive return.

“We’re a bit better in terms of injuries,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.

“Smalling and Jones will be fit, and Cleverley and Young have done some running, which is good. But Anderson is still a bit a short – he got an injury in training last week. Tom and Ashley are doing a good running programme and their fitness levels are good. They have done a lot of work, he and Ashley.

“I am hopeful in 10 days’ time he [Tom] will be playing football on the training side of it. That is the plan anyway, unless there is any recurrence. We can kick on then. It would be a great boost to have them both back – they’re influential players.

“The way Cleverley started the season was phenomenal and he’s been a loss. He’s got something different from the others. It depends how he does in the training, but his fitness levels should be fine. He could cope right away. If he does, you are talking about a week.”

If news of Cleverley’s potentially return has offered Ferguson’s men a genuine lift, then there is also a warning about Arsenal’s ability to still impact this title race. Wenger’s men may be 15 points behind City, but the Londoners host both Manchester sides before the campaign ends. Indeed, midfielder Michael Carrick believes that Arsenal remains a factor this season, with Wenger’s men in fine form until recent losses to Fulham and Swansea City.

“They didn’t start the season too well but they are still up there,” claimed the Geordie midfielder.

“Arsenal against Manchester United is always a massive game. They will want to win and so will we. Manchester City have done well. You have to give them credit. They set an early pace, had a funny Christmas period, and have now bounced back. It’s close at the moment, so we want to catch up with them. The bar has been raised this year.”

Meanwhile, the Gunners have an injury list every bit as long as United’s, with up to eight players likely to miss the fixture. Wenger will be without defenders Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and André Santos, while midfielders Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta will sit out the tie. Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho are at the Africa Cup of Nations. Loanee Henry will face a late fitness test.

Despite the absences in Robin van Persie the Londoners still retain the league’s in-form striker. The Dutchman has 26 goals in all competitions this season.

“Van Persie has scored a lot of goals and is playing really well,” added United striker Wayne Rooney.

“He will be the biggest threat for Arsenal on Sunday. Van Persie and Ramsey are certainly the two who have stood out for them this season. It is not about me and Van Persie. It is about us against Arsenal. That is what we will be focusing on. There are a lot of top strikers in the league; Van Persie, Sergio Aguero, Yakubu is playing really well. It is about us against Arsenal. That is what we will be focusing on.”

With United only a victory away from drawing level with City at the Premier League summit or, indeed, slipping six points behind, Ferguson, Rooney and the United squad will surely be more focussed that the Reds’ last league match on the road – a devastating 3-0 loss to Newcastle United.

Yet, with back-to-back wins since that rocky Christmas period, and key players coming back into the squad, there is a little more reason for optimism than just a few short weeks ago.

Match Facts
Arsenal versus Manchester United, Premier League, Emirates, Sunday 22 January 2012, 4pm.

Potential Line-ups
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Miquel; Rosicky, Ramsey, Song; Walcott, van Persie, Arshavin. Subs from: Almunia, Squillaci, Miyaichi, Eastmond, Benayoun, Henry, Park, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Jones, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Smalling, Cole, Giggs, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Park, Lingard, Diouf, Keane, Hernandez, Welbeck, Berbatov.

Performance Stats

  • United secured a 3-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers in the last Premier League game;
  • Wayne Rooney covered the most ground for United in that game with 5.65 miles;
  • United fans welcomed back a goalscoring Paul Scholes on his first league game back for the club;
  • Scholes covered 3.94 miles in that game in 69 minutes on the pitch, impressively close to the total of 4.16 miles set by Nani who was substituted at the same time;
  • Danny Welbeck and Michael Carrick were also on target for United in that game. Welbeck’s goal was his fifth of the season, coming from 30 efforts at goal with 73 per cent on target;
  • Carrick posted the second highest total distance ran against Bolton with 5.61 miles;
  • Meanwhile, Arsenal lost 3-2 at a battling Swansea City in the last Premier League match;
  • Midfielder Aaron Ramsey covered the most ground for Arsenal in that game with 6.57 miles, the 14th time this season the Welsh midfielder has topped the distance charts for the Gunners;
  • Goals from Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie were not enough to secure victory for the Gunners though. van Persie’s goal was his 18th in the Premier League this season, and restores his place at the top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • van Persie’s goals have come from an incredible 90 efforts at goal, with 62 per cent on target. He has also put in 34 crosses and contributed six assists.

