Fergie questions officials as title comes down to Chelsea tie

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 27 comments

There is little doubt that Manchester United was denied a clear penalty with less that five minutes remaining at the Emirates on Sunday but in truth Sir Alex Ferguson’s reverted to type in defeat away from Old Trafford. Ferguson’s side was everything witnessed so often on the road this season: timid, lacklustre and above all, outclassed in midfield. Worse still, there was none of the adventure or creativity displayed at the Veltins Arena last Tuesday as United went down to an Arsenal side essentially playing for nothing but pride.

The frustration was tantamount in the United camp as referee Chris Foy missed Gael Clichy’s clear foul on Michael Owen with minutes remaining. Ferguson’s anger was compounded too, with Patrice Evra denied another good shout for a spot kick in the 68th minute after Bacary Sanga appeared to drag down his fellow countryman.

In truth Arsenal can also point a handball by Nemanja Vidic early in the piece that was also missed by the Merseyside official, although the Serbian’s touch was so fine that perhaps only Robin van Persie could have seen the infringement. Owen’s claim was none of the sort, with Foy well positioned to make what could prove a decisive moment in the Premier League title race.

It was almost too much for Ferguson to take post-match – the Scot did well not to incur further FA wrath after recently serving a five-match touchline ban for criticising officials.

“It’s too big a game not to get the decisions right,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“It balances out in that respect but I think it was difficult to see that one [Vidic’s handball] but the one at the end, Clichy knew, he put his hands up in horror. Obviously, it gives Chelsea a major chance now and that’s what happens when you get these decisions. They got one at Old Trafford last season so that’s the worry now. But in terms of ability – a game at Old Trafford, the supporters will be ready for it – and so will our players.”

Ferguson’s thinly veiled reference to Chelsea’s good fortune on Saturday, when the west London club were awarded two goals that should never have been against Tottenham Hotspur, is pertinent. Last season’s title charge was greatly altered by Didier Drogba’s winning goal at Old Trafford, scored from an offside position. Moreover, prior to United’s Champions League quarter-final win over the Londoners had enjoyed a series of refereeing decisions that irked Ferguson.

All that is now required to solidify the Scot’s paranoia is for the Premier League to appoint Martin Atkinson to take charge of next weekend’s key fixture. The official appointment is likely to be announced on Tuesday, ahead of United’s Champions League second-leg fixture with Schalke.

However, while Ferguson is a master at exerting pressure on whomever takes charge of next Sunday’s tie, the Scot will surely banish all negative thoughts from the United camp ahead of the match. Win or draw against last season’s champions and United will surely take a 19th domestic title. Lose and the title’s destiny will be outside United’s control for the first time in weeks. United can only countenance the former.

Indeed, with an identical goal difference, a Chelsea victory at Old Trafford will provoke a two-match shoot out to clinch the title. United versus Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool; Chelsea against Newcastle United and Everton.

That is for the coming weeks though. Ahead of the Chelsea tie United must play in Europe with the Londoners facing nothing more strenuous than a week’s light training at Cobham. The freshness should hand a distinct advantage to next weekend’s visitors, although Ferguson will rest key forward players for the Schalke tie.

“We have a big week ahead,” said Ferguson.

“Wednesday is a European semi-final second leg and then the game on Sunday [against Chelsea], so two massive games. We will regroup and freshen it up.

“I will make some changes on Wednesday without question. I will bring Paul Scholes back in, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen. We’ll need to do that but I will probably keep my experienced players at the back.

“We are in as good a position as you could ever wish for at the start of the season – semi-final of the European Cup, second leg, two-goal lead and go into a home game on Sunday level on goal difference [and with a three-point advantage].”

United’s good position both at home and in Europe could be undone inside the next six days though. And Ferguson is fortunate that three of the coming key games are at Old Trafford, with only the Blackburn game on the road. Given United’s horrendous form away from Manchester, where Ferguson’s side has won just five times in the Premier League, the fixture list is but a small mercy.

Until Wednesday the United squad will have much to ponder in tamely losing at the Emirates, whatever the poor officiating. And then it is to the two recent European games against Chelsea that United must turn, where the Reds’ positive intent drew high dividends.

Those games were everything Sunday at the Emirates was not.

Wingless Ferguson

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 16 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson is on record stating that he has never used a traditional 4-4-2. It is true, however, that systems he has used over the years, including 4-2-3-1, are cousins of the orthodox 4-4-2. It is not true though that Ferguson is tactically inflexible; he has used variants of 4-3-3 and even three-at-the-back systems over the years. However, one thing is consistent over all these years – no matter what Ferguson’s tactics, he has always used wingers.

It is no great wonder that the Scot prefers wingers in his side – Manchester United has been particularly blessed in the department. However, Ferguson’s luck with wingers is  running out and it may prompt a change.

Antonio Valencia, whilst good, is a limited player. Ferguson’s comment that the Ecuadorian would have been purchased regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure suggests that Valencia was bought not as an indirect replacement for the Portuguese, but to take Park’s place as someone who can be deployed in big games to pin back full-backs. Nani, on the other hand, has come leaps and bounds this season, although the issue of consistency still lingers, and media reports that Nani is positioning for a move to Italy cannot be ignored.

It also remains a problem that Valencia and Nani are both naturally right wingers. This column has previously discussed why Nani performs better on the right. Valencia, being a more limited player, simply cannot play on the left. An easy out is to purchase a left sided player – it is perhaps the reason why Ashley Young has been linked to United in the press.

Even if Ferguson’s situation with his wingers is resolved, the midfield remains a problem. This column has previously argued that United will probably persist with 4-2-3-1 based systems and purchase an advanced or deep-lying playmaker to add some “stardust” to the team. It was an argument made before the burgeoning partnership between Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández.

