Tag Barcelona

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United in search of a formula to match Barça’s brilliance

June 9, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments
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If Saturday night’s Champions League final confirmed anything – Barcelona’s European hegemony over the past decade excepted – it is that Louis van Gaal has plenty of work to do at Old Trafford this summer. Last season’s fourth place finish takes United back into the continent’s premier competition, but few will argue with the notion that the Dutchman’s side is far adrift of Europe’s best. Indeed, two years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United’s spending power must be unleashed once again if the Dutchman is to ensure his side is competitive at the top table. Transfers, however, are only part of the picture when it comes to matching Barcelona in the coming season.

The truth is that Van Gaal’s side has little chance of winning next season’s competition whatever the outlay this summer. Post-Ferguson, United’s collapse was so total that Van Gaal is, in effect, rebuilding a side from the ground up. While there is likely to be much debate next season about United’s potential to reach the 2016 final in Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza the reality is, of course, very different.

Still, there is something to be learned from Barça’s approach. The Catalan outfit has built a decade of success on the triumvirate of La Masia, Lionel Messi and outrageous spending in the transfer market. United remains short in at least two of the three sectors.

While there is little United can do to match Messi’s individual brilliance, vice chairman Ed Woodward is set to open the club’s chequebook once again this summer. The club is playing catch up after years of Glazer family parsimony. The cost: Van Gaal will need every bit of the club’s financial muscle to bridge the gap both at domestic and European level. Indeed, the Dutchman may need five high-quality players this summer to mount a realistic domestic title bid.

Finally, in what may yet become the final leg of United’s troika of recovery, Van Gaal is likely to leverage United’s reserve and academy operation, although this is no short-term fix for the club’s ills. James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair enjoyed some game time last season. Andreas Pereira will expect more opportunities in the months to come. Over the longer piece Brian McClair’s replacement as head of United’s academy  – possibly Nicky Butt – will signal the direction in which Van Gaal would like to take the club’s youth system. 

Back in the market Van Gaal remains in search of  a central defender, right-back, defensive midfielder and striker. He may also need another winger in addition to Memphis Depay, while it is likely that United will replace Real Madrid-bound David de Gea this summer. Significant dead wood is set to be shed as well – it will balance what Robin van Persie this week predicted will be a “£200 million” spending spree. The club has already committed up to £30 million on Depay, while a clutch of other names are being considered.

Spending will not cure all ills, but it will go some way to answer the questions that remain about Van Gaal’s squad. De Gea’s departure is perhaps the most certain hole to patch. Elsewhere, it will border on negligent is Van Gaal is not pictured with a smiling new right-back come August. Antonio Valencia’s defensive naiveté and Rafael da Silva’s prolonged injury-absence ensures as much.

It is a similar, if not quite as desperate, story in the centre of defence where Jonny Evans suffered the worst campaign in a decade at the club, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain intermittently injured or inconsistent. Smalling earned praise for an uptick in performances over the second half of the campaign, although he started just 21 of United’s 38 Premier League fixtures.

In midfield competition for, or a compliment to, Michael Carrick is desperately required. United’s results without the Englishman, who missed half the season through injury, were starkly less impressive. The Reds averaged 2.3 points per game with Carrick in this side and just 1.5 with the former Tottenham Hotspur man in the treatment room.

Then up front Van Gaal must consider whom, if anyone, replaces the ineffectual Radamel Falcao, while Van Persie is unlikely to begin the season at Old Trafford. Captain Wayne Rooney is assured of his place in the side, although he scored just 12 league goals last season. Wilson may enjoy more action next season, while a final decision is to be taken on Javier Hernandez’ future – if any – at Old Trafford.

Despite the obvious holes in Van Gaal’s squad the Dutchman is unlikely to spend anywhere near the “£200 million” forecast this summer nor, in probability, complete the refresh of United’s squad he seeks. Not least because the club is determined to wrap up spending before Van Gaal’s squad heads to the United States for a summer tour. It will take a level of focus not seen at Old Trafford since David Gill’s departure.

Pre-season training begins on 1 July, with the Premier League’s opening fixture five weeks later. It is a period of “preparation time” that Van Gaal is determined will set his side up for a more robust start to the new campaign than a year ago. The tour starts with a game against Club America in Seattle on 17 July and concludes with Van Gaal’s side meeting Paris Saint-Germain in Chicago less than two weeks later. In between the Reds face San Jose Earthquakes and Barcelona in a shorter summer tour than almost any in recent memory; an arrangement the Dutchman demanded.

Still, it is no easy task to find cohesion amid a potential influx of new players, although minds will focus around a hazardous European qualifier in mid-August. It means that Van Gaal’s outfit has little choice but to find results in the early part of the new season.

Much of that cohesion centres around United’s tactical approach. While there is much to be admired in tactical flexibility, United’s inconsistency last season cannot be wholey divorced from Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering. His side began the season using the three-man defence that served Netherlands so well at last summer’s World Cup. United ended the campaign in a more typically Dutch 4-3-3. In between Van Gaal used around a dozed different systems over 10 months.

Nor was there any truly consistent style. At times United sought to control possession at the expense of penetration; at others Van Gaal’s side was thrillingly open, but loose at the back. Neither brought the “balance” Van Gaal seeks. Still, it is likely United will line-up in something akin to a 4-3-3 next season, with Memphis deployed at inside-left and Rooney at ‘number nine’. It could well be the system around which United builds a title challenge.

