Month February 2013

Month February 2013

Preview: QPR v United

February 23, 2013 Tags: , Matches 80 comments

Top versus bottom in the Premier League and another comfortable victory for Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team marches towards another Premier League title. That is, of course, the most comfortable of scripts – one that United has not always read with ease this season. And with Queens Park Rangers fighting an unlikely battle for Premier League survival, the home side should be no pushover as United travels to London this weekend.

Indeed, Harry Redknapp’s team has secured draws with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, and victory over Chelsea, since the new manager’s January arrival. Yet, heavy defeat to Swansea City two weeks ago and an embarrassing loss against MK Dons in the FA Cup have also come despite the millions lavished on the team during the winter transfer window.

Chairman Tony Fernandes’ investment seems unlikely to save QPR though, with the Hoops some 23 points away from the 40 that is normally required to secure Premier League status. Six victories over the next 12 games could be enough; the problem comes with  QPR’s record of just two wins in the league season to date.

Meanwhile, United continue to tick off games, protecting a lead that has now stretched to 12 points over neighbours Manchester City. With Ferguson’s squad in pretty good health, despite a heavy schedule in recent weeks, the 71-year-old says that competition for places will drive United towards success, with the Reds still chasing three trophies this season.

“Against Real Madrid they all wanted to play and that’s fantastic – it’s a measure of their faith and confidence in themselves,” said Ferguson on Friday.

“And I thought they acquitted themselves well against Reading. Their hunger and attitude to the game was great and we deserved to go through.

“At this club, and particularly in the situation we’re in at the moment, anything can happen in the run-in. Players can suddenly find themselves playing in a final or an important league game because that’s the squad I have. I think they sense this could be a big year for them.”

QPR v Manchester United - Premier League, Loftus Road - 3pm 23 February 2013Ferguson is likely to refresh his side once again following United’s victory over Reading in the FA Cup on Monday night. Robin van Persie will come will come back into the Scot’s team, although strike partner Wayne Rooney is still absent with a sinus problem. Phil Jones and Paul Scholes remain injured, while Nemanja Vidic may rotate back to the bench after featuring in the FA Cup.

Meanwhile, Nani, who starred in the Cup on Monday, could keep his place in the side despite rarely featuring this season. While most pundits and many supporters believe that the Portuguese winger will leave the club in the summer, with a new contract as yet unsigned, Ferguson says that he is determined to keep the winger.

“We want to keep him, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sir Alex.

“He’s capable of scoring incredible goals. His goal against Everton, when he dinked the keeper after playing a couple of one-twos, was incredible. And the goal against Tottenham the year before, where he dinked the goalkeeper after playing a one-two, was another one.

“The boy has an incredible talent for winning matches. He’s one of the best match-winners in the game, and I include the whole of Europe in that.

“It’s entirely up to the boy – he has a year and a half left. I think he wants guaranteed first-team football. He can guarantee himself that. Performances like the other night can guarantee that. We’re trying our best to keep him because he’s such a match-winner.”

Meanwhile, QPR manager Redknapp is likely to be without new striker Loic Remy who has a groin strain. Junior Hoilett and Samba Diakite fit again, but Bobby Zamora is unlikely to be risked after suffering a serious hip problem this season. Former Red Park Ji-Sung should play, although Fabio da Silva is ineligible to face his parent club.

QPR’s 4-1 defeat to Swansea diverted the Hoops’ campaign off track again after an improvement in form under Redknapp. QPR has lost just once in the past six, although United’s record of nine victories in the past 10 meetings between these sides points to another away victory. After all, Ferguson’s team hasn’t lost at Loftus Road since the 1980s.

Still, QPR’s desperate state should guarantee an honest effort from the hosts, with defensive solidity Redknapp’s policy in the past two months.

“QPR have done well recently,” said United striker Danny Welbeck.

“I think they’ve been setting up with two banks of four, making it difficult to break them down. They’re just getting behind the ball and obviously it’s been hard for teams to score goals against them. But hopefully we’ll have our tactics right on the day and will try to get some goals.”

After all, Ferguson’s side has never failed to score at Loftus Road in the Premier League.

Match details
Queens Park Rangers v Manchester United – Premier League, Loftus Road – 3pm, 23 February 2013

Possible teams
QPR (4-5-1): Julio Cesar; Onuoha, Samba, Hill, Traore; Derry, Park Ji-sung, Taarabt, Jenas, M’bia; Mackie. Subs from: Green, Ben-Haim, Wright-Phillips, Granero, Zamora, Bothroyd, Townsend.

United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Kagawa; Welbeck, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Valencia, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Hernández.

