Tag Manchester City

Tag Manchester City

Derby thrashing sends Moyes back to the drawing board

September 24, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 26 comments
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Wayne Rooney’s reaction said it all – a smile barely cracked let alone a celebration of the fist-pumping, arm wheeling, euphoric kind 3,000 traveling Reds had hoped for. After all, Rooney’s 87th minute free-kick was excellence in everything aside from it’s timing. Four goals to the bad, United’s dream lay in tatters long before the 27-year-old curled home a second set piece in as many games.

Such was the comprehensive nature of defeat to rivals Manchester City on Sunday that it remains hard to draw positives from the occasion. The converse is closer to the truth, with the heart of David Moyes’ strategy fundamentally undermined at the Etihad.

After all, these are the games that define a season’s narrative. Defeat leaves the Scot facing testing questions of his defence, attack and especially midfield, together with an approach that was altogether, and disastrously, conservative.

Few of Moyes’ men left the Etihad with dignity, let alone credit, upheld. From the slipshod nature of United’s defending, through yet another midfield over-run by an opponent, to a chronic lack of creativity that is now becoming a pattern.

This was a wretched United performance, every bit as demoralising as that inflicted in 1989; far worse than the freak 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford two year’s ago.

Sunday leaves United with just seven points from five Premier League matches. Five games in which the Reds have lost two local derbies, and amassed the lowest points total for a decade after the opening quintet of league games. Should Moyes’ team suffer defeat to Liverpool in the Carling Cup on Wednesday the pressure on the Scot will ratchet up significantly.

Perhaps the most disappointing factor in Sunday’s loss is that none of Moyes’ side appeared to take responsibility, on the pitch at least, for the calamitous events. To a man insipid.

It really comes to something when want-a-way Wayne Rooney leads the mea culpas.

“It’s nice to score but it means nothing,” said Rooney, perhaps the only United player to emerge with any self-respect from Sunday’s disaster.

“The points were the most important thing today and we’ve come away with none. We’ve all grown up with local football derbies and it’s not nice when you lose one. I’ve been there myself as a fan and as a player. Thankfully we’ve got the game against Liverpool coming up Wednesday and it’s something we are looking forward to now in the hope that we can get the victory to put this defeat to the back of our minds.”

That is a task far easier to articulate than practice of course, although Moyes will be relieved with a fixture list that includes winnable league matches against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, and Stoke City before October is out.

The Reds should end that run with a far better points tally. Any other outcome is unthinkable.

But Sunday’s chastening must surely prompt a rethink in United’s strategy, not least in the back four where Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were over-powered by City’s vibrant attacking unit. For the first time this season the pair looked its age and more. With Patrice Evra also advancing into his 30s, Moyes has deployed three veterans in his back four in each of United’s matches this season.

Here too the will seemingly drained from those in Red. United’s rearguard was given such little protection that Vidić’s attempt to berate Antonio Valencia for failing to track his runner had the air of resigned apathy.

On the other flank Ashley Young’s contempt for defending was matched only by a  chronic fear of ball-retention that bordered on the obsessive so often did the former Aston Villa winger concede possession.

Meanwhile, Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini were reduced to hapless spectators, with City utterly superior in central midfield.

Fellaini was billed in some quarters as United’s answer to City’s Yaya Touré; on this evidence the Reds might have better recruited Kolo such was the Belgian’s ineffectiveness.

He remains a puzzle. The £27 million man who neither adds bite to the defensive side of United’s midfield, nor breaks up play through superior positioning. Nor, it seems, does he offer a counter-part to Carrick’s passivity on these occasions.

Aggressive at set-pieces, and effective around the box, Fellaini still has much to prove at this level. Not least in a deep-lying role where the Belgian’s limited defensive instincts were exposed in two of City’s four goals.

Indeed, Moyes’ decision to push Fellaini forward as the game drew to a close may be the forebear of an approach to come, with United seeking to exploit the Belgian’s power in the air, rather than his ineffectual ability on the ball. Look away those who hope to match rivals’ short-passing game.

Elsewhere, United’s creative fizz popped, as it has in four of six games in all competitions this season. After all, those two Rooney free-kicks and a Robin van Persie penalty are all United has to show for matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and City this season.

Meanwhile, two of Moyes’ most creative options in Shinji Kagawa and Nani sat on the bench. Unused, perhaps unloved, while new signing Wilfried Zaha and wonderkid Adnan Januzaj watched on from the stands. It is enough to prompt the question of just what hold Young – the most wretched of all – retains over his new manager.

It is a conservative approach that can only frustrate, but one a decade-long in the making during Moyes’ time at Everton. Even the Scot’s lone substitution – Tom Cleverley – was designed to limit damage inflicted rather than restore any squandered pride.

Still, with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Wednesday there is little time for a radical rethink in approach, although there was much talk in the aftermath of “a response”. It is already a hackneyed sentiment.

Talk is cheap, unlike United’s one summer acquisition, and in the end Moyes was reduced to limp platitudes in praise of the traveling support.

“Whether it’s a derby or somebody else, you don’t want to lose,” admitted Moyes.

“It does make it worse when you want to do so well for your supporters. I thought our supporters were great today, under the circumstances. Whatever manager loses a game, you get on and try to win the next game. You just play the next game and see how you go. We’ll do everything we can to win the next one.”

The Scot has little choice but to field a full-strength side against Brendan Rogers’ outfit; defeat escalating United’s slow start to a full-blown crisis, at least in the more hyperbolic red-tops.

Whether that line-up includes those largely repudiated this season will define the coming weeks.

Preview: City v United

September 21, 2013 Tags: , Matches 12 comments
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That one of Manchester’s teams might end the 166th derby on just seven points after five games underlines the early season importance this fixture brings, quite aside from the local pride at stake. United won the corresponding fixture last season, together with emphatically taking the Premier League title.

Yet, having dropped points against both Chelsea and Liverpool, new manager David Moyes began the season under scrutiny. United gained fresh impetus after the confident victory over Bayer Leverkusen in midweek – a 4-2 victory that delighted Moyes.

Meanwhile, City secured a 3-0 win against Plzen to relieve some of the early pressure that afflicted new manager Manuel Pellegrini after defeat to Cardiff City in Wales and then the draw in Stoke.

Still, with two new managers at the helm, and a renewed sense of competitive spirit in the Premier League this season, neither Moyes nor Pellegrini is able to countenance defeat in Sunday afternoon’s fixture. It is a scenario where caution may play a significant part.

Yet, United’s confidence received a welcome boost in recent matches, with Wayne Rooney scoring three times this season and demonstrating renewed purpose at Old Trafford. While the Scouser is never again likely to be universally admired in Manchester, he is on the verge of once again becoming a major factor in United’s fortunes.

It is this sense of belief, however tenuous on part of both player and team, that Moyes will take into the derby. After all defeat would leave United as close to the bottom four as the Champions League. And that says little for what two ‘derby’ defeats this season might do to the Scot’s reputation after the 1-0 loss at Anfield.

“We’ve played well in the last few games and have got a bit of confidence and hopefully we’ll try and show that in the game on Sunday,” said Moyes on Friday.

