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Advantage Madrid as confident Reds head to Spain

February 11, 2013 Tags: , , , Reads 54 comments

“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”

Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.

It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.

In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.

“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.

“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!

“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”

In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.

Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.

His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.

There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.

Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.

“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”

Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.

Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.

In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.

Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.

Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.

Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.

“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.

“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”

The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.

“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.

“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”

The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.

Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a  jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.

“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.

But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.

Preview: United v Everton

February 9, 2013 Tags: , Matches 112 comments

Three days ahead of Manchester United’s trip to face Real Madrid in Spain, supporters might be forgiven for having one eye on the Champions League Round of 16 clash next Wednesday. After all, this is a match between two of Europe’s most storied institutions, and a first meeting in almost a decade. Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho; Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney – a selection of the world’s finest managerial and playing talent that is certain to capture global attention.

United’s players, however, can ill afford to look beyond Sunday. Not least with United fighting to regain the Premier League title from neighbours Manchester City, whose defeat to Southampton on Saturday proffers the Reds an opportunity to open up a 12 point lead.

Yet, with Everton at Old Trafford this weekend, and memories of last season’s capitulation against the Merseysiders still fresh, it is far from clear which is the biggest game of the week ahead.

United’s 4-4 draw with Everton on 22 April last season, after holding a two-goal lead with just seven minutes to spare, eventually contributed heavily to a Premier League title secured by Roberto Mancini’s City. Together with Everton’s 1-0 victory over United at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season, there is plenty of reason for concern at Old Trafford over the fixture.

Still, the expediency of two difficult matches inside a few days means that Ferguson is likely to stretch his playing resources against Everton on Sunday, with the United manager insisting that he will trust his full squad over the brace of matches. Given the demands of the European élite, it may the be the tie with Everton where Ferguson delves deepest into his squad.

“It will be different teams,” admitted the United manager on Friday.

“The team on Sunday will not be the same as the team that plays on Wednesday. I trust the squad of players I have. They are all internationals, they are all good players and there is no reason why I can’t play them. They’re all contributing in their own way and that gives us a better chance of dealing with the various competitions we’re in.

“The team is playing well, I’m pleased with their form and I’m pleased that the players we’re changing around, when I’m making different team selections, are buying into it well.”

Ferguson at least has a fully fit squad from which to pick, with only shingles-suffering Phil Jones out of contention, while Ashley Young should return to the match-day party following injury.

Javier Hernández returned late from international duty with Mexico, but there are few other fitness concerns ahead of Everton’s arrival in Manchester. Paul Scholes may only feature against Madrid with the veteran suffering from a minor knee complaint.

“So far everyone has come back fit from their excursions into the rest of the world,” said Sir Alex.

“The only one we’re waiting on is Chicharito. I’ve not had anything back that says he’s not fit so I expect everyone to be fit from their games.

“On our own front, Ashley Young is fit again, Michael Carrick should be okay and Phil Jones will hopefully be okay, irrespective of Stuart Pearce coming out and declaring he had shingles – which we thought was doctor confidence. We’re disappointed in that, but it’s not anything serious for the boy. It’s a mild condition that has surfaced but he should be okay.”

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League, Old Trafford - 4pm, 10 February 2013Ferguson faces a number of tough selection choices, particularly in central defence and midfield, where the balance is likely to determine success or failure over two pivotal matches. The Scot may well play just one of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand in each of the ties, with the more sprightly Jonny Evans in outstanding form recently.

Meanwhile, Chris Smalling could feature against Everton to counter the Merseysiders aerial threat which proved so effective at Goodison Park, even if star midfielder Marouane Fellaini is struggling with a hip injury that caused the international to miss Belgium’s fixture in midweek.

Yet, it is to last season’s dramatic title-losing draw with the Toffees that many minds will turn – a significant and traumatic day in United’s recent history.

“We were 4-2 up with seven or eight minutes to go,” recalled Ferguson

“It was unexpected and we have to anticipate the unexpected in the run-in. That was a bad blow for us and it cost us the league. Everton are very experienced and, if you look at their record, they’ve only lost three games this season. They’re obviously hard to beat.”

Meanwhile, Everton will leave a decision over Fellaini until the last moment, while Phil Jagielka looks set to play in defence after recovering from a knock. Tony Hibbert and Seamus Coleman miss out again with injury.

David Moyes side arrives having secured a hard-fought draw with Aston Villa last weekend amid a run of seven games without defeat. Indeed, Moyes outfit has lost just once in the past 15 matches. Evidence enough of the challenge facing United this weekend.

When Everton scored twice so late at Old Trafford last season Moyes’ side because just the third side during the Premier League era to avoid defeat to United having been two goals adrift – a measure both of United’s failure on the day, and Everton’s late brilliance.

“You have to try to have a go at Manchester United,” said Moyes on Friday. “I don’t think you can sit back and allow them to dictate the game.

“At times they will be in possession and will get control of the match, and at those times you have to try and see it out. But whenever we can, we will try to make it as awkward as we can for them.”

Yet, Everton hasn’t beaten Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford since August 1992 – the season in which the Scot captured his first league title as United manager.

In fact history augers well for United despite two poor results against Everton in succession – the Reds have won 15 of the past 20 Premier League home games against Everton, with four matches drawn.

Fans will take an extension of that fine record in a match that is far more than a warm-up for a bigger event ahead, even if it takes on a different context with Real to come next week.

Match details
Manchester United v Everton – Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 10 February 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Ferdinand, Büttner, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Kagawa, van Persie, Hernández.

Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Heitinga, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Mirallas, Gibson, Neville, Pienaar; Fellaini; Jelavic. Subs from: Mucha, Duffy, Osman, Oviedo, Hitzlsperger, Naismith, Anichebe.

