Sir Alex Ferguson will resist any temptation to rest his star players ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Blackburn Rovers. The Reds require just a single point to seal this season’s Premier League title and a 19th domestic championship, eclipsing Liverpool’s record in the process. But Ferguson says he will play his full strength side against Rovers, with just two weeks remaining before the Champions League final.
The Scot can boast a full squad for the tie as his players gear up for the Wembley showpiece at Wembley, with the returning Darren Fletcher set to feature after completing an hour in the reserves on Thursday night. Ferguson dismissed any thought of resting key players, although the United boss hinted that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar may sit out the tie.
“We must approach the game the right way and play our strongest team,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“It’s always a difficult game and Blackburn are fighting [to stay up]. They probably need a point. They’ll be trying their utmost to get that point or even beat us. We must put in the same effort. It’s a hard game for both teams but we go there with confidence after last Sunday’s win over Chelsea which was a great performance by us and we need another like that.
“Given the programme he’s been through in the last few weeks, this may be an opportunity to give [van der Sar] a break. They’ve all been important games.”
Ferguson’s comments raise the spectre of the Reds’ boss fielding a reserve team against Blackpool at Old Trafford next weekend as United seek to complete the season unbeaten at home, while the Tangerines chase survival. It promises to be a controversial selection; one that the Premier League may choose to monitor closely.
Indeed, Mexican striker Javier Hernández, who has now featured in 43 matches during his first season at Old Trafford, may be given an extended summer break. The striker leaves for the Gold Cup in June and will miss United’s pre-season tour to the United States before returning to Carrington for training in late July.
“Once he plays in the Gold Cup, Javier will be given a proper rest and we will take it up from there,” said Ferguson.
“His performances in training and in games suggests there’s no tiredness at all but we will keep monitoring that. If we get the result tomorrow he will get the rest. If we don’t then he will play next Sunday.”
Ferguson is also likely to add Fletcher to the bench for the Rovers tie after the Scotland captain featured in United reserves’ 2-1 defeat to Blackburn in midweek. Fletcher has missed the best part of Untied’s run-in with a mystery virus but is now in contention to feature in the Champions League final too.
“He played over an hour on Wednesday [for the Reserves]. These kinds of games will hopefully bring him to the level for the final of a European Cup,” added the 69-year-old United boss.
“Hopefully he gets a bit tomorrow, some more on Monday for the Reserves and again against Blackpool next Sunday. There’s also Gary Neville’s testimonial game. There are opportunities to increase his fitness so we’ve got to give him the chance. He’s back training every day. He’s over his virus – it’s just a matter of getting that strength and speed to his game. He’s got the desire to do it.”
The Rovers game is, of course, one in which United should finally overtake Liverpool as the most successful in the land – at least in terms of domestic league titles. While Ferguson’s outfit has long “knocked Liverpool off their perch”, the Scot claims that continuing to win trophies is all that matters. And with Liverpool experiencing a renaissance under Kenny Dalglish, Ferguson says that the Premier League is set to get tougher in the coming seasons.
“I knew it [getting to 19] would happen at some point because of the history of the club,” added the Scot.
“There is a good structure here. We still produce young players really well and our scouting is good in terms of getting young players into the club at the right time. It would have happened anyway whether that was this year, next year or in 10 years’ time. The history and capability of the club would always have given us a chance.
“Liverpool will be galvanised next season I am sure of that. Kenny has signed a three-year contract that settles the club down and there will be plans. It just makes it more interesting next year. We have spoken for years about the big four but teams like Tottenham have not got back into the Champions League this year and they have had a fantastic season.
“It is going to be really difficult next year. It is going to be very difficult to get 90 points again because of the improvement of teams in the middle and towards the bottom of the Premier League.
“There has been an increase in desire from teams in those positions because the only place you can ever make money in English football is the Premier League.”
