Poll: which ‘keeper to replace Edwin?

April 22, 2011 Tags: , , Polls 31 comments

Manchester United seems to have settled on Atletico Madrid’s David De Gea as Edwin van der Sar’s Old Trafford successor. The brilliant but inexperienced 20-year-old Spaniard could arrive this summer for around € 20 million, although the player is reportedly unsure about such a high profile role this early in a fledgling career.

But with German Manuel Neuer opting for a move to Bayern Munich this summer, Tomasz Kuszack likely to leave the club, and Anders Lindegaard untested at the highest level, who should get the role?

Who should replace Edwin van der Sar?

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Fergie guards against complacency ahead of Everton visit

April 22, 2011 Tags: , Matches 119 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson says Everton will pose a significant threat to Manchester United’s title aspirations this weekend, with the in-form Toffees at Old Trafford on Saturday. But with just five Premier League games to go, victory against David Moyes’ men will leave United requiring just seven points to secure a 19th domestic league title. It’s a position from which the title is now United’s to lose despite the disappointing draw at Newcastle United on Tuesday night.

Indeed, Ferguson is delighted with the commanding lead built up in this year’s title race, despite his side’s indifferent form away from Old Trafford. However, with the Reds having won all but one game at home this season, Ferguson says the principal risk to achieving the club’s dreams this season lies in complacency. Something the 69-year-old Scot is keen to guard against for the Saturday lunchtime kick off.

“It is good to know someone is behind you,” Ferguson said.

“You have to recognise who is there because we cannot become complacent. In that sense we use our experience of years past in situations like this. Hopefully it will get us where we want to go.

“If we win, we will only have four games left and we will have a six-point lead. That is the way I am looking at it. I am not looking beyond that. It is never going to be easy against Everton. It is a local derby of sorts. But our home record is fantastic and so is our performance level.”

Ferguson can boast an almost fully fit squad for Everton’s visit, although the United manager has concerns over Dimitar Berbatov’s fitness, while Darren Fletcher will not return for another fortnight. However, with Brazilian youngster Rafael da Silva returning to the squad, Ferguson has a plethora of defensive options available for the first time in months. Although fit, Rio Ferdinand has a minor calf strain and may not be risked ahead of the Champions League semi-final.

“Darren is back training now,” Ferguson added.

“He has done a good week and might be available in 10 days’ time. Rafael is back in the squad tomorrow and we will see what Dimitar Berbatov is like because he has a slight groin strain.”

Paul Scholes is suspended for the first of three matches after the red card picked up in last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City. In what is likely to be the final month of Scholes’ United career, the flamed-haired midfielder will also miss games against Arsenal and Chelsea, before returning for the final two Premier League matches of the season.

Manchester United v Everton, Old Trafford, 23 April 2011With Berbatov struggling to be ready – the Bulgarian has a minor groin strain – Ferguson is again likely to pair Javier Hernández and Wayne Rooney is attack, despite the strikers drawing a blank at Newcastle this week.

Ferguson must also lift his troops after the FA Cup semi-final defeat to City and the goalless draw with Newcastle on Tyneside. While Arsenal’s failure to beat either Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur over the past week has significantly strengthened United’s hand, Ferguson is aware that matches with both the Gunners and Chelsea loom large.

Indeed, with Chelsea also six points behind United and the west Londoners’ visit to Old Trafford coming in early May, the Reds cannot afford to drop any further points at home. Whatever the results between now and the end of the season, should United win the title Ferguson’s outfit will boast the worst away record of any champions since Liverpool in 1977.

Ferguson is also well aware of the challenge posed by Everton, whose form has picked up in recent weeks. Although Moyes has rarely been afforded money to spend in the transfer market, the cash-strapped Toffees have repeatedly over-performed under the Scot’s tutelage.

“It’s amazing what David has done,” added Ferguson.

“He has had to cope with a mountain of injuries over the last few weeks but Everton have still churned out the results. Even last season when he was without Phil Jagielka he still got them motivated. What he did well two or three years ago was to use the money he had available to get all his younger players on long-term contracts.

“That created a consistency in his squad which is proving very beneficial now. He brings people in to freshen his team up and they are able to do a job.”

Moyes is likely to be without three key players for the visit to Old Trafford, where the Toffees have not won in 17 matches. John Heitinga, who was forced off against Blackburn Rovers because of a hamstring problem last week, faces a late fitness test. Meanwhile, Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta are unlikely to make Saturday’s match.

And Moyes has warned United that his side has nothing to lose, with the Liverpudlians unlikely to qualify for Europe next season but safe from any fear of relegation.

“We know that we’re going to have to go and give it a go,” said Moyes.

“But we’re the ones who don’t have much to lose. We’re in a position where we’ve got an early kick-off tomorrow and we’ll try and go there and do something about it.

“I think Man United have gradually got better as the season has gone on, which they tend to do anyway. When they weren’t playing well they ground out results, kept going, picked up the points.

“It’s a great place to play your football but coming with it is a bit of fear because you’re going to play the top side in the country. But we’re going there in decent form and we can go there and given them a good game.”

That is almost certain, but with the title now firmly in focus, it is United’s greater desire that could decide the fixture in the Reds favour. United supporters worldwide will trust it is the case.

Everton – 451 – Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Rodwell, Neville, Coleman, Bilyaletdinov; Beckford. Subs from: Vellios, Gueye, Mucha, Shkodran Mustafi, Forshaw, Anichebe, Nsiala, McAleny, Saha.

