Month March 2012

Month March 2012

Rant Cast 107 – Bébé, come back

March 30, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 4 comments

On another packed show this week: regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s narrow victory over Fulham in the Premier at Old Trafford. After a match United was fortunate to win, Sir Alex Ferguson expressed his anger with the Reds’ performance.

Meanwhile, over at Eastlands we ponder Patrick Vieira’s continued obsession with United – are referees and Sky TV conspiring to rob Manchester City of the title, or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Also on this week’s show, we talk Bébé – the errant Portuguese winger-cum-forward returned from serious injury this week to turn out for Beşiktaş in the Turkish Süper Lig.

Rio Ferdinand may be offered a new contract, taking the defender’s time at Old Trafford past a decade. Meanwhile, another rapidly ageing star, Michael Owen, says he wants to stay in football. Could it be at United?

Finally, there’s a preview of the next Monday’s fixture with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, and we take all your Twitter questions!

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

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Them’s the breaks

March 29, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments

There is a strange breed of football fan; you know the type, lurking in the nether reaches of cyberspace, conspiracy theorising to a fever pitch of mouth-frothing, self-aggrandising, irrational frenzy. Social media has magnified, even exacerbated the phenomenon, of course, but it has always existed in one form or another. The pub bore, cave-dwelling mouth breathers, for whom every poor refereeing decision – every break of ill fortune – is an international conspiracy of smoking-gun, grassy-knoll inhabiting, Jack Kennedyesque proportions.

This, football-loving members of the human race, have come to understand, and even joyfully mock at times. But when the cult of paranoia stretches from the terraces, through the dugout, and up into the boardroom it is fair to assess that this season’s title run-in has nerves more on edge than usual. Pressure has hit home for some. Hard.

And so to Manchester City’s ‘Football Development Executive’, former French international and Arsenal player, Patrick Vieira, who fresh from labelling Paul Scholes’ hugely successful return to Manchester United as “desperate”, to a predictable Sir Alex Ferguson ear-bashing, has been at it again this week, claiming a conspiracy of officialdom to benefit the Reds. It was, no doubt, music to complot-loving Blues’ ears throughout Stockport, Manchester, nay the World.

Vieira’s assertion on Wednesday that United benefit not only from favourable referee decisions, but that it is widely understood machination of the game, is of course as laughably inaccurate as the Frenchman’s previous musing on Scholes.

Accuracy is not the point though, not when the chance to build influence through a media all to keen to wave the flag of ‘mind games’ presents itself. The headlines alone tell that particular tale, while Vieira’s assertion is one long-held in folk-lore, with no basis in evidential proof.

“When United play at home, they may get some advantage that some other teams do not get,” Vieira told BBC Sport reporter Dan Roan.

“I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it’s always difficult to go against these kind of teams. This is the way it is. It’s something the teams who are used to winning get all the time, so we need to win games so we may have this kind of advantage in the future.”

Vieira followed up his interview with a spectacularly inept attempt to back-track. ‘Message delivered captain Vieira, now lets see if plausible deniability kicks in!’ It didn’t. Indeed, feigning mock indignity Vieira, through the safety of a club statement, blamed the Beeb’s journalist for the widespread headlines.

“I am very angry with Dan Roan. I feel he has misrepresented me,” Vieira told City’s official club website.

“I made it clear in the interview twice that I wanted to avoid criticising United and even stated that I didn’t watch the United game against Fulham and had not seen the incident to which the reporter referred.

“That part of the interview was ignored and my comments were taken completely out of context. I called the reporter twice to ask for a retraction and an apology which has not come. I feel Dan Roan and the BBC have shown a complete lack of respect for me, the ‘Football Against Hunger’ charity and Manchester City Football Club.”

Context may well be king, but Vieira is certainly wise enough to understand that if a question is asked, on a premise with which you disagree, don’t answer it; a sermon Sir Alex has preached for many a campaign. No surprise then that Sir Alex offered little sympathy for Vieira’s position, especially after the Scot had protested so loudly about a perceived penalty area handball not given his side’s way in Monday night’s game against Fulham at Old Trafford.

“I think we could have had a penalty on Monday night,” said Ferguson on Thursday.

“But you don’t often get these ones when a wide player has crossed the ball and the player almost caught the ball between his arm and his body. We could have got a penalty but I wouldn’t have expected one to be honest with you. I think that from the referee’s position I could see why the referee didn’t give one when Danny Murphy was brought down because the ball was moved to the angle as Michael Carrick challenged him.

“But then City could have had a penalty kick against them at Stoke, as everyone saw, with Gareth Barry (challenge on Glenn Whelan). So you get breaks here and there. Every club gets good breaks, they get bad breaks that even themselves out over a season and that will never change. We’ve had some terrible decisions at Old Trafford, when Newcastle got a penalty kick. Tottenham could claim the same when Balotelli wasn’t sent off and ended up scoring the winning goal (in City’s 3-2 win).

“I think you maybe have a point that the smaller clubs feel that way. Someone said that to me some years ago that United always get penalty kicks at Old Trafford but you go back through the 25 years I’ve been here, it’s only averaged three a year. You can’t say that’s a lot when we’re attacking teams every minute of the day.”