In recent games Rooney has been deployed in deep roles;  deeper than he has ever played in his career. The English international has revelled in the freedom afforded by depth. With Hernández stretching the play, Rooney has all the time and space to do whatever he wants. Hernández is the key – the opposition defensive line drops so deep to pick him up that Rooney is often left without a marker. This is a great partnership and one that shouldn’t be altered.

Does this mean that an exciting attacking midfielder can’t be brought into the club this summer, and must United persist with wingers? An attacking midfielder, for argument’s sake let’s say Javier Pastore, can be bought and played in a 4-3-1-2, with Rooney and Hernández deployed up top. However, a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Luka Modric can be bought and fit into the existing system. It is, indeed, a more likely option.

But what stops the old Scot from making one last big tactical change before retirement? After all, Ferguson has shown over the years that he isn’t afraid of the change.

Ferguson has already tried out the wingerless system in the League Cup game against Southampton. The game ended disastrously, as the midfield failed to perform.  The issue with such systems is width. Midfielders and strikers must work tirelessly to provide it in lieu of traditional wingers. But United does have players like Rooney and Darren Fletcher, who are tailor made for such roles.

Another boon of using a wingerless system is that Michael Carrick would be freed. With so many players around him, the Englishman won’t be pressured as much and will be able to provide calm passing from deep.

However, another concern with the 4-3-1-2  system is facing teams that do utilise width extensively. AC Milan was destroyed by Tottenham Hotspur this season for precisely this reason. In such matches United can revert to 4-2-3-1, placing wingers or players such as Rooney in wide positions to counter the threat. Additionally, Chelsea showed last season that wingless formations can work in the Premier League if the team is good enough.

The coming summer will be exciting for many reasons. One of them could be that Sir Alex abandons his only tactical constant.

The Mourinho question

April 30, 2011 Tags: , Reads 29 comments

After Manchester United departed the Veltins Arena on Tuesday night with two away goals it left supporters declaring the Red Devils all but in the final. With United expected to fly the flag for England on home turf at Wembley on 28 May, the only question was: who will join Sir Alex Ferguson’s side? Only one of the Spanish giants could make it. Enter José Mourinho.

Real  Madrid welcomed Barcelona to the Bernabeu for the other semi-final, with Mourinho looking to outwit Pep Guardiola for the second time in a week.  Mourinho’s desire to succeed Ferguson at United has not gone unnoticed in the press. The Portuguese professes his love for English football and Sir Alex has even made reference to the idea of Mourinho taking his position when it becomes available.

But if Mourinho is playing the waiting game, and using Madrid as a stepping stone, then he could be in for a long wait if the semi-final is used in evidence. With three red cards, only one actually handed to a player, and plenty of controversy, Barcelona midfielder Xavi was moved to describe the result as a “win for football”.  It has promised so much, with some of the greatest players in the world present, but delivered so little in terms of actual football.

The game ended with Barcelona taking the same advantage back to Camp Nou for the second leg that United achieved the night before. Yet, in the Spanish capital Mourinho’s side was instructed to stop Barcelona playing, with defender Pepe pushed into midfield. After all, it had worked in the Copa Del Rey final a week previously, which Madrid won 1-0 thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s header deep into extra time.

However, in the European game Pepe was harshly sent off for a late tackle on Dani Alves, who along with Sergio Busquests and Pedro, was one of the great’ play actors’ on the night. The dismissal proved to be a massive turning point in the game but in the end beautiful football prevailed as Lionel Messi went on to score a fantastic brace.

The tense and aggressive atmosphere at the Bernabeu spilt over into half time as Barcelona’s substitute goalkeeper was sent off after sharing his thoughts with Alvaro Arbeloa and Madrid’s staff on the bullish tactics employed.

However, the real pantomime villain of the night was Mourinho, who was sent to the stands for sarcastically applauding the referee over Pepe’s red card. But the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ also angered many Madrid supporters with what can only be described as anti-football tactics. The sole purpose of Mourinho’s set-up was to stop Barcelona from deploying the possession game to its fullest effect, and therefore negating the risk of Los Cules repeating the 5-0 hammering at Camp Nou earlier this season.

The tactical approach taken by Mourinho was a direct reaction to that loss, with the negative attitude displayed even after Madrid rested many stars the previous weekend. Madrid knocked six past third  placed Valencia at the Mestalla despite the understrength team, with Gonzalo Higuain bagging a hat-trick. Remarkably, he was still denied an opportunity against Barcelona.

Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s frustration with the negative approach was apparent. The former United player’s team-mates failed to put any pressure on Barça defence, as the visitors passed freely their own half, with Real dropping back to its territory. The sole purpose was to protect Los Merengues’ goal and then give the ball to Ronaldo on the counter. The negative approach in a fixture of such magnitude tarnished the reputation of the Spanish game to such an extent that it hardly resembled a football match.

It was always going to be a feisty affair though with Mourinho kicking off the mind games in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday afternoon.  After all, for Mourinho, the fixture begins in the press room, not on the pitch. Indeed, the use of off-the- field antics to inspire his players replicates Ferguson at United; both share an immense gift to manipulate the media and motivate their players while unsettling the opposition.

Meanwhile, Mourinho’s persona makes him as a great candidate to handle the pressure that comes with managing a club of United’s standing; a club with a similar global presence to Madrid.

However, more than the controversy it is Mourinho’s anti-football tactics that have raised questions about his ability to keep the Old Trafford faithful entertained. The Portuguese manager has a proven track record of winning trophies but it is his penchant to ‘park the bus’ in certain fixtures that raises suspicions over his capacity to replace Ferguson.

United’s foundations were beautifully outlined in the recent film ‘United’ and its accompanying documentary, ‘Sir Bobby Charlton: Football Icon’.  Charlton spoke of a conversation held with Jimmy Murphy in the 1950s where the Welsh coach described United’s support, drawn as it was from the industrial community of Trafford Park. ‘They come to Old Trafford on a Saturday expecting to be entertained,’ said Murphy. 50 years on and the club still retains these values; the belief that United is there for the supporters and it is the responsibility of the staff and players to make sure the faithful is entertained.

