I don’t actually know what the weather is typically like in Bulgaria, but I’m going to guess that the winters are chilly. And a good job too, because Dimitar Berbatov will have had some practice at being out in the cold; his position in the Manchester United pecking order is a solid fourth choice.
Rooney’s season has been an odd one. Full of output, with – at the time of writing – 20 league goals in United’s chase for a 20th league title, he has suffered from patches of less impressive form, and his all round game has perhaps not hit the peaks of his ability. Whilst he is part of the conversation for the coveted position of “World’s Third Best PlayerTM“, few would argue that he has made it his own.
Chicharito is, well, Chicharito. He’s a goal machine – in a season where injury prevented a proper run in the team, he looked sharp and effective in patches – his first goal in the 5-0 win against Bolton Wanderers, for example, was a masterclass of how to lose a defender and get on the end of a cross. When it works, Chicharito is an absolutely perfect foil for Rooney, creating huge gaps in defences using the ancient hidden art of “running.”
After a debut season packed full of vital goals and excitement, this season has been slightly less explosive, but still effective – 11 goals, of which several have been absolutely key. Chicharito scored the only goals in 1-0 wins against Everton and Swansea, and the 84th minute equaliser against Chelsea. The Mexican’s build up play has been slightly lacking, although his first touch was much improved against West Bromwich Albion last week. And – whisper it – he seems to be missing the birthplace he shares with Pipo Inzaghi slightly less, being more prepared to spend time in the foreign land of ‘onside’.
Danny Welbeck is that most treasured of players – a local lad who looks like he belongs in United red at the very top of the game. In our slapstick three-all draw with ‘FC Basil’ – if it’s good enough for Gary Neville, it’s good enough for me – Welbeck looked assured and effective as a solo front man in a 4-5-1 formation. But in the 3-0 win against Tottenham back in August he had a very poor game, until he scored, at which point he appeared to turn into SuperWelbz, a version of himself with outlandish powers.
As the season has progressed, few could doubt Welbeck’s contribution to the campaign. So much so that Welbeck is probably Fergie’s first choice of foil for Rooney – although his finishing is still not quite as clinical as we would all like it to be – his nine goals in all competitions reflect a decent return for a player who adds so much to United’s all round play. Chich and Welbeck are very different players, a wonderful asset to Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of versatility, and a challenge in terms of picking the right player for the right game.
Which brings us to Dimi. Ah, Dimi. If I was as good at football as Dimitar, I would not want to be a fourth choice striker. He is an outrageously gifted footballer whose entire United career has been dogged by huge ebbs and flows of confidence, effectiveness and appearances. When he didn’t make the Champions League final bench, I was sad, but not surprised – Berbatov is many things, but he is clearly not an impact player.
He was the joint top scorer in the Premier League last season, but as has been said time and again, those goals came in bursts, and there were long barren periods in between. Berbatov stepped up immensely during Wayne’s calamitous drop in form in the early part of last season, relishing his role as the ‘man’, but his confidence seemed to drain away as Rooney’s returned. Berba did score a hat trick against Liverpool, of course, which you could argue was worth the transfer fee by itself…
That transfer fee – the millstone around Berbatov’s neck for his whole time at United. £30 million plus justified by Berbatov’s talent, and arguably by his vital contributions to a historic season, but he has never managed the consistent contribution expected by players who cost that much. He’s never become a superstar.
The question that interests me here is why? Why has Berbatov never managed to firmly establish himself as a world-beating, first-name-on-the-team-sheet type of player when he is so abundantly talented. He was a star at Tottenham Hotspur, scoring 46 times in 102 appearances, and nudging towards the mythic one in two ratio.
Berbatov was also incredibly effective for Spurs in the Europa league, scoring 12 goals in 16 games. At United, at the time of writing, Berba has 56 goals in 147 games, which is much closer to one in three. In the league for United it’s 48 in 106, which is a very decent output – certainly not one that would set alarm bells ringing. In Europe for the Reds, however, it’s five in 26 – four of which came in the 2008/09 season.
Fergie has completely given up on Berbatov in crucial Champions League games where he has any choice in the matter. The manager has also pretty much given up on Dimi in the big league games too – Chicharito didn’t take too long to be preferred, in a two-man front line, and this season Danny’s been ahead of Chich. Rooney, or indeed Welbeck, will always be a more useful as a lone forward.
I wonder what his relationship with the manager is like. Berbatov has never publicly complained about his marginalised role. If Berba was agitating for a move in the summer, which most of us surely thought would happen given the Champions League final squad, he did it out of the papers.