Match officials
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: P Kirkup, G Beswick
Fourth official: N Swarbrick

Form
QPR: WDLDDL
United: WWWWDW

Head to Head
Last 10: QPR 0, United 9, Draw 1
Overall: QPR 6, United 31, Draw 13

Stats

  • Julio Cesar has garnered good reviews since joining QPR – the Brazilian has made 107 saves in 1687 minutes this season according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Much of the creative responsibility for QPR falls to Adel Taarabt who has made 41 dribbles, 26 crosses and five assists this season;
  • The Moroccan has almost made 77 attempts on goal – almost as many as the next three most prolific shooters in the QPR squad combined at 87;
  • Rafael da Silva may not face his brother Fabio on Saturday, but the United defender is having a fine season – he has racked up 84 defensive contributions, as well as completing 443 passes in the opponent’s half;
  • Fellow defender Jonny Evans continues to excel and, disrupting the established centre-half partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic – the Irishman also boasts the best tackle ratio of any United player with 68 per cent from 28 challenges;
  • Meanwhile, Robin van Persie has scored 19 goals this season – one from every 4.63 attempts on goal;
  • Partner Wayne Rooney has completed the third highest number of passes in the opponent’s half in the United squad with 471.

Prediction
0-2

Gill’s departure leaves Ferguson isolated

February 21, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

David Gill’s surprise announcement on Tuesday, that he is to step down as chief executive of Manchester United after 10 years in the position, comes as a personal “blow” to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving the 71-year-old Scot without a key Old Trafford ally. It is the most serious conclusion to draw from Gill’s resignation, which will take effect after the season has concluded in June.

Gill’s departure comes against the backdrop of the 55-year-old executive’s move into football politics. Gill, who has spent 16 years at Old Trafford first as chief finance officer and then ceo, recently joined the FA as vice chairman, and is applying to join UEFA’s executive committee. He will remain as a non-executive director of the club.

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Edward Woodward, very much the Glazer’s man, will take up his new role with a remit to further strengthen United’s commercialisation strategy. Woodward becomes ceo after a highly successful campaign to broaden United’s commercial reach over the past seven years, which has seen the club’s commercial revenues nearly triple to £117.6 million.

Woodward, formerly executive vice chairman at the club, led the team that globalised United’s commercial reach and diversified the portfolio of sponsors. Under Woodward’s executive leadership United’s aggressive commercialisation is highly unlikely to slow down.

But it is the impact on Sir Alex that is of primary interest to supporters, who have witnessed just three chief executives during Ferguson’s reign; Gill, Peter Kenyon and Martin Edwards. Indeed, Gill has become Ferguson’s close confidant in the past seven seasons, and a central link between the playing side of the club and the detached Glazer family in Florida.

“I have worked alongside the finest manager in the history of the game and been part of what I consider to be the best club in the best sport in the world,” said Gill in a statement released shortly after United informed the New York stock exchange on Tuesday.

“I have always been conscious of the fact that, as a member of staff, I was always just a temporary custodian of this marvellous institution. I am also of the view that all businesses need to refresh themselves with new management and ideas and after 10 years in charge I believe it is appropriate for someone new to pick up the baton. I’m delighted Ed has accepted the role.

“I am looking forward to continuing my involvement on the club board. And I hope to be able to make a contribution to the game on a wider national and European level.”

Without Gill, Ferguson’s political position at the club is challenged. After all, it was Woodward, not Gill, that was the primary driver of United’s IPO roadshow last summer, at one point promising potential investors that the Reds will not spend more than historical norms on transfers and wages. It was a promise that many people took at face value – an average net transfer budget of less than £20 million per season.

Recent analysis by blogger Andy Green forecasts that United’s surplus cash flow could reach more than £100 million in the coming years, putting Woodward on a collision course with Ferguson over budget, should the septuagenarian Scot remain at the club.

No wonder Ferguson admitted his dismay at Gill’s departure, with the man dubbed ‘Safe Hands’ no longer in the boardroom to facilitate his manager’s relationship with the American owners.

“I have been at United for over 26 years and for 23 of those years my boss has been one of only two men: Martin Edwards, who brought me to the club, and David Gill,” said Ferguson on Tuesday.

“Of course we have had a million arguments, but I have always enjoyed them because I know that David has two great qualities: he is straight and he always puts Manchester United first. No disagreement is ever personal with him. He always wants the best for United, whether it’s the players, the training ground or the staff.

“Him stepping down is a big loss to me but the fact that he is staying on the board encourages me that the reason for his departure is heartfelt, that he believes it is time for the club to move on. If I could have found a way of persuading him to stay I would love to have done that.”

In a decade as ceo, first under the Plc regime and latterly working for the Glazer family, Gill has generated significant controversy. Gill was integral to much of United’s first wave of commercialisation, provoking criticism from the media for United’s marketing approach, and from fans for the evolving nature of the Old Trafford matchday experience.

Gill also led the board’s strategy to increase ticket prices ahead of the Glazer’s leveraged buyout, justifying rises under the mantra of retaining the club’s ability to fight off a hostile takeover. It did little good.

