Month February 2012

Month February 2012

Fergie confident of United triumph

February 28, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 6 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the weekend fixture with Tottenham Hotspur still chasing Manchester City at the head of the Premier League But, with Sunday’s game one of two remaining that may swing the title either side of Manchester, the 70-year-old manager is placing faith in his squad’s experience and hunger with 12 games to go.

Spurs, coming off the back of a 5-2 hiding by local rivals Arsenal, will be keen to restore momentum in the club’s challenge for Champions League qualification this season. It makes both for the most important United-Spurs clash of recent seasons and, potentially, a key moment in this campaign’s title race.

Indeed, with City to face both Arsenal and Chelsea before the season closes in May, a United victory at White Hart Lane this coming weekend should set up the title race for a decisive clash between the Manchester clubs at Eastlands in late April.

“It’s going to be a massive game,” Ferguson told Inside United of the Sunday afternoon clash with Harry Redknapp’s outfit.

“If we can survive that one, then we’ll have a big, big chance of winning the league. Yes, I would take [being two points behind City]. I would rather go there on level points. But if we could go there within striking distance of being top of the league, I’d take it.”

Ferguson can have greater confidence in the Reds’ title challenge now that an injury crisis, which at times has stretched to 11 personnel this season, has waned. United should travel to north London with Wayne Rooney, who is still recovering from a throat infection, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all fit. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia may feature at White Hart Lane, while Tom Cleverley’s ankle injury is far less serious that first feared.

“I should have more players available than I’ve had in the last few weeks because we’ve had a terrible spell of injuries,” added Ferguson.

“But we’ve done the right thing in the treatment of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, we’ve given them a break. They are young players and they had been carrying little strains for weeks. Then all of a sudden it hits them, and we had to take stock, to get them back. We’ve given them a fair break and they’re fresh now.”

While youngsters Smalling and Jones hunt for the second and first titles of fledgling careers, Ferguson is also mindful of the vast experience available in his squad. Weekend goalscorers Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are sure to play key roles during the run in, while striker Rooney is coming to the close of an eighth campaign as a United player. No longer the new kid, Rooney is a both a senior pro at the club and key to United’s success – or failure – in the coming months.

“Wayne Rooney’s been with us for nearly eight years now and he’s won a few championship medals,” Sir Alex adds.

“He knows what it takes to win it. When he and Cristiano Ronaldo first came to the club, it was all new to them – the demands of winning the league here. I think the aim for all the players is to try and get to four or five league medals, and then they’ll have great experience of how to handle the title race.”

At the other end of that scale Ferguson is likely to place an emphasis on United-trained youngsters including Cleverley and Danny Welbeck during the run-in. While Cleverley has missed much of the campaign with injury, Welbeck has proven a key weapon in United’s title defence. The England international has not only forced his way into Ferguson’s team, but ahead of Javier Hernández in the pecking order.

“I’m so hungry,” striker Welbeck told ManUtd.com.

“I was just talking about it before in the canteen with Tom Cleverley. Clevz was biting his fork as well as his food and growling. We both want it so much. I don’t think anybody understands how hungry we are for this title. We want to fulfil our dreams, win the title and keep winning and keep winning. There’s nothing going to stop us.”

How typical of Ferguson to successfully integrate experience and youth into a winning combination. Indeed, in a campaign where United has been struck low by injury and, at times, lack of quality together with infuriating complacency, there is little surprise Ferguson is happy with his side’s current position. City should be out of sight by now given the club’s resources and United’s comparative limitations.

Yet, before any trophies are lifted, corks popped or backs slapped, the Reds must negotiate Spurs at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon. It is a fixture from which United normally emerges triumphant. In the previous 10 visits to the lane Ferguson’s side has won seven times. Spurs have not beaten United in London since a 3-1 victory in 2001.

Moreover, with Redknapp’s focus on the England job his players’ have lost a little momentum in recent weeks. Spurs’ two wins in the past five fixtures is not the record of potential champions. Whether the Londoners can respond to thumping defeat last weekend is unknown. Without the side’s leader Scott Parker the task against United will surely be that much more difficult.

By contrast, there is no doubt Ferguson’s players have the bit between the teeth.

Legends prepared as squeaky bum time approaches

February 27, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 7 comments

There were many remarkable aspects to Manchester United’s victory at Norwich City on Sunday: Ryan Giggs’ goal on his 900th appearance for the club; a last-minute winner; the combined age of the Reds’ goalscorers; that United had, for so long, been under the cosh.

Yet, there is a reason United score so many late goals, and win plenty of seemingly unwinnable games. Call it the ‘United way’ if you will; a spirit that is driven by Sir Alex Ferguson’s indomitable gambling ethos. The 70-year-old manager may have softened as the years rolled by, but there are few in the game prepared to risk all for win in quite the same way.

Once again this paid dividends at Carrow Road in the past weekend.

This spirit is replete in United’s weekend goalscorers – Giggs and Paul Scholes. On his 900th appearance for the club Giggs danced around the Carrow Road pitch like a 17-year-old freshman after slotting home with seconds to go. Youngster Phil Jones and then the rest of United’s players joined in the wild celebrations. This was a win, as Ferguson put it after the game, that could be very special indeed.

