Tag Bayern Munich

Tag Bayern Munich

United must win Guardiola sweepstakes

December 18, 2015 Tags: , , , , Opinion 11 comments
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Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.

Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.

With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.

Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?

Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.

“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.

“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”

Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly –  United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.

“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.

“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”

In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.

“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.

“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”

This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.

Manchester City

The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.


Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.

However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.


The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.


Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.

Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.

Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.

Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.

Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.

Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.

Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.

Preview: Bayern Munich v United

April 8, 2014 Tags: , Matches 7 comments
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Pressure does strange things to even the most experience team. Take, for example, Manchester United’s Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Bayern, European champions and Bundesliga kings with six weeks of the season remaining, should already be out of sight. After all, not only did the Bavarian side create 16 chances at Old Trafford last week, but dominated three-quarters of the possession too.

Germany profligacy and United’s dogged defensive approach secured a 1-1 draw that, one week on, has created a new sense of momentum in Moyes’ camp, no matter how brief it may prove to be. Meanwhile, in the opposite dugout, pressure is building on Pep Guardiola for almost the first time this season.

The smart money remains on Bayern securing passage through to the Champions League semi-finals, of course, with United required to win in Munich or score at least twice to progress. Only Hoffenheim, in a dead rubber, and Manchester City, in another meaningless fixture, have achieved either result this season.

Yet, United’s draw with Guardiola’s outfit has created doubt where none seemingly existed before; not least with Bayern suffering a first defeat in 53 games at the weekend, albeit with a heavily rotated side. And with the hosts missing two key players for Wednesday night’s game, United travel to Munich with more than a little hope.

“In the quarter-finals you never have a second chance,” Guardiola said on Tuesday.

“The pressure is high and we always have done well in this situation. It is all about small tactical details. Our players know, after the experience in Manchester, how United play. They know their strength and weaknesses.

“Before the first game at Old Trafford, everybody was just talking about Bayern. But now people know that Manchester can win in Munich. I think they will sit very deep. They play very defensively and always look to counter – it is something they do very, very well.”

Moyes, meanwhile, has cut a more upbeat figure after the Reds followed up the draw against Bayern with victory over Newcastle United at the weekend. After all, while devastating losses to Manchester City and Liverpool hurt supporters in recent weeks, European performances together with United’s domestic form on-the-road, has probably saved the Scot’s job.

Defeat to Olympiakos in Athens aside, Moyes’ side has secured a series of positive results in Europe, although it will take the best of the Scot’s managerial career if United is to reach the semi-final.

“I’m really looking forward to it. Second leg, quarter-final of the Champions League with the opportunity to reach the semi-finals. It’s a massive game, one all the players are looking forward to,” said Moyes on Tuesday.

“We’ll do everything we can to reach the semis. It’s the hardest task because of the level of the competition, the level of the opposition and the stage of the competition. Of course it’s the hardest game.

“I expect us to play better than in the first leg. We’ll need a good performance from everybody. We can’t have any passengers. We will have to win this ‘final’ to get to the next stage. It is like a cup final, even if it is just the second leg.”

Bayern Munich v Manchester United, Champions League, Allianz Arena, 7.45pm 9 April 2014Both sides face injury challenges ahead of Wednesday’s match though. Guardiola’s side is without the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martínez, while Thiago Alcántara is missing with a knee complaint.

Reserves Diego Contento, Xherdan Shaqiri, together with goalkeepers Tom Starke and Lucas Raeder. will all miss the game through injury. It means that 19-year-old Leopold Zingerle, reserve keeper for Bayern’s under-23 side in the fourth-tier regional league, will sit on the bench.

Meanwhile, Moyes is sweating on Wayne Rooney, who missed United’s win at Newcastle with what was described as a “bruised toe”. Speculation that Rooney has in fact broken a bone in his foot was not confirmed by the club, although the Scouser is likely to play with pain killing injections either way.

