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Wenger gets it right and oh so wrong on ‘tapping up’

July 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 24 comments

Let there be no mistake ‘tapping up’ in professional football existed long before the Football Association set down its absurd rules banning the practice; governance that is unworkable, impractical and utterly pointless in a globalised football market. Yet, Arsène Wenger once again called for the FA to amend its framework, with Arsenal’s Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas under the gaze of predatory rivals this summer.

Indeed, asked if he believes the pair has been tapped up this summer Wenger called on the rules to be reviewed. It is not the first time the 61-year-old manager has cried foul over more successful, financially dominant rivals chasing Arsenal’s players.

That the north London club has successfully pillaged Barcelona’s academy for Fabregas, Fran Mérida, Jon Toral, and Hector Bellerin in recent seasons is not without its irony of course. Wenger’s inconsistency has always been defined only by its consistency.

“I would like to return the question to you,” quipped the Frenchman.

“What do you think? We live in a realistic world. I do not want to assess what I cannot prove. I know how things happen. It doesn’t necessarily go through the player or the agent but I think it is a rule that has to be reviewed. It’s not really respected.”

Yet the Frenchman’s apparent hypocrisy is moot; Wenger is right that the rules on tapping up need reformation but utterly wrong that the FA needs to strengthen an outmoded philosophy. After all the rules not only patronise players but are a restriction of trade made worthless by contract law. Indeed, as Wenger has made clear this summer Arsenal need not sell Fabregas nor Nasri as each remains under contract with the Londoners until the club is prepared to release their registrations.

But legal protection proffered under contract law is made irrelevant, so say critics, because of player power, a mythical universal force that means clubs must put economics before everything else. In that Wenger’s intransigence this summer is to be admired, even if the Frenchman’s faux horror at Barcelona’s pursuit of Fabregas returns us to that word hypocrisy once again.

The need for reformation of the tapping up regulations – or, preferably, removing them entirely – is more relevant still given the globalised nature of the football market. After all, players are little more than an asset traded, not solely between clubs, but third parties and non-affiliated training academies too. These organisations, such as Desportivo Brasil with whom Manchester United has an agreement, are little more than farms for the manufacturer and export of youthful football talent.

In that context the ban on tapping up makes sense as a protectionist measure only for those institutions that are unwilling to sell but cannot retain players by any normal means, such as money, silverware, or a feel-good-factor. Arsenal, then.

This argument is moot in any case. The one successful prosecution by the FA in recent memory – that of Ashley Cole and Chelsea – was made a mockery by Arsenal’s willingness to sell the player shortly thereafter. As if Wenger delights more not in success but in the moral superiority that the former Monaco coach so often basks in.

Then there is the very real truth in Wenger’s comments – clubs need not confer directly with players that they wish to sign when football is an industry over-populated with agents, middle-men and brokers. Perhaps Wenger would prefer the phones of every licensed – or otherwise – agent tapped to ensure that his want-away players never again hear of an interested outside party.

Have Nasri and Fabregas been “tapped up” in any normal definition? Absolutely yes. Does it matter a jot? Not at all.

Of course Manchester United cried foul in 2007, reporting Real Madrid to FIFA over the Spanish giant’s incessant pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Even then United relented a year later when Madrid returned with a world-record transfer bid for the Portuguese forward. Once again economics trumped the moral high-ground that Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed.

Ferguson though is ever the pragmatist. The Scot’s apparent angry promise that he would not “sell that mob a virus” hid the gentleman’s agreement that Ronaldo would eventually be allowed to leave. All that mattered at that moment was the price.

“You don’t want to [keep unhappy players] really,” said Ferguson yesterday when asked about Nasri and Fabregas.

“Cristiano Ronaldo was never unhappy at United, but he always had a thing about playing for Real Madrid and I believed him. We did well to have him for six years and getting that final year was a bonus because he was disheartened the previous summer. It could have affected him at the time, but we did well to keep him for an extra year and we got top money for him. But it’s usually the foreign players who want to get back to their nest.”

In that there is some truth where Fabregas is concerned, with the 24-year-old Catalan desperate to return ‘home’. Nasri has no intention of returning to Marseille of course as the midfielder plots a lucrative move north to Manchester City.

And there’s the rub: no FA regulation can compete with a £200,000-a-week offer. It is the same principal, if not the absolute salary, that has attracted so many youthful player’s to Arsenal from Catalonia in recent years.

