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Poll: will United beat Barcelona?

May 5, 2011 Tags: , , , Polls 30 comments

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?

Will United beat Barcelona in the Champions League final?

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Ferguson rings changes for Schalke

May 4, 2011 Tags: , Matches 133 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will make wholesale changes to the Manchester United team that faces Schalke on Wednesday night, with one eye firmly on Sunday’s Premier League showdown with Chelsea. The 69-year-old Scot will include Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes in the side to face the German champions, safe in the knowledge that Schalke must score three without reply at Old Trafford to progress.

Such is United’s confidence in Europe this season – no defeats and eight victories from 11 matches – that the Scot can be forgiven for applying greater importance to the Reds’ weekend Premier League fixture. After all, Schalke’s performance in last week’s first leg was so underwhelming that few credit the former Bundesliga champions with much hope of progressing.

However, the Scot insists there is no complacency in the United camp for the tie, which could see the Reds reach a third Champions League final in the past four years. With Barcelona already in the Wembley showpiece, United must avoid a 3-0 defeat to ensure a repeat of the 2009 final.

But with United under pressure at home, Ferguson will gamble with United’s European progress against a team that scored five at Internazionale in the quarter-final.

“We feel we have a lot of work to do tomorrow,” Ferguson told the press on Tuesday.

“I think it is very easy to get complacent in modern life, there are many examples of it. But I hope nobody at Manchester United regards it as a formality tomorrow, I certainly will not be. I think the work ethic will need to be very high tomorrow, very high, in order for us to qualify.

“We know that Schalke have nothing to lose. That is the message he [Schalke’s Ralf Rangnick] will give to his team. I think they will have a go and try to win the match – there is nothing else they can do. Any coach in a semi-final must give his team that chance to try to win the match and I think we’ll find that he will have a real go.

“If you look at the experience of last year when we lost the league, the team were very tired against Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich on the Wednesday. That will have a bearing on my team selection. We’ve got two massive games, both as important as the other. There will be some changes. Hopefully the nucleus of the team is still good enough to win.”

Ferguson will rest key attacking players including Wayne Rooney, who has a tight hamstring in any case, Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia. Meanwhile Anderson, so ineffectual against Arsenal, could drop to the bench following Saturday’s defeat, with Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson pushing for a place in United’s starting 11. Fletcher is likely to start on the bench after missing two months with a virus.

However, the Scot is likely to retain Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar and captain Nemanja Vidic in an experienced back four as United chase only the club’s fourth European Cup final win. Fabio da Silva misses out due to injury, with John O’Shea or brother Rafael coming into the side. Indeed, Ferguson says that the prize is too great for Saturday’s defeat to affect his players ahead of Schalke’s visit.

Manchester United v Schalke 04, Old Trafford, 4 May 2011“It has always been the case at this club that if we lose a game then we have to recover quickly,” added Ferguson.

“We always have work to do in the next match. That is the great beauty of football at least. You always have the next game in which to do something and we’ve only had to wait three days. That is an important issue for us because it is a part of being a good team, how you can recover from a defeat.

“The interesting thing about last weekend was that the four [Champions League semi-final] teams all lost. So European games do take it out of you. I have to pick the right team tomorrow in order to have the same kind of freshness I need for Sunday’s match.”

Meanwhile, Schalke arrives in Manchester with no pressure having frozen at the Veltins Arena last week. Despite slipping to mid-table during a fraut Bundesliga campaign, coach Rangnick has instilled an attacking mentality in the Die Königsblauen that was rarely evident against United last Tuesday. Rangnick has promised a better display at Old Trafford; it could hardly be worse.

The coach welcomes back key defender Benedikt Hoewedes, while Dutch striker Jan-Klass Huntelaar could make the bench.

“Tomorrow we will show we can play better than we did last week and that we have learnt our lessons,” Rangnick told a news conference on Tuesday.

“In football you can get the chance so we will see what happens. When we played in Milan against Inter people didn’t give us much hope either.

“I think we have to be well organised in the first 10 minutes and then we have to take our chances when they’re presented, even if there are just two minutes left. You think of Manchester United and the Champions League win [in 1999] when they came back to win 2-1.

“If Sir Alex Ferguson does spare players it shows he has belief in his squad. And if we have a chance it is up to us to perform in contrast to the first-leg. We need to take a different approach, learn from that and apply the lessons tomorrow.”

Victory for the German visitors is certainly not beyond Rangnick’s men, although an open match will allow United to strike on the counter. In Raúl Gonzales Schalke retains a potent attacking threat despite the Spaniard’s poor showing in the first leg. The 33-year-old striker scored four goals in three games against United for Real Madrid, appearing in both legs of Madrid’s quarter-final win in March 2000. Raúl hit another brace when Madrid beat United 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in a quarter-final tie three years later.

