Foster’s big chance

August 6, 2009 Tags: Opinion No comments

Ben Foster is to be afforded the opportunity he has craved most over the past four years after Edwin van der Sar underwent an operation on a broken finger today. With the big Dutchman, 38, out for the start of the new campaign, the talented Lemington-born ‘keeper has an eight week chance to demonstrate his credentials to take over for Manchester United – and potentially England – between the sticks. It’s a make-or-break opportunity.

Foster’s presence and technical ability have long been held up as a standard bearer for English goalkeeping – the natural heir to both van der Sar and England’s David James. Certainly that is the view of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whom recently tied Foster to a new four year contract.

“We are delighted that Ben has signed a new four-year deal,” Ferguson said recently.

“Ben is seen as one of the best young goalkeepers in England and we genuinely see him as a successor to Edwin.”

“There is no question in my mind that he will be England’s goalkeeper. There is nobody better,” added the Scot.

But for Foster it has been a frustrating four years since a £1 million transfer from Stoke in 2005. The stopper, who has been hampered by injuries and the form of van der Sar, has started just 10 games for United over his four years as a Manchester United player.

Two years on loan at Watford afforded Foster some experience though, and his performances were strong enough to earn the ‘keeper a first call-up to the Steve McClaren’s England squad. Foster made his international début in England’s 1–0 defeat against Spain on 7 February 2007 but it was more than a year before his first start for United against Derby Country on 15 March 2008.

Then Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd offered a prophetic insight into the young Foster. “He recognises the fact he’s just a cog in the wheel. He works harder at his game and that’s why I think he’ll be a future Manchester United and England number one,” said Boothroyd.

“He’s better than Edwin van der Sar in my opinion. He is going to be the best goalkeeper in the world, I’m convinced of that.”

van der Sar’s injury and Portsmouth’s off-the-field problems this summer have handed Foster a hugely lucky break. But even if Boothroyd’s view of Foster’s potential has translated into real ability, there is still has much for the ‘keeper to prove. It’s one thing being handed a start in last season’s Carling Cup final, it will be quite another for Ferguson to plump for the Midlander in the final games of the coming season. At 26 Foster is no longer a young pretender.

Last chance for Nani and Anderson

August 3, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 23 comments

Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha and Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira, share more than the lengthy name and short-form nick of their heritage. Bought for a combined total of more than £35 million in summer 2007, each is also under huge pressure to perform in the coming campaign as two of United’s most expensive ever young imports. The pair, having suffered what can be reasonably described as a ‘difficult second season’ at Old Trafford, could find that the campaign ahead is the last in a red shirt such was their under performance in the previous year. It would be a harsh call perhaps, but the realities of modern football dictate that United cannot wait forever for promise to migrate into performance.

Indeed, the future of Nani and Anderson has been repeatedly questioned in the media of late – with the aforementioned Portuguese winger often thought to be leaving for new pastures. However, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is not prone to criticising players in public, has consistently defended the pair, including after the recent pre-season Audi Cup in Munich.

“They are young, for a start,” said Ferguson. “And when you are young, you have the ambition to get better. Not only that, but they have the right platform at Manchester United and the right training development.”

“I expect to see great improvement and I have got no fears about it. Anderson is 21 and Nani is 22. They’re young boys and they’re playing at the highest level of football, so yes they will improve.”

Improve they must. This is especially true of Nani who was a shadow of his former self last season, starting just seven Premier League games. That the winger also started six Carling Cup matches, playing alongside the reserves and squad fringe, was a clear indicator of Nani’s fall down the Old Trafford player hierarchy. Statistics aside, Nani’s failure to mature must have been frustrating for a manager who prides himself on the development of youth. While Nani is just a year younger than the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, he is miles away from the quality of the Real Madrid player.

Anderson, meanwhile, was frustrated by injury and the search for form last season. Fans, who had become used to the player’s authoritative displays in his début campaign, rarely saw the best of the Brazilian in the early part of the season. While the player was voted Man-of-the-Match in United’s low-key April win over Portsmouth, it was a rare highlight in an otherwise disappointing season.