United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Berbatov, Park, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Giggs.

Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Kevin Friend

United – WWWWLD
Everton – WDWDWW

Glazers could reignite fan battle

April 21, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 41 comments

It is now almost 18 months since Old Trafford was first bathed in the green and gold of protest. The Glazer family’s decision to borrow more than £500 million on the international bond market sparked a new wave of supporter protest, and a level of anger not seen in Manchester since the reclusive Americans first appeared in the city. Yet that protest has achieved very little bar a thousand headlines and last summer’s season ticket prize freeze. Small fry compared to the regime change that became supporter groups stated aim.

But with next year’s ticket prices shortly announced, will Manchester United’s executive management stick or twist; fending off protest for the summer or provoking another wave of anger?

Indeed, the decision to raise prices (or not) at Old Trafford – rises have been announced by both Arsenal and Chelsea recently – will have already been taken, despite disingenuous claims by the club that it has not. The imminent announcement on ticket prices will be the first salvo in another summer-long battle of wills between supporters and United’s ownership.

Last summer’s price freeze bought the regime few friends, with thousands of fans still walking away from season ticket ownership, but the relative absence of green and gold at Old Trafford this season has marked a lull is supporter protest. The Glazer’s decision to raise, lower or freeze prices for next season could add new verve to the protest. Or perhaps kill it stone dead. Another freeze will buy the regime more time; price rises could spark yet more anger and another call to boycott season ticket renewals.

And although the regime has not once lowered prices in six seasons in charge at United, there is precedent at the Glazer’s NFL franchise. In fact, with attendances at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers falling so steeply that the team’s TV coverage was blacked out by the league, the Glazer family chose to cut ticket prices by up to 30 per cent. It was a move born of financial necessity – blackouts, designed to keep attendances high, are costly to franchise owners, and the regime had been forced to buy its own tickets for many matches last season.

The family made the most of its decision though, claiming the owners to be supporter-centric in a time of financial hardship in the United States.

“Our organization has spent a lot of time listening to our fans at this time when our team is thriving and our economy is not,” Joel Glazer recently said recently.

“As a result, we are now offering several pricing changes in response to our community’s needs.”

The move has raised hopes that the Glazer family will similarly reduce costs at Old Trafford, which have increased by 50 per cent in aggregate since the Americans took control. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) has called for fans in Manchester to be afforded the same treatment as their counterparts in Florida.

“Joel Glazer said he’s listened to the Tampa fans. Well it’s about time he listened to Manchester United fans and responded by cutting our ticket prices too,” MUST Vice Chair Sean Bones said in a statement.

“Manchester United supporters should not feel they are subsidising the Glazers’ American Football Franchise as well as their debt. After the huge price rises our fans have endured while the Glazers have been taking out millions of pounds from our club if anything we deserve bigger price cuts than the Tampa fans.

“Anything other than an equivalent cut in prices at Manchester United will be seen as a slap in the face for United fans.”

There are, however, key differences between the financial model at Old Trafford and that in Tampa. First, and certainly most important, there is no TV blackout system in the Premier League. There is, therefore, no chance United’s TV revenue will fall sharply under the current rights contracts, unless the club fails to make the Champions League. With that possibility remote, Old Trafford bean counters are under no financial pressure to act on ticket prices.

There is also little pressure on attendances in Manchester. While thousands of supporters have given up season tickets, the scale of United’s support is such that matches are mostly sold out or as close to it to make very little financial difference. The family’s decision to increase individual non-member match ticket prices this season, and retain the despised automatic cup match ticket scheme, underlined the Glazer’s confidence is continuing to sell in volume.

Indeed, the evidence supports a rise in prices at Old Trafford this summer, backed by another aggressive marketing campaign aimed at selling season tickets. Already, the club has marketed its non-existence ‘season ticket waiting list’. While the list is nothing more than an email marketing database – offering no priority tickets to supporters who sign up – there is also no shame within the regime about using every available tactic to sell tickets. After all, how can there be a waiting list when United failed to sell all available season tickets last summer?

Still, the question for the regime is whether it feels the need to pacify United’s supporters with price cuts and star names, or not. History points to another summer of promises over money available for transfer spend spending; and misleading statements that United is a club built on ‘making stars, not buying them.’

If the close season also includes a price hike, green and gold may also return next season.

Reds keeping options open

April 21, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 24 comments

Anders Lindegaard says he is up for the challenge of becoming Manchester United’s new full-time goalkeeper next season but what kind of competition will the Dane face? With Atletico Madrid’s David De Gea reportedly unsure about a move to England, and Schalke’s Manuel Neuer certain to join Bayern Munich, United’s options in the transfer market are now more limited. It leaves open the prospect that Lindegaard, and not an expensive new recruit, could be Edwin van der Sar’s Old Trafford successor.

Lindegaard, a £3.5 million January purchase from Norwegian club Aalesund , started just two FA Cup games for United before being struck down by a knee injury last month. In the meantime United is stepping up the pursuit of De Gea, for whom the Reds are reportedly prepared to pay the player’s contract buy-out clause of €20 million. However, with the Spaniard apparently reluctant to leave the safe confines of La Liga and the trail now cold on Neuer, United could feasibly shift focus to third-choice Maarten Stekelenburg, or further down the now extensive short-list.

