Month February 2012

Month February 2012

Dutch master: Arnold Mühren

February 16, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 4 comments
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Ahead of Manchester United’s double-header with Ajax over the coming week, United Rant looks back to a Dutch great who played for both clubs….

If you christen a son Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren then clearly you feel he is destined for great things in life. To be fair Mr. and Mrs. Mühren were not to be disappointed as their son enjoyed a fine career in football.

After beginning his footballing journey in his native Holland, with FC Volendam, Arnold moved to the legendary Ajax academy where the ball becomes a most prized possession and to be wasteful with it is tantamount to sacrilege. Blessed with natural ability that countless England managers of the time would have loved in domestic players, Mühren was a football purist that delighted those lucky enough to observe at close hand.

During Arnold’s first stay at the home of ‘Total Football’ the midfielder picked up a European Cup winner’s medal in 1972/73. After moving to FC Twente in 1974, Mühren was spotted by Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson, who had been become increasingly frustrated with the lack of invention found in British players in the late 1970s. A keen student of the Dutch game, Robson did what his English managerial counterparts failed to consider and snapped up the cultured midfielder for a not insignificant sum of £150,000.

To say that Mühren became a trailblazer for modern day foreign imports is not an understatement. Yes, there had been other imports to the English First Division before the Dutchman was signed by the sleepy Suffolk club in 1978, but few had made the impact of Mühren and his compatriot Frans Thijssen – signed by Ipswich a year later.

I am one of lucky few to witness firsthand experience of Mühren’s time at Ipswich, as my first encounters with live football were at Portman Road in the early 1980s. It was a timewhen Ipswich challenged more traditional powerhouses such as Liverpool and Aston Villa at the top of English football. My first match is vivid in the memory, despite being temporarily blinded in one eye by the cigarette ash of the gentleman sat next to me. I marvelled at the skill of this Dutch duo who swept through the opposition midfield to help augment Ipswich’s place in the higher echelons of the league table.

Although the league championship was beyond the Suffolk minnows, Ipswich achieved the remarkable feat of lifting the UEFA Cup in 1981, beating Dutch club AZ Alkamar in the two-legged final. Manager Robson was smitten with the slightly built left-footed genius he had signed for the club.

“I cannot think of anyone I would rate higher as a professional than Arnold,” said Robson of Mühren.

“No one works harder, and when the match is over, he won’t go out drinking. He goes to bed.”

With the league championship elusive after four years at the club, and his mentor Robson accepting the England management role, Mühren joined Manchester United in 1982. Manager Ron Atkinson was keen to add the flair and guile of the Dutchman to the power and determination of Bryan Robson in the Reds’ midfield. Mühren made his debut against Birmingham City on 28 August ‘82 and went on to score six goals that season, helping United to the final of both domestic cup competitions at Wembley.

The midfielder started the first of those finals – the wonderfully titled Milk Cup – without the injured Robson in the United midfield, but alongside Remi Moses, Ray Wilkins and Steve Coppell. Norman Whiteside emphasised his claim to be the most exciting teenager in European football with the opening strike, turning the vastly more experienced Alan Hansen, only for United to be beaten by Liverpool 2-1. A wonderfully curled effort by Ronnie Whelan in extra time broke United’s hearts in front of a crowd close to 100,000.

Mühren had a far greater impact in the FA Cup final a few months later. Following an exciting 2-2 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, with the south coast club relegated from the top division that season, United crushed the Seagulls in the replay. Robson and Mühren were at the heart of the action, with ‘Captain Marvel’ selflessly foregoing the chance of a rare Cup Final hat-trick in the second half by allowing regular penalty taker Mühren to fire home United’s final goal in a 4-0 victory from the spot.

Victory at Wembley meant the club was back in Europe the following season, competing in the Cup Winners’ Cup, in which United went out at the semi-final stage. Mühren scored four goals in the tournament and was instrumental in the Reds overturning a two goal deficit against Barcelona in the quarter-final. This was no mean feat considering Barça’s was a side containing Diego Maradona and Bernt Schuster. The atmosphere at Old Trafford for the second leg was electric as the Reds progressed against the odds with goals from Robson, twice, and Frank Stapleton. Sadly, this was to be the last glorious European night at the Theatre of Dreams that season as United was eliminated in the semi-final by Juventus.

Mühren’s final season of at United, 1984/85, was blighted by injury and the midfielder made only 12 starts. Mühren’s few appearances that season has been oft cited as a contributing factor to Alan Brazil’s lack of goals as the pair had enjoyed a seemingly telepathic understanding when playing together at Ipswich. In truth Brazil was past his best and susceptible to injury – another example of a big name striker who failed to make the grade at Old Trafford.

Mühren returned to Ajax after failing to regain his place in the United first team in the run-up to the 1985 FA Cup Final. In truth, Mühren’s peak in English football had come under Robson’s tutelage at Portman Road but many United fans will remember with fondness the waif-like figure on the left-flank with magic in his boots.

