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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.

Opposition
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
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.

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

Form
United – WWWWWW
City – LWWLWL

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.

Dozen games to win a treble

April 13, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 70 comments

Manchester United can replicate the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League this season but it’ll take nearly a dozen cup final performances to do it following Tuesday night’s victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford. With an FA Cup semi-final to come against Manchester City on Saturday, and a two-legged European semi-final against Schalke bracketing Premier League ties against Chelsea and Arsenal, United faces a hugely demanding season’s end.

Indeed, should Sir Alex Ferguson’s side make the FA Cup final after this weekend’s semi, the longest break his team will be afforded between now and the Champions League final on 28 May is just six days; a truly punishing schedule. Unless United loses at the weekend, Ferguson’s team will play two Premier League games after the FA Cup final – due to take place on 14 May – before a potential Champions League showpiece at Wembley.

Yet, with the Reds hitting top gear for arguably the first time this season, and Ferguson’s squad now almost fully fit, United supporters can dare to dream. Wayne Rooney’s return to sparkling form, even if the 25-year-old is suspended from the FA Cup semi, Antonio Valencia’s fitness and Rio Ferdinand’s reassuring presence make a huge difference to Ferguson’s options. Against Chelsea, Michael Carrick again stepped up a level, while Park Ji-Sung added another crucial goal to his impressive big-game collection.

It is impeccable timing from a side that had so rarely impressed during the opening six months of the season.

“I think we’ve hit our form, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Ferguson told Sky Sports after United’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Tuesday night.

“You’ve seen it in the second half at West Ham and the performance at Chelsea, plus the performance tonight. It’s a really good moment for us and the players are enjoying it. I think they’re relishing the challenges they’ve got now. You see the momentum the team’s under at the moment.

“Momentum is a great thing. everyone’s desperate to play on Saturday against Manchester City and they’re all desperate to play in every game now. The bonus I’ve got is that all my players are getting fit again now, and that’s a great boost to us.”

Will United win the treble?

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While Ferguson’s players will all want to play, the manager’s challenge is to rotate his resources at the right time, ensuring rested limbs but minimising the risk of dropped points. Yet, the Scot’s tendency to make five, six or eight changes in games he considers ‘winnable’ often plays into the opponents hands. The Reds’ muted performance against Fulham at the weekend is a case in point.

With games against mid-table Newcastle United and Everton coming up before fixtures with London title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal, Ferguson faces a considerable dilemma. Common sense says the Scot must rest key players before a likely Champions League tie with Schalke. However, lost points will only increase the pressure on United ahead of that crucial double-header with Chelsea and Arsenal in early May. By contrast two victories in upcoming Premier League matches may kill the title race stone-dead before May. There is, after all, no guarantee that Arsenal will take maximum points from games against Liverpool and then Tottenham Hotspur.

It’s a cliché of course, but modern football is indeed a squad game. Much as Ferguson’s side will win key matches with big performances from star players, the whole squad will pick up crucial points elsewhere. In this Wes Brown is as important as Ferdinand; Dimitar Berbatov as Rooney; Park as Ryan Giggs.

It is still a long road of course. With barely a midweek off for the next six weeks tired limbs and minds will inevitably lead to mistakes and therefore dropped points. Perusing the fixture list – Arsenal and Chelsea aside – Ferguson will look to United’s away fixtures first against Newcastle and then at Blackburn Rovers as potential banana skins. After all, the lifeless draw at Ewood Park last season effectively cost United the title and Ferguson’s side has so rarely sparkled on the road this campaign.

Yet, City’s inconsistency – allied to that of Arsenal’s – points to a Premier League victory and a place in the FA Cup final at the very least. In Europe, while Schalke has performed admirably in the Champions League, Ralf Rangnick’s side is still mid-table in the Bundesliga, although greatly recharged under new management. Still, Ferguson will surely feel that not since United faced – and lost to – Bayern Leverkusen in 2001 has the route to a European final been so open.