Ashley Young was substituted after 18 minutes at the weekend, although the England international trained on Tuesday, unlike Rafael da Silva and Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian should be fit, although Robin van Persie will miss another month, and possibly the season’s remainder, with a thigh problem.

“Wayne was able to train and he is massively keen to play,” said Moyes. “He’s not trained all week so we have to be wary of that. We’ll do everything we possibly can. He’s happy to take an injection to play in the game, which shows you his feeling about the game.

“We wouldn’t do anything medically wrong. We’ve taken advice from the doctors and the people who advise us. Everybody knows the type of character Wayne is and he is determined to play.”

Elsewhere, Moyes has crucial decisions to make both about personnel and United’s approach to a game in which the visitors need a positive result. United’s defensive strategy at Old Trafford ceded more than 75 per cent possession to the opposition, while Bayern created almost three times as many chances.

Shinji Kagawa’s impressive performances in recent domestic fixtures have earned the Japanese playmaker an opportunity in United’s biggest game of the season. Whether Moyes concurs is an open question, with United still likely to pack central midfield and trust to a break or set-piece to secure the crucial goal.

Phil Jones and captain Nemanja Vidić could start in central defence, while Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs, Fellaini and Darren Fletcher are all in contention to start. Indeed, the Scottish midfielder more than most is hoping for a positive result in Munich; Fletcher missed out on the Champions League final in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

“For whatever reasons, I’ve not managed to play in a final,” said the Scot.

“Different circumstances have prevented me from playing in three of them. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a small boy to play in a Champions League final and winning tomorrow night takes us into the semi-finals and gets you closer to achieving that.

“It’s more important that the club and team get there than individuals and, if the team get there, then you do your best in the games and hope that you’re selected to play. The most important thing for us is to win tomorrow night and get ourselves in the semi-finals, then we’ll take it from there.”

And whatever the selection, history is perhaps on United’s side even if the bookies make Bayern odds-on favourites to progress. Bayern’s home record this season in ominous, but the southern German giants have failed to win any of the last four fixtures against English sides in Munich.

Just a little more pressure for Guardiola to ponder.


Bayern Munich v Manchester United, Champions League, Allianz Arena, 7.45pm, 9 April 2014

Possible Teams
Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Dante, Boateng, Alaba; Lahm, Kroos; Ribéry, Götze, Robben; Mandžukić

United (4-5-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Fletcher, Welbeck; Rooney

Bayern: Zingerle, Van Buyten, Badstuber, Weiser, Højbjerg, Schöpf, Green, Pizarro, Müller, Weihrauch

United: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Ferdinand, Young, Cleverley, Kagawa, Nani, Giggs, Januzaj, Hernández

Head to Head
Bayern 3 Draw 5 United 2

Match Officials (SWE)
Referee: Jonas Eriksson
Assistant referees: Mathias Klasenius, Daniel Wärnmark
Additional assistant referees: Stefan Johannesson, Markus Strömbergsson
Fourth official: Daniel Gustavsson


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Attacking balance holds key to United’s Euro fate

April 2, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments
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David Moyes should still be replaced as Manchester United manager despite the Reds hard-earned draw against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. After all, United’s decent run in the Champions League this season is pointless if the club is not in it at all next year. Still, the Reds defended efficiently in this season’s quarter-final first leg, and had a more lenient referee been in place, United could have won the tie. Danny Welbeck’s disallowed first half goal was tough on the striker and United.

Living up to his reputation as a defensive-minded manager, Moyes has always included at least one dedicated holding midfielder in Europe. Michael Carrick was key at Old Trafford. As has become typical, United defended in two banks of four, but it was Carrick who often pressured the Bayern player in possession. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder filled the gap between defence and midfield admirably and organised United’s back-four well.

Carrick’s performance was in stark contrast to his midfield partner Marouanne Fellaini. The £27.5 million fee spent on Fellaini continues to defy any justification. The Belgian midfielder was no more than functional in defence and his rare forays into more attacking areas also failed to bear fruit.