These ideals ensure many ask the question:  is Mourinho really suitable for Old Trafford?

Is José Mourinho right for Manchester United?

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Reds seek Emirates win to seal title

April 30, 2011 Tags: , Matches 191 comments

Needing just seven points to seal the Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson says that his Manchester United team will play to win against Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday. Victory, while not guaranteeing the title, will bring United to within touching distance of a 19th domestic championship. But, warns the Scot, all teams could drop points with just four games to go before the season’s end.

United faces an Arsenal team whose confidence has crumbled since losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City in February. Arsène Wenger’s side has dropped points against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in the past fortnight, although there is still an outside chance the Londoners could win the title.

“There is still drama ahead,” said Ferguson on Friday, whose side is seeking a third win at the Emirates in a row.

“The teams at the top will drop points, including Chelsea. Two months ago everyone was looking at these two games as league deciders. They probably are now

“But if we get to the last home game needing to win it to win the league, I would be happy with that. The slant I seemed to be getting is that Arsenal and Chelsea are expecting to win these games and change the top of the league.

“Why can’t we win these matches? Surely, given the form we are in, we can. It is not going to be any easier for Arsenal or Chelsea than it is for us. These are difficult games. A point away from home at Arsenal is not the worst point – but that is not what we are going down there looking for.

“It’s important to keep momentum going by winning games. That’s vital. Draws don’t come into it now, it’s all about wins. We’ve got a big few games coming up and we need to win them.”

Ferguson will welcome back top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov for the match, which United has won 3-1 on the last two visits to north London. The Bulgarian has started just one of United’s past 13 matches but with 21 Premier League goals this season is likely to finish as the league’s top goalscorer. The 30-year-old has missed the past three matches with a minor groin strain.

Darren Fletcher also returns to the traveling party, although he is unlikely to start. The Scot has missed two months with a mystery virus but played the first half of the reserves’ 0-0 draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford on Thursday night. However, the Scotland captain has noticeably lost weight during the absence, although he has been in full training for the past two weeks.

“Dimitar is fit again. He had a slight groin strain but he has trained all week,” added Ferguson

“He [Fletcher] is progressing and it is possible we could include him on Wednesday for another 45 minutes. It is good that he is back. He has put his weight back on. He has worked hard in the gym. He is a great addition to the squad.”

Arsenal v Manchester United, Emirates, 1 May 2011Ferguson will rest midfielder Ryan Giggs for the trip despite the Welshman’s outstanding form in central midfield in the past two months. The 37-year-old scored United’s opening goal against Schalke on Tuesday night and has been a pivotal figure in a more fluid style adopted by United in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Ferguson may opt to bring Nani back into the side, with Antonio Valencia having played repeatedly since his return from injury. Fabio da Silva will continue at right-back with John O’Shea and his brother Rafael still struggling with injury.

Anderson is likely to start in Giggs’ place after the Brazilian’s purposeful showing against Everton last weekend. The €30 million midfielder has started just 12 Premier League matches in another disappointing campaign marked by inconsistent performances and injury. Yet the youngster, still just 22-years-old, is likely to take on the creative midfield mantle next season unless Ferguson’s breaks with recent tradition and buys an established midfielder during the summer.

Indeed, Ferguson admitted that United lacks the same creative force as in previous campaigns, with more workmanlike players coming to the fore this season. It is an attitude, along with United’s playing and coaching experience, which Ferguson believes will serve the Reds well during the final matches of the season.

“This team might not have the ‘Ronaldo’ factor, but it doesn’t understand the word defeat,” said Ferguson, whose side has lost just three matches in the Premier League.

“It’s determined, gritty and very professional, and it’s produced some great moments. It’s not as if we’ve been devoid of that [fantasy]. Some of the football we’ve seen from the players this season has been terrific.

“We’ve had some fantastic games over the years at this stage of the season, but we’ve also had some disappointments. You’ve just got to take the rough with the smooth.

“The players see how staff behave and how they conduct themselves in situations like we’re in at the moment, and there’s a lot of experience amongst the backroom team, which provides a calming influence.

Two or three of the older players help too. The likes of Ryan, Paul, Rio and Edwin – we’ve got enough experience to handle any situation that comes along.”

Meanwhile, Wenger faces the challenge of rebuilding his side’s confidence following a damaging period in which Carling loss was followed by FA Cup and Champions League exits and a crumbling title challenge. Wenger is without injured duo Alou Diaby and Łukasz Fabianski, although key defender Thomas Vermaelen came through the reserve fixture with United on Thursday night and could start.

The Frenchman’s outfit has won just twice since the loss to Birmingham, and one of those matches was against League Two outfit Leyton Orient in the FA Cup. Coupled with the Londoners’ horrendous recent record against United, in which Ferguson’s side has won eight of the last 10 meetings, few expect Arsenal to provide any resistance on Sunday afternoon.

United’s manager, players and millions of supporters are counting on it.

Match Facts
Premier League. Emirates, London, 2.05pm.

Arsenal – 433 – Szczesny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Clichy; Song, Wilshere, Fabregas;Walcott, van Persie, Nasri. Subs from: Lehmann, Squillaci, Eboue, Gibbs, Chamakh, Ramsey, Arshavin, Bendtner, Djourou.

United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Valencia, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov.

Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Garratt
Fourth official: Lee Mason

Arsenal – DDWDDL
United – WWLDWW

Sorry still the hardest word as Rooney and fans move on

April 29, 2011 Tags: Reads 15 comments

“I understand I made a mistake. When I look at it now how wrong was I?” Rooney told the Guardian in a revealing interview on Wednesday. The recalcitrant Manchester United striker was surprisingly open in the Veltins Arena mixed zone, again stopping short of uttering the S-word but admitting, for the first time, that he made a huge error during what is now being dubbed the ‘October Revolution’.