In 1986/87 Mühren added the Cup Winners Cup to his collection, thus becoming one of few to have won all three UEFA club competitions. Then came the crowning glory of a glittering career with Holland at the 1988 European Championships. Few will forget Marco Van Basten’s wonderful far post volley against the Soviet Union in the final that sealed a 2-0 victory. Many have forgotten that the pinpoint left-footed cross came boot of 37-year-old Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren, thus cementing his place in the folklore of Dutch football.

The goal was a testament to Mühren’s work ethic and clean living, enabling the player to contribute in such a big way at a late stage in his career. Sir Bobby was always a fine judge of talent but even he may have been surprised at the career forged by one of the most influential exports into English football of all time.

Read more from James at Written Offside – writtenoffside.com

Poll: do you care about the Europa League?

February 15, 2012 Tags: , Polls 12 comments

Manchester United kicks off the Europa League campaign against Ajax on Thursday, in what promises to be the glamour tie of the round. With 3,000 United fans heading out to Amsterdam it is a tie for supporters, but having crashed out of the Champions League in December, very much second best for Sir Alex Ferguson’s tie. Yet, with United out of the Carling and FA Cups already, the Europa League represents a realistic shot at silverware this season.

Ferguson claims that United will take the competition seriously, with a strong squad heading out of Manchester on Wednesday morning. But what about the fans… do you care about the Europa League?

Do you care about the Europa League?

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Reds venture into the new for Ajax tie

February 15, 2012 Tags: , Matches 67 comments

Manchester United makes an appearance in Europe’s second tier competition for the first time since losing to Rotor Volograd in September 1995. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has not missed a Champions League campaign since Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel scored in the 2-2 draw with the Russian outfit at Old Trafford. The draw, in the then UEFA Cup, sent United tumbling out at the first round stage on away goals.

Ferguson’s team returns to the now revamped Europa League having suffered a truly dreadful Champions League group campaign. Whether an issue of complacency, injuries or Ferguson’s side simply not being good enough, the Scot’s side is now firmly relegated to Europe, division two following defeat to FC Basel in Switzerland before Christmas.

Yet, Ajax versus United is the glamour tie of the round – one that, on paper at least, should be taking place in the continent’s premier tournament. Adding to the intrigue, the clubs have not met at any competitive level since 1976, although United has played in pre-season tournaments at the Amsterdam ArenA. It is a venue that Wayne Rooney will not recall with any fondness after seeing red on his last visit.

United won that 1976 tie 2-1 on aggregate, with Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy scoring the goals at Old Trafford to take the Reds through. United would lose, heavily, to Juventus in round two.

Ajax versus Manchester United, Europa League, Amsterdam ArenA, 16 February 2012Meanwhile, the modern United squad travels without long-term injured Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Owen. Anders Lindegaard, whose ankle injury may be worse that originally thought, is also left behind in Manchester, as are Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, who are rested, and Dimitar Berbatov, who has a minor knock.

“Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov are injured,” said Ferguson.

“We rested Patrice Evra. It was an emotional weekend for him so I think this is the right thing to do. It’s a strong squad we’ve got here. Ryan got a knock in the first half against Liverpool on the ankle and Dimitar got an injury in training on Sunday.

“It’s better to leave [Berbatov] behind. It’s not a serious injury – he’d be available if I asked him to play – but I thought it better not to risk it, so I left him behind.”

However, Ferguson has brighter injury news more generally, with Tom Cleverley back in the squad following three months out. The 22-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute against Liverpool in the Premier League last weekend, but could make an appearance for the first time since October in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Ashley Young, Nani, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all back into the squad to face the Dutch giants.

It all makes for a far stronger squad than some feared – or, indeed, hoped for – travelling the short distance to Amsterdam. Indeed, Ezekiel Fryers and Paul Pogba are the only regular reserve team players in Ferguson’s squad, with United not facing a Premier League fixture at the weekend. Whether Ferguson deploys more reserves in a week’s time, with Norwich City to follow less than three days later, is an open question.

“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” claimed Ferguson on Monday.

“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.

“Winning any European trophy is significant. Irrespective of those who have won the three trophies before it is important for us, with our own history, to win tournaments all the time. We threw it away in our home game against Basel and were unlucky against Benfica. That caught us short and we suffered for it.

“Now players are coming back I am sure we can combine the Premier League and Europa League so I would certainly try to play my strongest team in each round now.”

Ferguson may bring Young and Nani back for the game, although the 70-year-old is unlikely to make wholesale changes in the away leg from the side that beat Liverpool on Saturday. Mexican striker Javier Hernández could start after spending much of the campaign injured or sat on the bench. Danny Welbeck’s form, in addition to head and angle problems have made for a difficult second campaign at Old Trafford.

