The kids are alright

October 27, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United’s young players take up the mantle tonight when the club takes on Barnsley in the Carling Cup. With the first team still reeling from defeat at Anfield Sunday, United’s kids will provide some light relief to United’s downcast supporters. On the opposite bench will be former United striker, Mark Robins.

On the menu tonight will be a course of United’s exciting young talent including, we presume, Danny Wellbeck, Federico Macheda, Darron Gibson, Ritche de Laet, the da Silva brothers and Joshua King. With Wellbeck, Macheda, and the da Silva brothers closest to the first team significant focus will be on the quartet.

Wellbeck, called out as a potential inclusion in the England World Cup squad by Sir Alex Ferguson, is disappointed with the level of involvement in this season’s campaign. Prior to the disastrous draw with Sunderland, where the England under-21 international started on the left-wing, Wellbeck had made just one bench (outside of the Carling Cup) all season.

It’s a similar place for Macheda, whose season has been a major anti-climax after the 17-year-old’s impact towards the end of the last campaign. Indeed, the Italian, hauled off in the last Carling Cup round following Fabio da Silva’s red card, has seen his attitude questioned by senior staff.

The da Silva brothers each have reasons to make an impact in tonight’s match. Rafael has missed the season to date with a shoulder injury, after the major impact the teenage Brazilian made last campaign. Fabio, who suffered a similar injury last season, is yet to make the same impact on the team. Ferguson described the youngster as “outstanding” after the left-sided defender’s performance in United’s Champions League match at CSKA Moscow.

But as much attention is focused on the opposite bench as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team selection. Former Old Trafford alumni Mark Robins, appointed manager of Barnsley this summer, spent six years at United.

Robins is best remember at Old Trafford for his goal against Nottingham Forrest in the Third Round of the 1990 FA Cup. Dubbed the ‘goal that saved Fergie’s job’, Robin’s header from Mark Hughes cross was the first step on the way to victory in the final that season.

The Ashton-under-Lyne born striker burst on the United scene as a callow 18-year-old, scoring 17 goals in 69 appearances for United, although many of those games were from the bench. Sold to Norwich City in 1992 for £800,000, Robins also went on to play for Leicester, Copenhagen, Reading, Ourense, Panionios, Manchester City, Walsall, Rotherham United, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion in a journeyman career.

In addition to the 1990 FA Cup Robins was also victorious with United in the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup, the 1991 European Super Cup and 1990 Charity Shield.

Robins joined Rotherham in 2000 first as a player, then coach and finally becoming manager in March 2007. He replaced the popular Simon Davey as manager of Barnsley this summer.

Not that Sir Alex holds any sentimental value in former United players coming face-to-face with the old team. If Robins challenged Ferguson to a game of tiddlywinks, the Scot would give everything to win.

To which end Ferguson will also draft some senior players into the team tonight, with both Wes Brown and Jonny Evans likely to start in central defence and Michael Owen, Nani, Anderson and Ben Foster playing some part.

Gabriel Obertan, United’s £3 million signing from Bordeaux this summer, has played three reserve games in succession and could start.

Anfield loss leaves bitter taste

October 25, 2009 Tags: , Matches 8 comments

Liverpool beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Anfield in a match where the quality was low and Manchester United’s creativity lesser still. Goals from Fernando Torres and substitute David Ngog were enough to send the travelling support home unhappy on a day when United’s attacking players failed to take advantage of Liverpool’s recent poor form.

Ferguson’s men started the match in ebullient spirits – a midweek Champions League win and the return of Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra to the starting line-up adding to a sense of expectation around the United camp. Liverpool, meanwhile, confirmed Captain Steven Gerrard’s absence ahead of kick off.

Deploying both Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov through the middle and an attacking midfield quartet, if Ferguson’s intent was to take the game to the home side then United started brightly enough for the Scot. But despite dominating early possession, Ferguson’s side failed to truly test Pepe Reina in the home goal.

Liverpool began with Torres the lone front man and two holding midfielders protecting a back-four that has looked shorn of confidence in recent weeks.

But resorting to tactics that served the Merseyside side so well in the last clash between the sides at Old Trafford in March, Liverpool unnerved both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand by quickly switching play from back to front.

If at times Liverpool appears a vehicle for Fernando Torres’ talents and ten makeweights then Sunday’s match did little to dispel the myth.

Edwin van der Sar then brilliantly kept out Fabio Aurelio’s early free-kick and Dirk Kuyt’s shot from the rebound.

