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Leeds expose United’s midfield frailties

January 4, 2010 Tags: , Matches 3 comments

This one hurt. While both sets of fans were up for a renewal of hostilities with the club’s Yorkshire rivals – delivering an electric atmosphere at OT – only Leeds rose to the occasion on the pitch, securing a famous victory that saw United dumped out of the FA Cup at the third-round stage for the first time in a quarter of a century.

The pivotal moment arrived in the 19th minute when Leeds’ in-form striker Jermaine Beckford gave Wes Brown the slip to slot in the only goal of the game from a tight angle.

This should have been a wake-up call but United were unable to move up the gears. They had enough chances to win the game – Wayne Rooney was unusually profligate in front of goal – but it was Leeds who came closest to scoring in the second half. Substitute Robert Snodgrass saw a freekick clatter against Tomasz Kuszczack’s cross bar and Beckford came close with a strike that flashed wide.

“They had a far bigger appetite for the game than us,” admitted Fergie, adding that he was “shocked” at the performance.

In hindsight, this was a difficult game for Fergie to call. Leeds may be two divisions below United but they are a team full of confidence and well-used to the type of feisty encounter that this game inevitably became.

But Fergie’s starting XI left United toothless in midfield. Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson, Anderson and Danny Welbeck is not a midfield quartet to strike fear into the heart of a visiting team, and an energetic Leeds side were snapping at their heels all afternoon.

Welbeck appeared out of position on the left and Obertan fared little better on the opposite flank. Meanwhile, in the centre of the park, Gibson had a day to forget, miscuing a number of passes in the final third, while Anderson was mostly anonymous and eventually sacrificed for Michael Owen in the second half as United chased the game.

Fergie seems unsure of his best midfield right now, as he has been all season, but this certainly wasn’t it. Darren Fletcher’s industry and Michael Carrick’s precision were sorely missed, and Ryan Giggs – a second half replacement for Obertan – was not allowed the time or space to make a difference.

There were also problems defensively where Jonny Evans and Wes Brown – the latter added to the team sheet last minute after Nemanja Vidic pulled up in the warm up – were given a torrid time by Beckford’s pace. Elsewhere, Gary Neville was erratic and Fabio da Silva, at left back, was unable to provide the attacking threat usually supplied by the absent Patrice Evra.

Pundits made much of the fact that this was the 100th consecutive game in which Fergie has named a different starting XI. This run began in May 2008 and United have bagged plenty of silverware in the meantime – but squad rotation can always go wrong, and it did on Sunday.

“I didn’t expect that performance, it was shocking. I’ve no complaints about the result,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“Leeds deserved to win. They got breaks at times but deserved their luck – I’m disappointed.

“We did speak about Beckford’s pace up front. We were caught napping really, it was a bad goal for us to lose. The whole performance in the first half was bad. We never got going and the quality of the passing… the whole performance was just bad.

“I don’t think any of the players can say they had a good day. Maybe only [substitute Antonio] Valencia, when he came on, can say that. Even then it took us about 10 minutes to get the ball to him.

“You expect us to get a goal at Old Trafford and the intensity of our game improved a little bit in the second half. We had a lot of chances in the box but on the day we didn’t take them.”

The visitors did and it could be some time before United has the opportunity to avenge this defeat while Leeds will no doubt be dining out on the result for many years to come.

However, United face more immediate concerns in the shape of the League cup semi-final against City, with the first leg starting on Wednesday. This is surely now a “must win” to avoid the ignominy of another cup exit at the hands of a bitter rival.

Chelsea reap what they sow in Euro farce

May 7, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion No comments

Is it just me or was the Chelsea – Barcelona game absolutely hilarious? If you believe in footballing karma, then surely Wednesday night was richly deserved. For a team featuring some of football’s most overrated (Terry), fraudulent (Drogba) and generally loathsome (Ashley Cole) players, Wednesday was payback for years of intimidating referees and bending the rules of the game.

Not that Chelsea saw it quite so philosophically. The ever-dignified Drogba – crying like a baby, swearing at cameras and punching walls – led the post-match histrionics, and was admirably backed-up the equally unpleasant Ballack. Such was the frenzy whipped up by such ambassadors for the club that the ref had to move hotels that night to escape a baying mob.