Yet, Hernández’ unselfish commitment to the cause ensures that the 23-year-old remains in Ferguson’s thoughts for the Premier and Europa League campaigns despite Welbeck’s rise. Although Rooney is likely to start in Amsterdam, Hernández and Welbeck could be paired together for the return leg next Thursday.

“Both teams have come out of the Champions League and they both have a great history,” said Hernández.

“We have won a lot of European Cups between us, so it will be a very interesting game. We need to get used to the fact we are not in the Champions League this season. And the history of Manchester United is such that it doesn’t matter which competition you are in, we want to win it, no matter who else is in it, or whether it is an important trophy for other teams.”

“It [the Mexican’s second season] has been a little bit frustrating because I have been injured a lot. But there are some things you can’t do anything about. I am happy and I am still enjoying it. It is a privilege to play for Manchester United, whether things are going good or bad, I want to keep that attitude.”

“Danny Welbeck is a brilliant player. He is only young but he went to Sunderland and did great things there. Then he came back here and has been unbelievable. That doesn’t upset me, competition is normal at a club like this. You need to be at your best to help the team. That is the most important thing.”

Meanwhile, Ajax is a club and squad in crisis. On the pitch the team, under Frank de Boer’s management, continues to struggle in the Eredivisie, currently lying sixth and out of contention for a Champions League place next season. In the boardroom more than 18 months of wrangling between Johan Cruyff and the club’s council has concluded, temporarily one suspects, with Louis van Gaal being removed as CEO. The argument surrounds Cruyff’s call to employ former club legends such as Wim Jonk to revitalise Ajax’ one-famed youth academy.

Ajax, based on the youthful ‘total football’ approach, has won all three of Europe’s club trophies –  it is a feat that United cannot match, with the Reds never having emerged victorious in the current tournament. However, the hosts do not boast an enviable record against English opponents in recent yeras. The Amsterdam-based club has not won in seven matches against English opposition, with a record now reading three draws, four defeats since victory against Nottingham Forest in the 1980/81 European Cup semi-final.

Despite the malaise in Amsterdam, the current Ajax generation does offer some talent, with all eyes on Danish teenager Christian Eriksen, along with sought-after defender Jan Vertonghen, and forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson.

“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” said Ferguson on Monday.

“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”

United scouts have watched 19-year-old Eriksen this season, but whether the club is interested, let alone can afford, to make a summer bid is as yet untested. After all, while Ferguson believes United is “not far away” from Barcelona’s standard on the pitch, Spanish clubs’ finances are an altogether different sport. United slipped further behind the Spanish giants in Deloitte’s, albeit flawed, ‘money league’ this year. The reduced income on offer in the Europa League will not help close that gap.

Match facts
Ajax versus Manchester United, Europa League, Amsterdam ArenA, Thursday 16 February 2012, 6pm.

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

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Fabio; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Jones, Fryers, Nani, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Welbeck.

Form
Ajax: WLDLLW
United: WWLWDW

Officials
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
Assistant referees: Andrea Stefani, Gianluca Cariolato
Additional assistants: Christian Brighi, Gabriele Gava
Fourth official: Andrea Gervasoni

Giggs: a career in numbers

February 14, 2012 Tags: Media 12 comments

Ryan Giggs will make his 900th appearance for Manchester United if he is selected to face Ajax in the Europa League on Thursday night. Spanning 22 seasons, Giggs’ United career has brought 33 major trophies, 162 goals and countless personal honours. Including his caps for Wales, Giggs could pass 1,000 career games before retirement.

(right-click ‘open new tab’ for the full sized graphic)

Ryan Giggs Infographic

Europa League starts here

February 13, 2012 Tags: Opinion 19 comments

Manchester United ventures into new territory this week in a competition that nobody at the club, from owners, to fans via the manager, actually wants to take part in. But the Reds will break new ground nonetheless in the Europa League, featuring in the tournament for the first time since its revamp. Adding to the intrigue this week, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will play Dutch giants Ajax for the first time, in a competitive fixture, during Ferguson’s reign when the sides meet at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday.

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

Twice UEFA has reorganised the competition in the past decade, eliminating the Cup Winners’ Cup and two-legged final, and then adding extra rounds and a group stage. The Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. To win the tournament, United will play nine fixtures, while Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches.

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

Should United win, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest, the club will earn less than half a similar run in the Champions League would bring. It goes without saying that television, and its accompanying money, requires the most attractive games and biggest stars.

Meanwhile, fans’ excitement broadly matches those of the broadcasters; it’s a fact recognised by United, with the club reducing members’ ticket prices and eliminating the much-despised automatic cup ticket scheme for the competition. Those travelling to Amsterdam this week do so with the city’s many other forms of entertainment in mind, in addition to the football on offer. Those stuck at home on Thursday will enjoy Channel 5’s coverage, with kick off at 6pm.