Most controversially, Gill initially rejected the family’s approach for full control of the club in 2005, infamously stating that “debt is the road to ruin” and that the Glazer family’s business model was “overly aggressive”. Gill’s hostility soon morphed into support for the Glazer regime once the takeover was completed, although there was little material difference in either debt leverage or business approach.

It takes not a cynic to suggest that Gill’s salary, which has more than doubled since 2005, has bought significant loyalty to the new owners, who have sought to retain the executive’s involvement in a non-executive capacity.

“David has played a significant role in the success of Manchester United in his 10 years as CEO and he can take great satisfaction at all that has been achieved on his watch, both on and off the field,” said Joel Glazer, co-chairman in a rare statement from the family.

“I am very pleased he has agreed to remain on the board, so that his experience and counsel are not lost to us. I hope that the decision he has made will be to the benefit of the game in Europe as a whole, as he seeks election to Uefa’s executive committee.”

Meanwhile, Woodward called his appointment a “great honour,” adding that he is “humbled” to work with Ferguson. Yet, the obsequious words can do little to mask the new chief executive’s remit, which is to drive home the club’s profit goals, generating ever greater margins as the Glazer family seeks to extract equity from the business.

It is an objective that, as one reporter put it on Wednesday, completes the ‘Glazerfication’ of Old Trafford; an entity that now exists primarily to extract profit for its owners, and to be a football team as a by-product.

This process was once anathema to Ferguson, the socialist ship worker’s son, now working for the game’s most commercially geared organisation and under the leadership of the Glazer’s prodigy.

Preview: United v Reading

February 18, 2013 Tags: , Matches 86 comments

There was a moment during the chaos of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Reading in December that a 4-3 scoreline looked not only unlikely, but preposterous. The two sides would surely score far more than that. Yet, amid two of the worst defensive performances of the current se ason, the sides conspired to see out a goalless second period after seven were struck in the first.

The sides meet in different circumstances on Monday night with an FA Cup quarter final place at stake. Neither likely to defend with such apathy at Old Trafford, even if each has greater priorities in the season ahead.

United, far from fresh after draining encounters against Everton and Real Madrid in the past week, will be much changed. Meanwhile, the visitors’ manager Brian McDermott is likely to prioritise league points with Reading still in the drop zone.

Still, United’s handsome Premier league lead, allied to a positive result in Madrid last Wednesday, ensures that talk of another treble is now rife. Too early, perhaps, but with United in a strong position on three fronts manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s challenge is as much to set expectations for the season to come, as it is a motivational driver.

“I just look at the next match, thinking about winning the next match,” said Ferguson, who may change his entire team for Reading’s visit.

“The reality is don’t get carried away by it, particularly in the FA Cup, anything can happen. You don’t want to be a shock, that’s for sure.

“So Monday, in many people’s eyes, it’s Reading: ‘Yeah, we’ve just been to Madrid, it was a great night and Monday will take care of itself.’ Monday can’t take of itself. We have to take care of it, we have to have performance which respects our opponents and the fact that the FA Cup can produce shocks.”

Manchester United v Reading - FA Cup, Old Trafford - 8pm, 18 February 2013Ferguson will certainly rest forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, although the Dutchman has seemingly asked to be involved against Reading.

Meanwhile, with Paul Scholes still suffering from a knee injury and Michael Carrick due a rest, both Anderson and Tom Cleverley could start at Old Trafford. Forwards Nani, Ashley Young and Javier Hernández will rotate into the side.

Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard could come into the side, although the Danish international was a principle culprit in United shipping three against Reading earlier in the campaign.

Whatever the changes on Monday, Ferguson believes his squad is well equipped to challenge, especially with the quarter-final carrot of a match at home to Chelsea on offer.

“The incentive is there to get to the quarter-finals and I don’t think that will be lost on the players, no matter what side I pick,” added the 71-year-old.

“We’re taking nothing for granted. With an FA Cup tie, you always have to expect the unexpected. It happens so many times, you just don’t want to be a casualty or a shock. We’ve had a few over the years.

“I think there’s a good spirit in the place and they’re all contributing,” he said. “Whatever side I pick, I know we’re expected to qualify.

“That’s what happens with United. It doesn’t matter what team you play, you’re expected to win. But I couldn’t be more pleased than I am at the moment really with the form and the spirit in the place.”

Meanwhile, Reading make the trip north with Premier League status the season’s only real priority, although the Royals arrive in the side’s best form of the season, having lost just one match in the past seven.

The Berkshire side scored four against United in December, with McDermott’s side repeatedly punishing the Reds’ inability to deal with balls delivered from wide areas. Yet, Reading’s adventure at the Madjesky may not be repeated at Old Trafford, especially with McDermott’s side due to take on fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic next Saturday.

