To abuse an old cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be Manchester City. And while Sunday’s derby match served to highlight the gulf between two teams on the pitch, it also served to remind us of the vast difference between the status of the two clubs off it.
City’s mega-rich Abu Dhabi owners are eager for success of course. More still, they’re keen to be seen as punching their weight at the top table of European club football. Their Bitter Blue fans, meanwhile, just want some glory, and they want it now. Starvation for 30 years can make a fan hungry.
But Sunday’s easy win for the Red half of the city not only helped to demonstrate that success for the Blues may well take some time, but that they will have to gain it the hard way. In fact so far are City behind, that Sir Alex Ferguson felt confident enough to leave key plays such as Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney out of the side altogether.
In many ways the match on Sunday helped to contrast the gulf between United’s years of success and City’s nouveau riche. City, of course, beat United twice last season without oil-millions spent on Brazillian superstars. But while those victories were gained amid a backdrop of giant killing, City now have pretensions of being one of the big boys of the European Elite. In this context, City rolled over rather meekly.
Ferguson, of course, has evolved this iteration of the United team over many seasons. He endured criticism during years of transition but held fast in his belief that trophies would be the inevitable result of this process. Ferguson’s patience is in marked contrast to the aspirations of City’s new maga-wealthy owners, who are essentially trying to build a top-four side from scratch. Indeed, while the last fantasy-Premier League side, Chelsea’s strategy was to add £200 million worth of players to a side already on the cusp of the top four, City are building from a low base. It will be a tough ride, no matter how much their wealth.
City’s is a huge project that may cost upwards of £500 million over the next three years in transfer fees and vastly inflated wages. This comes without any guarantee of success. Thus, patience is the name of the game for City’s owners and fans alike. If Sunday’s match is anything to go by, they will need it. The question is, with pressure being piled on former United hero Mark Hughes to win silverware, will he be afforded it?
United will head into the May 27 Champions League final clash agasint Barcelona as favourites after the Catalan club suffered yet more injuries over the weekend. Already facing the match without defensive quartet Éric Abidal and Dani Alves (suspended) together with Gabriel Milito and Rafael Márquez (injured), Barcelona now also face a potential crisis in midfield and attack. Influential forward Thierry Henry is almost certain to miss the match with knee ligament strain, while in-form attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta suffered a recurrence of an old thigh strain that may keep him out for the rest of the season. It’s a crisis that will mean Barcelona calling on the depths of their squad and tinkering with a tactical system that has served them so well this season.
The crisis will mean changes in attack, midfield and defence for Los Cules, many of which failed to work against Chelsea in the semi-final. With Alves suspended, club-captain Carles Puyol will be forced to play emergency right-back and midfielder Yaya Touré will again parter former United man Gerard Piqué at centre back. It was a position where the Ivory Coast player was horribly exposed against Guus Hiddink’s men last week. But Barca boss Josep Guardiola has little choice other than the callow Uruguayan Martín Cáceres, who he appears to have little trust in, let alone for a match of this magnitude.
In midfield Samuel Keita will again play, alongside the brilliant Xavi and the youthful Spanish international Sergio Busquets. Despite the absence of Darren Fletcher through suspension, United will hope that a midfield three led by Michael Carrick and flanked by Anderson and (probably) the evergreen Ryan Giggs to dominate the centre of the park, much as they did against Arsenal in the semi-final.
Up front Barcelona, minus Henry, would expect to field Iniesta on the left side of an attacking three. Reports over the weekend suggested that Iniesta’s thigh injury was serious enough to rule him our for the remainder of the season, although the player has played down that suggestion today. Either way, a thigh tear will ensure that the player is less than 100% fit for the final.
Guardiola’s other options are to bring in the exuberant but erratic teenager Bojan Krkić. However, Bojan’s place in the team would force Samuel Eto’o to play a slightly wider role, a position he is far less effective in. Alternatively, Barça could turn to Premiership stalwarts Eiður Guðjohnsen and Aliaksandr Hleb.
Either way, the injury tide has turned United’s way.
Sir Alex Ferguson said this week that he has no summer transfer targets on the table and that there will be no major additions to the squad. Minor tinkering with the squad is an understandable policy for the Premiership, European and World Champions, who will likely retain their English crown in the coming week after beating their city rivals today. After all, by his own admision, Ferguson has at his command the strongest squad in his 23 years in charge at the club. Forget Ribery, Kaká, Benzema et al. The club’s strategy is to not fix what ain’t broke.
But one area of the squad that Ferguson may need to make some of the toughest decisions is in the forwards, with question marks hanging over the futures of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. Meanwhile, Berbatov is not without his critics, and the gaffer must choose which of the youngsters Federico Macheda, Manucho, Frasier Campbell and Danny Welbeck to keep, sell or loan out.