There are plenty of other positions up for grabs though. Indeed, of the current squad, perhaps only four will definitely start the opening fixture of the season if fit: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Carrick and Rooney. Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and a new signing will compete for a permanent role in United’s midfield. Ashley Young’s progress over the past year may well be checked by Depay’s arrival, while Adnan Januzaj can only hope to force his way back into Van Gaal’s thinking over the summer.

None of these are concerns for European champions Barça. Nor, indeed, Premier League winners Chelsea. United has a very real gap in quality and consistency to bridge.

Fergie says Reds will match Barça. How?

July 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 44 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has once again challenged his players to match Barcelona, with Manchester United facing the European champions in Washington on Saturday night. Just 63 days after the humiliating defeat by the Catalans at Wembley the question, with six senior players having left the club and no new central midfielder on the horizon, is how?

This, of course, is no trivial matter. The destruction by Pep Guardiola’s side in London was so comprehensive that Michael Carrick’s head is probably still spinning. While Barça is so good that few successfully compete, United’s total capitulation in midfield on 28 May served only to highlight the glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad.

That Ferguson can no longer call on Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves nor – in all likelihood – Darron Gibson in the coming season has also reduced the Scot’s options in midfield. The quality hardly ran deep to start.

In the aftermath of Wembley defeat Ferguson challenged his players to reach Barça’s level; it’s a theme that United’s 69-year-old coach returned to ahead of Saturday’s game in the Capital.

“In everyone’s mind they are the best team, currently, in the world,” admitted Ferguson, without hint of irony.

“I’m quite happy to be in second place at this moment in time because that’s our challenge. Our challenge will be to get to that level.”

Yet, Ferguson’s summer activity to date has largely been aimed at maintaining the status quo. Long-term evolution rather than a quantum leap in quality has been the theme. Hardly a portent to challenge Barcelona as Europe’s finest in the coming campaign. In any case, many observers feel that United over-achieved on the continent last season.

David de Gea will replace Edwin van der Sar in the medium term, although Ferguson has offered Anders Lindegard the chance to impress during the pre-season US tour. Whichever way the goalkeeping decision goes it is certainly not yet an upgrade.

Meanwhile, room for Phil Jones has been made by the transfer of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland. Jones is flexible and talented but completely inexperienced at European leave. Then there is Ashley Young, who will at least offer a versatile alternative to the failed experiment with Gabriel Obertan and Bébé, although few count the former Aston Villa winger in Barça’s class.

There is little doubt Ferguson recognises the problem at the heart of his midfield though. This despite protestations to the contrary in recent days. After all, why else would he instruct chief executive to pursue the aforementioned midfield trio this summer? Yet, David Gill insists deals for Sneijder, Modric and Nasri are now “dead.” United seemingly lack the financial muscle to force Inter’s hand over the Dutchman, Nasri will probably join Manchester City next summer, and Tottenham Hotspur remains intransigent over Modric, who has expressed a desire to join Chelsea in any case.

“We didn’t progress that one [Sneijder]. I’m not doing anything on anything at the moment, so they are all dead,” said Gill on Friday.

“The important point is that you never know. I’ve been around in football long enough to know things change quickly. Somebody may become available and we can then say we are interested.

“We have been clear all along. There is money in the bank. Some people have not believed us but if a player is required to improve the squad and challenge for top honours, the money is there. That is still the case. We are not afraid to spend big money on players of a certain age.”

Whether Gill’s comments are yet another in a long-line of spin from the executive will only be confirmed on 31 August. Yet, Gill’s key line – “of a certain age” – might well be confirmation that United’s transfer policy of buying young with a view to re-sale value is still in place. Informally United will not spend large fees on players over 26.

With Sneijder now 27, a total financial commitment of more than £80 million required to prize the Dutchman away from Inter and pay the midfielder’s wages, and little re-sale possible, it is inconceivable that United will deal unless Blaunegra substantially reduces its financial requirements to nearer £20 million than £35 million.

The impasse leaves the Reds to look for an alternative or – far more likely – Gill may Ferguson to begin the season with Anderson, Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher as the senior central midfielders at the club. Each has their significant limitations.

This is to say nothing of the club’s desperate need for a defensive midfielder with Hargreaves now cast into football’s wilderness.

What then of the stated goal to match Barcelona? Based on a hope and a prayer, critics might add. Perhaps Anderson ‘will come good’ after four years of inconsistency. Maybe, Fletcher will regain confidence after a debilitating illness. Potentially Carrick will step up a level despite history telling us otherwise. Hope, as a wise observer once noted, is no kind of strategy.

That Barça can boast such riches in attack and yet add both the outstanding Alexis Sanches and in all probability Cesc Fabregas too has if anything taken Guardiola’s side further away from United this summer.

United may well emerge victorious as FedEx Field tonight. Ferguson side is, after all, three weeks ahead of its opponents in pre-season preparation, with Barça not beginning the La Liga campaign until late August. Without central midfield reinforcements few will expect a repeat come the Champions League final next May.