“There is an excitement for any derbies in any big city in the world. They’re all really important to your own supporters. They’re important to the players as well but ultimately it’s about what happens come the end of the season and how many points you get together to see who is top. These points could be really important towards that.

“I’ve experienced derby games in Glasgow and on Merseyside. Every derby in every big city is important to whichever team you support and I understand how important it is for the Manchester United fans.”

Moyes’ job is made more comfortable by Tuesday’s win over the Bundesliga side Bayer. The fixture was notable not only for the quartet of goals United secured, but for Marouanne Fellaini’s full début in central midfield. The Belgian is again likely to slot into the role alongside Michael Carrick against City, proffering the significant physical presence that United has lacked in recent seasons.

Indeed, Yaya Touré’s double in last season’s fixture comes to mind, with Fellaini set to offer the competitive drive Moyes sought when United paid more than £27 million for the Belgian.

Manchester City v Manchester United, Premier League, Etihad Stadium, 4pm, 22 September 2013The midweek Champions League fixture also brought the welcome reintroduction of Shinji Kagawa to the United side – an event that was in some doubt this season. The Japanese playmaker was, as expected, deployed off the left, but started a game for the first time in the campaign.

Although Rooney is now Moyes’ clear first-choice for deployment ‘in the hole’ behind Robin van Persie, Kagawa brings a different creative dynamic, even if the left-sided role is more restricting than the Japanese may hope.

Meanwhile, the Scot’s likely use of both Rio Ferdinand and Namanja Vidić in the derby reflects a campaign that has seen limited opportunities for United’s younger defenders; a policy born squarely of pragmatism. While Ferdinand’s age and Vidić’s injury record means each now plays a little deeper than in the past, it is the duo’s experience that Moyes has sought in a challenging start to the campaign.

“I’m sure nature will take its own course in time but I’m quite comfortable with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones,” said Moyes.

“I just felt at the moment that I’ve taken over a new job and it was important I got a little bit of rhythm. I don’t like the word ‘rotate’, but I will change players at different times. My mind was made up that I was going to keep it quite strong in the opening period and then see what happens after that.”

Elsewhere, Moyes will choose between Fabio da Silva and Chris Smalling at right-back, with Rafael on the sidelines for another fortnight and Phil Jones unfit. In-form Antonio Valencia will start on the right-wing in what has become a familiar 4-4-1-1 formation this season. However, Danny Welbeck is still unfit with a knee injury.

But it is to Rooney that eyes turn. The former Evertonian’s three goals this season have brought widespread praise, including from the player’s nemesis, Sir Alex Ferguson. But seemingly ever conscious of the player’s attitude, Moyes praised Rooney for the turnaround in fortunes this season after the 28-year-old sought a transfer for much of the summer.

“Don’t for one minute think I am going to take the credit. The credit is for Wayne Rooney for getting himself the way he is. We are here to help make him better. It is up to Wayne to do it. He takes the credit for that,” said Moyes.

“He has knuckled down really well. He has done his training. Everything he has done he has done himself. He has done it to make himself better.

“He got himself into really good shape physically. He looks lean. He is back to being his aggressive self again. He is fast and hungry. I needed all those things from him if I was ever going to get Wayne back to the level he is at.”

And should the Scouser score the winner on Sunday love from all on the terraces will not easily return, but the joy of victory will be sweet all the same.

Still, City retain a key role in the derby’s outcome. David Silva is likely to return for the derby after recovering from a thigh injury, and Micah Richards could make the bench after overcoming a hamstring strain.

 

Manchester City v Manchester United, Premier League, Etihad Stadium, 4 pm, 22 September 2013

Teams
City (4-3-3): Hart; Zabaleta, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta; Milner, Toure, Fernandinho; Navas, Aguero, Silva. Subs from: Pantilimon, Wright, Richards, García, Rodwell, Nasri, Lescott, Jovetic, Negredo,  Guidetti

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Evans, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Kagawa, Hernández

Head-to-Head
City 46 Draw 50 United 69

Officials
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: M Mullarkey, D Cann
Additional assistant referees: M Oliver

Prediction
0-0

Preview: United v Manchester City

April 8, 2013 Tags: , Matches 177 comments
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What a difference a year makes. Last April, with Manchester United leading the Premier League by four points after the 30th game, the title looked if not sealed then at least heading towards Old Trafford. Yet, by the month’s end Manchester City had beaten a limp United at the City of Manchester stadium and Sir Alex Ferguson’s goose was well and truly cooked. The rest needs no further repeat.

The story is different now of course, with Ferguson’s side leading the Premier League by 15 points and coasting towards a 20th domestic league title. No last-minute Sergio Agüero winner can save City now, with only local reputation and Roberto Mancini’s job left to play for. Mancini’s side is playing to become “Champions of Manchester,” as Vincent Kompany put it this week. Massive.

In reality, each side now has just the single trophy to play for. United, the Premier League. City, the FA Cup, with Mancini’s men facing Chelsea at Wembley next weekend. It leaves the derby unusually flaccid; a result either way will make little difference to the season’s out come.

Still, while United has crashed out of two cup competitions in recent weeks, with defeats against Real Madrid and Chelsea curtailing any thoughts of another treble, Ferguson says the campaign has been successful.

“I was asked about only winning one trophy,” said Ferguson.

“I think that’s a strange question in the context of the kind of competition we have as we’re up against teams from London – Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea – plus Liverpool and Everton. They’re massive challenges every year. For every one of those teams, the supporters want to win one trophy. I think we can win the one that really does matter to the fans.

“Yes, I’d love to win the Champions League again but I’d say that we were knocked out in circumstances everyone is still talking about. The disappointment at being knocked out by Chelsea is obvious but the league form has been fantastically consistent.”

That consistency has seen United gain four additional points after 30 games compared to last season. Mancini’s side, meanwhile, is nine points and 20 goals down.

Any campaign that ends with the Premier League title is success of course. Although behind the headlines United’s season is a little more muted despite the huge points advantage. Ferguson’s side is likely to finish the campaign having scored fewer goals and conceded more than last season.

It will take a huge effort from here to match Chelsea’s 2005 record points tally of 95, although beating last season’s total of 89 should be within sights if Ferguson’s side extracts itself from its current short-term funk.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League, Old Trafford - 8pm, 8 April 2013On the pitch the 71-year-old manager must do without captain Nemanja Vidić for City’s visit, although elsewhere the Scot boasts an almost fully-fit squad. Wayne Rooney will return alongside Robin van Persie in attack, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans will play in the back-four, with Rafael da Silva also returning after injury.

“Vida got injured at Sunderland,” confirmed Sir Alex.

“Early on, he had a clash and had a bit of treatment and then he had a clash with David De Gea near the end of the game. It’s not serious, just a nerve in his calf, so he should be maybe back in training over the weekend. I’ve got Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones so I’ve got the right cover, I think.”

Meanwhile, City arrive without Jack Rodwell who is injured, although the former Evertonian has appeared in just four Premier League matches all season in any case. Micah Richards and Maicon are definitely out, although David Silva and Samir Nasri should both overcome minor knocks.

Still, it is not form or players that has won United the league, says Mancini, but a mysterious fear spread throughout England. Conversely, City has been hit by fierce domestic competition. Mancini has long since given up on credibility.