The pressure may be the same but the challenge is different for each of the young stars. While Anderson has quickly built a bank of credit with the fans – outplaying both Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas will do that – Nani is a poor performance away from becoming the squad’s bogeyman. Instinctively, fans understand that while Anderson has the making of a world class central midfielder, Nani is doing little more than flattering to deceive.

The Brazilian must add goals to the authority he hopes to regain. A stunning strike against Boca Juniors in the Audi Cup will undoubtedly help his confidence. Nani meanwhile must compensate for the loss of Ronaldo, which many fans already believe is a task beyond him.

First look at Valencia

July 29, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Antonio Valencia scored and put in a lively performance during his first outing for Manchester United since an £18 million move from Wigan Athletic this summer. The Ecuadorian winger, who was left out of the Asian tour to concentrate on fitness work back in Manchester, was a constant threat from the right wing in United’s 2-1 victory over Boca Juniors in Munich this evening.

While it’s early days in the winger’s United career, Valencia’s performance is a major bonus for Sir Alex Ferguson after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo this summer. Looking every bit the old fashioned winger, Valencia hugged the touchline and was a constant menace to his opposing full-back, before being substituted with about 25 minutes remaining.

“I think he will figure in many games,” Sir Alex said after the game. “It was his first game. For his first game, we are very satisfied. He is a good athlete, has good power and running ability, as we saw today with the way he created a good goal. Maybe it was a mistake by the goalkeeper, but he created the opportunity and opened up spaces for himself.”

The questions now are, can Valencia perform against better opposition than Boca and can he maintain a scoring rate better than the 1 in 10 he managed at Wigan?

“We know that when you look at his record at Wigan it is not good in terms of goals,” Ferguson told reporters after the match. “He knows that too, but when we assess the individual parts of his game, his athleticism and the power in his shooting, then why should he not score more goals?

The wide-man’s strike today came after beating two defenders and shooting low into the corner, although Boca ‘keeper Abbondanzieri will be disappointed with effort. It could be a sign of good things to come.

United’s 4-4-2 system in pre-season is almost certainly a signal towards a more compact formation this season. With Valencia deployed wide-right and Ji-Sung Park on the opposite flank, United played in a slightly more rigid fashion than with Ronaldo in the team. But it was always going to be impossible to replace the Portuguese maestro’s ability to be two players in one.

Ferguson’s move to deploy two players through the middle makes sense given the strikers at his disposal this season. All four of his principal forwards prefer to work in central areas, with Rooney consistent in his summer demand to move back to his old role.

Recognising that Dimitar Berbatov was largely forced into an unfamiliar role last season, Ferguson told The Telegraph today he “expected the form that we have seen from Berbatov so far in pre-season. Last season was a strange one for him and maybe we didn’t use him in the right way.

“But we know exactly how to use him now, further up the pitch, playing as a centre-forward. I really think Berbatov will have a terrific season for us.”

If that really is the case then United’s pre-season programme is as much about finding out which pairs work best together, as it is about fitness. With Rooney likely to fulfill his England role as a shadow striker to Berbatov’s front-man, does that relegate Michael Owen and Federico Macheda to a supporting role? It may do, but Owen’s goalscoring form and the continued progression of Macheda are very positive signs for the season ahead.

The worry for United is in central midfield and the left wing. Can one of Nani, Tosic or Park make the left his own in pre-season? Unless an unlikely move for Valencia’s David Silva materialises, then somebody will have to. In central midfield both Anderson – who scored a brilliant free-kick today – and Michael Carrick can expect to start the season. But Darren Fletcher will also have an important role to play by providing solidity in the centre of the park, especially away from home. But United still lacks a true defensive midfielder. Owen Hargreaves cannot return fast enough.