Barça transfer carousel impacts Red priorities

June 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 47 comments

The futures of Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Samir Nasri will be clarified in the coming weeks, with much riding on the ever entertaining internal politics at Barcelona. The heavily indebted European champion claims to have a summer transfer budget of just €40 million, but with a deal for Sanchez still on the agenda and Fabregas increasingly likely to move, something is likely to give. More importantly for Manchester United supporters, Barça’s business will directly impact Sir Alex Ferguson’s planning this summer.

Deals for both Sanchez and Fabregas will have consequences for a selection of Barça’s squad players too, including 20-year-old Bojan Krkić, whom the Catalan giants are reportedly willing to sell for €10 million in a token effort to balance the books.

Barça’s attempt to use another youngster, Jeffrén Suárez, as bait in a Sanchez deal failed, with the player unwilling to join Udinese. The failed opening bid is unlikely to stop Pep Guardiola’s adding two outstanding midfielders to his side’s already plentiful options. The transfer maneuvering comes despite the Catalans picking up €21 million owed for Zlatan Ibrahimovich. The message is clear: Barça must sell to buy this summer.

Closer to home, the merry-go-round may yet have consequences for United, with Ferguson back from his annual French holiday to oversee the club’s search for central midfield creativity. With deals for Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea all inked, United retains more than a passing interest in Arsenal’s contract-rebel Nasri.

Thiago Alcântara, the Italian-born Spaniard of Brazilian parentage, was reportedly also on Ferguson’s radar as a fall-back option until the youngster signed a new deal at Camp Nou on Wednesday. In truth there seemed little in the reports. United’s interest in Nasri is seemingly more concrete, having hardened as potential for deals on Luka Modric and Wesley Sneijder closed.

Yet with Arsenal preparing to let Fabregas go according to every pundit this side of the Pyrenees the Londoners will feel compelled to offer Nasri a contract hike to more than £100,000 per week. It is figure within reach for United but exclusively Fabregas’ domain at the Emirates. Whether the Frenchman is willing to stay at the post-Fabregas club is as yet undetermined but the News of the World‘s, claim that the player’s predilection is now for a move north this summer will be noted at Old Trafford.

Only a bid will flush out the truth of course and Arsenal’s hand may be forced should United actually make a reported £20 million move this week. After all, Arsenal faces the very real prospect of losing 24-year-old Nasri for nothing in a year’s time when his contract ends.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is talking a tough game. The Frenchman can do little else with few options now left open regarding Fabregas except to negotiate the price.

“One thing’s for sure: we’re not selling him to Manchester United. We are trying to extend his deal,” claimed
Wenger last week. Whether majority shareholder Stan Kroenke agrees is another matter; losing a multi-million pound asset for nothing is surely unacceptable.

For United Nasri’s capture would provide the icing on a profitable transfer cake this summer. Driving a wedge between Wenger and his board merely the cherry on top.

Elsewhere Manchester City has admitted defeat in the club’s chase for Sanchez. While the Abu Dhabi-backed outfit upped the bidding to a reported £32 million – a figure that Chelsea is prepared to match – Sanchez’ representatives have made it known that a move to Camp Nou is the only option on the cards.

Barça’s opening £22 million offer plus Jeffren increased today, with the bid reported to now be £24 million guaranteed, rising to £36 million based on player performance targets. It is, said a spokesperson, a final non-negotiable offer.

“We are waiting for a response from Udinese,” a Barça spokesperson told Spanish news agency EFE today. “Barcelona made a definitive offer for the player and we will not change the parameters indicated.”

Meanwhile, Fabregas will join the Chilean winger in Catalonia having left the Arsenal board in no doubt about the player’s priority this summer. To that end Barça is reported to have made a renewed offer of £35 million on Wednesday, with the end game now in sight.

Of course, Barça’s transfer shenanigans is of passing interest to United, although the club sent a delegation to Udinese a fortnight ago. That chief executive David Gill came back empty-handed on a player Ferguson has tracked for more than three years is indicative of the club’s continued unwillingness to enter pan-European bidding wars.

There is, after all, a financial food chain in place, which in part at least explains Nasri’s new-found attractiveness at Old Trafford. The Frenchman is potentially obtainable where Modric is not without forcing Tottenham Hotspur’s hand with a premium bid. Similarly, Sneijder’s fee and wages package would mean a total commitment of more than £80 million for a player that turns 27 in the coming season.

It could yet go wrong for Ferguson. Should Arsenal play hardball on Nasri, United’s midfield options will appear narrower than ever.

One week on: Reds take no pride from Euro final

June 4, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 10 comments

It has been nearly a week since Sir Alex Ferguson’s team lost comprehensively to a Barcelona side hailed as ‘the best of a generation’. Although credit is due to Pep Guardiola’s truly magnificent Barça side, which illustrates just why total football is no longer a utopian concept, it can also be said that United rarely engaged the Catalan giants in battle at Wembley.

For all the confidence shown pre-match, United failed to deliver a performance in the season’s biggest match. Perhaps part of the problem was Ferguson’s selection? After all, the starting 11 – one that many supporters called for prior to kick-off – failed to disclose Ferguson’s true intentions; whether to match Barcelona tactically and defend, or change the system and go for broke.

Evidently United did neither of those. The selection of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, flanked by Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia, suggests United wanted to take the game to Barcelona. Yet, as the statistics demonstrate, Ferguson’s side did little of this, with just one shot on target in 90 minutes.