Fergie questions officials as title comes down to Chelsea tie

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 27 comments

There is little doubt that Manchester United was denied a clear penalty with less that five minutes remaining at the Emirates on Sunday but in truth Sir Alex Ferguson’s reverted to type in defeat away from Old Trafford. Ferguson’s side was everything witnessed so often on the road this season: timid, lacklustre and above all, outclassed in midfield. Worse still, there was none of the adventure or creativity displayed at the Veltins Arena last Tuesday as United went down to an Arsenal side essentially playing for nothing but pride.

The frustration was tantamount in the United camp as referee Chris Foy missed Gael Clichy’s clear foul on Michael Owen with minutes remaining. Ferguson’s anger was compounded too, with Patrice Evra denied another good shout for a spot kick in the 68th minute after Bacary Sanga appeared to drag down his fellow countryman.

In truth Arsenal can also point a handball by Nemanja Vidic early in the piece that was also missed by the Merseyside official, although the Serbian’s touch was so fine that perhaps only Robin van Persie could have seen the infringement. Owen’s claim was none of the sort, with Foy well positioned to make what could prove a decisive moment in the Premier League title race.

It was almost too much for Ferguson to take post-match – the Scot did well not to incur further FA wrath after recently serving a five-match touchline ban for criticising officials.

“It’s too big a game not to get the decisions right,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“It balances out in that respect but I think it was difficult to see that one [Vidic’s handball] but the one at the end, Clichy knew, he put his hands up in horror. Obviously, it gives Chelsea a major chance now and that’s what happens when you get these decisions. They got one at Old Trafford last season so that’s the worry now. But in terms of ability – a game at Old Trafford, the supporters will be ready for it – and so will our players.”

Ferguson’s thinly veiled reference to Chelsea’s good fortune on Saturday, when the west London club were awarded two goals that should never have been against Tottenham Hotspur, is pertinent. Last season’s title charge was greatly altered by Didier Drogba’s winning goal at Old Trafford, scored from an offside position. Moreover, prior to United’s Champions League quarter-final win over the Londoners had enjoyed a series of refereeing decisions that irked Ferguson.

All that is now required to solidify the Scot’s paranoia is for the Premier League to appoint Martin Atkinson to take charge of next weekend’s key fixture. The official appointment is likely to be announced on Tuesday, ahead of United’s Champions League second-leg fixture with Schalke.

However, while Ferguson is a master at exerting pressure on whomever takes charge of next Sunday’s tie, the Scot will surely banish all negative thoughts from the United camp ahead of the match. Win or draw against last season’s champions and United will surely take a 19th domestic title. Lose and the title’s destiny will be outside United’s control for the first time in weeks. United can only countenance the former.

Indeed, with an identical goal difference, a Chelsea victory at Old Trafford will provoke a two-match shoot out to clinch the title. United versus Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool; Chelsea against Newcastle United and Everton.

That is for the coming weeks though. Ahead of the Chelsea tie United must play in Europe with the Londoners facing nothing more strenuous than a week’s light training at Cobham. The freshness should hand a distinct advantage to next weekend’s visitors, although Ferguson will rest key forward players for the Schalke tie.

“We have a big week ahead,” said Ferguson.

“Wednesday is a European semi-final second leg and then the game on Sunday [against Chelsea], so two massive games. We will regroup and freshen it up.

“I will make some changes on Wednesday without question. I will bring Paul Scholes back in, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen. We’ll need to do that but I will probably keep my experienced players at the back.

“We are in as good a position as you could ever wish for at the start of the season – semi-final of the European Cup, second leg, two-goal lead and go into a home game on Sunday level on goal difference [and with a three-point advantage].”

United’s good position both at home and in Europe could be undone inside the next six days though. And Ferguson is fortunate that three of the coming key games are at Old Trafford, with only the Blackburn game on the road. Given United’s horrendous form away from Manchester, where Ferguson’s side has won just five times in the Premier League, the fixture list is but a small mercy.

Until Wednesday the United squad will have much to ponder in tamely losing at the Emirates, whatever the poor officiating. And then it is to the two recent European games against Chelsea that United must turn, where the Reds’ positive intent drew high dividends.

Those games were everything Sunday at the Emirates was not.

Reds seek Emirates win to seal title

April 30, 2011 Tags: , Matches 191 comments

Needing just seven points to seal the Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson says that his Manchester United team will play to win against Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday. Victory, while not guaranteeing the title, will bring United to within touching distance of a 19th domestic championship. But, warns the Scot, all teams could drop points with just four games to go before the season’s end.