Very special but we’ll take a pass

July 28, 2009 Tags: Opinion 9 comments

José Mourinho confirmed today what many have long suspected – he would love to manage Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson retires. While the United board would be foolish to turn down a man who has won five league titles, a UEFA Cup and the Champions League since 2003, would the fans really want him?

“I would consider going to Manchester United. But United have to consider if they want me to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson,” Mourinho said today. “If they do, then of course. I like England, where the fans are very passionate and make the game a beautiful occasion with such an incredible atmosphere.”

Famed for his unrivalled ego, the self-title Special One would probably find the only job big enough for him at Old Trafford. After all, Internazionale has always felt like a temporary home, especially at a time when Italian clubs are not challenging for the biggest titles. Yet, for all Mourinho’s charisma, confidence and obvious ability there is something unsettling about the thought of the Portuguese coach arriving in Manchester any time soon.

Mourinho first came to most United fans’ attention after Porto’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in 2004. The result that knocked United out of the Champions League on Porto’s way to victory in the competition. Mourinho’s dance down the touchline and fist-pumping celebration was perhaps the first sign of the coach’s bravado.

The Old Trafford quickstep wasn’t the first or last time Mourinho has become involved in some unsavoury polemic. Mourinho has instigated controversial run-ins with Arsene Wenger, whom he unfairly called a voyeur, and latterly the managers of Milan, Juventus and Roma, whom he openly mocked. The coach was also fined £200,000 for his part in the Ashley Cole ‘tapping up’ affair.

More seriously, in 2005 Mourinho accused referee Anders Frisk and coach Frank Rijkaard of meeting at half–time during a Champions League tie between Chelsea and Barcelona. Mourinho inferred that the referee was biased, and the subsequent death threats from Chelsea supporters drove the Swedish official to an early retirement. It is still a serious blot on Mourinho’s copybook, which has been littered with many more entertaining and insightful comments.

Despite the doubts Ferguson has always held a cordial relationship with Mourinho, whom he famously shares an expensive bottle of wine with after matches.

“I got on very well with him at Chelsea and I think it was a loss to the game when he went. I actually enjoyed watching him on the television. I thought he was good. He was cocky and confident but it was good for the game,” said Ferguson prior to last season’s Champions League encounter with Inter.

“Right away he came in and said, ‘I’m the Special One’, and we all thought, ‘Who is this?’ and his team thought, ‘We’d better win here’. They got off to a start like nothing on earth and everybody was chasing their tail for the rest of the season and the next season.”

It’s an assessment on which many United fans can concur. Mourinho is entertaining, and after all that is what football is supposed to be about. He breathed life into the Premiership at just the right time, and took the focus away from the increasingly acrimonious Ferguson-Wenger relationship that had culminated in ‘Pizzagate’ in October 2004.

But Mourinho’s stylish way with words has rarely translated to the pitch. “Look, we’re not entertaining? I don’t care; we win,” he once said in response to criticism about Chelsea’s playing style. For all Mourinho’s obvious talents and huge character flaws, this is perhaps the single biggest reason why he should never take the helm at Manchester United.

Mourinho’s Titles and Awards

  • Portuguese Liga: 2002-03, 2003-04
  • Taça de Portugal: 2002-03
  • SuperCup Cândido de Oliveira: 2003
  • UEFA Champions League: 2004
  • UEFA Cup: 2003
  • FA Premier League: 2004-05, 2005-06
  • FA Cup: 2007
  • Football League Cup: 2005, 2007
  • FA Community Shield: 2005
  • Serie A: 2008-09
  • Supercoppa Italiana: 2008
  • UEFA Manager of the Year: 2002/03, 2003/04
  • World Soccer Magazine Coach of the Year: 2003/04, 2004/05
  • BBC Sports Personality of Year Coach Award: 2004/05
  • FA Premier League Manager of the Year: 2004/05, 2005/06
  • IFFHS World Manager of the Year: 2004, 2005

Owen shaping up to be season’s bargain

July 27, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Whisper it quietly but former Dipper hero Michael Owen might just prove to be one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most shrewd acquisitions if the striker’s pre-season form is anything to go by. While Owen’s move to United has been met with no little sceptism by United fans – not least on this site – the player seems ready to ram that criticism back down the throats of even the most ardent of doubters.