It must be hard to have that much talent and not be trusted. I’ve heard fans speculate that Berba didn’t want a move in the summer because, somehow, he enjoys the easy life of not playing that often for United and picking up an enormous cheque. I have no way of really knowing, but that just doesn’t sit right with me as an argument. I’ve never really thought that Dimitar looked like he wasn’t trying, just that trying for him doesn’t mean running in the way it does – or, used to – for Carlos Tevez.
“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,” said Sir Alex last week.
“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.”
It is quite unusual for Sir Alex to speak so publicly about a player’s future, and I wonder what that says of their relationship. Certainly the public face of it has always been respectful. Berbatov describes being such a bit part figure in the club as “sad and painful,” but then goes on to talk about the importance of the team as a whole.
I wrote this article not to offer an argument, but to ask aloud the question of why Berbatov’s United career has disappointed, because I just don’t know the answer. I’ve absolutely loved watching the Bulgar ply his trade in red – he’s the kind of player that makes me like football; a magician with the ball on his best days. But maybe Berba’s never had the right assets to be a huge success at United – the capacity to deal with the pressure of the world stage.
Maybe it’s that at United he has only rarely had a team built around him, unlike at Spurs when he was the most important player in the squad. I don’t think it can be that he is lazy – he still seems really popular with the rest of the squad, and surely that wouldn’t be the case if they didn’t think he was a good professional.
Berba’s signing seemed an act of opportunism; a last-minute smash and grab to stop City getting him, so the story goes. If Fergie had his time again, I wonder if he would have decided to save that cash for someone else. Berbatov has been too often the wrong beautifully gifted, hugely talented, option for the way Fergie’s team is set up.
When Berba was signed, Sir Alex made comparisons to Eric Cantona. Sadly many United fans would peg Berba as closer to a different Eric in the pantheon of Ferguson signings. I think the critics are wrong about that, given, especially, Berbatov’s vital contributions last season. But still, he has clearly never reached the heights we would have hoped.
I love Berbatov, but I definitely can’t argue with Fergie’s pecking order. Dimitar makes even less sense in 2011/12 United than he did in those difficult spells in past seasons. I hope Dimi has – and takes – the chance to make some kind of significant contribution before he goes. Even if he does, though, when he leaves in the summer, or even by some miracle after that, the story that is written of him will be that he was at best a disappointment at United.
But that’s not what I’ll remember. I’m going to deliberately and obstinately remember the good times. That thing on the byline against West Ham United, when he crossed to Cristiano Ronaldo; the time he started an epic team goal from left back, and sauntered into the box to finish the move; that time when he scored an amazing overhead kick in the middle of a hat-trick against Liverpool, at Old Trafford; plucking the ball out of the sky and controlling it like he’d received a five-yard Michael Carrick sideways pass; and that glorious 10 minutes in Leeds when Berba pointed and shouted, stood in the right places, and generally did a pretty good job at centre-half.
A version of this article first appeared in Rant Monthly.
Sir Alex Ferguson is rarely one to dwell on past defeats, even if Thursday’s hammering at Athletic Bilbao’s hands was particularly galling. In 10 European ties this campaign, Ferguson’s Manchester United side rarely rose above the mundane. It is no surprise, then, that the Scot chose, Friday, to move on from Europa League elimination, focusing instead on the positive as his side chases the Premier League title.
With little time to dwell on what has been a disastrous European campaign, the Reds will move four points clear of near neighbours Manchester City with a win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on Sunday. That potential gap, a barely credible concept just weeks ago, is reward for United’s “resilience” in the title race, says 70-year-old Ferguson. Indeed, if anything can drive away the indolence demonstrated in Bilbao, then a title to pursue surely must be it, with pressure mounting on Roberto Mancini’s outfit as the race comes into its final straight.
With City not hosting Chelsea until Wednesday, Ferguson praised his squad’s determination and experience in hunting Mancini’s side down this season – a level of character certainly not demonstrated in Spain on Thursday, where far too many senior pros simply did not care about the result.
“The players have performed, they’ve gone out there and shown a great resilience and a great determination because they know they’ve got a chance of winning this league,” Ferguson told MUTV this week.
“They know they’ve got a great chance. It’s marvellous, it’s a testimony to the players’ resilience. We’ve got to take one game at a time. It’s the best way. If you look too far ahead, you can get yourself confused. Thinking too far ahead can be a danger.
“The mental attitude of the players who’ve been there and done it all before is take it one game at a time and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. That’s the part they play – the Ferdinands, Evras, Giggs, Scholes and the Rooneys. They’re the ones who will guide the younger players. They bring that sense of ‘It’s not affecting me, it shouldn’t affect you.’ I think it helps, I really do.”