Then, if progress goes to plan, comes Barcelona or Real Madrid at Wembley in late May. At the season’s start, with Ferguson arguably possessing his weakest squad in five years, few pundits predicted a United league win, let alone a treble. And in a one-off game, even Barça is beatable. Perhaps.

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Just blame Carrick

April 12, 2011 Tags: Reads 56 comments

This season it seems that Michael Carrick has been blamed for everything. Rising house prices, the war in Iraq, the conflict in Libya; all Carrick’s fault. Joking apart though Carrick has taken a lot of flak in the past six months, some deserved but a lot unmerited. What then will it take for Carrick to return to a page in the supporters’ collective good book and to find consistently effective form in the heart of United’s midfield?

Never one to set the pulses racing, Carrick does a job and in his first seasons at United, did it very well. However, the common consensus amongst United fans is that he has not been the same since being taken apart by Messrs Andreas Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in the 2009 Champions League Final. That trauma, along with a change in role in the Reds’ midfield due to the extended absence of Owen Hargreaves, seems to have hampered Carrick’s progress. This was particularly true last season as his confidence seemed sapped and he was left out in favour of Darron Gibson in many of the crucial games at the end of the campaign.

However, Carrick has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks. Maybe the Geordie hasn’t hit the heights of his first couple of seasons in Red but the Carrick of old does seem to be emerging, particularly against Chelsea last Wednesday. At Stamford Bridge last week Carrick was crucial in United’s first win in west London since 2002, playing a huge part in Wayne Rooney’s winning goal and, along with the effervescent Ryan Giggs, effectively marshalling Chelsea’s imposing midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien.

Michael Carrick versus Rangers

Diagram 1, Carrick v Rangers

The midfielder’s passing was also impressive. Already considered one of his strong points, Carrick completed 83 per cent of all of his passes, which is a praise-worthy stat at such a tough venue. The 30-year-old also covered nearly ten kilometres – an extremely good shift only bettered by his central midfield partner Giggs – that puts paid to claims that Carrick is lazy.

Carrick is not a destructive midfielder in the ilk of Hargreaves or Darren Fletcher though, nor is he an out and out attacking midfielder like Anderson or Paul Scholes in his pomp. However, Carrick is exceptional at reading the game. In this season’s Champions League the midfielder has made a total of 35 interceptions, which betters two other players who are of similar ilk – Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has 13, and Real Madrid’s Xavi Alonso, who has 25.

The positional change referred to earlier has involved Carrick being deployed in a deeper role to screen the back four; a position in which Hargreaves excelled in during his first season at Old Trafford. Although billed as a defensive midfielder by many, Carrick seems to excel further up the pitch as a playmaker.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 2, Carrick v Marseille

Against Rangers (Diagram 1) Carrick started alongside Paul Scholes in a midfield that gave the Geordie licence to move further forward and influence United’s attacking play. By contrast against Marseille (Diagram 2), starting in a midfield three many of his forward passes were less apparent and many were unsuccessful. In the role Carrick played against Marseille he was expected to ‘get stuck in’ and play the Roy Keane tough-tackling midfield role. In fact, he saw less of the ball thus giving him less influence in United’s attack, although he still completed 43 of an attempted 52 passes.

Tackling is not Carrick’s strong point Hhe’s got a tackle in him yes but many feel he is unwilling to ‘get stuck in’. This could be the case and if Carrick is unsure of his own ability in that area then this will be of detriment to his play. Diagram 3 could add credence to this view.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 3, Carrick v Marseille

Another criticism that is often made of Carrick is his in ability to pass forward. However, when Carrick plays in a more forward position – in the centre of the park – he seems to be more willing and confident in his ability to influence the Reds. This can be seen below in Carrick’s passing against Chelsea, compared to that against Marseille (Diagram 4). Although Carrick made more passes against Marseille he had a better success rate against Chelsea, furthermore United had to contain Chelsea for a lot longer than they did Marseille and had possession of the ball more sporadically. Carrick’s use of the ball seems to be more effective when playing in an advanced role.

Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson seems to be taking note as Carrick has not played in a midfield three since the game at Stade Velodrome. Carrick has featured in eight of the nine games since the first leg of the last 16 tie and in each he has featured alongside only one midfielder as opposed to two. Not only has Carrick improved but so has the team, Anfield aside.

When Carrick came on at the weekend for the last 15 minutes against Fulham he exuded a confidence that has been lacking at times over the past two seasons. The midfielder popped first time passes around with aplomb and looked very much like the Carrick of old.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille/Chelsea

Diagram 4, Carrick v Marseille/Chelsea

Another reason for Carrick’s upsurge in recent form could be the return of Antonio Valencia, which has enabled United to operate in a 4-4-2 formation more often, reverting to the 1994 style of two out-and-out wingers in Valencia and Nani. But stats mean little to some of course. Many supporters have already made their minds up about Carrick and, despite some praise-worthy metrics, have turned their back on the England international.

What is not in doubt: Carrick has recently signed a new three-year deal. Whether you believe this is because of Ferguson’s faith in United’s number 16 – recent performances merit this – or because the Reds are cash strapped and have been forced to offer the 30-year-old a contract that few were expecting, is up to you.

However, Carrick is going to be here for the foreseeable whether fans like it or not. It is hard to believe that Ferguson has signed up a player who he does not believe has the credentials to be the main man in United’s midfield.

Perhaps its time for a clean slate: give Carrick a chance. The faith may well be rewarded.

Fergie determined to end Chelsea ‘obsession’

April 12, 2011 Tags: , Matches 251 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has dismissed Roman Abramovich’s “obsession” with winning the Champions League, reiterating that his Manchester United side is just as desperate to secure Europe’s premier competition this season. Speaking ahead of the quarter-final second leg clash at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Ferguson claimed that the British press is “running away with sympathy for Chelsea,” with the Londoners’ only realistic chance of silverware now coming in Europe.

It’s a notion for which Ferguson holds much contempt and the 69-year-old United manager is determined that his side maintains a recent winning run, having beaten West Ham United, Chelsea and Fulham in the past 10 days and won the last six in succession.

However, Ferguson is likely to make significant chances to the side that overcame Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday. Wayne Rooney returns from a domestic suspension, while Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Ryan Giggs could both come back into the side. The Scot could even pick the same starting 11 that beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge a week ago.

“Momentum is key: it’s what keeps you from going off your stride,” Ferguson said on Monday.

“Every game from this point on is like a cup final – the players thrive on that. In that respect I see similarities to 1999, but the circumstances are completely different as we didn’t have any injuries back then.

“We’ve coped very well this season, particularly with the injuries we’ve had in defensive positions. Having the likes of Anderson, Rio [Ferdinand], and [Antonio] Valencia back makes an incredible difference at this time of the season. They’re fresh and they know how to play for the club, so it’s not like signing new players as they don’t need time to adapt.”

Ferguson must decide whether to bring Portuguese winger Nani back into his side despite Antonio Valencia’s outstanding form since the Ecuadorian’s return from injury. Although the Scot could stand down Park Ji-Sung the United manager is apt to pick the South Korean on European nights.

Manchester United v Chelsea, Old Trafford, 12th April 2011The same cannot be said of Dimitar Berbatov of course and the Bulgarian’s tepid display against Fulham will have done his chances of making tonight’s side few favours. Although Javier Hernández has made little impact in the two matches started against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this season, Ferguson clearly trusts the 22-year-old Mexican as a man for the big occasions.

And another striker, Chelsea’s £50 million Fernando Torres, is a symptom of Chelsea’s European obsession, says Ferguson. Torres started in preference to Nicolas Anelka last Wednesday but sat out Chelsea’s weekend Premier League match against Wigan Athletic.