Defensively United’s midfield did little to deter Barcelona’s attacking impetus, with Giggs struggling to break up the famous ‘carousel’ of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta, largely due to the physical constraints of the role. Meanwhile, Valencia and Park failed to offer United an outlet on the wings and were unable to turn the tide of possession in United’s favour.

Despite this Ferguson’s team sheet is certainly defendable given the set of results against Chelsea and Shalke towards the end of the season, using Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield.

The Scot had only a few options at kick-off. However, after 45 minutes United was clearly struggling to negate Barcelona threat and change was needed.

Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s strike, giving the side a lifeline on 35 minutes, may have adversely suggested convinced the Scot that no substitutions were needed when it was abundantly clear to most Giggs and Carrick would never force Barcelona into submission. If Ferguson had both Darren Fletcher and Anderson on the bench why did he forget to deploy either of them when needed?

The decision not to call on either Fletcher or Anderson may have led to Barca’s goals. Disappointingly, each of Barcelona’s three strikes derived from lackluster defending. With the aforementioned pair Barcelona would surely not have been gifted so much time in front of goal.

Lionel Messi’s goal on 54 minutes is a perfect example of this point. United’s defence failed to close the Argentinean down leaving Edwin Van der Saar exposed and Messi with a choice of firing into either corner. With no defensive cover in midfield Messi had even more time and space.

Aside from United’s defensive display, the Reds rarely managed to spring into attack with Javier Hernandez cutting an isolated figure and at times seemingly out of his depth.

Here Ferguson could also have done something different too. Certainly a player of Nani’s abilities would have added more had he been introduced earlier in the game. Perhaps even United’s leading goal scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, would have been useful from the bench? It seems futile to even attempt to understand the Bulgarian’s snub in place of a man who has scored just five goals this season.

Many pundits claim that no side would have beaten Barcelona that night. That may be true but the manner of defeat inflicted upon Ferguson’s side was embarrassing. More to the point, those who witnessed Barcelona’s encounters with Shaktar Donetsk, although high scoring, will have observed far more evenly contested affairs with the Ukrainians.

There were also alternative approaches to United’s. Real Madrid infamously tried a more defensive tactic in one of five encounters this season. Despite mixed results, Jose Mourinho’s side certainly gave Barcelona far more of a game than United did.

Ferguson’s side seldom forced Barca’s newly formed defence back. Neither did the they pressurise Iniesta and Xavi. The evidence: how many times did Barcelona’s players feel the need to writhe around on the ground in agony? Certainly, it was merely a fraction of what Barça exposed the world to in the matches against Real Madrid.

In fact the only injustice of the occasion was the presence of Sergio Busquets on the pitch. Despite being clearly and conclusively depicted as racially abusing Real Madrid’s Marcelo in the semi-final UEFA deemed it fitting to dismiss the claims. Maybe Jose Mourinho wasn’t so mad after all.

Not that United can complain. Ferguson’s side got exactly what was coming.

Gill promises investment as Reds aim to close Barça gap

May 30, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 64 comments

Manchester United’s thumping defeat to Barcelona on Saturday night threatened to spoil the Reds’ victory parade through the city today. Even so around 150,000 lined Manchester’s streets for the party, which celebrated a 19th domestic title, if not the European Cup. Yet, as United’s supporters delight in another Premier League triumph – the 12th of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford reign – questions have inevitably been drawn of the club’s ability to compete at the very highest level. A level to which Barcelona set a new standard on Saturday night.

Indeed, the manner of Barça’s victory at Wembley was so overwhelmingly superior that United’s response cuts to the very heart of the club’s place in Europe’s hierarchy. Runner-up in Europe’s elite competition is no shame, of course, but the gap between United and the best is evidently far wider than hoped. The question of whether United can close that gap is one to which supporters will look for answers over the summer.

The Catalan giant’s success is based on a straightforward two-sided strategy; build the most productive youth academy on the planet, while investing heavily in the transfer market. Indeed, while six of the starting team at Wembley were trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s much-lauded academy, the club has also invested hugely in the transfer market over the past decade, while also baring the largest wage bill of any football club.

In response United has only two options: plan for immediate needs and work towards a better tomorrow. In this United’s historic strategy is not wholly different to Barça’s, with the Reds seeking to augment lavish spending with talented youngsters trained at Carrington. More recent austerity has seemingly curbed the club’s net transfer spend at a time when the academy is producing a relatively limited crop of first-team-ready youngsters.

In this both United’s chief executive David Gill and his club manager offered hope and a prescient warning today. Gill, a staunch supporter of the Glazer regime which has drained around £400 million out of the club in the past five years, hinted at heavy investment this summer. Meanwhile, Ferguson warned that Barcelona will continue to enjoy a structural advantage if the Football Association continues to control youth development policy.

“It will be a busier than usual summer this year,” Gill told MUTV, with United set to confirm deals for David de Gea, Ashley Young and Rafael Varane in the coming week.

“I will be going away at some point in June and be back for the start of our tour but I will be on with player stuff for the next few weeks I am sure.”