Since questioning United’s ambition in October Rooney has apologised, with some disingenuity, if fans believed he had not previously said sorry. He hadn’t and in fact, semantically speaking, hasn’t. Later, the striker then went on to express his regret over the affair before this week opening up for the first time. With United heading the Premier League and all but in the European Cup final the 25-year-old former Evertonian would have lost much had he departed for Manchester City in January.

Rooney’s actions, whether driven by his agent Paul Stretford as a negotiating tactic, or tempered in genuine belief, has proven hugely divisive though. Indeed, around 70 per cent of supporters inputting to a United Rant poll in October said Rooney should never play for the club again. How fickle fans are though, with supporters traveling to western Germany loudly singing the player’s name, followed by a rousing chorus of ‘White Pele’.

“I admitted that and I apologised for that and I have wanted to try and prove myself again to the Manchester United fans,” added Rooney, who has now scored 13 goals since the turn of the year.

“I feel I am doing that now. I am 100 per cent committed to this club. It was a long time ago now and hopefully now I am helping this team be successful. It would be a great end to the season with a Champions League final and to win the League.”

Commitment in football is, of course, a very flexible phenomenon. In truth while fans demand loyalty from players, they no longer expect it. In this, Rooney is no different to most players who have passed through Old Trafford’s gates. Easy come, easy go. United is, after all, a cynical club and only the very best are remembered with affection.

Yet the Scouser suffers poor comparison with one-club colleagues Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, whose loyalty to the United cause never wavered. Scholes, famously, hasn’t employed an agent during contract negotiations with the club, let alone hold United to ransom.

Rooney though is smart enough to understand that performances on the pitch, above all, have brought the supporters round. The 25-year-old is not and never will be ‘one of us’, a fan, and those attending United matches will do well to remember it in the future.

In the meantime, Rooney’s transformation from last season’s number nine to this year’s 10 is wholehearted; a well overdue tactical adjustment from Sir Alex Ferguson. The move has brought both the best out of Rooney and enabled the player to enjoy football again. Arguably, for the first time in more than a year, Rooney is able to perform close to his peak without a burning anger.

“Obviously, it’s been a lot different in the second half of the season compared to the first,” added Rooney pertinently.

“I am a lot happier in my life and happier with the way I’m playing, it’s like I’ve been settling down again. I’m very grateful to the fans for supporting me through it and I’m delighted with my form again. I hope I am proving myself through my performances.”

Coupled with the player’s return to form, Rooney is now engaging directly with supporters through Twitter, although the Croxteth-born star is hardly erudite like his colleague Rio Ferdinand. Reportedly advised against joining the site by Stretford, but supported by his wife and Ferdinand, Rooney has engaged in topics as varied as the Royal wedding, his love of Disney’s the Lion King and phone hacking.

Indeed, Rooney now has more than 300,000 followers compared to Ferdinand’s 800,000. While, Ferdinand is naturally gifted when it comes to public relations, Rooney’s global reach is infinitely greater. Witness Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2.6 million followers of his banal, PR driven account.

The risk, of course, with Rooney is that in moments of frustration the far-from-eloquent Rooney will spawn a thousand headlines with an ill thought out comment. In time the media will grow tired of its obsession with Twitter, but for the moment whole articles are written, often with misleading headlines, on the simplest of tweets. Ferdinand’s justifiable criticism of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona is a case in point, where the United defender discussed repeated diving in the match. Ferdinand did not “slam” the Spanish giants, nor accuse anybody of cheating, not that the newspapers are prepared to print the truth and not the myth.

In the meantime, Rooney is central to United’s success or failure during the final weeks of the season. United has at most six games – four in the Premier League, two in Europe – and the Scouser will certainly make up for months of drama should he fire the club to an unlikely double.

“I am not surprised at what Wayne is doing,” said the legendary Giggs on Wednesday. “The top players perform when the trophies are about to be handed out. They produce moments of inspiration when it matters.”

If that is the parameter for greatness, now is surely the time for Rooney to prove himself; making up for errors of the past.

Reds defy odds, critics and themselves

April 27, 2011 Tags: Reads 27 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Manchester United’s performance in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday as one of the very finest in the club’s history. It is, perhaps, over-egging this particular pudding but there is no doubt the Scot’s side has reached a hitherto unobtainable peak. It is one that few could have foreseen through the first six months of the season, where United so often played without the ‘stardust’ that has become the club’s moniker. It is a phrase, first coined by Didier Deschamps, that Tuesday’s performance threatens to make irrelevant.

Creative, attacking and assured in possession, United was everything at the Veltins Arena that was missing from the side’s play in so many matches earlier this season. Think back to insipid draws with Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion in the autumn, where United’s midfield was not only outpassed but was arguably criminally understrength for a club with pretensions on four fronts.

That may well be a truism, after all much of United’s creative midfield play came from converted 37-year-old winger Ryan Giggs and striker Wayne Rooney on Tuesday night. Yet, there was a spark and swagger that Ferguson’s workmanlike outfit has not often demonstrated against top quality opposition this season.

Indeed, Ferguson praised United’s passing in western Germany, where the Reds maintained nearly 70 per cent possession and created a score of genuine chances, only to be denied by the brilliant Manuel Neuer.

“We’ve had some fantastic performances in Europe and Juventus [in 1999] will always be high on the list but this certainly ranks as one of the best,” Ferguson said in the aftermath, whose side is now within touching distance of a fourth Champions League final of the Scot’s reign.

“Our concentration and the intensity of our play and the speed of our passing was outstanding. It was a really top performance and credit to the players for having the belief in themselves and the trust in one another.

“It was a fantastic atmosphere but it never cowed them once. They kept on playing their football. They had confidence and trust in each other. I think we are coming to a peak. We’ve shown not only throughout this campaign but the past few years that we’ve got a way of playing away from home.