“It does seem to be an obsession with Chelsea to win the European Cup. That is why they signed Fernando Torres,” added the Scot.

“The owner has every much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect. I have felt that for quite a while with him. To have an obsession of winning the European Cup is stretching yourself a wee bit. At the end of the day it is a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment – it’s fantastic.

“I had that obsession myself for a long time. Losing the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it.”

Another long derided forward, Rooney, will return to Ferguson’s team having completed one of a two match suspension for using “foul and abusive” language in United’s win at the Boleyn Ground recently. Indeed, the six-day break since Rooney scored against Chelsea in the first leg has enabled to striker to recharge his batteries, according to Ferguson.

“He will definitely be fresher after missing the game [against Fulham] on Saturday,” Ferguson said.

“That has given him six days’ good preparation and that could make a difference. In the first leg, Wayne Rooney adapted very well to the role we asked him to play. He had to combine partly defensive duties but with an attacking thrust, so in that respect he did very well and of course he put in a good performance.

“He is capable of causing problems no one else can. Balance, power, speed and a great tactical brain – the boy’s got everything.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Ancelotti will choose two of Torres, Anelka and Didier Drogba, with the significant possibility that the Italian will accommodate an additional midfielder away from home. Despite playing without a traditional defensive central midfielder at Stamford Bridge last week – Michael Carrick and Giggs started – United dominated midfield, as Ferguson’s side had done in the Premier League encounter for 45 minutes.

The change might mean leaving Torres on the bench – a decision that might not go down well with owner Abramovich. However, Ancelotti can boast a fully-fit squad, with Yossi Benayoun and Alex returning to the side at the weekend. The Brazilian may start with fellow countryman David Luiz not eligible for the tie.

And Chelsea will have no fears at Old Trafford adds Ferguson, with familiarity an advantage non-domestic teams that normally visit Manchester on big these European nights.

“A British team coming here is different to a European team,” the Scot admitted.

“Although Juventus and Milan, over the years, have played here a few times. For Chelsea, they are here every year. There’s a familiarity with the stadium, the size of the pitch, the conditions of the pitch. All these things are in their favour compared with other European teams.”

It’s an advantage Ferguson hopes will not be significant with United looking for the draw or better than will secure passage through to the Champions League semi-final for the third time in the past four years. Indeed, with Schalke the likely opponents in the next round both teams will have one eye on a final. It would be United’s third since 2008. An obsession you might say.

Opposition
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anleka, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka, Bosingwa, Zhirkov, Torres.

United
United – 433 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.

Officials
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez, Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez
Additional assistant referees: Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, Carlos Clos Gómez
Fourth official: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP)

Form
United – WWWWWW
Chelsea – WDWDLW

Young deal on the cards; will he fit?

April 11, 2011 Tags: Reads 60 comments

It’s not often that Rant comments on transfer speculation, after all there are plenty of red tops chasing paper sales that suit the practice better. More to the point, there has been so little activity of note in recent seasons that speculation is, by definition, an exercise in futility. However, recent tabloid commentary about Aston Villa’s 25-year-old winger-come-forward Ashley Young not only has merit but might point to a deal that brings quality to Old Trafford at a price Sir Alex Ferguson considers ‘value’.

Such is the recent heightened speculation about Young that former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Jamie Redknapp assumes a transfer North is a done-deal. After all, his father, Spurs boss Harry, knows a thing or two about doing a deal and will have sounded-out the player, whose Villa deal expires in 2012.

Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Antonio Valencia’s transfer to United in summer 2009; a deal which United had effectively completed six months previously.

“Ashley Young looks better every time I see him, he has electric pace and dribbles with his head up; he looks a future Manchester United player to me, and an ideal replacement for Ryan Giggs,” said Redknapp today.

“Aston Villa will have to cash in on the England winger in the summer rather than let him go on a free next season.”