The players’ celebration reflected both United’s escape and the victory’s importance. In a season when Manchester City seemingly do not want to win the title, three unlikely points gained at Carrow Road could well be central to a 20th domestic title come May. Indeed, Norwich are not comfortably safe from relegation by accident – this is a solid Premier League team that has troubled top clubs more than once this season. In the context of a game in which, by all accounts, United again demonstrated its fallibility, victory will provide a significant confidence boost.

Not for the first time in Ferguson’s 25 years at United’s manager, victory came without justification. But what was lacking in quality on the day, was recovered in spirit. Scholes’ late run into the box to score United’s opening goal was reminiscent of the midfielder 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Giggs’ last-minute goal was reward for United piling forward in search of the winner in the last five minutes.

“There is no point drawing games so we were throwing everyone forward going for that goal, and I am sure we will do the same thing again,” 37-year-old Scholes told MUTV.

“Of course, three points instead of one is a big difference. That is what we are here to do. We realise we may have to win every game to win the league, but we are ready and prepared to do that.”

United’s victory keeps the gap at the top of the Premier League to just two points with 12 games to go. Given United’s horrendous injury record this season, together with no small measure of inexperienced players in Ferguson’s side, it is a remarkable position. City’s sovereign wealth and undoubted talent should, all things being equal, take the Blues to a first title since 1967.

But, with Ferguson at United’s helm, all things are never equal. Norwich’s deserved equaliser provoked a response like no other, with United throwing six or more players forward with every attack.

“We know how important a time it is, City put pressure on us yesterday and we knew we had to win,” said Giggs, whose goal came not only on his 900th appearance for the club but almost 19 years since he scored against the Canaries in 1993.

“Right through the squad – for all the time I’ve been here – we’ve always had that ability to not give in and score late goals. To play 900 games for this club, who I’ve grown up supporting, is special – it’s a great day for me. I am sure there will be more twists and turns in the title race and I expect more drama and late goals.”

Ferguson was understandably delighted with the win and Giggs’ contribution on the Welshman’s big day. More importantly though, the Scot knows that United’s ability to win, despite the performance, is a quality that could still secure the title. For all Roberto Mancini’s resources, City cannot yet make a similar claim.

“For a player to play for one club for 900 games is exceptional and it won’t be done again,” added the United manager.

“He deserved that goal for his service to the club. He’s had an amazing career and he’s an amazing man. It could pove very special, but for Ryan to score the winning goal with the last kick of the ball on his 900th game, well, he probably deserves that for the career he’s had.

“We won’t get nervous, that’s for sure. We’re used to being in this situation. You saw that when we conceded an equaliser. How did we react? We started playing again and got the winner. Everyone knows we never give in. No matter who plays us, they know they will have to battle right to the death.”

United was lucky against the better team perhaps, but there is no accident in the Reds’ ability to drags results out of frustrating performances. And while much of the talk post game centred on the apparent ‘complacency’ of Ferguson’s side after Scholes had nodded in the game’s opening goal, focus must surely be laid on the Scot’s ability to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a United side shorn of too much stardust, but still able to create a result out of nothing; to turn poor performances into points on the board. And in Scholes and Giggs – combined age 75 – Ferguson has two players that demonstrate this if nothing else.

This is far from Ferguson’s greatest United side, but two of his finest players will once again perform a major part in the season’s dénouement.

“Scholes and Giggs are the best players this club has ever had,” concluded Ferguson post match.

It is a sentiment that is hard to counter.

Rooney returns for Canaries visit

February 26, 2012 Tags: , Matches 129 comments

Wayne Rooney returns to the Manchester United side as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks to reduce the five point gap to Manchester City in the Premier League. With the Blues having comfortably beaten Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, United visit high flying Norwich City seeking an ninth victory on the road this season. Rooney’s return provides a timely boost to Ferguson’s side following the Europa League defeat to Ajax in midweek.

However, proving that every silver cloud has a dark injury lining this season, United will be without Tom Cleverley after the midfielder injured his right ankle against the Dutch on Thursday night. It is not thought to be serious, but the 22-year-old midfielder will also now miss England’s friendly will Holland next week.

The Reds visit Norwich for the first time in nearly seven years, having lost 2-0 on the sides last encounter at Carrow Road. In the intervening years Norwich has suffered relegation, but under Scot Paul Lambert, been rejuvenated this season. Indeed, only a spectacular collapse will now drag the Canaries into the relegation mix after Lambert’s side performed so admirably over the past six months.

On a limited budget, Lambert has fashioned an attacking side that can both play attractive football and mix it up when required. And in Grant Holt, Norwich possesses a striker who is over-performing this season. There is, says Ferguson, much to admire in the Norfolk club’s approach.

“Norwich is an interesting club because they have a full house for every match,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.

“It’s in a lovely part of the world. They’ve got their own little empire down there. It’s just like when I was at Aberdeen, it feels as though you’re cut off from everywhere. Nonetheless they’re being very successful with it. I think they have probably exceeded everyone’s expectations. In fact, all the teams who were promoted have excelled, particularly Norwich. They’ve not signed a lot of players, they’ve stuck to their normal way of doing things, and although it’s difficult to say nowadays, I think they’ll be okay [in terms of staying up].”

Norwich City v Manchester United, Premier League, Carrow Road, 26 February 2012Norwich’s progress this season guarantees a competitive fixture for United, and although Rooney returns to Ferguson’s starting side after missing much of last week’s training with a sore throat, Cleverley’s absence so soon after returning from injury is a major blow. Ferguson will be thankful, then, that the 22-year-old midfielder has not damaged the left ankle that has proven to be so troublesome this season.