Match officials
Referee: Mark Halsey
Assistants: R Ganfield, A Garratt
Fourth official: A Marriner

United: WWDWWW
Everton: WDDWWD

Head to Head
Last 10: United 4, Everton 2, Draw 4
Overall: United 80, Everton 63, Draw 42


  • Wayne Rooney’s recent scoring patch is underlined by some solid statistics, including a shot accuracy rate of 69.9 per cent from 56 attempts this season;
  • Meanwhile, strike partner Robin van Persie has registering a goal or assist once every 80.8 minutes this season, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Michael Carrick has performed well in both defence and attack this season, leading the squad for passes completed in the opponent’s half with 755 while making 50 interceptions;
  • Tom Cleverley’s all-round game has improved this season – the midfielder boasts the best tackle success rate in the United squad with 74.2 per cent from 31 attempts;
  • Marouane Fellaini’s two goals versus Aston Villa last weekend secured Everton a 3-3 draw, but the midfielder has also attempted 80 tackles this season;
  • Leighton Baines ranks second in the Index for crosses provided with 99;
  • Midfielder Steven Pienaar has completed 701 passes in the opponent’s half this season, more than any other Everton player;
  • Phil Jagielka’s tackle success rate of 87.7 per cent from 57 challenges is the best of any central defender in the Premier League.


Familiar failings haunt United

August 22, 2012 Tags: , Reads 62 comments

“They don’t like it up ’em!,” Lance-Corporal Jack Jones of 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army fame so often declared. Yet, it wasn’t Jerry, sent packing back to Berlin after invading the home counties, but Manchester United – 19 times champion of England – that was cowed at Goodison Park on Monday night. New season, same old story, as Everton bullied Sir Alex Ferguson’s team into submission.

It was oh-so-familar. Defensive injuries, a midfield over-run by a physically superior opponent, and a lack of penetration in attacking areas. Such was the pattern of United’s performance in defeat on Merseyside that many supporters were prone to recall the Reds’ collapse at the back-end of last season. Deja vu? Not half.

Yet, for all the trauma of defeat, this is, as the Lance-Corporal might add, no time for panic; a single game into the bright new season, there is much more to come from United. Certainly, Ferguson wasn’t helped by a glut of defensive injuries that robbed his side of four first team centre-backs in Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The quartet’s return – any of them – cannot come soon enough.

Yet, for all the injuries that have enveloped the Scot’s squad in recent months, perhaps even years, United’s problems against Everton ran far deeper. Michael Carrick’s turn at centre-back was a mitigated disaster. After all, despite Carrick’s defensive nous the 30-year-old midfielder was too easily beaten for poor position in and around United’s penalty area. That is to say little of Marouanne Fellaini’s ability to single Carrick out for a through going over in the air.

It was little surprise when the Belgian outjumped his marker to score Everton’s winning goal on 57 minutes.

But if Carrick’s relative struggles in defence proved to be United’s undoing at a set piece, the player’s absence from midfield was even more keenly felt. Despite his many critics, Carrick’s ability to screen defensively, while recycling possession, is central to what control United exerts in midfield. Without the Geordie, Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley offered little protection to a back four that contained two midfielders.

In that there is also familiarity. Injuries, and the positional juggling that accompanies them, disrupts United’s rhythm. More often than not in midfield. Yet, while more than £40 million was invested in Ferguson’s squad this summer – a not inconsiderable sum by Glazernomic standards – none of it brought in a central midfielder to complement the plethora of injury-prone players already at the manager’s disposal.

Indeed, while Scholes and Cleverley put up impressive numbers on the night, helping United to secure around 70 per cent of possession away from home, neither was able to provide a platform for United’s attacking players to turn territory into chances, and opportunities into goals.

More worryingly still – and not for the first time in recent years – Ferguson’s team found itself bullied by a physically superior opponent. Marouane Fellaini’s brilliance was complimented by non-stop running from former Reds Phil Neville and Darron Gibson in midfield, and a superbly organised back-four.

Further forward, Ferguson can only worry about the fitness, form and – frankly – interest of star striker Wayne Rooney, who had ‘one of those games’ at Goodison Park. The £27 million striker’s performance was mirrored in its mediocrity only by Nani, who is unique among elite players in his ability drop to abject lows with such alarming frequency.

None of this is new to supporters. Been there, seen it, got the very well-worn and washed t-shirt. No surprise either that Ferguson used his post-match media duties to deflect attention away from United’s deficiencies, and on to Everton’s direct approach to the game.

“I have no criticism of my team tonight, they applied themselves well,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“They got their shots on target and our goalkeeper did very well. We had a couple of moments. I thought maybe Danny Welbeck was pushed as he went into the box. That was a big moment and Tom Cleverley had his shot blocked by Phil Jagielka on the line in the second half. We played really good football at times.

“Fellaini is a handful. He’s a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball towards him all the time. That’s all they did and they worked it from that base. But he got the goal for them so it’s justified.”

Yet, there were positives despite United suffering opening day defeat for the first time since 2004. While Cleverley maintained his normal up-beat pass-and-move style, Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa impressed with a range of passing and movement in the hole behind Rooney. Both auger well for the remainder of the season.

Kagawa in particular had fans intrigued; a player of the type Ferguson has never signed previously, deployed in the central position – floating between midfield and attack – that brought so much joy for Borussia Dortmund in the past two years. Any more of this and Kagawa’s £17 million fee will be the very definition of value.

Then there was Robin van Persie, who made a low-key debut as a late second-half substitute, but will surely contribute far more over the next nine months.

And it is the role of Ferguson’s new signings that fascinates most, with the 70-year-old manager needing to crowbar Rooney, Kagawa and van Persie into the side, while multiple attacking options compete for what might be just a single remaining place in the side.

In this there remains a problem – how to balance plentiful flair, with the need to exert some control in midfield. At Goodison United failed to square that circle, despite enjoying so much possession. But while ball retention may be nine-tenths of the law, United so rarely looked like troubling old-boy Tim Howard in Everton’s goal on Monday night.

The question now is both how Ferguson finds the right balance, but perhaps more importantly, how he compromises United’s better players the least. It may be no time to panic, but the after just one game of the new season old failings ring some highly audible alarm bells. Particularly through midfield.

A comfortable win over Fulham at Old Trafford next Saturday will go some way to dampening the chorus, but it is unlikely to be the last time this debate is aired over the season.

Preview: Everton v United

August 20, 2012 Tags: , Matches 212 comments

New season, new hope; and Sir Alex Ferguson has created more than a little this summer with a string of exciting, attacking purchases to bolster Manchester United’s squad. Whether the Reds soft midfield underbelly is once again exposed will be determined over the next nine months, although tThe campaign could hardly begin with a tougher fixture as Fergsuon’s men visit Everton at Goodison Park on the opening weekend Monday night of the season. New acquisitions Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie are set to make their United debuts, with the Reds chasing a 20th league title this season.