“No one plays well against United because they only play with fear,” said Mancini.

“United are strong now because of their importance as a team, their importance as a club. Every team that plays against United plays very soft because they think the game is difficult, that they can’t beat them.

“If they play strong against United, they can beat them like they can beat us. This is normal, this is football, because United have been a strong team for a long time. For the other teams they play against it is difficult. I’m not saying they don’t play 100% but their mentality is poor in that game.”

Ferguson can challenge Mancini’s remarks as the sour grapes of a man now fighting for his job after one of the weakest title defences in recent memory.

Indeed, the Scot has warned City that his side intends to build on the coming success. Whether that ambition is matched in the transfer market is another matter. Not least with strong rumours circulating that Ferguson’s summer budget could be severely curtailed after pressing home Robin van Persie’s acquisition last July.

“The record over the last 20 years tells you we’re not going away,” adds Ferguson.

“So I’d expect us without doubt to have a real good challenge next year. Plus we’ll have players who are maturing nicely. Rafa has proved how much he’s developed this season; the goalkeeper David de Gea’s progress right through the season is absolutely superb and he’ll get better next year. Kagawa will be a far better player next year, I’m certain about that.

“We have to deal with the fact that one or two players are getting older, but I think we’re not so bad in terms of protecting most positions. So we’re not going to go away, no doubt about that.”

Neither will City, of course, with Mancini, or whomever replaces the Italian, likely to be handed a substantial transfer bounty. The club’s failure to land van Persie or a number of other targets last summer is to blame for the club’s failure, claims the Italian.

There’s some truth in that. But more in Ferguson’s assertion that United’s has been a strong response to last season’s narrow failure.

“The way we lost it resonates with a lot of people in the club,” said United manager. “The players focused, their team spirit was terrific and there was a definite purpose in terms of getting the title back.”

Match details
Manchester United v Manchester City – Premier League, Old Trafford – 7 April 2013 March 2013, 8pm

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

City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy; Barry, Touré, Milner, Silva; Tevez, Agüero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Lescott, Nasri, Kolarov, Razak, García, Guidetti, Džeko

Match officials
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant Referees: S Child and J Brooks
Fourth Official: H Webb

Form
United: WLDWWL
City: WWWWLW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, City 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 69, City 45, Draw 50

Stats

  • Joe Hart has made 85 saves this season, with 13 clean sheets, and conceded 26 goals at an average of 3.26 saves per goal;
  • David de Gea last conceded in the Premier League against Southampton on January 30th, keeping six clean sheets in a row in the league, which is two-thirds of his total for the season;
  • De Gea has only conceded three goals in the Premier League 2013, compared to 17 through the end of December – he averages 4.65 saves per goal conceded;
  • Rio Ferdinand has contributed more defensively than any other player for either City or United, with 137 defensive contributions, including 64 interceptions;
  • Pablo Zabaleta is just one tackle, interception, block or clearance away from matching Rio, having notched up 136 defensive contributions this season, including 64 tackles, 59.8 per cent of those attempted
  • Vincent Kompany has made 126 defensive contributions this season, including 28 clearances and 54 interceptions;
  • In midfield Carrick is ranked sixth in the EA Sports Premier League Performance Index for passes completed in the opposition half at 889 exactly 150 behind Yaya Touré;
  • Carrick has also played 201 more minutes that Touré this season, while David Silva also ranks above Carrick in number of passes completed with 970, having played around 400 minutes less than the United man;
  • Robin van Persie’s shot against Sunderland may have gone down as a Titus Bramble own goal but he remains the second top goalscorer in the Premier League;
  • The Dutchman is one of only four players in the Index to have taken 100 efforts at goal this season, unleashing 103 shots with 60.1 per cent on target;
  • Strike partner Wayne Rooney has hit 12 goals this season –  the same tally as City’s top goalscorer Edin Dzeko;
  • Rooney has played 1691 minutes and attempted 68 shots, while Dzeko has played 1556 minutes and taken 62 shots;
  • City’s goal threat comes from three players – Dzeko, Aguero and Tevez, with the Argentinian achieving 65 per cent shot accuracy rate.

Prediction
1-1

Red triumph hands City the blues

December 12, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 23 comments

Remarkable the transformation. In six short months Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has  metamorphosed from the timid outfit that lost so meekly to Manchester City at Eastlands in April, to an embolden challenger, outplaying the English champions on home turf this past Sunday. Indeed, Manchester United’s victory over Roberto Mancini’s outfit not only stretches the Reds’ Premier League lead to six points, but earns Ferguson plaudits for the turnaround in approach. It is a boost to confidence many had sought with only partial belief.

Fascinating too is the contradictory tension now liberated in the Blue quarter of Manchester, with goalkeeper Joe Hart and Mancini reportedly at loggerheads over Robin van Persie’s final-minute winner. The Dutchman’s curled free-kick found the bottom of the stoppers’ net much to the Mancini’s evident and vocal disgust.

In such games are titles won and lost; the beginning of a narrative that may come to characterise a season. This is even more evident given the dénouement of another dramatic Manchester derby, which brought a damaging loss for the hosts and a stunning victory for the visitors. It is, surely, a win that defines the current incarnation of Sir Alex’ side.

If it is the nature of victory that has proffered immeasurable confidence at Old Trafford then it is also the intensity of occasion that enabled sweet relief at the climax. After City’s 7-1 aggregate Premier League double last season, United simply had to gain something from this short trip across Manchester.

“We’ve done it to City in the past of course but this was special simply because they hadn’t lost at home for two years,” admitted a glowing Sir Alex in the aftermath.

“Both of us are contenders at the top of the league and it was an incredible game, you couldn’t take your eyes off it. The intensity, passion, competitiveness… everything was there.”

United’s hard work so nearly came to nothing after City fought from two goals down to draw level with minutes to spare. Had Ferguson’s side thrown away a lead to lose, as seemed the more likely scenario with 10 minutes to spare, then City’s supremacy would now be etched into this derby – a third straight Premier League victory.

The downbeat mood, had loss entailed, could also have been cast in controversy after officials’ incorrect decision to rule Ashley Young’s strike offside with United already two goals to the good.

“You’ve got to give credit to City for the way they keep going and for scoring late goals,” said Ferguson.

“City kept fighting, they kept battling and they’ve got this great record of scoring late goals. City scored a second goal and they deserved it. At that point, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I’ll take the draw.’ But up to that point, I thought we were far better than them.

“Fortunately we got the last one that counted. You know Robin’s capable of that. It took a little deflection but it was a wicked hit and I’m really delighted it’s flown in.”

Sweeter still for the Red majority that it should be van Persie who scored United’s winner. Salt in a City’s wound after the Dutchman reportedly turned down the Blues’ £300,000 per week contract offer last summer. For the greater glory, said the 29-year-old striker – another defining moment in an increasingly tense relationship between these two clubs.

Meanwhile, over at Eastlands the recriminations are still being felt more than 48 hours after the game’s conclusion. Tension between Hart and Mancini, exposed after City’s 3-2 loss to Real Madrid last month, has bubbled to the surface again.

There has also been widespread criticism of Samir Nasri; the Frenchman’s dive behind Hart’s wall and petulant flick of the leg enabling van Persie’s shot to deflect past the England ‘keeper.