The question on most fans’ lips is whether Gill and his paymasters will sanction heavier spending on proven talent, in addition to youth’s promise. After all, while Barça has produced a rash of outrageously talented players from La Masia, the club also spent around €90 million on Danni Alves, Javier Mascherano, Eric Abidal and David Villa in recent seasons. That figure does not include the €65 million largely wasted on Zlatan Imbrahimovic in summer 2009.

Whether United’s response is more ambitious than the aforementioned De Gea, Young and Varane is as yet undecided. After all, while uncontested newspaper reports speculate at heavy summer investment in addition to that trio, recent history suggests otherwise. Gill’s assertion that his summer will be “busier than usual” could yet be another of the executive’s empty platitudes.

Meanwhile, United continues to invest in youth development, although there has been scant reward in the past decade. Of the current first team squad only Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson have emerged from the academy in the past decade; an embarrassing return relative to Saturday’s opponents.

Of course this season’s FA Youth Cup winning side may yet produce rarefied talent to compete at both domestic and European level, although precedent suggests that it is unlikely. United’s two teams to reach the Youth Cup final since the ‘class of ’92’ – 2004 and 2007 – has produced not a single first team regular at Old Trafford, let alone a talent to match Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.

It is a failure Ferguson blames on the FA’s regulatory framework for youth development in England, especially the so-called 90 minute rule. The regulation stipulates that Premier League academies cannot take on boys that live more than 90 minutes drive away from the club’s base at Old Trafford.

“People have to understand the mechanics of the industry we are working in,” Ferguson said today.

“We are only allowed to coach youngsters for an hour and a half, they [Barcelona] can coach every hour of the day if they want to. That’s the great advantage they have got. It is a fantastic philosophy.

“We hope that in years to come our coaches will be able to spend more time with young kids, to teach them the basics, the technical abilities and the confidence to keep the ball all the time. We are good at it, but not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time. It is a wonderful challenge and we should always accept a challenge.”

Yet, any revision to the rule will bring no immediate reward as United continues to look abroad for the best in world youth talent. Of the Youth Cup winning side seven hailed from the Greater Manchester area, while the other four were brought in from overseas. The trend may yet swing towards ever greater global imports as the club seeks to circumvent FA regulations.

More to the point, despite the talented youth team, none will immediately augment United’s side. If the gap between United and Barça is to be bridged than Gill’s wallet will be in repeated use over the next two months. It was, no doubt, a conversation pondered as United’s victory parade idled past the crowds today.

Morning after the night before

May 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 34 comments

Time heals but a second resounding defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final is a pain that will not subside easily; the heavy hearts hardly aided by a collective hangover.

Thousands gathered, both at Wembley and in bars, clubs and hotels across Manchester and the country. Indeed, thousands of Reds descended on London, whether they held match tickets or not. The need to be part of the experience was overwhelming. The anti-climax as realisation set in that United could not, would not, defeat the Catalan giants was just simply cataclysmic.

Yet optimism grew as kick-off approached, aided by the Reds-only atmosphere and the liberal consumption of alcohol. Certainly,the Rant crew joined a packed bar in subduing any pre-match nerves with JD Wetherspoon’s finest. Sadly, the guest ale ‘Flight of Fancy’ was a more prescient name than expected. In hindsight, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops had always lived on hope more than expectation against Barça’s collection of world stars.

The 500-strong crowd in this corner of North West London seemed, anecdotally at least, to have collectively travelled south, driven perhaps by the need to be closer to Wembley and Ferguson’s embattled team. Around 25,000 United supporters held tickets to the game; perhaps as many again travelled to the capital simply to be part of the experience.

Yet, even in the unlikeliest of settings – a cookie-cutter chain bar set in a shopping centre – this group of Reds generated an atmosphere rarely experienced at Old Trafford these days. How the Scot’s men could have done with this passionate support just one stop north on the Underground.

The singing began more than two hours ahead of kick-off, with few United legends left off an impressive roster of chants: Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest, in addition to the current crop of heroes. The men’s bathroom rocked to the sound of “Tallest Floodlights,” while an elongated version of Eric the King will surely have been heard in the nearby leafy Hampstead streets.

Ferguson’s men seemed to respond to the overwhelming support in absentia, hurtling into challenges, pressing high and forcing Barcelona into more errors during the first 15 minutes than rarely afforded during 90 minutes of most Los Cules fixtures. Although United’s bright start didn’t last the team’s ticketless fans pressed on in applying the rousing soundtrack.

While Pedro Rodríguez’ opening goal quietened the din it was only momentary; Wayne Rooney’s equaliser simply brought the house down. There is something about supporting United that encourages even the burliest of complete strangers to embrace in sheer joy.

The Wetherspoon’s screening was organised by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with 15 other venues across Manchester and London also showing the match. Around 15,000 fans gathered at the events. Reports agree that the atmosphere from the Ramada Hotel in the heart of Piccadilly, to Ministry of Sound nightclub in central London to the Point, Lancashire County Cricket Club’s fabulous new facility, was consistently up-beat until defeat was all but confirmed.

Frustration set in of course and anger supporters’ anger turned to Barcelona players’ prevalence for hitting the turf early and often. Perhaps the dawning realisation that fans’ heroes were being thoroughly outclassed nipped any potential for trouble in the bud. Indeed, supporters’ weary resignation to defeat set in as David Villa curled in Barca’s superb third.

