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Rooney plays as Reds seek to end Chelsea hopes

March 1, 2011 Tags: , Matches 341 comments

Wayne Rooney starts for Manchester United at Stamford Bridge tonight after escaping FA censure this week. The 25-year-old appeared to strike Wigan Athletic midfielder James McCarthey with his elbow in Saturday’s 4-0 win for United but the FA could not act under its own rules.

The former Everton player will either start the game on the left-side of midfield or as the lone front-runner behind top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov as United seek a 15 point lead over Chelsea and seven ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League title race.

Elsewhere manager Sir Alex Ferguson is still missing Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans through injury, while Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs face late tests before their fitness is determined.

Rooney’s inclusion means there is unlikely to be a starting spot for Mexican forward Javier Hernandez, despite the 22-year-old’s two well-taken goals at the DW on Saturday. But the former Chivas player understands that he is part of a squad at Old Trafford – albeit now a key piece having scored 14 goals this season.

“I have no problems being on the bench. I understand that football is a team sport, not like golf or tennis,” said the £10 million summer signing.

“So you have to help your team when you play from the beginning but also when you come on from the bench. We are like pieces of a jigsaw and the boss decides how to use us. If Ferguson picks me for the starting line-up, that would be great but if not, that’s fine too.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson could rotate his midfield, with Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick all in contention to start against last season’s champions. Scholes played against Wigan on Saturday but sat out the draw with Marseille last week, with Irishman Gibson handed a rare start for the club.

Ferdinand’s continued absence means another start for Chris Smalling, who impressed both at Wigan and in United’s Champions League tie with Marseille last week.

Although Giggs is unlikely to start for United – if he makes the matchday squad at all – the winger will mark almost 20 years since his United début. And the winger remains determined to add more silverware to a growing collection, starting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tonight.

“They don’t come any bigger than Chelsea away,” said the 37-year-old, who made his début against Everton on 2 March 1991.

“Last year when Chelsea won the Double, it wound me up. It’s not the fear of failure. It’s craving that feeling of winning.

“Losing the title by one point last year stayed with me. I went away on holiday, I am lying on the beach enjoying myself with the kids, and then what happened comes back. It really winds you up. You are on holiday and you are really wound up.”

Chalkboard versus ChelseaMeanwhile, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti says both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba will feature against United tonight, although the Italian was coy about whether both will start the game. Torres is yet to score after the £50 million transfer from Liverpool but has seemingly displaced Drogba from the Chelsea team. Indeed, the Ivorian has threatened to leave the club if he cannot force his way back into the side.

If Torres is the long-term future of Chelsea’s strikeforce then it has brought little short-term success, with Chelsea’s form in free-fall since the autumn. The Londoners five-point lead in the Premier League has become a 12 point deficit, which has all but ended Ancelotti’s hopes of repeating last season’s league and cup double. FA Cup defeat by Everton means that the Champions League is Chelsea’s only realistic hope of silverware this season.

Still, United has not won at Stamford Bridge in eight years and twice suffered defeat to Chelsea last season. It’s a fact Ferguson will be mindful of, with a lone-striker system likely as United seek to avoid defeat first.

If Giggs has not recovered for the trip Rooney is likely to reprise the role he adopted in Marseille last week. Whatever his position, Ferguson will hope the £30 million striker capitalises on this week’s good fortune by scoring the goals that take United closer to a record 19th title.

“I have to say it’s been a difficult season for me – probably the worst I’ve ever had,” Rooney told the News of the World.

“That week when I asked for a transfer was something I wouldn’t want to go through ever again. Then I picked up a few niggles and missed a few games, so I didn’t really feel like I was playing a part.

“The good thing is that I feel fresh. I really want to kick on from here and have a big impact on the most important matches of the season.

“We’ve got a really terrible record at Stamford Bridge – in fact, I don’t think I have ever won there in my entire career.

“But it won’t play on our minds. If anything, it will make us even more determined to go there and win. It’s a really massive game and Chelsea need to win it more than we do. Hopefully the pressure will tell on them.”

Should the Scouser score United’s winning goal tonight, much will be forgiven.

Opposition
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anelka, Torres, Malouda. Subs from: Turnbull, Mikel, Ferreira, McEachran, Sala, Kalou, Drogba.