And then there is Mario Balotelli, whose performance of casual ineptitude made a mockery of Mancini’s decision to bench both Carlos Tevez and the free-scoring Bosnian forward Edin Džeko. The multi-talented Italian striker has the quality to win key matches, but rarely the temperament to bring it to the fore.

“It is a bad feeling at this moment, when you lose a derby in the last seconds, but the manager should do his choice properly,” said Mancini, who is under increasing pressure after failure in Europe.

“I decided to play with Mario because he could cause a problem for their defenders. I wanted to wait to see if Mario could play well in the second half. But after five minutes, I saw he played like he played in the first half and I didn’t want this. It is important for him to start to think about his job. I saw players like that in my life with fantastic quality and end up with nothing, but I don’t want this for him.”

Mancini is now left in an invidious position having spent around £100 million on Tevez, Džeko and Ballotelli, but seemingly unable to trust the trio. Even Sergio Agüero, it seems, has gone off the boil this season having scored seven times in 15 matches this season.

More proof, if required, that while City’s billion pound investment has brought trophies and glory to a formerly decaying club, retaining pre-eminancy remains the toughest job in professional sport.

Indeed, while Abu Dhabi has not the heart to sack Mancini this winter – a change of horses in mid-stream that would only increase instability – it will take a remarkable turnaround in the club’s fortunes for the Italian to last beyond next summer. Not with Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho likely to be available.

If defeat has served to highlight deficiencies in Mancini’s squad and approach then it has also masked, temporarily at least, United’s weaknesses. Once again Ferguson’s side conceded freely – largely due to a bold open approach that is rewarded with points and goals, but offers little security at the back.

Six points is a healthy lead heading into the Christmas programme, but one that can also erode quickly if United adds to the five defeats already suffered this season.

Yet, there was handsome reward for Ferguson’s recognition that United could gain little by retrenching into the defensive mentality of last spring’s defeat at Eastlands. United sought victory and came away with the spoils.

After all the Scot’s selection could have included ‘safe’ experience in Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Anders Lindegaard. In past times Park Ji-Sung would almost certainly have played.

Instead, Ferguson’s decision to entrust Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and David de Gea speaks clearly to the change of mentality since April.

Preview: City v United

December 8, 2012 Tags: , Matches 226 comments

Look away, there’s nothing to see here. Certainly, of all the emotions felt by Manchester United supporters over the past year, there has been a common response to Manchester City’s 7-1 aggregate Premier League double over Sir Alex Ferguson’s men last season. Six points that swung the title towards Eastlands and opened a new dawn in English football.

Yet, as the cliché goes, while getting to the top may have been one billion pounds hard for City, Roberto Mancini’s men are finding out that staying there is somewhat more troublesome. Mancini’s obsessive need to tinker with a successful formula, and a succession of draws on the road, has left City trailing United heading into this weekend’s derby.

Strange season though – one in which Ferguson’s side has rarely found a consistent level, but leads the Premier League by three points. Victory, however unlikely given City’s still imperious home record, will leave United in a commanding position heading into the Christmas programme.

Ferguson will not count the points secure though – not with United’s defensive troubles as they are. The Reds have shipped 21 goals in the league this season and the leaky back-four leaves Ferguson in a quandary; trust in his strikers’ form and attack an uncertain Blues, or retrench into the defensive mentality that so backfired at Eastlands last April?

Either way, it is set to be another definitive weekend in the title race – one in which United could stretch a lead or cede control to the ever noisier neighbours.

“Challenges are what we’re made of,” said Ferguson ahead of the 164th Manchester derby.

“I’ve been lucky that, in my time here, I’ve been involved with great competitions against individual teams: Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and now City. Chelsea did it and we recognised it immediately. What they did well was start seasons quickly. They had almost gone by the time we got to October. We couldn’t play catch up with them – we never got near them.

“So we changed our programme in pre-season and made sure we started the season correctly. In that third season we did that and we won the league. That’s the great thing about this club. We can accept challenges and we don’t run from them.”

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League, Eastlands - Sunday 9 December 2012, 1.30pmCity’s investment has changed the landscape of English football, but Sunday’s match will, as ever, be won and lost in the details. Such as defending with something approaching the quality of potential champions. Ferguson’s outfit certainly cannot defend as poorly as it did at Reading and hope to take anything from the weekend’s game. Nor, indeed, the season if that “Cartoon Cavalcade” performance is repeated too often.

However, the Scot’s side heads into the match with injuries afflicting a quartet of midfielders – Antonio Valencia, Nani, Anderson, and Tom Cleverley – leaving options limited. This may leave Sir Alex to deploy another narrow midfield, or find a formation with plenty of square pegs in far too many round holes.

Meanwhile, captain Nemanja Vidić is unlikely to play despite weekend press reports to the contrary. The giant Serbian has appeared in around a dozen games over the past year after suffering two serious knee injuries.

“On the injury front, Tom Cleverley will have a scan this morning and we’ll see what he’s like,” confirmed Sir Alex. “It’s his calf, which is always a worry, but we’ll see. Nani and Valencia are still out. It will be a few weeks with them.

“I thought Kagawa may have done enough to make the bench on Wednesday but no, he’s well short. But I don’t think he’ll be available until the Sunderland game. Vidić has certainly been doing well in training but I think the game on Sunday is a bit soon for him. I know we’ve got a few injuries at the moment but we’ve got a big strong squad of players.”

Meanwhile, Mancini could welcome back playmaker David Silva despite the Spaniard missing Wednesday’s Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Gael Clichy and James Milner also return to the Blues’ squad.

But the Italian’s problems have little to do with injuries and much more to a dysfunctional forward unit that has scored less frequently than United this season. Title-winning forward Sergio Agüero has seven goals in all competitions this season, but Edin Džeko, Carlos Tevez and Mario Ballotelli have each struggled to justify almost £100 million aggregate outlay.

“Our season depends on our strikers,” Mancini admitted on Friday.

“We need to improve the output from our strikers. Our problem is our strikers. Usually when you have four strikers, two or three of them are not scoring but one is. At the moment we have four strikers who can’t score. We don’t have the same quality this season that we showed in the first 15 games of last season”.

It is an observation that offers United hope of extracting a modicum of revenge for last season’s double league defeat. Victory would not only bring league title 20 a step closer, but enable Reds worldwide to forget the horrors of last season.

Match Details
Manchester City v Manchester United – Premier League, Eastlands – Sunday 9 December 2012, 1.30pm

Possible teams
City (4-4-2): Hart; Maicon, Kompany, Nastasic, Zabaletta; Nasri, Y Touré, Barry, Silva; Tevez, Agüero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Wright, Lescott, Clichy, García, K Touré, Razak, Sinclair, Tchuimeni-Nimley, Dzeko.

United (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher; Carrick, Scholes; Rooney; van Persie, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs, Hernandez.

Officials
Referee: M Atkinson
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Burt
Fourth official: M Clattenburg.