Midfielders Jimmy Kebe and Mikele Leigertwood are doubts with injury and unlikely to be risked. Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt could start, but veteran Jason Roberts and Alex McCarthy are definitely out.

And if Reading arrive at Old Trafford with alternate priorities, then there is also a risk of McDermott’s side being caught in the headlights. It is a risk exposed in McDermott’s obsequious sycophancy this week.

“Sir Alex Ferguson won’t take anything for granted, there’s no doubt about that,” said the Reading manager. “To move on the way they did from last season, to take that on to the pitch and that hurt, tells you the power of the people there.”

History is also on United’s side too – the Reds have won 10 and lost just one of the 18 previous competitive matches between these sides. Meanwhile, in FA Cup matches United has won six of the past seven.

It points to United’s safe passage and a – potential – quarter final tie against Chelsea to come.

Match details
Manchester United v Reading – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 8pm, 18 February 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner; Cleverley, Anderson; Nani, Giggs, Young; Hernández. Subs from: de Gea, Ferdinand, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Nani, Kagawa, Carrick, Valencia, Powell,Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney, van Persie.

Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Pearce,Mariappa, Harte, Kelly; Hunt, McAnuff, Carrico, Guthrie, Karacan; Pogrebnyak. Subs from: Taylor, Shorey, Morrison, McCleary, Leigertwood, Kebe, Le Fondre, Blackman

Match officials
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Darren England and Steve Child
Fourth Official: Philip Dowd

Form
United: DWWWWD
Reading: WWWDLL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Reading 4, Draw 0
Overall: United 9, Reading 1, Draw 7

Prediction
2-1

Ferguson trusts in squad as fans dare to dream

February 18, 2013 Tags: , , , , Opinion 8 comments

“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’,” argued Malcolm Gladwell in the peerless Outliers. “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of opportunities that lead to further success.”

It is a viewpoint with which Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson might agree. After 26 years in the job the Scot not only desires more, but has greater tools with which to achieve success – an incremental benefit that has been challenged only by the Glazer family’s £500 million ownership tariff.

Indeed, Ferguson could make 11 changes against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday night, safe in the knowledge that he can still field a team full of international players against the Berkshire side. And the 71-year-old manager just might make wholesale changes to his team even with United on course to face Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final.

It is the surprising strength-in-depth this season – given the paucity of high quality options in central midfield and ageing defenders – allied to a squad resilience that has manager and supporters wondering whether United might be able to achieve something truly special before the campaign is out.

No wonder, with the Reds still in three competitions, that 14 years after Ferguson’s team reached the promised land talk has once again turned to the treble. It has become one of football’s most hackneyed ideals.

It remains unlikely United will recreate 1999 at Wembley on 25 May; after all nothing is secured just yet. United’s return fixture with Real Madrid on 5 March must still be won, while Brian McDermott’s Reading pushed the Reds during the Premier League encounter at the Madjesky in December.  And despite a 12-point Premier League lead Sir Alex cannot count on a trophy regained.

United’s draw with Madrid came with plenty of credit, but also a warning. The home side’s dominance of possession, chances created and midfield reinforces the belief that Ferguson’s side is not without significant flaws.

Yet, says the Scot, his advantage gained since ’99 will come into play as United enters the final third of the campaign. More than a decade on from the treble, Ferguson is nostalgic for more.

“We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again,” said Sir Alex of the ’99 campaign.

“It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It’s nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now.

“When we went to the final, Keane and Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury and I had to pull in Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice, and he actually got a winner’s medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.

“I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It’s not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now.”

In fact Ferguson may well do so on Monday after the double-header with Real in the Spanish capital and Everton at Old Trafford last weekend. While the FA Cup remains a key target this season, nine years after the club last secured the 140-year-old trophy, the Royals also have more pressing priorities. Ferguson will surely gamble on a wholly different side from that which drew in Madrid.

In fact while United faces some challenging fixtures in the next month Ferguson can justifiably point to a trio of winnable matches against Reading, QPR, and Norwich before José Mourinho’s side arrives at Old Trafford in 16 day’s time.

United head into the period not only sporting good form, but with none of the internal politics running roughshod through Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City camp, that of Chelsea or indeed, Mourinho’s Real squad.

“I feel there’s a good spirit. That’s obvious,” adds Ferguson.

“When you’re successful you have to look at the overall squad – I know there were a lot of players disappointed not playing on Wednesday, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t disappointed, but the ones who weren’t playing were right behind the ones who were playing and that’s good.

“The way I’m looking at is to pick a team to win the next match and it will be a different team against Reading and again against QPR, Norwich and then Madrid.”

In that there is a concern of course, with Ferguson long dubbed “Tinkerbell” for the Scot’s penchant for repetitive change. But there is also a belief that the manager may just be striking the right balance between rotation and stability this season. Not least in Ferguson’s last-minute recognition that deploying a strong side against Everton last weekend’s went a very long way to sealing the Premier League title.