Indeed, Ferguson surely has a point in addressing City’s ‘small club’ persecuted mentality, epitomised in Vieira’s rant. The former Arsenal man’s position, not reported inaccurately, is one of paranoia that he would never have stooped too as a player; at least not until Vieira pitched up at Eastlands. It will certainly not be taken seriously in any part of Manchester beyond the reaches of the Etihad Campus.

Moreover, Vieira’s continued focus on United begs the question – just how much pressure are those at Eastland’s now feeling? Certainly, the contrast between Ferguson’s relaxed demeanour on Thursday, and Roberto Mancini’s permanent rabbit-in-the-headlights expression, is stark.

There is, it seems, a fine line between chip-on-the-shoulder cockiness of early season victories, and the gritty reality of a Premier League run-in. Not that the distinction will be understood by keyboard warriors in Blue. Paranoia still runs through it in some parts.

Meanwhile, Ferguson will carry on with a renewed sense of calm, cognisant that he no longer needs to actually take part in the aforementioned ‘mind games’ to win them. Now there’s a conspiracy for those over in M11 to chew on.

Owen: hopeful failure to the last

March 27, 2012 Tags: Opinion 26 comments

When Michael Owen joined Manchester United, summer 2009, the theory, with Owen approaching 30 and available on a free transfer, was that was former Liverpool striker would add short-term goals at a reasonable price. Three years on and Owen has proven no more value to United, even with no fee, than he did for Newcastle United, who paid more than £16 million for the errant former England star.

If ever there was a poster-child for the Glazernomic era here was it; a player whose failure at Newcastle United was so conspicuous most Geordies were delighted to see the back of the club’s record signing. Indeed, coming towards the end of a third campaign in Manchester, Owen has succeeded no more at Old Trafford than at St. James’ Park or, indeed, Santiago Bernabeu before that. In truth, it is nearly a decade since the former England star performed at the very height of his game.

At Old Trafford, Owen has scored 17 goals in 52 games for the club – just 18 starts – although it is a record hugely flattering to the striker: 11 goals have flowed in cup competitions, with seven in the Carling Cup, and three of Owen’s four Champions League goals in a dead rubber against Wolfsburg more than two years ago.

Most damning, for a player whom Sir Alex Ferguson still lauds, Owen has scored just once against in the ‘big four’ opponents of Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – the stunning 96th minute strike in the derby two seasons ago.

On any level bar financial Owen has made little impact at United, appearing and scoring in predominantly second-tier competitions, and low-level opponents.

Yet, both player and manager appear blinded by the striker’s past, with Owen repeatedly proclaiming that he’d rather appear infrequently for a leading club, than each week elsewhere. Fair enough perhaps, except while Owen may be on the books of a “top club,” he has started just once against the aforementioned ‘big five’ opponents.

One suspects that games against Scunthorpe United, Southampton, Burnley, Aldershot, Barnsley, and latterly Oţelul Galaţi, were not what Owen had hoped for when he signed on the dotted line.

Meanwhile, Ferguson has continually praised the striker over the past three years, declaring Owen “still one of the best” as recently as last September. Yet, even after Owen spent another lengthy spell on the sidelines this winter, the 70-year-old United manager went on record once again this week, optimistically predicting a key role for the forward during the run-in.

“If you think about ever needing a player to score an important goal for you is there anyone better than Michael Owen?” mused Ferguson on Friday.

“He will be a really welcome addition to our squad, even if it were to be for the last few games of the season. He’s certainly making good progress. What happened was he came back into our training a couple of weeks ago and then after one of the sessions he did some physical work with the sports science team and overdid it. So it knocked him back a few days, but he should be joining us this week.”

Few United fans, bar those still doe-eyed about an albeit stunning derby-winner, will break out the champagne for horse-owner-cum-footballer Owen’s return to Fergie’s team. Not least while the infinitely more talented Dimitar Berbatov cannot force his way into Ferguson’s squad, let alone first team plans.

Yet, Owen has designs on further time at Old Trafford – a prospect that will bring no cheer to supporters hoping that Berbatov will be replaced in the United squad this summer by a player of equal or greater talent. No matter how inexpensive, surely Owen’s is a squad place better reserve for almost anybody else.

“In life, you have to make hard decisions I have made some good ones and some bad, but in general terms I am pretty proud of my career,” said the 32-year-old on Tuesday.

“I still think I have another two or three years but where that will be is a question that the manager would be better placed to answer. I am exactly the same situation I was last year. Regardless what happens, you will never hear me grumbling about the privilege of playing at a top club like Manchester United.

“I have had some cracking moments. I have scored in cup finals, got the winner against Manchester City, scored a hat-trick in the Champions League and won the league. I am not concerned about what is around the corner.”

One scenario has Ferguson using the veteran as a fourth-choice next season, with the Glazer family restricting Ferguson’s ability to enter the transfer market. Indeed, it is unlikely the Scot has more than £30 million to spend, with United’s long-mooted IPO now on hold until at least the autumn, and possibly moving venue away from the under-performing Singapore Stock Exchange.

Owen believes he is still fit to perform at the highest level, whether at Old Trafford or elsewhere. Just as the player once, quite laughably, denied he has ever been injury-prone, Owen is still seemingly blind to his own decline.