Despite European failure, United face Wolves in the Midlands on the back of seven wins in the past eight Premier League games – a run that included fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. The series has come amid one of the worst injury crisis in Ferguson’s 25 years as United manager, with up to 11 players out of action at any one time.
Recent prognosis has been more healthy, although long-term injured Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidić and Anderson are unlikely to play any part during the run-in, while Michael Owen is some week’s from full fitness.
“It’s unusual to have so many injuries. As we all know, we’ve had more injuries than is normal for any team, in any situation,” added Ferguson.
“I thought everyone was fine. Jones was back, Smalling was coming back… and then Smalling got a head injury, Jones went down with flu, Anderson picked up a hamstring problem and Nani injured his ankle. Just when you think you’ve got them all back, something else happens. But this hasn’t derailed the team. They’ve been brilliant.”
With little more than two days preparation, Ferguson’s squad will have completed only light training following its return from Bilbao. And the Scot may be without a phalanx of players in the Midlands, with Nani suffering from an ankle problem – not a bruised shin as Ferguson reported last week – Anderson pulling a hamstring, and Phil Jones absent with flu.
United’s medical staff will conduct late tests on Rio Ferdinand, who applied ice to a sore calf after being substituted in Spain. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney could miss out with a knock picked up at San Mames on Thursday night.
The United striker says the club’s away form – the best in the Premier League by some distance – will play a crucial role in securing title number 20 if United is to do so come May. Last season the Reds beat Chelsea to the Premier League based, largely, on dropping only two points at Old Trafford.
“It’s a massive game for us, particularly given that Manchester City don’t play until Wednesday,” Rooney told ManUtd.com.
“We have a chance to go four points clear at the top of the table and we have to get the win. We’ve had tough games there in the last couple of seasons and we need to be at our best to win. Wolves are fighting for their lives after going through a bit of a sticky patch and seeing Mick McCarthy leave. I’m sure it’s been hard for Wolves to lift themselves, but from our point of view when you go to the home of a team fighting to survive it’s always very difficult. So we know we need to play well to win.
“Last season was a nightmare really in terms of our away form. We knew we had to put that right and there’s been a real determination about us away from home this season. That’s definitely helped us get us results and win games. We’re pleased with that and hopefully it will continue between now and the end of the season. If we keep getting the results we want away from home we’ll have a great chance of winning the title.”
Meanwhile, Wolves manager Terry Connor has concerns over Nenad Milijas and Jamie O’Hara, while captain Karl Henry definitely is out with a hamstring injury. The potentially missing trio adds to the turmoil at Molineux, with the bizarre sacking of Mick McCarty being compounded by a long-winded and ultimately fruitless search for a new manager. Heavy defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Fulham in recent matches has reduced confidence to a low.
That Wolves has not won at home in eight games, while United boasts the best record on the road this season, should make for a comfortable away win. But, as ever in the Premier League, Ferguson’s must not count on securing the points without a level of performance significantly better than demonstrated in the double-header against Bilbao.
Paul Scholes’ return to the starting line up will inject some experience into midfield, ensuring that complacency does not against creep into United’s game. Scholes has completed around 90 per cent of his passes since returning to the side in January, while averaging more than 30 in the opposition half per game. It’s the kind of quality, quite remarkably from a 36-year-old, that could just win United the title.
Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Manchester United, Premier League, Molineux, 18 March 2012, 1.30pm.
Wolves (4-4-2): Hennessey; Ward, Johnson, Berra, Zubar; Kightly, Edwards, O’Hara, Jarvis; Fletcher, Doyle. Subs from: De Vries, Bassong, Stearman, Foley, Milijas, Ebanks-Blake, Hunt, Milijas.
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.
- Wolves lost a potentially crucial game 2-0 against fellow relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers in the side’s last Premier League match;
- W Jamie O’Hara covered the most ground for Wolves in that game with 6.54 miles, although Wolves were out run by Blackburn by 63.01 miles to 60.42;
- United went top of the Premier League in the last round of games, taking advantage of City’s slip up at Swansea. Wayne Rooney scored both goals for United in a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, and covered 4.9 miles, second only to Ashley Young’s 4.97 miles as United’s strongest runner;
- Rooney’s goals were his 19th and 20th of the season, and the England striker is second only to Robin van Persie in the overall rankings of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Rooney has taken exactly 100 shots at goal in the Premier League season, with 66 shots on target, covering 20 into goals;
- Carrick completing 51 passes in his opponents half against West Brom – only Yaya Toure completed more in the last round of games;
- United’s Luis Nani, who is likely to miss the game, has delivered more than any other player in the Index with 116, while Wolves’ Matt Jarvis is third with 90 crosses so far this season;
- Nani is also one of two United player’s to have contributed ten or more assists this season, with Antonio Valencia also having done so – only five other players in the Index have achieved this.
