Month March 2013

Month March 2013

Preview: Chelsea v United

Ed March 31, 2013 Tags: , Matches 76 comments
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Just 48 hours on from a laboured victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side hits the road once again on Monday. The Scot flew his Manchester United team home from the north east at the weekend, seeking any possible advantage ahead of United’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea on Easter Monday. And while Monday’s match is another away from Old Trafford for United’s weary players, it is one with a significant carrot: victory brings a semi against rivals Manchester City at Wembley.

United took another huge step towards reclaiming the Premier League title at the weekend by securing three points against relegation threatened Sunderland. Ferguson can hardly have been impressed with his side’s efforts though; the third match in succession that the Reds achieved just enough, but little more.

That short run of mediocre form includes the opening cup match between these sides – a 2-2 draw in which Ferguson’s side was left hanging on for a draw just days after defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Indeed, United’s break against Chelsea at Old Trafford came amid a strong finish from the Londoners, while Ferguson’s players appeared spent by the tie’s end.

The contrasting fortunes of the sides in recent weeks sets up Monday’s Cup clash; a battle that will go some way to define two campaigns.

“I thought we were lucky to be honest with you,” said Sir Alex of the first quarter-final clash between the sides.

“I thought that tiredness had got into the team and, from a comfortable position for the first 20 minutes, you could see the signs when we started to give the ball away just before half-time. That is a definite sign of tiredness.

“The tiredness came, possibly, from the emotional intensity of the Real Madrid game and also the way we lost it. In the second half in particular there was no doubt that Tom Cleverley’s and our two full-backs’ legs had gone. That made it a long game against Chelsea and they had the advantage of extra players in midfield.”

Two days after each side played in the Premier League, the respective stamina of these squads will once again be tested, with Ferguson likely to make wholesale changes at Stamford Bridge. He has little choice given United’s leg-weariness in recent matches.

Chelsea v Manchester United - FA Cup, Stamford Bridge - 12.30pm, 1 April 2013Ferguson could bring in eight or more new players, with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nani, Javier Hernández and Tom Cleverley coming back into the side against Rafa Benitez’ outfit. Defenders Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand should also return after being rested against Sunderland.

Meanwhile, the Spaniard will again make changes to the side that lost at St Mary’s having rotated his squad heavily against Southampton on Saturday. Indeed, accusations that Benitez put his own vanity – a potential Cup win – over the club’s need for Champions League football next season weigh heavily on the temporary manager. After all, the former Liverpool manager has no chance of taking the role full time.

There is some good news for Benitez though, with Juan Mata returning to the Blues’ side after recovering from illness, although Gary Cahill is rated doubtful for the lunchtime clash.

Still, the home side has looked fresher in recent weeks, with Champions League football seemingly secure until Saturday’s defeat and the Europa League offering none of it’s bigger brother’s intensity. Defeat to Southampton may change the picture domestically at least, although in the short term it is United that must also overcome the disadvantage of both fatigue and injuries.

“We picked up two or three injuries, which doesn’t help,” said Ferguson after the Reds’ weekend victory.

“It was all down to the courage of the players that they got through it. Rafael got injured and Jonny Evans got a bit of a knock but carried on. That was great because we couldn’t afford to take him off. He said he’d last as long as he could but he got through it.

“I thought we’d lost David De Gea for a moment. He was out for a few minutes but recovered and played a really great part for us. Generally, we have a few bumps and bruises but we handled it well.”

With a double to chase this is no time for United’s season to wind down of course, although Ferguson’s hope of securing a record Premier League points total looks unrealistic on very recent form.

Still, with the Scot’s squad broad, if not truly deep, Ferguson will exploit the full resources on offer. After all, gaving gone 18 league matches without defeat has all but secured the Premier League title.

Should United win, the side will face City twice in a week; first, at Old Trafford in the Premier League next Monday, and then a Cup semi at Wembley on 14 April. Two games that will go a long way to deciding the Reds’ fate this season.

“We want to win the Double and we took a big step in the league,” van Persie told MUTV on Saturday.

“But we want to go for both. Now we have to look ahead to the FA Cup tie against Chelsea. It’s going to be a big test but I’m quite confident we can play well at Stamford Bridge and get a good result.

“It’s been nine years since United have won the FA Cup. It’s important to us. We have a big chance of reaching the semi-final against City. I don’t want to look too far ahead but we have a massive chance of winning the competition.”

With Cup final victory will surely come a first double since 1999 – the moment of Ferguson’s greatest hour. There are three tough matches in the competition before that, however, although with the Reds 15 points clear in the Premier League Ferguson can at least afford to refocus.

First, however, United must achieve a rare first – FA Cup victory at Stamford Bridge.

Match details
Chelsea v Manchester United – FA Cup, Stamford Bridge – 1 April 2013 March 2013, 12.30pm

Possible teams
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Benayoun, Marin, Moses, Ba

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

Match officials
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Peter Kirkup and Andy Garratt
Fourth Official: Neil Swarbrick

Form
Chelsea: WLDWWL
United: WWLDWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Chelsea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Chelsea 45, United 72, Draw 49

Prediction
1-2

Preview: Sunderland v United

Ed March 29, 2013 Tags: , Matches 44 comments
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More than 10 months on from the scene of Manchester United’s most traumatic title defeat in recent memory, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side returns to the Stadium of Light on Saturday lunchtime. United beat Sunderland last May. but few remember the game or result amid Manchester City’s celebrations that followed.