Arsenal: WDWLWL
United: WWLLWW

Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistants: S Burt, A Watts
Fourth Official: P Dowd

Rant Cast 97 – Roberto’s red card

January 20, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast we discus Manchester United’s routine win over Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford, a game in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men laboured to victory. We discuss Rio Ferdinand’s riddiculous Twitter-inspired boots, talk Dimitar Berbatov’s mystery trip to Germand and ponder the market for youth transfers.

Regular presenters Ed and Paul, also talk the Olympics, review United youth’s FA Youth Cup victory this week, preview the upcoming match with Arsenal at the Emirates and talk red cards – especially the imaginary variety so loved by Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini.

This week’s exit tune is “We’re gonna do it again” – by the Manchester United squad, 1995.

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!

Reds look to returning injured, with pivotal games on the horizon

January 20, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 32 comments

Manchester United heads south this weekend at the start of a testing stretch for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The Scot’s side visits Arsenal on Sunday, with a month of potentially decisive fixtures ahead. But Ferguson must again do without without a phalanx of key players at the Emirates as injury continues to bite into the Scot”s resources.

Yet, with Tom Cleverley back in light training, Ashley Young slowly on the mend and a handful of other players ready to feature against the Londoners, Ferguson can at least see some light at the end of a long injury tunnel. It will be a huge boon to United’s chances of taking a 20th domestic league title in May.

Cleverley moves from the gym to running outdoors this week, with the 22-year-old now out of the cast that has protected an injured ankle since the midfielder hobbled off against Everton in October. The youngster departed just 58 minutes into his return from a similar injury suffered against Bolton Wanders on 10 September.

With Cleverley went the vibrant and now seemingly long forgotten flowing football of the late summer. Yet, progress in Cleverley’s rehabilitation means that the England midfielder can realistically look to play some part in United’s Europa League double-header with Ajax in mid February. The midfielder’s return has been a very long time coming, as Ferguson’s side has stuttered through matches with a patched up engine room over the past three months.

Indeed, Michael Carrick aside, there has been little consistency in United’s midfield for months. With Anderson and Darren Fletcher also injured, Ferguson has deployed half-a-dozen players in central midfield this season – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson, Park Ji Sung, and even Rafael da Silva. All too often with little effect as the Reds slipped behind Manchester City in the title race, and out of Europe in the group stages.

In the meantime, Ferguson’s men will face Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, twice, before Cleverley is ready to start for United again. It is genuinely scary stuff, leaving Ferguson with a big call at the weekend: whether to retain formerly retired veteran Paul Scholes alongside Carrick, risk Anderson’s fitness, or go with Giggs’ experience against the Gooners.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s midfield options will increase further when former Aston Villa winger Ashley Young returns to the side in early February. The 26-year-old, also recovering from an ankle injury, should be ready for selection for United’s Premier League match against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

“It’s going well. I’ve been in the gym most days but it’s getting there and hopefully I’ll be back soon,” said Young during a Betfair webcast on Thursday.

“I’m enjoying it. From the minute I stepped into the building, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody in the squad. All the staff have been brilliant. There’s competition for places all around the team so you’ve always got to be on your toes.

“It’s going to be a tough game [on Sunday], but I’m sure we’ll go down there full of confidence and looking to get three points – as we do in any game. There’s a lot of points to play for and everyone wants to be top of the table but there’s plenty of games left and we’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and look to go down there and win.”

In Young’s absence Antonio Valencia has flourished on the right-wing. Gone are the tentative displays of early season. Back is the dynamic, decisive, attacking Ecuadorian who so impressed fans during his debut season at Old Trafford. Young’s own form has been mixed, much like Ferguson’s side.

Following two defeats over Christmas, United can hardly lose any more points now, especially with City at home to Tottenham Hotspur this weekend. That City may well be six points ahead by the time United kick off at the Emirates will only heap pressure on the Reds to grind out a result, at a ground where Arsenal blow distinctly hot and cold. Arsene Wenger’s men have lost two in a row on the road, but still retain, in Robin van Persie, the league’s in-form goalscorer.

It won’t get any easier for Ferguson’s men over the next month though. United travel to Liverpool for what is likely to be an intense, potentially draining, FA cup tie in just over a week. Matches against Chelsea, Liverpool – again – and Ajax follow.

It is a pity, then, that neither Cleverley, nor Young, will be fully match sharp for a series that will surely decide United’s fate in two domestic and one European competition. In a season of more slings and arrows than Ferguson will care to remember, the Scot can but hope that the duo’s return marks the end of the most serious injury crisis at Old Trafford in the past decade.

It is gratifying at least that Ferguson should be able to call on defenders Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones at Arsenal.

A midfielder or two? Perchance to dream, as somebody might once have said.