No Ryan Giggs of course, but Young’s star is on the rise; a talent that has progressed in each season since the player made his Premier League début with Watford in 2006. Moreover, United is a left-winger short though, with Giggs in his 38th year and Park Ji-Sung injury-prone and normally earmarked for a specific defensive job in the Champions League.

In fact Sir Alex Ferguson is heavily reliant on the pair, whom have played 51 times between them to date this season. Giggs has signed a new one-year deal with the club, keeping the Welsh legend at Old Trafford for one final hurrah, although Park is yet to extend a contract that runs out in 2012. The South Korean’s form this season is patchy enough to question his long-term future in Manchester.

Meanwhile, Young has progressed under Gerard Houllier even if his Villa team has gone decidedly backwards. Used as an orthodox winger by previous coach Martin O’Neil, Frenchman Houllier has discovered a greater flexibility in the player, with Young frequently deployed right or left in a forward three or ‘in the hole’ behind a target man this season. In fact, just the kind of adaptable forward Ferguson treasures.

Young’s statistics are a touch better than average this season, having scored eight and assisted 13 in a poor Villa side. It’s somewhat lower than the 17 assists credited to the former Watford player in 2007-08, although the player has half-a-dozen games to correct the statistics. By contrast, United’s Nani has 10 goals and 16 assists in all competitions this season.

The player would welcome a move to United of course, with Villa in free-fall this season and unlikely to qualify for European competition. Having broken into the England side since the World Cup, Young is unlikely to countenance another season in mid-table ahead of Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

“It’s always nice to be linked to those sort of teams [Spurs, United, Liverpool] but I’m an Aston Villa player, I’ve got a year left of my contract. I just want to do well for the club,” said Young this week, in the usual heavily media-trained guff that footballers normally emit before signing elsewhere at the first available opportunity.

“I’ve always said that I’m an ambitious person. To play in the biggest competitions, the European Championships, the Champions League, FA Cup finals, League Cup finals, the World Cup, the Euros, I want to play in them all. Every player would want to win trophies, titles and medals. I’m no different. I’m an ambitious person like any other person who’s in football.”

The question for United is twofold: is Young good enough for the club and is the deal at the right price? Certainly, Young’s price-tag is likely to be the Glazer family’s liking given the players contract situation. If Gareth Barry’s transfer to Manchester City for around £12 million in 2009 is a benchmark then United may just be close to sealing a bargain for a player whose star is on the rise.

Yet, United supporters will rightly ask questions of Young’s pedigree. After all, the 25-year-old is no top performer in the Champions League, nor is he an 18-year-old with a world of progress ahead. On the cusp of United’s upper age-bracket for transfers, Young can add only to the Reds’ squad resources rather than take Ferguson’s team significantly forward.

Supporters asked the same questions of Valencia though, before the Ecuadorian’s £14 million move from Wigan Athletic. And Valencia, who is only six months younger than the Villa forward, has been a huge hit at Old Trafford. Time will tell whether Young will join the Ecuadorian; in Manchester and success.

Faith in youth

April 11, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

There is something pure about watching youth football. Far away from the prima donnas of the Premier League, the FA Youth Cup offers not only a glimpse of the future but a world without celebrities, gossip and scandal. And even with the constant reorganisation of youth football in England – one that has not always served the country well – the competition still retains its attraction.

Indeed, even as Manchester United youth lost 3-2 to Chelsea’s age group team at Stamford Bridge today, around 1,000 Reds made the trip south. Noisy Reds too, in a crowd a touch over 5,000 in West London. There might well be more than 30,000 at Old Trafford for the return in just under a fortnight.

Much as age group games are entertainment in their own right – and Sunday’s match at the Bridge was certainly that – the essential purpose is of course to bring players through to the first team. In that regard United’s success over the past decade is muted. Arguably only Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher have graduated through the academy and become first team regulars in the past 10 years. Before them Wes Brown and John O’Shea each made their United débuts in the late 1990s.It is far from the “Class of ’92.”