Meanwhile, Rovers probably require a single point for safety, raising the spectre of a tame Ewood Park draw that suits both parties. Manager Steve Keen is without on loan striker Mame Biram Diouf, who is ineligible to face his parent club. But the 43-year-old can welcome back defender Phil Jones, who has recovered from a back problem, while Michel Salgado and David Dunn are both fit.
Keen’s men are unlikely to face United’s top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov though, with the Bulgarian again set for the United bench. The striker scored five in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford but has started just one of United’s past 14 fixtures. It is a fall from grace that that corresponds directly to Hernández’ rise.
Yet, on this ground almost around 12 months ago the Bulgarian put in one of his most insipid performances in a Reds shirt, leading to a scoreless draw that ultimately cost United the Premier League title.
It seems unlikely that United, Berbatov or not, will “muck this up” in a similar way on Saturday.
Premier League. Ewood Park, Blackburn. 14 May 2001, 12.45pm.
United – 4411 – Kuszazck; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, OShea; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: van der Sar, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Evra.
Rovers – 442 – Robinson; Olsson, Samba, P Jones, Givet; Emerton, Nzonzi, Hoilett, Pedersen; Roberts, Santa Cruz. Subs from: Bunn, Formica, Mwaruwari, Hanley, Rochina, Andrews, Formica, J Jones, Kalinic, Diouf.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Andy Halliday & Scott Ledger
Fourth official: Kevin Friend
Rovers – DDLLWD
United – DWWLWW
It is now six years since the Glazer family waltzed into Manchester United, encumbering the club with hundreds of millions in debt and incurring the wrath of a legion fans. In the intervening period the family has priced thousands of supporters out of the club, while many more have walked away in disgust. Yet, with the Premier League almost in the bag and a third Champions League final in four years to come, the protests of 18 months ago have died down and fans – at least those still attending Old Trafford – seem content with success on the pitch.
Ffan talk of finances has seemingly been refocused in recent months. After all, Premier League titles from 2007-9, and another heading towards Old Trafford in 2011, together with the 2008 Champions League, is a level of success equal to any other era in the club’s history.
Yet, six years after the Glazers’ extracted control of United their impact is felt more than ever. With £500 million worth of bonds piled on the club and a Payment in Kind (PIK) loan refinanced somewhere in the depths of Delaware, damage has undoubtedly been done to a 133-year-old institution. Not least the £300 million that has been lost to the club in interest and other fees during the Americans’ reign. With the Glazer family seemingly now entrenched at the club, United will continue to haemorrhage money up to and likely beyond the 2017 date on which the bonds mature.
The strained finances have necessitated massive ticket price rises, which on aggregate have increased 55 per cent since 2005. Meanwhile, United’s well-staffed London-based commercial department has sought exploit global sponsorship markets to the fullest extent in response. The club, as always over the past six years, is running just to keep still.
This much has been widely debated of course, with fans now conversant in the language of business that had rarely been witnessed at Old Trafford prior to the 2005 leveraged buyout. Indeed, the ‘green and gold’ protests were provoked by the January 2010 bond prospectus, which laid bare for the first time the extent of United’s debt burden. Short of exchange-rate fluctuations, little has changed in the total debt owed by the club in the intervening 18 months.
Yet, the anger felt by United’s supporters has quelled since its height last season. In part success on the pitch, with short-termism always likely to override long-term concerns, has distracted fans’ focus on money. Moreover, the failure of the so-called Red Knights to mount a realistic bid left many protesters feeling disillusioned, with the palpable inability of organised supporters’ clubs to maintain a protest movement a factor.
In this sense the club has won a public relations war. The dual mantra that the ‘Ronaldo money remains in the bank’ and ‘there’s no value in the market’ is now repeatedly aped by supporters. David Gill’s disingenuous appearance in front of a Parliamentary select committee merely one in a rash of repeatedly contradictory statements issued by the club that has seemingly been swallowed by those willing to listen.
It is the symbol of a fragmented support where many traditional supporters have been priced out of Old Trafford and replaced by the affluent, casual and transient. Perhaps the most distressing element of a sorry epoch in United’s history. The road from here to financial probity and a mutually respectful relationship between club and fans is almost certainly lost forever.