The future of the little Argentinean is perhaps the most worrying. “I do not feel wanted. I feel bad over my situation…I guess what I’m saying is goodbye,” reports today quote Tevez as saying. And it’s not the first time that the frustrated striker has expressed his belief that he’ll be leaving the club this summer. Ferguson’s refusal to discuss the matter today was telling. Could the club have already decided that spending €34 million on Tevez, despite all his energetic endeavour, is just not worth it?
One player unlikely to move on is Ronaldo, despite sulking after being substituted against City. His future in the white shirt of Real Madrid seems further away than ever, with United, it’s manager and now the player categorically saying that the Portuguese forward will be at Old Trafford next season. Madrid is more chaotic than ever – a fact that must weigh heavily in Ronaldo’s mind. A new President will be elected this summer after the old was kicked out for corruptly winning the previous election. Moreover, interim (although reasonably successful) manager Juande Ramos will almost certainly be removed from his post in favour of a new man once the President is elected. A summer 2010 transfer would seem to be more realistic at this stage.
Meanwhile, which of his four young forwards he keeps on the books will be central to Ferguson’s thinking this summer. The emergence of Macheda and Wellbeck has given the Scot a plethora of choices in the front line. But the balance between maintaining a strong squad – Macheda has already scored two key goals this season – and ensuring that young players get enough games is also key. Sir Alex is likely to loan out at least one of his bright young things.
Ferguson must also decide what to do with on-loan strikers Campbell and Manucho, who are at Tottenham Hotspur and Hull respectively. Neither has overly impressed either – with Campbell getting far fewer games than might have been expected since the return of Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe to the London club. Angolan forward Manucho has merely used his time at Hull to confirm what many expected already – he’s probably not quite good enough for the Premier league. A season in the reserves beckons.
Dimitar Berbatov – who has been sublime and frustrating in almost equal measure this season – and Wayne Rooney are certain to stay of course. My feeling is that they will probably be complimented by Ronaldo for one last campaign and the up-and-coming Macheda. Money is being reigned in at the club and they will not spend another €24 million (in addition to the €10 million already paid) for Tevez, whom Ferguson has come to regard as not central to his plans.
However, should the board spring a suprise and release funds for a major purchase then Karim Benzema is only an outside possibility. The Frenchman’s signing assumes that Tevez leaves and that the Lyon forward is not picked up by one of the Spanish giants. While Benzema may be a target for both Real and Barcelona, it is move is dependent on both the outcome of Madrid Presidential election and the future of Samuel Eto’o at Los Cules. It’s a complex carousel.
Whatever his choices, with Liverpool and Chelsea certain to spend big in the summer, Ferguson must pick the right four or five forwards to fire United to yet more glory next season!
United welcome Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City to Old Trafford this Sunday for the 151st Manchester derby. It’s a tie that always has an edge of course but this time out it’s also a crucial match in United’s hunt for a third Premier League crown in a row. With only four games left, and United needing just seven points for the title, the Reds will be looking to secure a vital win. City, who are still chasing a potential place in next seasons revamped Europa League, come to Old Trafford in decent form, with four wins in their last six. But with the opposition far from clever on the road this year, a season’s double over City should entail after United’s 1-0 Victory at Eastlands in November.
Indeed, it’s been an up and down season for City since the takeover by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour. The Blue Noses, who in addition to being The Richest Club in the World®, have the Planet’s Tallest Floodlights® and The Widest Pitch in the Known Universe® at The Council House®, have largely fallen below expectations this campaign. This despite spending north of £80 million on a couple of fitful Brazilians, a no-mark Dutch midfielder and a Chelsea reserve. But in the final weeks of the season, they have finally begun to pick up enough points to save Mark Hughes’ job. For now.
Not that Hughes has been all that popular with City fans, who have always had delusions of grandeur. Now, fuelled by millions of petro-dollars, Blue Noses expect instant success. They’re a big club, you know. Massive in fact. Inevitably, even with a place in the Champions League always a remote possibility, some Bitters have been calling for Hughes’ head. They’ve waited 33 years since their last trophy, you’d think another season would make no difference.
City fans, of course, have taken their new owners to heart. Just as they’ve shown blind faith in the string of fools who’ve run the club over the past three decades. It’s a nice welcoming club like that. But then again, they were big fans of the human-rights defying Thai fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra last year so perhaps City supporters aren’t the best judges of character.
Abu Dhabi’s takeover might be different though, as the Emirates principality seem keen to throw money at their new toy. It has to be a long-term project though. Multi-million oil dollars spent this summer are unlikely to attract anything more than mercenaries or leading clubs’ ageing cast offs until City acheive some tangible success. As Kaká proved, money is one thing, but for the very top players trophies are something else altogether. Still, for owners willing to spend £17million on somebody as average as Nigel de Jong then eventually they might just buy their way to some silverware.
Until then, let’s welcome City to Old Trafford, the European Capital of Trophies.
Old Trafford is set to expand once again to over 95,000 seats from the current capacity of 76,212, according to recent media reports. While these rumours are not new, nor a timescale given to the project, or planning permission granted by Trafford Borough Council, they are given some credence by a recent interview by M.E.N with United’s group property manager George Johnstone.