In recent years United’s focus has moved away producing ‘home grown’ players – those from the British Isles – to a strategy that now includes obtaining the most promising players from other clubs academies. Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique may have been forerunners for the policy but in recent years United has increased an overseas scouting network that now includes a Brazilian training centre.

It is also a policy that has engendered controversy, with more than one club complaining loudly in the press, although not actually to FIFA, about United’s predatory tactics.

Few of the new breed has made it at United to date though, although both Rossi and Pique were sold at considerable profit before achieving much on continental Europe. In fact United has made a healthy profit on selling former academy players over the past decade. Of course, Rafael da Silva is now a regular and his brother Fabio is on the cusp of regular action. Each cost the club a fraction of the fee that might be commanded on the open market today, pointing the way to the primary reason behind United’s shift in youth policy in recent years.

There is much promise in United’s current 18-year-old age group though. Sunday’s team included three players recruited from abroad: brilliant Frenchman Paul Pogba, Italian defender Michele Fornasier and flying Dutch winger Gyliano van Velzen. Another supremely talented youth, Mats Møller Dæhli, made a late substitute appearance.

Pogba’s class is self-evident – the rangy midfielder almost kept United in Sunday’s game on his own such is his influence at youth level. It is likely to be the last season 18-year-old Pogba spends with the youth team, before graduating fully to United’s reserves and possibly the first team squad next season.

Fornasier’s composure in a variety of defensive positions bode well for the future, while van Velzen comes with the pedigree of a former Ajax trainee.

There is local talent too, including the athletic Ryan Tunnicliffe who recently made Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team squad. But absent today was the star of United’s youth side – Ravel Morrison – with the 18-year-old is serving out a suspension for a recent red card. The teenager’s well documented problems may, or may not, inhibit his progress but his talent is certainly recognised within the club. After all, first team manager Ferguson drafted in the gifted player into the first team for United’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this season.

Such are the vagaries of youth development that none of today’s youth cup semi-final team is guaranteed to progress into Ferguson’s first team. It would be a real disappointment.

Morrison could have made a difference today against a tough and talented Chelsea outfit, which included the much-lauded Josh McEcharan. While the 17-year-old offered a muted display his team-mates passed the ball better than United for the most part and took full advantage of a suspect visiting line-up that included more than one player out of position.

Yet, from 2-0 down at half-time United produced a stirring second-half performance, led by Pogba’s drive, to ensure that the young Reds remain in with a shout on 22 April at Old Trafford.

Thousands will be there, in part for entertainment but also to witness the birth of new talents.

FA Youth Cup semi-final, first leg

Chelsea youth 3 – 2 Manchester United youth
Chalobah (30,42), Devyne (72) – Lingard (56), Pogba (77)

United: Johnstone; M.Keane, Thorpe (c), Fornasier, McGinty; Tunnicliffe, Pogba, Cole, Lingard (Lawrence 84), van Velzen; W.Keane (Daehli 89). Subs not used: Ekangamene, Coll, Rudge.

Reds win but with little panache

April 10, 2011 Tags: , Matches 10 comments

It says something for the recent upturn in Manchester United’s performances that securing a 10 point Premier League lead in beating Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday came with its disappointments. United beat Mark Hughes’ mid-table Londoners but there was little convincing about the Reds’ 15th home victory of the season. Yet, with Arsenal not in action until Sunday, United take a commanding lead into the last six matches of the Premier League campaign.

Goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia sealed the win but Fulham can feel unfortunate not to have taken something out of the match. Indeed, the Londoners started brightly and will point to the minor details, which changed a game that rarely shone as bright as the unseasonal Manchester weather. Berbatov benefited from whatever doubt there may have been in being ruled onside on 12 minutes and then a deflection on Nani’s cross enabled Valencia to nod home just the second goal of an injury hit season.

“It was a result but I wouldn’t say it was a job well done at all,” said manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

“We were a bit casual and lackadaisical. In the first half we played some very good football and could have scored a couple more, but we became wasteful with our possession in the second and might have suffered for that.”