This summer promises more of the same, with another heavy marketing campaign expected while season ticket renewals are a stake. Inflation-rate price rises were predictably met with anger from supporters groups, although in truth the failure of MUST or IMUSA to arrange a widespread boycott during the past six years has negated their power to influence. It is unspoken, but both club and fan groups recognise that enough supporters will renew to prop up the regime.
In all of this the family has not been forced into heavy transfer spending, even in the wake of Wayne Rooney’s October revolution. With the Glazers’ position now set for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that the club’s strategy spending strategy will alter either. After all, Gill’s oft-repeated promise that ‘the Ronaldo money’ is still available for Sir Alex Ferguson to spend has not yet been fulfilled.
By contrast the policy to buy young, buy often and buy cheap, is seemingly still in place. It is yet to materially affect United’s chances, although the clubs has now slipped significantly behind rivals at home and abroad in terms of wages paid. While Ferguson, the ace in the family’s sleeve, remains in good health the Scot will surely continue to extract just enough from his charges to remain successful.
Competition is set to increase though. Cross town rivals Manchester City plans another summer of huge spending. City’s failure to sign Rooney last January still rankles in the boardroom. Meanwhile, Roman Abramovich’s lust for football has returned and Liverpool is once again resurgent under Kenny Dalglish’s management. Even Arsène Wenger has spoken of bringing experience into his spineless squad.
Arguably rivals’ failings this season will not be repeated. Six years on from the Glazers’ takeover we cannot be sure that the club has the financial muscle or boardroom will to meet yet another challenge.
When Manchester United lost to Barcelona in the Champions League final two years ago defeat broke thousands of hearts. After all, not only was Sir Alex Ferguson’s side trying to defend Europe’s premier trophy but began the game as favourites. Outclassed by a team now widely regarded as one of the finest in the game’s history, United supporters could only ponder what might have been. Indeed, one of the principal questions raised in the post-match analysis was whether United might have done better if Scot Darren Fletcher had not missed the game.
It was hard on the Scot, sent off during United’s semi-final second leg with Arsenal when the game and tie was already won. Moreover, in committing a ‘professional foul’ Scotland captain Fletcher got the merest toe on the ball, resulting in an unjustified red card, according to many pundits.
Once again 26-year-old Fletcher is in danger of missing a European final having been laid-low with a mysterious virus over the past two months. The illness, which has sidelined Fletcher for the best part of United’s run-in, left the player with considerable weight loss.
Yet, having played some reserve football and a brief appearance in the comfortable win over Schalke last week, Fletcher may take part in this year’s final. He is likely to make another appearance against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and then – results permitting – will start against Blackpool on the final day of the domestic season.
“Darren has put the weight back on and is back in training, but he has a bit to do yet,” Ferguson confirmed.
“But, as far as the final is concerned, there is almost three weeks to achieve that. If he does reach the target, it will be a big boost to us as we all know he is big-game player. The 20 minutes he got against Schalke last week was certainly a step forward. His training, in terms of sharpness for such an important game, will be stepped up now.
“We’ve also got Blackburn Rovers away, Blackpoool at home, and even Gary Neville’s testimonial game so there’s opportunity for game time that will help him reach his target.”
But the question of Fletcher’s participation in European competition is certainly more nuanced than the midfielder’s fitness. Ferguson has a tactical conundrum to answer, especially with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs – aided by Wayne Rooney – in such good form during the past six week’s. Indeed, with time on the ball coming at a premium against Barcelona, United’s manager may not benefit from losing the Giggs-Carrick possession axis.
The alternative for Ferguson is to alter the tactical plan that worked so well against Chelsea in recent weeks, with Fletcher augmenting midfield and Rooney ploughing a lone furrow up-front. The change would add more steel to United’s midfield but disrupt Rooney’s renaissance at ‘number 10′ and force in-form Javier Hernández back to the bench. It might be a losing hand too, with United then betting on shutting out the Catalans’ extraordinary attacking threat while catching the opposition on the break.