Still, United will be asked stern questions before the season is out, although few will come as tough as those faced at the Bernabéu last Wednesday. European and FA Cup competition aside, Ferguson’s side faces City at Old Trafford on 8 April, Arsenal at Emirates three weeks later and Chelsea on 4 May. Although each could dent the Reds’ ambitions, it is unlikely any will halt Ferguson’s train.

Those fixtures aside, Ferguson will be hugely disappointed if his side drops many more points domestically, while an FA Cup quarter-final draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford – should it come to pass – will disappoint few. Home against anyone ensures United remain in with a chance.

And none will seek success with Ferguson’s vigor. After all, while the details always matter in football, few will work as hard as Ferguson’s team between now and the season’s conclusion. The Scot will have it no other way.

Or as Gladwell put it “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

It is one reason, among many, why Ferguson will fully deploy his accumulated gain between now and the summer.

The sacrifice: Wayne Rooney’s European Journey

February 16, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

In the build up to Wednesday’s 1-1 draw between Real Madrid and Manchester United, the Madrid-based paper Marca depicted Wayne Rooney as ‘El Coco’ – the bogeyman. This was widely misreported in the British press as an insult, where it really acknowledged the city’s fear of the Rooney’s ability. Madridistas might, therefore, have felt a little let down by Rooney’s performance on the night of a game in which he never seemed to get going.

Many commentators are left underwhelmed after watching Rooney on the European stage. To brand his contributions as a failure, however, is to totally misunderstand the role that the striker is often asked to play when facing the best teams that Europe has to offer.

Memories of the 2006/7 Champions League campaign brings rise to mixed emotions for United fans. Nobody who witnessed United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in the quarter-final home-leg will ever forget the match – a performance of free-flowing attacking football at its best, with Rooney linking with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith, among others, to dismantle the team from Italy’s capital. Rooney scored in both legs of the tie.

The next round offered up a similar feast of football at Old Trafford, where Rooney was the star of the show, scoring a brace to help his team edge out AC Milan 3-2. The joy was short-lived however, as United went on to the San Siro to face a 3-0 embarrassment at the hands of a Káká-inspired Milan.

The defeat was enough to revolutionise Sir Alex Ferguson’s European tactics – and with it Rooney’s role – forever. Never again would Ferguson allow his team such attacking freedom against the top sides.

When faced with Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals, for example, Ferguson’s main concern was to stop Lionel Messi, at that time a right-winger for the Catalans. Ferguson’s response was to start Rooney on the left-wing, a position that quickly evolved into an auxiliary left-back as United defended ever deeper to hold onto a 1-0 lead in the tie. The strategy worked and United went on to win the competition at the cost of Rooney’s attacking flair.

Ferguson’s side was not so lucky against Barcelona in 2009, when United reached a second consecutive Champions League Final. Rooney was sacrificed once again, playing astonishingly deep as the Catalans’ supreme midfield destroyed England’s leading club in a 2-0 defeat.

It is very rare to have a player of Rooney’s attacking quality that is willing to carry out defensive tasks on the biggest stage. A breathtaking sacrifice to make.

Between 2009 and 2011, with Ronaldo departed and Robin van Persie yet to arrive, Ferguson deployed Rooney at the spearhead of United’s attack. In the European knock-out phases over those two years Rooney scored eight goals in 10 games, including a goal in the 2011 Final and two sensational braces against AC Milan in 2010.

Proof, if some need it, that Rooney can perform on the biggest stage as an attacking force when he is empowered to by Ferguson’s tactical thinking.

And yet, the England forward found himself stuck out on the wing again last Wednesday night in Madrid, charged with limiting the impact of former team-mate Ronaldo and the German playmaker Mesut Özil. Rooney’s role was part of a patchwork of tactics used to nullify the Madrid threat, with Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones also selected for their tireless work rate.

The strategy worked with United limiting Madrid to a single goal, while Ferguson’s side created plenty of scoring opportunities too. In the aftermath Jones’ performance, out of position in a deep-lying role, has been hailed as a complete success, while Rooney has suffered familiarly unfair criticism from the fourth estate. The Sun’s Steven Howard, for example, asks “Where does Rooney go when you need him?”

Indeed, if United does succeed in progressing to the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions League, it is very unlikely that Rooney will receive much of the credit. Nobody else in Ferguson’s side will have sacrificed nearly as much to get their team there though.

Rooney’s impact in Europe, while understated when deployed so often out of position, deserves better. It is, after all, a rare quality to combine tireless defensive ability with exceptional attacking talent. It is even rarer to selflessly sacrifice the latter for the former whenever called to do so.

Madrid wanted the bogeyman. Instead the Spaniards got a martyr.