United faces an Arsenal team whose confidence has crumbled since losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City in February. Arsène Wenger’s side has dropped points against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in the past fortnight, although there is still an outside chance the Londoners could win the title.

“There is still drama ahead,” said Ferguson on Friday, whose side is seeking a third win at the Emirates in a row.

“The teams at the top will drop points, including Chelsea. Two months ago everyone was looking at these two games as league deciders. They probably are now

“But if we get to the last home game needing to win it to win the league, I would be happy with that. The slant I seemed to be getting is that Arsenal and Chelsea are expecting to win these games and change the top of the league.

“Why can’t we win these matches? Surely, given the form we are in, we can. It is not going to be any easier for Arsenal or Chelsea than it is for us. These are difficult games. A point away from home at Arsenal is not the worst point – but that is not what we are going down there looking for.

“It’s important to keep momentum going by winning games. That’s vital. Draws don’t come into it now, it’s all about wins. We’ve got a big few games coming up and we need to win them.”

Ferguson will welcome back top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov for the match, which United has won 3-1 on the last two visits to north London. The Bulgarian has started just one of United’s past 13 matches but with 21 Premier League goals this season is likely to finish as the league’s top goalscorer. The 30-year-old has missed the past three matches with a minor groin strain.

Darren Fletcher also returns to the traveling party, although he is unlikely to start. The Scot has missed two months with a mystery virus but played the first half of the reserves’ 0-0 draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford on Thursday night. However, the Scotland captain has noticeably lost weight during the absence, although he has been in full training for the past two weeks.

“Dimitar is fit again. He had a slight groin strain but he has trained all week,” added Ferguson

“He [Fletcher] is progressing and it is possible we could include him on Wednesday for another 45 minutes. It is good that he is back. He has put his weight back on. He has worked hard in the gym. He is a great addition to the squad.”

Arsenal v Manchester United, Emirates, 1 May 2011Ferguson will rest midfielder Ryan Giggs for the trip despite the Welshman’s outstanding form in central midfield in the past two months. The 37-year-old scored United’s opening goal against Schalke on Tuesday night and has been a pivotal figure in a more fluid style adopted by United in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Ferguson may opt to bring Nani back into the side, with Antonio Valencia having played repeatedly since his return from injury. Fabio da Silva will continue at right-back with John O’Shea and his brother Rafael still struggling with injury.

Anderson is likely to start in Giggs’ place after the Brazilian’s purposeful showing against Everton last weekend. The €30 million midfielder has started just 12 Premier League matches in another disappointing campaign marked by inconsistent performances and injury. Yet the youngster, still just 22-years-old, is likely to take on the creative midfield mantle next season unless Ferguson’s breaks with recent tradition and buys an established midfielder during the summer.

Indeed, Ferguson admitted that United lacks the same creative force as in previous campaigns, with more workmanlike players coming to the fore this season. It is an attitude, along with United’s playing and coaching experience, which Ferguson believes will serve the Reds well during the final matches of the season.

“This team might not have the ‘Ronaldo’ factor, but it doesn’t understand the word defeat,” said Ferguson, whose side has lost just three matches in the Premier League.

“It’s determined, gritty and very professional, and it’s produced some great moments. It’s not as if we’ve been devoid of that [fantasy]. Some of the football we’ve seen from the players this season has been terrific.

“We’ve had some fantastic games over the years at this stage of the season, but we’ve also had some disappointments. You’ve just got to take the rough with the smooth.

“The players see how staff behave and how they conduct themselves in situations like we’re in at the moment, and there’s a lot of experience amongst the backroom team, which provides a calming influence.

Two or three of the older players help too. The likes of Ryan, Paul, Rio and Edwin – we’ve got enough experience to handle any situation that comes along.”

Meanwhile, Wenger faces the challenge of rebuilding his side’s confidence following a damaging period in which Carling loss was followed by FA Cup and Champions League exits and a crumbling title challenge. Wenger is without injured duo Alou Diaby and Łukasz Fabianski, although key defender Thomas Vermaelen came through the reserve fixture with United on Thursday night and could start.

The Frenchman’s outfit has won just twice since the loss to Birmingham, and one of those matches was against League Two outfit Leyton Orient in the FA Cup. Coupled with the Londoners’ horrendous recent record against United, in which Ferguson’s side has won eight of the last 10 meetings, few expect Arsenal to provide any resistance on Sunday afternoon.

United’s manager, players and millions of supporters are counting on it.

Match Facts
Premier League. Emirates, London, 2.05pm.