Reds’ tricky series

22 Jan – Premier League – Arsenal A
28 Jan – FA Cup – Liverpool A
31 Jan – Premier League – Stoke City H
05 Feb – Premier League – Chelsea A
11 Feb – Premier League – Liverpool H
16 Feb – Europa League – Ajax A
23 Feb – Europa League – Ajax H

Red youth bid for yet another FA Cup

January 18, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 3 comments

Manchester United’s academy side wrapped up a second FA Youth Cup win of the season on Wednesday night to seal a place in round five of the competition. Having dispatched Torquay United in the third round before Christmas, Paul McGuinness’ under-18s beat Derby County 2-1 in Altrincham thanks to a Jack Barmby double.

While the Youth Cup is only part of the academy programme, the enduring romance of the competition still holds the attention of United’s supporters worldwide. Indeed, having held high the trophy for the 10th time last season, many supporters will once again follow the young Reds’ quest for glory in the competition in this year’s campaign. The young Reds have certainly started the defence in the right way.

However, with many of McGuinness’ 2011 Cup winners having moved up to the reserve squad – or out on loan – it has been all change in the young Reds’ youth squad this season. It is always the way with age group football. Change, in this instance, has not always served McGuinness’ side well though, with the young Reds having suffered a mixed first half tothe campaign, losing matches to Portsmouth, Southampton, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, and Liverpool – twice – in the Under 18 Premier Academy League Group C.

But a campaign of mixed results does not tell the whole story of an age group side that is as technically competent, if not more so, than its Cup winning predecessor. True, the much hyped Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba have moved up a level – with mixed results – but where the lauded pair have gone, so Norwegian prodigy Mats Møller Dæhli, and gifted left-winger Jack Barmby have flourished. Add Gyliano van Velzen, Charni Ekangamene and Adnan Januzaj into the mix, and McGuiness has the core of a very exciting looking side this season.

Dæhli, a technically gifted attacking midfielder acquired from Stabæk last February, was consistently bright against Derby on Wednesday. With outstanding close control and the ability to beat a man with either foot, the 16-year-old is likely to be marked as a potential future star. So too could 17-year-old Barmby, son of former England international Nick, now the Hull City manager. Indeed, London-born Barmby’s double against Derby takes the left-winger’s total to 11 this season – a fine haul for a wide player.

Barmby’s bright season has allowed Dutchman van Velzen, a lightening quick left-footed midfielder, to take up a more flexible role at times. Often playing up front, and seen floating around midfield against Derby, the former Ajax man has settled in well at Carrington. As one of the more experienced players in McGuiness’ squad, many are looking to van Velzen to play a key role in the coming weeks.

Januzaj, meanwhile, has impressed many with consistently creative wide play since joining the club from Anderlecht for around £300,000 last March. Januzaj scored his first goal for the academy side in victory over Crewe Alexandra last October, heading home from Ekangamene’s cross.

Despite the flurry of early season defeats this season, McGuiness’ side has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, beating Derby, Torquay, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers since November. Perhaps there should be little surprise in the difficult start, with such a large influx of 16-year-olds coming into the squad this season.

“It’s a very young group,” Sir Alex Ferguson admitted prior to United’s win on Wednesday.

“Physically, they are well short of last year’s group and age-wise too. I think we’ve only got one or two players performing from last year. I think Tyler Blackett is one player left from last year [and van Velzen]. It’s a young squad with a lot of 16-year-olds in the team.

“You hope by the turn of the next two or three months, they start to develop physically and it may give them a little chance in that respect.

“If you go back to the ’92 team, they were all first-years also. But they were a bit more physically developed. The only one weak in that particular youth team was David Beckham – his birthday was in May so he was still only 16 then. By the time we got to the semi-finals, he’d started to sprout up to 6ft 1in or something like that. He found a bit of strength and played in the semis and the final.

“It could happen the same way with this group. At the moment, they are not particularly strong for their age.”

Consistency, McGuiness will add, was always going to be a challenge – one that the coach is slowly working on, with his unique breed of magic. However, the lack of a natural centre forward at times this season – Januzaj and van Velzen started centrally on Wednesday – may yet cost the Red youth.

Victory over Derby on Wednesday hands United an away tie with Swansea City youth in round five, which is likely to be played in the week beginning 6 February. The tie, although on the road, offers the young Reds a realistic shot at the quarter-final, with the Swans academy team ranked outside the top-level of youth football.

It all leaves fans of youth football once again dreaming of FA Youth Cup glory this year.