Form
City: WDDWDL
United: LLWWWL

Head to Head
Last 10: City 4, United 5, Draw 1
Overall: City 45, United 68, Draw 50

Stats

  • United must recover from a physically demanding game at Reading and a mid-week Champions League fixture – the Reds covered more ground against Reading than in any other game this season, clocking up 66.29 miles;
  • Rooney’s 6.96 miles was the second highest by an individual United player this season;
  • van Persie’s goal was his 10th in the Premier League this season, making the Dutchman the league’s joint top goal scorer;
  • Of the four players sharing that honour van Persie has required the second fewest shots at goal – 46 – while Luis Suarez has taken 80, Demba Ba 53, and Michu just 39;
  • Rooney’s goal was his fourth of the having taken 35 shots at goal with 65.7 per cent accuracy;
  • Rooney’s team mate Chicarito, meanwhile, has the best shots per goal ratio of any striker in the derby, taking just three shots per goal;
  • United’s problems at the back may have been largely driven by form and fitness of key players, although Rafael da Silva can take comfort from his contribution – 44 tackles, winning 24, 13 clearances, 22 interceptions and one block;
  • City, meanwhile, remain the only unbeaten team in the league this season after a tough 1-1 draw against Everton last weekend;
  • Tevez’ penalty was his seventh goal of the season, with one scored every 152 minutes and 17 seconds at 6.7 shots per goal;
  • At the other end City has conceded just 11 goals compared to United’s 21, in part because of Matija Nastasic’s form since coming into the side – the Servian has averaged a defensive contribution once every 19 minutes and 16 seconds including 12 attempted tackles, five clearances, 12 interceptions and four blocks;
  • City captain Vincent Kompany has contributed 107 defensive interventions so far this season, including 50 attempted tackles, with 52 per cent won, 19 clearances, 33 interceptions and five blocks;
  • Yay Touré has completed more passes in the opposition half than any other player in the league, with 657, averaging one every 2 minutes and 12 seconds, while Michael Carrick has completed 518, at one every 2 minutes 38 seconds, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Prediction
2-1

Fergie laughs off defensive malaise as derby looms into view

December 2, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 18 comments

“It was agony,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday night, “the worst defending of this season.” Indeed, the Scot’s statement is one with which many Manchester United supporters can agree, although the plethora of choices in that inglorious competition says much. Once again Ferguson’s side came back from the brink to win on Saturday; this time against a limited, if spirited, Reading side that picked apart United’s back four with an ease that debased many experienced international.

On this evidence the Reds will not just come close to losing more games this season, but drop vital points in a title race that surely begins in earnest with United’s visit to Eastlands next Sunday. With the Reds’ defensive performances seemingly regressing few supporters will view the derby against Manchester City in the comfortable glow that a Premier League lead should bring.

Ferguson’s defence – or more accurately, the team’s paucity of watchful sanctuary – has become the story of the campaign to date. Just five clean sheets in 22 matches says much, while 21 goals conceded in the Premier League is a greater total than Sunderland in 17th place.

Yet, Ferguson’s side sits atop of the Premier League ahead of next weekend’s derby; United’s 36 points based largely on the Scot’s decision to bolster his attacking options last summer. It is a strategy that has partially worked, of course, with Robin van Persie contributing 13 goals in the campaign to date. On this form the Dutchman should come close to matching the 37 goals scored in all competitions for Arsenal last season.

Yet, United’s habitual need to recovered from deficit, married to embarrassingly loose defensive performances, threatens to undermine a campaign that will bring far greater challenges that Brian McDermott’s Berkshire side offered.

“We’re needing to rescue the situation all the time,” admitted Ferguson. “Fortunately we have players who can do that. If we defend like that against Manchester City, I might need to play myself.”

The Scot is unlikely to find the situation quite so amusing if his side fails to fulfill the defensive basics as the campaign draws on. Beaten three times from set pieces at the Madejski, by the conclusion goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was suffering from the brand of nervous debility so often attached to rival David de Gea over the past 18 months.

Still, Ferguson’s solution in replacing Rafael da Silva with Chris Smalling on 30 minutes had more than a touch of closing the stable door half-an-hour too late. Smalling’s height, explained Ferguson, offered a solution to Reading’s penetration at set pieces. That the former Fulham defender made just a single successful header in more than an hour on the pitch might suggest otherwise.

More important than a rapid-fire substitution was United’s readjustment after half-time with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dropping back into wide areas to protect the Reds’ over-stretched full-backs. The pair’s negligence in leaving both Rafael and Patrice Evra exposed to Reading’s wide players in two-versus-one situations brought the hosts much joy during the opening half.

The attacking rejoinder was swift, of course, with Rooney, van Persie, and at times Young, offering significant penetration. Far too much for McDermott’s pourous outfit. Anderson, too, enjoyed some attacking freedom before yet another injury ruined the Brazilian’s evening. None of the quartet offered much to United’s defensive cause though.

Still, there is some pre-Christmas cheer, with United captain Nemanja Vidić due to return in the Champions League dead rubber with CFR Cluj on Wednesday. The Serbian defender will at least add security in the air, even if the 30-year-old has been far from an imperious past this season.

“He’s a battler, an absolute competitor,” adds Ferguson of his captain. “He’s got that dour, uncompromising way of his. He likes defending – that’s what he does.

“I knew Vida was doing really well with the physios. He was doing his football training with them in terms of turning and striking the ball but he came into training last Monday with the first team and did okay.”

It is unlikely, however, that Vidić will start against City next weekend given the Serbian’s sparsity of matches for the club over the past 18 months. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, both culpable at times for poorly defending the high ball against Reading, will surely start at Eastlands.

The real challenge, of course, is not truly in how Ferguson’s defence shapes up, although Evans form of late is a genuine concern, but whether the Scot can balance a midfield that has swung between exposing it’s full-backs and central defenders in turn with each new evolution in tactical thinking.

Indeed, a flat-two in central midfield has too often been the Reds soft underbelly, ruthlessly exposed, for example, by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford earlier this season. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s decision to play a narrow three on Saturday served only to encourage the hosts to play wide.

In this United’s 70-year-old manager has no easy task against City. Anderson’s injury robs the Scot of one option in central midfield, leaving Ferguson more likely to start with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher along side Michael Carrick in a narrow midfield than he is to throw caution to the wind. In any case, injuries to Antonio Valencia and Nani significantly restrict Ferguson’s options in wide areas.

Still, the Scot is prone to surprise against City – none quite so depressing for United supporters as the Reds’ Premier League loss to the blues at Eastlands last season. The United manager’s negative tactical outlook backfired just as significantly as United’s collapse at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign.

And those results may leave Ferguson caught between tool schools of thought; one bent on augmenting United’s fragile defensive unit; the other set up to attack Roberto Mancini’s outfit in its own home. It is, after all, a truism that Ferguson is seemingly yet to find his most effective unit this season.

Still, the defence will be top of mind. “If you make mistakes like that defending then you are going to have to do rescue jobs every week,” said the Scot on Saturday evening. After Saturday’s tactical mess, it’s a statement United’s manager may do well to heed.