Three months on from the dramatic, and for United supporters everywhere traumatic, end to the Premier League season, with Manchester City snatching the title on goal difference deep into injury time, Ferguson has promised a response. The “mark of true champions,” says the 70-year-old Scot is the ability to respond. Indeed, the United manager has done his bit, revitalising the Reds’ attacking options with van Persie and Kagawa, and promising that “never again” will City beat United to the title on goal difference.

It is a call to arms that nobody uses to more effect that Ferguson, who has pushed his players to overcome a summer of disappointment by winning back the Premier League title next May.

“What happened takes some getting over, it’s not easy,” admits midfielder Michael Carrick.

“It was a huge blow, the way it happened. Nobody could have predicted that and we never thought it was going to happen. But we have to get over it now. We’ve had setbacks in the past and we have to move on. That’s the nature of the club and the manager. He’ll be driving us forward to achieve something this season.

“As a club we do tend to bounce back. If we have a defeat or setback we tend to come back stronger. We can’t forget how close we were. It wasn’t a disaster in terms of how the season went because we had a good season. We’ll bounce back. We’re strong this year and we’re hungry, not that we wouldn’t have been hungry anyway. It will be a good championship.”

After a trophy-less season last time out, few supporters will countenance anything other than a “good season” that contains both silverware, and exciting performances. Both were in short supply at times last season.

Yet, while Ferguson has recruited new attacking players, the Scot has been more circumspect elsewhere, with Crewe Alexandra midfielder Nick Powell likely to spend much of the season with United’s Under-21 side, and Dutchman Alexander Büttner brought in as cover for Patrice Evra at left-back.

The lack of new options in central midfield will be tested once again at Goodison, especially with Rio Ferdinand reportedly joining Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans on the treatment table. Midfielder Michael Carrick will deputise in defence, with Tom Cleverley joining 38-year-old Paul Scholes in the centre of the park. Brazilian Anderson is fit, for once some may add, but is likely to start on the bench.

Everton v Manchester United, Goodison Park, 20 August 2012Meanwhile, Everton manager David Moyes has his own midfield problems to solve after selling Jack Rodwell and Tim Cahill this summer, while Darron Gibson and Marouanne Fellaini each face late fitness tests ahead of the Monday night kick-off. Steven Pienaar has rejoined from Tottenham Hotspur, while striking recruit Steven Naismith is set for a club debut.

Still, United can expect nothing other than a thorough test at Goodison after a summer that included plenty of long-haul travel, but previous little football of a high quality.

“Being away in your first game is always tough so we’ll have to be up for it,” said Welshman Ryan Giggs ahead of what could be his final season for the club.

“We’ve had a decent record there over the years – they’re always good games which can be pretty quick and quite feisty which adds to the atmosphere. David Moyes’ teams always work hard and you know you’re in for a battle and that you’ll have to work harder than them to win.

“We can talk about the quality players we’ve got in our squad but ultimately you need to work hard and make sure you start the season off well. It’s certainly a good test to begin with and everyone is looking forward to it. The manager likes to lay down his ambitions for the season and look in the players’ eyes to see if they’re ready for the challenge and we are. It was a long summer and we can’t wait to get going and put things right this time.”

With title rivals City and Chelsea both winning at the weekend Ferguson’s side is already playing catch-up in the Premier League, although there will be no panic at Old Trafford should the Reds not come away with all three points.

Yet, there will also be desire for a modicum of revenge after Everton’s dramatic 4-4 draw with United in Manchester last April. It proved to be a decisive result in the Premier League. Ferguson will want no repeat of the lax defending his men demonstrated that day.

Match Details
Everton v Manchester United – Premier League, Goodison Park – Monday 20 August 2012, 8pm

Possible Teams
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Neville, Jagielka, Heitinga, Baines; Osman, Gibson, Fellaini, Pienaar; Naismith, Jelavic. Subs from: Mucha, Hibbert, Distin, Gueye, Barkley, Vellios, Duffy, Anichebe, Francisco, McAleny, Coleman

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Carrick, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Scholes; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, Berbatov, Macheda, Hernández

Referee: A Marriner
Assistants: S Ledger, M McDonough
Fourth Official: A Taylor


Last 10: United – 5 | Everton – 2 | Draw – 3
Overall: United – 81 | Everton – 64 | Draw – 42


Slack United sacrifice title advantage on the altar of conceit

April 22, 2012 Tags: , , Reads 47 comments

“A man’s work is in danger of deteriorating,” said the eminent American playwright Eugene O’Neill, “when he thinks he has found the one best formula for doing it.”

There are, perhaps, no more apt words for a Manchester United side that believed it had set upon the canon of victory at Old Trafford on Sunday. For what could explain the stupefying casualness with which Sir Alex Ferguson’s med approached the tie with Everton, but for the assumption that the game was already afoot.

Indeed, it took barely two minutes for the restless Old Trafford crowd to conclude that something was amiss in Ferguson’s men. Call it complacency – that most clichéd of football phrases – or over confidence, but not for the first time this season United’s performance lacked all sense of intensity and concentration when those were patently the abiding virtues required.

With just three games remaining in the Premier League season, including the now season-defining visit to Eastlands on Monday week, the sense of antipathy with which United defended in the 4-4 draw against Everton sent the Old Trafford crowd home questioning whether the Reds’ destiny is in their own hands this season.

After all, defeat to City on 30 April will leave Roberto Mancini’s Blues ahead of United on goal difference, with the Reds still to face high-flying Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on the final day of the season.

Given the sides relative form United supporters can no longer count on the Reds securing a result in eight days time; the two points lost against Everton may yet prove to be every bit as calamitous as many fans fear.

“Throwaway,” Ferguson called his team’s performance, after the Scot witnessed some of the most slipshod defending seen this season – and that includes the Derby-day defeat to City last September.

“It was a throwaway, an absolute giveaway,” said a stunned Ferguson.