However, defender Rio Ferdinand has backed the Scot’s return, claiming that Fletcher’s energy will add much to the United cause. It’s a fair point, with Fletcher arguably the only dynamic central midfielder in the United squad capable of effectively playing a more destructive role. Certainly, the horrors of Anderson’s performance against the Spaniards in 2009 will not easily be forgotten.
“Darren can run ridiculous amounts during games,” said Ferdinand.
“Park Ji-sung is the only person who could rival him running-wise. That says a lot. He covers a lot of ground, gets at people and can score important goals. He gets the crowd going and is an integral member of the squad. It will be great to have him back.”
Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to meet fire with fire by sending out an attacking United side to take on the newly re-crowned Spanish champions, consigning the fit Scot, at best, to the bench. The gambler’s instinct may just tip Ferguson to hold Fletcher back and retain a formula that has proven successful against domestic and European opponents recently.
In the meantime United should wrap up the Premier League with ease against a dispirited Blackburn side, which should be safe from relegation but has shown no real form under manager Steve Keen. The game may afford Fletcher 45 minutes this weekend, the full 90 against Blackpool at home and Neville’s testimonial four days before the Wembley final.
On Ferdinand’s part, the former England has promised a better performance from United in the Champions League final than last time out. It couldn’t get much worse.
“I have never watched 2009 again,” the Scot told ManUtd.com.
“But matches like that are hard to forget as it is clear in your head. If you want to sit and think about games like that they come up quite easily. It is like bringing something up on the internet. I have not watched it but I have re-run it in my head a few times. We never played. We never got on the ball. We weren’t Manchester United that day. This time we will give a better account of ourselves.
“On the way back we were sitting there thinking if only we had gone out and played and been the real Manchester United, it would have been different. They always say you don’t want to come off the pitch with any regrets. There were regrets that night.”
For Fletcher, fitness ought not to be a regret two years down the line.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are now within a single point of a 19th domestic title after beating Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday. It was the fourth occasion the Reds have beaten Carlo Ancelotti’s Londoners this season, if any further proof was needed of the United’s superiority. If Chelsea’s players had talked up their title possibilities ahead of the match, then there was little doubt about the result just 36 seconds into the tie after Javier Hernández’ superb opener. Around two hours later and United had sealed the win that brings the Premier League title to within a draw at Blackburn Rovers next weekend.
Despite Chelsea’s late goal there never seemed any doubt about the result. United was everything Ferguson’s team had been missing against Arsenal last week; dynamic, energetic and inventive. It is if a switch is thrown whenever the Theatre of Dreams is in sight. Old Trafford’s Dr. Jekyll to the road’s Mr Hyde, to bastardise a popular novella.
In a season that threatened mediocrity at its outset United will achieve more than so many pundits – and let’s be honest, supporters – ever expected. Truly now greater than the sum of its parts, United will finish as Premier League champions with a very real chance of beating an, albeit superior, Barcelona side in a one-off showpiece final. It would be a remarkable double.
While the players must take credit for their part the real hero, as history must record, is Ferguson, who has dragged from his limited playing squad results that so few expected.
“Knowing the players they won’t muck it up,” said Ferguson after United’s victory on Sunday.
“They will get a point there’s no doubt about that. It’s fantastic to be the most successful team in the country. The minute we won that first title in 1992 the door opened, and we’ve been involved in the first two all throughout that period – it’s a fantastic achievement.
“For the last 17 or 18 years it’s been Arsenal and Chelsea as our nearest challengers, and the last few years it’s been Chelsea. Arsenal made a great attempt this year but them losing [at Stoke] has finalised it.
“It took time to get foundations of club right and after we got the first title we improved, improved and improved.”