While the Blue quarter of Manchester commenced the party, a small corner of the north east joined in, Sunderland fans ‘doing the Poznan’ in a moment of joyous schadenfreude. It is an image imprinted in the collective consciousness of those who attended United’s 1-0 victory.

In the intervening months Ferguson’s side has taken title disappointment and channelled the pain into a what now looks to be a successful Premier League challenge. United’s 15-point lead could stretch further after the weekend’s games.

However, revenge, says the Scot, is not on the agenda; not with a title to claim and another game to check off the list. Just eight league games remain after United’s trip north.

Yet, few on the terraces this Saturday will forget the last visit here, even if United walk away from the Stadium of Light 18 points clear.

“You see a lot of that with supporters’ reaction to many things,” said Ferguson of Sunderland’s conflicted supporters.

“It was disappointing and it’s hard to take these things with the way it all panned out. I thought we’d won it for 20 seconds and it was snatched away from us.

“There’s not any bitterness from my point of view. It happens and we move on. We’ve dusted ourselves down and made a really good challenge in the league this year. The concentration has been fantastic and the team spirit is really good. So, in that respect, we’ve answered it as best we can.

“So I don’t have any issues with the Sunderland fans. I don’t think the Sunderland fans wanted City to win it any more than we did. It was just a fact that they were our opponents that day and it goes back to what I was saying about present society.”

Ferguson’s side travels north facing two games in 48 hours, with an FA Cup replay against Chelsea in London on Monday likely to play some part in the Scot’s weekend team selection. Indeed, with half-a-dozen players returning from draining double-header internationals last week, Ferguson is likely to use his full squad over the next two matches.

Fortunate, then, that not only did five key players miss out on international week altogether, but a further group of players are set to return from injury over the next two matches. Heading into the 45th fixture of another busy season – with no more than 12 matches to go – Ferguson is certain to spread the load liberally in the coming weeks.

“The players who will miss the international trips like Giggs, Anderson, Vidić, Büttner and Rafa will be key players on the run-in,” said Ferguson.

“I don’t think there are any injuries from the internationals which is really good news. There’s a fair bit of tiredness and the answer to that is to make sure we get the energies back in their bodies. So there’s the recovery side to it with not much training.

“There was a fair bit of travel – Chicharito and Valencia only got in yesterday afternoon and the English players got back at 5am. Other than that, we’re very satisfied.”

“Nani, Jones and Scholes are all doing a little bit of training, which is encouraging. Hopefully it will give us a good strong squad to approach the two games on Saturday and Monday. We’ll try and keep the momentum going with he run we’re in at the moment. If we do that, Monday will take care of itself.”

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League, Stadium of Light - 30 March 2013, 12.45pmIndeed, the United manager is likely to go with the freshest possible options for Saturday’s fixture, with Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Alexander Büttner certain to start. In midfield Nani could return, although Paul Scholes may make only the bench.

It is in the forward areas that Ferguson has the toughest selection choices, with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández and Shinji Kagawa each playing twice last week. The latter pair travelled to South American and Asia respectively.

Meanwhile, Sunderland arrive in desperate trouble at the foot of the Premier League. Martin O’Neil’s men have picked up just two points in the past six games, leaving the Mackems just four points of the relegation places. Worse, momentum appears to be with Sunderland’s rivals – Queens Park Rangers, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic and even Reading have picked up more points over the same period.

It leaves the Irishman under severe pressure, fighting not only for Sunderland’s survival the season before the Premier League’s huge new television deal kicks in, but his own reputation. After successful spells in charge of Leicester City, Celtic and Villa, O’Neil now stands on the precipice of relegation.

With matches against Chelsea, Everton and Newcastle following United’s visit, O’Neil has very little time in which to turn Sunderland’s season around.

O’Neil’s man play out the season without key striker Steven Fletcher too, with the striker suffering ankle ligament damage on international duty with Scotland. Defender Carlos Cuellar is also injured, although Stephane Sessegnon could return to a squad desperately short on quality. Lee Cattermole and former Red Wes Brown also miss out.

“The old cliché about people stepping up to the plate has never been more relevant,” said O’Neill, who walked out on Villa in summer 2010 in a dispute over transfer funds.

“Remaining upbeat is actually in my nature. I can be down when we’ve lost matches but fighting back is part of me. Being down is not in my nature. Setbacks are part of the game. You have to expect these things. We have some great games ahead that we can look forward to rather than shy away from. They are tough but exciting to be involved in.”

Yet, Sunderland’s supporters appear to be losing faith; leading fanzine Roker Report recently describing a team “headed for the iceberg” and in O’Neill a manager that “is too proud to let go of the helm.”

Cliché, of course, but this is a ship sinking fast, with the rats abandoning astern. Few Old Trafford regulars will hold any sympathy of course. Not after that Pozan on that day.

“The fans have come in big numbers to support us,” claimed O’Neil.

“We have not given them a great deal to support all season. They are entitled to be frustrated. Personally speaking, I believe this is years of pent-up frustration that Sunderland have not won a trophy for 40 years.”