United
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Carrick, Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Giggs, Owen.

Officials
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant referees: Peter Kirkup & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Chris Foy

Form
Chelsea – LDDWDL
United – WLWWDW

Torres makes Chelsea easier to beat

February 18, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 12 comments

“When you join a club you want to do the best for yourself and for that club. That’s all,” said Fernando Torres on signing for Chelsea on the deadline day last month. Despite Liverpool fans’ angry protests, the player had no obligation to the Merseyside club above and beyond the contract he signed in 2007.

Indeed, moving clubs is no “betrayal” and even if fans label Torres a “Judas” the Merseyside club certainly got its thirty pieces of silver – the £50 million fee Chelsea paid for the 26-year-old striker. Moreover, Liverpool signed Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll to replace Torres, bolstering an infamously thin squad and replacing the non-firing Spaniard with two decent alternatives. It was a transfer that made sense – even if the American-owned club paid two astronomical fees for Suarez and Carroll.

The move makes sense for the London club as well, although perhaps not in the short-term. With Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka now beyond 30, Chelsea needed someone younger to take over the striking mantle.

However, Torres’s introduction could make an already brittle Chelsea side even easier to beat. After all, neither Anelka nor Drogba are even-tempered and each is  liable to throw a tantrum or two should a spell on the bench result from the incoming striker.

Even if the existing strikers accept the situation, assimilation of the former Liverpool player remains an issue for Carlo Ancelotti. There’s a reason most clubs do their transfer businesses in the close season. Matches start to pile up around this time of year – especially for the top clubs that fight on multiple fronts. Managers begin to curtail training to ease the physical toil and to prevent injuries. With less time on the training pitch, new signings find it harder to blend in, although there is pressure to fully use the new player, in hope that the team will eventually gel.

Winter transfers are much more realistic for smaller clubs though, especially troubled sides fighting relegation. Assuming that the fee is reasonable, a mid-season purchase represents less of a gamble than for the top sides. Also, smaller clubs tend to use less sophisticated tactics than the giants of the game; easier tactics, easier integration.

Chelsea, on the other hand, is helmed by Ancelotti – and even a tactician as renowned as the former AC Milan manager will find the prospect of keeping Anelka, Drogba and Torres happy challenging. The Italian could choose a variant of standard 4-4-2, although it is difficult to implement at Chelsea because the London club lacks a player to play wide right bar, perhaps, Ramires and Michael Essien. Either is simply a temporary fix.

At AC Milan, Ancelotti used decidedly central systems such as 4-3-1-2, but such narrow formations are hard to use in the Premier League. For one, width is sacred to most English clubs. Yet, systems with wide midfielders or wingers can pin back full-backs and render narrow systems completely toothless.

Moreover, Chelsea has no one that can play the trequartista role that is essential in formations such as 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 diamond. Frank Lampard is a sound player technically but even he does not have that oomph required for the role. Arguably, the Englishman is too ‘box-to-box’ to play with his back to goal.

This argument similarly applies to Anelka and others – as Ancelotti’s previous flirtations with formations show, Chelsea simply doesn’t have the players to make narrow systems work.

Manchester United hasn’t yet played Chelsea this season but considering that the Reds have fared well against Arsenal  in recent seasons, two upcoming games against the West Londoners will likely decide whether Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit can win a 19th league title. As things stand, the trophy appears inevitable.

Should Tottenham Hotspur maintain excellent recent form, Torres – whose rationale for the move was to play in the Champions League – might well return to the Europa League next season. What a delicious irony.

Fernando’s uncomfortable truth

February 8, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments

“I never kissed the Liverpool badge,” said Fernando Torres last week.

“I see some players do that one week after they join a club but the romance in football has gone. It’s different now. People come and leave. When you join a club you want to do the best for yourself and for that club. That’s all.”

It was the brutal and unsympathetic assessment of modern football by one of its leading proponents. As Fernando Torres trashed Liverpool supporters’ hopes by moving to Chelsea for £50 million, he also laid bare the one of the modern game’s taboos.