Ferguson is right to crow, although in truth he has commanded far superior teams in his 25 years at Old Trafford. After all, while it is unfair to say the ‘least worst’ team has emerged victorious this season there is some truth to it. With United in transition and Chelsea ageing, Arsenal’s obstinate manager Arsène Wenger will surely look back on an opportunity lost. Money is available at the Emirates and the Frenchman’s decision not to spend it on a goalkeeper, central defender and experienced tough-tackling midfielder has cost his side dearly.
Rivals’ failure is United’s gain and Ferguson believes United is well served for the decade ahead. It promises to be an interesting summer, with fans once again wondering if the United manager will build from a position of strength. Ferguson is again minded to trust in youth.
“Over the last decade, we’ve worked upon bringing young talent into the club, like, Wayne Rooney, ‘Chicharito’, Anderson and Nani, and we’ve brought all these players,” added Ferguson.
“But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that we like to produce our own young players and I think there are several players in the present youth team who are doing really well.
“The likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison, you see some of them doing very, very well, so we’re always going to put an emphasis on young players coming through from the youth team. That will always be the case.
“We’ve got some excellent young players of good ages, you know. Like, for instance, Chicharito, who is 22, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson, who are 23, and Chris Smalling who’s 21.
“So, yeah, we’ve got a good nucleus of young players in the club which gives you the foundation to be able to protect the future and know it’s going to be alright.”
The temptation is to dismiss Ferguson’s comments as a segue into another summer of investment in players who ‘retain a significant transfer value’; the club’s policy of only buying young players who can be sold at profit in the future. Indeed, this may well be the case although Ferguson will surely want to replace Edwin van der Sar, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes at a minimum.
However, winning the Premier League vindicates Ferguson’s summer transfer policy whatever happens in the Champions League final. This side has already over-achieved, with Hernández and Chris Smalling particularly successful. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva has emerged as a genuinely classy right-back, with his brother arguably even more reliable in the position during the final weeks of the season. The less said about Bébé, the better for all concerned.
Ferguson will move on from title win 19 quickly though, looking to the next great challenge. And while United is stocked with some outstanding youngsters history dictates that only a fraction will make it at the club. United’s success, or failure, next season will again be determined by choices made during the summer.
With Manchester City and Chelsea set to throw cash at the problem, Wenger more recalcitrant than ever about his own transfer policy and Liverpool resurgent, title 20 will be harder than ever to achieve.
But that question is for another day. For now, Ferguson can rightly bask in the glory of his achievements.
Sunday’s clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford is, essentially, a title decider. At least for the Londoners, for whom defeat will surely end all hope of retaining the Premier League. Having already faced each other four times this season, twice in Europe, the Community Shield and at Stamford Bridge, there is little the teams do not already know about each other. And as so often in clashes of this magnitude it is the details that will decide the outcome; the one-on-one battles that will turn the title race in Chelsea’s favour or a seal a 19th domestic championship for United.
Didier Drogba v Nemanja Vidic
The United captain’s problems with Fernando Torres have been always been overstated but with the Spaniard in poor form it is unlikely the £50 million striker will have the opportunity to repeat the trick. Instead, with Ancelotti having restored the Chelsea players’ preferred 4-3-3 formation Vidic must snuff out the considerably more dangerous Drogba, if the Ivorian can be bothered, of course. Drogba’s performances have not reached the heights of previous campaigns, not aided by a dose of malaria, evidenced by just 11 Premier League goals this season. But the 33-year-old still has the power to win matches on his own.
Frank Lampard v Michael Carrick
The Geordie’s inability to deal with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates last weekend cost United dearly, with Ferguson’s side losing possession and territory in midfield. Tiredness perhaps but Carrick returned to the lethargic performances of the past two seasons against Arsenal and United cannot afford a similar performance on Sunday. Yet Carrick will perform a crucial role screening Lampard’s runs from deep and recycling possession to ensure United win the midfield battle at Old Trafford. Carrick is not a natural destroyer but alongside Ryan Giggs, the former Tottenham Hotspur player played a central role in United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League this season.