Academy Results and Fixtures To Date

20 Aug – Portsmouth H 1-2
27 Aug – Southampton A 2-4
3 Sep – Leeds United H 3-1
10 Sep – Sheffield United A 2-0
17 Sep – Middlesbrough H 1-1
24 Sep – Blackburn Rovers A 2-3
1 Oct – Manchester City H 1-3
8 Oct – Wolves A 2-5
14 Oct – Liverpool A 1-2
19 Oct – Crewe Alexandra H 4-1
5 Nov – Bolton Wanderers A 2-1
19 Nov – West Brom H 2-1
25 Nov – Liverpool H 1-2
2 Dec – Torquay H Third Round FAYC 4-0
7 Jan – Bolton Wanderers H 3-3
18 Jan – Derby County H FAYC Fourth Round 2-1
21 Jan 21 – West Bromwich Albion A
28 Jan 28 – Everton H
4 Feb 4 – Crewe Alexandra A
TBC FAYC 5th Round – Swansea City A
11 Feb – Blackburn Rovers H
18 Feb – Manchester City A
25 Feb – Wolves H
3 Mar – Barnsley A
10 Mar – Sunderland H
17 Mar – Sheffield Wednesday A
31 Mar – Newcastle United H
21 Apr – Huddersfield Town A
28 Apr – Everton A
TBC – Stoke City (H), Everton (A), Stoke City (A)

FA Premier Academy League Group C
Manchester City – 16 games, 34 points
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 17, 34
Liverpool – 16, 29
Blackburn Rovers – 15, 26
Everton – 15, 22
Stoke – 15, 20
UNITED – 14, 17
West Bromwich Albion – 15, 16
Crewe Alexandra – 15, 13
Bolton Wanderers – 16, 11

Play it, Dimitar

January 16, 2012 Tags: Opinion 31 comments

For cinephiles, Rick’s assertion to his erstwhile lover Isla that she must board the plane to Lisbon, for fear of regretting it should she not, still ranks as one of film’s great moments. Captured in three fleeting minutes is the pain of inevitable, and surely permanent, separation. Rick, although embittered by his past with Ilsa, and set free only by her, allows his great love to leave him for the last time. In the process Rick saves her life, and that of her husband, in the name of a more noble cause. They will, after all, always have Paris.

It is a romantic’s notion that some Manchester United supporters may have cause to knowingly recall this week. Old Trafford is no war-torn Casablanca, of course, but for United fans comes a dawning realisation, one years in the making, that Dimitar Berbatov’s future may lie elsewhere. It is for the love of Berbatov that supporters may also have to let him go.

Reportedly spotted boarding a plane to Germany this week, Berbatov’s end may well be nigh, with former club Bayer Leverkusen and billionaire-owned Russians Anzhi Makalakla reportedly keen on the 30-year-old Bulgarian, who is out of contract in the summer.

But separation, if it is to happen this winter, will come with a heavy heart. Not perhaps for Sir Alex Ferguson, who uses the striker sparingly, but certainly for those whose who love football’s more artistic tones.

Speculation about the former Tottenham Hotspur player’s future has rarely been out of the headlines in the past two years, with the forward now Ferguson’s fourth-choice in the role. Berbatov’s 21 goal haul last season came predominantly in the opening months of the campaign, only for the United manager to drop his £30 million star during the run-in.

Berbatov did not even make the squad for the Reds’ humiliating Champions League final loss to Barcelona, as Ferguson instead chose Michael Owen for a place on the bench. Being overlooked for a player who has performed with no distinction for United, or indeed anybody over the past decade, must have hurt Berbatov deeply.

Indeed, those willing to countenance Berbatov’s departure will point to two pieces of compelling evidence: that the striker’s contribution is now spasmodic at best, and that he is predominantly most active against United’s weaker opponents. Last season’s hat-trick against Liverpool aside, Berbatov rarely scores against United’s toughest opponents or in key matches. After all, Berbatov has scored just five goals in 25 Champions League appearances for United — four of them against Aalborg and Celtic.

Yet, Ferguson claimed only last week that the one-year, one-way, extension clause in Berbatov’s contract would be activated this spring, ensuring both that the player is tied to United until summer 2013, and perhaps more importantly for Old Trafford’s bean counters, that he will not leave on a free transfer in June.

Football is rarely a case of black and white though, and when it comes to transfer matters United is a club that is rarely willing to share the truth. Behind the assertion that Berbatov’s contract will be extended is the potential financial cost to the club. In an era of Glazernomics, where United’s owners are placing a genuine squeeze on Ferguson’s budget, extension will cost not only a fee in the £5-10 million region, but the Bulgarian’s hefty annual wages. It is a heavy price to pay for a player that is unlikely to start 30 games in all competitions this season.