In Antonio Valencia’s continued absence, Ferguson is likely to select Ashley Young and Nani in wide areas, with Paul Scholes and 899-game veteran Ryan Giggs competing for a starting spot in central midfield. Rio Ferdinand returns after being rested for the midweek fixture against Ajax. Ferguson will choose between Danny Welbeck and midweek goalscorer Javier Hernández to partner Rooney in attack.

Indeed, Ferguson is certain to select a far stronger side than the inexperienced outfit that lost to Ajax in midweek. The Scot accepted the blame for that defeat, and with three points on offer on Sunday, will be expecting a strong reaction from his troops. Ferguson’s respect for his fellow Scot should ensure than no complacency creeps into his side’s performance as it has done in two fixtures against Ajax over the past 10 days.

“I knew Paul when he was a kid at St Mirren,” added Ferguson on Friday.

“He played under my brother, Martin, when Martin was a coach. Paul’s had a great career – he collected a European Cup winner’s medal with Borussia Dortmund and then he went on to Celtic. I think Norwich, for a young manager, is probably a good club to go to, where the expectation’s not too high and you’ve got a full house every week. There’s a lot of enthusiasm down there and I think it’s suited Paul well.”

Meanwhile, Lambert has Zak Whitbread available after hamstring injury, although Daniel Ayala, Marc Tierney and Jonny Howson are definitely out. Absences are unlikely to spoil the Canaries’ rhythm though – Norwich has lost just one of the past seven league fixtures, although FA Cup defeat to Leicester City last weekend will sting.

History is on United’s side though. Norwich has only beaten the Reds once in the sides past 13 league meetings – in April 2005 when goals from strikers Dean Ashton and Leon McKenzie secured a 2-0 victory. Fast forward seven years and another striker, Holt, who has nine Premier League goals this season, is likely to provide a physical test to both United’s back-four and goalkeeper David de Gea. It is a challenge that defender Jonny Evans – outstanding in recent weeks – is prepared to meet, despite the fallibility that United has shown this season under the high ball.

“Norwich have done well since they got promoted,” said the Northern Irishman.

“It seems like a pretty tough place to go. They have two big lads up front who seem to make it hard for you. I think Holt has played in every league. He is a big strong boy, as is Morison. It is going to be a real battle, a lot different to Ajax. In the Premier League, you are used to challenges, when it is a bit more rough. Paul Lambert seems to have them working really hard. It is going to be a tough game. It is a game their fans and players will have been looking forward to all season.

“These next two games are massive. We just have to keep the pressure on. Two points is nothing – you never feel like you are in control. I am sure they don’t. Once slip and it all changes. We want to keep within touching distance so if they do slip up, we can overtake them. The longer it goes, the more nervous they will get. They have been in front for quite a while now. We have been close to catching them. I am sure they would like the season to end now.”

Yet, any repeat of the 2005 defeat to Norwich would leave Ferguson’s side five points behind and playing catch up. It leaves anything less than the full three points unthinkable for the Scot’s men.

Match details
Norwich City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Carrow Road, 26 February 2012, 1.30pm.

Potential Line-ups
Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; R Martin, Ward, Naughton, Drury; Surman, Pilkington, Fox, Bennett; Holt, Jackson. Subs from: Steer, Barnett, Johnson, Crofts, Hoolahan, Morison, Wilbraham

United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Rafael, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.

Stats to Note

  • Norwich has proven to be one of the surprise packages this season, with the Canaries currently in eighth place in the Premier League, winning four of the last six games;
  • Wayne Rooney scored twice in quick succession after half-time in United’s last Premier League fixture, against Liverpool, taking his tally to 17 Premier League goals this season;
  • Norwich snuck past Swansea City last weekend after another stand out display by Holt. According to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index Holt has had a 40 per cent shot success rate this season, scoring nine goals in the process;
  • Patrice Evra is the only player in this fixture to feature in the top 30 for distance covered this season;
  • Untied will miss key provider Valencia, who may return next weekend against Tottenham Hotspur. According to the Index Valencia has swung in a cross every eighteen minutes this season;
  • Steve Morison has been one of Norwich’s main attacking players this season. Morison has stike success rate of 27.5 per cent, scoring nine goals in the league. Morison’s last goal came against West Bromwich Albion.

Form
Norwich: DWLWWL
United: WLWDWL

Officials

Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)
Assistants: G Beswick, D Richardson
Fourth Official: J Moss

Red Issue 1 – 0 GMP

February 25, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 3 comments

When Greater Manchester Police seized 1,600 copies of Red Issue prior to Manchester United’s fixture with Liverpool earlier this month not only did the service spectacularly fail to understand a tasteless joke, but it engaged in dangerous restriction on freedom of speech. That much has now been recognised, with the Crown Prosecution Service confirming on Saturday that no criminal charges will be made against Red Issue’s editors or the fanzine’s distributors in respect of the seizure.

For those unfamiliar, Red Issue’s February back cover depicted a cut-out-and-keep Klu Kluz Klan hood, with the words “LFC” and “Suarez Is Innocent” emblazoned in red; an image apparently designed to mock the perceived failings in Liverpool fans’ attitude towards racism after the Luis Suárez affair.

The joke was crude, simplistic and, in leveraging an organisation that murdered hundreds of black men, women and children, most likely offensive to those who genuinely suffered at the KKK’s hands. This, however, was never the issue at hand. Whether readers found the fanzine’s joke funny or offensive is irrelevant; whether it was legal was the only pertinent question.