 

Rooney’s European record:
Champions League: 68 played, 28 goals
UEFA Cup: 3 played, 3 goals
Rooney is the highest English goalscorer in Champions League history

Rant Cast 143 – Fresh Prince of Longsight

February 15, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

On this week’s show presenters Ed and Paul discuss a momentous week in Manchester United’s season. Domestically, United moved 12 points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League after defeating Everton at Old Trafford last weekend. We look back on victory over the Toffees and City’s demise at Southampton.

Also on this week’s show – we review the superb match with Real Madrid – the scoring draw makes United marginal favourites to progress. Tactics, performances and all the reaction from the Spanish capital.

Finally, we look ahead to United’s FA Cup fixture with Reading at Old Trafford. Just how many changes will Sir Alex Ferguson make?

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

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Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review! The podcast RSS feed is available here.

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Preview: Real Madrid v United

February 13, 2013 Tags: , Matches 272 comments

For all the attention grabbed by Manchester City in recent seasons there is still something compellingly attractive attached to a crunch European night against one of the continent’s giants – the clichéd European atmosphere under the lights and a departure from the hustled norm of the Premier league that has enduring appeal.

Not only does European football remain an irresistible product, but also genuine test of Manchester United’s place in world football – a team that few predicted could challenge on all fronts this season, but one that is outperforming all at home and abroad.

Indeed, Manchester United’s trip to Santiago Bernabéu to face Real Madrid on Wednesday night is, as Sir Alex Ferguson described it on Tuesday, the “acid test” of his team’s status. A test not only of United’s ability to compete against Europe’s best, but the Reds’ mental strength in what is likely to be a hugely pressurised atmosphere.

And while neither side is European Champion, and Madrid likely to acquiesce domestic hegemony this season, the are few who will reject the idea that United’s fixture with Madrid is not only the competition’s premier tie to date, but a clash between the world’s two most recognisable football clubs.

Yet, for all the perceived glamour United play in Madrid for the first time in almost a decade, with memories of a chastening 3-1 defeat at the Bernabéu in 2003 still fresh. Ferguson’s side triumphed in the return, only for Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s hat-trick at Old Trafford to prove decisive for Los Merengues.

Four years earlier and Real, sporting a teenage Ilker Cassilas and 22-year-old striker Raul, knocked the European champions out of the competition with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. On both occasions United had approached the opening leg in Madrid tentatively; on neither did Ferguson’s side progress, despite being widely regarded as favourites.

Once again United will start the double-header with Madrid in good form, although few pundits will assume Ferguson’s side is a banker for the tie despite Real’s damaging dressing-room politics. Once again one of Spain’s giants is inserted between Ferguson’s outfit and continental glory – and it hasn’t turned out well for the Scot in recent times.

Still, Ferguson remains defiant ahead of the match, with 71-year-old insistent this year’s United vintage is as good as any of his previous.

“Our team is capable of winning the Champions League,” said Sir Alex in Madrid on Tuesday.

“There is a great spirit about the players. People keep saying we’re not as good as past United teams but sometimes we get foggy impressions about the past and I do so myself at times. The reality is this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten which is a great quality. The acid test is tomorrow and we have to get through it if we are to win this trophy.”

Mourinho’s outfit begins the tie in decent form after hammering Sevilla 4-1 in Madrid last weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 20th hat-trick during four productive years in Spain secured victory as the Spanish Champions cruised home more than 24 hours ahead of United’s weekend victory over Everton.

Fine form perhaps, and an additional rest for sure, yet dressing-room politics and a 16 point La Liga gap to Barcelona mean that this is likely to be the last campaign in which Mourinho commands the Spaniards. By contrast, Ferguson’s outfit travels not only in good form, having dispatched Everton last weekend, but amid a run of 14 matches without defeat since CFR Cluj emerged victorious from a dead-rubber group match last December.

“I think it’s a good time for us to be playing Real Madrid,” said Sir Alex.

“We have a fantastic lead in our league and we have everyone fit. When you come to this part of the season you [usually] have two or three players injured. We don’t have that, which is a bonus. We’re ready for tomorrow. Since the Champions League started, almost every year we have played one of the biggest clubs in the world.

“When I started as a coach many years ago, I dreamt I’d be playing against the top teams as a manager and you get the opportunity to do that in the Champions League on a regular basis. There is a special significance when you play the big teams and you’ll see that tomorrow. It’s just a shame we and Real are meeting this early. I wish it had been at Wembley, in the final.”

Real Madrid v Manchester United - Champions League, Santiago Bernabeu - 7.45pm 13 February 2013

Jones may be asked to mark Ronaldo, while Rooney will make up a five-man midfield. Elsewhere, Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidić in defence, while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley should start in central midfield. Paul Scholes is the only absent through injury and did not travel.

Formations aside, Ferguson may ask his players to take a less expansive approach than has become the norm this season, with the Reds seeking to hit Real on the break while soaking up Spanish pressure.