Antonio Valencia v Ashley Cole
The Ecuadorian’s role during United’s run-in has been remarkable given the serious nature of the broken ankle suffered in September. Valencia has not only returned to fitness, but supplanted Nani in the United side, with the 24-year-old former Wigan Athletic winger likely to start against Chelsea on Sunday. Valencia’s no-nonsense style, defensive discipline and pace have made him both a fan-favourite and Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred choice on the right-wing. But in Ashley Cole, Valencia faces one of Europe’s finest left-backs. It will prove a crucial personal duel that Valencia needs to win if United is to negate the threat down Chelsea’s left flank.
Wayne Rooney v John Obi Mikel
Rooney’s spring renaissance has coincided with a return to the ‘number 10′ position of the player’s youth, offering the former Evertonian freedom and reducing the player’s goalscoring burden. The player’s influence from a deeper position was in evidence during the recent Champions League matches between the sides where Rooney not only provided United’s creative heartbeat but augmented United’s central midfield when defending. With Chelsea likely to play three central midfielders at Old Trafford Rooney will again be required deep, to ensure United is not outnumbered in the engine room and to cut off the supply to Mikel who is the catalyst for the Londoners’ attacking play.
Javier Hernández v David Luiz
Luiz’ pace is a crucial compliment to John Terry in the heart of Chelsea’s central defence. The restored England captain is neither the quickest over the ground nor, if his positional sense is anything to go by, up top but Luiz has added an extra dimension to Chelsea’s defence since a £25 million January transfer. The Brazilian is seemingly a foul waiting to happen but, perhaps tellingly, Hernández had far less success against the former Benfica man in the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge than in the recent European games.
Sir Alex Ferguson v Carlo Ancelotti
Will United retain the 4-4-1-1 formation that proved Chelsea’s undoing in the Champions League? Will Ancelotti keep the 4-4-2 that prove so unsuccessful in the same series of matches? It is possible each will change, with Ancelotti using a three man attack in recent domestic matches, while Ferguson may be tempted to augment United’s midfield and deploy Rooney in a lone front man role. As ever, the game will be decided on the minor details, where substitutions will play a key role. While Ancelotti is likely to keep Torres in reserve, Ferguson can call on Dimitar Berbatov, still the Premier League’s top goalscorer.
Howard Webb v Everbody
The common perception that Webb favours United is based, largely, on the penalty the former police officer gave against Tottenham Hotspur in April 2009. While the foul by Heurelho Gomes on Michael Carrick was preceded by a flick of the ball, the ‘keeper took man and ball, which is, by any definition, a penalty. Add in the failure to dismiss Spurs’ Wilson Palacios for a two-footed lunge in the same game and Webb’s contribution appears markedly less ‘pro-United’. Then there’s the bizarre dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo against Manchester City in November 2008, where the Portuguese was shown red for deliberate handball. The winger batted the ball to the floor, volleyball-style, having seemingly been pushed in the back. Moreover, the official has never given a penalty against Chelsea. It’s a picture rarely painted by the mainstream media.
Sunday’s match against Chelsea may not earn Manchester United the Premier League title but victory will take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to within a whisker of a 19th domestic championship. It is a prize that came sharply into focus this week, with the 69-year-old Scot resting key players during United’s Champions League semi-final defeat of Schlake. Wednesday’s 4-1 win, taking United to Wembley on a 6-1 aggregate scoreline, has provided Ferguson’s squad with a welcome tonic ahead of Chelsea’s visit. Not that United’s manager had any doubts about his team’s performances at Old Trafford, claiming that the Reds’ home form is the best in Europe.
Despite overwhelming margin of victory Ferguson will make substantial changes to the side that beat the former German champions this week, with up to seven players returning. Indeed, United’s manager effectively gambled the Reds’ progression in Europe to ensure his troops do not suffer the fatigue that so affected last week’s performance against Arsenal.
“Our home record is probably the best in Europe,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“It is the reason we are there. Some of the performances at home this season have been absolutely terrific. Hopefully it will get us the result we want on Sunday because this is a big game. If we win, we should win the league.