Unusual teams and times are an unfortunate reflection of the European company United now keeps.

And then there is the question of whether Ferguson will take the competition seriously. After all, while the manager has already stated his intention to win the tournament, the Scot will certainly not pursue that goal at the expense of Premier League glory.

“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” said Sir Alex said on Monday.

“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard.

“I think it’s amazing that, in the 55 years we’ve been involved in Europe, we’ve never played Ajax. When you think of all the draws that have been made, the quarter-finals and the groups, we’ve never drawn them. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.”

The United coach may change his story when Ajax arrive in Manchester in 10 days time, just 60 hours before the Reds play Norwich City in the Premier League. Indeed, those close to Ferguson’s coaching team readily admit that United will ‘experiment’ in the tournament. The Reds’ 38 man squad includes a large number of youngsters and fringe players, many of which may see action if United progress.

Moreover, in Ajax United is facing a European giant now stripped of its potency. While the Dutch club has never possessed the financial clout to compete with the continent’s best, the famed youth academy once produced a string of talent. This is no longer the case, with Ajax’ finest plundered at an ever more youthful age.

Then there is the boardroom strife that has seen two former greats at loggerheads over the club’s administration. Johan Cruyff was successful last week in having Louis van Gaal removed as Ajax’ ceo, after claiming in court that the former Bayern Munich coach was appointed without his consent. Cruyff and van Gaal have clashed, among other issues, over Ajax’ youth academy, with the former seeking to appoint a clique of retired club greats such as Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk.

On the pitch Ajax, under Frank De Boer’s management, has slipped to sixth in the Eredivisie in what is fast becoming a disastrous campaign. Mind you, the Dutch club was hugely unfortunate to lose out on qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League following Olympique Lyonnais’ 7-1 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the final group match.

Yet, the side still contains some talent, including the sought after defender Jan Vertonghen, forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Danish teenager Christian Eriksen. Indeed, the latter is a player watched by United’s scouts, along with those from many major European clubs. The bidding in the summer is likely to rise far beyond a fee that United is prepared to pay – at least before the Glazer family’s long-mooted IPO is launched.

“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” Ferguson added.

“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”

Ajax has nobody of Cruyff or even Krol’s talent today. But then again neither, arguably, does United. Welcome to Europe, division two.

United Europa League Squad

Ferguson’s squad includes 13 names on ‘Player list B’, which is those players under 21 and having trained with the team for at least three years.

Goalkeepers: David De Gea, Tomasz Kuszczak, Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos*, Sam Johnstone*.

Defenders: Patrice Evra, Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić, Fábio da Silva*, Rafael da Silva*, Ritchie De Laet, Marnick Vermijl, Michael Keane*, Sean McGinty*, Ezekiel Fryers*.

Midfielders: Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Ji-sung Park, Michael Carrick, Nani, Ashley Young, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba*, Mathew James*, Davide Petrucci*, Larnell Cole*.

Forwards: Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck*, Will Keane*.

* Player is on list B.

Draw – Round of 32

Porto v Manchester City
Ajax v UNITED
Lokomotiv Moscow v Athletic Bilbao
Salzburg v Metalist Kharkiv
Stoke City v Valencia
Rubin Kazan v Olympiakos
AZ Alkmaar v Anderlecht
Lazio v Atlético de Madrid
Steaua Bucharest s Twente Enschede
Wisla Krakow v Standard de Liege
Viktoria Plzen v Schalke
Braga v Beşiktaş
Udinese v PAOK
Trabzonspor v PSV
Hannover 96 v Club Brugge
Legia Warsaw v Sporting CP

Draw – Round of 16

Salzburg/Metalist Kharkiv vs Rubin/Olympiakos
Legia Warsaw/Sporting vs Porto/Man City
Steaua/Twente vs Plzen/Schalke
Wisla/Standard de Liege vs Hannover/Club Brugge
Stoke/Valencia vs Trabzonspor/PSV
AZ Alkmaar/ Anderlecht vs Udinese/PAOK
Lazio/Atletico vs Braga/Beşiktaş
Ajax/UNITED vs Lokomotiv/Athletic Bilbao

Suárez and police fail to ruin Evra’s day

February 11, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 71 comments

The day began with the Greater Manchester Police confiscating copies of Red Issue outside Old Trafford, and ended with Sir Alex Ferguson finally coming out fighting on the issue of racism. In between Patrice Evra wildly celebrated a Manchester United victory in front of the Stretford End, while Luis Suárez and Kenny Dalglish brought further embarrassment to their club. Just your average United versus Liverpool clash, then.