Teams
Arsenal – 433 – Szczesny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Clichy; Song, Wilshere, Fabregas;Walcott, van Persie, Nasri. Subs from: Lehmann, Squillaci, Eboue, Gibbs, Chamakh, Ramsey, Arshavin, Bendtner, Djourou.

United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Valencia, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov.

Officials
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Garratt
Fourth official: Lee Mason

Form
Arsenal – DDWDDL
United – WWLDWW

Rampant Reds head to cup semis

March 13, 2011 Tags: , Matches 24 comments

In the books this will go down as an unremarkable 2-0 victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford. Unremarkable because Manchester United has now scored four victories in a row over the Londoners. In truth, with Sir Alex Ferguson selecting a line-up few could have predicted – including seven defenders – United’s victory was anything but ordinary.

The Scot had sprung a major pre-match surprise, naming both da Silva brothers in the United side but in unfamiliar wide midfield positions. With John O’Shea and Darron Gibson completing a highly unfamiliar midfield Ferguson sent out a strong signal that next week’s Champions League fixture with Marseille takes precedent.

It mattered little as goals from Fabio da Silva and Wayne Rooney fired Ferguson’s side into a semi-final date at Wembley and potentially a first final since 2005. It’s also a win that will surely have a crushing effect on the visitors – direct rivals for the Premier League title – who have now lost in the Carling Cup final, been dumped out of the Champions League and removed from the FA Cup within a devastating two-week period.

For Untied the spoils. For both sides it could well be a season defining result.

“Having a lot of injuries in midfield, I had to come up with a plan or an idea where I could utilise energies,” Ferguson told MUTV of the seemingly bizarre starting line-up.

“The two Da Silvas are such keen and enthusiastic boys, I thought they could do that. I couldn’t risk Scholes and Giggs because of Tuesday’s game against Marseille, such a vital game for the club, so Darron Gibson had to play as the only natural midfielder. John O’Shea has played there before but he’s obviously a centre-back or a full-back.

“Considering we made these major changes with a host of injuries in the club, I think we can be well pleased with the result.”

Indeed, the United side should have filled Arsène Wenger’s outfit with confidence despite the morale-sapping defeat in Barcelona last week. But if anything United began the more positive though, with the da Silva brothers, Rooney and Javier Hernández forming a dynamic, if surprising, front quartet. And Rafael – the younger brother by just 10 minutes – should have put the hosts in front, contriving to head Fabio’s cross over when a goal should have come.

Arsenal though shared the majority of possession, as has been the pattern in recent meetings, without providing the finishing touch. Indeed, when the Londoners fashioned an opening veteran Edwin van der Sar provided the hosts with yet another example of why he will be so missed at Old Trafford. The Dutchman saved well from Robin van Persie, before pulling off a string of second-half stops to earn a deserved man-on-the-match award.

If Rafael had missed earlier than Fabio made no mistake on the half-hour to give United a crucial lead. The Brazilian youngster fired into the roof of the visitors’ net after smart work by Rooney to find Hernández whose header was pushed into Fabio’s path for the goal.

The goal provided a huge boost to United, whose endeavor was not always matched by quality use of the ball. No surprise perhaps given the line-up. However, Antonio Valencia’s return at half-time provided another tonic, with the Ecuadorian returning to the United side after breaking his ankle in September.

But it was to van der Sar that United owed much as Arsenal threatened to break United’s control of the game. First the 40-year-old, who has promised to retire in the summer, twice saved from Laurent Koscielny after the defender had been played in by Van Persie. Later the United legend saved from Marouanne Chamakh and substitute Tomas Rosicky to draw chants of “Fergie sign him up” and “one more year” from the Old Trafford crowd.

In the meantime United doubled the advantage on 50 minutes, with Rooney heading home after Hernández’ shot was blocked by Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal net. It was a sixth goal in eight games for the former Evertonian, who played in a markedly deeper role against Arsenal to no little effect. Indeed, with the Mexican playing on the shoulders of the visitors’ defence there was yet more evidence that Rooney and Hernández – not Berbatov – may become the most productive pairing for Ferguson’s outfit.

Yet, Arsenal continued to press and gained both territorial advantage and possession as the match drew to a close. Here, United’s defence proved its worth once again, with Chris Smalling amply demonstrating his potential. And the Reds could have added to the lead, with Arsenal increasingly leaving gaps at the back. Almunia pushed out one shot from Hernández, before Rooney and substitute Ryan Giggs also tested the Arsenal stopper.