Then talk quickly turned to the summer and much-anticipated rebuilding. While some fans called for an immediate clearout – the knee-jerk element growing louder during United’s second-half drubbing – the truth is more nuanced of course.

United’s current evolution could be accelerated by investment in top-class talent; whether the expected arrival David De Gea, Ashley Young and Raphael Varane falls into that category is certainly questionable. Sadly, overwhelming supporter demand for a midfielder to match Barça’s quality is yet to be heard by United’s top management.

Yet in winning the Premier League by nine points and reaching the Champions League final Ferguson’s side has surely over achieved this season. This was seemingly widely recognised by pub-going fans on Saturday night, who came in hope rather than certainty.

Many of this group have been driven from Old Trafford by the Glazer family’s excessive pricing. Therein lies something unique about United. The passion has not died, even though ticket prices and debt-fuelled ownership have excluded many from matches. UEFA’s disgraceful decision to offer just 25,000 tickets to each club competing in last night’s final – at £80 to £300 a piece – is yet another symptom in the race to monetisation of the ‘people’s game’.

Events such as those organised by MUST may become more commonplace. The group’s Chubb Club is already a Manchester institution, now expanded to exiled Reds in London. For now, United’s weary supporters have the summer to contemplate what might have been but look back on a thoroughly enjoyable collective event.

Champions League Final 2011: preview

May 27, 2011 Tags: , Matches 259 comments

When Sir Alex Ferguson delivered his now infamous Pacino-esque half-time eulogy deep in the bowel’s of Camp Nou’s ‘home’ dressing room during the 1999 final, he told his startled players that six feet may be the closest they ever got to ‘ol big ears, the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. As startlingly brilliant his 1999 breed could be they only ever made on final, famously winning in injury time.

By contrast Ferguson’s current generation faces their third showpiece in four years. The final of Europe’s Premier Competition no longer a rarity but, incredibly, now habitual. No more so for his 2011 generation, a team reportedly among the Scot’s very worst in 25 years at Old Trafford. How the team has made a mockery of that prediction this season.

It is this sense of over-achievement – the underdog spirit if you will – that has seemingly reduced the pressure on Ferguson’s men ahead of Saturday night’s Wembley final. Win or lose, United has never been favourite, perhaps even among the club’s own fans, to lift this year’s Champions League trophy.

Yet Ferguson, often to the media’s audible derision, has always backed his charges to come good this season. It is, according to many pundits, a team without “stardust”. Not so says the Scot, who firmly believes his players hold the ability and temperament to beat the team many regard as history’s best, on United’s ‘home’ soil.

“We have players who will all like this stage,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“In terms of Rooney’s progress in Europe, he is much more mature than he was in 2009. And others too. The experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is vital. Our experience, and our progress in Europe this season, gives us a good chance.

“Barcelona have fantastic qualities but I think our qualities will show through as well, which could make it a really good game. We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. We maybe made one or two mistakes last time, but not this time. We were disappointed we lost the game but it isn’t a matter of revenge, it is about our own personal pride.”

That preparation has included a two week period in which the Premier League was won but Ferguson did not allow the intensity of focus to drop. Indeed, the manager’s stronger-than-expected line-up against Blackpool last week belied an understanding that too many players were undercooked when United lost to Barcelona in 2009.

And while Ferguson’s line-up will surprise few, the manager has promised a fresh tactical outlook having been out-thought by Pep Guardiola’s men in Rome. Pre-eminent in Ferguson’s mind is a nagging feeling that United failed to give a true account of itself in the Italian capital, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez a glittering array of attacking talent that failed to spark

“We did most of the work before the Blackpool game [last Sunday] – and winning the league the previous week helped us that way,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“The players have to trust themselves and trust each other because I trust them. I know they’ll do the job right. This team has unity and our record in Europe this year is good. We’re used to playing in Europe, we have that experience and we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved this year in Europe.

“There could be a lot of excitement, there’ll be a lot of good football. We recognise the quality of our opponents: it’s unwise to go into a game not preparing for how your opponents play, their strengths and weaknesses.”

Manchester United v Barcelona, Champions League Final 2011, 28 MayMuch will depend on whether United can retain enough of the ball to hurt Barcelona, whose ability to dominate games has, if anything, increased in the two years since these sides last met. The Catalan giants have managed more than 70 per cent possession on average this season, meaning United will almost certainly be on the back foot most of the night.

Yet, it is easy to forget United’s positive start in Rome, where Park Ji-Sung would surely have scored in the opening seconds but for former Red Gerard Piqué’s last-ditch tackle. It is that positive outlook that Ferguson has instilled in his troops over the past fortnight.

This should reflect in the Scot’s team, whose natural instincts against big European opposition is to pack midfield. However, with Darren Fletcher unlikely to make the United 18-man squad, let alone the starting team, Ferguson’s hand is somewhat forced. Wayne Rooney is likely to partner Javier Hernández in attack, with the former Evertonian dropping deep into midfield when needed.

With Ferguson’s selection dilemma solved, the rest of the Scot’s team almost picks itself. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will form the heart of United’s midfield; Antonio Valencia will edge out Nani for the right-wing berth; Fabio da Silva is expected to play at right-back ahead of his brother Rafael.

Tactically Ferguson’s team has worked on pressing high up the pitch where United will attempt to cut of the supply to Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi by suffocating Barça’s ‘starters’ – Piqué and Sergio Busquets.