Hiddink, meanwhile, was quick to imply that the referee was under UEFA instructions to avoid an another all-English Champions League by giving Barcelona a helping hand. Clearly he knows a thing or two about such conspiracies giving his time as coach of South Korea when – as host nation at the 2002 World Cup – they made the semi-finals thanks to some equally suspect refereeing.

The truth, as any sane neutral could clearly see, was that the referee clearly had a shocker, which happens sometimes. It’s a fact in football that mistakes are made, but its how you react to them that counts. Compare, for example, Chelsea last night with Darren Fletcher’s sending off on Tuesday. Both suffered injustice. Fletcher – unfairly ruled out of probably the biggest game he would ever play in – leaves the pitch without a word, while Drogba and co go nuts. It tells you everything you need to know about the character of a football club.

Anyway, bring on Barça. And I really think United must start as favourites in light of how rattled the Catalans were by a strong but unspectacular Chelsea side. Let just hope that Norwegian fella isn’t in charge.

United risk losing focus as Golden Generation prepares to bow out

April 29, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 2 comments

Paul Aaron Scholes, born 16 November 1974, is precisely one month younger than me. When the ginger maestro burst onto the scene in the mid-90s I quietly reveled in this fact; here was a guy at the heart of a new golden generation that was to dominate his profession for a decade. Fast forward almost 15 years – Portsmouth at Old Trafford last week – and Scholes stepped out for his 600th game in a United shirt, surely the last milestone before the curtain falls on a glittering career. Now the proximity of our birthdates is not such a good omen; It’s not nice to be reminded that you’re over the hill.

That Scholes deserves all the plaudits heaped on him is not in question. As is often noted, his quiet professionalism is in stark contrast to the celebrity-obsessed idiocy that afflicts most modern premiership players. But the passing of Schole’s golden generation is in danger of overshadowing a deeper problem at OT. When Scholes and co exit stage left, what’s the next act?

The opening game of United’s 1995/96 season – a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa – is chiefly remembered for Alan Hanson’s smug post match assertion that “you cannae win anything with kids.” United’s team that day included Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, players that were to lead United to unparalleled success later that decade.

This generation reached its pinnacle in the 1999 treble winning season. The team at this point featured arguably English football’s best ever midfield quartet: Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham. This midfield was famously disrupted by the arrival of Veron (who managed one decent game for United in three years) and the exit of Beckham (who had become more interested in haircuts by this point). What followed was a series of rubbish signings (Djemba Djemba, Kleberson etc.) and good ones (Rooney, Ronaldo) but a new homegrown generation never materialised. This was never more evident than in the signings of Anderson and Nani, bought as long-term replacements for Scholes and Giggs, respectively.

It’s no surprise that the young, dynamic team that emerged in the mid-90s is held in such high regard at the club given the legacy of the Busby Babes, but both sides are the exception to United’s history, not the rule. Virtually the whole of the 70s and 80s was spent buying established players and it’s been pretty much the same since the treble winning team was broken up. The harsh truth is that United’s constant talk of investing in youth and nurturing young talent is mostly bollocks. For every Macheda that comes along, there’s a million Chris Eagles who are shipped off to the lower leagues and never heard of again.

As he proved with his pinpoint pass to set-up Carrick’s goal against Portsmouth in his 600th game, Scholes has his place in the current team on merit rather than sentiment. But OT will be awash with sentimentality as his golden generation retires over the next year or so, and that’s no good thing for a club that has built its success on a ruthlessness that keeps it moving forward at all costs.

This sentimentality will be evident again tonight when Giggs is expected to notch up an unprecedented 800th appearance for the club. As with Scholes, the newly-crowned player of the year deserves his swansong. But there’s already some silly talk of United retiring Gigg’s number 11 shirt; a proposal seemingly dreamt up by some United suit with no knowledge of the club’s history prior to 1991 (Norman Whiteside and George Best are just two legends to have worn the shirt before him).

So, let the golden generation bow out gracefully, but let’s now concentrate on developing a new one rather than celebrating an old one. I’m sure both Scholes and Giggs would agree.