Not unless the Stadium of Light faithful are claiming that City victory last May, of course.

Match details
Sunderland v Manchester United – Premier League, Stadium of Light – 30 March 2013, 12.45pm

Possible teams
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardlsey, O’Shea, Bramble, Rose; Johnson, N’Diaye, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon, Graham. Subs from:  Westwood,  Larsson, Kilgallon, Vaughan,Mangane,  Gardner, Mandron, Noble, Wickham

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

Match officials
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistant Referees: J Flynn, D England
Fourth Official: L Mason

Form
United: WWWLDW
Sunderland: LLLDLD

Head to Head
Last 10: Sunderland 0, United 8, Draw 2
Overall: Sunderland 39, United 59, Draw 36

Prediction
0-3

Rant Cast 148 – record breakers

Ed March 29, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 6 comments
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On this week’s Rant Cast Ed and Paul look back on the international week in which many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s players were present. Did United’s stars return home fit and healthy in time for matches against Sunderland in the Premier League and Chelsea in the FA Cup?

We talk Robin van Persie – the Dutchman wants to finish his career at Old Trafford. And Ferguson – United’s manager calls for a record breaking Premier League victory by the end of the campaign. Rio Ferdinand – the defender takes some heat for not joining up with England.

And finally on this week’s show: we look back into the distant past at United’s victory over Reading at Old Trafford and take all your weird, and wonderful, questions.

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.

Rant Back
Want to appear on Rant Cast? The pod’s call-in section “Rant Back” features the best audio comments, questions and other nonsense each week. Keep your comment under a minute, reasonably clean and leave a name to take part.

Send an MP3 to cast@unitedrant.co.uk.

The price of success

Ed March 25, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 13 comments

What is success? It was an interesting question posed by Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeneß recently as the Bavarian side sneaked through to the Champions League quarter-finals by defeating Arsenal. Money, the determinant on many supporters’ lips, is only part of the solution says the former German international. After all, while finance is a means to a football end, it is explicitly not the definitive goal at Bayern.

Hoeneß’ assertion poses an interesting challenge at a time when Europe’s football landscape is evolving from one dominated by English clubs to potentially a more fragmented picture. While English clubs competed in seven finals in eight seasons from 2005, the Premier League is absent from the final eight of the continent’s leading competition this year.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City each crashed out of the Champions League prematurely leaving England without a quarter-finalist for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, three sides from Spain, two from Germany and one each from Turkey, France and Italy made it though from the round of 16.

Ownership structure, or indeed financial motivation, may have only a passing correlation to progress in the competition, but Hoeneß and executives at the other German quarter-finalist, Borussia Dortmund, point to more than 50 per cent fan control as a guiding principle. Similarly, Barcelona and Real Madrid is each entirely owned by the ‘socios’ – club members – as is Turkish champions Galatasary.

In each case league regulations have either reinforced or explicitly mandated the policy. In Germany the 50+1 rule states that members of a club must retain more than 50 per cent ownership, preventing any single private entity taking control. Meanwhile, in Spain both Barça and Real, together with Athletic Bilbao and CA Osasuna, are supporter-owned. In Turkey all clubs are fan-owned as no other form of ownership is permitted.

Of the remaining quarter-finalists Juventus is majority-owned by the Agnelli family, in charge of the Turin-based club since 1923, while both Malaga and Paris Saint Germain are in Middle Eastern hands.

And with fan ownership, says Hoeneß, comes a supporter-friendly policy. After all, cheap ticket prices at Bayern and Dortmund are the envy of many United fan now priced out of Old Trafford.

“I only want to have big sporting success on a sound economic basis,” said Hoeneß, who played 239 times for the club and 35 times for the national team.

“It’s no fun to win the championship or Champions League with a £50-£60 million loss. The cheap tickets are for young people and the people who cannot afford it otherwise. Football must always be affordable.

“When you only pay €15 (£12) you can’t say ‘I hate these millionaires’ because you cannot finance the millionaires with €15. The €15 tickets are standing seats behind the goals. Our most expensive season ticket is around €800.”

By comparison United’s cheapest ticket is £30 in the East and West Lower, while the most expensive non-executive season ticket in the South Stand is priced at £950 for 19 league matches – the result of cumulative ticket prices increases in the five years following the 2005 Glazer takeover.

Cheap pricing has created an imbalance in Bayern’s income – €368.4 million revenue in the last financial year was heavily skewed towards commercial activity, with matchday turnover just 23 per cent of total revenues.

Acceleration in United’s commercial strategy in recent years, together with rapidly increasing media rights, means that the club posts balanced revenue streams of approximately a third each from broadcast, commercial and matchday income.

The difference, says Hoeneß, is that Bayern’s strategy is based on a long-term vision, while United’s paymasters seek profit first.

“I do not compare ourselves to United for instance which is a very big club and famous and one I admire greatly,” adds Hoeneß.

“But Mr Glazer didn’t know where Manchester was 20 years ago. He doesn’t do it because he loves United. He wants to make money.

“At Bayern we don’t look always for short-term success. I’ve won about 20 titles. To win the 21st title I’ll not sell out the club. But if somebody comes in who’s won nothing, he wants to win quickly and under this pressure he makes decisions which can be very difficult.”