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester)
Assistants: S Beck, S Child
Fourth Official: H Webb
Nearly a year on from Manchester United’s humiliation at Barcelona’s hands in the Champions League final and it is now clear that the Reds have not closed the gap on the Catalan side – a statement of the obvious. Yet, ‘closing the gap’ was a familiar refrain in the weeks after the 3-1 Wembley defeat, with the debate among fans and manager centring on how United could recover ground the lost to Pep Guardiola’s outstanding side. But in the 293 days since United capitulated to Barça in such dispiriting fashion the Reds not only failed to catch the four times European Champions, but have gone significantly backwards.
In total United lost four times in European competition this season; knocked out of two separate tournaments on route. But that tells only part of the story in a campaign that saw United perform middling at best on 10 occasions in succession. Indeed, even rare wins in Europe over the past seven months have come with caveats; neither of United’s victories over Romanian debutants Oţelul Galaţi came with any great flair, while the defeat of Ajax in Amsterdam was earned on barely 30 minutes of quality football.
More common, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has plumbed depths of performance in Europe that, thankfully, have not been matched in more than five years. While Old Trafford draws with Benfica and FC Basel were infirm, worse was to come away in Switzerland. Yet, none of those results was a patch on the humiliating thumping handed down by Athletic Bilbao in the past week – a side, albeit talented, that currently lies seventh in La Liga.
It was not, of course, the loss to Bilbao that hurt most this season. Many United fans, mindful of the Premier League challenge from Manchester City ahead, felt a sense of relief that the Reds must no longer go through the Thursday-Sunday Europa routine. It comes to something when United has sunk to that depth – 125 years of proud history discarded in thumping defeat to one of Europe’s second ranked clubs.
More important though, the manner of defeat to the Basques was not only comprehensive, but wilfully lax on United’s part. Both at Old Trafford and Thursday night, in the atmospheric San Mames, there were times when United’s players simply did not care enough. Patrice Evra jogged through the match; Rooney put in the effort only when it suited him; Tom Cleverley strolled around as if taking part in an informal beach knockabout on holiday. The threesome was absolutely not alone in this sin.
In this observation there is no clichéd call for passion. It is a recognition that, at United, there is more than a century of institutional memory. It is more valuable than Thursday’s performance deserved.
“It’s been a disaster in the Champions League and in the Europa League now I think we have to tell the truth – we deserved to go out because we never played with the same desire as when we play in the league,” admitted Evra on Friday, one of the few in the United camp to recognise the catastrophe at hand.
“We can see the difference in the league. We are top of the league and we are more focused, I don’t know why. If we want to save the season we have to win the league. If we don’t win the league, it will be a really bad season.”
There are excuses for failure, of course. Injuries have played a part, but only a part, in United’s capitulation this season. During the Champions League group stages Ferguson’s side suffered for repeated and frequent absences as a full-blown injury crisis kicked in during the late autumn.
Yet, injuries were not the reason that United failed to make it out of the Champions League for the first time since 2005. Complacency from both players and manager on a truly massive scale was the true cause, and both were shameful; it is simply not the United way.
No wonder, then, that Ferguson spent most of Friday praising United’s spirit in the Premier League, drawing focus away from the matter at hand to a title run-in with rivals Manchester City that will consume supporters attention in the coming weeks.
The question now is whether United will learn lessons from a disastrous campaign. Just as Ferguson promised an answer to Barcelona’s superiority last May – and failed – so the club must now learn how to come back from a bottom-feeding campaign; to again compete at the very highest level. After all, the regression has put the lie to Ferguson’s recent claim that United is “not that far away” from Barcelona or Real Madrid’s level.
“There are always lessons to learn from every football match, whether you win or lose,” Sir Alex told Channel 5 immediately after defeat in Spain.
“It’s disappointing more than anything. We haven’t progressed in the Champions League and now we’re out of the Europa League. I think the best team went through. I don’t think we can complain about the result. I think that in the second half in particular Bilbao were the better team.
“What we have seen tonight and last Thursday is a team whose work rate is higher than anyone I have seen in Europe, and that takes you a long way. Apart from the fantastic work rate, they have some good qualities also. It’s not just their work rate getting them where they are at the moment – they’re showing some very good combination football and I think they can go the whole way.”