“I must admit, I don’t think I am going to be one of the players who is still playing when they are 37 or 38 like Ryan, but I certainly think I still have another two or three years left in me,” added the Chester-born striker.

“I listen to players in the dressing room; some players are struggling to get out of bed and complain about their knees or Achilles. I honestly can’t resonate with them. I never get any pains like that. I feel as though I can play, it’s just when I get injuries, they always seem to be bad ones. My body feels as though it can play and my mind wants to and the aim is to keep going for at least another couple of years.”

Owen’s continued presence in football will certainly be a loss to the horse-racing fraternity, which if the player’s Twitter account is any barometer, is his true passion.

In any case, fitness concerns and (lack of) goalscoring performances aside, Owen’s place at Old Trafford has rarely been a natural fit. Despite that derby-day strike, a former-Liverpool man, whose passionate response to scoring against United so enthralled the Kop faithful, was never likely to become an Old Trafford hero.

Few will shed a tear should Ferguson finally discard the striker this summer; many will drop if Owen keeps the coveted number seven shirt for a fourth campaign.

Sprightly Rio dancing towards new deal

March 26, 2012 Tags: Opinion 6 comments

Rio Ferdinand is set to be offered a new contract with Manchester United after the 34-year-old defender finally overcame three years of injury trouble to once again become a key part of the Reds’ title charge this season. The former West Ham United defender had been expected to leave Old Trafford after nearly a decade at the club that has been increasing bedevilled by a persistence back problem. Yet, with captain Nemanja Vidić absent since injuring his left cruciate knee ligament in December, Ferdinand has re-staked a claim to be United’s senior defender.

But Ferdinand’s increased importance to United this season was not the obvious conclusion to be drawn as the campaign began, with Phil Jones signed from Blackburn Rovers at £16.5 million, Chris Smalling having enjoyed a fruitful début season, and Ferguson’s faith in Jonny Evans undiminished despite the Irishman’s many critics. Indeed, the senior man’s availability was widely known last summer, with United’s bean counters keen to offload high-earning fringe players.

Yet, Vidić’s serious injury – and Ferdinand’s greater fitness – ensured the £30 million signing from Leeds United has appeared in 29 games this season; just four less than, for example, Wayne Rooney. It is a good record for a player who turned out just 49 times over the past two campaigns combined.

Perhaps Ferguson’s November insistence that not only had Rio “lost a yard of pace” but must “rearrange his game a little bit” had the desired effect as a newly refocused Ferdinand built a sustained and successful partnership with Evans over the past three months. Certainly the United manager offered no surprise at Ferdinand’s improved form and fitness this season.

“It’s not surprised me in the sense that he’s still young for a centre-back,” said the 70-year-old coach.

“In normal terms you would expect a centre-back with his athleticism to play well into their thirties anyway. But he had the back problem which we all know about. So we’ve had to manage that and by managing it properly he has adapted really well to it.

“If you look to the other week – I didn’t want to play him against Bilbao, but with Jones calling off with flu, I played him and he played on the Sunday also. So he’s adapting really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games we need him. I think it’s all down to how he feels physically and what he is doing at the moment is good. He has no issues at all. I think from time to time he gets the odd tweak in his back and we have to manage it and look after it.”

The question, of course, is how long Ferdinand can sustain a permanent place in Ferguson’s side as Jones, Smalling and Evans push for a permanent starting berth next season. Vidić’s expected summer return to fitness will compliment Evan’s outstanding recent form. Meanwhile, the impending capture of Crystal Palace right-back Nathaniel Clyne should mean that Smalling and Jones are used more frequently in the centre.

Unless Ferguson plans more rotation in central defence – an area of the pitch that managers, even the Scot, are normally loathe to tinker with – then something has to give.

Indeed, while Ferdinand will be an important plank of United’s title defence over the next two months, especially with the Reds playing no more than once a week, the veteran defender’s status at Old Trafford is likely to change. Reports that Ferdinand will be offered a substantial pay cut on the £120,000 per week deal he currently enjoys is unlikely to be wide of the mark. Ferdinand’s current deal runs to 2013, but United will bet that the additional security of a two-year contract is appealing.

However, there are drivers than may yet see Ferdinand leave in the coming summer, with riches available in Russia, China, the Middle East and, perhaps, the United States. Certainly, there is one school of thought that ‘brand Ferdinand’ was ready to explore a move to MLS last summer, with Ferguson ready to let the defender go.

Moreover, while Ferdinand is reluctant to make any irrevocable decisions about his international future, pressure will certainly be brought to bear on the player to end his involvement with England. It is a scenario the Peckham-born player has shown no enthusiasm for, but one Ferguson would certainly embrace.

But the Scot’s tune appears to have changed in recent months, precipitated perhaps by a limited summer budget. United’s capture of Clyne in the coming summer, for example, is believed to be budget related, with the Palace defender out-of-contract. Rumours that Ferguson was keen to seal the defender’s signature far earlier have standing. Meanwhile, what funds that are available pre-IPO are likely to be earmarked for a midfielder and a striker during the coming window.