It is, after all, Real’s ability to counter-attack at pace that will be Ferguson’s principle concern. Madrid’s rapid transition from defence to attack, using Ronaldo’s pace and tendency to create space from broken play, remains the over-riding threat to the Reds’ progression.

“It won’t be 0-0 tomorrow night, I can assure you of that,” promised Ferguson, despite the likelihood of United deploying a conservative approach.

“This match can live up to expectations. History always plays a part in this type of game, as does the two teams’ desire to go forward. Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe. Their speed from box to box is fantastic. But we have to play our own game too. Our intention is to win and to score.”

Meanwhile, Mourninho remains under pressure to deliver a 10th European Cup to the Spanish capital. The imminent loss of last season’s hegemony to a resurgent Barcelona ensures that Real’s focus is squarely on Europe where Los Merengues boast a record of eight victories from the past nine home matches.

“It won’t be a disaster if we don’t win the Champions League,” said the former Chelsea coach.

“There are some great teams and coaches who never won it. Real Madrid want to win their tenth title and I want to win my third. I don’t want to finish my career with two.”

It is a sentiment with which Ferguson can agree. One will certainly be disappointed over the next three weeks of football.

Match details
Real Madrid v Manchester United – Champions League, Santiago Bernabéu – 7.45pm, 13 February 2013

Possible teams
Real (4-2-1-3): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrão; Alonso, Khedeira; Ozil; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo; Subs from: Adán, Fernández, Varane, Rodríguez, Essien, Modrić, Callejón, Kaká, Morata, Higuaín.

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney; van persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Anderson, Nani, Kagawa, Young , van Persie, Hernández, Giggs, Welbeck.

Match officials (GER)
Referee: Felix Brych
Assistant referees: Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees: Marco Fritz, Tobias Welz
Fourth official: Thorsten Schiffner

Form
Real Madrid: WDWDLW
United: WDWWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3
Overall: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3

Prediction
0-0

Advantage Madrid as confident Reds head to Spain

February 11, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 54 comments

“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”

Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.

It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.

In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.

“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.

“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!

“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”

In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.

Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.

His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.

There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.

Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.

“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”

Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.

Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.

In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.

Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.

Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.

Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.

“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.

“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”

The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.

“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.

“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”

The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.

Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a  jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.

“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.

But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.

Preview: United v Everton

February 9, 2013 Tags: , Matches 112 comments

Three days ahead of Manchester United’s trip to face Real Madrid in Spain, supporters might be forgiven for having one eye on the Champions League Round of 16 clash next Wednesday. After all, this is a match between two of Europe’s most storied institutions, and a first meeting in almost a decade. Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho; Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney – a selection of the world’s finest managerial and playing talent that is certain to capture global attention.

United’s players, however, can ill afford to look beyond Sunday. Not least with United fighting to regain the Premier League title from neighbours Manchester City, whose defeat to Southampton on Saturday proffers the Reds an opportunity to open up a 12 point lead.

Yet, with Everton at Old Trafford this weekend, and memories of last season’s capitulation against the Merseysiders still fresh, it is far from clear which is the biggest game of the week ahead.

United’s 4-4 draw with Everton on 22 April last season, after holding a two-goal lead with just seven minutes to spare, eventually contributed heavily to a Premier League title secured by Roberto Mancini’s City. Together with Everton’s 1-0 victory over United at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season, there is plenty of reason for concern at Old Trafford over the fixture.

Still, the expediency of two difficult matches inside a few days means that Ferguson is likely to stretch his playing resources against Everton on Sunday, with the United manager insisting that he will trust his full squad over the brace of matches. Given the demands of the European élite, it may the be the tie with Everton where Ferguson delves deepest into his squad.

“It will be different teams,” admitted the United manager on Friday.

“The team on Sunday will not be the same as the team that plays on Wednesday. I trust the squad of players I have. They are all internationals, they are all good players and there is no reason why I can’t play them. They’re all contributing in their own way and that gives us a better chance of dealing with the various competitions we’re in.

“The team is playing well, I’m pleased with their form and I’m pleased that the players we’re changing around, when I’m making different team selections, are buying into it well.”

Ferguson at least has a fully fit squad from which to pick, with only shingles-suffering Phil Jones out of contention, while Ashley Young should return to the match-day party following injury.

Javier Hernández returned late from international duty with Mexico, but there are few other fitness concerns ahead of Everton’s arrival in Manchester. Paul Scholes may only feature against Madrid with the veteran suffering from a minor knee complaint.

“So far everyone has come back fit from their excursions into the rest of the world,” said Sir Alex.

“The only one we’re waiting on is Chicharito. I’ve not had anything back that says he’s not fit so I expect everyone to be fit from their games.

“On our own front, Ashley Young is fit again, Michael Carrick should be okay and Phil Jones will hopefully be okay, irrespective of Stuart Pearce coming out and declaring he had shingles – which we thought was doctor confidence. We’re disappointed in that, but it’s not anything serious for the boy. It’s a mild condition that has surfaced but he should be okay.”