The developments raise the prospect of United failing to secure one of the world’s leading ‘keepers in the wake of van der  Sar’s departure; the mistake the club made in 1999 when Peter Schmeichel retired to the warmer climes of Portugal and the Reds brought in free-transfer Mark Bosnich.

Lindegaard, who has four caps for Denmark, is apparently unconcerned about the potential for competition, with the 27-year-old saying he will prove himself at Old Trafford and aims to become Sir Alex Ferguson’s number one.

“The question is more complex than just a yes or no answer,” said Lindegaard, who underwent a knee operation in March.

“There are many factors to consider but it is, of course a goal. I don’t think about [other ‘keepers coming to the club] that’s not on my table and I can’t say one thing or another about it. The only thing I can do I show myself and prove to everyone that I should be the first-choice ‘keeper.”

Whether Lindegaard is the new van der Sar, or simply replaces the departing Tomasz Kuszack, owes more to United’s purchasing strategy than the player’s talent though. While De Gea is seemingly the club’s first choice, United’s senior management faces a dilemma should Ferguson not claim his man. Seek a less talented alternate or wait, trusting Lindegaard to hold the fort.

Meanwhile, there is no little irony in United’s fixture with Schalke next week. Neuer’s team has found form under new coach Ralf Ranglick, although there is no chance the 24-year old will remain in Gelsenkirchen next season. Indeed, with the news leaking out Bayern supporters jeered their new player this weekend, holding aloft banners proclaiming “No Neuer” during the side’s German cup fixture. There is, after all, no love lost between Neuer’s current and future clubs.

“I wanted to be honest and explain my decision,” a visibly upset Neuer told reporters in Gelsenkirchen. “I want to develop further and take a new big step in my career.”

That Bayern had let news of Neuer’s capture known in ‘FC Hollywood’s’ typical less-than-subtle manner forced the 24-year-old’s hand.

There are alternatives though, not least the talented Rene Adler, who is so desperate for a move to United that the 26-year-old apparently has an Old Trafford exit clause in his contract. Or perhaps Udinese‘s Slovenian Samir Handanović, who has impressed in Serie A this season, or Raul Patricio the Portugal number one whom Sporting Lisbon seem only to happy to sell. The list of tabloid reportage on supposed targets is, as always, lengthy.

Yet the question remains, if De Gea is United’s first choice, will the club settle for second best? Indeed, should it? The answer may not be to Lindegaard’s liking, although as the Dane says – it’s ‘not on his table.’

Stoppers on the Reds’ list

David de Gea, 20, Atletico Madrid – the Spanish under-21 international is unsure about whether to leave his home town club, while the club has demanded he commit his future to Atletico or leave. May yet conceivably sign a new deal at the Vincente Calderon rather than move abroad at a tender age.

Manuel Neuer, 24, Schalke – declared his future is already decided, with Bayern director Uli Hoeness’ less-than-subtle brag this week pointing the way to a €21 million move to southern Germany.

Maarten Stekelenburg, 28, Ajax – the Dutch international is available and willing but do United’s scouts rate the World Cup finalist? Although United coach Rene Muelenstein reportedly said the giant Ajax stopper is the club’s “first choice” it appears to be a smokescreen.

Igor Akinfeev, 24, CSKA Moscow – apparently unimpressed with the Russian’s stature, United’s gaze wondered away from the talented youngster some time ago.

Hugo Lloris, 27, Olympique Lyonnais – French World Cup ‘keeper Lloris has consistently impressed in the Champions League but would come with a heavy price tag. United is a very unlikely buyer.

Samir Handanović, 26, Udinese – Slovenian of Bosnian decent, Handanović’s slow burning career now seems ready for the big time. Not a big name, but available at a reasonable price.

Rui Patrício, 23, Sporting Lisbon – brilliant but raw, Sporting will happily cash in on the player who has only recently made the Portugal national team but missed out on the World Cup.

Rene Adler, 26, Bayer Leverkusen – openly seeking a move to Old Trafford according to reports but United will only move for the German international if other options fall through.

Balotelli ‘lacks respect’ so where’s the FA charge?

April 18, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 30 comments

Mario Balotelli will face no Football Association action after the Italian striker taunted Manchester United players and supporters on Saturday. Running towards the United section at Wembley, the Manchester City player kissed his badge, gesturing towards United supporters. The Italian’s behaviour provoked an on-pitch mêlée, involving Rio Ferdinand, Anderson, Patrice Evra and City coach David Platt.

If Balotelli’s provocation was not severe enough, the 20-year-old then winked sarcastically at Ferdinand as the players left the field. Unsurprisingly, the striker’s behaviour infuriated United’s frustrated players, with Ferdinand and Anderson confronted the player on the Wembley pitch, while winger Nani later criticised the former Inter star for his lack of respect.

“He was showing his badge to our fans. Anderson just took him out from in front of our fans,” said Nani. “Rio was very angry because it is not fair, it was very disrespectful to do that in front of the fans. We were not happy.”

Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ferdinand used social networking site Twitter to voice his post-match criticism of the City player: “If you score a goal and give a bit to opposing fans I kind of accept that, but at the final whistle [you should] go to your own fans and enjoy it, not opposing fans”.

Ferdinand lectured Platt on-the-field, telling the former United youth to “control his players” before pulling the 44-year-old aside to continue the debate post match.