Rather than viewing Rio as expendable, as the Scot once did, Ferguson is now talking up Ferdinand’s experience in the United dressing room.

“I keep thinking that I signed Rio three or four years ago – I forget he’s been here for almost 10 years,” adds Ferguson.

“He has taken on that role of the influential person in the dressing room. He’s great in the dressing room with the players. He’s brilliant. It is an advantage if you can keep the older players long enough for their influence to spread because in the modern game it’s difficult to keep players for more than five or six years. It’s not easy but the longer they stay here the better the influence spreads to them and they can take over from the older players as they disappear.”

With both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs also likely to be retained next season, Ferdinand – if he remains at Old Trafford – will form an increasingly ageing spine in the United squad. Valuable experience, or Glazernomics at work. Critics will argue both sides of that equation.

Has Ferdinand earned a new contract?

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Reds primed for Cottagers visit

March 25, 2012 Tags: , Matches 155 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will turn to two generations of Pauls, Pogba and Scholes, as Manchester United host Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday night. The United manager, fresh from ratcheting up a war of words with rivals Manchester City this week, will use the pair, young and old, as the Reds look to kick on in the Premier League title race.

Scholes, who has been instrumental in United’s outstanding recent domestic form, is likely to start against Martin Jol’s mid-table visitors. Pogba, meanwhile, is set to take part in yet another fixture as Ferguson continues his recent quest to ensure the young Frenchman stays at Old Trafford beyond the summer.

After City’s draw at Stoke City on Saturday, United, with a game in hand on Roberto Mancini’s outfit, can regain the Premier League lead with a result on Monday night. But Ferguson will want far more from the home tie – the opportunity to stretch United’s lead to three points and erode City’s goal difference advantage is on the horizon.

The Blues’ draw at Stoke, where the hosts’ physical approach rattled Mancini’s side, has increased the pressure at Eastlands – a fact Ferguson is sure to exploit in the coming weeks. Indeed, Ferguson’s decision to ponder aloud, Friday, whether bringing Carlos Tevez back into the light blue fold is a sign of “desperation” says much. Just as his side has eroded City’s confidence on the pitch, so the 70-year-old Scot has spotted more than a little weakness in his managerial rival.

Ferguson will have an almost fully fit squad for a tie that United almost always wins, although it is the Reds’ form at Old Trafford – both domestic and European – that has been patchy this season. Only Nani is still absent of the more recent injury concerns, while Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Fabio da Silva took part in United reserves’ 3-1 victory over Aston Villa on Wednesday night. Pogba played an hour of that tie, and the quintet is likely to play some part in the matchday squad.

Manchester United v Fulham, Premier League, Old Trafford, 26 March 2012, 8pm“We took Paul off as he will be involved on Monday,” Ferguson confirmed of the 19-year-old French midfielder, who is yet to sign a new contract with the club.

“We want him to stay because we think he’s going to be a fantastic Manchester United player. We hope that’s the case. Jones and Smalling have been in and out with injuries and illness. Cleverley, Pogba and Fabio had bits of games. We’re only waiting on Nani and Michael Owen now and expect both to start training with us next week.”

Long-term injury absentees Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić are not expected to return to Ferguson’s squad before the season’s end. But it is to Scholes that Ferguson has turned during the second half the season, with Anderson and Cleverley missing most of the campaign. The 37-year-old midfielder’s partnership with Michael Carrick has ensured not only that United kept in touch with City at the head of the Premier League, but surpassed the Blues in the past week.

While Carrick has played more than 19 domestic matches without a break, it is Scholes who has underpinned United’s central midfield creativity at a time when the Reds looks particularly weak in that area.

“He can dictate the tempo of games very well and the rhythm of our game,” added Ferguson of Scholes, with the flame-haired midfielder likely to stay at Old Trafford for at least another season.

“He has the experience which helps him do that. He has a terrific football brain. The reason he wanted to retire was because he wanted to play 50 games, not 25, he didn’t think that was enough. I said to him at the time he would play 25 games for me no problem, but he didn’t want that. Maybe he felt that was maybe me not giving him enough appreciation.

“What I was trying to do was look at it in a sensible way and think what do you get out of a 37-year-old? How many games can you get out of him? The way we control Ryan Giggs [in terms of games he plays] – he’s different from the rest and we’re treating Paul Scholes exactly the same now. There will be games where we maybe leave him out, but we also know the games he can play in.”

Meanwhile, Fulham arrive having been thumped by Swansea City last weekend, but lie a comfortable 13 points clear of the relegation zone under Jol’s stewardship. Orlando Sa, Steve Sidwell and Zdenek Grygera will not be involved at Old Trafford, but Jol has no further injury concerns for a tie that the west Londoners have not won since 2003. Indeed, Fulham has avoided defeat at Old Trafford just once in the past 49 years.

Jol has built a side with plenty of attacking options: Russian Pavel Pogrebnyak has excelled since joining the Cottagers in January, scoring five in as many games, while Clint Dempsey, Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembélé offer firepower from midfield. It is an attacking outfit that will concern United’s back-four, but has struggled to keep clean sheets in recent weeks.

And Jol has no regrets about not joining United eight years ago, when Ferguson mulled appointing the Dutchman as his assistant, before turning to Carlos Quiroz for a second time.

