Manchester United won a record-equalling 18th English championship – their 11th in the Premier League – after a scoreless draw against Arsenal at Old Trafford this afternoon. The draw takes United an insurmountable seven points clear of Liverpool. And despite the bleating emanating from United’s rivals down the M62, the Reds thoroughly deserve the title after a producing the most consistent attacking football throughout the season.
United’s victory is in no small part down to Sir Alex Ferguson, whose propensity to gamble by throwing on forwards has helped United pick up crucial points when it looked like none were coming. Forget any talk about injuries to Gerrard and Torres, in the final analysis Sir Alex’ bravery in consistently throwing on four forwards when the chips were down was the real difference this season. With United’s 18th title, not only has Fergie knocked Liverpool “off their fucking perch” but he has trampled all over their dying corpse. Ronnie Moran, Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier, Rafael Benítez… you all came and tried but your boys have taken one helluva beating over the past 19 seasons.
The season didn’t start out that way of course. With Cristiano Ronaldo recuperating from an ankle operation and Dimitar Berbatov settling into the side, United started slowly. The team lost to Zenit St. Petersburg, Liverpool and Arsenal, alongside draws with Newcastle, Celtic and Aalborg among others, all before Christmas.
The Red’s victorious trip to the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan late December seemed to galvanise the side though, not least the defence, which went 14 Premier League games without conceding a goal as Rafa Benitez went into meltdown. The Liverpool manager started moaning about his now infamous “facts” on January 8th and seemingly hasn’t stopped since. But the only affect Benitez achieved was to throw his team into the bear pit and magnify the pressure. It backfired in the most spectacular way and has helped to leave Liverpool without a trophy once again.
Ferguson has seen it all before of course. When the pressure was applied it was United, not Liverpool, nor Chelsea, and never Arsenal that came up with the answers time and again. Late and often unlikely winners against Bolton, Stoke City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, to name but a few, have bought enough points for the title and some to spare. More often than not the gaffer was prepared to put Carlos Tevez, Waybe Rooney, with the aforementioned Ronaldo and Berbatov on the pitch all at the same time. United’s comeback from two goals down to win 5-2 against Spurs at home seemed to sum up a season. Throw two vital goals from 17 year old Federico Macheda the mix and every roll of the die came up double sixes. In the same situation Benitez would have thrown on one of his squad’s 12 left backs.
Let’s hope Fergie has the right numbers once again a week Wednesday in Rome.
Arsenal head to Old Trafford for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off, with United needing just a single point to clinch an 18th League championship – their 11th in the Premier League. If the Reds get the draw or win they need it will be the culmination of an outstanding second half of the season. Chasing five major trophies, United are within a point and a game of clinching four. Should the Reds pull it off, the season will rank amongst the very finest in both the club and manager’s histories. And with Arsenal in Manchester, it could be a fitting match in which to clinch the Premier League – just as the Gooners did at Old Trafford 2002. Not revenge as such, but sweet all the same.
Amid claims and counter claims about the future of Carlos Tevez one thing has become abundantly clear is week – while United would like to keep the little Argentinian, the board have no intention of paying the full £22 million transfer fee (plus loan fees already paid) being demanded by MSI, the holder of the player’s ‘economic rights’. It’s a fact that will most likely see the popular forward leave the club this summer.
The fee, which is believed to have been agreed at €34 million Euros two years ago when Tevez first signed on loan for the club, has become a problem for three principal reasons. Firstly, changes in the exchange rate mean that the figure has increased by more than 25% when converted to pounds over the past year. Secondly, the United simply don’t value Tevez at the same level as MSI – which would essentially make Tevez the club’s record signing. Thirdly, with £81 million to pay in debt interest this summer, the club – even if they did value Tevez that highly – just don’t want to pay it.
The player becomes even more expensive when wages and other fees are taken into account. Add to the bill the £6-£10 million already paid in loan fees, together with wages and the total cost to United of keeping the striker begins to look very steep. Indeed, Tevez earns in excess of £5 million per year, meaning the cost to United of keeping and paying the player for the past two seasons, and the next three of the proposed contract, is more than £55 million.
Reports in The Guardian today suggest that United are attempting to renegotiate a fee for Tevez, although no final figure is placed on the proposed deal. However, with a string of clubs apparently prepared to bid for the striker, United would appear to be in a weak bargaining position. This position would appear to become even less strong with the player himself apparently unhappy at Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad rotation policy.
It’s a game of brinkmanship of course. The MSI team (or whomever actually owns Tevez’ rights, a leaked letter circulating this week suggests that this isn’t clear) want to maximise their return. Selling to United at a reduced fee when there are other options on the table would appear to be contradictory to that aim. Meanwhile, Tevez himself may be frustrated at his squad status, although the joy on his face as he backheeled home United’s equaliser last night suggests otherwise. Suggesting that he is unhappy may also be a convenient way of pressurising United. United meanwhile have leaked to the press the possibility of ripping up Tevez’ agreement with MSI, and signing the player on a free transfer.