The role given to Fellaini was clear; hold up clearances and establish a foothold in enemy territory. And while Munich is not as physically frail as Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, the fact that 6’4″ Fellaini won just a single attempted headed duel in the German half is hugely disappointing. That’s to mention little of Fellaini’s passing, lack of pace, or absence of goal threat.

Indeed, Antonio Valencia could have provided more attacking support had the former Everton midfielder been able to outmuscle the Germans and retain the ball in the attacking third. With Arjen Robben dictating that Valencia choose his moments to attack with circumspection Fellaini simply must do better in the return tie.

It may be that Darren Fletcher is the better choice in Munich. The Scot may never again be fully match fit, but he has played in enough games this season to warrant consideration for the return in the Allianz Arena. In the Premier League, the Scot has boasted better passing statistics than Fellaini – Moyes would surely appreciate the fact that Fletcher has made, on average, longer passes than Fellaini while matching the Belgian’s accuracy.

There is an opportunity for United in midfield, with Bastian Schweinsteiger’s last-minute dismissal removing some steel from Bayern’s engine room. Perhaps due to having occasionally played out wide, Fletcher has always been extremely efficient in supporting the flanks. United had some joy in the channels on Tuesday, and the returning Rafael da Silva together with Valencia’s direct running could be key with Fletcher in a supporting role.

The 30-year-old midfielder’s experience in European away games could also count, especially given Fellaini’s questionable disciplinary record. Fletcher, however, carries a crucial weakness in the air, possibly due to the lingering effects of his illness. The Scot has attempted only six headed duels in eight Premier League appearances. Although this limitation may not be a problem defensively, with Bayern preferring to play on the ground, one suspects that Moyes will take this statistic very seriously.

Things were rosier upfront. Despite nominally starting on the left, Danny Welbeck was often the most advanced United player and used his pace to stretch Bayern. Manuel Neuer did well sweeping up United’s hopeful long balls, but the ‘keeper was often harried into poor clearances and the Germans were clearly troubled by United’s incessant attempts to exploit the space behind the backline. Welbeck has the legs to carry United into the semi-finals if given the right service.

Ryan Giggs was again charged with the now familiar role of instigating United’s attacks, although the Welshman was quiet for the duration of first half.

Whether through injury or a tactical switch Giggs was unceremoniously dumped for Shinji Kagawa. Yet, the Kagawa couldn’t replicate the kind of form that terrorised Bayern during his Borussia Dortmund tenure because both the Japanese playmaker and Giggs were largely pinned down by the Germans’ superiority. Neither is naturally not suited to launching long balls from a standing position.

Wayne Rooney, however, can make the sweeping passes that define Moyes’ template. It’s an asset that should be considered for the left flank in a week’s time, especially given the Scouser’s fitness is a question this season. While Rooney has never been a paragon of virtue, his fitness is increasingly inconsistent. The 28-year-old was visibly exhausted by the 70th minute on Tuesday and the left-sided role is far less demanding physically in the current system than is being deployed as a lone forward.

Another issue is Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball. United’s number 10 was frequently dispossessed by the swarming Bayern midfield, which put far too much emphasis on Fellaini as United’s lone out ball. Rooney’s influence was severely limited with Fellaini unable to make much of sparse possession.

Despite sitting out United’s victory over Aston Villa, Adnan Januzaj was left on the bench against Munich. In contrast to Fellaini’s brawn, which is not particularly useful against Bayern’s greater midfield numbers, the 19-year-old’s exquisite touch, turn and balance might fare better in Germany.

In addition to nimbly escaping makers Januzaj is likely to offer a better out ball than any other United player. The Belgian’s ability to dribble his way out of trouble is useful on the road.

Diagram 1

In fact while some off-the-ball runs were made dribbling was conspicuously absent. With Carrick anchoring United’s defence, Giggs or Kagawa could have run their way into the Bayern half, and on another day Rooney might have directly dribbled at the Germans’ defence.