Berbatov’s goal was the 22nd of a fruitful if sometimes frustrating season and a beautifully worked team strike at that. Yet the Bulgarian rarely sparkled as he had done in United’s second-half comeback at West Ham United last week. If the striker was often subdued, then his colleagues often followed suit, prompted perhaps by the eight changes made by Ferguson.

“You trust the squad. It wasn’t a risk when you know the players. I picked the right team,” added Ferguson.

Ferguson’s use of his full squad was never in doubt and the absent Wayne Rooney, banned for two matches this week by the Football Association for use of foul language, would probably have started on the bench. Still, with Javier Hernández, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Edwin van der Sar all rested, United’s performance was understandably disjointed at times.

United has dropped only two points at home in the league this season and with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Tuesday Ferguson will be pleased to chalk off another three points.

Yet Fulham could easily have taken the lead before Berbatov’s controversial early strike. Recalled Pole Tomasz Kuszczak, who confirmed yesterday he will leave United in the summer, saved long-range efforts from Gael Kakuta and Moussa Dembele, while Bobby Zamora wasted a good early chance by firing high and wide.

However, in width United possessed the game’s two most dangerous figures. Nani on the left and Valencia on the opposite flank consistently create openings for the hosts. Nani’s mazy run, and exchange of passes with the returning Anderson, created the opening for Berbatov’s strike. The Portuguese then set up Valencia for the second ten minutes later, beating Mark Schwartzer to a loose ball before crossing with the aid of a deflection.

The two assists takes the former Sporting player to 18 for the season and nine goals, although incredibly not on to the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. The much-lauded Gareth Bale, by contrast, has seven goals and one assist in the Premier League to his name.

The early goals enabled United to take a degree of control in an Old Trafford atmosphere that will surely be more lively in Gary Neville’s recently announced testimonial, which will take place in mid-May.

Anderson, not for the first time, should have scored but screwed his shot wide, and then Chris Smalling headed just wide against his former club. Further chances were wasted by Anderson and Darron Gibson could have increased United’s lead in the second half, although the visitors again gave as good as they got.

“They could win everything,” added Hughes, whose relationship with the United manager has never been anything less that spikey.

“They are ticking games off and when you get to this stage of the season, they have been here, understand what needs to happen and what it takes. It is a big ask. Sir Alex would say himself it is very difficult to do, but trust me, it is something they will try and achieve. Good luck to them.”

Indeed, with United one up in the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, 10 points ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League and facing inconsistent Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final, Untied supporters have every right to dream.

In Europe the path to a third final in four years is open, with United likely to meet mid-table German side Schalke in the semi-finals should Ferguson’s side overcome Chelsea on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, winnable games against Everton and Newcastle United come before the Reds face Arsenal and Chelsea in early may.

It is indeed a remarkable season. In many ways United’s side without “stardust” is seemingly the worst at Old Trafford for five years. Yet nothing supersedes the results, which now point to another historic season.

Match Facts
United – 451 – Kuszczak; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Owen 73), Gibson, Scholes, Anderson (Fabio Da Silva 76), Nani (Carrick 87); Berbatov

Fulham – 442 – Schwarzer; Hughes, Hangeland, Baird, Salcido; Dempsey, Murphy (Greening 82), Etuhu (Gera 67), Kakuta; Zamora, Dembele (Gudjohnsen 55)

Attendance – 75,339
Man of the Match – Nani

Possession: United 54% – 46% Fulham
Attempts: 16 – 12
On Target: 12 – 5
Corners: 8 – 3
Fouls: 12 – 8

Fergie circles United wagons ahead of Fulham tie

April 9, 2011 Tags: , Matches 59 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has accused the Football Association of victimizing his Manchester United team, with the 69-year-old Scot claiming that it is now “an obvious trend” within the governing body. The FA has handed out a five-match touchline ban to the United manager and a two-match playing ban to striker Wayne Rooney in the past month, with the Reds’ management vigorously contesting each sanction.