Bayern currently leads the Bundesliga by 20 points, with outgoing manager Jupp Heynckes set to hand Pep Guardiola an emphatic championship winning team next season.

Although in that there is also a contradiction, with Bayern having spent more than £60 million on Javi Martínez, Mario Mandzukic, and Xherdan Shaqiri last summer to wrestle the title back from Dortmund.

Not that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has regressed after last season’s disappointments. United boasts an impressive, if not equal, 15 point lead over City in the Premier League even if European disappointment will not easily be forgotten. Much of United’s success this season has been driven by Robin  van Persie’s £24 million acquisition.

Moreover, with media and commercial income media income racing ahead, and last summer’s IPO proceeds partially paying down debt, the club is on a healthier financial footing than at any time over the past seven years. The Glazers may never run the club debt free, but at £360 million gross debt is no longer the existential threat it once was.

Yet, Hoeneß’ point is one of principle rather than financial nuance; that a football club exists to be that – serving its principle stake-holders, the supporters. It is a philosophy ingrained into German, Spanish, and Turkish football, among others.

After all, while United’s profits may rise sharply in the coming years, driven by new sponsorship income and a huge new Premier League television deal, there is little sign of a change in ownership philosophy. Old Trafford’s supporters will forever remain a body without voice or power.

And for the moment it is Hoeneß side, and not United, that can look forward to a European quarter-final next month.

Declining Rooney an asset to realise

Jay Shon March 16, 2013 Tags: Opinion 50 comments
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It is difficult to accept but the current Manchester United side is simply not good enough to impose its style on other teams. No shame in that though – only one team in the world, Barcelona, is capable of doing that. So broadly speaking, Sir Alex Ferguson faces two options: maximising the team’s attacking potential to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses or setting out to defend and minimise opponents’ chances of scoring.

Complexity of the modern game is such that those two ‘ideals’ often actualise to the same time. In the recent tie against Real Madrid, for example, the Scot pitted Nani, United’s best dribbler, against Alvaro Arbeloa, the weak link in any Real Madrid line-up. At the same time, the manager deployed Danny Welbeck to take Xabi Alonso, the metronome of Real Madrid’s attacking play, out of the game. This is a job that would normally have been given to Wayne Rooney, who was surprisingly found on the bench.

Rooney has since started, and scored against, both Chelsea and Reading to quell media stories of a summer departure, but questions about his worth remain.

Time flies. Wayne “remember the name” Rooney is now 27. The two-time winner of the English player of the year, Rooney has enjoyed a storied career, but there is no denying that more was expected of him. The striker is one of the best, but he should have been among the very best – up there with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the game’s élite. Instead, at least in the big games, the Englishman is more often charged with doing the defensive work.

Jonathan Wilson of Inverting the Pyramid fame once described Rooney as an “advanced box-to-box player.” Rooney has become something of a jack of all trades. His all-roundedness has been a great asset though. When playing as a number ten, Rooney harnesses his goal-scoring instincts to great effects. As a striker, he helps out in midfield.

In fact, it is this versatility that enables Ferguson to use Rooney to nullify opposition threat. Ji-Sung Park, and to lesser extent Antonio Valencia, have also been used in the same role, but offer less attacking prowess than the United number 10. The Scot can deploy Rooney to babysit the opposition left-back, for example, and count on the player to be an active and devastating participant in counter-attack.

Lately though, Rooney has been dropping the ball defensively. In the 2010/11 Champions League final against Barcelona he left Sergio Busquets free, which allowed Barcelona to completely dominate midfield. Against Italy in Euro 2012, Rooney’s nonchalant marking of Andrea Pirlo instigated Joe Hart to publicly chastise the England striker.

Just a few weeks ago, Rooney’s failure to stick to Fabio Coentrao resulted, among others, in a shot that forced an exceptional save from David De Gea.

One major problem, perhaps the major problem, is the decline in Rooney’s physical assets. The former Evertonian has lost a yard of pace and can no longer cover the occasional lapse in defensive positioning. Rooney, wanting perhaps to be more of a fulcrum, could very well be fed up with being a defensive player shunted out to the flanks, although this theory is directly at odds with his chasing of ‘lost causes’ during games. Ferguson is too canny a man manager to deploy someone of that mindset to do the dirty work anyway.

This deterioration of physical attributes carries worrying repercussions. Rooney has never been the greatest technically; never a trickster in the Messi mould. Instead, he used his pace and agility to get past players. With this blistering pace under question, it is becoming rarer that Rooney beats his man.

The Champions League is – pardon the Americanism – a whole other ball game than the Premier League. For one, teams at the business end of the tournament are of better quality. In turn, the competition causes teams, wary of the opposition threat, to be more defensive and patient. More sides have come to adopt a counter-attacking mindset and, in turn, it causes a vicious cycle of ever deeper play.

Additionally, some managers have begun deploying players to limit the influences of deep-lying midfielders and fullbacks, whose influence grows as the play is stretched.

In this context it has become harder to trust Rooney with the defensive job – Sir Alex’ decision to use Danny Welbeck over the former Everton player to mark Alonso in the recent tie against Madrid at Old Trafford is proof.

In fact Rooney’s primacy in any position is under threat. He no longer has the pace to trouble other teams in the counterattack. Welbeck, however, does. Javier Hernández and Robin Van Persie are better finishers, while in Shinji Kagawa United has a number ten who is faster, smarter and more technically gifted than Rooney.