Rooney had the ball in the Liverpool net, finishing superbly after Michael Carrick’s through ball, only for the officials to – correctly – rule it offside.

On the United right Antonio Valencia had the measure of Liverpool’s two left-backs Emiliano Insua and Aurellio ahead of him. The latter deployed to protect the young Argentinian, who has looked a liability in recent matches. The Ecuadorian’s pace carved out a chance for Rooney, only for the former Everton striker to glance a header into Reina’s arms. It was United’s best chance of the opening period.

But Liverpool began the second half with purpose and Torres continued to place United’s back-four under pressure. While the home side pressed high up the pitch, United gave away possession with unusually high frequency.

Then came the goal just after the hour, Yossi Benayoun releasing Torres. And with Ferdinand half a yard the wrong side the wrong side of the Spaniard, Torres was able to hold off his marker and smash a finish into the roof of the net at van der Sar’s near post.

Neither defender nor ‘keeper will be completely happy with their contribution to the goal.

The strike galvanised the home side and United – unusually – seemed bereft of creativity, making little impression on Liverpool’s previously porous rearguard.

Paul Scholes – half a yard off the pace – and Dimitar Berbatov made way for Nani and Michael Owen with 15 to go as United sought an equaliser the team’s play barely deserved.

Valencia, remaining positive on the right, then smashed an effort against the bar from a tight angle, after Owen’s pass, and Nani later side-footed straight at Reina. Owen, predictably booed on his return to Anfield, added some focus to United’s attacks if no real threat.

Jamie Carragher then brought down Owen who had a clear run on goal. With no protection between the former Liverpool striker and Reina a red card was not only the law but the least the defender deserved for his cynical foul 25 yards out. Inexplicably official Andre Marriner produced yellow to earn Ferguson’s ire. Earlier the Birmingham-born official had failed to award United a penalty when Carragher clattered Michael Carrick inside the box.

Vidic, protesting, noted the Serbian’s red in last season’s fixture. It was not without irony then that Vidic earned a second yellow for a foul on the half-way line. The first an infringement of very little malice. Yet, Marriner allowed Lucas Leiva nine – count ’em – fouls without seeing yellow. It was a refereeing performance not of bias but of incredible incompetence.

And then with seconds to go – and Ferguson’s team piling forward – Liverpool’s David Ngog scored a second on the break to complete United’s third loss in a row to the great rivals.

Ferguson, predictably and rightly, drew attention to Marriner’s errors.

“All in all Liverpool were the better team but I think it affected our players and the referee,” he said.

“There were so many controversial things that happened we have to feel aggrieved at some of them.”

Ferguson was unhappy with Marrier’s failure to award Carrick a first half penalty, Vidic’s red-card and the failure to send off Carragher.

“He has gone right over the top of the ball,” said Ferguson of the penalty decision.

“If it is outside of the box it is a free kick and maybe a yellow card. But it was inside the box and the referee was only six yards from it. It was another bad decision.

“The most controversial decision was Carragher bringing down Michael Owen. He was clear through.

“The laws of the game were altered to prevent professional fouls of that nature and if Carragher goes off, he is their best player and their captain. It would have been a different game. They would have been under pressure.

“The referee was only four or five yards from it so he cannot use a covering defender as an excuse. Michael was clean through. With Michael’s pace he is going to get away from him.

“The first Vidic booking was the worst decision. It is a foul, fine. But the player has played on, he won the second ball and knocked it for a throw in and got booked. It put Nemanja under pressure.

“The atmosphere is hard to handle for a referee. Whether he had enough experience, I don’t know.”

Classic United v Liverpool

October 25, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

To whet your appetite ahead of this afternoon’s match here’s some classic Manchester United v Liverpool encounters in league and FA Cup. Starting with the 1977 FA Cup final through to Gary Neville’s now infamous victory celebration in front of the Liverpool supporters at Old Trafford in 2006. Add your own favourites in the comments section.

United 2 – 1 Liverpool, FA Cup Final, Wembley, 1977
United beat the all-powerful Liverpool to the 1977 FA Cup, with goals from Stuart Pearson in the first half and then Lou Macari’s winner, cannoning in off Jimmy Greenhoff’s chest and into the net past Ray Clemence.

Liverpool 1 – 2 United, First Division, Anfield, 1981
United win at Anfield in this classic 80s mud-fest. Goals from defenders Kevin Moran, who also conceded a penalty, and Scottish full-back Arthur Albiston won the day for United.