“Everyone is aware of the magnitude of Sunday’s game. It is one of the reasons why I picked the team I did on Wednesday. I wanted to give us a real chance. We will have a fresh team and that makes a difference at this time of the season.”
Yet Chelsea arrive in Manchester, site of defeat in the Champions League last month, in outstanding domestic form. Elimination from Europe’s premier competition has precipitated a run gaining the Londoners 25 points from a potential 27. Coupled with United dropping points at Anfield, St James’ Park and the Emirates recently, victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s men will take Chelsea to the head of the Premier League table.
It is a scenario, says Ferguson, enabled by United’s loss to Chelsea in the Premier League in March, where referee Martin Atkinson’s performance drew a stinging rebuke from the Scot.
“That result was the change for them,” added Ferguson, whose criticism of Atkinson earned a five-match touchline ban.
“We all know the circumstances of that game and I don’t need to get into that. But the outcome gave them a lift. They were out of the game and they had won it. But we always said it is a very difficult league. The Premier League is hard to win. We know because we have been involved in the championship races for 19 years.”
Captain Nemanja Vidic returns to lead the side, alongside Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park. Despite the positive performances from Brazilian midfielder Anderson and the much maligned Darron Gibson in midweek neither is likely to make Ferguson’s starting line-up. The same is true of Darren Fletcher, of whom Ferguson has high hopes for the Champions League final in three weeks, but he should make the bench against Chelsea.
Indeed, Ferguson’s principal decision rests on whether to maintain the 4-4-1-1 shape that proved so effective against Chelsea in Europe, or augment United’s midfield against Ancelotti’s newly rediscovered three-man engine room.
That United does not need to chase victory may prove decisive. However, it is a selection poser for which the Scot is providing few clues, claiming only that United will not play for a draw.
“I have no idea what to expect from Chelsea,” added Ferguson, whose team has allowed a 15 point Premier League lead to slip in the past two months.
“I was at their game last week and couldn’t get anything from that. Drogba played the whole game so you would expect him definitely to play. But he started off wide right, then Torres went there. Whether they start with both of them on Sunday is difficult to say. But no matter what they do, we have the players to handle it.”
Chelsea manager Ancelotti must choose whether to field both Didier Drogba and £50 million striker Fernando Torres, who was so ineffectual during the recent Champions League encounters. However, David Luiz is available for the Premier League match after missing the European games due to ineligibility.
Luiz was a key figure when Chelsea beat United 2-1 at Stamford bridge in March, scoring the winning goal. Indeed, the Londoners have won the last three Premier League encounters between the sides, including a controversial victory during last season’s title run in.
Yet, it is to the recent European ties that United will turn. Victory home and away in the Champions League will give the Reds a psychological edge, claims winger Nani.
“The most important game now is Chelsea not Barcelona. It will be very difficult. But we are at home and we have had good experiences against them,” said winger Nani, who may well return to the bench for Chelsea’s visit.
“We know if we want to win the game we have to play with confidence. The results against them in the Champions League were very good. I think that gives us the psychological advantage. We just have to concentrate on our football and winning the game. If we do that then everything will be fine.
“If we win this one then it is a great advantage for us. It is nearly over then. We have a great chance.”
And with United having taken 49 of 51 potential points at home this season, it is a message that United supporters can rally round. Only West Bromwich Albion has emerged with anything from Old Trafford in the Premier League; unless Chelsea can improve on that result the title is surely United’s.
Premier League. Old Trafford, London, 7 May 20011, 4.00pm.
United – 4411 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Fabio da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson.
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Lampard, Essien; Kalou, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Hilário, Turnbull, Ramires, Torres, Benayoun, Zhirkov, Ferreira, Alex, Bertrand, Anelka, McEachran
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: Darren Cann & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Phil Dowd
United – LDWWLW
Chelsea – WLWWWW
Barcelona vs Manchester United, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. 27 May 2009.
The 2009 Champions League final, which will be repeated at Wembley in 22 days time, resulted in a hugely disappointing loss to Barcelona in the final. Rant looks back on that final and wonders whether Manchester United will make the same tactical mistakes again?