Barely two weeks on from the disgraceful scenes at Anfield, where 40,000 Liverpudlians sought to set race relations back a generation by victimising Patrice Evra, United exacted a modicum of revenge in Manchester. United won comfortably enough, but there was far more to this occasion than the odd goal in three. Set in the context of Suárez culpability over racially abusing Evra last October, the clash sparked into life before a ball had even been kicked when the Uruguayan refused the United captain’s pre-match handshake. The striker’s snub ensured a testy encounter, with players on both sides confronting each other in the tunnel at half-time, and then again at the final whistle.

But tensions were raised long before the players entered the field, with the GMP confiscating copies of Red Issue, t-shirts mocking Suárez, and arresting supporters selling the fanzine pre-match. The crime? Including a satirical, albeit tasteless, picture of a Klu Klux Klan hood on the back cover, with the words “Suarez is innocent” emboldened in red. So much for freedom of speech, then.

GMP accused the long-running fanzine of ‘inciting racial hatred’ in what is surely a massive over-reaction against an image that sought to mock Liverpool’s lack of action over racism. Inside the stadium fans reported that both fanzines and t-shirts were confiscated by stewards, although when contacted by Rant, the club insisted that it had not asked the police to seize the fanzines.

“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,” said Chief Superintendent Mark Roberts.

“I have taken this cause of action as both items are potentially offensive and we cannot be in a situation where hundreds or thousands of people were displaying offensive images at a football match. The consequences of taking no action could have resulted in public order incidents inside or outside the ground.”

Sadly police took no action against the deeply offensive image of Suárez lauding it inside Old Trafford, or for that matter, broadcast to millions via television.

Tensions were further increased before kick off when Liverpool’s star striker refused to shake Evra’s hand, resulting in an frustrated reaction from the Frenchman, and a counter snub from Rio Ferdinand. Suárez’ refusal came after Liverpool manager Dalglish had promised, on Thursday, that the matter was now behind his errant player and a handshake would take place.

Indeed, the Uruguayan’s deliberate provocation almost brought dividends for the visitors, with Evra flying into a tackle with the striker barely 30 seconds into the game. Referee Dowd was saved a difficult decision when the Frenchman flipped Ferdinand on his heading, missing Suárez in the process. Had the striker’s pre-match snub been as apparent to fans inside the stadium, as it was to those watching on TV, anger may well have spilled over from the pitch and into the stands.

To those watching the Uruguayan’s actions were little more than a premeditated act of insensitivity – another in a long line of indelibly offensive behaviour by the striker. It is also likely to backfire; an act so immature that even Dalglish’s one-eye defiance can hold no water. One wonders what Liverpool owner John Henry, still silent after all these months, must be thinking over in Boston.

“I could not believe it, I just could not believe it,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“We had a chat this morning and Patrice said: ‘I’m going to shake his hand, I have nothing to be ashamed of, I’m going to keep my dignity.’ And he [Suárez] refuses. He’s a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club, that certain player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again.

“The history that club’s got and he does that and in a situation like today could have caused a riot. I was really disappointed in that guy, it was terrible what he did. It created a tension, you’ve seen the referee didn’t know what to do about it. It was a terrible start to the game, a terrible atmosphere it created.

“We’ve got to get our house in order in terms of fighting racism. It’s an important issue in this country. Football’s come a long way from the days of John Barnes when they were throwing bananas at him to where we are today. We can’t go back. We have to go forward in a positive way and ban it altogether.”

By half-time opposing players were at each others’ throats as Evra sought to confront Suárez, and those on both sides engaged in what Sky Sports euphemistically called “shenanigans” – it could have been a lot more serious than a few minutes of pushing in the Old Trafford tunnel.

Meanwhile, in the studio Gary Neville and Darren Fletcher clashed with Jamie Redknapp. The former Liverpool player placed blame for the incident on the Football Association’s insistence that the normal pre-match routine take place, while Neville called the striker’s snub “embarrassing”.

Then came the moment United fans hoped for as Wayne Rooney scored twice within five minutes of the re-start to put the Reds in control and top of the Premier League table. With no little drama Suárez bundled in a goal for the visitors, but anything less than victory would have been an injustice for the hosts in a match that United thoroughly dominated.

Once again football seemed the back-drop to a bigger story though. Evra’s joyous victory celebration in front of the Stretford End was just yards from Suárez as the Uruguayan trudged off the pitch, head hung low. Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel were only prevented from confronting the United captain by the rapid intervention of referee Dowd.

Over to Kenny for an apology? Not likely, as Dalglish once again failed to confront the issue of racism, instead blaming the media for increasing the tension surrounding the match. Laughably, the Liverpool manager also pretended that he was unaware of Suárez’ non-handshake. It is, seemingly, never Liverpool’s fault.

“I never knew he never shook his hand,” claimed the increasingly befuddled Dalglish.

“I’ll take your word for it. But I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I never saw it. That is contrary to what I was told. I think you are very severe and are bang out of order to blame Luis Suárez for anything that happened here today. You know something else, when we had the FA Cup tie, because there wasn’t a 24-hour news channel in the build-up to the game, nothing like this happened.”