Liverpool 3 – 3 United, Anfield, 1994
One of the best encounters of the ’90s saw United take a three goal lead through Steve Bruce, Ryan Giggs and Dennis Irwin, before being pegged back by the jubilant scousers.

United 1 – 0 Liverpool, FA Cup Final, Wembley, 1996
Eric Cantona scores with four minutes to go at Wembley to hand United the trophy and a ‘double double’. Within a year Cantona had retired and the Kop demanded that the Frenchman return when United had won 18 English titles. Welcome back Eric!

Man Utd 2 – 1 Liverpool, FA Cup, Old Trafford, 1999
Part of United’s historic ’99 treble season, the reds’ two late-late goals sealed an FA Cup Fourth round win at Old Trafford. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time winner almost lifted the roof off a euphoric Stretford End.

Government announces dole to be cut, Anfield, 1999
Despite scoring twice the Dippers still manage to get beaten by a dominant United side.
Liverpool 1999

Diego Forlan scores twice, Anfield, 2002
Poor old Jerzy Dudek allows one effort to go through his legs and gifts Diego Forlan another as the Uruguayan scores twice at Anfield to sealed legendary status amongst the United faithful!
Diego Forlan

Wayne Rooney strikes at the Kop End, Anfield, 2005
Former Everton forward Wayne Rooney scores United’s winner at the Kop end. The striker took some abuse on the day and was more than happy to repay the compliment!
Wayne Rooney

Gary Neville shows what it’s all about, Old Trafford, 2006
Gary Neville is a red, is a red, is a red, he hates Scousers!

United in search of Anfield redemption

October 25, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

When Andrea Dossena lobbed Edwin van der Sar to score Liverpool’s fourth goal at Old Trafford in March the Merseyside team completed a Premier League double over Manchester United for the first time since 2001-2. Despite the fact that Rafa Benitez’ side ended the season with no trophies – Sir Alex Ferguson’s men picked up the Premier League and Carling Cup – the result remains a source of pride for Liverpudlians and pain for United supporters. Ferguson’s team travel to Anfield tomorrow in search of a result that will right the wrong.

The teams meet an Anfield in markedly different form. United, having emerged victorious from a potential banana skin in Moscow, travel to Anfield in good spirits, expecting victory. Indeed, with just one loss all season – in August at Burnley – United already has significantly more points than at this time last season.

Key players will also return to the United squad, with Wayne Rooney now fit to take part having recovered from a calf injured picked up on international duty with England. Darren Fletcher’s participation remains doubtful with a groin injury, while Park J-Sung is definitely out with a knee problem. However, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, who both missed the Moscow tie, are fit to take part.

Ferguson must choose between deploying both Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov in the 4-4-2 formation that has become typical this season or go with the ‘European’ lone-striker used in Moscow this week. However, in a typical Ferguson ruse, the Scot suggested, Friday, that Rooney may sit out the match due to his fragile temperament in matches against Liverpool.

Despite typically using a single striker in matches against the ‘big four’, Berbatov’s form – outstanding against Bolton last weekend – is likely to come into Ferguson’s thinking when picking the team for tomorrow’s 2pm kick off.

“The United-Liverpool fixture, as I’ve said many times, is without question a massive game,” Ferguson said Friday.

“That’s not changed in the 23 years I’ve been here, this is the game.

“We go into the game in decent form, and there is a confidence to our play. But it’s a derby game and anything can happen. Going to Anfield at any time is hard, for both teams. It won’t be any different on Sunday.”

Liverpool meanwhile come into the game under intense pressure, having lost four games in a row. The club’s worst run of form since 1987 has placed Benitez under increasing strain, to the point that co-owner George Gillet offered a ‘vote-of-confidence’ in the manager this week.

With the pressure on, Benitez this week suggested that the two side’s differing results are a factor of money available to each manager. A ‘fact’ repeatedly proven a lie.

On the pitch Benitez is without captain Steven Gerrard through injury, although talismanic striker Fernando Torres will return after yet another hamstring strain and £18 million Glenn Johnson is also fit to start at right back.

Despite the Anfield side’s recent poor results United defender Rio Ferdinand says that it matters little when the teams take the pitch tomorrow afternoon.

“I think form goes out of the window in these games,” Ferdinand told United’s official website.

