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United betrayed by ponderous attack

August 22, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

United’s humiliating defeat at Burnley on Wednesday night is not the beginning of a crisis for the club. Early in the season, with a rash of defensive injuries, shocks are unsurprising. Even defeats such as United’s to Burnley Wednesday night. Save for another defeat this coming weekend, the word crisis can be placed firmly on the shelf. But the Turf Moor game confirmed the suspicions of pre-season that United without Ronaldo lack creativity and penetration in attack. Indeed, if the team needs around 114 goals to match last season’s achievements, it seems unlikely to achieve it with the current personnel.

Worryingly, newly promoted Burnley, with barely a player worthy of United’s reserve team, didn’t even have to ‘park the bus’ in order to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite the away team’s superior possession, Burnley took the attack to United on the break  and looked consistently dangerous. All credit to them. For all United’s territorial advantage against the Turf Moor outfit, the team managed just four shots on target all night. One of those was Michael Carrick’s unsuccessful penalty.

Ferguson may be right in his assessment that United created enough chances to win the game but the team’s profligacy is a now recurring theme. Frankly, the chances created weren’t all that good anyway. Fans must hope that the 100 goals Ronaldo either scored or assisted in the past two seasons are not the difference between success and mediocrity.

But inherently Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani and Antonio Valencia are top class creative players; the goals should be flowing by now. Ferguson is right to say that the club has “a great group of players.” But the concern is that the team isn’t gelling in the way Sir Alex would have hoped. Shorn of Ronaldo, and tactically more predictable, United is a undeniably blunter force this season.

The defeat against Burnley was..

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Could it also be that the club’s forwards simply can’t work together? At international level Rooney and Michael Owen rarely clicked. At club level the evidence suggests that Rooney and Berbatov have failed to strike up a profitable relationship either. Meanwhile, it would be unfair on Valencia or Nani, talented though each is, to pretend that either can be the new Ronaldo.

Ferguson must also be concerned with Michael Owen’s likely success this season. Three competitive and seven pre-season matches on and Owen has scored only against the semi-professional teams on the Asian tour. Play him and the goals will come they say. The fans are still waiting.

Perhaps – most realistically – United is likely this season to be the ‘rigid’ team predicted by Darren Fletcher. Safety in defence is the team’s route to success this season. It’s a strategy that is being undermined by injuries, with Rio Ferdinand out for the next month, Johnny Evens in desperate need of an ankle operation and Nemanja Vidic only just returning to fitness. The Serb, who will play against Wigan at the weekend has no pre-season matches behind him. For the sake of a morale boosting victory against the Latics, fans will hope Vidic picks up the pace instantly.

Time to think required after demoralising Euro loss

May 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o’s opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.

United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.

But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.

Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.

"Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward."

Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.

Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.

But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.

And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?

Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.

Champions League final: key battles

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Top matches are decided in the details. Forget tactics and coaching – it will be the one-on-one battles that will decide the Champions League final this coming Wednesday. Win most of these and United take home the cup once again.

Lionel Messi versus Patrice Evra
Messi is the planet’s most in-form player, with 37 goals from 48 games this season. His mesmeric dribbling skills and ability to fashion a goal from almost nothing has been devastating in both the Champions League and La Liga this season. However, Evra can proudly point to shutting the little Argentinian out of both legs of the 2008 Champions League semi-final. Evra, with the support of Rooney on the left, will have to be at his very best. One chance is all it takes for Messi, even if his record against English sides is unimpressive.

Samuel Eto’o versus Nemanja Vidic
The big Serb has had is best season in a United shirt and will expect to win this battle. While Eto’o’s record this season – 32 in 45 games in all competitions – is outstanding, Vidic will expect to win individual battles both in the air (there wont be many) and on the ground versus the Cameroon international. However, the Serb will need to read the game as well as ever if Barça are not to pass their way through United’s back-four.

Xavi Hernandes verus Michael Carrick
Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament Xavi has been in wonderful form this season but then so has Carrick. While many used to criticise the former Spurs man for failing to take control of games it’s hardly that can be leveled this season. Carrick’s passing has been influential and his creativity essential to United’s form this season. However, it will be Carrick’s ability to read the game and break up attacks just outside United’s area that will be essential to this duel. Win this one and Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession with be thwarted.

Thierry Henry verus John O’Shea
Many regard O’Shea as United’s weak link but the Irishman has had a solid defensive season. His attacking qualities are limited and his passing sometimes short of the class expected in a Red shirt, but O’Shea is unlikely to let United down against Henry. O’Shea will need to keep close to United’s central defenders and show Henry the line – this will test the Frenchman’s true fitness after returning from a knee injury.

Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gerard Piqué
Some say that United’s Portuguese winger has had a bad season but 25 goals in 49 games in all competitions, playing predominantly wide right, says otherwise. More to the point, Ronaldo is coming into very top form at just the right time. His pace, power and movement were far too good for Arsenal in the semi-final. Piqué, the former United defender, has matured admirably in his début Barça season. And his ability to bring the ball out of defence compared favourably with the great Franz Beckenbaur. But the final will be his biggest test yet, and without his normal central defensive parter Rafael Marquez the onus will be on the youngster.

Wayne Rooney versus Carles Puyol
If Barça deploy the club captain Puyol at right back as many pundits expect then Wayne Rooney will be the sternest test for the ageing defender. It would not be unfair to say that Puyol’s legs are going and he will need ever bit of experience to stop United’s marauding striker, who has been brilliant cutting in from the left in the last two months of the season. It may not be his favourite position but if he is not burdened too much trying to double up on Lionel Messi, Rooney should have a field day.

Champions League final 2009: preview

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

United take on Barcelona in this year’s Champions League final in what many are billing the ‘dream final’. Europe’s two best sides meet this Wednesday in Rome with United chasing their fourth European Cup win, potentially a second in succession. With world-class talent on display in both teams, and a commitment to attractive, attacking football, all the ingredients are in place for a classic final.

United arrive in Rome on the back of 25 European games without defeat and in tremendous form late-season form, both domestically and in Europe. With only long-term absentee Owen Hargreaves and the suspended Darren Fletcher missing from the match-day squad, boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest headache will be who to leave out. The manager will want to strike the right balance between countering Barcelona’s obvious attacking threat, and taking advantage of Los Cules’ weakened defensive line-up. 

Somewhat surprisingly, for a squad boasting the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, United scored just 68 goals in the Premiership during 2008-9. While the Reds were the most potent home team in the country, Fergie’s men scored just 25 times on the road, reflecting a pragmatic tactical approach away from Old Trafford. With that in mind, it seems likely that Ferguson will pick a team that focuses on United’s defensive strength, while providing options for the team on the break.

Barcelona come into the game having scored more than 100 times in La Liga alone, and swept all before them in Spain’s domestic league and cup competitions. But Los Cules arrive in Rome with concerns surrounding their defence, with first choice full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended. If that wasn’t bad enough news for Barça boss Pep Guardiola, central defenders Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez are both injured and out of the match. Moreover, former Barça midfielder Guardiola must gamble on the fitness of star players Andreas Iniesta and Thiery Henry. While it seems both will start the match after taking part in recent training sessions, a thigh and knee injury respectively, mean that neither player will be 100% for the match.

United are likely to go man-for-man against Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The back five picks itself with veteran Edwin van der Sar in goal, John O’Shea and Patrice Evra at full-back and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Irishman O’Shea is likely to get the nod ahead of Gary Neville and Wes Brown at right-back, who have both only recently returned from injury, and the talented but inexperienced Rafael da Silva.

In midfield Ryan Giggs is set to start in place of the suspended Fletcher. With Giggs offering less protection for the back four than Fletcher, both Michael Carrick and Anderson will retain their places in an attempt to counter Barça’s attacking midfield three. It means no place for veteran Paul Scholes, ten years on from the final he famously missed against Bayern Munich in 1999.

Up front Ferguson is likely to stick with the semi-final winning trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park. While nominally Ronaldo is likely to start the match through the centre, the forwards will operate as a flexible three in attacking positions, with Rooney and Park offering greater protection for United’s full-backs than Ronaldo. This will mean disappointment for both Tevez and Berbatov, who are likely to remain on the bench.

Barcelona will have to shuffle their pack due to injuries and suspension. While Victor Valdes is a certain pick in goal, Guardiola’s biggest problems lie in the back four. Carles Puyol is likely to come in at right-back, with midfielder Yaya Toure alongside former United player Gerard Piqué in the centre. Guardiola will choose between veteran Brazilian Silvino or midfielder Seydou Keita at left-back.

The Barça boss is likely to gamble on the fitness of key man Andrea Iniesta in midfield, alongside Euro 2008 player of the tournament Xavi Hernandez and new Spanish cap Sergio Busquets, who will provide some counter to United’s power through the centre of the park. 