That neither happened put additional pressure on United.

While comparison to the 2008 semi-final victory against Barcelona is apt, United of 2014 is missing a figure, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who has the tricks to carry the ball forward.

Seven years ago it was Paul Scholes who settled the tie with a long-range goal – Januzaj could be the man to earn Rooney the space to line up that vital shot in Munich.

In a sense though Munich is a dream opponent for Moyes. Few supporters realistically expect United to beat the Bundesliga champions. Yet, whether by design or accident, Moyes’ side is now in a decent position to progress. Having mastered the art of defending against the Germans the manager must now look at United’s attack.

Diagram by lineupbuilder.com

Preview: United v Bayern Munich

March 31, 2014 Tags: , Matches 16 comments
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It is, in many respects, a game that David Moyes cannot lose. Drawn against the ever-improving European champions, some bookmakers have Moyes’ Manchester United at 6-1 to beat the Germans at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. There can be only a handful of occasions in the past 20 years when such long odds could be found on United securing a result at home.

Yet, this is a reflection of the campaign to date. Moyes’ side has lost 13 times in all competitions this season; that’s as many games as Bayern coach Pep Guardiola has lost in four years. Seven of those defeats – six in the Premier League – have come at Old Trafford; more than the previous three campaigns combined.

Meanwhile, Bayern have failed to win on just seven occasions all season, being held to five draws and two losses. Or to put it another way, while United has retrenched under Moyes’ stewardship this season, Bayern has flourished under Guardiola’s management, with the Spanish coach securing an 84 per cent win rate this season.

Four years on from the last meeting between these sides – and Arjen Robben’s outstanding volleyed goal – Bayern is a superior outfit and United a shadow of the former team.

So much for all the talk of finding a path to match Barcelona after those dual Champions League final defeats to Guardiola’s Catalans in 2009 and 2011. Barça has been usurped as the continent’s best, of course, but United has not reached the same level again. On the current path, it may be years before the Reds feature in another continental final.

Still, Moyes has talked a bullish game this week; victory over Aston Villa filling the Scot full of more confidence than might be understandable after a dismal campaign. In Moyes’ predicament he’ll take the highs when they’re on offer.

Then there’s United’s form in Europe this season, which has seen the Reds lose just the once in the Champions League to date – the embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in Athens.

“It’s been a very good competition for us so far in my short time here, and now we’ve got the ultimate test in Bayern Munich,” said Moyes on Monday.

“I think the pressure is equally balanced because we want to win the game as much as they do. We go into the game knowing, on our day, we are as good a side as any. We have to show it more often but I have got great belief in the players. I get the feeling all the players want to play. In training, their attitude suggests they all want to play in the big games and this is a big game.”


Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014Still, Moyes is without key players for the 13th meeting between these two European giants. Robin van Persie could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, Juan Mata is cup tied in Europe, and Patrice Evra is suspended for the first leg in Manchester.

Rafael da Silva faces a late fitness test after coming off at half-time against Villa on Saturday. Ominously the Brazilian missed training on Monday.

However, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans both took part in a light session, although neither is likely to be match fit. The Irishman hasn’t played since early February, while Smalling has been in, but mostly out of the side in recent weeks.

With the rash of defensive absences Dutchman Alexander Büttner could start at left-back, while Jones will move to the right if Rafael proves unfit. It could mean a recall for Rio Ferdinand, or another appearance for Michael Carrick in the back four.

Further forward Moyes has a big call to make replacing Mata, with Kagawa pressing for a starting role after impressing against the Brummies, while Adnan Januzaj has been under-used in recent matches.


However, with Champions League qualification unlikely next season, Moyes’ priority remains Europe where a respectable result over two legs could secure the Scot’s job come the season’s dénouement. Matching Bayern man-for-man in a 4-2-3-1 system seems atypical to Moyes’ thinking, pushing fit-again Antonio Valencia, alongside Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs, into the frame for Tuesday’s match.