Much of United’s record away from Old Trafford – in Europe at least – is based on the side’s patience and ability to defend with high quality. Indeed, at times United defends in numbers, with Michael Carrick excellent on Tuesday in screening in front of the back-four. Then, as a pair, there is no better than Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

“It is a different tempo at times and requires really good concentration,” adds United’s manager.

“Credit to the players. They have shown that throughout the campaign. But over the past two or three years we have got a way of playing in Europe away from home. It requires some experience of course. The most important thing is to have confidence in possession of the ball. We seem to be better away from home in Europe than anyone else.”

But the real surprise in Gelsenkirchen was United’s outstanding creativity. For much of the campaign Ferguson’s side has struggled to match quality opposition from the centre of the park; the aforementioned early season draws saw United outplayed by the mediocre. In fact, Ferguson’s failure to strengthen despite Paul Scholes’ ageing legs and Anderson’s stultified progress was undoubtedly a failure, whether born of financial paucity or misguided strategic thinking.

Yet, the Scot also takes much credit for the change in United’s make-up in recent weeks, for it has been a significant one, both in attitude and personnel. Those early season draws, especially on the road, were marked by a timidity in the Reds’ play that was certainly not the ‘United way’. By Tuesday, United was liberated, with Rooney pulling the strings from deep, Giggs bursting forward from central midfield and Javier Hernández creating cataclysmic gaps in Schalke’s back-four.

Rooney is once again central to United’s cause, despite months of on and off-field drama involving the former Evertonian. No 34-goal haul this time out but now returned to his natural position, far deeper than the 25-year-old played at any point last season, Rooney has become United’s creative heartbeat. And he is absolutely aided by Hernández’ presence in the side.

Cruel on Dimitar Berbatov perhaps but United simply could not have made this tactical change with the Bulgarian leading the line, slowing play and allowing the opposition to defend deep.

The changes have created a new dynamic. Despite post-Christmas losses to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, there is now a confidence coursing through collective veins. It is born of a tactical change and a defiance of critics, both those in the media and closer to home. This is a team now greater than the sum of its parts, finally inspired by its leading star.

“I remember before the home game against Bursaspor [last October], which we won 1-0, people were saying it was the end of the empire, the end of Manchester United, the worst team ever,” said defender Patrice Evra last night.

“I said, ‘Sometimes you have to pay the musician at the end of the show, not before’. Tonight there was only one side on the pitch but the players, everyone, was a little bit frustrated because we were thinking, ‘How can we go into half-time without scoring a goal’ when you create a lot of chances like we did in the first half. But, in the end, 2-0 away in a semi-final, not bad.

“The only thing that can stop us is if we don’t respect that team again. United played well because we respected that team. Before the game we got everyone together and said, ‘We are not playing against Schalke, we are playing to reach the final’. That’s why we played with that spirit, that mentality, and we win that game.

“Wazza, when he plays behind the striker he is very dangerous because he has more touches of the ball and Wazza can create the goal as well and can score. He enjoys playing that position and it is a good benefit for the team.”

Barcelona almost certainly awaits in the Wembley final, with the Catalan giants having beaten Real Madrid 2-0 in the Spanish capital on Wednesday. Pep Guardiola’s side is brilliant; arguably the best of any in the past 20 years. But with a defence that has not conceded away from Old Trafford in European competition this season and a confident Rooney pulling the creative strings, United at least stands a chance.

Six months ago few would have believed the turn-around possible. Not least, one suspects, Rooney himself.

Confidence from the back

April 27, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

As Manchester United made a huge step towards the 2011 Champions league final after a consummate away performance at Schalke, the Reds’ attacking contingent has drawn huge amounts of praise. Rightly so and picking the man-of-the-match award was arguably the most difficult part of last night’s game with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs pulling out outstanding performances.

So good was United’s attack that at times on Tuesday United’s defensive axis of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van Der Sar could have been forgiven for ‘cracking open a can’ and mingling with United’s travelling support. Yet, although the back four was given a fairly easy ride against Schalke, the unit has been key in the campaign so far.

Some of United’s flowing attacking football has been brilliant of late, with the partnership between Rooney and Hernández flourishing but it is the sturdiness of the side’s defense that has made this possible. Against the surprise German package United broke a Champions League record becoming the first team ever to not concede a goal away from home. Furthermore the Reds have also only conceded three times overall (Valencia, Chelsea and Marseille) one of which was an own goal. It’s a staggering record that supports those who claim United’s first choice defence is the best in the world.

Since Ferdinand’s return from a prolonged calf injury the Reds’ back-four has returned to its miserly best; United concedes fewer goals when Vidic and Ferdinand play together. However, credit is also due to the collective in the Champions League, where Ferdinand and Vidic have only played together five out of 10 games. In this record Chris Smalling has been a major factor, seamlessly filling in for either Vidic or Ferdinand since a £10 million move from Fulham. Despite the clear potential, Smalling is greatly helped by his experienced defensive cohorts, in particular Vidic.

Arguably the best defender in the world, Vidic was very unlucky not to receive this year’s PFA Player of the Year Award. If anything, the captaincy has brought Vidic’s game to another level. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, for example, Vidic coped brilliantly first against Fernando Torres then Didier Drogba. The Serbian’s positional sense, often highlighted as Ferdinand’s strong point, was on show too. Nemanja made nine clearances in an around the area and final third against Chelsea, two of which were in the six yard box, plus a further three headed clearances. Similarly at Old Trafford Vidic made 13 clearances and a further eight with his head. Of these 21 clearances Vidic failed to complete his work on just five occasions.

Where United has excelled, others have failed. Arsenal has struggled for years without a defender who leads his colleagues through tricky patches. United has just that in Ferdinand, whose calmness on the pitch and ability to mop up messy situations makes him the perfect foil for Vidic. Of course, Ferdinand has always fancied himself an attacking player and this is shown through the 32-year-old’s ability to bring the ball out of defence particularly when United a pushing for a goal.