“At that time I met him only to have a conversation with him about everything,” added Jol.

“We talked football – they played Real Madrid with the “big” Ronaldo – so it was nice. Later he said about the assistant manager post, but I remember his assistant Carlos Queiroz went to Spain to Real Madrid. He was sacked so there was always a possibility for him to take him back and that is what he did. I think that was good because I don’t think I am the best assistant in the world.”

Ferguson’s side won 5-0 at Craven Cottage in December, a result that mirrors recent games between the two sides. Fulham has conceded 15 goals over the last three fixtures at Old Trafford, and while three points is the first priority, the opportunity to eliminate City’s potential goal-difference advantage will not be lost on United’s players.

“Every game is must-win now,” concluded Ferguson. “That is no issue for me. I have been used to that for years. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”

Match details
Manchester United versus Fulham, Premier League, Old Trafford , 26 March 2012, 8pm.

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

Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, JA Riise; Ruiz, Diarra, Dembele, Dempsey; Pogrebniak, Johnson. subs from: Stockdale, Baird, Hughes, Murphy, Duff, Etuhu, Frei.

United: LWLWLW
Fulham: LWWWLL

Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland)
Assistants: P Kirkup, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: H Webb


March 23, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 14 comments

When Patrick Vieira, this week, labelled Paul Scholes’ return to Manchester United “desperate,” the former Arsenal midfield struck a chord. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to re-recruit the 37-year-old midfielder came just months after Scholes had retired, with the player’s admission that his ‘legs had gone’, firmly front-of-mind.

Almost three months after the midfielder’s return and the Manchester City staffer, along with fans of all persuasions, have been left to ponder their mistake. Indeed, so strong have Scholes’ performances been that the veteran has been instrumental in United’s run of eight wins in the past nine Premier League fixtures.

Vieira has a point, though, in raising the question of – for want of another word – the scale of United’s ambition. Classy though Scholes will always be, the 688-game United player would have found little room in Ferguson’s squad had it not been for the lack of funds for new recruits. Or, indeed, injuries to Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher.

Scholes may have pushed for a return in January, as is now the customary party line, but there are few leading clubs in Europe that would have planned for a major star’s departure by doing, well, absolutely nothing. By the New Year United needed Scholes more than the player needed a return. It is a line that Vieira followed on Wednesday.

“Paul Scholes is a player that I really love and admire. But for him to come back just shows a little bit of weakness in United, because they had to bring a player back who was 37,” said Vieira on Wednesday.

“I think it shows that, in the next few years, it will be really difficult for United to cope with other teams because, with all the respect I have for Scholes, him coming back shows that they don’t have talent in there to replace him.”

What Vieira didn’t count on, of course, is picking a foe as formidable as Ferguson, whose defence both of Scholes and his own transfer policy was always going to be robust. There is rarely any quarter given by the Scot; certainly never when it comes to questions of United’s weaknesses.

Little surprise then that Ferguson chose his Friday press conference to hit back at Vieira and City manager Roberto Mancini. With just nine games to go in the Premier League title race, a relaxed Ferguson is clearly in his element, ready to work the media ‘mind games’ once again.

“If it’s desperation bringing the best midfielder in Britain back for the last 20 years then I think we can accept that,” said Ferguson.

“I think he (Vieira) was programmed for that. Roberto had a wee dig a couple of weeks back. We’re all going to play our hand that way. There will be plenty of ammunition for that. If you talk about desperation, they played a player the other night (Tevez) who refused to go on the pitch, the manager said he’d never play again and he takes a five-month holiday in Argentina. What is that? Could that come under the description of desperation?”

Indeed, Carlos Tevez’ return to City’s side during Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Eastlands comes at a delicate time in the race, with United having recently taken the lead the Blues recently held by five points.

Mancini’s willingness not only to countenance the Argentinian striker’s return to the squad, but to play the 28-year-old, says much. After all, here is a player who refused to play for City – or warm up – and then spent an extended unpaid holiday on various golf courses, with the manager loudly proclaiming Tevez would never play for City again.

Pressure does strange things though, and United’s determined erosion of the Blues’ league lead has nerves jangling in east Manchester. Though the Eastland’s crowd departed happy on Wednesday night those fans who bothered to turn up did so after more than a few nervy moments. With Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights look in recent weeks the early season bravado has certainly disappeared from Blues both on and off the field-of-play.

So then to Tevez’ return, which may add additional firepower to a goal-shy City side. While the Blues’ home record is impeccable in the league, form on the road has, for some time, threatened to derail Mancini’s attempt to construct a title-winning side.

Yet, the former United striker’s integration back in the Eastland’s fold is unlikely to be universally popular, despite all the right noises. He is, after all, a player who walked away from the cause five months ago.

Moreover, the striker’s return only serves to expose Mancini’s personal weakness; as if the manager is now beholden to his errant star’s wishes. Not long ago Tevez was ostracised, now Mancini, with no little hint of ignominy, publicly praises the striker. It is a large chink in the Italian’s armour that Ferguson is sure to exploit in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, if United does go on to collect a 20th domestic title come May then Scholes will have played an instrumental part in the glory. Few, aside from Ferguson at least, could have predicted just how important the Salford-born midfield would again become to United’s cause. Scholes’ ability to dictate games has shone through in recent weeks, with the flame-haired midfielder repeatedly exceeding a 95 per cent pass completion rate.