“It’s an obvious thing to say but it’s a two-legged tie and we have to make sure both games are important,” said Moyes.

“We’re mindful we want to go to Germany with every opportunity to go through so there’s always a bit of caution in the first leg. But we’d love to go to Germany with a win under our belts because it would set us up nicely.”


Meanwhile, the European champions arrive in Manchester without key midfielder Thiago Alcántara, who suffered a partial ligament tear in his right knee Bayern’s during 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim at the weekend. The Spaniard has become central to Guardiola’s plans this season following at £21 million move from Barcelona in the summer.

However, such are the riches on offer at Bayern that Guardiola may still field Bastian Schweinsteider, Toni Kroos, and Phillipe Lahm in central midfield at Old Trafford. Defender Dante is suspended so Spaniard Javier Martinez is likely to drop into the back four.

Such is Bayern’s strength that World Cup-bound German internationals Thomas Müller and Mario Götze may not make the Guardiola’s starting team.

Whatever the selection Bayern remain strong favourites to progress over two-legs, with Moyes likely to come under real pressure only if the newly re-crowned German champions run up a cricket score. That is, of course, possible given Bayern’s form this season, although Guardiola is keen to play down his side’s chances of running amok in Manchester.

“We are up against Manchester United and they are one of the most important clubs in the world, regardless of their current situation,” said Guardiola, who has been on the losing side just twice as Bayern coach.

“I know deep in my heart which team we are going to face. Maybe they have not had a good season in the Premier League, but in the Champions League they beat Leverkusen, they have won many important games. But when I see Rooney, when I see Ferdinand, when I see Vidić, when I see Ryan Giggs, when I see Chicharito, Welbeck, I know them all too well.”


The same can be said for Bayern’s likely starting team of course; each an outstanding and recognisable part of Europe’s finest side. Indeed, United’s chances may well be limited without injury and suspension disrupting Moyes’ back-four.

“Everyone knows it’s hard, that’s why I am saying we have to play with real quality,” said Rafael. “We have to do 200% or 300% to win.”


Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidić, Buttner; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Giggs, Welbeck; Rooney

Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba; Lahm, Schweinsteiger; Ribéry, Kroos, Robben; Mandžukić

United: Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Young, Fletcher, Januzaj, Kagawa, Nani, Hernandez

Bayern: Starke, Van Buyten, Badstuber, Shaqiri, Götze, Weiser, Højbjerg, Pizarro, Müller

Head to Head
United 2 Draw 4 Bayern 3

Match Officials (ESP)
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso, Juan Yuste
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Gómez, Carlos Del Cerro
Fourth official: Pau Cebrian Devis


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Smiles better for Moyes but true tests to come

March 23, 2014 Tags: , , , Opinion 8 comments
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It was a phenomenal effort, arching high over Adrián del Castillo’s head, bouncing once before catching the top of the net at the Bobby Moore end. Neither true volley, nor half, Wayne Rooney’s goal at Upton Park on Saturday is the kind that could spark a season into life.

Yet, David Moyes’ celebration at Rooney’s opener against West Ham United came, seemingly, with as much a sense of vindication as joy on the Scot’s brow. This is what pressure does. Even at the moment of triumph, Moyes emits the stench of a man trapped inside his own fear.

Not so on the bench where Danny Welbeck repeatedly punched the air with the euphoria supporters will instantly recognise.

Still, Manchester United’s victory over the Hammers on Saturday has brought significant relief for Moyes. Following Wednesday’s defeat of Olympiakos at Old Trafford, misguided talk of the Scot’s dismissal – at least prior to the season’s conclusion – surely ends. Indeed, barring comprehensive defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, followed by humiliation at Bayern Munich’s hands – both are possible of course – Moyes is highly likely to be given a second season in charge.