Yet, the GMP didn’t see it that way, seizing more than a thousand copies prior to United’s Premier League fixture with Liverpool at Old Trafford on the pretext that both racial hatred and potential violence may ensure if copies were allowed to be distributed to match going fans.

“Shortly before kick-off we were made aware that a Manchester United supporters’ fanzine being sold outside Old Trafford featured a potentially offensive image,” proclaimed a GMP statement on 11 February.

“Officers are now seizing the fanzines and in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service we will take appropriate action against anyone either found selling this particular fanzine or provocatively displaying the image in public.”

The force’s action proved to be a red herring though, with the CPS – the body that decides whether criminal charges are to be filed in any case – rejecting the opportunity to prosecute despite GMP’s crass pre-judgement.

“I have decided that no further action will be taken in relation to allegations surrounding the publication and distribution of the Red Issue fanzine at Old Trafford football ground on February 11 2012,” said Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West on Saturday.

“During the investigation into the matter by Greater Manchester Police, the issue of potential incitement to racial hatred was raised. As a result, I consulted the CPS’s Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division, who are responsible for advising on suspected cases of incitement.

“Following this consultation, I have received advice from a senior lawyer in that division that, although the fanzine distributed may have been offensive to some people, there was insufficient evidence to prove that the content was intended to stir up racial hatred, or that it was or likely to do so.

“I have therefore concluded there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for incitement to racial hatred against any person. It is not a crime to possess material that is threatening, abusive or insulting, or hold views which others may find unpleasant and obnoxious. It is a crime to distribute this sort of material to the public, if it is intended to stir up racial hatred, or in circumstances where it is likely to have that effect.”

Larger questions of whether GMP had the legal, let alone moral, right to silence Red Issue will now be asked. The CPS statement is a clear indicator that there was never enough, or in fact any, evidence that Red Issues’ joke intended to incite racial hatred, despite GMP’s position.

It is now relevant to ask how and why the decision to seize thousands of fanzines was ever made. After all, there is no confirmation that any complaint was made to police, and – apparently – no arrests were actually made on the day. Moreover, the service appears to have badly misjudged both the tone of Red Issues’ back page and its intended target.

Could a joke that aimed to ridicule the racist attitude of others ever, in turn, incite racial hatred itself?

GMP’s decision to seize fanzines appears to have been made without consultation, unilaterally, and largely on the instruction of a single superintendent. It was, surely, crude censorship of the most blatant kind, and has proven to be a dreadful own goal, with widespread condemnation of the service’s actions.

There is no word yet what, if any, action Red Issue will take now that the threat of prosecution is removed. The fanzine and its editors are legally clear, but the knock-on commercial effect to the publication and its suppliers may well be lasting.

Reprints of the fanzine were made prior to United’s fixture with Ajax last Thursday night, and a widespread internet campaign was launched by supporters on social networks. But questions will surely now be asked whether police interference in a private operation was justifiable.

Indeed, whether fans enjoy reading the magazine or not – found the joke at hand funny or not – condemnation of unilateral censorship is surely the only appropriate response. After all, Red Issues’ joke probably offended many – least of all the Liverpool supporters it was aimed at. That, surely, is the beauty of free speech; the freedom to offend liberally, without fear of state reprisal.

In that the GMP significantly overstepped the mark – the CPS’ decision not to prosecute underlines the mistake made by Manchester’s men in blue. Uniforms, not kits, that is.

Rant Cast 102 – back of the net grrrrrrrr

February 24, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 12 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast we look back at Manchester United’s defeat to, but victory over, Ajax in the Europa League at Old Trafford on Thursday night. The Reds will now meet Athletic Bilbao in the round of 16 after the Spaniards’ away goals win over Lokomotiv Moscow at the same stage. We ask what Paul Pogba’s omission from the squad means for the youngster’s future.

We preview United’s visit to Norfolk this Sunday to play Norwich City for the first time since since a 2-0 loss in April 2005. Can Sir Alex Ferguson’s side maintain its Premier League challenge against Paul Lambert’s high flying Canaries?

We ponder Ferguson – what kind of role should the legendary United manager have post retirement and what affect will he have on the new man, and who should that new man be? And, finally, we talk football finance after United published half year results.

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!

Rooney out for Ajax return as Pogba waits in wings

February 22, 2012 Tags: , Matches 111 comments

Manchester United takes a two goal advantage into Thursday’s Europa League tie with Ajax at Old Trafford – a lead that Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to exploit by rotating his playing resources for the round of 32 tie. The United manager, Wednesday, took the unusual step of naming half his team for the game with the Dutch giants as Ferguson looks to ensure his men are fit and fresh for the Premier League matches to come. United faces Norwich City at Carrow Road less than 60 hours after concluding the tie with Ajax.

Changing up the United team is, of course, par for the course, for Ferguson, in Europe this season. Indeed, it is a factor many supporters point to in United’s failure to beat Benfica and FC Basel at Old Trafford in the autumn. Damaging draws with the pair at home left United in third place and out of the Champions League.

More pertinent is the sense that English teams, including United, have regressed this season. But, says the United manager, failure is not down to decline in his team, but to a temporary ‘blip’ in form. Some may question the logic, the day after United’s accounts showed that £225 million has been spent on debt buy back and interest payments in the past two years.

“Success in Europe can sometimes go in cycles,” Ferguson argued on Wednesday.