“He’s useless,” joked Ferguson of Scholes on Friday.

“What he does is he can dictate the tempo of a match. That experience helps, of course, and he has a terrific football brain which helps him. The amazing thing is he made the decision he made at the time simply because he didn’t want to play 25 games. He wanted to play 50 games, that’s the reason he wanted to retire. I said to him at the time, you can play 25 games no problem but he didn’t want that. He felt he didn’t have enough appreciation but what I was trying to do was look at it sensibly and what you can get out of a 37 year-old.”

Change is always round the corner though. In the coming summer Mancini will likely, and finally, rid himself of the Tevez problem, signing an expensive replacement in the Argentinian’s stead. Menwhile, Ferguson will seek to sign Scholes on for another season in the knowledge that United will not – cannot some might add – replace the veteran with a player of equal quality in the market.

The contrast is stark even if the motivation behind both players return is from a similar concomitance. Ferguson, hamstrung by his paymasters, and Mancini on the precipice of failure, has each sought to gain one final advantage this season. Neither was a move born of certainty.

And with nine games to go, it is not long before either Ferguson or Mancini is proven correct. History and 12 Premier League titles suggest where fans should put their hard-earned money; it is a lesson Vieira would do well to learn.

Rant Cast 106 – faster than Tony Pullis on the M6

March 23, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 6 comments

On another packed show this week: regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s thumping Premier League win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux. Should the Reds have run up a cricket score?

We ponder Manchester City’s late victory over Chelsea at Eastlands – a win that brought Roberto Mancini’s side to within a point of United at the top of the Premier League. Will victory offer the Blues a confidence boost?

Also on this week’s show, we talk Fabrice Muamba – the football and media communities reaction to the stricken Bolton Wanderers midfielder. Transfers – Nathaniel Clyne to Old Trafford, and the need for a new striker. Tony Pullis’ excuse for speeding, and the Stoke City manager’s top lawyer.

And, finally, there’s a preview of the next Monday’s fixture with Fulham at Old Trafford.

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

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The fourth striker

March 22, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 16 comments

When Manchester United started the current season Sir Alex Ferguson could boast seven first team strikers; the Scot may go into the summer with just three. Indeed, while Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck will certainly start the 2012/13 campaign at Old Trafford, doubts abound whether Ferguson’s remaining forwards will be with the club.

After all, United’s decision to allow Dimitar Berbatov to leave in the summer will almost certainly be confirmed in June when the Bulgarian moves to a continental club. Meanwhile, Michael Owen is out of contract, with the former England striker unlikely to be offered a renewed deal, and then there is Federico Macheda, the 20-year-old Italian on loan at Queens Park Rangers who, at a minimum, will be loaned out for another season.

The likely trio of striking departures will leave Ferguson seeking a fourth senior forward at Old Trafford, with United likely to dip into the transfer market when the window opens on 1 July.

Berbatov’s departure was confirmed earlier this week when first Sir Alex and then the player’s agent admitted that the Bulgarian will be leaving after four years, 147 games and 56 goals for the club. That the player did not make the bench for United’s recent fixtures with Athletic Bilbao and Wolverhampton Wanderers says much for just how far the £30 million former Tottenham Hotspur player has fallen out of favour.

Departure will mark the end of a disappointing period for the striker, who has won so many fans with a mixture of artistic ability and off-the-field cool, but, ultimately, failed to produce enough on the pitch. Ferguson, apparently in search of more pace in attack, will not stand in the striker’s way this summer, although it is not yet clear whether United will – or has – already enacted a ‘one-way’ one-year contract extension clause. Extension will guarantee a transfer fee, albeit minimal for a player now in his thirties.

“We accept that Sir Alex Ferguson is [building] his next Manchester United for the next three to four years and the future of Manchester United is not related to Mitko,” said Emil Danchev, using Berbatov’s Bulgarian nickname.

“Sir Alex wants to change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game. I wanted Manchester to announce that if any team that wants to go for Mitko, they will sit down and negotiate. Mitko must endure this situation. It is not his style to start making scandals like Tevez. Up against Chicharito, Rooney and Welbeck… the only thing all those players have more of than Mitko is speed. Berbatov is more technical.”

Then there is Owen, the diminutive former-Liverpool striker, turned horse breeder, who has scored 17 goals in 52 games for United over three seasons. The goals-to-games ration, in part at least, masks what has been a highly unproductive period, with all but three of Owen’s goals coming in cup competitions, rather than the Premier League.

Injury has struck too, as Ferguson must have known it always would – the latest a hamstring tear that has sidelined the 32-year old since United’s match against Oţelul Galaţi at Old Trafford last November.

Ferguson has been steadfast in his support of Owen though, promising last summer that the 40-goal England international would be used more often in the first team. It didn’t happen, in part because the striker has spent long periods on the treatment table, but also because the 70-year-old manager has so many attacking options available.

Yet, despite all Ferguson’s kind words for the Glazernomic poster-child it will be a major shock if the club offers Owen another deal now, no matter how cheap he is. Fans will always have that last minute winner against Manchester City to celebrate.