To players, football is little more than a job; one in which the career path exists every bit as much as in the rat race of every day life. Call it greed, call it disloyalty just don’t admit it is the truth. Modern football in a cold light – a commercially oriented entertainment business in which fans are customers, and customers a revenue stream on which to leverage brands’ sponsored association.

“Some people like to kiss the badge,” added the 26-year-old Spanish international. “I only want to score goals and do my job.”

Quite apart from whether Torres did “kiss the Liverpool badge” or not – it matters not one iota to the players argument. Romance has indeed gone to meet its maker.

Torres’ statement was met with the same disbelief on the terraces as in the media. The entirely false notion that moving jobs in sports is in any way fundamentally different from other walks of life is laid bare by only a few within the game.

More universally, those that follow the game engage in a pattern of denial. It is a message few want to accept its frankness: footballers, like the supporters that buy a ticket and purchase a subscription, do their jobs for money. The shock! The horror!

Predictably supporters in Merseyside labeled the striker a “Judas” on a multitude of internet forums and held aloft banners at Stamford Bridge lambasting the striker’s supposed “betrayal”. The action driven by the same misguided perception that players should somehow harbour an emotional attachment to the club.

It is, after all, why players kiss the badge. That action, save for the few who cringe with embarrassment, is taken as a sign of love. It is a universally understood endorsement that buys reciprocation.

Manchester United supporters fell into the same trap of course when Wayne Rooney publicly questioned the club’s “ambition”. While Rooney’s biggest mistake was to poorly articulate what others were thinking, the striker’s perceived disloyalty hurt fans the most.

“He truly got United,” was a common refrain, “how could he turn on the club like this?” For Rooney and his agent the move was a logical business decision.

This game of emotional entrapment is also played, with conspicuous success, by club owners. “Be part of it” declared the mural on Mancunian Way enticing Blues to actually visit Eastlands. Live the “Dream” at Old Trafford, goes the now well-worn cliché. It is the same emotional pull that enabled the Glazer family to all but sell out of season tickets this summer despite five years of parsimonious management and astronomical ticket price rises.

Supporters, it seems, are not quite ready to behave like customers and walk away from a bad deal, just as they are unable to accept players as ephemeral commodities. Here today, gone tomorrow.

It is a truth that Torres knows only too well. Players and supporters are as one pawns in a bigger game in which high finance dictates the football industry’s direction.

After all, if owners treat players like pieces of meat, as Roy Keane once infamously said, then perhaps supporters are little more than the gherkin in the burger bun. Fans exist but nobody in club management is quite sure why.

It is these same owners that gladly play the greed card when it is to their advantage. It is an argument lapped up not only by fans but national media that should know better. Only one leading journalist openly admitted he would move paper for double his salary in the wake of Torres’ transfer.

Torres, meanwhile, will do what the striker does best and score significant and potentially silverware winning goals for Chelsea. Freed of the demotivating downward spiral inflicting Anfield over the past two years, the Spaniard is likely to flourish.

After all, the player’s move was essentially a career decision; simply the business of football. “I’m sure I am doing one big step forward in my career,” the former Atlético de Madrid player told Chelsea TV to universal anger on Merseyside.

Torres’ alacrity is a lesson many fans would do well to heed though. Football, the entertainment business. Buy a ticket, take a seat, consume the dream. Just don’t expect ‘loyalty’ to the club to be matched by players.

Nor should it be.

Running scared

December 20, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea vs. United: a tactical preview

December 17, 2010 Tags: , , Matches 40 comments

Manchester United fans have no reason to like John Obi Mikel, the man who forced a move to Chelsea in 2006. Even Chelsea fans are ambivalent about the Nigerian who seemingly does little but pass the ball to Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. However, Obi Mikel is as important to Chelsea as Jack Wilshere is to Arsenal.

Obi Mikel is the passer who takes the easy ball from defense and distributes it to players further up field. He might not have the twinkle toes of Wilshere but he is physically strong and has a better range of passing than the Englishman, which arguably makes the Chelsea midfielder better suited for the role.

Indeed, it is Obi Mikel’s brawn that allows Chelsea to play Essien not as a water carrier but as an all-action, box-to-box player alongside a creative midfielder such as Lampard in a very aggressive 4-3-3.