“Spain had a great cycle about 10 years ago when Valencia, Deportivo la Coruna, Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all dominant. We’ve had a great cycle in the Premier League for the eight years with teams getting to semi-finals and finals. I don’t see that subsiding. I think the English teams will continue to be dominant.

“We’ve had a bad year this year — United have in particular — but with Arsenal and Chelsea, disappointing results though they’ve had, both clubs have had injury problems and you cannot expect them to get the best results without their best teams. It has maybe been a disappointing season, but to my mind, it’s not definite that we’re on the slide.”

Meanwhile, the Scot will be without key striker Wayne Rooney, who has missed much of United’s preparation this week with a sore throat. The striker could return for United’s visit to Norwich City on Sunday. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia, along with long-term injured Nemanja Vidi&cacute, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Owen, miss out on Ajax’ first visit to Old Trafford since 1976.

Tom Cleverley, who is certain to start, may play his first 90 minutes since September as the 22-year-old midfielder continues his recovered from ankle injury. Meanwhile, Ferguson name-checked teenager Paul Pogba in his pre-match press conference, although the French midfielder is unlikely to start at Old Trafford. Pogba is subject of ongoing contract speculation, with Ferguson now using Rio Ferdinand as a conduit into the 18-year-old midfielder.

“Wayne is out tomorrow,” confirmed Ferguson.

“He has a really bad throat. There were traces of it in Amsterdam and we gave him some medication but it got worse. He has been in bed over the weekend and came in today for the first time and we are trying hard to get him right for Sunday.

“It is possible we could give Pogba a run-out. It depends because there are a lot of players who need a game; Nani, Young, Hernandez, Cleverley, Smalling, Jones. Those players will all play tomorrow and we hope to put a sprinkling of experience amongst it.

“Hopefully Tom will play a full game tomorrow. He’s back and it’s good to have him back. He gives us more ammunition in the midfield area, which was an area some people were worried about. Anderson’s back training with the first-team now as well.”

The Dutch side, comfortably beaten by United in Amsterdam last week, emerged victorious over NEC Nijmegen at the weekend – a 4-1 victory that brought merciful relief to a club that has suffered both on and off the pitch this season. Ajax scored three inside half an hour, with Dmitry Bulykin, unimpressive against United, hitting a brace. It is a result that will offer Frank de Boer’s troops at least some hope of turning the tie with United around on Thursday night.

Manchester United versus Ajax, Europa League, Old Trafford, 23 February 2012For United, the fixture represents another opportunity to progress from an injury crisis that at times has claimed 11 names this season. With Anderson also back in training, Ferguson’s squad is at its most complete since the opening fixture of the season.

Meanwhile for key midfielder Cleverley the game represents another step on the road to full recovery in a frustrating season. Cleverley forced his way into both the United and England sides at the beginning of the season, only to be struck with the third serious – and long-term – injury of a short career.

“It’s good to be back,” said Cleverley on Wednesday, whose return to fitness comes at an opportune time for both club and country.

“It’s massively frustrating to be out for that length of time but I’m back now I’m fresh, I’m 100 percent and looking forward to the end of the season. I’m just working hard, trying to keep fit and I’m excited for the end of the season. I’m just concentrating on tomorrow night and then Sunday, for my club. If I can get into some good form between now and the end of the season, I’d be more than happy to be involved in the European Championship this summer.”

Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to rest 37-year-old Paul Scholes, although Ryan Giggs may come back into contention for his 900th United appearance after sitting out the first leg in Amsterdam.

“Being in the Premier League as long as he has and having achieved what he has, I don’t think any other player will do that,” the United manager added of Giggs’ longevity.

“It’s amazing. When you look back to [the 2008 Champions League Final in] Moscow when he beat Bobby Charlton’s [appearance] record that night, you are talking about almost 100 games since then. It’s phenomenal. He keeps defying his age and this season he has just been the same as he was back in Moscow. His performance level, then to today, nothing has changed. He’s just amazing.”

Meanwhile, de Boer’s side arrives in better form than of late, yet boasting a record of three defeats in the past six matches. de Boer will be without Danish youngster Nicolai Boilesen, who suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury in the first leg. Theo Janssen and Bulykin are also doubts for the Europa League encounter.

However, de Boer can take positives from the way Ajax restricted United during the first half last week – a performance that drew criticism of his own side from Ferguson – and praise from the Dutch coach.

“The first half was played exactly how we want to see it,” said de Boer.

“Our organisation was good and we put pressure at the right moments. Of course United posed threats, but we had a good Kenneth Vermeer to answer them. We need to be realistic for the return – we’re going for 0-3! It will be a match to build some experience with. We’ll play our own game and not dig our heels in.

“We are not here just to see the scenery and we will see after the game what the result is. We will try to make life difficult for United – overall, it is a great opportunity for our players to play this game. There were some positives from the match in Holland and we want to repeat those things here.”

It could make for an open and attractive encounter.

Match facts
Manchester United versus Ajax, Europa League, Old Trafford, Thursday 23 February 2012, 8.05pm.

Possible teams
Ajax (4-3-3): Vermeer; Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Anita, Koppers; Aissati, Eriksen, S. De Jong; Lodeiro, Özbiliz, Sulejmani. Subs from: Enoh, Blind, Cillessen, Ebicilio, Lukoki, Van Rhijn, Denswil, Veltman, Klaassen, Ligeon.