The Englishman edges each in physical strength, but European referees are happier than Premier League counterparts to blow the whistle.

There is no denying that Rooney is still a fine all-round player and one exceptionally suited for the Premier League. Few are ready to discard the 28-year-old from United’s squad, but there are equally plenty of questions to answer.

Slowly but surely Rooney’s physical decline will accelerate – not aided by the fact that he does not take good care of his body. This is more than troubling.

By contrast Ryan Giggs’ physical decline is more than made up by excellent technical skills and better understanding of the game. Rooney has shown no sign of improvement in these fields.

United is big enough that the Reds can afford to keep Rooney around – even at the reported £250,000 per week – but Rooney’s is an asset that is also at its peak. Which begs the question: should United sell?

Despite United’s huge Premier League lead, Ferguson may still spend in the summer. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are limited at best, while Luis Nani is erratic and could very well be gone by the start of next season anyway. Given the importance of width in the modern game, United desperately needs some new stardust in the area considering Wilfred Zaha is still raw.

In midfield, Michael Carrick’s successor will be required sooner or later. Despite letting his colleagues do the harrying, Carrick often tops the ‘ground covered’ charts because he is constantly on the move, closing down angles and taking up good positions. In fact, deep-lying playmakers are so important that Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox considers Carrick’s absence as one of key reasons why United was knocked out of the Champions League last season. Replacing the Geordie will be undoubtedly expensive.

Moreover, in Rooney United has an asset that has every possibility of depreciating sharply. With additions needed in the squad, and relatively little money to spend, there is a solid argument to letting Rooney go – after all there are already players within the squad who can more or less replicate his contribution.

Preview: United v Reading

Ed March 16, 2013 Tags: , Matches 98 comments
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When Manchester United faced Reading at the Majesky in December the sides conceded seven goals between them in a little over 30 minutes. Little wonder that last month’s FA Cup tie at Old Trafford took more than an hour to spring to life, with the Reds eventually running out 2-1 winners as the sides scored three in the final 20 minutes. Yet, after traumatic defeat to Real Madrid last week, followed by a draw with Chelsea in the cup, Sir Alex Ferguson could hardly wish for better opponents than Reading this weekend.

Reading, second from bottom in the Premier League, arrive rudderless following Brian McDermott’s bizarre sacking by owner Anton Zingarevich this week. If ever a manager has become the victim of his own success, then McDermott is surely it after leading Reading to emphatic promotion last season.

The Berkshire side’s managerial loss is surely United’s gain though, with Academy Manager Eamonn Dolan leading the visitors at Old Trafford Saturday tea time. In the week that Ferguson called for United to be more ruthless in front of goal, the Reds will have few better opportunities to hammer home an advantage.

And with Manchester City facing Everton this weekend the opportunity is there for United to stretch a premier league lead to more than 12 points.

Yet, never slow to defend a fellow member of the managers’ union, Ferguson joined widespread bemusement at the timing of McDermott’s departure, with just 10 games to go in the Premier League season.

“Some things you can never understand and football is full of that and to sack Brian McDermott at this stage is strange to say the least,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.

“If they had done it in December or January maybe I would have understood it because he could have brought players in. Brian McDermott has done a good job given the outlay. He spent something like £1.2 million and got in £7.4 million and got them promoted to the Premier League. He was manager of the month in January – I hope I am not manager of the month this month.”

Still, Ferguson’s side takes on the Royals at the right time, with the Scot keen to kill off any talk of a slump in form following a testing fortnight. Fixtures against Reading, and then at relegation threatened Sunderland, in the next fortnight should hand United a decisive advantage before the derby with City at Old Trafford on 8 April.

Manchester United v Reading - Premier League, Old Trafford - 5.30pm, 16 March 2013Nani, Paul Scholes and Phil Jones sit out the Reading tie, but Ferguson can choose from an otherwise healthy squad for the Saturday fixture. The Portuguese winger hobbled out of United’s cup draw with Chelsea, while Jones is still not available after injuring his ankle against the Royals last month.

In defence Nemanja Vidić will likely start after Rio Ferdinand’s call-up to the England squad, while star striker Robin van Persie could return alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. The Dutchman has looked jaded in recent weeks, but played only part of the cup tie with Chelsea.

However, Ferdinand’s surprise call-up after more than two years away from the England set-up has not gone down well at Old Trafford. The veteran defender’s contribution to United has totalled 2x games in all competitions this season, with the 34-year-old’s appearances carefully monitored. Ferdinand’s additional international burden is unlikely to be accepted by the United manager without challenge.

“I need to speak to the United doctor, as we prepare Rio Ferdinand in a certain way and there are certain treatments he has to go through, ” said Ferguson.

“We have to make sure he is going to be OK in terms of the number of games he plays. We have been doing that and it has worked. We have to look at all these things before Rio decides.”

Meanwhile, managerless Reading will be without goalkeeper Adam Federici and winger Jimmy Kébé for the trip north. Third-choice Stuart Taylor will deputise in goal, while striker Pavel Pogrebnyak serves the last of a three match ban. Striker Jason Roberts is set to miss the rest of the season with injury.