Obi Mikel’s role is made even more integral to the Blues given the uneasiness of Chelsea centre-backs on the ball, especially John Terry. By neutralising Obi Mikel, United can “break” Chelsea – without the Nigerian to link the defence and attack, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will attempt fortuitous long balls.

However, the above analysis is rather simple considering that Chelsea’s first XI will most likely feature Ashley Cole and Paolo Ferreira – two excellent attacking full-backs who are comfortable carrying the ball forward. To combat the threat down the wings, Nani and Ji-Sung Park will likely be deployed on United’s flanks, ensuring direct markers to the opposition full-backs.

Furthermore, Ferguson will probably deploy Park on the right and Nani on the left. While Nani has shown this season that he is a capable defensive player, Park is in a class of his own in this respect and will be deployed to mark Cole. The England full-back, like Obi Mikel, is more important to the current Chelsea side than in the past because Chelsea’s centre-backs are not comfortable on the ball.

Chelsea’s reliance on full-backs and Obi Mikel to start their attacks was exploited brilliantly by Sunderland who defeated Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge this season. The Black Cats achieved the historic win by deploying a high-pressing 4-4-2. Danny Welbeck et al hassled the Chelsea defence all game, while Kieron Richardson man-marked Cole. Chelsea found it extremely difficult to connect passes and succumbed to the pace of Sunderland’s strikers on the counter.

It is unlikely that Javier Hernández will be risked given his inexperience. Meanwhile Dimitar Berbatov is far from lazy but the Bulgarian isn’t exactly mobile either and rarely hassles his opponents or make runs down the channel to create space. Given the personnel available, 4-4-2 remains a touch too risky and Sir Alex Ferguson will most likely choose a trusted variant on 4-5-1.

Last Monday, Sir Alex deployed 4-3-3 to mirror Arsenal’s formation and to ensure that each of the Londoners’ players had a direct opponent. Similarly, the Scot will go for 4-2-3-1 on Sunday – the usual back four supported by Edwin Van der Sar, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher holding and an attacking midfield trio of Nani, Anderson and Park, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney to mirror Chelsea’s 4-3-3.

The game will likely be livelier than the Arsenal fixture too. Pressing is key to defeating Chelsea as Sunderland has already shown this season. United will attempt to take the game to the home side. Chelsea forwards aren’t particularly fast and the Reds will gain an advantage by setting up a high line to facilitate the pressing game.

With Chelsea’s back-four shaky, Lampard just coming into the side after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Didier Drogba et al having a poor season, United fans can realistically expect a first Reds’ victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.

United draw positives from Shield win

August 8, 2010 Tags: , Matches 30 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will take much heart from victory over Champions Chelsea at Wembley following a summer of minimal investment and a public declaration of faith in his squad. Manchester United swept aside the tepid Londoners, with Mexican striker Javier Hernández, Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia on the scoresheet.

Ferguson’s men largely monopolised possession, save for a late Chelsea rally which brought Salmon Kalou’s 82nd minute goal, in a match regarded as little more than a final pre-season warm up by both sides.

Prior to the Ivorian’s strike United had taken the lead through Valencia’s 41st minute goal after Wayne Rooney’s outstanding right-wing pass, with Hernández scoring in off his own face with 15 minutes to go in a promising competitive début.

Man-of-the-match Paul Scholes rolled back the years to deliver an outstanding display of passing on Wembley’s relaid turf, although Chelsea’s parsimonious attitude towards marking the 35-year-old allowed the time and space in which the midfielder thrives. If United is truly not going to reinforce in midfield this summer then Scholes’ form and fitness must belie his advancing years.

Perhaps even more importantly United’s striker Wayne Rooney – unsurprisingly booed by Chelsea fans, many of whom will turn out to support England at Wembley on Wednesday night – impressed during a 45 minute first half work out. The striker looked sharper than at any time prior to his March ankle injury against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Indeed, Rooney’s vision to set up Valencia for the opening goal underlines the striker’s brilliance. The former Evertonian turned blind on the right wing, firing into the six yard area to leave winger Valencia with a simple finish.

The goal came shortly after Rooney’s 60-yard pass had created the game’s opening chance for the Ecuadorian who failed to lift over the advancing Chelsea goalkeeper.