Despite the provocative behaviour the FA will not seek to sanction the £30 million player, even though there is recent precedent involving United. Indeed, former Reds defender Gary Neville twice found the FA’s ire for provoking opposition fans – once fined £5,000 for celebrating a goal in front of Liverpool’s supporters.

And with the FA taking a hard-line on its ‘Respect’ campaign where it suits the organisation, United supporters will ponder the governing body’s inconsistent implementation of its own policy. Sir Alex Ferguson has recently served a five-match ban for criticising referee Martin Atkinson, while Wayne Rooney has missed two games for swearing. The FA’s lack of action over Balotelli only serves to underline United’s sense of frustration with the governing body in recent times.

Not that idiocy involving Balotelli can surprise supporters of any persuasion. The 20-year-old has received more yellow and red cards this season than he has scored goals, while earning a rebuke for throwing darts at a team-mate. The striker was also involved in a training ground fight with Jerome Boateng.

At Inter the striker was dubbed “unmanageable” by former coach José Mourinho, while incurring the wrath of team-mates including Javier Zanetti and Marco Materazzi.

Balotelli also has a history of winding up opposition – and his own – supporters, having been fined by the Italian FA for offering sarcastic appluase towards racially abusive Chievo fans. He earned a rebuke for wearing an AC Milan shirt on television, and for gesturing at Inter fans after victory over Barcelona at San Siro.

But the most recent Balotelli incident was not the only to highlight the FA’s Respect campaign over the weekend. Much like Balotelli, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish in unlikely to face FA charges after twice swearing at Arséne Wenger on Sunday. As the curtain came down on a dramatic match, Wenger reacted angrily to Dalglish’s attempted handshake, with the Scot first telling the Arsenal manager to “p*ss off” and then to “f*ck off” in quick succession, all for the aural pleasure of watching Sky Sports subscribers.

In fact Rant has recorded more than a dozen similar cases of audible swearing in the fortnight since Rooney’s FA sanction. In reality there are probably hundreds of acts of disrespect towards players, officials and fans each week, with the Soho Square-based body choosing only to enforce its own rules when the media spotlight demands.

In that there is a serious conflict between the FA’s demand for Respect – something clearly lacking in Balotelli’s actions – and the organisation’s ability to manage its campaign. There is even specific provision under section E of the body’s own rulebook to stamp out offensive and disrespectful behaviour.

“A Participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game,” states the FA’s own rule book.

“[Players] shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

It is a provision that the FA only enforces intermittently. Something for which Balotelli is surely grateful.

Rooney returns as Reds rally for Geordie trip

April 18, 2011 Tags: , Matches 218 comments

Wayne Rooney returns to Manchester United’s team as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men look to bounce back from the weekend’s FA Cup semi-final defeat. Barely 72 hours after Ferguson’s side lost 1-0 to Manchester City at Wembley in the cup, the focus switches to Tuesday night’s Premier League league tie with Newcastle United. Victory will take United nine points clear at the head of the league table, with Arsenal not in action until Wednesday and that a derby fixture with Tottenham Hotspur.

With Paul Scholes suspended after the midfielder’s horror-tackle on Pablo Zabaletta at the weekend, Ferguson will shake up both his midfield and attack for the trip north. Indeed, misfiring Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, who remains United’s top goalscorer this season, could stand down with a refreshed Rooney now available. Javier Hernández is also pushing for a recall.

But manager Ferguson says United must contend with the fiery St James’ Park atmosphere, a ground on which the Scot’s side has both been hugely successful and suffered humiliating defeats in recent seasons. In the context of the title race, Ferguson says that the trip north is the most important fixture of the season to date.

“Going to Newcastle is the most ­important game we have coming up because the league is still our first priority,” said Ferguson.

“The Premier League and the Champions League are the two priorities at this club. The players had a big adrenaline surge for the FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City but we need to win on Tuesday.

“And that’s why Newcastle and the home game with Everton next Saturday are vital – after that there are only four games left and then we go to Arsenal the following week. So Tuesday is absolutely crucial for us and I think everybody knows when you go to Newcastle you have to deal with the atmosphere up there.

“They have fantastic supporters and you know they will be on your backs because they probably need three extra points, although I don’t see them threatened with relegation. We have had some brilliant games up there and some high-scoring games.”

United’s cause is also bolstered by Jonny Evans’ return, although the Irishman is unlikely to start. Meanwhile Anderson is fully fit and the rested Ryan Giggs also available for the fixture. Evans has missed three matches following his dismissal against Bolton Wanderers in March, while Anderson is fit again following a knee injury.

However, Darren Fletcher will miss at least the next fortnight, with the Scot still suffering from a mystery virus. Indeed, United’s lethargic performance at Wembley would surely have been more intense had the 26-year-old midfielder played.

Newcastle United v Manchester United, St James' Park, 19 April 2011Whatever Ferguson’s selection on Tuesday night, veteran Edwin van der Sar says that United cannot afford to slip up against the Geordies. With just 13 more points required from six games to seal a 19th domestic league title, United will take a huge step towards silverware with victory on Tyneside.

“It won’t be difficult to pick ourselves up,” said the 40-year-old, who retires at the end of the season.

“We know how important the league is. We are in first position, so we just have to make the best of it. We were a little bit tired [on Saturday], the pace of our game was not quick enough. We have played a big number of games in the last three or four weeks and against Newcastle we must do better.”