Perhaps a more difficult discussion will surround Macheda, who burst onto the scene three years ago with a dramatic goal against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, but has made little progress since. Indeed, when Kiko scored to bring United back into the title race in April 2009 many fans ranked the Italian youngster ahead of Welbeck, both in the pecking order, and on potential. No more, with the former Lazio striker seemingly having gone backwards in the intervening years.

Macheda’s failure to progress has, in part at least, been down to rank bad luck with injuries. But there has also been two disastrous loan spells, first at relegated Sampdoria last season and now with QPR. Critics can, of course, point to Macheda’s desire to return ‘home’ when the club would have preferred a spell in the Premier League last season. But Macheda cannot have predicted such a rapid turnover in managers in west London, where the Italian moved in January.

Yet, there is also the sense that Macheda feels entitled to a place at the top table; that, somehow, he has forgotten the hard work and focus that earned Welbeck a move from reserve team wannbe to Sir Alex’ key man, via a loan at Sunderland, and a place on the international scene.

All is not lost for the youngster though. Others have failed at Old Trafford only to make it elsewhere, not least Ferguson’s seventh striker – Mame Biram Diouf – who has now scored five goals in nine games for Hannover 96 after a £1.5 million transfer in January.

The question now, of course, is whether Ferguson will dip into the transfer market for a fourth choice striker next season, or turn to one of the reserve team youngsters. Certainly, there are supporters who will favour internal promotion, with Will Keane highly regarded by those who watch the second string frequently. Yet, at just 19, and with one first team appearance to date, Ferguson is more likely to send Keane out on loan to the Championship next season.

The alternate route, should Owen leave as is expected, is to bring an experienced man into the squad a little-to-no cost. Could Ferguson’s eye cast eastwards towards Turin, and the once great Alessandro del Piero, who will leave the Old Lady in the summer? It would rank with Ferguson’s most surprising signings, including Laurent Blanc and Henrik Larsson.

More likely, United will follow a similar path to recent windows, by seeking a young, inexpensive forward, who is preferably English, although Ferguson’s scouting network will have been scouring the globe over the past season. Fans may wish to take media stories linking United with big-money acquisitions – Demba Ba, Jan Klaas-Huntelaar, Fernando Llorente, Leandro Damiao – with a pinch of salt.

But if Glazernomics is depressing, then there is always Bébé – the long-forgotten winger-cum-forward who has spent the entire season with Beşiktaş, injured. Now there would be a surprise return.

Reds close in as Fergie chalks off another match

March 19, 2012 Tags: Opinion 8 comments

There’s the old football cliché about ‘taking each match as it comes’, as if focus on the big prize could somehow diminish the here and now. But as Manchester United chalked off another win on Sunday, romping to a five goal victory and a four point Premier League lead, manager Sir Alex Ferguson returned to the trusted theme. With just nine games to go, the 70-year-old Scot is very much in title chasing mode, chalking off each game as time slowly runs out of Manchester City’s challenge.

Indeed, United has just six fixtures before the 30 April clash with City at Eastlands – a game that may yet be instrumental in the title’s destination, although with the Reds threatening to pull away, Sky’s wish for a dramatic late season decider may become irrelevant first. In the team’s current belligerent mood it will surprise few if Ferguson’s outfit secures a maximum 18 points before making the short trip to east Manchester in seven week’s time.

On Sunday Ferguson’s side was not at it’s best – in truth that has so rarely come in the current campaign – but still managed to put five past Terry Connor’s hapless Wolverhampton Wanderers. The display brings to 70 the number of goals scored in the league season, and more than 100 in all competitions. Free flowing football has been at a premium, but the Reds still know how to hit the net – and rack up the points.

Indeed, Ferguson was far from satisfied with United’s display in the Midlands, but took comfort in reducing City’s goal difference advantage, should the title come down to that particular differentiator, and the marker laid down.

“The number of goals was very important and it could be significant by the end of season,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“We’ve got the goal difference deficit with Manchester City down by five to three and we hope we can catch them up. There are 10 games left now and it’s just a matter of cutting off the games one by one until we end up with no games left and hopefully we achieve what we want to achieve. We expect it to go the wire, put it that way. We always hope for the best and fear for the worst.”

“The performance was OK, I didn’t think it was anything special. It wasn’t great and the scoreline makes it looks like it was comprehensive but our finishing was good. As we always find here, Wolves always make it difficult for you. I mean, I think we’ve taken our goals well, it has to be said, but it was an OK performance.”

Ferguson may have been less than impressed with United’s performance, one in which the Reds conspicuously eased off after half-time with the game already won, but the pressure will be felt at Eastlands nonetheless. City’s fixture with in-form Chelsea in Manchester on Wednesday night has now become a pivotal, potentially season-defining, fixture. Should City drop points, the advantage will be squarely in United’s court.

Moreover, Ferguson will be satisfied with the spread of performances at Molineux: Jonny Evans, superb in defence once again; Paul Scholes impeccable as United’s deep-lying midfielder creator; Wayne Rooney pulling the strings at ‘number 10’; and Antonio Valencia utterly devastation on the right-wing. Javier Hernández hardly gets a mention in dispatches, but scored a well taken brace anyway.