Reds approach campaign with no trepidation

August 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 39 comments

As much as Sir Alex Ferguson hoped otherwise, Manchester United’s pre-season friendly against Hannover 96 on Saturday night was unable to detract attention from his employers’ financial proclivities in New York. On the opening day of trading a ‘disappointing’ IPO raised approximately $100 million less than initially sought by the Glazer family, while a myriad of unfulfilled speculation surrounding primary transfer target Robin van Persie prompted suggestions that United’s interest was merely a failed ploy to convey a position of wellbeing. Bad press, it seems, is inescapable for chief executive David Gill and his collaborators right now.

Sadly for United, the club’s woes are not consigned to its endeavours across the Atlantic; unease surrounding an underwhelming pre-season campaign has been augmented by relatively low transfer activity, archetypal of the Glazers’ reign at Old Trafford. And even if Ferguson’s intentions to sign the Dutchman are real, the completion of the transfer will by no means receive the unquestioning backing of United’s supporters.

Van Persie’s age, wage demands, and susceptibility to injury are all cited as deterrents, as is the inevitability that the Dutchman would deprive fans’ favourites Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez of playing time. Furthermore, considering the substantial fee necessary to prise last year’s PFA and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year from Arsenal, any deal will surely deprive the team’s ailing midfield of further investment.

Following a trophy-less campaign least term, continuing negative publicity, and the manager’s apparent refusal, or inability, to address his squad’s key inadequacies, it’s fair to suggest that the season ahead for United appears bleak. Yet, with just over a week to go until the start of the Premier League campaign, Ferguson is not short belief that his side is adequately equipped to regain the title.

Aside from any transfer activity, or lack thereof, United’s squad is already bolstered this summer by the return of Nemanja Vidić. The Serbian has completed ­over 170 minutes of football during the team’s pre-season tour. While Jonny Evans deputised superbly for the United captain last season, dispelling any assertions that the Irishman’s time at Old Trafford is running out, Vidić’s importance is difficult to overstate. Though it is easy to speculate, it is hard to imagine United conceding the two late goals at home to Everton that proved so costly in the title race had Vidić been present to maintain defensive discipline.

Starting the season opener at Goodison Park may be an ambitious target, but having witnessed repeated delays to Tom Cleverley’s recovery last term, and Owen Hargreaves’s haphazard attempts to regain fitness throughout his spell at Old Trafford, United fans are relieved to see Vidić return on schedule from a serious injury.

In addition to the restored first choice defensive partnership, Ferguson expects greater contributions from a number of his younger players this season. Danny Welbeck impressed during his first campaign in the starting line-up, but must improve on last year’s tally of just 12 goals, particularly if the striker is to preserve his place in Ferguson’s team. Having followed-up a decent club season with impressive performances for England at this summer’s European Championships, the Longsight-born player can achieve the 20 goal target set by his manager.

Additionally, Chris Smalling and Cleverley, having also shown much promise already, hope to feature more often after enduring injury hampered seasons last time out. Smalling has developed a reputation for dependability, having continually improved since joining from Fulham in 2010, while Cleverley enjoyed an excellent start to his senior United career before its abrupt postponement at the Reebok Stadium last September. Cleverley’s return may even help observers forget United’s lack of options in central midfield.

Significantly, Ferguson can count on the improved consistency of goalkeeper David de Gea. All but written off by the media following a difficult start to his United career, the Spaniard grew in confidence and stature as last season progressed, winning the team points regularly. Provided De Gea remains composed in the face of renewed competition from Anders Lindegaard, the Spaniard will surely develop into one of the league’s finest goalkeepers.

Additionally, while United’s transfer activity is minimal this summer it has at least been well considered. Glowing praise from his former mentor Dario Gradi has generated considerable excitement in the future of Nick Powell, while Shinji Kagawa’s acquisition could have a decisive impact. The Japanese playmaker made a total of 25 goals in Borussia Dortmund’s double-winning campaign last term, affirming talismanic status, and has looked sharp playing just behind the frontline during pre-season appearances for United. Kagawa could provide a link between the team’s midfielders and forwards that was desperately missing for much of last season, often leaving the strikers isolated and occasionally resulting in Wayne Rooney dropping into midfield.

Away from United it is also worth considering the merits of local rivals, Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s team has been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer market, with the Italian failing to offload superfluous players on excessive salaries. Despite possessing considerable strength-in-depth, Mancini’s side looks vulnerable should it lose any one of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, or David Silva.

Though any team is weakened by losing one or more of its three best players, note that Touré will once again depart mid-season to compete in a rollover African Cup of Nations. Meanwhile, Silva will face an arduous campaign, having represented Spain at the European Championships after a season in which he played through an ankle injury.

The lack of quality cover for Kompany was particularly evident during the Belgian’s absences last season, as is reliance on goalkeeper Joe Hart. While United’s recent luck with injuries has been torrid, City’s has been the opposite; should fortunes reverse this season it is difficult to foresee Mancini’s men faring so well.

Furthermore, City will face the burden of playing this season as champions. Painful as it is to acknowledge, the upside is that teams will raise their performance levels against the Eastlands outfit; a belief endorsed by Wayne Rooney this week, who asserted that “over the years everyone has tried to raise their game when they play against Manchester United. Now obviously City are champions they’ll have to face that.”

Whether Mancini’s side approaches the task of retaining the title with a hint of trepidation remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that United seeks the Premier League’s return to Old Trafford with renewed vigour. The pain associated with losing to City on goal difference no will spur on Ferguson’s side, just as it did in 2006/7 when the title loss to Chelsea prompted a change in system, and one of the most exciting domestic campaigns of the decade.

Once again United enters a season in transition, and with a point to prove. Only a fool will write Ferguson’s team off.

Blues break United hearts in Fergie time

May 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 93 comments

It is a little over four miles from Eastlands to the Granada Studios lot on which Coronation Street is now filmed. Perhaps, though, the time is nigh for those penning ITV’s long-running soap opera to slip into quiet retirement, lay down the quill one last time, and recognise that no Weatherfield ferment can ever match the emotion, melodrama, and sheer intoxication of this season’s Premier League denouement.

No Street plot line has ever been this improbable. Nor heart-rending for those in Red. For 28 tortuous minutes Manchester United, quite inexplicably, grasped a 20th domestic league title as Roberto Mancini’s Blues conspired to fall behind, at home, to 10-man Queens Park Rangers. For near half-an-hour of agony those in Red dreamed of Manchester City’s stunning demise, and a United triumph much against all expectations. It was truly a demi-heure like no other.

This was a drama with a stunning final revelation though. How could it be any other way? No happy ending for the 2,000 travelling Reds in Sunderland, nor the United players whom emerged victorious at the Stadium of Light, or the millions more watching in hope on television. Instead, only the agony, no, disbelief as Sergio Aguero jinked past Taye Taiwo’s lazy tackle and slammed home City’s title-winning goal at 90 minutes plus four.

That United had already departed the Stadium of Light field only enhanced the drama. Sir Alex Ferguson’s players standing, waiting, for what must have been the two longest minutes of many careers after securing a hard-fought victory on Wearside. Cruelly, it was Sunderland’s fans that brought the news that anyone in Red could only anticipate with horror – City’s winning goal at Eastlands.

“I congratulate City on winning the league,” said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath.

“It is a fantastic achievement to win the Premier League, it’s not easy to win, it’s the hardest league in the world and anyone that wins it deserves it. We knew there were five minutes of injury time being played there, one of our assistant referees informed us of that. Our game only had three minutes so for two minutes we didn’t know that was happening. Of course, they got the break and won the game.”