Owen, who has scored four goals in as many games on the tour to Malaysia, Korea and China, has looked fit and sharp in his four matches to date.

“This tour is not the acid test, but given Michael’s ability and understanding of play around the last third, I think he will be getting goals and things are looking good for us in that position,” said Ferguson after the recent 8-2 victory over Hangzhou in China.

“His contribution in overall play is suited to us. He is very clever in the last third and knows when to run and when to hold runs. That, linked with the experience he gives in that position, will be good for us.”

Owen is likely to be paired with Wayne Rooney – a partnership that was not tested in Asia – for the Audi Cup against Boca Juniors and Bayern Munich or AC Milan in Germany later this week. While the pair rarely seemed to click at international level, Owen’s best chance of regular football may be to turn that around during the coming season.

Owen will no doubt have been surprised by the rapturous reception he received across Asia. He is one of England’s most ‘marketable products’ – a point emphasised in the embarrassing brochure developed by his PR team ahead of the move to United. But the hero worship that Owen received in Asia is unlikely to be replicated at Old Trafford by a public who remember the forward’s attempts to garrotte Ronny Johnsen at Old Trafford in 1998. It’s an antipathy that Ferguson is unlikely to have taken into account when signing Owen and handing the player the coveted number seven shirt.

“I am not concerned with what supporters think,” he said. “The important thing is to give the shirt to someone who is confident to carry it and Michael is the natural one to get it.”

With Best, Robson, Cantona and Ronaldo having donned the number seven shirt, Owen undoubtedly has a lot to live up to. Something that United legend Ryan Giggs believes Owen will fulfill.

“Michael is just proving what we all know: that he is a great goalscorer. He’s a poacher who scores all types of goals – headers, tap-ins and then a great volley [against Hangzhou]. They have all come from inside the box and that’s where he does his work. That’s where he comes alive.

“The manager says that he provides something that we haven’t got. The good thing about Michael over the years is that if he misses a chance, it doesn’t bother him one bit. Some players go into a shell if they miss, but it doesn’t bother him because he knows he’s going to get another chance. Coming here has given him a new lease of life.”

The pressure will be on the Scouser to make-up some of the 41 goals scored by Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez last season. But Federico Macheda and Dimitar Berbatov were also excellent in Asia, and United supporters’ concern about whether the team will score enough goals this season may be easing.

Berbatov especially appeared to strike up an instant understanding with Owen in China. The Bulgarian’s sublime flick for Owen’s second goal was a timely reminder of just how much talent the former Tottenham forward has to offer.

A small club with a small mentality

July 26, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson broke his relative silence on Manchester City’s controversial city-centre poster campaign with an outspoken attack on the Eastlands outfit. Ferguson hit out at City’s spending, their mercenary players and that Carlos Tevez poster – branding the club a “small minded and arrogant.”

While Fergie doesn’t normally pick fights with clubs that pose no threat, he has clearly taken exception to a Deansgate poster that proclaimed “Carlos Tevez – Welcome to Manchester.” Manchester City fans, who have waited 34 long and bitter years for a trophy, have often found amusement in the fact that Old Trafford is located in Stretford, and the club itself paid for the prominent billboard.

Carlos Tevez Billboard

Carlos Tevez Billboard, Deansgate

“That billboard really is City, isn’t it?” said Sir Alex ahead of today’s 8-2 victory against Hangzhou in China. “They are a small club with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United. That’s all they have ever done and they cannot get away from it. That is stupid. That arrogance will be rewarded in the right way. It’s having a go at us.”

“I don’t look on City as my biggest challenge. They think taking away Tevez is a triumph. It is poor stuff. I thought a long time ago that he would go to City. Now I don’t have to deal any more with players who are miserable because they are not playing. I have good professionals here.”