United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Rafael, Fryers, Ferdinand, Park, Pogba, Berbatov.

Form
Ajax: DLLWLW
United: WLWDWW

Officials
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovakia)
Assistant referees: Primož Arhar, Matej Žunič
Additional assistant referees: Matej Jug, Slavko Vinčić

The Ronaldo Money

February 21, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 72 comments

Look behind the headlines – you know, the spin-driven articles pronouncing yet another quarter of glorious revenue growth – and Manchester United’s Q2/H1 financial statement once again paints a gaudy picture of the Glazer family’s ownership. It is a picture of a still heavily indebted club spending its profits buying back debt at an inflated prices, while struggling to compete in an increasingly hostile market.

United’s is a story of unfettered waste – millions lost on financing costs, interest and debt repayments; money that could otherwise have been spent in the transfer market, or on reducing ticket prices. It is an account of a club sprinting to stand still; an institution squeezing every last dime out of the market simply to keep the wolves at bay.

The good, the only news United releases and far too many media outlets lap up without question, is that revenues continue to rise – up to £175 million for the past six months, from £156.5 million a year ago – driven largely by increasing in media and commercial income, including the new training kit deal with DHL.

Elsewhere the picture is far from rosy. Operating costs rose to £110 million for the six months, from £96.9 million, as the club struggles to keep wages under control despite multiple summer departures. Wages increased by 17.3 per cent year-on-year, to £38 million during the final quarter of 2011.

Then there is the huge reduction in available cash, down from £150.6 million to £50.9 million, after a net £47 million spend on transfers last summer and further bond buy back.

Indeed, United has now spent more than £90 million on buying back bond debt since launching the £500 million notes in January 2010. That’s the infamous ‘Ronaldo Money’ and more. Season ticket sales this summer will bolster Old Trafford’s coffers, but history says that income may well be used to buy back bonds on the market.

The absurdity of the Glazers’ financial engineering is only truly understood when viewed in the full context of the Glazer family’s time in charge. Bought with debt, the family first loaded millions on to the clubs accounts, only to swap bank debt for – significantly more expensive – bonds in 2010. Now the family is embarking on a campaign to reduce bond debt, buying them back at a premium over the issue price using cash in the club’s bank account.

“Manchester United revenues continue to grow strongly although costs are increasing just as quickly so pretty much negating that growth,” said the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust.

“However the key figures of interest to supporters show the Glazers have now spent every penny of the money received from the sale of Ronaldo, and more. That’s now £92.8 million spent on buying back their own bond debt that they loaded onto our club. So statements at the time that all of the Ronaldo money would be made available for reinvestment were clearly just spin.

“Since the sale of Ronaldo net transfers have totalled just £90 million while they have taken out of the club £225 million to cover their debt payments and interest. What could the club have done with that extra £225m? Cheaper tickets for loyal fans, investing massively in the squad and stadium, developing and retaining the best youth players, competing on an equal basis with the very best teams in Europe. This is the true cost to Manchester United of the Glazers ownership.”

Yet, anger among the United fan base has waned, with too many happy to bury their collective heads in the sand and deny that any of the fundamentals underpinning United are in ill health. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson continues to work miracles even with his hands firmly tied behind his back. Almost inconceivably, United is still in the Premier League title race despite Manchester City’s vast sovereign wealth.

There is no talk about the ‘Ronaldo Money’ now of course – not with it having been spent largely on debt buy-back. Meanwhile, the new signings offer varying degrees of Sir Alex’ favourite quality: value.

But fans should be angry about the close to £500 million squandered by the Glazer regime since 2005, let alone the two hundred million since Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid in summer 2009.

Indeed, buried inside Old Trafford’s second quarter report, under the headline “Further development of the playing squad,” is the telling line: “New contract signed with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes re-joins the playing staff.” Much as those two legends remain a joy to watch, how Sir Alex must look with envious eyes at the midfield riches across town.

Yet, there is little sense in which United is still competing, as MUST might put it, on a equal basis with the continent’s finest. Financial Fair Play is yet to fully bite, but few expect the Reds to play at the top of the market come the summer. Indeed, word on the street suggests quite the opposite, especially with the Glazers’ long mooted IPO on permanent hiatus.

Moreover, with United out of the Champions League, and knocked out early in both FA and Carling Cups, headline revenue growth is likely to stall. Football remains a lumpy business no matter the club’s urgent efforts to drive income away from the staple of playing matches and selling television rights. United may lose, or rather, not profit, to the tune of £3 million per round in prize money alone from competing in the Europa League. Extra games are unlikely to make up the shortfall.

There is little cushion now either, with the stockpile of cash gained from Ronaldo’s sale and AON’s pre-payment on a four year shirt sponsorship deal, back to historical levels. This alone may indicate Ferguson’s priorities in the coming summer – a break in which ‘value’ is unlikely to be seen and Ronaldo may well star at Euro 2012.

Shadow looms large as Fergie eyes future role

February 20, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 13 comments

There is little news in Sir Alex Ferguson’s admission on Monday that he intends to stay “two or three more years” as Manchester United manager. Ferguson, on a rolling contract, has long since given up setting a deadline for retirement, with manager and Old Trafford hierarchy content with the current arrangement. But Ferguson’s assertion – in a BBC radio interview with Liverpool-supporting DJ Spoony – that a role will be waiting for him at Old Trafford, once the 70-year-old steps down, recalls memories of the disastrous transition from Sir Matt Busby to Wilf McGuinness and then Frank O’Farrell in the early 1970s.