Of course the centre–halves make up only two fifths of United’s back five and in van der Sar United has a ‘keeper with vital experience. Unless the Dutchman makes a dramatic u-turn, as Ferguson did in 2002, United must replace van der Sar with an experienced high-quality ‘keeper. Part of the reason United failed to win the league between 2003 and 2007 was the lack of a ‘world-class’ goalkeeper and with Manuel Neuer keeping Schalke in Tuesday’s game the young German certainly fits United’s bill.

However, the 24-year-old appears headed for Bayern Munich, but after Ferguson missed out on signing van der Sar back in 1999 when Peter Schmeichel retired he will surely not want to miss out again, if the German is his number one target. This argument is for the summer though and in the meantime the manager can revel in van der Sar’s terrific form. The great Dutchman has a maximum of six games to play in a United shirt; supporters should fully enjoy it.

The final piece of United’s almost impenetrable European defence is the full-backs, in whom the Reds have a perfect mix. In games where United is offered greater room for attack, Ferguson frequently deploys Evra with one of the Da Silva brothers. In tighter matches, such as the one at Stamford Bridge, John O’Shea gets the nod. The Irishman is not everybody’s cup of tea but is a good defender, who can contribute in an attacking sense such as the assist for Dimitar Berbatov’s winner against Liverpool this season.

Versatility is also important at United, particularly in defence, as the Reds are not by nature a defensive team. Attacking full-backs were very important at the Veltins Arena on Tuesday, where Fabio and Evra spent the majority of the game in the opposition half. The bulk of the pair’s combined 165 passes occurred in and around the half way line or in Schalke’s part of the field. This contrasts with the game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where O’Shea and Evra passed more in their own half, completing just 75 per cent compared to Fabio and Evra 90. The important stat though – in both matches the Reds kept a clean sheet.

United has one final match before confirming a place in this season’s Wembley showpiece but should the Reds go on to meet either Real Madrid or Barcelona the defence’s fine form must continue Ferguson’s side is to claim a fourth European Cup.

Double exposure

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

On Sunday night’s Match of the Day 2 a man previously mooted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor spoke candidly on his admiration for what he believes is the makings of Ferguson’s next and possibly final great side. Despite Everton defending resolutely for 83 minutes against Manchester United at the weekend, David Moyes admitted that the Reds were far superior to the rejuvenated Merseysiders, and that despite the criticism United’s squad has received this year this could be the start of something special for United.

United’s current crop of players may not be collectively the most talented side Sir Alex has ever had at his disposal but it is not talentless. United’s current league and European standings are evident of this. However, United is a team in transition, this isn’t a side that could challenge for honours at home and abroad for years to come; not as it is anyway. With players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wes Brown edging towards the end of their wonderful careers now is the time for a new generation of ‘Fergie Fledglings’ to make themselves known.

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a sensation but there are others who will also be charged with keeping the silverware conveyor belt running during the final years of Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford and then post-retirement

Similar to Chicharito, the Da Silva twins arrived on the scene as complete unknown quantities. In their pre-season début against Peterborough United at London Road in 2008, Rafael played the full 90 while Fabio came on for the second half. There was an immediate WOW factor about these two Brazilian twins, who demonstrated pace, power and an unquenchable thirst for the game. This was a friendly and not the Champions League final but first impressions are always important.

Rafael in particular took the ‘bull by the horns’ and in his first season made a total of 21 starts – no bedding in period just straight in at the deep end, the United way. Rafael also showcased his ability as an all-round footballer, scoring a terrific volley against Arsenal at the Emirates and a several assists to boot.

Fabio’s progression has proved to be less rapid, making only one start in his début season, with a second season hampered by injury. However this season Fabio has come into his own and against Everton was one of United’s best players – solid at the back and a threat going forward. Albeit Everton’s attacks were sporadic but when the game began to open up in the second half Fabio dealt superbly with Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and Victor Anichebe. The Brazilian resisted temptation to dive into challenges, which his brother is often guilty of and did not get flustered in pressing conditions.

In 2008 when Rafael began to break into the first team the word from inside Carrington was that Brazilian scouts rated Fabio above Rafael. However, Fabio’s first forays into first team football could not justify the tag, although his talent was evident. Perhaps Rafael had taken to the demands and pace of English football better than Fabio; maybe fans would have seen Fabio in a better light in other circumstances. Meanwhile, Rafael was already battling for a position which was well and truly up for grabs with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Gary Neville suffering with injury. Fabio, however, had the not-so-easy task of deposing the ever-present Patrice Evra.

Credit is due to Fabio though as he has never let his head drop despite limited opportunities and this season he has been rewarded. Keen reserves watchers will have noted that when Fabio plays he is often deployed in an attacking position and not at right or left-back. Clearly, Sir Alex has recognised the problem posed by Evra and wants to experiment with Fabio’s ability to play elsewhere on the park.

The da Da Silva’s are both fantastic all round players too – at United the chances of becoming a first team main-stay are greatly enhanced with versatility. In this season’s FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Old Trafford Ferguson started the twins on the wings, their attacking prowess was again noted with Fabio notching his second goal of the season. The duo caused endless problems for Bacary Sagna and would have given Fergie a big boost in that he can now utilise their talent all over the pitch.

Ferguson surely sees Rafael as United’s long-term right-back, with Neville gone, Brown likely to follow suit in the summer and O’Shea entering his thirties. However, Fabio’s future remains unclear, despite great form and impressive displays. With Evra signing a new long term deal this season, Fabio’s role is unlikely to be a left-back for the time being, unless the Brazilian can unseat his more experienced colleague.

For those United supporters who watched BBC’s ‘United’ on Sunday night Duncan Edwards supposedly told Bobby Charlton that he wasn’t “given my place in the team” he “stole it”. Whether or not Edwards said this, it is not hard to imagine the attitude; it has been the same for many United greats since. Fabio seems to own a hunger akin to Edwards’ that will serve him very well.