“We just needed to see the game out and it was a travesty because some of our football was fantastic. The goals we scored were great goals. To give away four goals at Old Trafford in a home game like that which was so important to us is unbelievable. I can’t believe it.

“We’ve created our goals with really good football but I think they got their goals easily. Rooney and Welbeck were a real threat to Everton today, their combination play and understanding of each other was terrific. They should have got more out of the game than they did.

“Defensive lapses have cost us. In previous matches recently we’ve actually defended very well. But this was a bad performance defensively. It was a real blip for us today to get a performance like that. I think the goals we conceded were soft goals.”

Not for the first time the 70-year-old Scot called for a response from his men. Nor for the first time will Ferguson be given pause for thought about his players hunger and quality.

Yet, shockingly, it was some of the manager’s most trusted lieutenants who let him down on Sunday. In midfield it was Michael Carrick, outstanding all season, and veteran Paul Scholes, who repeatedly gifted Everton possession and with it impetus.

Everton’s tactic of hustling the 37-year-old, and his passive midfield team-mate, was a decision both obvious to the observer, and superbly executed.

But it was in defence where United’s outrecuidance shone through. Northern Irishman Jonny Evans, who has been truly superb in a career defining campaign, was at least partially culpable in three Everton goals.

Praised by Ferguson as the “best central defender in the country” this week, Evans lost Marouane Fellaini for Everton’s second, criminally moved away from his defensive zone for the third, and then was all too easily out-maneuvered, once again, by the Belgian for the Toffees’ final equaliser.

Evans was certainly not alone though, with both United full-backs – Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva – guilty of too easily allowing crosses to come in from the flanks, while the Brazilian made the naïve mistake of following his defensive colleague Evans for Everton’s fourth.

While there is no alternative to Evra at Eastlands next week, Rafael – who has been in fine form during the run in – may be sacrificed for the more defense-minded Chris Smalling for the crunch match with City.

After all, City need the win, while United must simply fight the fight as if it is the final of their careers; a response of unprecedented proportions.

“We’ve given City the initiative, there’s no question about that,” added Ferguson, who is seeking his 13th Premier League title.

“It makes the game at the Etihad Stadium a really important game now. It makes it the title decider really. We’ve given ourselves a real task at the Etihad. We’ll go there only three points ahead.

“We make it hard for ourselves but we have to go there knowing we’re capable of getting a result. We need to get a result now at the Etihad, there’s no question about that. There’s no reason why we can’t do that. There’s been an expectancy from City that this could be their decider. But it’s our decider too.

“There’ll be a reaction from us obviously. There’s no question about that. A derby game next Monday against City would always have been a derby game of the highest proportions.”

United cannot guarantee results against Swansea City at Old Trafford and Sunderland – not with the Reds having taken just four points from games with Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa, and Everton – but defeat to City would surely be momentous.

But at least there will be recognition from Ferguson’s players that they have one final chance this season; an opportunity on Monday week to wrest the initiative away from a City side that has hit form just in time this season.

In that there should be both anger and genuine fire from United’s stars – youthful and veteran – in whom Ferguson has placed so much faith during an époque of comparative parsimony from the boardroom. If the Scot’s men cannot respond to this latest self-inflicted wound then even the most partizan United supporter will concede that a 20th domestic title has not been earned.

“There is anger from the players, of course, because we wanted to win. We’re disappointed to lose four goals. But that’s football. It can happen sometimes,” Portuguese winger Nani told MUTV.

“The concentration was not the best in the last few minutes – that’s why they were able to create chances and score goals. We had a lot of possession and played some fantastic football in attack. But we conceded too many goals and we’re not happy about that.

“We have to keep believing in our qualities because we still have a great opportunity to win the title. It’s a huge game [at City] – there will be a fantastic atmosphere there. It will be a difficult game, but if you want to win the league you cannot think about the atmosphere or the opponents, we must just think about the way we play and try to win the game.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson is likely to string five across midfield at Eastlands, with star striker Wayne Rooney – who’s brace against his old employers were the 32nd and 33rd strikes of a productive season – either dropping deep to augment midfield, or ploughing a lone furrow up front.

And there will be little surprise if the Scot deploys his favoured ‘European’ tactics of containment first, and entertainment second. If nobel prize-winning playwright O’Neill, ever the arch realist, was alive he might well concur.

United supporters will welcome a point in lieu of free-flowing football, of course. What nobody will countenance is another bout of conceit.

Former Reds return for crunch Everton clash

April 21, 2012 Tags: , Matches 224 comments

Three former Reds will grace Old Trafford on Sunday, with Manchester United desperate to send them home disappointed. Phil Neville, Tim Howard and Darron Gibson should all start at their former home, but with United chasing an eight point Premier League lead Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are unlikely to be in charitable mood. United play first this weekend, with victory ensuring at least a five point gap to Manchester City by the time Ferguson’s team visits Eastlands on Monday week. It’s a scenario that would allow the Reds to claim the Premier League title at City’s home.

First though United faces and Everton side in good form, but smarting from having lost an FA Cup semi-final to crosstown rivals Liverpool last weekend. With it concluded the Toffees’ season. Yet, with Everton having won four times in the past six matches there’s little doubt David Moyes team can provide a significant dent to United’s hopes this season.

It means that Ferguson is unlikely to make significant changes to the side that beat Aston Villa so comfortably last weekend. Whatever the selection the 70-year old United manager says that his team’s experience should win through with just four games remaining in the Premier League season.

“There’s good performers out on that field and they are playing with great determination, which you need to do at this time of the season,” said the United manager on Friday.

“And they’ve got great experience of handling big game situations which we are going to face in the next few weeks. So I trust them, I let them get on with it. I think it’s the right time to do that. They are a good bunch of lads, they want to win the league. Hopefully we can achieve what we want to do.”

Manchester United versus Everton, Premier League, Old Trafford, 21 April 2012, 2pm.Positive news, then, that Ferguson reports no fresh injuries for the 12.30pm Sunday clash, with only long-term absentees Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić absent from the first team squad. Nani could come into the side for the heavily criticised Ashley Young, with the former Villain having picked up a minor knock against his old club, although the winger will be fit to play some part.