Indeed, Athletic’s was a brand of attacking, vibrant, and above all, committed football that United supporters can only dream of. In praise of Bilbao Ferguson was generous, but well he might be for it is certainly easier to praise an Athletic side that was better over the tie than any side United has faced, Barcelona aside, in the past two seasons, than address United’s long-running and obvious deficiencies.
One wonders whether spring 2013 will bring a similar debate – will Ferguson and his paymasters recognise decline before it sets in permanently, or offer another river of broken promises.
This week, 60 minutes of the finest comment and insight on the week’s Manchester United news. Or something like that anyway. Regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s Premier League win over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford – a victory that took the Reds top of the Premier League.
We talk Europe and United’s exit from the Europa League at the hands of Athletic Bilbao, following a 2-1 defeat in Spain on Thursday evening. The defeat concludes a miserable European season for United, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men barely putting in a performance of note all year.
We follow up on last week’s conversation about Paul Pogba, with the Frenchman now weighing up United’s counter offer to the proposed transfer to Juventus in the coming summer. And while we’re on players leaving, we talk about Dimitar Berbatov after Ferguson said that the Bulgarian forward may move on in the coming summer.
We discuss Anderson, whose latest injury could keep the big-boned Brazilian out for the rest of the current seasons. And ahead of Friday’s FA Youth Cup semi-final tie with Chelsea, we talk about United’s Academy side.
Finally, there’s a preview of the weekend’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
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Sir Alex Ferguson certainly talks a good game, praising his side’s durability ahead of Manchester United’s crucial Europa League second leg clash with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night. United will need resilience and more, with Ferguson’s side, 3-2 down from the first leg at Old Trafford, needing to win by two clear goals – or score four – at San Mames. Given the vibrancy with Athletic attacked last week, United will need to pull off one of the side’s finest European away performances of recent years to progress.
The Reds’ home defeat to the Basque outfit was the second successive turnover at Old Trafford in the competition, and comes after a European season in which the Reds have conspicuously failed, after reaching three Champions League finals in the past four years.
Despite the campaign’s comparative failures, and the size of the task ahead, Ferguson believes United’s durability will take the club through to a quarter-final spot. However, the Scot’s side will have to do so without several players, including Anderson, Phil Jones and Nani, who were left in Manchester. Chris Smalling is unlikely to be risked from the start after a head wound opened up in spectacular style in last week’s encounter.
Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia and French teenager Paul Pogba travelled with the squad Spain and could play some part. Tom Cleverley is again likely to be left on the bench, as was the 22-year-old midfielder for United’s weekend victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.
“We keep carrying on and it points to a resilience in the team that is really admirable,” Ferguson said on Wednesday.
“They have done exceptionally well. It is an achievement in the sense of they’re still hanging in there. We still can win this game tomorrow and I think the players believe that. It’s a difficult tie for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage now, so it’s a challenge – but not one that is beyond us. Our record away from home in Europe helps us. We have done really well the last few years away from home but it’s going to need a good performance.”
Indeed, United hasn’t turned around a first leg defeat in European competition since 2007, beating Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the Champions League. But the Reds may have to change a defensive-minded philosophy away from Old Trafford that has brought success, but may simply invite Athletic to reprise the exciting possession-based attacking game of last week’s encounter.
Ferguson may gamble on his senior pros at San Mames, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all likely to start at San Mames. United faces Wolverhampton Wanderers away at Molineux on Sunday, and Ferguson has a fine line to trend between progressing in the Europa League and gambling the Reds’ domestic ambitions. He has consistently rotated his resources in European competition this season.
Despite defeat to Bilbao, confidence is high in the camp after United reached the Premier League summit at the weekend. With City losing, United now controls the title race for the first time since the autumn.
And winger Ashley Young, who has recently returned to something approaching his late summer form, says that United’s team spirit could be the foundation for an unlikely result in Spain. Young scored twice in United’s recent victory over Tottenham Hotspur and again impressed in the weekend win against West Brom.
“It is unusual that we find ourselves in this position but there is a great team spirit here and everyone is full of confidence,” said the 26-year-old former Aston Villa star.
“Our form in general makes us believe we can score wherever we play. Our attacking play has been fantastic of late and we believe we can score the two goals we need. Our focus has not changed from the start of the season. We want to win every competition we enter and the Europa League is no different.
“Bilbao were an impressive team last week. They were a very attacking team, had a good team shape and at times we found them hard to break down. But I am sure if we are on our game 100% we can go there and get the win we need.”
Meanwhile, Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa is again likely use the outstanding midfielder Javi Martínez in defence, albeit in a role that offers extensive license to roam. Martínez exemplified the committed attacking approach Bilbao offered at Old Trafford, frequently pushing into midfield as the visitors dominated possession and territory.