It might take a similar effort to knock a much changed United side out.

Match Facts
Champions League semi-final, second leg. Old Trafford, Manchester, 7.45pm

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

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

Officials
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR)
Assistant referees: Tiago Trigo, Ricardo Santos
Additional assistant referees: João Capela, João Ferreira
Fourth official: Duarte Gomes

Form
United – WWLDWL
Schalke – WWDLLL

Destiny still in Reds’ hands

May 3, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 11 comments

Recriminations over the weekend’s defeat to Arsenal, coupled with Chelsea’s fortuitous win over Tottenham Hotspur the previous day, may not be forgotten but Manchester United is still master of its own destiny on European and domestic fronts. No matter the conjecture emanating from Stamford Bridge, seven points in Manchester United’s three remaining Premier League matches will seal the title for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.

The question is whether a one-off match against Chelsea at Old Trafford will bring out the best in Ferguson’s outfit, as seen recently witnessed against the Londoners and Schalke in European competition. Indeed, Saturday’s defeat in north London owed much to United retreating from the fluid football of recent weeks, returning it seemed to the negativity that marked the Reds’ early season away performances.

Yet, at home United’s mentality is very different, where Ferguson’s outfit has won 16 of 17 fixtures in the Premier League and scored an astonishing 43 goals – a total significantly higher than any other side at home this season. Call it the ‘United way’, call it an attacking philosophy, but there is a strong suspicion that the Premier League title is the Reds’ to lose but only if the timidity seen away from Old Trafford is transported to home turf.

“We have our destiny in our hands. We have a massive game against Chelsea. If we want to win the title then we have to beat Chelsea – it’s as simple as that. If we don’t beat them then we’ll be in trouble,” says left-back Patrice Evra.

“We just need to play the Man United way. I am not worried because we know we didn’t do the things we normally do against Arsenal. We have three games left and need to win every game. Every game is a final.”

“We didn’t feel in trouble. We knew how Arsenal would play. They kept possession of the ball but never looked dangerous. Normally when we visit the Emirates we play with speed, power and aggression, and create more chances than we did on Sunday. That is why I am very disappointed.

“There were some difficult decisions but I don’t want to talk about the referee, the problem was Man United, not the referee. It is easy to find some excuse. We did not play the Man United way and when we don’t play the Man United way, we don’t deserve anything.”

The dilemma for Ferguson is whether to set his team up to play on the front foot against last season’s champions on Sunday. The equation is, of course, black and white for supporters; the United way is to attack from the opening whistle. One suspects there are greater nuances for Ferguson though, who is surely confident that his team will beat Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool in United’s final two Premier League matches.

Chelsea, meanwhile, must win at Old Trafford with tricky matches first at home to Newcastle United and then away at Everton to come. The longer United keeps the match tight against Chelsea the more likely the Londoners will be vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Yet, says striker Javier Hernández, United is expected to play for the win. Always.

“Giggs and Scholes tell us that we need to play like Manchester United players, always remembering the club’s rich history and never giving less than 100 per cent on the field,” Mexican striker Hernández told Inside United this week.

“Being a United player is about winning – you can never think about drawing or losing games. It’s that attitude that can help us to win trophies. We need to avoid silly errors to give ourselves the best chance of winning, and to play every game like it’s our last one.”

Yet, the focus among supporters at least is firmlyon United’s match with Chelsea on Sunday. If that picture is mirroed in Ferguson’s squad, there is a very real risk that the Scot’s players will take their eye off Wednesday night’s return with Schalke. After all, although the Reds are two goals to the good, Schalke scored five against Inter in Milan during the quarter-final rout.

Moreover, with Ferguson planning to rest Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Hernández there is a very real risk that United will hand Schalke the momentum on Wednesday. It is a risk Ferguson believes is worth taking against a side United so comfortably defeated beat last week.

“If you look at the experience of last year when we lost the league, the team were very tired against Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich on the Wednesday,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.

“That will have a bearing on my team selection. We’ve got two massive games, both as important as the other. There will be some changes (against Schalke). Hopefully the nucleus of the team is still good enough to win.

“The interesting thing about last weekend was that the four (Champions League semi-final) teams all lost (league matches). So European games do take it out of you. I have to pick the right team tomorrow in order to have the same kind of freshness I need for Sunday’s match.”

It is a gamble Ferguson makes in the knowledge that Schalke must score three times at Old Trafford without reply to deny United a place in the 28 May final against Barcelona. Yet, defeat to Schalke – possible against a team that under-performed at home – will take further wind out of United’s sails, even if Ferguson’s side makes the final.

After all momentum at this stage of the season is key. It is perhaps why now, more than any other, Ferguson’s side must revert to the positivity that has brought the best out of his side this season.

Destiny, as Evra says, is still in the Reds’ hands.

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.

Teams
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.

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

Form
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.