Meanwhile, Michael Owen could make the bench, although teenage contract rebel Paul Pogba is unlikely to play again this season after picking up a hamstring strain in a midweek reserve match.

“Anderson is not going to play again this season and Paul [Pogba] got injured in Monday and he is out for the season,” Ferguson added.

“I have said time and time again that Michael [Owen] is a player who can score important goals if you are struggling in a match. He has had a hard time with injuries. When he gets them it is usually months. If there is a players that can score an important goal at any stage of a match it is Michael. We welcome him back.”

Cynics might add that after a career beset by injuries Ferguson can hold no surprise with Owen’s latest setback. The former Liverpool striker has started just 18 games for United over the past three seasons, and none since picking up a thigh strain in the Champions League last November.

Meanwhile, a player who has benefited from a largely injury-free season – Rio Ferdinand – should make his 450th career league start on Sunday. Ferdinand is approaching 400 games in all competitions for United after nearly a decade with the club.

But is it to former Evertonian Wayne Rooney that United will look to secure the points on Sunday. Rooney, once a blue, now a Red approaching another Old Trafford milestone – the 26-year-old needs just one goal to equal the total scored by club legends George Best and Dennis Viollet of 179.

“It’s fantastic. It will happen of course, hopefully it happens Sunday,” said Ferguson on Rooney’s record. “But it will eventually happen and it’s a marvellous achievement.”

Rooney, who has scored 31 goals in all competitions this season, could well go on to beat Bobby Charlton’s United record of 249 too. “He has every chance of beating that – I am sure he will do it,” adds the United manager.

Yet, Rooney has just two goals in 12 games against his former club, with many believing the Liverpudlian simply tries too hard against Everton – a pressure that adversely affects Rooney’s game. This is the time of season when pressure either becomes an incentive or a burden. Across town City appeared to crumble on it, before cracking in 10 goals in the past two matches. Meanwhile, United has suffered just the single league defeat in the past 14 matches.

“We put pressure on ourselves to win games; the pressure comes from within and from the fans,” says defender Ferdinand.

“They demand that and so does the boss. We have to go out there and produce our own result first – outside pressure doesn’t come into it. We want to win every game until the end of the season. That has not changed and it won’t change until the last day of the season.”

The visitors, meanwhile, will be missing defender Leighton Baines who sustained a hamstring injury in last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final defeat by Liverpool. Jack Rodwell is still out, but Steven Pienaar is available, having been cup-tied last weekend. Old Trafford supporters will be also able to welcome the trio of former Reds ‘home’, with Gibson, Neville and Howard all fit to play.

“It is nice to know you’re in with a more-than-likely chance of playing every week, rather than not,” adds Gibson, who joined Everton for around £2 million in January.

“I am just enjoying it [at Everton] and I’m in a better mood now, I know that. It’s surprised me how well it’s gone because I wasn’t sure. This was the first club I have moved to — I was at United since I was 15. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m really enjoying my football. It is a great club.”

Few United fans will begrudge Gibson a successful spell at Everton, although he will ingratiate only the visiting supporters by scoring on Sunday. History is against Everton though – the Merseyside club has not beaten United in Manchester for nearly 20 years, losing 15 and drawing just three in the past 18 fixtures.

Meanwhile, United remains in a purple patch of form despite the loss to Wigan Atheltic a fortnight ago. Indeed, the Reds’ tally of 82 points after 34 games is the best in any Premier League season by Ferguson’s team. United has also scored in a record 47 consecutive home matches since a 1-0 defeat by Aston Villa in 2009.

Few would have predicted that record at the start of the campaign.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Everton, Premier League, Old Trafford, 21 April 2012, 12.30pm.

Potential Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Giggs, Hernández, Berbatov.

Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Hibbert; Osman, Gibson, Cahill, Fellaini, Pienaar; Jelavic. Subs from: Hahnemann, Jagielka, Gueye, Drenthe, Stracqualursi, McFadden, Barkley, Coleman, Vellios, Anichebe.

Match Stats

  • United ensured City remains five points behind in the title race with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend – Rooney’s 23rd and 24th Premier League goals of the season, and strikes from Welbeck and Nani gave United the vital win;
  • Rooney has taken 124 shots at goal in the Premier League this season with 66 per cent on target, and 19 per cent of his efforts resulting in goals;
  • Welbeck has eight goals from 69 attempts, with an impressive 72 per cent on target, although his conversion rate for goals is just 12 per cent;
  • Nani has been both scorer and provider for United this season, scoring seven goals and adding ten assists – the winger has also put in more crosses than any other player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index with 120 so far;
  • Everton suffered FA Cup heartbreak at the weekend, but Moyes will be seeking a return to the league form that saw the Toffees win 4-0 against Sunderland a fortnight ago;
  • Everton had four different goal scorers that day in Magaye Gueye, Victor Anichebe, Steveb Pienaar and Leon Osman;
  • Anichebe has five Premier League goals this season, despite playing just 463 minutes of football – it’s the fifth best minutes-per-goal ratio in the Index, with a goal every 92 minutes 40 seconds. The only players with a better minutes-per-goal rate this season are Thierry Henry, Papiss Cisse, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez;
  • Steven Pienaar has been a revitalising force for Everton since returning, covering 35.26 miles for the Toffees, at an average of 5.87 miles per game, and completing 265 passes in his opponent’s half, one every three minutes and 14 seconds;
  • Osman has made more shots on target than any other Everton player this season with 27 on target – 63 per cent of all shots he has attempted;

United: WWWWLW
Everton: WWWDWL

Referee: Mike Jones (Chester)
Assistants: A Garratt, A Halliday
Fourth Official: K Friend

Everton vs. United: a tactical observation

November 2, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 21 comments

Despite the score, it was Everton that dominated the Saturday’s game. The Merseyside club edged Manchester United in possession and attempted 19 shots to United’s seven. The Reds, a few patches of good play notwithstanding, were under constant siege, and while United’s defenders had a better game, ultimately, it was luck that got the Manchester club through unscathed.

United started brightly in 4-1-4-1 formation, with Darren Fletcher playing as a dedicated holding midfielder, and central midfielders – Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney – combining well with the wide-men – Danny Welbeck and Ji-Sung Park – to support Javier Hernández in attack.