It is a tactical flexibility that owes much to Ferguson’s respect for Guardiola. While the men are no friends – Ferguson retains far more affection for José Mourinho – the elder man recognises the outstanding team Guardiola has built.

“For a young coach, he’s changed the way they play and brought a maturity to the team,” Ferguson said of the 40-year-old coach.

“From beating us in Rome to the present day, you can see that maturity. He’s changed the way they press the ball; for a young coach he’s done fantastically well and has a good presence. He played for Barcelona, which helps, and with the history of Dutch coaches there, he’s made a big step forward for Spanish coaches.”

Meanwhile, Guardiola has few selection worries save for left-back where captain Carles Puyol is expected to play out of position. Eric Abidal, now fit after undergoing surgery for a kidney tumour, is not thought to be match-ready, while Maxwell is out-of-favour. The selection may offer United a glimmer of hope, especially after Antonio Valencia’s outstanding performance against Ashley Cole in the recent victory over Chelsea.

Yet, if that sentiment is essentially pessimistic in tone then Ferguson is having none of it: “We have a great chance. We always focus on what we can do ourselves and we hope to attack – we have players who can do that.”

It’s a belief that few fans – United or otherwise – would be wise to bet against in this most unpredictable of campaigns.

Match Facts
Champions League Final. Wembley, London. 7.45pm, 28 May 2011.

Teams
Barcelona – 433 – Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa. Subs from: Bojan, Jeffrén, Keita, Milito, Maxwell, Afellay, Adriano, Abidal, Fontàs, Olazábal.

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

Officials
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Assistant referees: Gabor Erös, György Ring
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian, Tamás Bognar
Fourth official: Istvan Vad

Form
Barcelona – WDWDDW
United – WLWWWW

Champions League Final 2011: former Red Piqué, now central to Barça’s cause

May 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments

When Gerard Piqué told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was leaving Old Trafford in summer 2008 the Scot’s anger almost prevented the £5 million transfer to Barcelona. Piqué, thought Ferguson, had gone behind his Manchester United manager’s back to secure a move ‘home’. The incident very nearly ended the deal. Ferguson relented and three years on Piqué is no longer a United reserve but essential to both new club and his country.

In many senses its a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old, who spent four years in Manchester and appeared 25 times for the club, but failed to make a breakthrough into Ferguson’s first team. Having won at European and World level in the past three seasons, Piqué has achieved far more than anybody could have predicted for the unassuming Barcelona-born player.

Indeed, four largely stagnant years away from home could have shaped a career in a very different way. Yet, the former-Barça youth team player, who graduated from the same La Masia academy as Lionel Messi, is far from bitter about his experience under Ferguson’s tutelage.

“It was a difficult time and there were hard moments when you don’t understand why you’re not playing,” Piqué told UEFA.com.

“But they had two great central defenders, Rio and Vidić, so it was tough for me to get a chance. It was still a great experience to play there with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, van Nistelrooy. I went there when I was 17 and came back when I was 21. The Gerard who went was very different to the one who came back.

“With Sir Alex we talked openly, and I never had a problem. Although I didn’t play a lot, I had a good relationship with him. Then I got the offer from Barcelona and I went up to him and told him ‘It is a pleasure to play here, but I would like to leave’, that I wanted to go back home. He tried to convince me otherwise, but he understood.”

When the player returned to Catalonia, far from being farmed out to the ‘B’ side as many expected,  Piqué was thrust into the centre of Barça’s defence alongside the incomparable Carles Puyol. It was a tough baptism of course; from playing in front of 500 at Moss Lane, Altrincham for United’s reserves to the intimidating Camp Nou atmosphere on début against Wisla Krakow.

Yet, in the intervening years Piqué has not only established himself in Pep Guardiola’s side but become the mainstay of the Catalan’s defence. The former-Red will marshal Barça’s back-four against United, with Puyol expected to play at left-back in Eric Abidal’s absence.

It is a role that Piqué will no doubt relish having already been a key man in Barça’s 2-0 victory in Rome two years ago. After all, the goal saving tackle on Park Ji-Sung with barely a minute gone almost certainly changed the game in the Catalans’ favour.

Not that his former team-mates ever had any doubt about the player’s ability; only the opportunity Piqué may have been afforded in a crowded United squad.

“Everyone knew Piqué had talent,” adds Rio Ferdinand.

“But English football is different. If you asked him if he could have been where he is now if he had been playing for Manchester United, he would probably have said ‘I don’t know’. When you get a chance, you have to take it. He has gone to Spain, is winning trophies with Barcelona and is doing fantastically well, so you have to give him credit for that.”

Piqué’s essential contribution to Barça is not only defensive though. In the Catalan giant’s tiki-taka style Piqué is the man charged with starting the next wave of Barça attack. It’s a role that will bring the player into direct conflict with Wayne Rooney if the United forward begins the game in the deep-lying ‘number 10′ role.

Piqué, who has real turn of speed despite the casual style, will also be a key man in combating Javier Hernández’ explosive pace. This is true whether Piqué lines up alongside 33-year-old Puyol or former Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano.

It is, however, Rooney who draws Piqué’s focus. Understandable perhaps, given the friendship the pair struck up in Manchester. Indeed, Rooney sent the defender a message of congratulations after Barcelona knocked Real Madrid out of the competition at the semi-final stage.