“It was an intense game as we expected it to be and both teams played their part in different stages of the game,” added the United boss.

“The first goal opened up the game and there could have been a lot of goals for both sides in the second half. Arsenal had a lot of chances in the second half and Edwin van der Sar made four or five fantastic saves. On the other side, their goalkeeper made three saves from Chicharito while Rooney went through with a good chance. There was nothing much between the two teams but we could have won by a few more goals.”

It’s a result that will provide United with a huge lift ahead of Tuesday’s match with Marseille. As so often this season, whatever is in the water at Old Trafford – it works.

Match Facts
United – 4231 – Van der Sar; Brown, Smalling, Vidic, Evra (Scholes 80); O’Shea, Gibson; Rafael (Giggs 64), Rooney, Fabio Da Silva (Valencia 46); Hernandez.

Arsenal – 433 – Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Gibbs; Diaby (Ramsey 72), Nasri, Denilson (Chamakh 59), Wilshere, Arshavin (Rosicky 72); Van Persie.

Attendance – 74,693
Man of the Match – van der Sar

Possession: United 46% – 54% Arsenal
Attempts: 11 – 18
On Target: 6 – 11
Corners: 4- 4
Fouls: 6- 4

Fergie spins positives ahead of cup clash

March 12, 2011 Tags: , Matches 138 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his Manchester United side against turning a blip into a slump after defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool in the past 10 days. But the 69-year-old manager was in positive mood on finally breaking a week-long silence ahead of United’s FA Cup fifth round tie with Arsenal at Old Trafford.

However, Ferguson could be without 10 first team players for the Londoners’ visit, including winger Nani who suffered a serious gash to his left leg following Jamie Carragher’s high tackle last weekend. United will once against be without key defender Rio Ferdinand, whose calf injury now appears more serious than first thought. Meanwhile Jonny Evans, midfielders Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, and Antonio Valencia will all miss out.

Despite recent setbacks and the lengthy injury list, which may mean a recall for forgotten Frenchman Gabriel Obertan, Ferguson says he is looking forward to the challenge of competing on three fronts as the season draws to a close.

“We’ve got to look forward now. There are big opportunities at this club and we have a lot of challenges ahead of us for the rest of the season,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“We have the experience to recover. It’s happened a few times here and, at any club, you never go through a season where everything is rosy. When you get the bad moments you have to recover from it.

“It’s another day in the history of Manchester United and you take that history into games. The ability to do that over the years is a tremendous credit to every team we’ve had here.”

Indeed, the match takes on increasing significance for both teams after the events of the past fortnight, in which United’s defeats have been matched by the Londoners. Just 13 days ago Arsène Wenger’s outfit was challenging on four fronts. Defeat on Saturday evening will leave Arsenal chasing United’s tails in the Premier League as the club’s sole focus.

Although Ferguson said he will play his strongest side – words echoed by his opposite number – the Scot must also take Tuesday’s tie with Marseille into account. Still, with United having failed to win the FA Cup in nearly seven years, few of his squad have cup final experience.

“It’s interesting, for example, to see that Rio has never won an FA Cup medal, which I’m surprised about,” adds Ferguson.

“So it is an opportunity for these players. The incentive for both teams is a semi-final and you always like to take your team to Wembley. I don’t entirely agree with semi-finals being played at Wembley. Nonetheless, it is Wembley, so it’s a smashing incentive for everyone.”

Manchester United v Arsenal, FA Cup Fifth RoundHowever, the Scot is likely to rotate his resources mindful of the Champions League tie in three days. Veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar may sit out the cup tie, with Darron Gibson, Béné and Obertan all in contention for a place against the Gunners.

Ferguson will also choose between strikers Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández; the Scot normally deploys a lone forward against Arsenal with three supporting from central midfield. It suggests that Rooney will be deployed in a wide role, with Ferguson short of wingers for the match. Nani will miss at least a fortnight, while Antonio Valencia is not yet ready for first team action despite the Ecuadorian’s return to training.

“Obviously it was a disgraceful tackle, we know that, but you just move on,” added Ferguson of Carragher’s studs-up challenge.

“There’s nothing we can do about it now. The wound was too wide. We sent him to the hospital to see what they could do and our own doctor and the surgeon there managed to get it stitched up, which was fantastic, the best news we could have. The alternative would have been to wait and just let it heal but the problem with that is infection.”

Meanwhile, Wenger must do without inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas, after the Spaniard came off in the Gunners’ defeat to Barcelona last week. Wojciech Szczesny, Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen will also miss the trip north.