Rooney departed for débutant Hernández at half-time and United noticeably sought out the speedy striker with direct balls over John Terry’s back-four. The Mexican’s pace will surely be an outstanding weapon this season even if a period of bedding into Premier League football is required.

Yet Ferguson reserved the largest slice of praise for the Mexican’s second-half striker partner Berbatov, who scored late into injury time by lobbing over Henrique Hilário to seal United’s victory just as Chelsea pressed for an equaliser.

“He needed it [a goal] given the adverse publicity he had last season. It’s an old problem when we pay big money for someone and they are not scoring three goals a game and making 50 passes, they get slaughtered,” said Ferguson of the £30.5 million Bulgarian striker.

“But there’s no disputing his talent; he can be a genius. He had a mixed season by his standards but maybe this will be his season.”

The result, certainly just due to United’s superior possession, could have turned late into the second half when Ferguson’s defence sustained a period of pressure from last season’s double winners.

Even before the Londoners late onslaught Edwin van der Sar saved superbly from Bratislav Ivanovic’s powerful first half header. Further saves by the Dutchman from Florent Malouda, twice, Ashley Cole and Daniel Sturridge in the second half kept United ahead.

However, United and Scholes in particular took the plaudits in front of more than 30,000 delighted United supporters in North West London. The midfielder’s brilliance is beyond doubt; his ability to perform every week is however and that is where United may just fall short this season.

It is not with any surprise that newspaper reports again linked United – and Chelsea – today to a £13.5 million bid for Germany’s ‘ghost’ Mesut Ozil.

“He’s just an incredible footballer,” said Ferguson of 35-year-old Scholes.

“It’s a phenomenon that he goes out there and becomes man of the match, approaching his 36th birthday.”

“This time last year, he’s saying to himself, ‘This is my last season’ – and a lot of people thought that,” Ferguson said.

“It came across my mind also, simply because he’s had a lot of injuries in his career. He keeps coming back; it’s not easy to do that.”

No need to worry about retirement today though with Ferguson rightly reserving the last word for the ginger midfielder.

Look away, no Pool conspiracy here

April 27, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

The players agree – when Liverpool meets Carlo Ancellotti’s table-topping Chelsea this Sunday both sides will be out to win. It’s not a scenario many United supporters have faith in though, with the nightmare prospect of Rafa Benitez resting key players and the Kop egging on the away side to victory all too realistic.

Indeed, in a recent poll on popular Liverpool blog Empire of the Kop nearly half the supporters participating said they were hoping for a Chelsea victory next Sunday lunch time. Even if that win ends Liverpool’s faint hopes of making the Champions League next season.

Little wonder, with Untied baring down on a record-breaking 19th domestic title and the rivalry so strong these days. United and Liverpool each stands on 18, with a Merseyside win on Sunday all but handing Sir Alex Ferguson’s side an historic English title.

For United fans it grates too, with a favour needed from the club’s biggest rival hardly a scenario that most supporters dared to countenance earlier in the campaign.

“We need Chelsea to slip up now so hopefully Liverpool or Wigan can do us a favour,” said United’s 34-goal striker Wayne Rooney.

“Liverpool are a proud club with a lot of history and I’m sure they’ll want to win that game as they’re fighting for the Europa League. We just have to try and win our last two games. If Liverpool or Wigan can help us out, we’ll be happy.”

Few supporters this side of the East Lancs Road relish cheering on Anfield’s finest. Fortune has it that United does not need Liverpool to beat in-form Chelsea at Anfield. With Chelsea’s recent goalscoring ensuring that goal difference is now irrelevant, a bore draw will do Ferguson’s men nicely.

Provided the Reds beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light of course.

While conspiracy theories abound among United fans and many Liverpool supporters face a moral dilemma over the game, the players are making the right noises in public.

“There is no way they will think about anything else other than winning the game, regardless of whether it helps them get in the Champions League or not,” Chelsea’s Frank Lampard said.

“There is no chance 11 Liverpool players will go out and consider United winning the title on what happens in that game. They will go out to win. They will want to be professional.

“They will give everything, there is no doubt about that. It is a difficult match but it’s not a case of us worrying. Everyone is aware that when they go to Liverpool it will be difficult, whatever stage of the season it is.”