While the news is hardly unexpected – the club have been looking at options for expanding the single tier South Stand for some time now – it is welcome for the thousands of fans who are locked out of many of United’s home matches. But the development poses some real questions: is the move designed solely to increase turnover at debt-ridden United, or will any of the new seats be offered at affordable prices?
Since Old Trafford was converted to an all-seater stadium in 1992, at a capacity of just 44,000, there has been continual expansion in size and facilities. Firstly, the club added more than 11,000 new seats by building the giant three-tiered North Stand in 1995. Further seating was then added with second-tiers built on the East and West Stands. The North East and North West Quadrant second-tiers were completed in 2006 to restore something of a bowl to the stadium for the first time since 1992.
The new project will is likely comprise of two phases and has two potential outcomes. Firstly, completing the second-tiers of the South East and South West Quadrants, for an additional 8,000 seats. This has always been a matter of time and money as the expansion would use very little extra land.
Secondly, building a three-tier replication of the North Stand on the South side of the stadium that will add an additional 11,000 seats for a new Old Trafford capacity of 95,212. However, the South Stand expansion is a much more complex project because of the Manchester to Liverpool railway line and Manchester United FC Halt station that lies behind the stand. Any project will be affected by the presence of the track, with either a two or three tier new stand certain to overhang or possibly be built over the railway. This will necessitate the club buying up to 50 houses on Railway Road and create a far more difficult planning process.
A less expensive two tier addition to the South Stand is also believed to be under consideration by the board and would not be built over the railway tracks. This would create a final Old Trafford capacity of about 91,212, similar to Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu but well short of Barcelona’s soon-to-be expanded Camp Nou at 106,000.
When United last conducted a feasability study on the project the costs came out at more than £100 million and are unlikely to have fallen in the meantime. With club debt at more than £700 million and rising there must be serious doubts about how the club could fund the project without rolling the costs into the club’s ongoing bank and PIK debt.
The debt also quashes the mooted possibily of a reduction in ticket prices. After all more seats equals more revenue, and financing a stadium expansion together with debt repayment will require a lot of extra revnue. One of the reasons why United were one of the only top clubs in the country to raise ticket prices for next season, in the depths of the worst recesion since the 1930s.
So it’ll be Barcelona in the Champions League final this year after Los Cules’ 1-1 draw with a unashamedly negative Chelsea side tonight. Barcelona have a wonderful array of attacking talent, which can destroy any defence on the planet. Chelsea knew it and with 25 minutes left decided to put their 11 men behind the ball against Barça’s 10, while the visitors took risks and threw men forward. Sure, the referee made some poor decisions but the game remained in Chelsea’s hands. They bottled it by swapping their striker for a right-back, and fell for the sucker punch. At least a United – Barcelona final should make for a great match. And with three out of four first choice defenders already out of the final, Barça are there for the taking. Bring on May 27!
We’ve been hit with a nasty strain of Flu here at Rant Towers this week but despite spluttering our way through last night’s superb 3-1 Champions League semi-final win at the Emirates, we’re definitely not feeling as sick as Darren Fletcher this morning. His red card means that he will miss the Rome final in three weeks time, which he may have started.
The sending off and subsequent ban is incredibly harsh on The Scottish Player given his performance on the night but the referee probably got it right. Fletcher can rightly point to the fact that in challenging Cesc Fabregas he got a touch on the ball as the Spaniard bore down on goal. But referees’ normal interpretation of the law these days is to look at a challenge in the round. The ball may be taken but if the follow-through takes the man (and Fletcher clearly did just that), then a foul will be given anyway. In this respect referee Roberto Rosetti made the correct decision by the letter of the law to award a penalty and send Fletcher off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The aim of this modification in the rules was to outlaw dangerous tackles that can potentially injure players, even if the ball is taken. Indeed, United benefitted from this interpretation when awarded a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month – Heurelho Gomes got a touch on the ball but clattered Michael Carrick anyway and a penalty was awarded, to much dismay in the press.
The main problem is the lack of leeway in refereeing flexibility. The powers that be should give referee’s more room to interpret the law depending on the circumstances.
Clearly, Fletcher’s tackle was a brilliant piece of defensive work, not a potentially dangerous challenge. It also summed up why the Scot has become such a big game player for United in recent seasons. The midfielder could have let Fabregas take the goal without challenging – after all United were home and dry. But the Scot’s ultra professional performance in last night’s match – and over the season – meant that he was always going to put in a tackle. It is a credit to how much Fletcher’s game has developed over the past couple of years. He’ll always be a water-carrier, but is better at doing the dirty work than he used to be.
There is absolutely no chance that UEFA will overturn Rosetti’s decision – there isn’t even an appeals process except in cases of mistaken identity. And the irony is that Fletcher’s suspension may leave room in the team for Paul Scholes, who was famously banned from the 1999 Champions League final. Fittingly, it was The Ginger Prince who was first in the dressing room last night to console the Scot.