No European hangover for United, then, with the Reds hammering Wolves for the second time this season. Earlier in the campaign Champions League frustration after defeat to FC Basel was swiftly redirected toward the Midlanders and a 4-1 beating at Old Trafford.

Over to City and that fixture with Roberto Di Matteo John Terry’s side on Wednesday, and then a tricky looking away match with Stoke City the following weekend. The Blues could be, of course, be two points clear of United before Ferguson’s side takes to the field next Monday night against Fulham, but City will have to buck recent form to pull off two victories from that brace of games.

“They (City) have a big game on Wednesday of course,” added Ferguson.

“Chelsea are back to form so it will be really interesting. The important thing was for us to do our job. There are nine games left and we have to keep whittling them down. Eventually the games run out and hopefully we will achieve what we want.”

Star striker Rooney echoed his manager’s sentiments, quickly moving on from United’s comprehensive defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League and to domestic matters. Playing deep behind the free-running Hernández, Rooney was afforded the freedom of Molineux to pick passes and pull Wolves’ slipshod defence around.

Indeed, Rooney’s form and fitness will remain crucial to United over the next two months, both in terms of goals and performances. The former Evertonian retains a fair number of critics, but in truth, United rarely plays well without the £30 million striker in the side.

Yet, Rooney’s may not be the pivotal contribution judging by Sunday’s performance, when Ecuadorian Valencia turned in a game of outstanding pace, power and creativity. Sky’s man-of-the-match gong may have gone to Rooney, but few supporters would have handed it to anybody bar the mild-mannered former Wigan Athletic flier.

“He could be very important,” said Ferguson of £14 million winger Valencia.

“His form before he got the injury was outstanding. Now he is back we hope he stays back fit. He is such an honest, hard-working player. You get two sides to Antonio. He is prepared to work really hard. He can tackle, he can run, but he can also beat a man. He has got everything really.”

Poor Stephen Ward, the Wolves left-back who was repeatedly exposed to Valencia’s searing pace and ability to beat a man in a one-on-one situation. Valencia’s 43rd minute goal that ended the match as a contest, with the hosts already down to 10, was a case study in counter-attacking football and decisive finishing that perhaps only the Ecuadorian could have executed. Not content with scoring, the former Wigan man also laid on two of United’s five goals.

But it was left to Rooney to surmise a game that kick started United’s momentum after the disappointment of European exit. Bilbao may have exposed United’s limitations, but if a jolt of cold, hard, reality was needed then it is the domestic campaign that may benefit. With no other trophies to secure, United must claim the title for the season to not drift into failure.

“Thursday was a disappointing night for us all but we knew it was important that we bounced back well,” admitted Rooney, who didn’t score at Molineux, much to his obvious frustration, but has 14 goals in the past 11 fixtures.

“To come away with three points so convincingly means it’s a great day for us. We knew it was an opportunity today to score goals. I’ve said before, in the Premier League we’re playing really well. We’re playing some great stuff and getting the results we need. I’m sure that if can keep doing that it’ll be a good season for us.”

It may just get even better if Chelsea can pull off a result at Eastlands. For once, United supporters will be fully behind the loathsome Terry, and his west London mercenaries. One game at a time, perhaps, but some mean more than others.

Poll: will you miss Berbatov?

March 18, 2012 Tags: Polls 5 comments

Dimitar Berbatov is set to leave Manchester United in the summer after both Sir Alex Ferguson and the player’s agent confirmed that the Bulgarian will seek a new club in June. The striker, who has scored 56 goals in 147 games for United, is out of contract in June, although Ferguson has previously stated that United will activate a ‘one-way’ one-year extension to the former Tottenham Hotspur player’s deal. But with no extension yet confirmed, and United seemingly unwilling to keep the 30-year-old’s £5 million per season deal on the books, the striker is likely to start next season away from Old Trafford.

“I had three meetings with (United manager) Alex Ferguson,” said Berbatov’s agent Emil Danchev on Sunday.

“We should accept that he’ll try to build a team for the next three or four years and Berbatov will not be part of this team. Ferguson wants to change the playing style, to implement more speed. I was pleased with United’s position as they said they’ll not oppose Berbatov’s move in the summer.”

On Friday, Ferguson admitted that Berbatov has grown unhappy at the lack of first team football this season, with the 70-year-old Scot leaving the Bulgarian out of United’s squad for matches against Athletic Bilbao and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the past week. Famously, Berbatov failed to make United’s match-day squad for last May’s Champions League final.

“I understand he wants first-team football,” said the United manager.

“It’s difficult for me to guarantee that so it could lead to him looking elsewhere. We will be taking up the option on his contract but, having had chats with him, I understand he wants to get first-team football. It is something we need to consider at the end of the season. For a player of his age and his ability it is disappointing for him that he is not getting first-team football. We will look at the end of the season but until then, he remains at United.”

Berbatov’s ‘world-class’ talent has never been in doubt, but the end product has often been called into question, leaving fans and manager frustrated. But will you miss Berbatov when he leaves Old Trafford for the final time in May?

Poll: will you miss Berbatov?

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