Arsenal head to Old Trafford for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off, with United needing just a single point to clinch an 18th League championship – their 11th in the Premier League. If the Reds get the draw or win they need it will be the culmination of an outstanding second half of the season. Chasing five major trophies, United are within a point and a game of clinching four. Should the Reds pull it off, the season will rank amongst the very finest in both the club and manager’s histories. And with Arsenal in Manchester, it could be a fitting match in which to clinch the Premier League – just as the Gooners did at Old Trafford 2002. Not revenge as such, but sweet all the same.
Amid claims and counter claims about the future of Carlos Tevez one thing has become abundantly clear is week – while United would like to keep the little Argentinian, the board have no intention of paying the full £22 million transfer fee (plus loan fees already paid) being demanded by MSI, the holder of the player’s ‘economic rights’. It’s a fact that will most likely see the popular forward leave the club this summer.
The fee, which is believed to have been agreed at €34 million Euros two years ago when Tevez first signed on loan for the club, has become a problem for three principal reasons. Firstly, changes in the exchange rate mean that the figure has increased by more than 25% when converted to pounds over the past year. Secondly, the United simply don’t value Tevez at the same level as MSI – which would essentially make Tevez the club’s record signing. Thirdly, with £81 million to pay in debt interest this summer, the club – even if they did value Tevez that highly – just don’t want to pay it.
The player becomes even more expensive when wages and other fees are taken into account. Add to the bill the £6-£10 million already paid in loan fees, together with wages and the total cost to United of keeping the striker begins to look very steep. Indeed, Tevez earns in excess of £5 million per year, meaning the cost to United of keeping and paying the player for the past two seasons, and the next three of the proposed contract, is more than £55 million.
Reports in The Guardian today suggest that United are attempting to renegotiate a fee for Tevez, although no final figure is placed on the proposed deal. However, with a string of clubs apparently prepared to bid for the striker, United would appear to be in a weak bargaining position. This position would appear to become even less strong with the player himself apparently unhappy at Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad rotation policy.
It’s a game of brinkmanship of course. The MSI team (or whomever actually owns Tevez’ rights, a leaked letter circulating this week suggests that this isn’t clear) want to maximise their return. Selling to United at a reduced fee when there are other options on the table would appear to be contradictory to that aim. Meanwhile, Tevez himself may be frustrated at his squad status, although the joy on his face as he backheeled home United’s equaliser last night suggests otherwise. Suggesting that he is unhappy may also be a convenient way of pressurising United. United meanwhile have leaked to the press the possibility of ripping up Tevez’ agreement with MSI, and signing the player on a free transfer.
The fans would love the player to stay of course. Not only does Tevez work his socks of for the team when given the opportunity but he has scored some vital late goals for the team this season. He is, rightly, one of the most popular players at the club.
But taken in the round, is Tevez really worth both the political hassle and huge financial cost to the club? Good player as he is, Tevez’ scoring record (34 goals in 97 appearances and 20% of them in the League Cup) and contribution to the team fall short of the very highest level. For the sake of consistency, and squad balance, there is no doubt that Tevez will continue to make a valuable contribution if he signs permanently for the club. But will it be a £55 million contribution? Personally, I have my doubts.
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.