“We all know that when there’s a big rivalry between two teams, whether it’s a derby or a big cup clash, form doesn’t come into it. It all comes down to who performs best on the day and that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Supporters traverse the M62 ready to answer Liverpool’s fans who, in 1993, suggested legend Eric Cantona return to Anfield once United had won 18 English league championships. Ferguson’s men take to the field Sunday in just that place, having collected an 18th title in May.

Liverpool, meanwhile, hasn’t taken the title back to Anfield since 1990. A victory for United Sunday will surely end the Scousers hopes for another season.

From Russia with points

October 21, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United kept up their perfect record in this season’s Champions League with fully deserved win in Russia last night. Returning to the Luzhniki Stadium – scene of United’s 2008 Champions League triumph over Chelsea – Sir Alex Ferguson’s men beat CSKA Moscow in group B with a solitary Antonio Valencia strike.

Despite leaving a quintet key players at home, Ferguson’s team controlled proceedings from the off. Starting with the now typical European five man midfield, Dimitar Berbatov ploughed a lonely furrow up-front, with Michael Owen left on the bench. John O’Shea made a surprise return to central midfield and Brazilian teenage Fabio da Silva started his first Champions League game at left-back.

It was tough going for United’s Bulgarian striker but with Nani and Valencia offering outstanding support from wide areas United was the only side posing a real threat.

Scholes’ shot from 30-yards troubled CSKA’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, linked with a move to United this week, who palmed away awkwardly. And then Gary Neville curled a shot just over as United took control of the first half.

In spite of the oft-mocked Irishman’s presence in a holding role, United maintained possession comfortably on the Luzhniki’s artificial pitch. But with the middle of the park highly congested chances came at a premium in a tight first period.

If ever a game adhered to the old cliché, United changed the match radically in the second period, resorting to a direct approach by switching play from back to front. Tactically it was hardly United but on the night when the plastic surface played a significant part in proceedings, Ferguson had the measure of his opponents.

Nani in particular was influential, stretching the game on the left, with Valencia offering support from the right as United looked to find space in the channels. Débutant Fabio, using his pace to full effect before leaving the field with cramp, often doubled up with the Portuguese winger to offer United considerable penetration.

Substitute Owen on for Paul Scholes – protected ahead of Sunday’s match with Liverpool – missed a chance on the volley within minutes of joining the match. Valencia then capped the move of the match by crashing a shot against the bar after swapping passes with Nani.

But United was not denied and earned a hard fought for winner with less than five minutes to go. Valencia slammed home at the near post from eight yards for his second goal in as many games.

“I said before the game that if you’re a good footballer you concentrate on the ball. I think they did that and they did it well,” manager Ferguson told Sky Sports after the match.

“We wanted to go for a surge through the middle rather than in the wide positions and I think that worked quite well.

“We had some good chances at the end of the day, we improved our goalscoring chances and we’re pleased Antonio Valencia has got a good goal.”

Ferguson also praised United’s patience – a hallmark of his side’s performances away from home in the Champions League. The Old Trafford outfit is now unbeaten in 14 European away ties.

“In the first half I think we played with a lot patience, which is necessary when you are playing away from home,” Ferguson said.

“Experience in these sort of situations is always vital. In the second half I think we increased the tempo of the game and got more penetration.

“We created some good goal opportunities and if we have to wait to the 86th minute, so be it. We had to have the patience to win, and we did that.”

Reds squeeze past Bolton to reach summit

October 18, 2009 Tags: Matches No comments

Manchester United sit atop the Premier League table tonight after squeezing past a spirited Bolton Wanderers side at Old Trafford. Despite dominating possession and territory United beat Bolton by the odd goal in three, with the visitor’s almost snatching a late equaliser. But with three points gained, United took full advantage of defeats for Chelsea and Liverpool.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson made eight changes to the side that drew with Sunderland two weeks ago, with Wayne Rooney missing through injury and Edwin van der Sar recalled between the sticks. It was clearly the impetus United needed, with the reds scoring after just four minutes. Indeed, Ferguson’s side could have scored six in the first half alone. No need to question the referee’s fitness this time.

United’s first came with a hint of fortune though. Patrice Evra’s left wing cross headed towards goal by Michael Owen – starting only his second game at Old Trafford – for the visitor’s central defender Zat Knight to deflect the ball into his own net.

It was old fashioned stuff from the home side, with the peerless Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia – growing in stature by the game – offering width and pace on the wings.