United’s wide-men were playing not as out-and-out  wingers, but as wide midfielders – a defensive ploy, with United’s players  working diligently to cover and regain possession. The central midfielders and wide-men overloaded Everton in the middle of the park, and converted the advantage into a goal. That’s when everything went pear-shaped.

Perhaps mindful of the recent 6-1 defeat, the United defence retreated to a very deep line – almost at the edge of the Reds’ penalty area. The giant gap between the defence and central midfield was simply too much for Fletcher to cover and Everton took advantage. With the Fletcher’s presence, and wide-men tucking in, United could have kept a higher line and compact shape.

After all, Everton lacked pace and the balls over the top were more or less innocuous. If anything, playing a deep line against Everton was perilous given Marouane Fellaini’s ability to win aerial balls in dangerous areas. Better opponents would have taken advantage.

Perhaps, with Jonny Evans and David de Gea in the side, two excellent distributors of the ball, Sir Alex Ferguson believed he could get away with a gap between the lines by instructing the pair to launch quick balls forward. But Hernández is hardly a target man. Slight in build and stature, the Mexican was quickly relieved of the ball by Everton defenders. Given the set up, Dimitar Berbatov would have been the better choice. Welbeck or Wayne Rooney could have dropped deep to link between midfield and attack, while providing some physicality up top.

One positive aspect of United’s more defensive approach was Fletcher’s coverage. The Scot dropped deep to form a temporary back-three at times, which allowed United’s the full-backs to attack. It is no coincidence that Patrice Evra provided the cross from which Hernández scored.

Yet, the most peculiar feature of the system was Rooney being deployed as a central midfielder. Many fans have campaigned for this deployment, and just as many argued against it. The Englishman combined well with Cleverley and worked hard throughout. The trio of Fletcher, Cleverley and Rooney holds much potential. Each player has a clear role – Fletcher holds, Cleverley passes and Rooney attacks. Cleverley and Rooney are versatile players who can dovetail between the two roles. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs can also fit in multiple roles – Carrick can hold and pass whereas Giggs can pass and attack – allowing Ferguson to rotate and keep players fresh.

One worry, of course, is that Rooney’s deployment as a midfielder limits his goal scoring prowess but that needs not be the case. Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard have scored plenty from a similar position on the pitch. In the Everton game though, Rooney was limited to single attempt at goal.

Again, the deep line is to blame. To make full use of Rooney as a central midfielder, United’s defence must play a high line and keep the space between the lines compact. This will allow the English international to spend less time defending and more time bombing forward. The wide-men should also be pushed higher up the pitch to allow the former Everton striker to hit his trademark cross-field passes. With Carrick and Anderson out-of-favour, fans should expect to see Rooney as a central midfielder more often; he’s a brilliant forward but he has the potential to be an outstanding midfielder, given the right set-up.

However, from the tactical point-of-view, the system used against Everton didn’t make much sense. Just as players are blamed for poor results, the manager is also culpable. This column has lauded Ferguson’s tactical acumen many times but, on this occasion, the Scot got things wrong. Better teams than Everton would have exploited United’s weaknesses. With Manchester City so rampant, the Reds cannot afford to slip up. Ferguson must do better!

Rooney leads United renaissance at Everton

October 28, 2011 Tags: , Matches 132 comments

Wayne Rooney will lead Manchester United’s attack as the Reds visit Everton on Saturday lunchtime. The former Blue, dropped from this fixture by Ferguson last season, will face the inevitable cacophony of abuse on his return to Goodison Park. But at the end of a tough week for the club manager Ferguson insists Rooney will start the fixture.

While Rooney is retained from the side that lost 6-1 against Manchester City last weekend, Ferguson is expected to make several changes in Liverpool. Indeed, a quartet of players are under genuine pressure after the heavy defeat to near-neighbours City. Ferguson openly criticised defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra on Sunday, while United’s dysfunctional central midfield pair of Anderson and Darren Fletcher could be relegated to the bench on form alone.

Yet it is Rooney on whom the greatest pressure resides, with manager, team-mates and supporters expecting a big performance from the 26-year-old striker.

“He’s had mixed success going to Everton,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“He’s scored a couple of goals in previous games and gets booed as normal. He got booked in one game and I took him off because he’d been booked and there was no way I was going to give the referee an opportunity to send him off.

“That’s where the hype around the ground in terms of him getting booed every time he makes a challenge comes into it. He’s had mixed fortunes there but he’s scored a couple of goals and done well in some of the games and hopefully that will be the case tomorrow.”

Everton versus Manchester United, Premier League, Goodison Park, Saturday 29 October 2011, 12.00pm.Saturday’s game will mark Ferguson’s first opportunity for ruthlessness in the wake of derby humiliation. While a largely fringe and reserve team beat Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night, United’s visit to Everton is the first genuine test of the Scot’s ability to rally his troops.

United has previously suffered heavy defeats to Newcastle United in 1996, Southampton the same season, and Chelsea three years later. In those campaigns the club went on to win the Premier League title, underlining that one result does not a season make.

“It’s been a tough week for everyone,” added Ferguson.

“It was bad result but we have to get over it – the fans, players, employees, staff – everyone was involved in the disappointment. We must kick on. We enjoyed Tuesday night but we need to show ourselves tomorrow. We hope we can recover from the disappointment of last weekend. We’ve done that well over the years and we have to do it again. Nothing changes in football. The challenge is always there to be the very, very best which we hope we can do now.

“It’s not going to be an easy game. I went to see that game on Wednesday and in typical fashion of a David Moyes team they were all committed. He’s had a few injuries and he rested a few players which is the norm in the cup, but they still represented their club very well. They all put a shift in and are always committed. We know what Louis [Saha] is capable of – he has fantastic ability and we have to make sure we do our best.”

Ferguson may be without winger Ashley Young for the short trip west, with the former Aston Villa player suffering a toe injury in training this week. Young’s expected absence adds to the Scot’s selection dilemma in wide areas, with Nani poor against City. Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung each completed a much-needed 90 minutes at Aldershot in midweek and at least one of the pair should start.