Reading has lost five in a row coming into the fixture. Yet, with no new manager appointed and just 10 fixtures left in the season Reading’s owner is unlikely to get the desired ‘bump’ in performances that will save the Berkshire outfit. Not least with Queens Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic finding some form at just the right time. At just the wrong time, with a new bumper television deal set to kick in from next season, Reading already look doomed.

United, meanwhile, has a realistic chance of stretching an already huge league lead this weekend. With a week off, only complacency is likely to stand in the Reds ‘ way. After all, while City manager is trusting in fatigue to hamper United’s season, a week-long break has come at just the right time for Ferguson’s men.

“Football is strange for this,” Manchini said on Friday.

“Sometimes you lose a game, you don’t know why. Maybe one, two, three games. United are playing very well this season, they played fantastic against Real Madrid. But 10 games until the end is a difficult moment because all the teams can be tired after eight months. We hope.”

Should United beat Reading and then Sunderland, hope is surely all that Mancini will have left.

Match details
Manchester United v Reading – Premier League, Old Trafford – 5.30pm, 15 March 2013.

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

Reading (4-5-1): Taylor; Kelly, Pearce, Mariappa, Shorey; Leigertwood, McAnuff, Akpan, Guthrie, Robson-Kanu; Hunt. Subs from: Henly, Harte, Morrison, Karacan, McCleary, Blackman, Le Fondre

Match officials
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant Referees; S Child and D Bryan
Fourth Official: E Ilderton

Form
United: DWWWLD
Reading: LWWWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Reading 0, Draw 3
Overall: United 10, Reading 1, Draw 7

Stats

  • United lost a 2-0 against Chelsea in the cup last weekend, but goalscorer Javier Hernández continues to top the minutes per goal rating in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored eight times in the Premier League this season – a goal every 93 minutes and 30 seconds;
  • Fellow striker Rooney has scored 11 in the league this season, coming from 64 shots at goal with 67.2 per cent on target at an average of 145 minutes per goal;
  • Rooney has also averaged a pass completed in opposition territory every three minutes and contributed nine assists this season;
  • Rio Ferdinand was recalled to the England squad this week – the defender has made 133 defensive contributions this season – tackles, clearances, blocks and interceptions – Ferdinand averages one contribution every 14 minutes and 15 seconds;
  • Ferdinand has also completed 208 passes in the opposition half, an average of one every nine minutes eight seconds;
  • Opponents Reading lost 2-1 to Aston Villa last weekend, with the Royals now level on points at the bottom of the league with QPR;
  • Jobi McAnuff forced Villa’s Nathan Baker into scoring an own goal last weekend – the closest the Reading player has come to a goal this season, having taken 27 shots at goal including 10 on target without scoring;
  • McAnuff has, however, contributed seven assists and delivered 64 crosses, the 8th highest among the Index;
  • Reading’s wide play has been a feature this season – Nicky Shorey has delivered 53 croses, the fourth highest from a defender this season, while Gareth McCleary is second only to Robin van Persie among the Index’s strikers for crosses delivered with 37;
  • Mikele Leigertwood is one of six players to have attempted 100 or more tackles this season last weekend – coming away with the ball after 64.1 per cent of his tackles.

Prediction
3-0

Rant Cast 147 – I can be your hero, Bébé

Ed March 15, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 9 comments
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On this week’s post-FA Cup Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul talk about Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s side ran out of legs. Did defeat to Real Madrid take more out of the Reds than expected?

We also tackle the biggest issues of the week, including Rio Ferdinand’s recall to the England squad. It’s a recall accepted by the veteran central defender, but would you?

Also on this week’s show: we take your Twitter questions, debate the battle to avoid relegation, look forward to United’s fixture with Reading at Old Trafford and give away a fine competition prize from China Town Branch.

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

And if you really love the show, you can always help cover our bandwidth and equipment costs by making a small donation!

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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Euro disapointment at the heart of Fergie’s anguish

Ed March 10, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 22 comments

Defeat in the Champions League this week may have been acutely unfortunate, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s pain in the wake of Manchester United’s exit to Real Madrid says as much about the manager’s record in Europe’s premier competition, as it did about the club’s disappointment. It is the Scot’s desire to improve on his two Champions League victories in a quarter century at Old Trafford that lies at the centre of the manager’s heartbreak.

“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” said assistant Mike Phelan after Tuesday’s defeat.

“I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”

Yet, Ferguson’s anguish was not only about one defeat, influenced by an over-zealous referee, but the realisation that time is running out to improve on a European record that includes one Cup Winners’ Cup and two Champions League victories.

After all, there is an argument that Ferguson’s European adventure has underwhelmed given the resources at his disposal. In an era of United dominance domestically and a period of Anglo-Saxon success on the continent, Ferguson has often said “we should have won it more”.

Two trophies and a further brace of defeats in the final is perhaps scant return for just shy of 20 seasons in Europe’s premier competition.

Indeed, United’s elimination at the round of 16, as against Real, has come as often as Ferguson’s side has made the last four, while the Reds have been eliminated at the group stage more often than they have secured the trophy. Ferguson’s base elimination stage is the quarter-final. Or to put it another way, Europe’s leading eight is the sum of Sir Alex’ parts these past two decades.

Those in charge of United’s marketing department spin a different story of course.