Attackers Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and Fernando Llorente will again look to trouble a United back-four that looked anything but assured at Old Trafford. Indeed, Ferguson’s side will need to adopt a new approach to countering Bilbao more successfully than last week.
Despite the outstanding performance at Old Trafford, Bilbao was beaten 2-1 by Ossasuna at the weekend; it is consistency that coach Bielsa says is most difficult for those clubs outside Spain’s duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Bielsa has led Bilbao to fifth in La Liga, despite a policy of recruiting only local players – or those players with a local connection – and a tiny budget by United’s standards. Modest to the last, the former Chile and Argentina coach refuses to take any personal credit for the club’s recent progress.
“The difference in points and finance is there for everyone to see,” said the Argentine.
“But I also believe that on one night or in one match a team like Athletic can get very close to the level of opponents such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. However, to maintain that throughout an entire league season is extremely difficult.
“There is no prestige to coaching a national side or beating Manchester United. Personal things like that do not concern me. They do not last very long. The evaluation of anything has to be done over the long-term, not the short. And we still have another very important 90 minutes ahead of us.”
Could there be an omen in history for United, even if the odds appear stacked against progression? The clubs’ only previous meetings came over 50 years ago in the quarter-finals of the European Cup – Bilbao beat Sir Matt Busby’s United 5-3 in Spain, only to lose the return fixture 3-0 at Maine Road.
To repeat that feat United will have to build on a poor record in Spain, with the Reds having won only twice in the club’s history against Spanish opposition, on Spanish soil. There’s no time like the present to buck that trend, although in one of the most atmospheric Spanish stadiums, nicknamed The Cathedral by locals, it may take a minor miracle from Ferguson’s men.
Athletic Club Bilbao versus Manchester United, Europa League, San Mames, 15 March 2012, 6pm
Bilbao: (4-1-4-1): Iraizoz; Iraola, Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe, de Marcos, Herrera; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain. Subs from: San Jose, Oscar; López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Pogba, Cleverley, Young, Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referees: Tarik Ongun, Mustafa Eyisoy
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Bülent Yıldırım
Big-boned Manchester United midfielder Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira is set to miss at least five weeks of the Premier League run-in with a torn hamstring, confirmed manager Sir Alex Ferguson on Wednesday. The fresh injury, which adds to a growing list of malevolence suffered by the midfielder in his time at Old Trafford, comes barely days after the Brazilian returned to Manchester United’s squad for matches against Athletic Bilbao and West Bromwich Albion.
“Ando could be out for four or five weeks due to his hamstring,” said Ferguson ahead of United’s Europa League second leg tie with Athletic.
“Some hamstrings are relatively straightforward but we have to wait and see how he is in the next week or so to get a better idea of where we stand with him.”
Anderson’s injury is the latest in a calamitous series of absences over the past four and a half years following a €30 million transfer from Porto. The midfielder has subsequently appeared in barely 30 per cent of United’s games during his time with the club. Critics of a far crueller persuasion than United Rant might be thankful given the 23-year-old’s inconsistencies.
But could frequent injuries be something to do with Brazilian’s hard-living lifestyle? After all, during previous absences the 23-year-old has been caught partying on the Algarve, been involved in a high-speed car crash, and seemingly piled on far too much weight. Little needs said about Anderson’s less salubrious habits.
It has Rant wondering whether the burger eating Brazilian might face a tough choice or four during his latest period of recuperation …
Eden Hazard, the prodigiously talented Lille midfielder-cum-forward, has been making eyes at Manchester United this week. Precipitated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s widely reported trip to France on Saturday evening, the 21-year-old says that he is “excited” by the prospect of joining United during the summer transfer window.
That may be the case, but with Ferguson unlikely to be furnished with the kind of funds that will secure the Belgian playmaker, United supporters may be in for another summer of tedious transfer stories. It has, after all, become so routine.
Indeed, there was no confirmation forthcoming from Ferguson that the Scot’s flying French visit was to ‘scout’ Hazard at all, although almost all of Europe’s leading clubs – and Tottenham Hotspur – are monitoring the Belgian’s progress and availability. There is no doubt that Hazard will leave in the coming summer though, whatever his destination, with the player having outgrown Ligue 1. Nor is the 21-year-old likely to welcome an impending 75 per cent tax rate for France-based millionaires.
What is certain: the Belgian international, now into his fourth season with Lille, will have the choice of clubs when he makes the move to Spain, Italy, or England after the winter opens in June.
Yet, United fans will feel a tinge of excitement this week, both as news of Ferguson’s trip filtered out on Saturday night, and on the player’s positive comments, Monday. Who can blame supporters – Hazard is just the kind of creative playmaker, who can play both wide and centrally, which United has lacked in recent years.