The second followed on the half hour. Not before time as United laid siege to the Bolton goal. Valencia exchanged passes with Gary Neville and lashed home his first goal in a United shirt. The finish was crisp and showed far greater composure than had become the Ecuadorian’s norm.

Somehow United failed to capitalise on their superiority, with Michael Owen guilty of spurning two good chances in the second half that would have put the game to bed. In Rooney’s absence, Dimitar Berbatov was again an influential figure in attack but the pair’s tendency to profligate would have been costly against stronger opposition.

At the other end Bolton forced their was into the game strongly in the final 20 minutes of the match, with Matt Taylor heading home after Sam Ricketts’ long-throw was only half-cleared by Neville. With Vidic missing, United looked vulnerable in the air and such was the panic that Ferguson’s team could have conceded a last-minute equaliser when Gary Cahill headed wide. He should have scored.

But a draw would not have been par for the course on a day when United’s performance was a significant step up from the lethargic showing a fortnight ago. Yet Ferguson’s concern both with United’s defensive shape and inability to ram home the advantage of his team’s possession and creative impetus is understandable.

“You have to give Bolton credit but we gave away a soft goal. We have won championships by having runs without conceding goals and we definitely need to get back to doing that,” said Ferguson after the match.

“We shouldn’t be conceding goals like that. It was more tense than we would have liked. We made it hard for ourselves and we were panicking at times. But we got through it, just.

“There were a lot of opportunities to finish the game, and when that happens, two-goal leads aren’t particularly great and of course Bolton scored and then it was back to walls stuff really for that last ten minutes, there was a bit of panic.”

Despite this Ferguson was also quick to recognise a marked improvement in United’s attacking play from the fixture against Sunderland two weeks ago. Through the midfield – Anderson, Giggs and Valencia in particular – United played at pace and created a rash of chances for the first hour of the match.

“We played very well I thought, the football throughout the game was very good, apart from the last ten minutes,” said Ferguson.

“But we played some very good football. (There was) a good speed to the game, so I was happy with that.”

The United manager will have to do without both Rooney and man-of-the-match Giggs for the trip to Moscow in midweek. Ferguson is unlikely to his leading marksman, who is still suffering with a minor calf injury, especially with Rooney’s wife Colleen also due to give birth.

But on this form United will miss Giggs even more. On the day that the ageless winger headed the list of Ballon D’Or nominations, Giggs was superb once again.

Injury-free reds return to domestic priorities

October 15, 2009 Tags: , Matches 3 comments

Manchester United’s players return from the international break today with a full complement greeting manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Minor training knocks to Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans pending, Ferguson will have a full squad available to him for the visit of Bolton Wanderers this weekend. It’s the first time this season that the Old Trafford chief can call upon the full weight of his resources.

Ferguson himself enjoyed a short break to the United States, leaving Mike Phelan in charge of first team members without international commitments and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Warren Joyce looking after a crucial reserve team fixture for some returning players.

Indeed, United’s 3-0 Manchester Senior Cup win against Oldham Athletic on Monday enabled both Rafael da Silva and Gabriel Obertan to have their first run-outs of the season. Each played 45 minutes and came through without reaction.

Obertan, who signed for around £3 million in the summer, suffered a long-term spinal injury that has delayed his introduction to the first team. But Ferguson added the former Bordeaux winger to his Champions League squad in the expectation that the signing would return to fitness. The Frenchman showed some neat touches and bags of pace in United’s comfortable reserve team victory. In theory he will be available for the weekend match against Bolton, although a first team début is more likely in United’s Carling Cup fixture away at Barnsley next week.

Rafael’s return also adds to Ferguson’s options, with the Brazilian full-back offering an alternative to John O’Shea on the right side of defence. The teenager, who played 28 times for the club last season, is yet to feature this term after an operation on a dislocated shoulder. Ironically, this is the exact injury that his brother Fabio suffered last season.

“Rafa’s worked really hard to get his fitness levels back. He’s an enthusiastic, bubbly character and I thought his fitness levels looked good tonight,” Joyce told MUTV.

“Obertan, some of the quality touches and his movement were excellent, and his fitness levels looked really good as well.

“He was inventive, he received it well and his movement off the ball was good as well, so he can be very pleased.”

Meanwhile, Owen Hargreaves, who did not play in the reserve team fixture, continued his rehabilitation efforts at Carrington this week. The England international returned to Manchester on 23 September but is not expected to feature in the first team before November.