The striker continued in a similar vein, taking to Twitter to claim that “everything is not as it seems.” Noises coming from the Liverpool dressing room, leaked via the media, suggested that Suárez had not rejected Evra’s hand, but that the Frenchman had withdrawn the offer. There has been a long-line of ludicrous statements emanating from Anfield since October, but this one surely tops them all. It is not, seemingly, ever Liverpool’s fault.

Meanwhile, at GMP headquarters the police continue to hold more than 1,600 copies of Red Issue as “evidence” of a potential offence under the Race Act. It was a day in which football leapt from myopic denial, to the police state, all in one short afternoon.

Red Issue back page

Red Issue back page, via @andersred

Cleverley returns for Liverpool tie

February 10, 2012 Tags: , Matches 105 comments

Tom Cleverley returns to the Manchester United squad as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side takes on Liverpool for the third time this season. United face the Merseysiders just a fortnight after losing in an FA Cup fourth round tie at Anfield, but midfielder Cleverley’s return provides a timely boost in United’s pursuit of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. Cleverley has not featured since October, and not completed a match since the Reds beat Arsenal 8-2 in August, but is likely to make the bench for the Saturday lunchtime tie at Old Trafford.

England international Cleverley adds additional midfield creativity to a United side that came back from three goals down at Stamford Bridge last weekend, but slipped two points behind City in the title race. Ferguson will also be able to call upon defender Chris Smalling, but Phil Jones is unlikely to feature until next week’s Europa League fixture against Ajax.

But United appears to have come through one of the worst injury crisis during Ferguson’s 25 year tenure at Old Trafford, with up to 11 players missing at any one time through the autumn and winter. Indeed, winger Nani remains on the sidelines, while the long-term injured, including Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić will not feature.

“Tom’s training well. We were disappointed the Chelsea Reserves game was called off on Monday,” said Ferguson on Friday.

“The plan was for him to stay over with us [after last Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge] and play in the game on the Monday. That was called off. But he’s trained very well and he’ll be involved tomorrow.

“There’s not much change on the injury front for us. I think Smalling could be available, but all the rest is as it was last Sunday. Phil Jones got a knock against Manchester City, which he never quite recovered from. He’ll be fit for next week. He’ll be fit for the Ajax game.”

Manchester United versus Liverpool, Premier League, Old Trafford, 11 February 2012, 12.45pm. If Cleverley’s return does not add enough spice to the fixture, then Luis Suárez’ first appearance at Old Trafford since completing an eight match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra certainly does. With the United captain suffering consistent abuse at Anfield a fortnight ago, the Uruguayan striker is likely to receive a typically warm Manchester welcome.

However, Sir Alex believes that the debate about the potential handshake between Evra and Suárez is irrelevant, although the media is likely to focus on the moment during the pre-match rituals. Instead, Ferguson chose to concentrate on the lax defending that cost his side three goals at Stamford Bridge and defeat against Liverpool in the cup.

“I think our performance levels in the last few weeks have been good, but we’re losing goals in important games and that’s a bit of a concern,” the 70-year-old manager added.

“Last week, Juan Mata’s goal was a fantastic strike – we couldn’t do a thing about that – but an own goal and a deflected goal… we should do better. We lost two soft goals against Liverpool in the FA Cup and that shouldn’t be happening at our club. We expect a hard game tomorrow but I’m just looking for the sort of performance we’ve been showing recently. That should help us.”

Injuries to each of Ferguson’s back four, save for Evra, has certainly not helped. Indeed, the French defender’s poor form in recent matches can, in part, be attributed to potential burn-out – Evra has featured in more games than any other United player this season. Evra’s ongoing form has United fans debating the Frenchman’s future despite the manager’s persistent faith.

One man for whom there is little debate is Ryan Giggs, with the 38-year-old midfielder signing a one year contract extension on Friday. The Welshman will be just months short of his 40th birthday by the time the new deal expires in summer 2013. And Giggs will compete with another veteran, Paul Scholes, for a place in United’s starting 11 along with Michael Carrick.

Elsewhere, Ferguson will pick between Smalling and in-form Rafael da Silva at right-back, while Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck are competing for a place in attack. Ashley Young could retain his place despite the below par performance at Stamford Bridge last weekend.

“It is brilliant for him, the club and the fans that somebody of his calibre is going to continue at his age,” said Young of Giggs’ new deal.

“He has been brilliant throughout the years that he has played and is somebody that I admire and look up to. Obviously players like Giggs and Scholes have experience from their many years at the club and when they talk, you listen because they have been there and done it. They have won so many titles and medals and have achieved so much in their careers. If I can achieve part of that I’ll be thrilled. I’d say I’m an experienced player at 26 but I still listen to the seniors and want to improve.”

Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish must decide whether to include Suárez in his starting side. The striker came off the bench during Liverpool’s draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Monday. However, Andy Carroll caused goalkeeper David de Gea significant problems at Anfield, with the young Spaniard struggling to cope with Liverpool’s direct, physical, approach. Jose Enrique could play missing the scoreless draw with Spurs though injury.

United has won six of the last seven league meetings between the sides at Old Trafford – the exception was Liverpool’s 4-1 win in March 2009. And the Reds home form is nothing like last season’s, with Ferguson’s side dropping eight points at Old Trafford already. By the same stage last year, United had dropped just two points.

Ferguson knows that there is little room for manoeuver, especially with City facing a comfortable looking run of fixtures before ‘squeaky bum time’ kicks in during the spring!

Match details
Manchester United versus Liverpool, Premier League, Old Trafford, 11 February 2012, 12.45pm.

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

Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Kuyt, Gerrard, Spearing, Adam, Downing; Suárez. Subs from: Doni, Aurelio, Coates, Carragher, Henderson, Carroll, Bellamy.

Stats

  • United provided one of the games of the season against Chelsea on Sunday, coming back from 3-0 down to secure a 3-3 draw and stay in the title race;
  • Michael Carrick covered the most ground in that game for the third Premier League game in a row, with 6.68 miles;
  • Patrice Evra has covered the most ground in total this season with 131.2 miles;
  • Two penalties from Wayne Rooney and a header from Javier Hernández brought United back into the game. Rooney’s goals were his 14th and 15th of the season, and have come from 87 shots at goal with 64 per cent on target;
  • David De Gea has been heavily criticised this season, but the young goalkeeper pulled off two sensational saves to keep United in the game against Chelsea. The Spaniard has made 97 saves this season, averaging 6.5 per game. That’s the fourth highest average in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Meanwhile, Liverpool welcomed back Luis Suárez against Spurs on Monday, but the Uruguay striker could not break the deadlock as Liverpool were held to a scoreless draw;
  • Charlie Adam covered the most ground for Liverpool against Spurs with 6.83 miles, and has covered 141.3 miles in total this season for Liverpool (the most of any Liverpool player);
  • Andy Carroll has been credited with improved form in Suárez’s absence. The former Newcastle United striker has averaged 4.8 miles in each of his Premier League games without the Uruguayan – his average across the season is just 3.8 miles per game;
  • Suárez has made 76 efforts at goal this season with 53 per cent on target, while Carroll has had 50 with exactly half on target;
  • Suárez has averaged a shot at goal every 22 minutes, while Carroll has had an effort every 28 minutes this season.

Form
United: WWWLWD
Liverpool: DLDWWD

Officials
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)
Assistants: S Bennett, A Garratt
Fourth Official: A Taylor

Rant Cast 100 – arbitrary number celebration edition!

February 10, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 10 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast we look back at Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was one of the best games this season, but did United drop two points? We talk England – John Terry, Fabio Capello, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s support for his fellow managers.

Ed and Paul look ahead to the games in the coming week. First, Liverpool at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Saturday, and then a trip to Amsterdam to play crisis club Ajax in the Europa League.

Finally, we look back at 100 episodes of Rant Cast. What did we say in episode one, and what do you think United will be like as a club by episode 200. Thanks for all your support over the past 100 episodes!

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!

Dalglish and Capello – brothers in denial

February 9, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 36 comments

There was something all too inevitable about Fabio Capello’s departure from the England job this week. Reportedly angered by the Football Association’s unilateral decision to remove John Terry as national team captain, Capello resigned at just after 3pm Wednesday afternoon. Such is the mood of distrust between the parties that the FA made little attempt to change the Italian’s mind. Capello’s is a fit of pique that costs the Italian around £2 million in lost wages, but more importantly generates questions about the former national team manager’s conduct.

Just as Kenny Dalglish has garnered critical media coverage for his staunch support of Luis Suárez over the past three months, in the face of widespread condemnation of the Uruguayan’s conduct, so too will questions be asked of Capello. After all, there are significant parallels between the two men, each of whom has singularly failed to understand the national mood surrounding racism in the country’s favourite sport.

The Italian’s resignation followed an hour-long meeting with FA Chairman David Bernstein at the body’s Wembley headquarters. It was a meeting in which the former AC Milan manager expressed his frustration at Terry’s removal, against the manager’s wishes, as England team captain.

After all, argues Capello, Terry has not been proven guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Not by an independent panel, as was Suárez when he abused Manchester United captain Patrice Evra, and certainly not by the courts. That verdict may come in July after the magistrates court in charge postponed Terry’s originally schedule hearing.