It is a cruel analysis of a man whose trophy count stands against few peers, although one that might explain Ferguson’s frustrated response in the past week. In the wake of Real’s victory, the 71-year-old blamed not only Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for United’s defeat to Real, but officialdom for robbing the club of two further tournaments over the past decade.

“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” said Ferguson of Nani’s 58th minute red card at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions. We’d have won two of them. I have no doubt about that.”

In 2004 José Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out in the round of 16 after Paul Scholes’ goal was incorrectly ruled out offside in a game mired by controversy. Dmitri Alenichev’s professional foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was ignored, before Francisco Costinha’s scored a debatable last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford to take the Portuguese through 2-3 on aggregate over the two legs.

“The decision of the Russian referee when they brought down Ronaldo who was right through and didn’t even book him,” claimed Ferguson. “They got the free-kick right after that. We would have won the European Cup that year. They got Monaco in the final, didn’t they?”

Porto went on to beat Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo La Coruña in the knock-out rounds before dismissing Patrice Evra’s AS Monaco 3-0 in the Gelsenkirchen final.

The other injustice, said Ferguson, was Rafael da Silva’s red card against Bayern Munich in 2010 for two cautionable offences. Harsh on the player, perhaps, but terribly naïve of the Brazilian too. Munich beat Lyon in the last four, before losing to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the final.

Fortune, though, has two sides and United has benefited from a slice over the years. Mehmet Scholl’s shot against the bar moments before United’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Or, perhaps, John Terry’s slip in the 2008 final shoot-out.

Not that Ferguson’s beef is with anything other than officialdom of course. And his frustration at not having achieved personal ambitions in the competition.

Given the tournament’s competitive nature Ferguson may never add another European trophy to his vast haul. After all, a golden period between 2008 and 2011 brought three finals, but only one victory with Ferguson’s side twice succumbing to perhaps the finest Barcelona team of all time.

Nor is the analysis of Ferguson’s record entirely justified. Since Ferguson’s first Champions League campaign in 1993 only Barça, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the competition more frequently. None has retained the trophy during the Champions League era.

UEFA’s decision to open up the European Cup to non-champions, while merging the old UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups into a single tournament, now branded the Europa League, has a created a far more competitive environment.

In another era, one where teams dominated in époques, Ferguson’s record may have been more impressive. After all, in the decade between 1970 and 1980 Ajax secured three European Cups in a row, Bayern repeated the feat, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each secured a brace back-to-back.

Nor has any manager bettered the Scot’s record during the modern era, although Mourinho may change that fact this season should Real win at Wembley in late May. In mitigation, few managers can match Ferguson’s 202 Champions League games spread over nearly 20 years.

There have been plenty of near misses too; those seasons when Ferguson’s side was just a shade short of the best. Defeat to Real Madrid in both 2003 and 2000 hurt, as did the semi-final loss to Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Indeed, Ferguson’s team in the four years between 1998 and 2002 achieved far less than the sum of its considerable talents.

Which, perhaps, is why the injustice of the past week has hit Old Trafford so hard. Ferguson is building a team better than many had believed, evidenced by a healthy Premier League lead. But it is in Europe that the standard is set, and the Scot’s side has now been eliminated in the group stage and first knock-out round in the past two campaigns.

“I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time,” says veteran Ryan Giggs of defeat to Real.

“But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. It was a proper European performance.

“The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. It was shock. I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.”

The disappointment will wear off though, leaving Ferguson with perhaps two more campaigns to add a third Champions League victory to his roster.

There are no guarantees though. Ferguson is acutely aware.

Preview: United v Chelsea

Ed March 9, 2013 Tags: , Matches 129 comments

Another game, another cup to chase, just five days after Manchester United’s devastating loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League last Tuesday. Chelsea, stumbling from one crisis to another, will hope that it is it a good time to face United; Sir Alex Ferguson has demanded that his team responds to the heaviest set-back in the season to date.

There is no love lost between the managers, of course, with Rafa Benitez boasting the happy knack of irking Ferguson over the past five years. The Scot, meanwhile, insists he takes no pleasure in kicking Benitez “when he is down.” Yeah, right, as the kids might say.

Still, any tension between the coaches on the touchline may help, with the inevitable ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ atmosphere likely on Sunday; from the biggest game at Old Trafford in five years, to the postpartum blues.

And if United’s supporters feel down after the Reds’ unfortunate exit to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real on Tuesday, then the manager also has a job to lift his players. After all, the FA Cup remains important, with United not lifting the trophy in the best part of a decade.

“It is my job to galvanise the troops, who were fantastic on Tuesday and so were the fans,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“We owe them a good performance on Sunday. One thing we don’t do is give in. We’ll get up off our backsides and make sure we’re ready for Sunday. A big game’s probably the best thing for us and a home tie as well.

“We have a hard game against good opponents who have a good record in the FA Cup – probably the best in the last decade. We haven’t won it for a while so there’s a good incentive for us. Chelsea, it’s a home draw and I always say that if you get a home draw you’re happy. Hopefully we can navigate that and get through.”

Ferguson is likely to make changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Real on Tuesday. Not least a return to a more recognisable formation, with striker Wayne Rooney almost certain to start despite a week of paper speculation linking the 28-year-old with a move away from Old Trafford.