Yet, there have been so many false dawns these past eight months. After all, while United’s record against mediocre opposition isn’t at all bad – certainly on the road – Arsenal remains the only side in the Premier League’s top nine to have lost to Moyes’ outfit. And that was a very, very bad day at the office for the Gunners.

If truth be told, United’s form under Moyes – class even – will be more accurately reflected  in those upcoming games against City and Bayern than in any of the matches over the past week.

Still, the brace of victories has at least restored some confidence in a team badly shaken after the resounding loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend.

“I think the win on Wednesday against Olympiakos has given us all a big lift and you could see today the confidence running through the team,” said stand-in captain Rooney in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.

“Today was a good result after last week. Overall we played some good stuff. I thought we defended really well. I thought Michael Carrick at the back, in a difficult game, was outstanding for us so there are a lot of positives.

“There was some great counter-attacking football. That’s in the DNA of Manchester United and today we did that. We caused them a lot of problems.”

Yet, familiar weaknesses will be sternly tested in the weeks to come. Marouanne Fellaini and Darren Fletcher studiously supported United’s makeshift back four at Upton Park, but whatever the central midfield pairing on Tuesday, there is more than one a step up in class against Yaya Touré and the outstanding Brazilian Fernandinho.

Indeed, Robin van Persie’s knee injury should enable the United manager to deploy three central midfielders against City, assuming Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Juan Mata all start on Tuesday. Such has been the manager’s devotion to a front two of Rooney and van Persie this season that United would surely have been hopelessly outnumbered against City had the Dutchman not broken down yet again.

Cynics might note that Moyes will need to deploy even greater numbers in central midfield to have any chance of matching Bayern’s outstanding contingent. Thiago Alcântara, Toni Kroos, Bastian Scheinsteiger, Javi Martínez and Mario Götze will each play some part over the two legs and, whatever the confidence gained over the past two matches, it is stating the obvious that Bayern will dominate in central areas.

For Moyes, however, matches against City and Bayern hold little to fear save for a humiliating drubbing. With expectations now at a low not matched in two decades the Scot needs only save face to emerge with some credit from the trio of fixtures. United, at a minimum, has at least gained some momentum in the past week.

“Hopefully we can go into Tuesday’s game showing a bit more confidence,” said the 50-year-old on Saturday night.

“You can never refer this game to the next one but all we want to do is get a bit of momentum and that’s something we haven’t had an awful lot of.”

Neither has there been any real intensity this season; an edge seemingly missing from August through to the spring. It is a pattern that particularly shows in the bigger matches.

With Bayern having wrapped up the Bundesliga at the weekend, and City chasing another Premier League crown, Moyes may find his players’ competitive spirit a little short of the opponents once again. And while pride may be at stake, it has been all season to little effect.

“It’s a massive game, but it’s a big game for City too, for the fans and for the players,” said Rooney of Tuesday’s fixture.

“It’s a big challenge for us and we have to go into that with confidence after the last two games. I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited, and hopefully we can get a good result.”

United, of course, will need a little more than hope, but to some extent Moyes can prioritise Europe following Tuesday’s clash. True, there are tough fixtures away at Newcastle United and Everton to come, but there remains little to play for domestically. Not since Sir Alex Ferguson’s early days has that been true in March.

After all, few supporters care whether the club seals sixth place and a slot in the Europa League third qualifying round. It might even be more lucrative to complete the summer tour in the US and not return early for a two-legged tie in late July against, among other options, the third-placed team in the Cypriot First Division.

In the meantime United begins the 167th derby as clear outsiders against a City side that put five past hapless Fulham at the weekend. That would be the same Cottagers who earned a draw with United at Old Trafford in January to universal consternation in Moyes’ camp.

But then this fixture has seen more than one surprise over the years. A unlikely United win might even bring Moyes a little joy.

Fergie wrong to play blame game

April 8, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson blamed “typical Germans” for Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League last night but he needs to look closer to home before playing the blame game. In a season of mediocrity by United’s very high standards Ferguson’s search for answers lies within, not in the decisions of referees or actions of opponents.