Cruel though the manner of league defeat is for those in Red, it is not the ceding of United’s Premier League title that will hurt the most. Indeed, losses to Wigan Athletic, City and the draw with Everton in the past month all but ensured that conclusion whatever Sunday’s matches brought. After all, United has made mistakes by the legion to help City erode a comfortable Premier League over the course of just six games.

No, the pain will reside in those 28 minutes of hope, when QPR unexpectedly rallied after Joey Barton’s imbecilic dismissal to take a 2-1 lead into injury time, and all too briefly United’s players, staff and supporters believed the club was champions once again.

“It’s cruel, but we’ve experienced many ups and downs in the 25 years I’ve been here – most of them are great moments,” Ferguson added.

“We’ve won the league title three times on the last day and today we nearly did it. Coming into the last game I said, ‘Concentrate on your job, that’s what we have to do’, because you’re going to get certain types of reaction from the crowd and you saw that.”

“At the end of our game our players didn’t actually know the results. Now, they’re really disappointed, I’m glad to say. There’s no other way they should be. They conducted themselves brilliantly today. Their performance level was good. I’m pleased at our performance this season. Eighty-nine points would win most leagues. It wasn’t our turn today.”

As with so many seasons winners and losers are selected in the details; an unlucky break here, a fortunate goal there. United’s players will hold many of those moments close in the coming months – not least the occasions on which points were squandered on the precipice of conceit. Blackburn Rovers’ unlikely victory at Christmas, defeat at Wigan, and a two-goal lead at home to Everton thrown away. Each should long live in the memory.

So too must Ferguson reflect on the cautious approach adopted at Eastlands last month that backfired in such spectacular fashion – a trick United almost repeated on Wearside. While the Scot has boldly lauded Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in recent days, Ferguson could not trust the pair to win games against City, or again on the final day.

Whether Ferguson will, or can, address United’s issues is a question for the summer, and thoughts will quickly turn from defeat to the future. The new Premier League season is now less than 100 days hence, and United will find claiming back the league trophy from a City side emboldened and educated by glory no easy task.

After all, Mancini’s outfit is unlikely to repeat the mistakes made this season, nor fall victim to the bout of nerves that at one stage seemed set to sweep the tile to Old Trafford by Easter. Instead, City will now build from a position of strength, shedding disruptive influences or under-performing stars, and exploiting the market as only a club built on sovereign wealth can.

United, meanwhile, faces a painful summer in the knowledge that there are many questions to be asked and answered of Ferguson’s squad.

The coming weeks will be replete with talk of a ‘shift in power’, the ‘end of United’s empire’ and City’s looming hegemony. Ferguson, re-invigorated by City’s challenge, will have none of it, even if the pensioner is unlikely to meet City’s challenge in the transfer market this summer. In youth and history Sir Alex trusts, whether by his design or that foisted upon him.

“We have a rich history, better than anyone, and it will take them a century to get to our level of history,” adds the 70-year-old United manager.

“But for us it’s still a challenge and we’re good at challenges. We’ll kick on from here. I think we take credit in the fact we’ve had so many injuries this season and we’ve coped with that very well. Some of the young players have gained some experience and they’ll be around in five, six, seven years time all these young players at Manchester United. Experience is good for them – even if it’s a bad one.”

Yet, United will look back on a season where players and manager needed to raise their game to meet City’s challenge, and ultimately fell flat. Two defeats in five games coming into the final day cost United dearly – a pattern that cannot be explained away by inexperience, nor injury.

It all added, of course, to the most extraordinary league finale since Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield in 1989. The Eastlands tumult will rarely, if ever, be bettered for the wave of emotion. That, however, will be of little consolation to Reds tonight.

Hope and despair

May 1, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 86 comments

Scrutinising Sir Alex Ferguson’s team sheet for the first time shortly after 7.15pm on Monday night many Reds were reminded of that old John Cleese jibe. You know the one about it not being the despair, but the hope that he could not stand. Mercifully, for those fans suffering under the strain of the Premier League run-in, all hope was swiftly killed by Sir Alex’ selection. Not for the first time supporters can be thankful to the great man, although far from the manner in which many have become accustomed over the past 25 years.

The team selection was, after all, patently absurd to those who stood in bars or on terraces and observed, mouths collectively aghast, as the Scot sought to meet Manchester City’s vibrancy and athleticism with a quartet of players unfit for the task. Fortunate, then, for those desperate to end the pain of hope that Ferguson should compound his irresistible urge to tinker by moving United’s better players around, or indeed, out of the team altogether.

What amusement Sir Alex must have found in deploying Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung – each of whom was so undercooked for United’s biggest game of the season that it was unfair to expect anything less than sub-par performances. How the Scot japed when dropping Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck, or shifting 33 goal striker Wayne Rooney away from the deeper position in which he has flourished this season.

Except the joke was all on supporters who gathered in the hope that United could stop City’s oil-fueled juggernaut for this season at least. It quickly turned to despair.

It is hard to point the finger of criticism at players – it is not the United way. After all, many of these players were placed in an impossibly difficult position.

Smalling was drafted in as an emergence centre back following Jonny Evans’ injury against the Toffees last weekend. The former Fulham defender has suffered with injury recently, starting a league game for the first time this year at Eastlands. It was hardly the youngster’s fault, but Smalling’s rustiness was exposed repeatedly on the night, not least by Vincent Kompany’s 45th minute winning goal.

With one enforced change in defence it made little sense to willingly foist another upon the team. Jones has suffered a nightmare run-in, with injuries and a dramatic loss of form hampering the teenager’s progress in all of the three positions that Ferguson has deployed the 19-year-old.

In truth Jones was a bizarre choice at right-back, selected apparently for his height, but displaying all the ‘headless chicken’ qualities that had fans mocking comparisons with the late, great, Duncan Edwards. Shouts of “Duncan! Duncan!” rang around one bar packed with more than 500 Reds on each occasion Jones’ first touch was heavy, and the second was inevitably a tackle.

Meanwhile, Rafael was dropped after one poor performance in the past three months – that against Everton last weekend. In truth it was the kind of slack defensive show that Ferguson’s favourite lieutenant Patrice Evra has descended to on an almost weekly basis.

Yet, the United manager’s odd team selection didn’t end with the back-four. In midfield Ferguson drafted in both Giggs and Park – two players who have between them produced zero stellar performances this season. The Welshman is a genuine legend in an era when that superlative is greatly abused. But, it is a painful truth to admit that the 39-year-old has also suffered, by some considerable distance, his worst ever season in a United shirt.

Good job for those still burdened with hope, Cleese might add, that Giggs was made to “run up and down the bloody touchline” by Ferguson – the very the role United’s manager admitted four years ago that the Welshman could no longer perform.

And if Giggs’ 75 per cent pass completion rate was not wasteful enough, then Sir Alex followed up the Welshman’s inclusion by deploying Park – a player whose one-time epithet of ‘three lungs’ now looks embarrassingly wayward. Thankfully, the former PSV player only touched the ball 17 times – falling over more often than not, those of a crueler persuasion might add.

