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Double exposure

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berba misses out as Fergie urges Reds to make history

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Matches 35 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form
Schalke – WWWWDL
United – WWWLDW

Four games, seven points, one title

April 24, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 70 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

View Results

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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.

Opposition
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
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.

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

Form
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.

Opposition
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
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.

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

Form
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