Ferguson will welcome back Tom Cleverley, who is pushing for his first Premier League start since 10 September. The 22-year-old midfielder was carried off with an ankle injury against Bolton Wanderers but started United’s 3-0 win over Aldershot. Despite the bright start to the season United’s performances have markedly deteriorated in Cleverley’s absence.

“We have one or two knocks,” Ferguson said of his playing resources.

“Ashley Young has a toe injury and we’ll see what he’s like today. The knocks are nothing serious and I hope we’ll have a strong enough squad for tomorrow.

“Tom has got the potential, the expectation lies with everyone. For any United player, we expect a certain standard. Tom played his first game on Tuesday night – we gave him an hour. He had trained for about 10 days so he was in good physical condition for it. Given that we have a game tomorrow, I think an hour was just about right for him.”

Meanwhile, Korean Park says the United squad is focused on the job ahead despite the disappointment of last week. The 30-year-old could start in Young’s stead at Goodison Park – just the third of his Premier League season – where United drew last season after conceding two late goals to David Moyes’ outfit.

“We have to concentrate and everyone has to turn up to show the City game has not affected us,” Park told ManUtd.com.

“We have to get over that. We have to put it right on the pitch and we have to prove it. It’s a very important game to us and we have to go there and fight to get the points. It’s not an easy game at Goodison Park – it’s always difficult there. Just look at last season, when we were winning 3-1 and in injury-time they scored two goals.”

Everton, knocked out of the Carling Cup by Chelsea in mid-week, may have more than one reason to rue the 2-1 loss against the Londoners. While game went into energy-sapping extra time, midfielder Royston Drenthe was sent off for two bookable offences and will miss the fixture through suspension. Meanwhile key Evertonians Tim Cahill and Phil Neville are both out injured.

Yet it is on Rooney whom all eyes will focus, including a hostile home crowd against which Ferguson sought to protect his star player last season. It is, says Moyes, an animosity from which Everton supporters should move on.

“Wayne would be the first one to tell you – he would be delighted to come back with his wee boy and watch Everton,” Moyes added.

“He is bringing up his son as an Everton supporter and he will always be an Evertonian. He’ll get criticism because he left the club but time has moved on, we’ve moved on and so has he.”

By Saturday afternoon United supporters will know whether the team has moved on from last Sunday’s demoralising defeat or not.

Match Facts
Everton versus Manchester United, Premier League, Goodison Park, Saturday 29 October 2011, 12.00pm.

Likely Line-ups
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Fellaini, Rodwell, Coleman; Vellios, Saha. Subs from: Mucha, Heitinga, Bilyaletdinov, Stracqualursi, Barkley, Hahnemann.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evans, Ferdinand, Pogba, Fletcher, Anderson, Berbatov, Welbeck, Valencia, Owen, Diouf.

Performance stats

  • Manchester United covered just 106.09km in the game against City last weekend – the side’s second lowest tally of the season – with Darren Fletcher covering the most ground with 11.29km
  • Yet United still contains three of the top ten players in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, including Ashley Young and Luis Nani, who have each put in 37 crosses so far this season.
  • Nani is also in second place for most dribbles completed (34) and Young in fourth (33).
  • In the opposition Marouane Fellaini remains the Toffees midfield heartbeat, averaging 11.911km per game.
  • However, the Index underlines how much Everton will miss Royston Drenthe, who scored his second Everton goal against Fulham last week. The Dutchman’s two goals have come from just five attempts, with four on target. He has also laid on three assists this season.
  • One time United transfer target Jack Rodwell scored his first goal of the season against Fulham. The young midfielder has returned to form this season, making 11 interceptions and winning 87 per cent of tackles attempted.

Everton: WLLLWL
United: DWDWLW

Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistant referees: S Bennett, A Halliday

Four games, seven points, one title

April 24, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 70 comments

‘The title is ours’, not exactly Sir Alex Ferguson’s words after Manchester United beat Everton 1-0 on Saturday at Old Trafford but they could well have been. United’s late late victory, not for the first time in a season that has rarely sparkled yet promises to bring more silverware, brings the Reds to within just seven points of claiming the Premier League. Or in other words, with games against relegation threatened Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool to come, United can probably win one and lose one of upcoming fixtures with title-rivals Arsenal and Chelsea in the next fortnight.

Ferguson’s position is understandably bullish after Javier Hernández 81st minute strike on Saturday. It was the Mexican’s 19th goal of a campaign that is increasingly defined by the 22-year-old’s performances.

“Games are running out for our rivals and we’re up for it,” said Ferguson after Saturday’s victory over Everton.

“I enjoy this critical stage of a season when we are involved in big games that come thick and fast and I think we will be OK. The thing that puzzles me is they [the media] keep saying Arsenal and Chelsea have got to play us still, like we’re going to lose to them but why shouldn’t we win those games? Why can’t we go to the Emirates Stadium and win, as we have done previously?

“As I said to the players, forget all that nonsense. Just try to win your games and you’ll be all right, keep your heads and don’t get carried away.”

Indeed, yesterday’s laboured win over in-form Everton should remind Ferguson’s players – as if any prompting is really needed – that points and not performances is what counts come April and May. It is a lesson so rarely learned at the Emirates. After all, despite United’s dominance against Everton there would be no Arsenal-style sympathy had United thrown away the points.

Not so against David Moyes’ spirited outfit. Much as is United’s type this season, the Reds continued to probe for openings, patient in the knowledge that chances would eventually come. More than 60 per cent possession and 16 chances created against Everton, who had not lost in seven matches, attest to that. Other United sides have demonstrated more talent; few have shown more character. It is a trait for which Ferguson can taken much praise.

“There is that winning attitude about them,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“We will keep our heads down and not get carried away. There are only four games left and the way they are going about their business and the effort they have shown, it gives them an outstanding chance of being champions. You can test people’s character but they keep coming through.

“We had some great openings and could have had this match finished by half-time but it is in the traditions of Manchester United that we don’t do that. We always wait until the very end and keep everyone high on the edge of their seats but we get there.”

On Hernández Ferguson rightly praised the role the sprightly Mexican has played this season. Buy of the summer? Buy of the decade more like. For all the Scot’s disingenuous talk of the transfer market’s lack of value, deliberately hiding as it does the Glazer family’s financial agenda, Hernández has proven a genuine bargain.