Moreover, for all Berbatov’s enduring quality he has become an iniquity in Ferguson’s tactical system that, shorn of creativity in the centre of midfield, relies on pace in wide and forward areas. Berbatov simply slows down United’s play too much for Ferguson’s liking, and the Bulgarian has never genuinely struck up the kind of partnership with Wayne Rooney that Danny Welbeck appears to have found.

Yet, Berbatov is far more than a set of numbers, whether analysed on or off the pitch. The Bulgarian’s sublime touch and inspirational skill had a recent guest on this site’s podcast describing the Bulgarian as a player “made of velvet and wonder”. In that there is much to admire. Frustratingly unproductive at times, perhaps, but Berbatov is, was and surely always will be a supreme entertainer.

The club has been here before of course and at no point has Ferguson previously given the green light for Berbatov’s sale. This time may be different though for all the reasons already highlighted. Finances aside, Ferguson would surely retain Berbatov even in a bit-part role. But money is never far from the big picture at Old Trafford.

That, of course, is to say little of the player whose shining star deserves a leading part. It is with this thought that United fans may now have to accept the player’s departure. For the greater good? Maybe not. For the player’s well-being, certainly.

For many United supporters Berbatov is an enduring love, but one with whom separation now seems all too inevitable. And if Berbatov is to leave before the month’s ends, well, we’ll always have West Ham.

Ravel Morrison reveals motivation for contract dispute

January 14, 2012 Tags: Just for fun 58 comments

“His agent has been working hard to get him another club,” Sir Alex Ferguson said of teenage prodigy Ravel Morrison on Friday. “We’ve offered him terms which he has refused, so that is where it is. His demands are unrealistic as far as we are concerned. We’ve rejected an offer from Newcastle and it is now down to how that progresses.”

Rant wonders what could motivate an 18-year-old to turn down the opportunity to play for his local club…

Ravel Morrison, Ca$h

Reds seek momentum as Trotters visit

January 14, 2012 Tags: , Matches 50 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the weekend fixtures seeking to overturn a run of two Premier League defeats in a row that have threatened Manchester United’s title ambitions. With morale high after victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup last week, Ferguson’s side faces Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford in what should be a routine victory. But, as Ferguson’s found out during the New Year’s Eve defeat to Blackburn Rovers, complacency in this division can be a highly destructive force.

Yet, with United just three points behind City in the Premier League, Ferguson knows that momentum is now crucial to United’s chances of overhauling the crosstown neighbours. However, the Reds may again have to make do without a plethora of key players for the Trotters visit. While long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić and Darren Fletcher are definitely missing, Ferguson also has concerns over a trio of stars. Chris Smalling, Anderson and Phil Jones will face late tests before facing relegation threatened Wanderers.

Even if the trio makes it, Ferguson is aware that United must perform with far more intensity than against Blackburn, or indeed, during the second half of FA Cup victory over City last weekend.

“We’ve got one or two doubts for tomorrow,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“Smalling and Jones picked up knocks in the derby. We’ll see what they’re like tomorrow. Anderson got a knock in training, but hopefully he’ll be okay. So we’ve got a reasonable squad for tomorrow.

“We need a good performance against a team that will battle for everything. Any team near the bottom of the table will do that, as we experienced at home to Blackburn. We went into the Blackburn game with respect for them but it wasn’t a great performance. We have to address Bolton’s challenge properly. These clubs are fighting for their existence and we expect just the same from Bolton. It’s a local derby too, which adds something to it.”

Manchester United versus Bolton Wanderers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 14 January 2012, 3pmYet, anything less than three points against Bolton is unthinkable, with Ferguson believing that it may take anything up to 90 points to take the Premier League this season. With just 18 games to go, United may not be able to drop more than nine points during the run-in. Indeed, with the Reds to face Arsenal, Chelsea, City and Tottenham Hotspur away from home, Ferguson may yet live to regret the six points lost over the Christmas programme.

“The main difference I can see this season is that City have amassed a bigger points total than Chelsea or Arsenal would normally have managed by this stage,” added Ferguson.

“Their first half of the season was fantastic, and the way it’s going we could be looking at something approaching 90 points to win this league. It could certainly be a number in the high 80s, and that is surprising really, because in recent seasons more teams have been taking points off each other.

“Two or three years back there was definitely a tightening up of the league. It became a bit harder and instead of four teams battling for the top positions you had six, with Manchester City and Tottenham coming into the reckoning as well. That makes it far more interesting for the spectators and neutrals.”