Another player prone to throwing a strop is Emmanuel Adebayor, the former Arsenal striker, who signed for City in a £25 million deal last week. The deal was delayed despite a fee being agreed amid rumours that Adebayor had been offered to United. A rumour confirmed by Ferguson, who revealed that Adebayor had all but begged to join another Champions League club before joining City.

“At the last minute, from what I can gather, either Emmanuel Adebayor or his agent phoned us after they had agreed a deal with City and then did the same with Chelsea. He was desperate to get to either Chelsea or us.”

Ferguson also attacked City’s spending on wages, which have attracted Tevez, Adebayor, Robinho and Gareth Barry to the club. While each of the four has claimed ambition and trophies were behind their moves, the club hasn’t come close to winning any silverware this millennium.

“When someone offers you that kind of money, it’s a big attraction to people nowadays. That is the reason they have gone there. Do you know what City’s biggest triumph is? It’s getting those players there. I don’t know if they will do anything with them. It is not easy to get into that top four so the biggest success of all is to just get the players there.”

“There will be three teams to beat. Ourselves, Liverpool and Chelsea will be very close together.”

It was a surprisingly dismissive attack by the United manager but only reflective of the fans’ view, who regard City with little more than pity, despite the club’s new found wealth. After all, you can take the petro-dollars out of Abu Dhabi but you can never take the Bitter out of City.

Or as RoM might put it, pity the fools…

Pity the fool, courtesy of www.republikofmancunia.com

Pity the fool, courtesy of www.republikofmancunia.com

Macheda stakes claim for first team spot

July 25, 2009 Tags: Opinion No comments

Federico Macheda’s two goals on United’s Asian tour have thrust the young Italian firmly into the first team picture, manager Sir Alex Ferguson claimed yesterday. After a close range effort against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Macheda struck a superb goal against FC Seoul in South Korea yesterday. With United having lost two forwards this summer, the teenager has already staked a claim for the fourth striking slot this coming season.

“Macheda’s goal was excellent,” said manager Sir Alex Ferguson after the Seoul match. “The lad has a real chance and his movement is very good. He does well on the shoulder of the last defender and he showed that tonight with the goal he scored.”

Ferguson is not prone to over-hyping young players but the Scot clearly sees a bright future for the Rome-born forward. The 17 year-old, who is a product of Serie A side Lazio’s youth system, came to prominence with a stoppage time winner against Aston Villa in the Premier League last season. Another against Sunderland a week later sealed Macheda’s place in United folklore.

It is the coming campaign that is likely to be the Roman’s breakthrough in professional football. With United seeking to replace the 41 goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Macheda is likely to be more important to the cause than he could have expected just a few weeks ago.

“If Macheda continues his progress, it will give us a big advantage. Having an extra player like that will do us a world of good,” said Ferguson.

“Macheda is top drawer, a hero in the making, just as Cristiano Ronaldo was. He does not have the lightning reactions of Ronaldo but he is quick around the box and has an eye for goal. It is hard to believe he is just 17.”

While the teenager will probably never possess the devastatingly destructive pace and goals to win games on his own like Ronaldo has in the past three seasons, the Italy Under-19 international’s finishing is reminescent of his reserve team manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Macheda’s rise to prominence is not without controversy though. United paid the player’s former club Lazio a pittance in compensation after his summer 2007 move to Manchester. It’s a move that characterised United’s youth system in recent years – plucking the best young talent from around the world.

“His debut goal for Manchester United is the result of a cattle market where young players are snapped up by rich foreign clubs,” claimed Lazio’s president Claudio Lotito in March.

“It’s unthinkable that a lad of 15 can be bought. Normally these boys are not from wealthy families and they look for alternatives in foreign countries for economic reasons.”

“We knew that he was a great player, we did everything to keep him. We can not allow ourselves to behave in a way which I feel is immoral.”

Immoral or not, nobody at Old Trafford will care if Macheda fires the goals to take United to a fourth successive Premier League title.