Meanwhile, Alan Pardew’s side is seeking a first win against United at St James’ since 2001, when the Geordie outfit won 4-3. However, United emerged 3-0 victors at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season – a 13th victory in the last 16 encounters with Newcastle. And while United’s loss to City at the weekend marked the first following seven wins in a row, Newcastle’s form has deteriorated in recent weeks. Pardew’s side has won just two in the last 12.

Despite the poor form, Newcastle should be safe from relegation with one more win this season and Pardew thinks that the St James’ atmosphere could bring those three points against United on Tuesday night.

“It is a fixture I genuinely believe Sir Alex will be very wary of,” said Pardew.

“Maybe not so much because he fears us as a team, but because he fears the ground and the reaction it can inspire the team to. For example, the Arsenal game – Newcastle were 4-0 down and our first goal goes in and suddenly you felt the crowd erupt and impact on the game.

“That is what [Ferguson] will fear, perhaps more than the [Newcastle] team, but I honestly believe he will genuinely fear this game. They have only lost a handful of games all season, but we have looked at how they lost those games and we have come up with what we believe is a kind of theme.”

While that ‘pattern’ may well be United’s timidity on the road at times this season – Ferguson’s outfit has won just five of 16 games Premier League games away from Old Trafford – it will take a significant effort for the Geordies to halt the Reds charge to title 19.

Newcastle – 4411 – Harper; Simpson, Coloccini, Williamson, Jose Enrique; Lovenkrands, Barton, Guthrie, Gutierrez; Nolan; Ranger. Subs from: Taylor, Taylor, Kuqi, Perch, Krul, Tavernier, Ferguson, Donaldson, Richardson, Campbell.

United – 442 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Giggs; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Berbatov, Rafael, Smalling, Valencia, Park.

Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant referees: Andy Halliday & Trevor Massey
Fourth official: Jon Moss

Newcastle – WDLLWL
United – WWWWWL

City in final as Reds fail to inspire

April 17, 2011 Tags: , Matches 27 comments

There’ll be dancing on the streets of Stockport tonight, to paraphrase the late, great, Bill McLaren. It was Manchester City’s day, with Roberto Mancini’s outfit leaving Wembley triumphant after Yaya Touré’s 52nd minute goal. In truth Sir Alex Ferguson’s players barely arrived, lacking not only energy and drive, but seemingly desire too. Perhaps his team’s hearts and minds were left somewhere on the M1, which so many supporters had struggled to navigate on the trip down.

This defeat was hugely disappointing, of course, but nor the ‘Manchester United way’ either; limp, lethargic, and worst of all, unambitious. That was the big picture but the game was also lost in the minutiae – Dimitar Berbatov’s criminally poor finishing, Michael Carrick’s sloppy defending, Park Ji-Sung’s inability to retain possession. None a virgin observation.

If the result is sickening for United supporters, then the red card and three match ban for midfielder Paul Scholes will also hurt. The flame-haired 36-year-old started the match as the only Mancunian on the pitch; he ended it in disgrace, rightly dismissed for a thigh-high second-half tackle on Pablo Zabaletta. That the Argentinian also raised his studs is moot of course. Retirement may now not be far away.

The victory increases City’s chances of lifting a first trophy since 1976, although the club’s capacity for comedy never fails to surprise. The winners of Sunday’s Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City clash awaits City in the final. Either will certainly give Mancini’s side a better game than United managed on Saturday.

Meanwhile United can be thankful only for the reduction in fixture congestion that defeat ensures, with United’s match against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park now confirmed for Saturday 14 May. It is no consolation for the thousands who made the trip south and with no further matches against City this season, Reds must now suffer months of Blue-baiting.

“The first 15 minutes after half-time cost us the game,” Ferguson admitted.

“Slack moments. Edwin (van der Sar) had a bad kick out and Michael Carrick couldn’t hold it and it was a goal. From then on, they were defending apart from a couple of counter-attacks. It’s disappointing as we should have been ahead in the first half as we were the better team.

“The chances that Dimitar missed – there was a great save by the goalkeeper but the second chance, from under the bar, if he’d have scored there, I had a feeling whoever scored first would win the match.”

Ferguson opted for the Bulgarian as United’s lone striker, a role that has so rarely brought the best out of player or team in the 30-year-old’s three seasons at Old Trafford. Retaining Park to bolster midfield, Ferguson dropped livewire striker Javier Hernández. If the plan was the remain competitive in midfield it failed, with City passing through or around United’s engine room with ease.

United started brightly though and fashioned the game’s opening chances. Twice Berbatov wasted openings, first racing clear only to see his shot saved by City’s Joe Hart, and then firing over from inches under the bar. It is a miss that will haunt the £30 million Bulgarian.

City though found a foothold in the game by half-time, with Gareth Barry firing into the side netting and then Mario Balotelli forcing Edwin van der Sar to tip over from long-range. The goal, minutes into the second half, was born both of individual errors and Touré’s power and drive. First van der Sar’s poor kick was collected by Carrick, and then the Geordie gifted Touré possession. The Ivorian needed no second invitation to fire past United’s legendary Dutchman.

Ferguson reacted by finally bringing Hernández into the fold, seemingly too little and far too late. The Mexican had little to do with Nani’s long-range free kick that smashed onto Hart’s bar and aside from the Portuguese’s strike there was little response by United; Ferguson’s side either unable or unwilling to change the pattern of the match.