“Of course [United interests me], this is a club that excites everyone, but for now my focus is on Lille,” the player reportedly told La Voix du Nord.
“But yes, it is a pleasure to be watched by one of the best coaches in the world, if not the best.”
Supporters should take the comments with a pinch of salt though, coming just weeks after the 36-cap international name-checked Spurs as a possible summer destination, with media widely reporting that the player had already agreed terms with the north London club.
Seemingly casting his net wide, Hazard has also spoken of his admiration for Real Madrid, Arsenal and Barcelona; a young man desperately seeking a hefty pay rise and a leg up the next rung of the footballing ladder.
“Our owner is ready to pay for an exceptional talent like Eden Hazard,” claimed soon-to-be England manager Redknapp.
“I have seen him several times. But I know Manchester United are also following him very closely. City, too. It will be difficult to sign him. But I love him. Last year, I loved Gervinho too.”
The White Hart Lane boss’ amorous feelings will likely remain unrequited unless Spurs smashes its notoriously strict pay scale, and the player genuinely believes he will not break into the side at one of Europe’s tier one clubs. It is an unlikely scenario for a player destined for the very top.
True, the spectre of Karim Benzema’s difficult first season at Real Madrid looms large, although it would take a huge lack of confidence on Hazard’s part to turn down a bid from one of Europe’s super-powers, even if it is a fear Hazard expressed in February when rumours first surfaced of Tottenham’s deal.
“Maybe I will play there [Spurs] next season,” said the youngster, who began his career at Tubize in his native Belgium.
“It is a nice club with a lot of good players and absolutely a top coach. I have not signed anything yet, but I hope it will happen in the near future. Perhaps Spanish football would be better for me, rather than the English. But if you want to be champion, you would need to play with Barcelona or Real Madrid. The opportunities would be much smaller.
“The competition would be strong at Tottenham too, but less so that at Barca or Real. I think I can learn the most in England. You play a big game every week and the atmosphere is great.”
Meanwhile, both City and Chelsea have sent scouting teams to Lille in search of Europe’s ‘next big thing’. Both have the finances to lure Hazard to England of course, although neither has been named checked by the player.
Then there is United, and Ferguson’s dash to France at the weekend. In truth, with the Reds unlikely to spend big until post IPO – whenever that may be – United is probably no more interested in Hazard than the club was in Barcelona-bound Alexis Sanchez last summer. It has, after all, been several years since the Old Trafford bean counters allowed Ferguson to shop at the very top of the transfer market. Hazard will go for more than £25 million.
Ferguson is far more likely, while we’re playing a game of transfer speculation, to have been watching Lille’s defender Mathieu Debuchy, or Olympique Lyonnaise midfielder Clement Grenier during the match at Stade Gerland.
In truth the spectre of Real will likely decide Hazard’s future, no matter the player’s proclamation to the contrary. After all, with Zinedine Zidane successfully tapping up the Francophone market for the prospective Spanish champions in recent years, the lure of Los Merengues is sure to be strong.
“He is a star of the future,” Zidane said. “He is strong technically and very fast. I would take him to Madrid without a second’s thought.”
Many United supporters would concur, if a deal to take Hazard to Old Trafford materialises. Glazernomics and European rivals dictate that it is unlikely.
Schadenfreude is a dangerous sport, not least when it comes to the ebb and flow of a Premier League title race. But there was undoubtedly a collective chuckle from the Red half of Manchester on Sunday at the delicious sight of a Manchester City fan breaking down in tears. Was it a death in the family that caused such public, and humiliating distress, mooted writer Daniel Harris? Perhaps the outbreak of war, or a death in the family. None of the above your honour; simply the trauma of City falling a goal behind to Swansea in the 11th-to-last match of the campaign.
Thousands of Manchester United fans joined in the fun, readily mocking John Millington, the City supporter, and joyously celebrating the Reds’ return to the top of the Premier League table. It was, or at least seemed to be, a turning point in the campaign. For all City’s wealth, and United’s catastrophic winter injury crisis, here was United taking top spot after beating West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, while the Blues lost again on the road, this time at Swansea City.
Winning the title isn’t that simple of course, and while the momentum is squarely with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, the single point gap is hardly a royal flush waiting to be called. Indeed, just as City had not won the title in October, despite the Robert Mancini-led outfit storming to a seven point lead, the Reds will be wary to prematurely claim a 20th domestic title with 10 games to go.