It’s a match in which United is looking for a seventh consecutive unbeaten league and cup match against the Londoners, including a fourth consecutive victory. United beat Arsenal 4-0 on the last FA Cup meeting between the sides three years ago. And despite two defeats on the road against Chelsea and Liverpool in the past 10 days, United has won the last eight at Old Trafford.

More important still – Saturday’s victor will enter the final phase of the season with a distinct psychological advantage over its direct Premier League title rivals.

Opposition
Arsenal – 433 – Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy; Diaby, Wilshere, Denilson; Nasri, Van Persie, Arshavin. Subs from: Bendtner, Rosicky, Squillaci, Chamakh, Eboue, Ramsey, Gibbs, Miquel, Henderson.

United
United – 433 – Lindegaard; O’Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Gibson, Fletcher, Carrick; Rooney, Berbatov, Obertan. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Gibson, Bébé, , Fabio da Silva, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Owen, Brown, Scholes, van der Sar, Giggs.

Officials
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: Adam Watts and John Flynn
Fourth official: Mark Halsey

Form
United – WWDWLL
Arsenal – WDWLDL

Time for United to twist the knife

March 9, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 29 comments

“They do not know how strong we are,” declared the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger at half time during Tuesday night’s one-sided encounter between the Londoners and Barcelona at Camp Nou. Yet, as Arsenal slumped to defeat against the Catalans for the second time in as many seasons a certain sense of inevitability played out. The Londoners’ fragile resolve crumbled, as it always seems to on the biggest occasions, with Barc¸a thoroughly dominating the match.

Predictably Wenger blamed referee Massimo Busacca for Robin van Persie’s second half dismissal, claiming that Arsenal would have won bar for the Dutchman’s red card. It is, of course, a huge red herring; a ruse designed to mask the Frenchman’s own failings. Arsenal, as Pep Guardiola so succinctly put it, couldn’t string three passes together on the biggest of occasions. Much as Wenger has added steel to his side this season – nine red cards attests to that – few expect the Londoners to rise to the occasion.

Surely then, with Arsenal battered from the Carling Cup final loss against Birmingham City and European elimination, Saturday’s FA Cup fifth round tie at Old Trafford is the perfect occasion for United to break Arsenal’s season. Indeed, victory could perhaps terminally end Wenger’s hopes of a first trophy in nearly six years. After all, elimination from a third competition inside a month would destroy the confidence of even the mentally strongest sides. Durable, Arsenal is not.

It is not as simple as all that of course. While Arsenal’s defeat was a lesson in predictability, Saturday’s tie is anything but given each side’s calamities in recent weeks. United’s own confidence is under threat too of course, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side having lost three of the last five Premier League fixtures. The capitulation at Stamford Bridge was painful; humiliation at Anfield a huge blow to the squad’s resolve.

Indeed, Ferguson’s media black out this week is, perhaps, as much an attempt to refocus his squad as it is childish retaliation against a perceived press enemy. Circling the wagons may well foster that ephemeral team spirit, although it can do little for his side’s quality. Or lack thereof in recent weeks.

Add injury to key players and Ferguson’s temptation to rest others and there is no guarantee of success over Wenger’s battered troops though. With Rio Ferdinand still on the sidelines, Nani out for a fortnight with a deep dash to his left leg, and Park Ji-Sung, Anderson and Jonny Evans all missing, Ferguson is still without half-a-dozen senior pros.

Better news concerns Antonio Valencia, who may yet player some part against the Gunners, although there is little guarantee the 25-year-old Ecuadorian will immediately replace Nani’s creativity in the United side. Valencia was due to play in United’s 2-1 reserves’ defeat at Blackpool on Wednesday but was pulled out of the fixture after United’s coaching staff assessed the pitch. It’s a tougher ask still to replace Nani’s 14 goal assists this season.

Then there is Ferguson’s temptation to rest key players, with the FA Cup taking a back seat to Premier and Champions League campaigns. Indeed, with Marseille coming up at Old Trafford next Wednesday United’s senior players – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar – will probably only play in the European tie.

Moreover, the FA Cup tie comes in the middle of a Premier League title race in which all pretenders’ inconsistency means there is no genuine front-runner. United’s three-point lead is countered by the Gunners’ match in hand and Chelsea’s renewed belief. United must also face Arsenal at the Emirates and Chelsea at Old Trafford before the season draws to a close. At this stage, few can confidently predict a positive outcome in either of those matches.