The Scot gambled both on youthful inexperience in Rafael da Silva and Darron Gibson and the fitness of his talisman last night. Ferguson could hardly do anything else after the drab displays in Munich and then against Chelsea.

It almost worked with United’s vibrant first half performance the best by the Reds for months. United and Ferguson at their best, trusting in the team’s attacking instincts to carry the day.

Then at three up United imploded. Michael Carrick’s poor defensive work, followed in quick succession by Rafael’s mindless tug on Franc Ribéry. Typically, Ferguson chose to focus on the actions of others and not his own players’ failings.

“They got him sent off,” said Ferguson of Rafael’s red card for two bookable offences.

“There’s no doubt about that and they would have never won if we had 11 men. He is a young boy, inexperienced and there’s a bit of immaturity about what happened but they got him sent off. Typical Germans.

“That sending off changed the game. I thought they were typical professionals in the way they saw the opportunity and forced the referee. It was only a slight tug at the boy and, Jesus, he was 35 yards from goal.

“He was having a marvellous game and it’s a tragedy for him but the ref wasn’t going to do anything until they forced him to get a card out. But we’ve seen that before from teams like that.”

But there is little need to resort to blame – first the referee against Chelsea and then the opponents last night – when by-and-large United has caused its own downfall this season.

While the side has struggled with its defensive work all campaign – understandably at times – United’s passing is of an abjectly lower standard than in the past. It’s a problem Ferguson must quickly address if United is to challenge in Europe next year.

But perhaps the team’s biggest problem is its passivity, with no obvious team leader having emerged in the post Roy Keane era. Such is the team’s desperate need that Ferguson resorted to deploying a half-fit Rooney as much for his inspiration as for his football last night.

The risk backfired with the forward limping heavily after a 20th minute challenge and never recovering. Now the striker is likely to miss at least the fixture with Blackburn Rovers this weekend.

Ferguson, outlandishly, accused the German side of deliberately targeting the 34-goal forward.

“I think that’s obvious,” he said.

“I don’t think there was anything serious, but there were a couple of challenges. We expected that, and the referee should have handled it.”

And then in his final analysis Ferguson chose to blame luck for the away goals defeat to Bayern Munich, with the German side scoring a deflected free-kick last week and benefiting from Rafael’s red card last night.

“I don’t think the best team got through,” the manager said.

“We have had occasions when we have had luck and I think they have this time. It’s hard to digest. In one way we could say we have thrown it away; in another we’ve been very unlucky.”

Indeed, football is won and lost in details but over the course of a season United’s 11 defeats signal the writing on the wall for this team. Professional football waits for no man.

At least the first 40 minutes of last night’s tie offers Ferguson a guiding light pointing to a better future next season. United must defend, pass and attack with more quality of that, as Ferguson likes to say, there is no doubt.

Spending is almost certainly required but perhaps so is a change of mindset. Starting with the club’s leader, Sir Alex.

Player reaction to Bayern defeat

April 7, 2010 Tags: , Shorts 3 comments

Manchester United’s goalscorers Nani and Darron Gibson reacted to the side being knocked out of the Champions League on away goals with renewed determination to win at home. The pair’s first half strikes sent United into three goal lead before Bayern Munich’s comeback ended the Reds participation in this year’s competition.


“We’re feeling bad because we did so well in the first half – we scored three goals and I think it was one of our best performances – so we are disappointed,” the winger told MUTV.

“They were a bit lucky, because having one player sent off was the problem for us, it made the team a bit down. That was the difference.

With five games remaining in which to overhaul Chelsea’s two-point lead at the head of the Premier League, Nani concedes he and his colleagues are now focused solely on domestic matters.

“Of course, we have to give everything we have now to try to win the league and that’s where we go now.”

Darron Gibson

“It’s the only thing we can do,” said the goalscoring Irishman.