Scholes’ red card on 73 minutes, while not fundamentally altering the match, did little for the Reds’ attacking ambitions. Heads dropped and United barely created a chance in the finally flurries.

“We’ve seen over his career Paul has had unbelievable moments – he’s one of the greatest players this club has ever had,” added Ferguson. “But he has his red-mist moments – he caught the boy on the thigh.”

There could be little in the way of argument with Mike Dean’s dismissal, even if the Wirral-based official has been the centre of repeated controversy in United’s matches.

In truth United’s performance was well below par, with early chances missed and defensive errors replete. Perhaps fatigue got the better of United, or the side missed Wayne Rooney more than expected, but with a trip to Newcastle United on Tuesday night, Ferguson’s players have no time to dwell on the most disappointing result of the season to date.

“If one of those goes in, maybe it’s a different game and they would have to chase us,” van der Sar told MUTV.

“In the second half, when they scored, we went to 10 men, one man down, and it was hard to chase and try to get the equaliser. We had some half-chances or possibilities to get the ball into the box but nothing really materialised. We were hoping for that famous injury-time goal again but I think our luck ran out a little bit.

“It’s not the way we normally defend so we have to do something to take the blame – all the players who have been on the pitch. Nobody really performed to their standard, I think.

“We had a go in the last 20 minutes but just maybe we were a bit tired also in the end. We have played quite a big amount of games in the last three or four weeks. We have got two days to recover from this game then, on Tuesday, it’s an important game.”

In that veteran van der Sar is entirely correct, with perhaps only defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand performing to an acceptable level. Ferguson now faces the very real challenge of turning around his team’s morale and ensuring that the Premier League does not slip away as the cup has now done.

After the whistle  Ferdinand and substitute Anderson ended up in a near brawl with Ballotelli; the Italian running towards United’s supporters to kiss his badge.  If only United’s team had shown the same level of fight during the game.

Match Facts
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea (Fabio Da Silva x84), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Hernandez 65), Carrick, Scholes, Park, Nani; Berbatov (Anderson 74)

City – 433 – Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Y Toure, De Jong, Barry; Johnson (Wright-Phillips 79), Balotelli, Silva (Vieira 86)

Attendance – 86,549
Man of the Match – Vidic

Possession: City 44% – 56% United
Attempts: 10 – 12
On Target: 2 – 6
Corners: 7 – 6
Fouls: 14 – 9

Manchester decamps for cup semi

April 16, 2011 Tags: , Matches 225 comments

Manchester City’s players departed for Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup semi-final from, where else, but Stockport as around 90,000 Reds and Blues make their way down the M6 for the 159th derby. It could be the first of three trips to Wembley for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team over the next six weeks, with both the cup final and Champions League final also held in north London.

It is this experience – of the big occasion at Wembley – that is key to winning Saturday’s match, according to Ferguson, with the Manchester United manager predicting semi-final nerves could decide the match in the Reds’ favour. In a week when Nemanja Vidic labelled City as “obsessed” with winning a trophy, the United manager expects his players’ mental toughness to come to the fore.

“I don’t know the mental side of any of their players, because I’ve not worked with any of them apart from Tevez of course,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“Only Roberto [Mancini] will know that, he’ll know his players much better. But it’s very difficult to block out the occasion, simply because sometimes it overrides everything else. And Wembley is an occasion stadium. When you go there it’s for an important reason, and that can affect some players. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It’s a fact.

“I know my own players and they’ve obviously been used to big game situations many times, so we don’t have to conquer that. I have a group of players who are confident going into games, their attitude is great and I couldn’t ask for a better situation than I’ve got.

“The players are in form and the squad is getting stronger with players back [from injury]. It wouldn’t matter which game we were going into, I’d believe in these players. At the moment they’ve got a great momentum about them, which is a fantastic thing to have at this stage of the season.”

However, the United manager has a crucial decision to make on his side’s line-up, with two intense games against Chelsea in the past 10 days and a busy programme coming up. Ferguson is fortunate that Wayne Rooney aside – the striker is suspended for swearing during the Reds’ victory over West Ham United a fortnight ago – he can call upon an almost fully fit squad.

The 69-year-old Scot will recall Dimitar Berbatov to an attacking United line-up and Ferguson says he has some sympathy for the Bulgarian, the Premier League’s top goalscorer, who has spent much of the past two months on the bench. Javier Hernández’ form has seemingly pushed Berbatov to the periphery, not for the first time in the 30-year-old’s time at Old Trafford.

“It’s unfortunate for Dimitar because he’s a fantastic player, but the reasons are obvious,” the United manager said.

“The emergence of Hernández in the last couple of months has been startling. He’s improving all the time, he’s getting stronger and it’s very difficult to leave a player out when he hits that kind of form.

“He’s fantastic, with a natural instinct to move about the box. There have been a few top strikers who’ve had that quality. Ole [Gunnar Solksjaer] was one, always being in space in the box, and having a natural instinct to do that. [Gary] Lineker probably never scored a good goal in his life. It would always come off his chest, his shin or he would get a rebound off the goalkeeper. But he was always in really good areas, and the boy Hernández is the same.”

Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva, Antonio Valencia and Paul Scholes are also in contention for a recall to the United side, with 37-year-old Ryan Giggs due a well-earned rest. Darren Fletcher is still absence with a mystery virus, although the Scot began training this week, while Owen Hargreaves will miss the rest of the campaign with a shoulder injury.