United’s internationals had mixed fortunes during the break, although few actually played two games. While Rooney missed out on England’s 3-0 win over Belarus on Wednesday night, Rio Ferdinand and Ben Foster both went some way to regaining credibility. Foster, who is likely to lose his United place to fit-again Edwin van der Sar, was surprisingly picked by Fabio Capello for England’s final World Cup group match. Meanwhile, Ferdinand, who had been heavily criticised by the media after his performance in England’s defeat to Ukraine last Saturday, marshalled his country’s defence to a clean sheet.

In Marijampole, Nemanja Vidic and Zoran Tosic were on the end of a 2-1 beating by Lithuania but with Serbia already qualified the defeat hurt only the United players’ pride. Despite being relegated to United’s reserve team for nearly a year now, Tosic scored the Serb’s goal with a stunning first half strike.

Nani fared better, scoring for Portugal in the Iberian’s easy 4-0 victory over Malta. The win, while expected, sealed Portugal’s place in the European play-offs.

In Ireland’s group John O’Shea played only as a first-half substitute during the Republic’s bore draw with Montenegro. Already consigned to the play-offs, Ireland will need to do better if United’s incumbent right-back is to feature in South Africa next year. The Republic, not seeded for the play-offs, is likely to face a leading team in the play-offs.

Dimitar Berbatov, in the same group, scored a hat-trick as Bulgaria bowed out of the campaign with a thumping 6-2 win over Georgia. It will be little comfort to the United striker who is now unlikely to appear in another World Cup.

There was also disappointment in Santiago as Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador went down 1-0 to qualifiers Chile. While the United winger did not play, the defeat ended the Ecuadorian’s hopes of making the World Cup, with Argentina taking fourth spot and Uruguay facing a play-off.

Given the long trip Valencia may not start United’s weekend fixture with Bolton, but Ferguson his hopeful that both Evans and Rooney will be available for the match. It’s a headache but for the first time in more than a year, Ferguson will have more than 30 professionals to choose from. Victory against Bolton at Old Trafford, following a draw against Sunderland last time out, is essential to regaining some momentum in the Premier League.

Ferdinand younger saves Fergie’s bacon

October 4, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side escaped with a draw at Old Trafford after another late, late goal but as good as United has been in recent weeks, the team were below-par on Saturday tea-time. In the end Fergie’s men, indebted to a massive slice of luck for salvaging something from an unmittigatingly poor performance, were grateful to take a point. In fact, so off-key was United’s passing that a Ferguson team can rarely have given away the ball so often.

Sunderland meanwhile, fresh from a 5-2 drubbing of Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend, was on course for an unlikely victory until Anton Ferdinand’s injury-time own goal.

The match started poorly for the Champions – looking for an eighth victory in a row – with Darren Bent swivelling on the edge of United’s area and rifling in a low shot that beat Foster to his right. Much like his new team, Bent has been resurgent under former United stalwart Steve Bruce’s stewardship. Perhaps sensing United was there for the taking, Ferguson having made seven changes from the team that beat Wolfsburg in midweek, Bruce’s team was bright and full value for its early goal. The strike should have galvanised the home side into waking from its slumber, instead Bruce’s team continued to force the issue.

Indeed, Sunderland was dominant with United failing to register an effort on target until the second period. With Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher restored to the side following their demotion in midweek, United may have expected to monopolise possession as is the way at Old Trafford. Not so. In Andy Reid Sunderland held the dominating force in the middle of the park, with able deputies in Lee Cattermole and Steed Malbranque.

Last week’s man-of-the-match Scholes misplaced just four passes in more than 80. It’s doubtful whether four reached their target against Sunderland and he was rightly hauled off at half-time.

But six minutes into the second period, with Scholes sacrificed for the Brazilian youngster Anderson, United gained a lifeline with Dimitar Berbatov spectacularly garnering the home side’s equaliser. The Bulgarian, outstanding again in midweek, fashioned a picture-perfect overhead to the bring Ferguson’s team level. Berbatov has been excellent this season and he stood head and shoulders above his team-mates on Saturday.

Indeed, the Bulgarian deserves more recognition from a media pool that refuses to understand him. The overhead kick was spectacular – great stuff on an awful day for the home side – but his all-round performance was worthy of better headlines.

Yet the goal only served to underline Sunderland’s superior play, with United failing to push on for the expected victory. Bruce’s character and determination, rubbing off on his new charges, meant that a meek surrender was never on the cards. The North East’s only Premier League side led just seven minutes later, with Foster’s half-hearted attempt to challenge Kenwyne Jones for a high ball so spectacularly inept that all debate about the Englishman’s claims on Edwin van der Sar’s shirt must now be extinguished.