Should Henry win his fitness race, he will take up the left-sided attacking slot, with Samuel Eto’o through the middle and the brilliant Lionel Messi starting from the right. Should Henry not make it, it is likely Iniesta will push further forward and Keita come into a central midfield position.

United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson, Carrick, Giggs; Park, Ronaldo, Rooney.

Barça: Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Toure, Silvino; Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets; Messi, Eto’o, Henry.

Barça’s injury worries mount to leave United favourites

May 11, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

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.

United miss chances, but look too strong for Gooners

May 1, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

When does a victory feel like a let down? When you should have scored five! And so despite comfortably beating Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final on Wednesday, the night felt like something of an anti-climax. United were so dominant – and Arsenal so poor – that a 1-0 victory from John O’Shea’s suprisingly well-taken goal didn’t feel like a fair return on the night’s efforts. While a similar performance next Tuesday will surely see United through to the final in Rome on May 27, it could have been so much more. In fact through the veil of Arsene Wenger’s bullishness after the game there was the clear sign of massive relief. Arsenal should have been out of the tie after the first half – now they’re still in with a shout.

United go into tomorrow’s away match at Middlesborough having to rotate the squad with Giggs, Scholes, Park, Nani and Macheda all likely to start the match. Wes Brown will be on the bench as a minimum involvement. It’ll be United’s 60th game of a marathon camapaign, while Arsenal will be able to rest key players ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg at the Emirates. It’s an advantage for the London club but one that is to be expected with United chasing five major trophies up to this month’s FA cup semi-final defeat.

Still, despite the narrow win, there were plenty of positives for United against Arsenal. The back four were outstanding, Anderson put in his best performance of the season and the front three were energetic and dangerous. It was all too much for Arsenal’s midfield in particular, who were made to look as youthful and inexperienced as they really are.

There’s also goog news on the injury front, with Rio Ferdinand almost certain to be fit. While Arsenal will have Robin van Persie back for Tuesday’s game, the gulf between the two sides should be too much for the Gooners to bridge. You would have to back United to get an away goal, leaving Arsenal needing three to progress.

Whatsmore, United have some of the zip back that went missing for a month. It augers very well for the run-in. Victory tomorrow and the Reds will end Saturday six points ahead of Liverpool with four games to go. That will leave Fergie’s side needing just two wins and a draw from games against Wigan, Hull, Manchester City and Arsenal. Fergie would have taken that at the start of the season.

Ready to resume old hostilities

April 27, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

Do you miss the United versus Arsenal fizz of yesteryear? You know, the pizza throwing, tunnel shoving, all-out-21-man-brawling edge that seems to have been missing from recent encounters. It was that needle that gave the fixture its meaning over the past two decades. After all, while Arsenal aren’t traditional United rivals like City, Leeds and Liverpool, the tie had more than an air of ‘derby’ about it from the nineties to the early 21st century. But ‘Pizzagate’ onwards, when United ended Arsenal’s 49 match unbeaten league run, and the encounters have been tame. But with the clubs’ biggest meeting in a number of seasons taking place at Old Trafford this coming Wednesday, could old rivalries flare up again? Let’s hope so!

Perhaps its because messrs. Ferguson and Wenger have mellowed over the years that has removed some of the spark from the fixture in recent seasons.  After all, when was the last time either of them engaged in petty media-orientated ‘mind-games,’ name calling and put-downs? The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s huge spending certainly gave both clubs a new focus. And, horror of horrors, the pair even agree on certain issues now, such as a common enemy in universally disliked Rafa Benitez.

Or maybe its that the players have changed too. Neither side has the spikey characters that fueled the personal vendettas of the past. Without the incendury personalities of Keane, Viera, Keown, Winterburn, McClair, van Nistelrooy and others, what’s left to fight about? After all Viera hated – literally hated – Ruud van Nistelrooy; Brian McClair tried to cut Nigel Winterburn in half; and Roy Keane scared the aforementioned Viera so bad he probably had to run home to his mummy for a cuddle. Moreover, Cesc Fabregas aside, there’s nobody on either side who – to paraphrase – would gladly start a fight in an empty room.

Most of all the edge has gone because the clubs aren’t rivals for the Premiership title anymore, with the North London side now more accustomed to fighting it out for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot than actual trophies. By the time the two meet in the Premiership at Old Trafford on May 16th the title ought to be as good as wrapped up.

The Champions League semi-final this coming Wednesday, however, could change all that. At last a United versus Arsenal fixture worth getting excited about!