Author Sanjay

Author Sanjay

Some Turkish delight, please

Sanjay Nair September 13, 2009 Tags: , Opinion No comments

Reality check for Manchester United’s opponents; three pretenders hoping to emulate the Red Devils’ domestic and European success. Spurs downed in pretty emphatic fashion, next up the Turkish champions Besiktas, followed by the small matter of the Manchester derby next weekend.

United’s magnificent performance saw Spurs’ bubble burst and the home side’s long-suffering fans silenced . White Hart Lane’s faithful thought Harry Redknapp could bring them Champions League football. Saturday’s match served to highlight the gap that Spurs must bridge.

United, on the other hand, showed precisely what’s required by Spurs to gatecrash the elite of English football. The never-say-die attitude to come from a goal down, the ‘grab-any-opportunity’ mentality to score a goal and even the let-them-think-they-have-a-chance sucker-punch when having a man sent off.

There were some outstanding individual performances on Saturday. Patrice Evra stood out for an excellent man-marking job on the in-form Aaron Lennon. The Frenchman won the battle of the midgets, by showing Lennon onto his left foot, and reducing the Spurs’ winger to launching aimless crosses with his weaker foot.

Ryan Giggs was impeccable and tireless, as was Anderson, whose dynamic play was finally rewarded with a goal. The Brazilian must push on from here and cement a place in the middle of the park alongside Darren Fletcher, who needs to share his vitamin pills with Michael Carrick. The former Spurs man has looked out of sorts so far this season, and on this form he’ll be sitting on the bench more often.

Rio Ferdinand’s return could not have been better-timed with a packed fixture list to come. Led by the England defender, United’s back four dealt well with Spurs’ tactic of launching the ball towards the freak Peter Crouch.

Don’t forget Ben Foster, whose fingertip save from Jermaine Jenas’ shot was the second time in as many matches that the ‘keeper has pulled off a stop Peter Schmeichel would have been proud of.

The pairing of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov caused plenty of problems for the Spurs defence. The Bulgarian dropped deep, which gave him plenty of time and space to dictate play. Ledley “jelly legs” King just couldn’t keep up with Berbatov’s off-the-ball movement. It was another understated display from Berbatov, who does not get the recognition he deserves simply because he is expected to bang in goals for fun.

Best of all, the way Rooney took his goal was pure quality. You can’t teach people to play football like that. Either you’re born with a football brain, or you’re not – like Emile Heskey.

Sir Alex has options in midfield, which not only keeps his opponents guessing but heats up the competition for places. That’s what it takes to get Anderson and Nani performing week in, week out.

If United was good against Tottenham, then a stellar performance is required against Besiktas on Tuesday night. It’s no easy task.

Fans at the BJK İnönü Stadium, which has the most beautiful view of any stadium in the world according to the legend Pelé, make English hooligans look like kindergarten kids. Not that United players should plan any sightseeing, with bottles and stones thrown raining down from the stands. Apparently it’s a customary request for an autograph! United can expect to face a welcome about as warm as Emmanuel Adebayor at an Arsenal supporters’ fan club night.

Despite winning a domestic league and cup double last season, Besiktas has started the season poorly, with only one win in five matches. Galatasaray thumped Mustafa Denizli’s men 3-0  over the weekend. Besiktas will surely be looking to salvage some pride against the Red Devils.

The Black Eagles’ forward line, led by Nihat Kahveci the former Villarreal striker – whose injury proneness rivals Louis Saha – and the Brazilian Bobo has found goals hard to come by so far this season. However, the ridiculously named Bobo has an impressive record since joining the club in 2006, scoring 74 goals in roughly twice as many matches.

On the United side, Antonio Valencia will hope to make his European debut, in what will be a good test of the Ecuadorian’s ability to step up to the next level.

United must seize the impetus with an early goal, which would silence the mad-men in the stands and calm the players’ nerves. The Turks are likely to adopt a counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation, aiming to overload the midfield and play a pressing game. This is where Rooney and Berbatov need to produce that extra bit of magic to find space in the final third.

In a tense affair, United will clip the Black Eagles’ wings by the odd goal or two. Then, it’s time for Sir Alex’s men to focus on bringing Manchester City back down to Earth with the mother of all reality checks!

Lucky devils, but for how long?

Sanjay Nair September 8, 2009 Tags: Opinion 5 comments

Manchester United fans can be forgiven if they are unconvinced by the Red Devils, despite two impressive wins – at least on paper – over Wigan and Arsenal. They say it’s great to win when not at your best, especially when beating a Gunners side that is playing some of the best football on the planet right now. But is it asking too much for good football and three points to go hand-in-hand?

Maybe United fans have become spoilt; too used to injury-time winners and breathtaking goals that we are underwhelmed when beating Arsenal with a penalty and a ridiculous own goal.

But part of the problem is with United’s playing staff. The team still lacks a midfielder that can dictate play. Ryan Giggs is not that player and neither is Michael Carrick, who for all his Hollywood passes is still unable to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

Why Sir Alex Ferguson failed to show interest in Wesley Sneijder is baffling. The Dutchman, who left the Real Madrid circus for Inter Milan for a measly €15 million, was an absolute bargain in today’s transfer market. Anyone watching the Milan derby last weekend would surely have been impressed by the difference Sneijder made to Jose Mourinho’s side, despite the Dutchman having arrived in the city just 24 hours earlier.

On a brighter note, the Arsenal match sealed Darren Fletcher’s status as United’s leading midfielder. The Scot has come a long way since the time when his inclusion in the team was largely due to being Sir Alex’ love-child (as yet unproven). Against Arsenal, Fletcher ran his socks off, covered every blade of grass, and made decisive interceptions that kept the Gunners midfield trio of Diaby, Denilson and Alex Song busy, and stifled their creativity. Fletcher is no longer the headless chicken of his youth.