With points at a premium Ferguson is likely to stick, largely, with the team that won at Eastlands last week. The Scot will again find a place on the bench for Paul Scholes. However, with Phil Jones looking in desperate need of a rest, Jonny Evans could find a place in defence, the Northern Irishman’s fitness permitting. Anderson, desperately needing minutes, could start his first Premier League match this year.

Meanwhile, defender Rio Ferdinand is likely to be fit despite a midweek stomach bug. The veteran defender says that beating City in the FA Cup last weekend was the perfect boost to an injury-hit United squad that had suffered defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle United the week previously.

“You always know there will be ups and downs during the season,” said the 33-year-old former Leeds United defender.

“We had a bad week the one before [the City game], losing two games. But there is no better game to come back than Manchester City. It was a great first-half. In the second we took our foot off the gas and let them back in the game, but the result is the most important thing and we got through to the next round.

“Hopefully Manchester City and Tottenham will experience lows that go on a lot longer and we can get a few players back from injury and push on. If any other squad in the league had the same amount of players out that we have had, they wouldn’t be sitting where we are. That speaks volumes for our squad and that’s why when I am in the changing room I’m more than happy with the people I see around me.”

The opposition arrives under severe pressure to put points on the board, with the Trotters firmly inside the bottom three. And with key defender Gary Cahill set to move to Chelsea this week, manager Owen Coyle’s job is unlikely to get any easier. Yet, having secured a 2-1 victory over Everton at Goodison last time out, Coyle’s men arrive having moved off the foot of the Premier League at least. Coyle is also boosted by ‘keeper Jussi Jaskelaainen’s return after the Finn missed the last two games with a thigh injury.

Yet, with Bolton having won at Old Trafford just once in the past decade, history is firmly in United’s corner. United has won 12 of the last 14 meetings with Bolton, and hasn’t lost to the Trotters since September 2007.

Indeed, defeat to Bolton would be the third league loss in a row – that hasn’t happened for more than 10 years, and even then, the Reds had already won the league by 10 points.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Bolton Wanderers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 14 January 2012, 3pm.

Potential Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Park, Lingard, Diouf, Keane, Hernandez, Welbeck, Berbatov.

Bolton (4-5-1): Jaskelaainen; Riley, Knight, Wheater, Robinson; Eagles, Muamba, M Davies, Reo-Coker, Petrov; Ngog. Subs from: Bogdan, Lynch, Pratley, Tuncay, K Davies, Klasnic, Lainton, Steinsson, Ricketts, Blake, Boyata, Vela, O’Halloran

Performance Stats

  • Manchester United stumbled to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle in the club’s last Premier League match;
  • Michael Carrick covered the most ground for united in that game with 5.88 miles. The midfielder has covered 62.45 miles so far this season, averaging 5.2 miles per game. He has also completed 244 passes in his opponent’s area, averaging one every four minutes;
  • The goals conceded against Newcastle were the first Anders Lindegaard has conceded in the Premier League. The United ‘keeper had made 28 saves in six appearances for United before then;
  • Wayne Rooney has retained the position of the top ranked player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for most of the season;
  • Rooney has hit 13 goals so far this season from 73 efforts at goal with 67 per cent on target. Only Robin van Persie has had more shots at goal, but the Dutchman’s on target percentage is lower at 61 per cent;
  • Rooney also has four assists to his name, has completed a pass in his opponent’s half every three minutes, and covers, on average, 5.9 miles per game;
  • Meanwhile visitors Bolton beat Everton 2-1 in the side’s last Premier League fixture, with Gary Cahill scoring the winner in what may have been his last game for the club;
  • Cahill has won 36 of 50 tackles so far this season, a success rate of 78 percent, and he has made an 134 interceptions, 29 clearances and 15 blocks;
  • Striker David Ngog was also on the scoresheet with his second Premier League goal for the Trotters, coming from 21 efforts at goal.

United: WWWLLW
Bolton: LWLDWD

Referee: Peter Walton (Long Buckby)
Assistants: S Ledger, D C Richards
Fourth Official: S Attwell

Scholes’ return points to end for young Reds

January 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 25 comments

The news of Paul Scholes’ return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad shortly before the FA Cup Third Round tie against Manchester City seemingly provoked a wave of optimism among Manchester United fans, with polls across the web supporting the Salford-born midfielder’s re-integration. Manager, players, pundits and former Reds were all universally upbeat about the 36-year-old’s return to action too.

Indeed, following United’s 3-2 victory at Eastlands, former Red Nicky Butt drew attention to the psychological blow dealt by his former teammate’s return. “It was a smart move by the manager,” said Butt. “It took all the attention off [City’s] home record and switched all the attention to Paul Scholes.” In this respect, Scholes’ return certainly achieved its goal as a devastating first-half performance by United left the derby rivals looking shell-shocked before half-time.