But while Ferguson is in charge at Old Trafford, United will continue to gamble even in the face of overwhelming odds. Old Trafford alumni Kieren Richardson, having underlined the immaturity that led to his departure, saw red for a second bookable offence with five minutes remaining. It was the only stimuli United needed and, throwing men forward with abandon, the home side got the equaliser its play barely deserved – Evra’s shot cannoning in off the younger Ferdinand’s shins and into the net.

Deploying Danny Welbeck on the left-wing was odd and Ferguson nearly paid for resting some of the side’s leading players. The manager admitted as such and was happy that his team came out of the game with a point.

“I was pleased to get something out of the game considering how badly we played,” said Ferguson.

“There wasn’t much creativity. Too many players were running with the ball, the passing wasn’t good and at our level, when the opponents are motivated, you make life very difficult for yourself.

“We didn’t create a lot of chances and the quality of our play in the last third wasn’t good enough. We have to sum it up as an off day. We get them, we don’t enjoy them, but we do get them.”

But in the end two points dropped at home, adding to those lost at Turf Moor, could prove costly come the end of the season.

Wolfsburg feels United’s bite

October 1, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Manchester United picked up another three points in Champions League Group B following an understated performance at Old Trafford last night. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men did just about good enough to defeat the German champions, finding the goals when they needed to, with Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov producing star turns. But not before Armin Veh’s Bundesliga winners threatened to cause an upset on Ferguson’s home patch.

United started the match in first gear and rarely moved out of it with a performance that was at frequently sloppy. Nemanja Vidic twice gave away possession in the opening minutes before Patrice Evra matched the Serbian.

The opposition hardly needed any encouragement. Wolfsburg, keeping possession well, threw forward players in the style that saw Veh’s team lead the Bundesliga scoring charts last season. On more than one occasion the German’s forwards Edin Džeko and Grafite made their physical presence tell on Vidic and his partner Rio Ferdinand.

It took a quarter hour before Carrick and Anderson finally began to take control of central midfield, the Brazilian youngster driving forward and winning a free-kick that Rooney drove just wide.

Then came one of the pivotal moments of the night, with Michael Owen – starting ahead of Berbatov – limping off with the groin injury that had threatened to keep him out of the match. The Bulgarian replaced the former-England striker under the gaze of Fabio Capello. And the Berbatov, seemingly sensing his opportunity, finally delivered the kind of all-action performance the media has craved.

Berbatov’s introduction seemed to galvanise United as an attacking force, with some pace finally injected into the game. It was the Bulgarian’s neat flick to Antonio Valencia that led to one of the best openings of the first half. The Ecuadorian shooting wide when he really should have worked the German’s goalkeeper. It’s becoming a common theme.

United then had a goal chalked off – perhaps unfairly – after Carrick released Berbatov, for the Bulgarian to set up Rooney’s tap-in. The Bulgarian was onside, O’Shea was off and the assistant made the wrong call.

As the period wore on the Bulgarian became increasingly influential, setting Carrick free on goal before firing over himself. United created enough chances to go into the break a couple to the good.

But it was Wolfsburg that began the second half brighter, with Zvjezdan Misimović pulling the strings and United offering far too much space. It was no surprise then when the away side took the lead, with some nice interplay on the edge of United’s area. Makoto Hasebe’s cross picking out Džeko at the far post to score the opening goal. Replays showed that the Bosnian was marginally offside but his headed finish was every bit as classy as Wolfsburg’s fans have come to expect.

Attack, attack, attack, demanded the Old Trafford crowd. And within three minutes United was back in it. Ryan Giggs, with an Old Trafford banner demanding his investiture, clipped the Wolfsburg wall with a free-kick and the ball span beyond Diego Benaglio into the net for the Welshman’s 150th United goal.

United continued to create chances – Rooney curling an effort just over and Giggs putting the ball in the net, which was later ruled out for offside.

Then United won the match. Fittingly Berbatov and Giggs created the chance for Carrick – United’s better players on the night. The former Spurs man striking an unerring shot into the top right-hand corner.

“Their goal was a surprise but that’s football,” said Ferguson after the game.

“I thought it was a matter of time before we scored but I think the performance was good, it deserved a win. We always try to win, no matter what the score we always try.”