Liverpool has been here before of course. In 1995 the Merseysiders beat Kenny Dalgleish’s Blackburn Rovers 2-1 on the season’s final day. It would have given United a 10th English title had Ferguson’s team not failed to beat West Ham United on the same May afternoon.

The stakes are now higher though. United’s charge towards historic English preeminence is sure to clarify many Kopites thinking. But with fourth place still an outside possibility Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard says that the home side will aim for the win, whatever the fans want.

“We are underdogs for fourth position but our fans know that we have also got Everton breathing down our necks and we certainly don’t want them finishing above us,” added Gerrard.

“We have got a couple of games left now and the idea is to take maximum points to see if we can get into fourth through the back door. If we take maximum points, who knows? The teams above us might slip up.”

However, the nightmare scenario for United supporters is an Everton defeat at Stoke City on Saturday, combined with a Tottenham Hotspur win at Eastlands.

Add a Liverpool victory over Atletico Madrid on Thursday into the mix and the Merseysiders will simultaneously be out of the Champions League reckoning, guaranteed a Europa League spot next season and handed an incentive to rest players.

The more cynical among you will expect to see Gerrard joining the injured Fernando Torres on the sidelines whatever the scenario.

Two games to decide a season

April 20, 2010 Tags: , , , Opinion 24 comments

Just 180 minutes of nail-biting football will decide this  year’s Premier League title. Manchester United’s home fixture against in-form Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday lunchtime is followed on 2 May by Liverpool’s match with Chelsea at Anfield. While United must win any failure by Chelsea could see the title head to Old Trafford.

Spurs’ record at Old Trafford is laughably poor but that is unlikely to fool Sir Alex Ferguson this weekend. Indeed, with Harry Redknapp’s side having beaten both Arsenal and Chelsea in the past week the Londoners feel confident on improving a record that has not included an Old Trafford win since 1989. That victory followed a League Cup win for the Londoners on the same ground six weeks before.

Records are there for breaking but Redknapp’s push for entry into the Champions League third qualification round next season is motivation enough for the Londoners, who lie just two points ahead of Manchester City in fourth.

The question on most United fans’ lips is which Ferguson side will turn up on Saturday: the one with the desire and drive to dominate and ultimately win the Manchester derby last weekend, or the limp outfit that failed to score at Blackburn Rovers?

Ultimately that may come down to the fitness of Wayne Rooney, who looked no more than 80 per cent of his peak against City at the weekend.

Champions League qualification is a problem unlikely to concern Rafa Benitez in 10 days time, with Liverpool five points off Spurs having played a game more. Realistically, the Anfield outfit will fight it out with Aston Villa for a place in next season’s Europa League.

But with Liverpool’s semi-final second leg against Athletico Madrid in the same competition taking place less than three days before Chelsea’s visit Benitez’ side being physically and mentally shattered is a very real threat.

Notwithstanding Liverpool supporters’ laughable desire to see their own side lose. There’s nothing like hating your rivals more than loving your own team. See also: Manchester City.

Chelsea’s last six visits to Anfield in all competitions has yielded just one win but Liverpool’s league position and fixture list makes Carlo Ancelotti’s side marginal favourites for the win.

While United face a trip to Sunderland before a final day home fixture against Stoke, Chelsea play the Potteries club this weekend before a home game against Wigan Athletic on the final day. Each manager will expect their sides to pick up maximum points from these fixtures.

Perhaps United’s only real advantage is that Ferguson’s side meets Spurs a week before Chelsea’s Anfield visit. Win and the pressure for Chelsea to beat Liverpool is then immense. Pressure does strange things after all, with Ancelotti’s outfit unable to cope with their cross town rivals at the weekend.

Indeed, Frank Lampard openly admitted that United’s last-gasp victory at Eastlands deflated his side ahead of the visit to Spurs.

The stress is certainly showing on both sides in what is perhaps the tightest top flight finish since Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield to take the 1988/89 Football League First Division. That year the London side took the title on goals scored, although it would take an extraordinary set of results to produce a similar finish this season.

Down then to which team scores the better result against top-four hopefuls. History suggests United, circumstance marginally favours Chelsea.