Doubt’s about Rooney’s Old Trafford future was emphatically rejected by Ferguson on Friday, although cynics will point to similar denials about David Beckham and Ronaldo in recent years. Behind the scenes it is recognised that United could accept a sizeable bid for the former Evertonian in the summer.

Still, with a double to chase, Ferguson is in no mood to ostracise Rooney, who has scored 195 goals in 394 games for the club.

“Wayne will be involved on Sunday,” said the manager.

“He will be here next year, you have my word on that. There is no issue between myself and Wayne Rooney. To suggest we don’t talk is nonsense. He understood the reasons completely. Tactically we got it right. We don’t always get it right, but we definitely did on Tuesday. There are no issues with the player and he will be involved on Sunday.”

Manchester United v Chelsea - FA Cup, Old Trafford - 4.30pm 10 March 2013Meanwhile, Ferguson will rest Ryan Giggs, who played in his 1000th professional game against Real last week. The Welshman drops to the bench, with both Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia in line for a return.

Robin van Persie, who has looked tired in recent weeks, could earn an over-due rest, with Javier Hernández waiting for an opportunity.

In defence Rio Ferdinand is likely to sit out the game, with Ferguson keen to counter Chelsea striker Demba Ba’s physical presence by retaining captain Nemanja Vidić alongside Jonny Evans.

“Giggs won’t play because he was the best player on the pitch on Tuesday. He’s done his bit for us this week. Now we’ll rest him and prepare him for next week. For certain games and now he won’t play on Sunday. He’s done his bit for us. Next week is a different game. He’ll get more rest and then we can prepare him for that one.”

In the meantime the incentive for victory couldn’t be greater, with nine years having past since United’s last triumph in the world’s oldest competition. Victory over Millwall in 2004 was followed by defeat to Arsenal a year later and Chelsea in 2007.

Arsenal’s penalty shoot-out win against United is now widely regarded as one of the least just cup victories, with the Londoners achieving just one shot on target in 120 minutes of action. It was Arsenal’s last trophy – some form of karma, fans might add.

Two years later and Ferguson’s side was beaten in the last minute of extra time by Didier Drogba’s winner for Chelsea, leaving United on 11 cup victories in 141 years.

“I felt we were very unlucky to lose the 2007 final,” Ferguson told Inside United.

“Didier Drogba scored in [almost] the last minute of extra time after we had a very strong penalty shout turned down. I think Ryan Giggs may have forced the ball over the line as well for a goal that wasn’t given. That was tough to take, but that’s football – you win some, you lose some.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea arrives in Manchester having lost to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday night. Raul Rusescu’s penalty gave the Romanians a narrow first-leg lead, heaping further pressure on Benitez. While Europe’s second tier competition is hardly Roman Abramovich’s dream, Chelsea’s inability to challenge on any front this season ensures that the Spanish manager will leave Stamford Bridge in the summer.

No sympathy from Old Trafford for the former Liverpool coach, of course, with Ferguson wryly promising not to take advantage of Benetez’ difficult situation. The Spaniard courted further criticism last week by telling Chelsea supporters that they are “wasting their time” making anti-Benitez banners and worse, that the Stamford Bridge faithful have affected the team’s performances.

Ferguson, meanwhile, will love nothing more than to get Real out of the system quickly, progressing to an FA Cup semi-final draw that includes Wigan Athletic, Manchester City and Millwall or Blackburn Rovers. City aside, United will fancy a shot at the FA Cup final whatever the semi draw.

“In the cold light of day, we’re Manchester United and we have to get on with it,” concludes Ferguson.

“There’s nothing that can be done now. We have an important issue of a quarter-final on Sunday. I’ve cleared my mind. It’s just another day in the history of our club. Not a good day, but another day.”

Match details
Manchester United v Chelsea – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 4.30pm, 10 March 2013.

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

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovich, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Ba. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Ferreira, Terry, Ake, Bertrand, Marin, Moses, Benayoun, Torres

Match officials
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey, Darren Cann
Fourth Official: Phil Dowd

Form
United: WDWWWL
Chelsea: WDsLWWL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 45, Draw 48

Prediction
2-0

Rant Cast 146 – Ronald-oh

Ed March 8, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 3 comments

After two weeks of conspicuous absence, regular presenters Ed and Paul return with this week’s Rant Cast. On the show this week we look back on Manchester United’s matches with Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Real Madrid.

In London a stunning goal by Rafael da Silva helped United to a comfortable win at Loftus Road. Meanwhile, a burst of late goals sealed a healthy 4-0 victory over Norwich at Old Trafford.

Yet, celebrations over a substantial lead in the Premier League were brought to a halt, with Real Madrid winning 2-1 at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Did referee Cuneyt Cakir’s controversial dismissal of winger Nani end United’s hopes in Europe for another season?

We take all your Twitter questions, give away a fine competition prize from China Town Branch and, finally, look forward to United’s FA Cup quarter-final tie with Chelsea at Old Trafford this weekend.

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

And if you really love the show, you can always help cover our bandwidth and equipment costs by making a small donation!

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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Want to appear on Rant Cast? The pod’s new call-in section “Rant Back” features the very best audio comments each week. Keep your comment under a minute, reasonably clean and leave a name to take part. Record your message in the widget to the right -> or send an MP3 to cast@unitedrant.co.uk.