Manchester United v Manchester City, Wembley, 16 April 2011City supporters, seeking a first trophy in 35 years, will travel south in equal numbers. It is, after all, the club’s first visit to Wembley since winning the Championship play-off in 1999 – the year United secured the treble.

However, City manager Roberto Mancini must do without Carlos Tevez, the former United forward who is out with a hamstring strain. The Italian is likely to deploy £27 million striker Edin Džeko, supported by Yaya Touré, the Ivorian midfielder who has been used in a more attacking role at City. Whether Mancini liberates his side from the stultifying tactics deployed in the last two Manchester derbies is another matter altogether.

Yet, while City’s obsession with United defines the club, Red legend Scholes says the Blue side of Manchester is a rival in geographical terms only. He is surely right – and until City manages to win a first trophy in 35 years few Reds will disagree. Indeed, with Abu Dhabi’s money now fueling the Eastland’s transfer market spending spree, any silverware claimed in the coming years is rendered meaningless in the face of the club’s financial doping.

“When they are fourth or fifth [in the league], I don’t think they can be classed as a main rival,” said Scholes.

“Our main rivals are obviously Arsenal and Chelsea. I think City are just a rival because of where they are [geographically] and Liverpool the same.

“It’s an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, it’s massive, there will be 30,000 fans from each side… it’s the biggest game we’ve had against City for a while. Whoever loses will be devastated. I remember the 5-1 defeat in 1989 and Andy Hinchcliffe scoring that goal. It’s painful. I can also remember going to Maine Road and losing 3-1 [in 2002] and it’s horrible. You hate losing against anybody, but City? It’s bad.”

Thousands of Reds at Wembley today will agree; defeat a result nobody is countenancing.

Scholes scored a last-minute winner at Eastlands last season to the joy of Reds everywhere – it’s a goal the ginger maestro describes as “one of the best things I have ever done”. Another Fergie-time winner for the Reds on Saturday will send one half of Manchester home happy; the other, presumably back to Stockport, will remain forever in United’s shadow.

City – 433 – Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; de Jong, Barry, Touré; Silva, Dzeko, Ballotelli. Subs from: Boyata, Milner, Johnson, Taylor, Zabaleta, McGivern, Wright-Phillips, Vieira.

United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Berbatov, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Nani, Anderson, Ferdinand, Giggs.

Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistant referees: Mike Mullarkey and Peter Kirkup
Fourth official: Chris Foy

United – WWWWWW

Time to think again about United

April 15, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 63 comments

Popular opinion has it that the current Manchester United side is one of the worst that Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled in the Premier League era; it’s a criticism repeated often throughout the season. Think back to the late goals conceded against Fulham and Everton early in the season, or the draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, or the much publicised inability – until recently at least – of United to win away from home. Each perceived failure has bolstered the belief that United’s current position owes more to poor quality competitors, than the Reds’ high quality performances. This team, it is said, is not a ‘great’ United side.

But is it that simple?

On 29 November 2010, Barcelona delivered one of the great performances in the modern era against their biggest rivals – Real Madrid. In a match containing 11 world champions, the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, and the last two managers to lift the Champions League, it was Barcelona who delivered a scintillating performance of skill, imagination, and five unanswered goals. It was genuinely imperious from a side that has won every major trophy entered in the last two years. Moreover, Barcelona is in a fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final and is on course for a third consecutive La Liga title.

Barcelona is the benchmark – not only the success that the club has achieved under Pep Guardiola, but the manner in which it has been achieved – by playing some of the consistently best attacking football seen in the last twenty years. Barça has an incredible 84 points from 31 league games this season, scoring 85 goals and conceding just 16. True greatness.

Ferguson’s latest incarnation, as Didier Deschamps recently pointed out, may lack the ‘stardust’ of previous United sides, and it also lacks the fantasy of a side containing Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta and David Villa. But can greatness be defined in other ways?

Certainly, a cursory look at the statistics makes for some interesting reading. United has scored 70 goals in 32 league games this season. The United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo scored 80 in 38 games in 2007/08; the treble winning side of 1998/99 also managed 80 goals. In statistical terms at least, United’s current attack is comparable to those famous teams.

United’s home record in the league this season reads 15 wins from 16 games, with 42 goals scored and just nine conceded. And while much has been made of United’s away form, only Arsenal has picked up more points on the road this season. In the Champions League, United has conceded just three goals in 10 games, and none in five away games. The side also remains unbeaten. In fact, United has only been beaten on four occasions this season in all competitions.

Of course, many of the performances this season, particularly away from home have been average at best. Think back to the games at Sunderland, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and worst of all, Liverpool. It is, of course, possible to recall equally dire performances from United every season. It is also true that on many occasions United has dug deep to secure draws or victories when it seemed unlikely – wins at West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham United spring to mind.

True, when compared to the artistry of Barcelona, the current United side looks humble but perhaps its qualities can be defined in other ways. There is something heroic about the way United has seemingly defied the odds this season. The late winner with ten men at home to Bolton Wanderers, or equally later victory secured against Wolves, the stunning goal to win the Manchester derby, and the victory at home to Chelsea on Tuesday.

On Tuesday Chelsea started well, and like many teams this season, made United look uncomfortable. However, United not only scored first but having conceded an away goal Park Ji-Sung scored within a minute to seal the victory. A perfect microcosm of United’s season.