Granted, Cesc Fabregas was missing from the Arsenal team but recalling last season’s Champions League semi-final encounter, Fletcher was just as influential and successful against the Spaniard. The Scot’s passing has also improved leaps and bounds to the point where Carrick’s effectiveness within the team has been reduced.

But Ferguson’s decision to start with Giggs floating behind Wayne Rooney against Arsenal was frustrating. Why spend £30 million on Dimitar Berbatov – whose ability to hold up of the ball is second to none – only to leave him on the bench for the big games? United should have been more positive – a problem of tactical negativy that was the main reason the team had such a poor record against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool last season.

Rooney is more than capable of playing ‘in the hole’ – the role that he fulfils for England – dropping deep and threading balls through to the striker. Instead, Giggs – a legend no doubt – but no longer in possession of his once blistering speed, lost the ball far too often in the final third. Far too much was also expected of Antonio Valencia, who looked out his depth on such a big occasion.

Over the course of the season, this type of performance will gain United many points against lower ranked sides. But will it be good enough for a 19th top flight title and a third successive Champions League final appearance? It seems unlikely.

United must keep on par with the other top sides in Europe but after this summer’s comings and goings, fans might be right to think that United is further adrift of Barcelona than on that fateful night in Rome.

The Champions League will be the real litmus test of strength and character for Sir Alex’ fledglings this season. The group stage draw handed Fergie’s side some tricky encounters, from the icy conditions in Moscow, to the hellish atmosphere generated by Turkish fanatics, to the impregnable home record of the German champions. It should bring out the best of United’s top players and the worst from those who just can’t cut it at the highest level.

United has ridden its luck at times in the past, supplemented by great performances on the pitch. The team may depend more on the former this season, than the latter. Have faith in Wayne Rooney and company, but this is the first season in a long time where fans will follow without full confidence that the team in red is the better side.

The real Wayne Rooney stands up

Sanjay Nair August 25, 2009 Tags: Opinion 9 comments

This could be Wayne Rooney’s season. No, this will be Wayne Rooney’s season. It has to be. For too long has this prodigious talent stood in the shadow of a certain Portuguese maestro at Manchester United. No, not Nani. Now that this distraction has left, it’s time for Rooney to show why Sir Alex Ferguson made him the world’s most expensive teenager in world football back in 2004.

Rooney burst onto the scene at Everton – who could forget that goal against Arsenal? – having broken goalscoring records at every age group level. At the time, he scored more goals than matches he played in. Scoring a hat-trick on his United debut only cemented his place as a legend in the making. But Rooney never seemed to match the progress that Cristiano Ronaldo was making on the pitch.

The Englishman played at the 2006 World Cup without fully recovering from a metatarsal injury. Such was the hype and pressure placed on this young man’s shoulders that some British journalists would have you believe that he could walk on water and juggle a ball at the same time. They were right about the latter. Indeed, many blame Ronaldo for Rooney not being able to realise his true potential. It started with the famous winking incident in the World Cup quarter-final that led to Ronaldo contributing to Rooney’s red card. The Scouser may have stamped on Ricardo Carvalho but there’s no denying that Ronaldo’s protests to the referee had an effect.

While United did everything to appease Ronaldo after this debacle in order to get him to return to England, not many in Rooney’s shoes, as big as they may be, would have forgiven the Portugese player’s actions that night. But that’s Rooney for you, always putting team before self. These concessions have carried onto the pitch as well because Rooney has been wasted on the wings in the past few seasons at the tactical expense of Ronaldo’s floating role up front. Rooney said nothing in public because the team was winning.

Rooney’s work ethic and selfless play has meant that fans have not seen the player in his favoured forward position as much as we should, especially in the biggest matches. It was desperately frustrating to watch Rooney in the Champions League final against Barcelona last season, out of place and out of touch with the game. Rooney certainly has the class and ability to be mentioned alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Kaká and Fernando Torres. But this will only happen if the team is built around him. The good news is that for the first time in Rooney’s United career, Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to do just that this season. At least that’s what he says.

Rooney enjoys dropping deep into midfield to pick up the ball and be involved in build-up play. Alongside Dimitar Berbatov, playing along the shoulder of the last defender and holding up the ball like glue as he always does, Rooney will be given a free license to feed off the Bulgarian. Berbatov is capable of finding space for others where few can, allowing the former Tottenham man to play Rooney into areas where he can do the most damage. It’s a defender’s worst nightmare to see Rooney running at them.

How Rooney links up with Michael Owen will also be crucial, not just for United but England as well. Rooney, barring injury, is guaranteed a starting place for his country at the World Cup next year. Meanwhile, Owen will spend this season proving to Fabio Capello that he deserves the place alongside his new teammate. With Rooney playing to show he can be United’s new main man and Owen finally joining a team that can create chances for him, this season be a turning point in their respective careers. Each has had their fair share of bad luck with injuries. Owen’s problems are well-documented, while Rooney has picked up knocks just as he starts to hit form. That he has missed 19 league games in the past two seasons is testament to this. They both have something to prove.

We’ve seen Rooney score some breathtaking goals, now it’s time for the player to add some scruffy tap-ins to his repertoire. In Ronaldo, United has lost a 30 goals-a-season player. In Rooney, playing through the middle, the team has that and more. Rooney has the potential to be a better player than the Portuguese ‘winker’. Averaging 20 goals in each season with United so far, imagine what Rooney could do playing up front for the majority of games?

Wayne, be selfish, run more with the ball, shoot more, and be the player you’re meant to be. Advice like that can only be given to a handful of players in world football, and Wayne Rooney certainly falls in that category. This will be his season.