Certainly, using Fabio as a reserve full-back is a waste of his talent. Perhaps then we will see Fabio deployed in a more advanced position more regularly next season as the manager attempts to mould the Brazilian into a solid attacking outlet that can fill in at left or right-back when needed.

With a 19th title on the horizon it is wise to take a second before criticising this current squad. After all, a team in transition has made the European Cup semi-final and is six points clear in the domestic league with four to play. In the last transitional phase United won two trophies between 2004 and 2007, none of which were the league title.

Despite turbulent times on and off the pitch Chicharito, the Da Silva’s, together with Nani and Valencia staking their claim, the future could be brighter than you think.

Berba misses out as Fergie urges Reds to make history

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Matches 35 comments

Manchester United may never have beaten German opponents over two legs in European competition but there will surely be no better opportunity as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faces Schalke 04 for a place in this season’s Champions League final. Ferguson’s side starts as overwhelming favourites, despite the historical quirk, which has seen defeats to Bayern Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich during the Scot’s reign. But with Ralf Ranglick’s German champions in fine form, United’s hopes lie in securing a favourable result in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday night.

Victory over two legs will take United to a third Champions League final in four years but Ferguson is acutely aware that United’s record in Europe’s premier competition does not rank alongside those of the club’s competitors. Indeed, three victories and one further final suffers poor comparison with continental rivals.

“The expectation has always been high with regard to the European scene and you do get envious of other clubs’ great record in Europe,” admitted Ferguson.

“We are trying to gain parity with that. You look at Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Liverpool. We really need to progress quickly to get to that level and the present group have enough experience in Europe now.”

But Ferguson admits that nerves will play a part despite his squad’s vast European experience. Cataclysmic semi-final losses to Dortmund and Leverkusen attest to the risks posed at this stage of the competition, although the Scot will allow no complacency to creep into the United side, despite the favourite’s tag now placed on the Reds.

“You always get apprehensive at this stage of the competition, “adds the 69-year-old Scot.

“Semi-finals are never easy. We had the same situation in 1999 when we played out semi-final against Juventus. There was an apprehension in our first game at home that we released in the second leg. When we played Barcelona in the first leg (in 2008) we got the result we wanted. But the last 20 minutes of the second leg were absolute agony.

“There is no way Manchester United will be led into believing this is going to be easy. Schalke have beaten every team at home in the Champions League this season, including Valencia and Inter Milan. If you take that in isolation, it is good form.”

Schalkes 04 v Manchester United, 26 April 2011, Champions League, Veltins ArenaNewly-installed Schalke coach Ranglick has quickly built on the club’s open, attacking, style in this season’s competition. It offers a challenge to United’s imperious recent record away from home in European. Unbeaten outside Old Trafford since last season’s defeat at Bayern – victors in 12 of the past 14 on the road – United faces a team that has already scored 21 times in Europe this season, including seven against champions Internazionle in the quarter-final. By contrast the Reds have hit the net on just a dozen occasions in Europe this season, although Ferguson’s side boasts the best defensive record of any in this season’s competition, without a goal conceded away from Old Trafford.

United’s recent record mirrors both a marked change in the team’s style over the years and Ferguson’s recognition more than a decade ago that his side could no longer risk being outnumbered in midfield. With Dimitar Berbatov missing due to injury, Ferguson must decide whether to include Saturday’s goalscorer Javier Hernández, or retain United’s typical European formation, with Wayne Rooney spearheading the attack as a lone forward. That Schalke has failed to keep a clean sheet in any of four knock-out ties in this year’s competition is pertinent, although it is unlikely to prompt a change in Ferguson’s normal circumspect approach to these ties.

Elsewhere Ferguson boasts an almost fully fit squad, with Rio Ferdinand resting a sore calf against Everton on Saturday and Jonny Evans likely to step down at the intimidating Veltins Arena. Darren Fletcher is again absent while the Scot recovers from a virus and Owen Hargreaves is neither fit, nor eligible for the tie. Ferguson is likely to choose between Nani and Antonio Valencia for a berth on the right-flank.

However, Park Ji-Sung will almost certainly start, with the South Korean regularly making Ferguson’s European selections. The 30-year-old midfielder is charged with neutralising Jefferson Farfan, Schalke’s pacey Peruvian winger, while ensuring an extra body in midfield when United is forced on the defensive.

“He’s got the discipline, intelligence and football knowledge you need in the biggest games,” said Ferguson of Park.

“Discipline is so much more important in the Champions League, and you need a slightly different type of discipline in Europe. Last season, for instance, one of the things that cost us was Rafael da Silva getting sent off in the return leg against Bayern Munich.There were other things but that was the killer for us. The boy was only 19 and he got carried away by the occasion. That can happen but there are some players you can normally rely on to keep a cool head and Park Ji-Sung is one of them.

“He’s a fantastic professional – he moves and play and moves again. That’s the asset he’s got. He doesn’t watch what other players are doing with the ball, he gets himself into another position so he can be involved again. That’s his value to us; he can be really important.”

Meanwhile, legendary forward Raúl González, veteran of nearly 150 Champions League matches and scorer of 71 goals in the competition, continues to defy age and a premature departure from Real Madrid. The Spaniard’s goal output remains impressive, with 18 in all competitions this season. The 35-year-old, who could have joined United last summer, forms a key part of the competition’s most potent attack and a pivotal influence on Schalke’s team.

“We do prefer to sign young players as a rule but when you get an opportunity to sign experience like that you’ve got to have a look at it,” admitted Ferguson.

“You can make exceptions for certain players because experience is so valuable. We thought the same when we signed Michael Owen, who has been a terrific professional for us, and bringing in Raul would have been similar to when we managed to get Henrik Larsson for a short time a few years ago.