The upcoming Champions League fixture, in common with United’s rash of injuries, means that fringe squad members including Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan and Bébé will almost certainly play some part against Wenger’s outfit. Given that trio’s performances this season, it’s a frightening thought.

The question is whether Ferguson can balance a squad thin on resources with the cataclysmic effect of losing a third match in a row. If the Scot thought press coverage in the wake of defeat to Chelsea and Liverpool was not to his liking then tales of ‘United in crisis’ will surely follow an Arsenal victory at Old Trafford.

Running scared

December 20, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

Incredible isn’t it. It’s Manchester United’s worst team in five years but the opposition still can’t stand facing Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. First Chelsea inexplicably cancel Sunday’s fixture more than 27 hours ahead of the game; then Arsenal captain Cesc Fábregas admits the Gunners were terrified of visiting Old Trafford last week.

For the second time in less than a month United faced a blank weekend, with Chelsea following Blackpool in cancelling a Premier League fixture due to snow. But where the seasiders can blame rudimentary facilities and no undersoil heating at Bloomfield Road, Chelsea boast the most modern of facilities.

Indeed, hours after the midday Saturday cancellation of United’s trip to Stamford Bridge the Londoners could boast a beautifully manicured pitch with not a snowflake in sight. Undersoil heating and halogen lights do their job, after all. With more than a day to clear any snow surrounding the ground, public safety concerns seemed premature at best.

Moreover, Sunday afternoon, Republik of Mancunia diligently dug out Transport for London webcams, showing clear roads around the Stamford Bridge vicinity. It begs the question: what exactly about Chelsea’s poor form, injuries to key players and United’s unbeaten record prompted the desperate action more than a day ahead of a vital fixture?

In a similar vein Arsenal captain and Spanish international Fábregas says that the Gunners fear losing big games, including that at Old Trafford last Monday. No wonder – to bastardise Arsène Wenger’s infamous quote –  despite being consistently told their wives are the prettiest, Arsenal hasn’t won a pageant in more than five years.

“I’m realising more and more that football is all about confidence and mentality. Sometimes you do the right thing but, if people tell you it’s not right, you start believing it, even though you were right at first,” Fábregas said.

“I think the difference on the night was that we were scared of losing but they were not scared of winning. That was a big difference that played in our heads.

“Sometimes we seem scared of losing these big games – we don’t really go for it and we’re tempted to drop back and see what the opposition do.”

Fear. It’s a word that could be applied to Chelsea, who failed to put on the fixture where Ipswich certainly could despite the blizzard conditions in East Anglia on Saturday night. As did Wasps rugby just 30 miles north in a virtually empty Adams Park, High Wycombe this afternoon. No sudden disingenuous concern for visitor safety in the Heineken Cup it seems.

Chelsea’s immediate gain may become United’s loss as fixtures pile up later in the campaign. The cancellation adds a second fixture to United’s backlog, with the postponed fixture against Blackpool now scheduled for 25 January. United’s only logical free date in the next month for the Chelsea fixture is now in between the FA Cup Third Round tie with Liverpool on 9 January and the tough trip to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur a week later. It’s a scenario few at Old Trafford will countenance.

Then there’s the more realistic rearrangement in which Sky TV executives’ wet dream comes true – a double-header play-off with Chelsea in April or May 2011. Handily the fixture computer has already drawn United with Arsenal and Carlo Ancelotti’s side in consecutive weeks during the final month of the run-in. My my how the completely random selection process comes up these intriguing late-season fixtures season after season.

By May Arsenal will almost certainly be out of the title race though.  Wenger’s record against Chelsea and United now reads 11 games with no wins. Reason to be fearful indeed.

United will now resume the Premier League campaign with a Christmas fixture list that includes a home match with Sunderland followed by trips to the Midlands to face Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City before the FA Cup tie. It’s a crucial but less-than-daunting period in which United could conceivably start the New Year with a significant lead in the Premier League. It’s hard to recall when that last happened.

Of course, near neighbours Manchester City might have something to say about that, with victory over Everton tonight ensuring that Roberto Mancini’s outfit goes top at Christmas for the first time in 81 years. City has won trophies since then, apparently.

United score vital win over Arsenal

December 13, 2010 Tags: , Matches 34 comments

Manchester United scored a vital win over Arsenal at Old Trafford despite Wayne Rooney missing a second half penalty. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side fully deserved the 1-0 win after a combative display in Manchester, with Arsenal rarely showing the free-flowing football that brought the visitors to the Premier League summit last week.

The win gives United a two-point lead heading into next week’s clash with Chelsea.