The smart money is now on Ferguson stepping down in 2013, even if the heavy smoke signals point towards a year thence. After all, nobody in the Old Trafford boardroom wants a repeat of 2002, when Ferguson’s squad took its collective foot off the gas after the United manager had announced his impending retirement that January. This time Ferguson’s departure will come as far ‘out of the blue’ as the Scot and chief executive David Gill can manage in a world of 24 hour rolling news.

While, a move upstairs into an ambassadorial role, or something further up the executive food-chain, is not contradictory to previous Ferguson assertions, the precise role requires close definition. After all, while Ferguson’s wealth of knowledge is unsurpassed, his shadow will loom large for whomever becomes the Scot’s replacement in the Old Trafford dugout. Yet, in Monday’s BBC interview Ferguson promises to remain “active” in a role reserve for him by United post retirement. Quite how active may determine his successor’s success – or failure.

“I will remain active,” Ferguson told Spoony.

“I think there will be a role at United after I finish, obviously. I don’t know how long it’s going to last now, but if my health holds up I don’t see another two or three years would harm me. I think you need stamina in my job and I think I’ve been blessed with good stamina. I’ll know when it’s time when I’m not enjoying it. I think if I got to a point where I’m not enjoying it, I would definitely get out. I think you always want to go out on a winning note and hopefully we can do that.

“Players ask how long I’ll be around. They all do that or their agent asks the chief executive, David Gill. That becomes more difficult the longer it goes on, of course. I answer it the way David answers it and he says I have no intention of retiring at the moment, therefore it’s not a question we can answer because we don’t know.”

But transition will come and there is, of course, a clear lesson in United’s failure to manage the transition away from Sir Matt. McGuinness’ short tenure as United Head Coach was doomed from the start, with Busby retaining an Old Trafford office as General Manager, and the players looking to the long-time United boss for leadership, rather than the inexperienced 31-year-old. Busby’s return for 21 games in the second half of 1970-71 simply underlined that ‘Old Man’ had not fully stepped down.

Worse was to come, with new recruit O’Farrell seemingly undermined from the start of his appointment as manager in 1971. Busby had led negotiations with the then Leicester City manager, setting the tone for a relationship not bourne of equality. While O’Farrell removed Busby from the Old Trafford manager’s office, he would later complain that his predecessor repeatedly interfered in team matters.

“He was always about somewhere where the players could find him,” O’Farrell complained in a recent Daily Mail interview.

“After one game, he told me I shouldn’t have dropped Bobby Charlton. Obviously he said the same to Charlton, because the player was moping round the place. Another time he told me Martin Buchan was responsible for letting in all these goals, when it clearly wasn’t his fault. He was interfering.

“Alex will leave the club in a much better place than Busby did. All the basics for continued success will be in place. He’ll make sure of that. If [the new man] wins, everything will be fine. But I can tell him this: the moment he starts losing, then the comparison with Alex will start.”

Few expect Ferguson to actively undermine his successor, but a public facing United role will do that anyway. Any move into the Old Trafford boardroom will ensure that Ferguson’s successor is permanently looking over his shoulder, with a squad of Ferguson’s players questioning the new man’s capacity to lead.

Meanwhile, an ambassadorial position is unlikely to satiate Ferguson’s thirst for a daily football fix. One wonders how a media facing role will suit the 70-year-old Scot, who has spent the best part of 25 years at war with the fourth estate, although cynics might suggest Fergie has spent the past six as an ambassador the Glazer family anyway. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.

Then there is the question of whether Ferguson and his board define the post-Fergie era in the same way. Sir Alex has previously offered mixed messages on his post managerial role, promising in 2007 that he would not “take up a director of football type role” or “have any input on the football side,” and only last year promising to cut himself off from football altogether and “head for the hills and the sunset.”

But if he is to remain with United, Ferguson’s post retirement role will also be largely defined by whomever Gill and the Glazers appoint. José Mourinho, for example, is not universally supported in the Old Trafford boardroom, but is unlikely to be dissuaded from engaging in Machiavellian tactics if he is not proffered full control. One need only witness the Portuguese’s victorious power struggle with now former Real Madrid Director General Jorge Valdano for evidence.

At the other end of the spectrum, should United appoint a far younger man – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Ryan Giggs, for example – it is hard to envisage Ferguson’s name being far from the players’ minds. Or speed-dial.

In the meantime Mourinho will flutter his eyes towards Old Trafford, while the Scot ponders the future. Friendly as the pair remain, Mourinho is unlikely to accept anything other than Ferguson working in a ceremonial role. The question remains, with the Portuguese odds-on favourite to take over, whether that will be enough for Fergie?

Injury crisis ends as Reds warm to Europa League

February 19, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Manchester United’s victory over Ajax in Amsterdam on Thursday came almost 27 years after the club’s last win in the competition. Defeats to Russian outfits Rotor Volgograd and Torpedo Moscow in the intervening years came as the club increasingly focused on European glory in the continent’s premier competition. Indeed, while the positive messages are to be heard loud and clear from United’s hierarchy about the Europa League this week, there is little escaping the club’s isolation. Kick off at 6pm on a Thursday, in a competition that nobody at Old Trafford really wanted to be involved in, is proof enough of that seclusion, if any is needed.