Both teams lined up as expected; United missed out on Darren Fletcher after Scotland captain’s unfortunate booking in the semi-final with Arsenal. Meanwhile, an injury crisis forced Barcelona into fielding a makeshift back-four including Yaya Touré in central defence.
For United, Cristiano Ronaldo led the line, with Sir Alex Ferguson deploying Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung in wide positions, aiming to contain Barça’s fullbacks. Barça used Lionel Messi in the now familiar “false 9” role, forcing Samuel Eto’o wide.
Surprisingly, United initially lined up in 4-4-2 with Ryan Giggs playing as a supporting striker – it was perhaps an attempt to press and take the game to Barça, although Giggs floated too much to get a sense of how United lined up at any given time.
United started the game brightly though with Victor Valdes saving an excellent Ronaldo free kick early in the game. After all, the Reds had been pre-match favourites.
Eto’o and Messi kept changing position as game settled into a pattern, which caused United considerable problems. Ultimately when Messi dropped deep in the ninth minute, not a single United midfielder picked him up. The Argentinean pulled Andreas Iniesta’s marker out of position, which afforded the Spanish international a free dribble, eventually allowing Eto’o to score past Edwin van der Sar at the near post.
The goal could have easily prevented had United maintained a more disciplined shape.
United persisted with a 4-4-2, (see figure 1, below) which Barça negated by simply passing around the oncoming Red midfielders. The shape also meant that Park and Rooney had to form a second line of defence with United on the back foot. It took the pair away from Barcelona’s full-backs, enabling Puyol and Sylvinho’s influence on the game to grow.
United was unable to cope with Barça’s relentless pressing. United chances were then limited to long balls down the flanks, while Messi was also left without a marker for most of the game (see figure 2, below).
Lack of organised pressing, resulting from United’s rather limiting formation, allowed Barça to get hold of the game. United players could not abandon a post without leaving a an opponent free, while Barcelona stroked the ball around freely. United sorely missed a dedicated ball-winner.
By the end of first half, United swapped Giggs and Rooney’s positions to little effect. In another change, the half-time interval saw Carlos Tevez’s introduction at Anderson’s expense. Giggs was pushed deeper to maintain a 4-4-2ish shape and again Messi was to left roam free by United.
Sir Alex soon substituted Park for Dimitar Berbatov allowing Ronaldo to occupy a more familiar left-wing role. With United enjoying some success on the wings, it was a move that made sense, also introducing some height to the penalty box.
The changes were soon negated though, with Messi scoring a free header in the 69th minute; he had been left without a marker for much of the game. The player’s excellent movement and Xavi Hernandez’ exquisite cross should be commended but Ferguson must also take some of the blame for picking a shape that left the most dangerous opposition player free to do as he wished.
After the second goal, Barça comfortably saw the game out.
While it is true that almost the whole United side had an “off day”, Ferguson’s team was also hampered by frankly baffling tactics. United lost the midfield battle – a failure to be placed on the Scot’s head, who decided to play two central midfielders, including Anderson and Michael Carrick. Park’s headless running on the wing was also a factor of United’s shape.
United lost because for two reasons: the team shape and a complete lack of pressing. The question is – will United repeat the same mistake again on 28 May?
Manchester United’s progression to the Champions League final, to be held at Wembley on 28 May, has surprised many; perhaps even some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s players. Despite the relative lack of ‘stardust’ in the United squad, in a season of turmoil surrounding star player Wayne Rooney, United has exceeded many expectations, including those of this website. Indeed, Ferguson must take huge credit for United’s progress to the final, with the team now greater than the sum of its parts.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s “passing carousel,” to use Ferguson’s colourful description, has been described as the best football on the planet. It was far too good for United in the 2009 final in Rome. Some pundits have gone further and claim that the Catalan giant now boasts the best football team ever.
But in a season of surprises will United pull off another one and beat Barça in the final?