It was a good summary from Ferguson. United did enough to win. Just. But even when under-performing compared to recent Premier League matches against Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur, his side was able to fashion enough chances to take the game.

Carrick and Berbatov, on-the-other-hand, had an outstanding night. The former Spurs players have suffered more than a little unfair criticism in recent weeks. Two excellent performances will give the fans food for thought, and the manager ever greater options.

All achtung as Wolfsburg arrives in Manchester

September 29, 2009 Tags: , Matches 4 comments
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Reigning German champions VfL Wolfsburg arrived in Manchester today ahead of the side’s Champions League Group B encounter with United at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. The Bundesliga side, seeded the group’s worst outfit, arrives with few in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad expecting anything other than a thorough test for last season’s beaten finalists. But far from worrying about Wolfsburg, Ferguson is already looking beyond the group towards a third final in a row.

“I think the material is there for us to win the European Cup again. We have a good bunch of players. And if we win it, it won’t be the team that wins it, it’ll be the squad,” said Ferguson.

“But it’s not easy to win it, as we found out in last season’s final against Barcelona.”

“One mistake in a big game like that and you’re crucified, remember that. One mistake – dead.”

United, on a seven match winning streak, emerged from a testing matchday one tie away to Besiktas with a 1-0 view victory, courtesy of Paul Scholes’ header. Ferguson, who will be without virus-struck South Korean winger Park Ji-Sung, is looking for a home win that would take his side to within a game of qualification. Nine points is typically enough to qualify, a fact not lost on the manager.

“If we keep our heads and play the right way in the group stage of the competition, I think we should qualify,” said Ferguson, who is likely to rotate his squad for the tie.

“When we get to the later stages, then we can start to think about getting to the final in Madrid.”

Wolfsburg won the club’s first ever Bundesliga title in 2008-9 and the team arrives at Old Trafford boasting the talents of Edin Džeko, one of the most coveted strikers in Europe. The Bosnian scored 26 league goals last season and was the subject of multiple bids from AC Milan in the summer.

Armin Veh’s side, which has suffered an uncertain start to the season with defeats against Hamburg, Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, also Includes Brazilian Grafite and former Newcastle United striker Obefemi Martins. Grafite, named German Footballer of the Year after scoring 28 goals in 25 Bundesliga appearances last term, scored a hat-trick in Wolfsburg’s 3-1 victory over CSKA Moscow. He is only the third overseas player to win the award after Aílton and, in 2008, Franck Ribéry.

However, the Wolkswagen-owned team, will be without new signing Thomas Kahlenberg, who is out with a long-term hip injury.

This is Wolfsburg’s first trip to England, although they did emerge victorious from their first encounter with a Premier League team last season – beating Portsmouth 3-2 in the UEFA Cup group stage with goals from Džeko, Zvjezdan Misimović and Christian Gentner.

Ferguson believe’s that it is not beyond Veh’s team to do well in this season’s competition.

“It says a lot for Wolfsburg’s position and progress that they did win the league last year and they did it in a very positive way with the goalscoring form they showed,” said Ferguson.

“They beat Bayern Munich 5-1 with only four or five games remaining and they won their final game 4-0 – that’s emphatic.

“Countries like Germany are always producing clubs capable of winning the Champions League. Yes, the last few years it has been dominated by the English teams in the semi finals and finals but there is always the possibility that someone else can come in to win the Champions League. If you take the final between Porto and Monaco just a few years ago, it’s a case in point.”

Ferguson’s main selection dilemmas are in midfield and up-front. Joining Park on the injury list could be Michael Owen, who is suffering from a minor groin strain. Although the former Liverpool striker took part in light training on Tuesday, he is unlikely to play until fit. While the manager has concentrated on developing the Dimitar Berbatov – Wayne Rooney axis this season, there has been some expectation that Owen may start against Wolfsburg.

In midfield Scholes, superb against Stoke City at the weekend, is unlikely to play twice in three days, with Anderson favourite to replace the former-England star. Ferguson must also choose who to start with on the wing. Ryan Giggs came on as substitute to great effect against Stoke City at the weekend and may play in place of Nani, who was so wasteful last time out.

Rooney, who has now scored 11 in 12 competitive games for club and country since June, will start his 50th European game.

Ferguson’s United has not lost a home game in the Champions League since a 1-0 defeat by AC Milan in February 2005. Wolfsburg, despite its outstanding strike-force, is unlikely to break that record tomorrow night.