The fans would love the player to stay of course. Not only does Tevez work his socks of for the team when given the opportunity but he has scored some vital late goals for the team this season. He is, rightly, one of the most popular players at the club.
But taken in the round, is Tevez really worth both the political hassle and huge financial cost to the club? Good player as he is, Tevez’ scoring record (34 goals in 97 appearances and 20% of them in the League Cup) and contribution to the team fall short of the very highest level. For the sake of consistency, and squad balance, there is no doubt that Tevez will continue to make a valuable contribution if he signs permanently for the club. But will it be a £55 million contribution? Personally, I have my doubts.
To abuse an old cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be Manchester City. And while Sunday’s derby match served to highlight the gulf between two teams on the pitch, it also served to remind us of the vast difference between the status of the two clubs off it.
City’s mega-rich Abu Dhabi owners are eager for success of course. More still, they’re keen to be seen as punching their weight at the top table of European club football. Their Bitter Blue fans, meanwhile, just want some glory, and they want it now. Starvation for 30 years can make a fan hungry.
But Sunday’s easy win for the Red half of the city not only helped to demonstrate that success for the Blues may well take some time, but that they will have to gain it the hard way. In fact so far are City behind, that Sir Alex Ferguson felt confident enough to leave key plays such as Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney out of the side altogether.
In many ways the match on Sunday helped to contrast the gulf between United’s years of success and City’s nouveau riche. City, of course, beat United twice last season without oil-millions spent on Brazillian superstars. But while those victories were gained amid a backdrop of giant killing, City now have pretensions of being one of the big boys of the European Elite. In this context, City rolled over rather meekly.
Ferguson, of course, has evolved this iteration of the United team over many seasons. He endured criticism during years of transition but held fast in his belief that trophies would be the inevitable result of this process. Ferguson’s patience is in marked contrast to the aspirations of City’s new maga-wealthy owners, who are essentially trying to build a top-four side from scratch. Indeed, while the last fantasy-Premier League side, Chelsea’s strategy was to add £200 million worth of players to a side already on the cusp of the top four, City are building from a low base. It will be a tough ride, no matter how much their wealth.
City’s is a huge project that may cost upwards of £500 million over the next three years in transfer fees and vastly inflated wages. This comes without any guarantee of success. Thus, patience is the name of the game for City’s owners and fans alike. If Sunday’s match is anything to go by, they will need it. The question is, with pressure being piled on former United hero Mark Hughes to win silverware, will he be afforded it?
United will head into the May 27 Champions League final clash agasint Barcelona as favourites after the Catalan club suffered yet more injuries over the weekend. Already facing the match without defensive quartet Éric Abidal and Dani Alves (suspended) together with Gabriel Milito and Rafael Márquez (injured), Barcelona now also face a potential crisis in midfield and attack. Influential forward Thierry Henry is almost certain to miss the match with knee ligament strain, while in-form attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta suffered a recurrence of an old thigh strain that may keep him out for the rest of the season. It’s a crisis that will mean Barcelona calling on the depths of their squad and tinkering with a tactical system that has served them so well this season.
The crisis will mean changes in attack, midfield and defence for Los Cules, many of which failed to work against Chelsea in the semi-final. With Alves suspended, club-captain Carles Puyol will be forced to play emergency right-back and midfielder Yaya Touré will again parter former United man Gerard Piqué at centre back. It was a position where the Ivory Coast player was horribly exposed against Guus Hiddink’s men last week. But Barca boss Josep Guardiola has little choice other than the callow Uruguayan Martín Cáceres, who he appears to have little trust in, let alone for a match of this magnitude.
In midfield Samuel Keita will again play, alongside the brilliant Xavi and the youthful Spanish international Sergio Busquets. Despite the absence of Darren Fletcher through suspension, United will hope that a midfield three led by Michael Carrick and flanked by Anderson and (probably) the evergreen Ryan Giggs to dominate the centre of the park, much as they did against Arsenal in the semi-final.
Up front Barcelona, minus Henry, would expect to field Iniesta on the left side of an attacking three. Reports over the weekend suggested that Iniesta’s thigh injury was serious enough to rule him our for the remainder of the season, although the player has played down that suggestion today. Either way, a thigh tear will ensure that the player is less than 100% fit for the final.
Guardiola’s other options are to bring in the exuberant but erratic teenager Bojan Krkić. However, Bojan’s place in the team would force Samuel Eto’o to play a slightly wider role, a position he is far less effective in. Alternatively, Barça could turn to Premiership stalwarts Eiður Guðjohnsen and Aliaksandr Hleb.
Either way, the injury tide has turned United’s way.