“It was obvious his time at Real Madrid had come to an end, and he certainly wasn’t too old to be effective, as he has been showing in Germany. We spoke to his agent about a possible move but we already had Javier Hernandez by then, and, with Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen available we thought we could afford to let the chance pass. If we hadn’t had Michael at the club at the time I might well have signed him.”

Coach Ranglick has guided Schalke to an unbeaten start under his reign following Felix Magath’s brutal sacking after the group stages. Mid-table in the Bundesliga, Schalke has consistently under-performed in domestic competition in a largely disappointing campaign. If Europe remains the focus for Ranglick – a German cup final aside – then it is because the königsblauen have come alive in the competition over the past six months.

Despite the improved form is has been a chaotic season in Gelsenkirchen, with two coaches employed and star goalkeeper Manuel Neuer announcing his decision to leave the club via his Facebook page. The widely expected move to rivals Bayern Munich will net Schalke around £20 million but the announcement has cast a shadow over preparations for a first European Cup semi-final in the club’s 107-year history.

Despite the chaos, the tie promises to be a challenging encounter for United. While the assumption remains that Ferguson’s side will prevail over two legs, many made the same prediction before Leverkusen knocked the Reds out at the same stage in 2002. A decade on, complacency is a lesson learned the hard way and one that Ferguson is sure his side has taken on board.

Match Facts
Champions League semi-final, first leg. Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen, 7.45pm

Schalke – 4222 – Neuer; Uchida, Metzelder, Höwedes, Sarpei; Papadopoulos, Matip; Farfan, Jurado; Edu, Raúl. Subs from: Charisteas, Karimi, Sergio, Baumjohann, Schober, Avelar, Charisteas, Annan, , Hao, Schmitz, Schober, Pliatsikas, Vasilias, Plestan, Kluge, Avelar, Draxler

United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Park; Rooney. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Fabio da Silva, Rafael da Silva, Anderson, Gibson, Valencia, Hernandez, Owen.

Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso Fernández, Jesús Calvo Guadamuro
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Clos Gómez, Antonio Rubinos Pérez
Fourth official David Fernández Borbalán

Schalke – WWWWDL
United – WWWLDW

Four games, seven points, one title

April 24, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 70 comments

‘The title is ours’, not exactly Sir Alex Ferguson’s words after Manchester United beat Everton 1-0 on Saturday at Old Trafford but they could well have been. United’s late late victory, not for the first time in a season that has rarely sparkled yet promises to bring more silverware, brings the Reds to within just seven points of claiming the Premier League. Or in other words, with games against relegation threatened Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool to come, United can probably win one and lose one of upcoming fixtures with title-rivals Arsenal and Chelsea in the next fortnight.

Ferguson’s position is understandably bullish after Javier Hernández 81st minute strike on Saturday. It was the Mexican’s 19th goal of a campaign that is increasingly defined by the 22-year-old’s performances.

“Games are running out for our rivals and we’re up for it,” said Ferguson after Saturday’s victory over Everton.

“I enjoy this critical stage of a season when we are involved in big games that come thick and fast and I think we will be OK. The thing that puzzles me is they [the media] keep saying Arsenal and Chelsea have got to play us still, like we’re going to lose to them but why shouldn’t we win those games? Why can’t we go to the Emirates Stadium and win, as we have done previously?

“As I said to the players, forget all that nonsense. Just try to win your games and you’ll be all right, keep your heads and don’t get carried away.”

Indeed, yesterday’s laboured win over in-form Everton should remind Ferguson’s players – as if any prompting is really needed – that points and not performances is what counts come April and May. It is a lesson so rarely learned at the Emirates. After all, despite United’s dominance against Everton there would be no Arsenal-style sympathy had United thrown away the points.

Not so against David Moyes’ spirited outfit. Much as is United’s type this season, the Reds continued to probe for openings, patient in the knowledge that chances would eventually come. More than 60 per cent possession and 16 chances created against Everton, who had not lost in seven matches, attest to that. Other United sides have demonstrated more talent; few have shown more character. It is a trait for which Ferguson can taken much praise.

“There is that winning attitude about them,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“We will keep our heads down and not get carried away. There are only four games left and the way they are going about their business and the effort they have shown, it gives them an outstanding chance of being champions. You can test people’s character but they keep coming through.

“We had some great openings and could have had this match finished by half-time but it is in the traditions of Manchester United that we don’t do that. We always wait until the very end and keep everyone high on the edge of their seats but we get there.”

On Hernández Ferguson rightly praised the role the sprightly Mexican has played this season. Buy of the summer? Buy of the decade more like. For all the Scot’s disingenuous talk of the transfer market’s lack of value, deliberately hiding as it does the Glazer family’s financial agenda, Hernández has proven a genuine bargain.

“Javier has done better than everyone expected,” added Ferguson.

“We thought that because it was his first year, he would just get used to the English game and get strengthened up. He has passed all those tests. He is first in at nine o’clock every morning and he is the last to leave. He is a truly dedicated boy.”

After all, Hernández has not only scored late goals for United but winning goals. This is no kid, brought on with 10 to play in a dead rubber, that is helping himself to easy pickings. In his first campaign with the club, United would not be in position to win the title without Hernández.

Meanwhile, Hernández is genuinely humble in his achievements, preferring to enthuse the team ethic and not his own contribution that should have brought a PFA Young Player of the Year Award.

“Of course it’s a dream come true, this season,” said the former Chivas striker.

“If we win the Premier League, that’s an unbelievable thing. If I could swap all the goals for us to win the league then I would do it. We know we are almost there, but we can’t afford to think like we’ve already won it. We go day by day, week by week.

“I’m very happy, but I’m happier because we got the three points. Here at Manchester United we need to win every game and it doesn’t matter who scores.”

In that there is a false modesty of course. Hernández’ goals have taken United to within a whisker of glory. Grab more than a point over the next two matches and United supporters worldwide can start to celebrate.