“He is one of the best strikers in the game and has scored a lot of goals,” Piqué said of his former teammate.

“I will have to concentrate hard to not to give him space. I have a good friendship with him but we both want to win this game and we will be fighting for our own interests. Rooney congratulated me on Twitter the day after we eliminated Madrid. It was always difficult playing against him in training as it is with Messi now.”

It is a battle that may shape a final. The boy who at 17 would call his mother to say “everything was fine” when in the reality he was holding back the tears has come a long way. It is the man now central to Barça’s cause who may break United’s hearts.

Champions League Final 2011: Fergie’s selection dilemma

May 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 41 comments

Manchester United’s chances of beating Barcelona in next weekend’s Champions League final may come down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s selections in two or three key positions. Indeed, the Scot’s deployment of Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung could decide whether United takes or concedes the initiative at Wembley; perhaps even if the Reds secure a third Champions League title under Ferguson’s management, or not.

Both starting team and bench remain a dilemma for Ferguson, whose instincts in recent years may draw him towards a conservative selection against the Catalan giants. But if the Scot, who is competing in his fourth Champions League final, wishes to augment midfield with Fletcher, for example, then it may be at Hernandez’ expense. The dilemma is all the more acute for Fletcher’s very recent return to fitness and the Mexican’s outstanding form during the end-of-season run-in.

Ferguson’s decision could be coloured by United’s experience in 2009, where Barcelona simply passed around Michael Carrick and Anderson in the centre of the Reds’ midfield. The theory that Fletcher’s energy and destructive quality would have changed that game’s nature have long been espoused. And should Ferguson bring the Scotland captain into the side for Hernández’, Wayne Rooney will likely be asked to play as United’s  lone forward.

Fletcher will face a late fitness test to see whether the Scot can take part or not. He faces potential heartbreak for a third time – the 26-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute as United won the trophy in Moscow, May 2008 and missed the 2009 final through suspension.

“Darren has had a difficult time,” assistant Mike Phelan admitted on Monday.

“A Darren Fletcher up and running and firing on all cylinders gives us a hard job of picking the team. It is never easy to come back when you have been out for so long. Now we will recover him and see where he is at in a couple of days’ time.”

But Ferguson has alternatives, including deploying the formation used against Chelsea in this season’s quarter-final, or bringing Fletcher into United’s midfield at Giggs’ expense. Should the United manager decide energy is more important than Giggs’ guile against the Catalan giants, Fletcher or Park could find themselves deployed centrally in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

That is one theory at least.

Yet, it is almost inconceivable that United will enjoy more than 40 per cent possession against Barça whatever the midfield combination Ferguson deploys. After all few, if any, opponents have been able to break up the Catalans’ ‘passing carousel’ by deploying agricultural tactics in recent seasons.

If Ferguson takes this view, he may indeed choose to focus on United’s positional play instead, asking Carrick, Park and Giggs to drop deep when needed, with Rooney augmenting midfield and Hernández attempting to run behind Barça’s atypical high defensive line. Should United enjoy enough possession, of course.

It’s a formation that will allow United to maintain the partnerships that have proven so successful in recent weeks – Rooney/Hernandez and Giggs/Carrick – and enable the former Evertonian to continue at ‘number 10’, where he has returned to form.

Elsewhere, Ferguson will probably choose between brothers Da Silva at right-back, although there is still the chance, fitness permitting, that the Scot will go for experience with John O’Shea. The remainder of Ferguson’s back-five – Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Namanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – picks itself.

But it is not only the starting XI that will cause Ferguson sleepless nights over the next five days. There is also fierce competition for a place on the bench, with just seven substitutes allowed in the Champions League squad. With Ferguson’s men almost fully fit up to eight of the squad will miss out on a place in the matchday party altogether.

Indeed, regular first teamers including O’Shea, Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans may be fighting for a place on United’s bench. Meanwhile Darron Gibson, £8.3 million Bébé and new goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard are likely to miss out altogether. It is not inconceivable that only one of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov will make United’s subs list, with the former-Liverpool man arguably more impactful off the bench but the Bulgarian the club’s top goalscorer.

Whatever the selection, Ferguson is keen to sure his team remains positive. It may just swing the Scot’s decision towards an attacking starting XI.

“Yes, I concede Barcelona are favourites in many people’s eyes,” said 69-year-old Ferguson.

“They have a super side, rich in experience and yet youthful enough to give them a good balance. But it is a challenge we are eager to meet. Don’t write us off. We have the players to win, too, and while praising Barcelona is something that comes naturally, we will be making our own contribution.”

“It is the biggest game of the whole year. We know what it feels like to go to the final and lose. It was one of the saddest moments of my career. I am sure all the players won’t forget that.

“We know we are facing a very, very good team and we have to be physically and psychologically ready. Against this Barcelona team you have to be intelligent. They have qualities but we will try to work on their weaknesses, expose them and try to win the game.”

And the answer to whether Ferguson’s men can rise to that challenge is just five days away.

United XI? – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernández

Subs? – Kuszazck, Rafael, Smalling, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov

Missing out? – Owen, O’Shea, Evans, Obertan, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Hargreaves, Amos, Anderson