“We either lie down and let the whole season go or we stand back up and fight for the championship.

“We’ve got the experience in the dressing room to do it – a lot of the players have been in this position before.

“We played so well and not to go through is very disappointing. But we’ve just got to pick ourselves up for the weekend because we’re still in the race for the title.”

Robben’s wonder strike breaks United’s hearts

April 7, 2010 Tags: , Matches 7 comments

Old Trafford rocked to the sound of a storming Wayne Rooney-inspired start as Darron Gibson’s early strike, followed by Nani’s flicked goal handed Manchester United the perfect platform. But a third inside the first half only precipitated Bayern Munich’s stunning comeback as Louis van Gaal’s Germans knocked United out of the Champions League.

Ferguson, having hoodwinked the world’s media just 24 hours earlier, started Rooney eight days after the striker’s ankle injury in the Allianz Arena.

It inspired the home side and United was ahead inside three minutes, with Rooney’s layoff finding Gibson for the Irishman to lash home in typical style. Gibson has not always impressed this season but packs a mighty punch when shooting from range.

The early strike a week ago sent Ferguson’s side into its shell. Not this time with a United side packed with energy and endeavor instructed to close Bayern down at every turn.

Within moments Ferguson’s side was two goals to the good, with the live-wire Antonio Valencia picking out Nani at the near post to raise Old Trafford’s roof. Nani’s flick through his legs expertly delivered.

But if Rooney’s return brought additional belief to the United cause then the Scouser had hearts in mouths when limping heavily just 20 minutes into the tie. While the forward indicated his willingness to continue, Rooney’s movement was permanently limited.

United paid little attention with the focus on putting the visitors to the sword early. First Gibson’s strike dipped just over and then Rafael led a lightning quick break in which the Brazilian full-back flashed a shot inches wide.

It mattered not with the home side adding a third from Nani following another incisive Valenica break down the right. The winger’s shot, lashed in off the bar, met with delight in the stands.

Subdued to this point, Bayern responded at last with Ivica Olic forcing a save from Edwin van der Sar at the Croatian’s feet. Better followed from the striker, a late goalscorer in Munich, who silenced the crowd by firing low past the Dutchman. Carrick’s lightweight defensive effort punished heavily.

Then the turning point as Rafael, booked early for a foul on Martin Demichelis, received a second yellow for a naïve tug on Ribéry moments into the second half. It was just the Brazilian’s second foul of the match but this time under the official’s nose with Bayern players urging the inevitable card.

Rooney’s was the sacrifice to the cause, with the England striker still hobbling despite the half-time break and pulled off for the returning John O’Shea. United a man light and without a recognizable striker invited the Germans to come forward with waves of attack.

But Nani and then Gibson should have added a fourth in quick succession. Nani’s angled shot and then Gibson’s side-footer blocked by Hans Jorg Butt in the Bayern net.

The dénouement. Arjen Robben, the man United tried unsuccessfully to sign in 2004, broke United’s hearts with a stunning goal on the volley just as the home side seemed to have the upper-hand.

“He’s [Rafael] a young boy, inexperienced, but they got him sent off. They all rushed towards the referee. Typical Germans,” added Ferguson in the heat of the aftermath.

“You can’t dispute that. The key issues were the goal before half-time and then the boy getting sent off, but it’s still taken an exceptional goal to win the tie.

“I think we’ve done well, performed well. It was a great performance. We were very unlucky.”

Perhaps so but it is remiss to hide behind Robben’s wonder-strike – a red herring with United’s deficiencies this season exposed by 12 defeats in all competitions.

In truth Ferguson’s side has gone backwards, with injuries and refereeing decisions less important than finding a midfield that can supply a base for the outstanding talents Rooney possesses.

“I don’t think it’s serious. It’s just the tissue. I’m sure he’ll be OK for the following week,” added the Scot of Rooney’s injury.

Should it not Ferguson’s gamble will have backfired hugely, with just five games to go in the Premier League.