Indeed Ferguson, whose side meets 10th placed Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday, accused the FA of pressuring referee Lee Mason to alter his post-match report after United’s victory at the Boleyn Ground last weekend.

“He was put under pressure [by the FA], there is no doubt about that. He’s now put himself in the spotlight and if he doesn’t send a player off for swearing the question will be: has he got double standards? It’s a very difficult position. I don’t know how his career is going to go now.”

And asked if he believed the two-match ban imposed by the FA, was fair, Ferguson said: “I don’t know if you can use that word ‘fair’ any longer.”

“But we can use it. The support will be fantastic now. You watch it. It will be absolutely magnificent. And the players are absolutely brilliant.”

But if off-the-field events have dominated this week’s headlines then Ferguson is at least boosted by an almost fully fit squad for the Londoners’ visit. While Brazilian youngster Rafael da Silva will miss the game with a dead leg, fellow defenders Wes Brown and John O’Shea return following injury, although Jonny Evans is suspended.

Ferguson will also welcome back midfielder Anderson, who scored twice in United reserves’ 2-1 victory over Manchester City this week. The 22-year-old Brazilian has missed two months with a knee injury but could make the bench, with Paul Scholes also in line for a return to United’s midfield. Nani is likely to be given another rest, with the Portuguese winger looking jaded in recent weeks.

Manchester United v Fulham, Old Trafford, 9 April 2011Indeed, Ferguson may be tempted to protect key players ahead of United’s crunch Champions League quarter-final second leg with Chelsea on Tuesday night. While Rio Ferdinand came through the tie at Stamford Bridge without reaction, Ferguson could turn to Chris Smalling in defence. Meanwhile, with Rooney suspended Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov will start in attack.

Yet, Ferguson chose to focus on outside pressures, saying that recent events will strengthen United’s resolve to win a record 19th domestic title in May.

“I want us to make it clear that we can rise above recent problems and that we are a club who can overcome all difficulties and attempts to knock us off our perch,” Ferguson wrote in his programme notes for United Review.

“We have done it before, and we can do it again if we pull together at this vital stage of the season as we go from one major fixture to another. This is the fighting spirit that makes Manchester United such a great club, and which has helped us over the line to success so many times in the past.”

Meanwhile, former United favourite Mark Hughes is could be without winger Damien Duff, who is suffering from a sore Achilles but may make the bench. Defender Aaron Hughes is available after recovering from a head injury.

The west London club hasn’t won at Old Trafford since 2003 but boasts just one loss to United in the last four meetings between the sides. United must also guard against complacency with the Reds having taken 49 points from a possible 51 in their last 17 Premier League games at Old Trafford.

“Every game is difficult now,” midfielder Scholes added in United Review.

“Bolton at home proves it – that was a game we were expected to get three points from and we almost didn’t. The games aren’t turning out as people think they will. Bolton were very organised and had chances to win the game themselves. We know Fulham are a similar team. They like to get the ball down and play. They’ve got dangerous players and a manager who’s hungry for them to do well.

“It’s going to be difficult but, being at home, we’d like to think we can win it.”

With league games against Newcastle United and Everton coming after the cup double-header in this week, victory will be another huge step towards regaining the Premier League title. Indeed, should United win each of the next three the title will surely be heading to Old Trafford. And with Arsenal not in action until Sunday, United will move 10 points clear of the Gunners with victory today.

Opposition

Fulham – 4411 – Schwarzer; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Salcido; Davies, Etuhu, Murphy, Sidwell; Dempsey; Zamora. Subs from: Johnson, Dembele, Stockdale, Kelly, Gudjohnsen, Kakuta, Duff, Greening.

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

Officials
Referee: Mark Jones
Assistant referees: Stuart Burt & Scott Ledger
Fourth official: Michael Oliver

Form
United – DWWWWW
Fulham – DLDWLW