“Paul is going to be a real positive addition to our squad,” claimed centre-back Chris Smalling, who lauded the longer-term effects of the midfielder’s return. “It gave the young lads a lift just to see him preparing for [Sunday’s] match.” These were sentiments shared by striker Danny Welbeck, who scored a smart volley to help ensure that Scholes’ return would be a happy one. “Seeing him in the dressing room just gave me a lift straight away.,” added the 20-year-old Mancunian.

For two other United hopefuls, however, the veteran midfielder’s return will have been far less encouraging. Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison displayed terrific potential when helping the Academy team to FA Youth Cup success last year, and many supporters believed that this would be the pair’s breakthrough season. It was even hoped that Ferguson’s refusal to sign a central midfielder in the summer transfer window was due to youth team talent available. Certainly, the manager intimated as much.

Following long-term injuries to midfielders Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, together with Anderson’s indifferent form, many believed that United’s young guns would be offered a chance in the first team. It was not to be, as Ferguson instead deployed 38-year old Ryan Giggs, defender Phil Jones, winger Park Ji-Sung and even Wayne Rooney in the heart of midfield.

But the final blow to Morrison and Pogba’s hopes this season has been delivered by the decision to recall veteran Paul Scholes, who despite not having played professional football for over seven months, is now firmly above the pair in Ferguson’s pecking order.

It has long been rumoured that contract talks have broken down with Pogba, who has once again been linked with a move to Manchester City or abroad in recent weeks.

“He [Pogba] has got an agent who’s obviously become a bit difficult, but we’re negotiating with this agent and we want the boy to stay,” Ferguson said recently.

“If he doesn’t want to stay, then there’s not a lot you can do about it. We have an option on his contract that takes us into a year-and-a-half away, so in that respect there’s not a great emergency about it. But we’d like the boy to sign a contract and, if he’d like to be a Manchester United player, then he knows what to do.

“You hope he gets the right advice, but it’s down to the individual also. Matt Busby summed it up perfectly, that you don’t need to chase money at a club like Manchester United, it will eventually find you. If you’re good enough, you will earn money and become rich playing for Manchester United. It’s one of these situations that they can chase the money early in their career, but at the end, it’s not the same as if they’d stayed here. He just needs to look round about him to realise that.”

Meanwhile Morrison Tweeted on Wednesday that he has not been offered a new contract to stay at Old Trafford beyond the summer. Thursday’s Telegraph reported that Morrison’s exit from Old Trafford “seems certain”. The only remaining question is seemingly whether the 18-year-old will stay until the summer, with Newcastle United reportedly having bid £500,000 this week.

“[Ravel’s] agent has been working hard to get him another club,” said Ferguson on Friday, contradicting the player’s claim.

“We’ve offered him terms which he has refused. His demands are unrealistic as far as we’re concerned. We’ve rejected an offer from Newcastle. It’s all down to how that progresses.”

Followers of United’s youth and reserve teams will have noted the exceptional talents on offer, even though reserve football is not always a reliable barometer of a player’s ability. After all, there is reason why interest in this pair of United starlets has come from across Europe. It leaves fans wondering whether Ferguson will let these talents slip between his fingers without giving them a chance in the first team.

Few will need reminding of previous departures either. Gerard Piqué, who left Old Trafford having failed to gain first-team football, has subsequently won almost everything in the game, including the World Cup, two Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles. The recently compiled FIFA World XI award saw Piqué line-up alongside former teammate Nemanja Vidić, leaving United fans pondering what could have been.

The same could be said of Giuseppe Rossi, who made it from United’s reserves to the top of the La Liga scoring charts and into the Italian national team.

To let one world-class prospect leave before his time was careless. Two was a mistake. Fans will hope that Ferguson knows something about Morrison and Pogba that they do not. For to let two central midfield stars of the future follow Piqué and Rossi out of the exit door would be unforgivable.

Rant Cast 96 – return of the Prince

January 13, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment

On this week’s packed Rant Cast we discus Manchester United’s ‘game of two halves’ with Manchester City in the FA Cup – a fixture that saw the return of former-now-current player Paul Scholes. We discuss youth – Ravel Morrison’s latest bout of trouble. And we ponder the fallout from the recent Wayne Rooney/Sir Alex Ferguson spat.

Regulars Ed and Paul discuss Eric Cantona’s bid for the French Presidency – or not as the case may be – and while we’re on former legends we talk about Mark Hughes and the Welshman’s return to management. Finally, we ponder the relegation race, say goodbye to Darron Gibson, talk about Spurs’ bid for the title, and preview the weekend’s fixture with Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford.