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League, Old Trafford - 4pm, 10 February 2013Ferguson faces a number of tough selection choices, particularly in central defence and midfield, where the balance is likely to determine success or failure over two pivotal matches. The Scot may well play just one of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand in each of the ties, with the more sprightly Jonny Evans in outstanding form recently.

Meanwhile, Chris Smalling could feature against Everton to counter the Merseysiders aerial threat which proved so effective at Goodison Park, even if star midfielder Marouane Fellaini is struggling with a hip injury that caused the international to miss Belgium’s fixture in midweek.

Yet, it is to last season’s dramatic title-losing draw with the Toffees that many minds will turn – a significant and traumatic day in United’s recent history.

“We were 4-2 up with seven or eight minutes to go,” recalled Ferguson

“It was unexpected and we have to anticipate the unexpected in the run-in. That was a bad blow for us and it cost us the league. Everton are very experienced and, if you look at their record, they’ve only lost three games this season. They’re obviously hard to beat.”

Meanwhile, Everton will leave a decision over Fellaini until the last moment, while Phil Jagielka looks set to play in defence after recovering from a knock. Tony Hibbert and Seamus Coleman miss out again with injury.

David Moyes side arrives having secured a hard-fought draw with Aston Villa last weekend amid a run of seven games without defeat. Indeed, Moyes outfit has lost just once in the past 15 matches. Evidence enough of the challenge facing United this weekend.

When Everton scored twice so late at Old Trafford last season Moyes’ side because just the third side during the Premier League era to avoid defeat to United having been two goals adrift – a measure both of United’s failure on the day, and Everton’s late brilliance.

“You have to try to have a go at Manchester United,” said Moyes on Friday. “I don’t think you can sit back and allow them to dictate the game.

“At times they will be in possession and will get control of the match, and at those times you have to try and see it out. But whenever we can, we will try to make it as awkward as we can for them.”

Yet, Everton hasn’t beaten Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford since August 1992 – the season in which the Scot captured his first league title as United manager.

In fact history augers well for United despite two poor results against Everton in succession – the Reds have won 15 of the past 20 Premier League home games against Everton, with four matches drawn.

Fans will take an extension of that fine record in a match that is far more than a warm-up for a bigger event ahead, even if it takes on a different context with Real to come next week.

Match details
Manchester United v Everton – Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 10 February 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Ferdinand, Büttner, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Kagawa, van Persie, Hernández.

Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Heitinga, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Mirallas, Gibson, Neville, Pienaar; Fellaini; Jelavic. Subs from: Mucha, Duffy, Osman, Oviedo, Hitzlsperger, Naismith, Anichebe.

Match officials
Referee: Mark Halsey
Assistants: R Ganfield, A Garratt
Fourth official: A Marriner

Form
United: WWDWWW
Everton: WDDWWD

Head to Head
Last 10: United 4, Everton 2, Draw 4
Overall: United 80, Everton 63, Draw 42

Stats

  • Wayne Rooney’s recent scoring patch is underlined by some solid statistics, including a shot accuracy rate of 69.9 per cent from 56 attempts this season;
  • Meanwhile, strike partner Robin van Persie has registering a goal or assist once every 80.8 minutes this season, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Michael Carrick has performed well in both defence and attack this season, leading the squad for passes completed in the opponent’s half with 755 while making 50 interceptions;
  • Tom Cleverley’s all-round game has improved this season – the midfielder boasts the best tackle success rate in the United squad with 74.2 per cent from 31 attempts;
  • Marouane Fellaini’s two goals versus Aston Villa last weekend secured Everton a 3-3 draw, but the midfielder has also attempted 80 tackles this season;
  • Leighton Baines ranks second in the Index for crosses provided with 99;
  • Midfielder Steven Pienaar has completed 701 passes in the opponent’s half this season, more than any other Everton player;
  • Phil Jagielka’s tackle success rate of 87.7 per cent from 57 challenges is the best of any central defender in the Premier League.

Prediction
1-0

Rant Cast 142 – que viva Ronaldo

February 8, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 13 comments

ON this week’s packed Rant Cast we look back on Manchester United’s narrow victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage in the Premier League. Wayne Rooney’s goal, coupled with Manchester City’s failure to beat Liverpool leaves Sir Alex Ferguson’s side nine points clear.

We look ahead to United’s fixture with Everton at the weekend – a game which tormentor-in-chief Marouane Fellaini may miss through injury. Big relief all round.

Also on this week’s show: We take your questions, discuss nicknames, Paul Gascoigne, Fergie’s FA charge, Ronaldinho, Matt Jansen, United’s Asian tour and match fixing.

Finally, we talk Real Madrid – United’s Champions League Round of 16 to the Bernabeu next week in the biggest match of the season to date.

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

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