Understandably, Ferguson was delighted with his side’s performance against the high-flying visitors and United will now head to London with renewed confidence.

“I think we had to play well. These are the games in which you want to perform and I think we did perform tonight,” said Ferguson.

“Recently we have been playing well and today was another good performance. Second half Arsenal came into it a bit but they didn’t make any real chances but they pegged us back a little bit. We should have made more of our chances on the break.

“We’ve got a difficult game against Chelsea next Sunday. That’s going to be a very important game now. If the back four plays with that consistency it gives us a chance.”

Ferguson pulled a mild surprising in dropping Dimitar Berbatov for the Londoners’ visit. Despite the Bulgarian sitting out most of last season’s major fixtures, Berbatov remains United’s top goalscorer this season. Still, with Ferguson preferring three in central midfield United began with a combative trio of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Carrick.

Ferguson’s selection proved a forebear for the opening half, with proceedings fiercely – often physically – competitive. Indeed, Arsenal, painted by the visiting fans as close to saintliness, was arguably the more combative of the sides, repeatedly fouling Anderson in particular.

United always gives as good as it gets in that department though, with energy and endeavour superseding flowing football on both sides for the most part.

The hosts though took the game to Arsenal for much of the opening 45; perhaps more than was expected by the neutral. Rooney, twice, and Nani each tested débutant Wojciech Szczesny in the visitors’ goal. Anderson then had a good shout for a penalty turned down by referee Howard Webb when Marouane Chamakh appeared to handle inside the area.

Meanwhile, Arsenal seemed content to wait for opportunities on the break that rarely materialised as Carrick, Fletcher and especially Anderson dominated the central midfield area.

Yet, for all the bluster few genuine chances were created by either side until Nani collected Fletcher’s flick-on from Edwin van der Sar’s long punt to create the opening goal. As the Portuguese cut inside his deflected left-foot shot found Park Ji-Sung for the Korean to acrobatically head a looped effort over Szczesny and into the net.

It might have broken previous Arsenal sides, whose fragile collective temperament has often let Wenger’s side down. Yet the Londoners’ started the second half in far more positive vein as both Samir Nasri and Chamakh went close for the visitors.

United continued to dominate the tempo of the game though, with better Arsenal possession after the break not equating to clear-cut chances. Indeed, the Reds could twice have a double the advantage only for Nani to waste opportunities or lose possession at the crucial moment.

Arsenal had its 20-year-old ‘keeper to thank for keeping the side in the game as Rooney slipped in Anderson only for the Brazilian to strike straight at Szczesny. For all his energy Anderson has never found goalscoring easy at Old Trafford and was often wasteful in the final third of the pitch.

What could have been match’s pivotal moment came with 20 to go as Ferguson’s side was awarded the penalty that could so easily have come in the opening half, after Gael Clichy’s handball. Rooney, who is yet to score from open play this season, blasted the penalty high over the bar to keep Arsenal in the match.

The miss should have galvanised the visitors into one final push for an equaliser. But for all Arsenal’s extra endeavour in the second period Wenger’s side all too rarely threatened van der Sar’s goal. Ridiculously, Wenger blamed the state of the Old Trafford pitch rather than looking closer to home for answers.

Pretenders to the throne, abdicating early once again.

Rooney could even have double United’s advantage with moments to go, brilliantly lobbing Szczesny only for the 6’5″ ‘keeper to palm the effort away as United eased out the final minutes.

“These games sometimes you don’t play well you’ve just got to go out there and do as well as you can,” said Rio Ferdinand.

“We perhaps didn’t show as much as we can but it was about going out there and getting the three points.

“Arsenal test you in different ways, they’re a very talented side. They’re quick and can score at any time but today we contained them well and had the best chances.”

This is no vintage United side but any Ferguson team has heart and tonight the home side showed it in spades.

It certainly wasn’t the free-flowing football of Ferguson’s sides at their best but in containing and controlling the match United fully deserved the result and the Premier League lead.

Match Facts
United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson (Giggs 85), Carrick, Fletcher; Nani, Rooney, Park Ji-Sung.

Arsenal – 433 – Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Clichy; Nasri, Rosicky (Fabregas 64), A Song, Wilshere (Van Persie 64), Arshavin (Walcott 77); Chamakh.

Attendance – 75,227
Man of the Match – Ferdinand

Possession: United 51% – 49% Arsenal
Attempts: 14 – 11
On Target: 4 – 5
Corners: 5 – 4
Fouls: 7 – 16