Yet, there is undeniably a sense of panic enveloping Eastlands, with Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights expression when questioned about his side’s chances of victory come May. United will drop points, surmised the Italian; the unconvincing aside coming barely a day after Mancini called on his players to win all of their remaining Premier League matches.
Worse may come for the Blues, with Mancini’s side facing another five games on the road before the season concludes. After all, the Abu Dhabi-owned outfit has recorded just eight points from a similar number of games away from Eastlands. Banana-skin fixtures against Chelsea in Manchester, Stoke City away and Martin O’Neil’s vibrant Sunderland come before March is out.
By contrast United faces no team inside the top 10 before travelling to meet City in a potentially decisive fixture in east Manchester on 30 April. Decisive, that is, if City is still within touching distances by that point. Indeed, the business-like manner in which United is now racking up the points, despite all the injuries, lack of squad depth, and a calamitous European campaign, says much for the mood at Old Trafford.
“It was a great performance,” said Sir Alex of United’s comfortable victory over West Brom.
“We took a bit of time to get the rhythm of the game right but once we got that we played some exciting stuff and some really good football. We could have scored a lot of goals today. If there is a criticism then that is it. But we produced a stern performance; it was determined and there was a great will to win.
“We created a lot of chances and missed them. Fortunately we got the second goal and we still missed chances after that, but we kept our drive for the whole game, which was good. The players didn’t stop; they tried to score from every attacking situation.”
Profligacy could still cost the Reds, as could complacency of the kind displayed at Norwich City a fortnight ago. Change comes in a heartbeat, and United’s weekend fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and then City’s three days later versus Chelsea, could bring yet another swing.
Such is momentum’s importance that Ferguson is unlikely to disrupt United’s domestic flow on Thursday when the Reds meet Athletic Club in Bilbao. United’s tie at Wolves ensures that supporters can expect a fringe and reserve squad to face the excellent Basque outfit, despite any claims that Ferguson’s side can turn the tie around.
At this point the consequences of fielding a full-strength side and still potentially losing, outweigh any benefits victory brings. After all, elimination from the Champions League, and defeats to Athletic and Ajax in UEFA’s second string competition, have brought no discernible negative reaction domestically.
Meanwhile, City face Sporting in Manchester followed by the home clash with managerless Chelsea. City’s home form is imperious; Chelsea’s record on the road has brought four defeats. The odds on two home victories are high, but such is the battering City’s confidence has taken that a reversal in either game will no bring surprise.
Mancini’s rhetoric is adding little more than doubt to the equation. It is as if the Italian believes no longer in his side, or his ability to turn it around. The excuses are flowing quickly now, in stark contrast to Ferguson’s confidence. Despite two Serie A titles, Mancini is a relative novice in England, and this time there is no Calciopoli to aid the former Sampdoria striker’s managerial progress.
“There are 10 games to go, and it’s important we start to score and win again,” said Mancini after City’s 1-0 loss in Wales.
“Some players may be tired after seven months of the season, but I think we have a lot of energy to get back to the top. It all depends on us; we have 10 games and anything could happen. We have to be strong, when you’re at the top it’s easy, when you’re not you have to be strong. I don’t think we deserved another result like this, but now we can do nothing.”
By contrast Ferguson exuded experienced calm after United’s routine win at Old Trafford; a man, more than 25 years into United job, who lives for these moments. While much of the Scot’s side exhibits the callow enthusiasm of youth, a core of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney are sure to start United’s biggest games from here on in. It is a quintet in which Ferguson trusts.
United’s focus and City’s troubles is a truism that will resonate strongly at Eastlands, where pressure has been building since Christmas.
“We felt if we came through those tough away fixtures [during the winter] we would be setting ourselves up for the rest of the season,” added winger Ashley Young.
“We have managed to do that and now our home form is key. A lot of people might not have thought we would be in front of City but we have that belief. As long as we are winning our games, the pressure is on them.”
So much that the returning carpetbagger Carlos Tevez will be welcomed back into the first team with open arms when the 28-year-old is match fit. After Mancini so publicly defenestrated the Argentinian any move to welcome Tevez back is little more than an act of desperation, critics will correctly add.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is brimming with confidence; a man who has once again confounded the critics and supporters by taking a thin United squad further, domestically at least, than many has predicted.
“We have that experience and it does help,” concluded the United boss.
“We won’t get nervous. Against West Brom we kept playing our football even at 1-0 when the fans were thinking ‘just get us a second’. It didn’t concern the players one bit. It is good to see that kind of temperament.”
Over at Eastlands the crying supporter has rapidly become a poster boy for the moment. Millington denied his public distress – he could do little else. But the fan, much like Mancini, will have woken this morning with a significant dent to both pride and confidence.