And all this has been achieved despite a plethora of injuries, poor performances and off-the-field problems. Rio Ferdinand has been dogged by injuries, meaning he has only started 21 games in all competitions this season. Antonio Valencia has missed much of the season after a sickening ankle injury. And at various times United has managed without a dozen players, and recently only had four fit defenders to choose from against West Ham.

While some have excelled, others have suffered poor seasons, including Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and, until recently at least, Rooney. And with Rooney’s contract saga, bans for Ferguson and the former Evertonian, it has been a turbulent season off-the-pitch. The drama serves only to prove United’s character.

Herein lies the point about greatness – it comes in different forms. While there is greatness in defeating Real Madrid 5-0 in one of the most complete team performances in a living memory, there is also greatness in a team whose sum is more than its parts. There is greatness in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta but also in those less valued; Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, whose collective effort has elevated United’s performances. There is also greatness in longevity: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, who defy age each week.

But most of all, there is greatness in the manager. Ferguson has worked with better individuals but has moulded a unit as strong as any he previously created and a tactical system that highlights the team’s strengths and manages to overcome its weaknesses.

Of course, United hasn’t won a trophy yet and if the team ends the season without silverware nine months of endeavour will have been for nothing. But it is also true that this team stands on the verge of something we can truly call great.  While it would be a different kind of great to Barcelona, it would be equally special.

Reds put boot in on Blues ahead of semi

April 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 17 comments

There’s nothing quite like kicking on old foe when he’s down; a habit doing the rounds at Old Trafford it seems, with key defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand cranking up the pressure ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final. Indeed, with Ferdinand claiming City’s sulking players would never make it at Old Trafford, and Vidic mocking the Blues’ desperation for a trophy, United’s finest have been unusually vocal during the build up to the big match.

Yet, there is more than a little truth to the pair’s comments this week. After all it is now more than 35 years since City’s last trophy – the 1976 League Cup – and with more than £150 million spent in the transfer market since Abu Dhabi’s takeover, silverware is long overdue.

Should City fail to lift the FA Cup or qualify for the Champions league – or possibly both – Roberto Mancini will almost certainly be out of a job come May. The Italian might well be anyway, with his squad in near riotous mutiny at times this season. James Milner’s tantrum on Monday night only served to highlight a growing problem at the Eastlands club, according to some observers.

It’s a crucial difference between United and City, says Ferdinand.

“You don’t see anyone come off the pitch shaking their head or being disgruntled or sitting on the bench in a sulk at this club,” said Ferdinand of City’s off-the-pitch troubles this season.

“That’s because everyone is delighted to play for this club and they all want to be here. The moment you show a bit of dissent like that, the manager pulls rank, and rightly so. It keeps people on their toes. People want to play here, they don’t want to be part of any other squad, and that’s the way it is at United.

“It comes out of respect for the manager, the club itself and the people who are here before you and present as well. There’s an unwritten rule here. You see it in the changing-room before games – there are no cliques. Players are wishing each other well before games, even if someone else is playing in your position. That’s just the way we are.”

But Ferdinand says nobody at United is taking Saturday’s semi for granted despite City’s heavy loss to Liverpool on Monday night. Indeed, even if former Red Carlos Tevez is out of the tie due to a hamstring injury, City can call on more than £50 million of forward talent in Mario Ballotelli and Edin Dzeko.

“We need to make sure we put the bad result they had against Liverpool out of the equation and treat it like any other game,” adds Ferdinand, who has returned to full fitness in time for the season’s dénouement.

“City have invested heavily in a lot of players so they’ve got a lot of talented players to come in [if Carlos Tevez is injured]. You don’t spend £27 million on a player who is average. Edin Dzeko is a good player, he’s played Champions League football for a few years, he’s won the league in Germany, so he’s a good player. We won’t be underestimating City.”

It is this heavy spending, allied with United’s excellent position in both Premier and Champions Leagues that means the pressure is heaped on City this weekend, according to captain Vidic. With many pundits predicting that City and not United would mount a title challenge this season, Mancini must deliver on last season’s promise to “tear down” the Stretford End banner than mocks City’s long run without silverware.

“Manchester City have an obsession about winning a trophy,” Vidic told the Daily Telegraph.

“After the big money they have spent, they want to win their first trophy. In the last few years we have had a lot of success. We have always been in quarter-finals, semi-finals, two Champions League finals. We are playing at the top level. Every team wants to do their best against us. But we will be ready.

“We don’t want to be arrogant or think we are the specials. We are just trying to do our best. Manchester City will be a very difficult game but a few players haven’t won the FA Cup, myself included, and we are hungry to achieve it.”

United supporters will take heart in Vidic’s words, even if the FA Cup surely Ferguson’s lowest priority during the run-in. This is especially true given the packed Premier and Champions League schedule over the next month. However, with Ferdinand, Vidic and a number of other United stars having missed out on a cup final win – United hasn’t emerged victorious in the showpiece since beating Millwall 2004 – there remains a hunger to win.

It’s a fact that gives Saturday’s fixture an extra edge and one that may just colour Ferguson’s thinking. In recent cup semi-finals the United manager has heavily rotated, especially in the 2009 loss to Everton in which Ferguson selected several fringe squad members. However, last season’s Carling Cup semi with City saw Ferguson deploy his strongest line-up. It’s a fact supporters will draw on ahead of Saturday’s match at Wembley.