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!

Spurs make it a three horse race

January 12, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 8 comments

The darkest horse is often the one sneaking up the rail, unseen until the final bend, only to win by a nose. And to push the horse analogy as far as it will stretch, the Premier League title race is yet to enter the final furlong, but Tottenham Hotspur’s victory over a limp Everton side on Wednesday now has the London side very much on Manchester United’s heels. Indeed, Spurs’ victory brings Harry Redknapp’s in-form side level on points with United, and just three behind Manchester City, with 18 games to go.

Even if Redknapp’s side remains third favourites in an increasingly three-horse race, only the foolhardy will now discount Spurs altogether. After all, while the Londoners face a tough couple of months – hosting United, and visiting City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea – Redknapp’s men will enjoy nine winnable games to end the season. If the north London side remains in touch of the leaders after the fixture with Chelsea on 9 March, Redknapp’s outfit could well pick up a first title since 1961.

It’s a remarkable turnaround in a season that began poorly amid the acrimony surrounding star midfielder Luka Modrić’s and his potential transfer to Chelsea. Injuries and poor form saw Spurs pick up just X points from the first 10 games.

And now, says Redknapp, the pressure will be on City, with the two sides clashing at Eastlands on 22 January in what could yet be a pivotal tie in the title race.

“The pressure is on Man City [because of] their squad and the money they have been able to spend,” said Redknapp after Spurs’ win over Everton on Wednesday.

“They are expected to be there and win. We are just hanging in there at the moment and playing well. Nothing’s impossible. I wasn’t there but someone said William Gallas came in the other day and said to everyone: ‘Listen, we have a chance here’. You have to keep believing and apart from that I enjoy the way we play. If you don’t enjoy the way we play, then you shouldn’t be watching football.

“We don’t put pressure on the players [but] we are playing well, playing with smiles on our faces. We had a bad start to the season. I’ve been around football clubs long enough to know when there’s a good feeling or a bad feeling. We had bad pre-season, we had problems off the pitch with Luka Modrić and injuries in midfield.

“Then we bring in Scott Parker, who I’d been chasing for months, and Emmanuel Adebayor arrives and Luka gets sorted out and suddenly we look a different team and we’ve not looked back since then.”

The chastening 5-0 defeat to City in August, just hours before United thrashed Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford, did not deflate Redknapp’s belief though as Spurs picked up momentum through the Autumn. But with United having beaten the London side 3-0 at Old Trafford earlier this season Redknapp’s side will have to turn around poor results against the division’s leading sides if it is to stay in touch over the next 10 weeks. While the Londoner’s form is outstanding, few supporters will be genuinely shocked if Redknapp’s side drops points against other contenders in the coming weeks.

It is a challenge Redknapp believes his team can meet, especially with Spurs facing no further European commitments this season. Indeed, in Sir Alex Ferguson, Redknapp has an ally in the belief that the London side can pick up the title this season, despite United’s experience and City’s vast sovereign wealth. Insisting that Arsenal and Chelsea are out of the title race, Ferguson claimed that “Tottenham can definitely win it They play the best football in the country and their current form is the best in the country.”

However, genuine doubts surround the size and scope of Spurs’ squad, together with the complete lack of experience in Redknapp’s outfit when it comes to challenging for titles. Injuries to key players including Modrić, together with Bale and in-form Emmanuel Adebayor could scupper the challenge. Roberto Mancini will be grateful that Premier League rules preclude the Togan facing his parent club in a fortnight’s time. Meanwhile, the Italian will be without the Touré brothers and potentially Mario Ballotelli, and David Silva for the clash, each of whom has suffered injury in recent weeks.

The same could be said of United too though, for whom injuries continue to bite. With Paul Scholes back in the squad, Ferguson is unlikely to rush Tom Cleverley back into action, while Anderson is still short of match fitness and Darron Gibson is likely to be sold. In defence captain Nemanja Vidić will not return until next season, meaning that any further injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in particular could seriously impact United’s chances.

All of which adds up to a fascinating run-in, shorn for the first time in years of both Arsenal and Chelsea. It is a race in which there is no clear favourite although Mancini’s outfit currently holds a three point lead, and a healthy goal difference advantage.

Yet, just as United threw away points against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle in recent weeks, so will City and Spurs in the weeks to come. Mancini’s ability to prevent a mini blip – four defeats in eight games – turning into a full-blown crisis will be key to the Blues chances.

For Redknapp, simply maintaining the side’s recent form will be a bonus.