Capello’s is a simple mantra: Terry is innocent until proven guilty. Simplistic, might be a more accurate description. Capello’s is a message that is widely understood, and may have garnered more widespread support among the football community had the Terry affair not threatened to engulf England’s Euro 2012 campaign. The unrelenting controversy and media scrutiny that a tournament involving England brings would only be heightened by Terry’s name on the leadership ticket.

The risk to the FA, of course, was that every managerial decision, every question to the team’s captain, and every result during the tournament would be placed in the context of Terry’s potential guilt. It was a risk too far for a conservative organisation. No spin will airbrush history if Terry is found guilty of racially abusing Rio Ferdinand’s younger brother.

In the context, and for once with right on its side, the governing body reacted quickly, and without apology, to sack Terry. Indeed, the FA’s decision was taken without consultation, undermining Capello’s authority in the process, and prompting the Italian manager to burn his bridges during an interview with Italian TV station RAI on Tuesday.

What more could the FA have done, except critics add, remove Terry from the squad altogether. Inept though the governing body is normally guaranteed to be, the FA had almost no choice but to demote the Chelsea defender. Many argue that the FA should never have allowed this halfway house to exist at all.

The new manager, whether it is the much discussed Harry Redknapp or another man, may well find it impossible to take the Chelsea man to Poland and Ukraine at all. Yet, Capello has received widespread support from fellow managers, including United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The collective managers’ union can never countenance team decisions being taken by a higher authority, without admitting to an overwhelming sense of impotence.

“There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion,” said Ferguson shortly prior to Capello’s departure.

“It’s a difficult situation for both sides. When you are the manager of a team and have a captain that is an important part of that team then you don’t want to lose him, so I can understand there’s a lot of discussion and controversy about it. There will have to be a coming together of the FA hierarchy and Fabio Capello because he’s the team manager, he has the importance of that position. Without question the most important person at a football club is the manager.”

In that prediction Ferguson was right, and Sir Alex’ support for fellow managers is long-standing. But it is also a poor barometer of the bind that the FA found itself. While the manager may be the “most important” man at any club, Capello’s position was certainly no more valuable than the bigger picture. This is, after all, an association that has promised a tough stance on racism. Terry, as the body’s leader on the pitch, quickly became anathema once the courts had put back its decision until after Euro 2012.

Capello’s is another case in a sordid campaign for managers when it comes to dealing with issues of race.

The Suárez and Terry incidents in the autumn have brought far too myopic a response from those involved. Dalglish’s agenda was different to Capello’s, of course, but each came from a position not of responsibility, but self interest.

The Liverpool manager strongly voiced Suárez’ innocence long after an independent regulatory commission ruled, in microscopic detail, on the affair. Capello has fallen on his sword for a man who may yet been proven guilty of a deeply inhumane act.

Yet, both Dalglish and the now former England manager have misjudged the country’s mood; misunderstood that while short-termism can be a catalyst for deflecting attention, ‘doing the right thing’ is the only permissible route when it comes to question of race. Dalglish’s stance set race relations back a generation at Liverpool. Capello has fallen on his sword because of his poor command of the substantial implications of the Terry case.

It is as if denial of the issue has taken over; an old school misunderstanding of the societal changes that have taken place while Capello and Dalglish were cossetted away in the surreal world of professional football.

The bandwagon will move on of course, but the England job, dubbed a “poison chalice” by Ferguson, will remain an impossibly difficult challenge. It is one that Ferguson must be grateful the FA will not try, for a third time, to foist upon him.

Dear Liverpudlian friends,

After reading this article you may be tempted to post a long conspiratorial diatribe, blaming the FA for “making an example of Luis Suárez.” You may wish to protest the striker’s innocence or, indeed, you may think about couching your post in quasi-legal language, of which you have no genuine expertise. You’re almost certainly desperate to blame Patrice Evra for it all. STOP! This has been heard before, and the small number of you that did not include racist or foul language were afforded space on this Manchester United blog. There is, however, a proper home for you. It’s called RAWK and you’ll be more than welcome there.

Yours, the editor.

The next England manager

February 8, 2012 Tags: , , Just for fun 14 comments

Rant might ordinarily throw its hat into the ring for the big job after Fabio Capello’s jump-before-you’re-pushed resignation today. After all, here at Rant towers we’ve lost count of the medals won, the glory soaked up, the years on the managerial treadmill – there really is no better grounding for the real thing than Football Manager. But, alas we cannot this time.

You see, there is only one man who can look at this particular poisoned chalice, and squarely face it down. Only one man for whom controversy could never rear its ugly head. Even if he tried. Really hard. One man whom the Football Association could guarantee to tow the party line. No matter how absurd the line may me.

Is he English? Check! Does he have significant European and international experience at the very top? Check! Does he wear riddiculously tight shorts? Check! Even in winter? Check!

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you, the next England manager. Old tight shorts himself, the one, the only, Michael Christopher “Mike” Phelan…

Mike Phelan