Perhaps this showed in United’s first half performance at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday; one of such sluggish impotence that Ferguson was moved to angry post match criticism of his side, despite the Reds’ 2-0 win. The Scot’s outfit may well warm to the Europa task as the competition nears its dénouement, with aggregate victory over Ajax now surely assured, but mentally perhaps, this was no easy opening.

“I think the result was better than the performance,” Ferguson admitted, after United scored twice in the second half to put away the crisis stricken Dutch.

“The first half was disappointing. It was difficult to get the rhythm and speed to the game. Ajax made it very difficult for us with their system. They pressed the ball very well. In the second half we had to wake up. We made it difficult for ourselves.

“I just think we didn’t speed up our game enough. I know they pressed the ball very well and left their centre-backs to make most of the progress with the ball, but we needed to play quicker. The second half we improved, made some good opportunities and deserved to win. It’s a good result. You can’t complain too much when you win 2-0 away from home.”

Lack of a trailblazing performance notwithstanding, there were positives for Ferguson’s side, with the manager now able to stretch his European squad at Old Trafford next Thursday night. The Scot will surely call in his squad’s fringe, those players needing minutes and, perhaps, those of a younger persuasion. In a competition that frequently squeezes preparation time for the following weekend’s Premier League fixture, Ferguson will be grateful for an easier ride in the coming week.

Higher on the United manager’s agenda though will be an apparent easing of the Reds’ injury crisis, which at times has seen 11 senior players on the treatment table. Captain Nemanja Vidić and midfielder Darren Fletcher are unlikely to play again this season, despite positive early prognosis for the former. Meanwhile, there is no return in sight for errant Brazilian Anderson, nor Michael Owen.

But the Scot will be delighted to include Ashley Young, Nani, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in his matchday squad on Thursday. Each has played a key role at times this season, but suffered from injury or loss of form in recent months. Young’s goal in an otherwise insipid performance was a bonus. The former Aston Villa man will certainly need to improve on his sharp decline in form before injury struck two months ago. Meanwhile, Nani shanked his first corner behind for a goal kick. It rarely got better from there – far from the Portuguese’s best performance in a Red shirt.

Then there was Jones, who put in another bombastic performance at right-back, adding to Ferguson’s options and – if no further clarity on the subject – to the debate over which of the Scot’s men should be deployed at right-back.

None of this was Thursday’s highlight, although genuinely positive. Indeed, result, returnees and even a Red invasion of Amsterdam’s less than salubrious establishments pale into comparison to Tom Cleverley’s hour in a United shirt. The 22-year-old midfielder has played just 58 minutes since 10 September, but returns as the clichéd ‘new signing’ Ferguson was denied by the Glazer family’s parsimony in the winter transfer window. For this alone, Ferguson could embrace the Europa League in the past week.

Cleverley was safe in his passing, but struggled to impose his game on Ajax’ youthful team. That will come with time, fitness and confidence – and nobody in United’s squad can match the youngster’s pass-and-move midfield style.

“I’m delighted for Tom Cleverley,” said 19-year-old Jones, who completed the full 90 minutes in Amsterdam.

“He’s a terrific talent. We missed him on the pitch while he was out. But I saw him every day in the gym so I know his attitude’s fantastic. He deserved to be out there tonight. Ashley’s also terrific. He’s come back from injury and done really well and I was pleased for him to get our first goal tonight.”

In a season when injuries have seemingly not rained, but poured, bright news would never come without a downside; every silver cloud has a touch of darker lining. Indeed, injury to Antonio Valencia, United’s most dangerous player since the New Year turned, comes as a significant blow to the Reds’ hopes. Injury is likely to keep the Ecuadorian on the sidelines for a month in which United faces not only Ajax, but Tottenham Hotspur and two further European matches.

“He has a hamstring injury unfortunately. It will be four weeks,” Sir Alex confirmed on Thursday.

“It’s a blow to lose Valencia tonight, but bit by bit, we are getting stronger with Nani and Ashley Young coming back. Tom Cleverley has played a bit of football tonight and Phil Jones has played a full game which is good for us. Chris Smalling was on the bench but will play in the return match at Old Trafford next Thursday.”

Those returning players will now face two games against Lokomotiv Moscow or Athletic Bilbao next month, unless Ajax pulls off an unlikely three goal victory at Old Trafford. The Russians’ 2-1 victory in Moscow sets up a tense return in Basque country next week, with Ferguson, his players and United’s supporters likely to place faith in the Spaniards’ ability to turn the tie around.

Assuming United make it through it will be the first time since the Reds beat Dundee United by the odd goal in nine that United has progressed in the Europa League or its predecessor. That result came in December 1984, two years before Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford began. And while the feeling of goodwill about the current incarnation of the tournament currently resides with an opponent’s location, and a lessening injury crisis, more victories such as that last Thursday may turn the remaining doubters around.

Rant Cast 101 – kicking it in the Dam

February 17, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast we look back at Manchester United’s victory over Liverpool in the Premier League, together with all the fall out from the latest twist in the Luis Suárez / Patrice Evra race row. We talk Europa League, and United’s visit to Amsterdam for the comfortable victory over crisis club Ajax.

Regulars Ed and Paul look discuss United’s injury crisis – is there now light at the end of a very long tunnel, with Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Ashley Young returning to Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team.

Finally, we look back at 899 games for Ryan Giggs – the legendary Welshman should make it 900 when Ajax come to Old Trafford for the second leg of the Europa League tie next Thursday.

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

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