“Javier has done better than everyone expected,” added Ferguson.

“We thought that because it was his first year, he would just get used to the English game and get strengthened up. He has passed all those tests. He is first in at nine o’clock every morning and he is the last to leave. He is a truly dedicated boy.”

After all, Hernández has not only scored late goals for United but winning goals. This is no kid, brought on with 10 to play in a dead rubber, that is helping himself to easy pickings. In his first campaign with the club, United would not be in position to win the title without Hernández.

Meanwhile, Hernández is genuinely humble in his achievements, preferring to enthuse the team ethic and not his own contribution that should have brought a PFA Young Player of the Year Award.

“Of course it’s a dream come true, this season,” said the former Chivas striker.

“If we win the Premier League, that’s an unbelievable thing. If I could swap all the goals for us to win the league then I would do it. We know we are almost there, but we can’t afford to think like we’ve already won it. We go day by day, week by week.

“I’m very happy, but I’m happier because we got the three points. Here at Manchester United we need to win every game and it doesn’t matter who scores.”

In that there is a false modesty of course. Hernández’ goals have taken United to within a whisker of glory. Grab more than a point over the next two matches and United supporters worldwide can start to celebrate.

Fergie guards against complacency ahead of Everton visit

April 22, 2011 Tags: , Matches 119 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson says Everton will pose a significant threat to Manchester United’s title aspirations this weekend, with the in-form Toffees at Old Trafford on Saturday. But with just five Premier League games to go, victory against David Moyes’ men will leave United requiring just seven points to secure a 19th domestic league title. It’s a position from which the title is now United’s to lose despite the disappointing draw at Newcastle United on Tuesday night.

Indeed, Ferguson is delighted with the commanding lead built up in this year’s title race, despite his side’s indifferent form away from Old Trafford. However, with the Reds having won all but one game at home this season, Ferguson says the principal risk to achieving the club’s dreams this season lies in complacency. Something the 69-year-old Scot is keen to guard against for the Saturday lunchtime kick off.

“It is good to know someone is behind you,” Ferguson said.

“You have to recognise who is there because we cannot become complacent. In that sense we use our experience of years past in situations like this. Hopefully it will get us where we want to go.

“If we win, we will only have four games left and we will have a six-point lead. That is the way I am looking at it. I am not looking beyond that. It is never going to be easy against Everton. It is a local derby of sorts. But our home record is fantastic and so is our performance level.”

Ferguson can boast an almost fully fit squad for Everton’s visit, although the United manager has concerns over Dimitar Berbatov’s fitness, while Darren Fletcher will not return for another fortnight. However, with Brazilian youngster Rafael da Silva returning to the squad, Ferguson has a plethora of defensive options available for the first time in months. Although fit, Rio Ferdinand has a minor calf strain and may not be risked ahead of the Champions League semi-final.

“Darren is back training now,” Ferguson added.

“He has done a good week and might be available in 10 days’ time. Rafael is back in the squad tomorrow and we will see what Dimitar Berbatov is like because he has a slight groin strain.”

Paul Scholes is suspended for the first of three matches after the red card picked up in last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City. In what is likely to be the final month of Scholes’ United career, the flamed-haired midfielder will also miss games against Arsenal and Chelsea, before returning for the final two Premier League matches of the season.

Manchester United v Everton, Old Trafford, 23 April 2011With Berbatov struggling to be ready – the Bulgarian has a minor groin strain – Ferguson is again likely to pair Javier Hernández and Wayne Rooney is attack, despite the strikers drawing a blank at Newcastle this week.

Ferguson must also lift his troops after the FA Cup semi-final defeat to City and the goalless draw with Newcastle on Tyneside. While Arsenal’s failure to beat either Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur over the past week has significantly strengthened United’s hand, Ferguson is aware that matches with both the Gunners and Chelsea loom large.

Indeed, with Chelsea also six points behind United and the west Londoners’ visit to Old Trafford coming in early May, the Reds cannot afford to drop any further points at home. Whatever the results between now and the end of the season, should United win the title Ferguson’s outfit will boast the worst away record of any champions since Liverpool in 1977.

Ferguson is also well aware of the challenge posed by Everton, whose form has picked up in recent weeks. Although Moyes has rarely been afforded money to spend in the transfer market, the cash-strapped Toffees have repeatedly over-performed under the Scot’s tutelage.

“It’s amazing what David has done,” added Ferguson.

“He has had to cope with a mountain of injuries over the last few weeks but Everton have still churned out the results. Even last season when he was without Phil Jagielka he still got them motivated. What he did well two or three years ago was to use the money he had available to get all his younger players on long-term contracts.

“That created a consistency in his squad which is proving very beneficial now. He brings people in to freshen his team up and they are able to do a job.”

Moyes is likely to be without three key players for the visit to Old Trafford, where the Toffees have not won in 17 matches. John Heitinga, who was forced off against Blackburn Rovers because of a hamstring problem last week, faces a late fitness test. Meanwhile, Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta are unlikely to make Saturday’s match.

And Moyes has warned United that his side has nothing to lose, with the Liverpudlians unlikely to qualify for Europe next season but safe from any fear of relegation.

“We know that we’re going to have to go and give it a go,” said Moyes.

“But we’re the ones who don’t have much to lose. We’re in a position where we’ve got an early kick-off tomorrow and we’ll try and go there and do something about it.

“I think Man United have gradually got better as the season has gone on, which they tend to do anyway. When they weren’t playing well they ground out results, kept going, picked up the points.

“It’s a great place to play your football but coming with it is a bit of fear because you’re going to play the top side in the country. But we’re going there in decent form and we can go there and given them a good game.”

That is almost certain, but with the title now firmly in focus, it is United’s greater desire that could decide the fixture in the Reds favour. United supporters worldwide will trust it is the case.

Everton – 451 – Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Rodwell, Neville, Coleman, Bilyaletdinov; Beckford. Subs from: Vellios, Gueye, Mucha, Shkodran Mustafi, Forshaw, Anichebe, Nsiala, McAleny, Saha.

United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Berbatov, Park, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Giggs.

Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Kevin Friend

United – WWWWLD
Everton – WDWDWW