Unfortunately, Park’s direct competitor Yaya Touré made four times as many passes, as the Ivorian stamped his undoubted authority on the match.

Elsewhere Rooney was moved from the ‘hole’, disrupting a vibrant and productive partnership with Welbeck, and forcing the Scouser to plough a very lonely furrow up front. Meanwhile, United’s most productive player in recent months, Valencia, was dropped for the supposedly more defensively secure Park. It beggared belief.

Yet, none of this really mattered compared to the style in which United played; negative, scared and inhibited. This too was not the United way, and it was becoming neither of players nor manager to perform in fashion that yielded not a single shot on target all night. It was the first time that United had stooped to that particular low in more than three years.

In truth, although Ferguson had vehemently proclaimed otherwise pre-match, United sought nothing more than parity with City and paid a stiff penalty. Ferguson’s team got the defeat the selection, tactics and attitude fully deserved.

Patently, the Scot did not trust a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes that had been over-run by Everton the weekend before. With good reason – Scholes’ 37-year-old legs looked their age against the Merseysiders for the first time since the midfielder’s reintroduction to the United team in January. Carrick, outstanding all season, retreated into his shell.

On the night the pair simply could not cope with City’s energy, even if the pass completion ratio was at more than 90 per cent. That neither player made more than 50 successful passes tells a more pertinent story though. Carrick has exceeded 100 numerous times this season, but was unable to exert any control over proceedings on Monday night.

If parking the bus was designed to gain United a point then fans can ask whether the Reds genuinely held a contingency plan? After all, Valencia did not enter the field until the game was almost up, while Ashley Young saw just six minutes of action. United’s caution, as Roberto Mancini astutely observed in the aftermath, was the side’s undoing. City simply wanted victory more.

Little wonder that Ferguson was apoplectic on the sidelines. But it is not unfair to suggest that his ire was directed inwards, and towards neither Mancini, nor the officials. The Scot’s team selection universally backfired, while the tactical approach has brought little bar condemnation.

Moreover, failure at Eastlands simply compounds the real problem this season – United is likely to lose the Premier League title not solely because of double-defeat to City, but through dropped points against Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Wigan Athletic. In each United was exposed both by the opposition and outrageous complacency. The team has proven itself simply not good enough to play with conceit.

The words of a spoilt generation, some will argue. But few Reds want a return to, say, the 1980s when United was subservient not to City, but Liverpool. Yet, this is the doomsday scenario prompted by such comprehensive defeat.

As more than one observer mused today, City’s victory and probable title win could be the springboard for a period of domination. The club will be able to strengthen from a very healthy position, removing any dead wood and unwanted distractions, while leveraging Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth to acquire almost any player available.

Meanwhile, United is quite obviously playing catch-up, with Ferguson at the very limit of his almost limitless power to extract far more than the sum of the parts from his squad. When the greatest manager in the game’s history also makes calamitous mistakes, as he did on Monday, everything falls apart.

City’s victory may be a portent of things to come. United has lost 11 times this season, while exiting four cup competitions at an early stage. It is likely to be United’s first trophyless season for eight years. That glorious run is to Ferguson’s eternal credit during an era of Glazer-inspired parsimony that has eroded the squad’s quality-in-depth.

Nobody should question Ferguson’s ability, but his choices on Monday were proven disastrously wrong. Unfortunately, the talent available is such that United no longer has a margin for error.

And if – it still remains an “if” – United is to end the campaign without silverware then the nightmare scenario of Liverpool, City and perhaps even Chelsea each claiming glory at home or abroad will remind supporters of a certain generation that the club has no divine right to victory. There is no shame coming second as long as there is a strategy to compete.

And that is the rub, of course. Fans fear, with ample evidence, that United simply cannot or will not compete with rivals in the Premier League or Europe. Queue, cynics might add, the soon-to-come proclamations of a belief in youth, the lack of value in the market, or the apparent talent in droves held by Park, Anderson, Michael Owen, Bébé or any other under-performing budget purchase.

But eventually fans will shake off Monday’s disappointment. Slowly, optimism will return, even if the Premier League trophy is paraded in front of Manchester Town Hall on a Blue open-top bus.

Whatever the summer brings, eventually hope will raise its head once again; the despair of Monday night forgotten. Until, of course, the next occasion on which United turns out, without truly turning up. It’s the hope that hurts the most.

Ferguson takes aim at Blues in title shootout

April 28, 2012 Tags: , Matches 356 comments

How did it come to this? Barely three weeks ago Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City side was “cracking up” and Manchester United had opened up an eight point Premier League lead. United’s superb form in 2012 had brought 12 wins and a draw since defeat to Newcastle United at St. James’, and the title was the Reds’ in all but name.

Yet football, at least the format practiced by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, is rarely that simple. Defeat to Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium and a draw with Everton at home, together with City’s improved form, means that Monday’s clash between the two Manchester clubs at Eastlands is now pivotal to this season’s title. Ferguson, ever mindful of the key moments in any campaign, believes the victor will go on to take this year’s honours. Who could disagree?

United, three points to the good in the title race, can afford to draw of course, enabling the Reds to claim a 20th domestic title with four points from games against Swansea City and Sunderland over the next fortnight. Yet, with recent form as it is, there is little presumption to be made about United’s ability to achieve even that goal.

So to the “shootout” with City, as Ferguson put, where both Blues and Reds know that a win is likely to bring with it the main prize. Mancini’s men must win, but if they do so then matches against a recently humbled Newcastle and relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers should hold little fear. Three points for United and City can kiss all hope goodbye.

Indeed, says Ferguson, whatever happens in Monday’s fixture, Reds must now get used to City challenging United’s hegemony at every turn. It is a fixture that will come to match United’s enmity with Liverpool, concludes the Scot.

“We have to get used to playing City in important games, they are not going away,” admitted the 70-year-old United manager.

“The financial support they have means we will be playing them, in a lot of big games. Cup finals maybe, semi-finals – we have already done that last season and had an important cup tie this season.

“It’s there, if we are going to be contesting for league titles regularly, and we will be doing, it will become just as important as the Liverpool game. Maybe not in terms of the emotional part because the Liverpool-United games are emotional, but certainly in importance – probably at this moment in time it supersedes the Liverpool games in the sense that they are our direct opponents now.

“Manchester City are without question up against us to win titles and that is what I focus on, I only focus on the team that can actually affect our progress in terms of winning.”

Manchester City v Manchester United, Premier League, Eastlands, 30 April, 8pmFerguson’s men must quickly overcome disappointment against Everton last weekend if the team is to get a result at Eastlands. There can certainly be no repeat of the slapdash defending that saw United concede four against the Toffees, with Ferguson’s side making errors in the build up to each of the visitors’ goals.

Whether it was nerves or arrogance, United’s ability to casually throw away a winning position against Everton could yet see the title slip away. But this is not a position Ferguson is prepared to countenance in the build-up to Monday’s clash, with the Scot preferring to laugh off United’s slip as ‘doing it the hard way’. It is a cliché, of course, but better than admitting the side is one calamitous reverse from a trophyless season.

“I am a confirmed masochist, I joined about 26 years ago,” joked Ferguson.

“I do not know if you thrive on it, I can’t even say I can look forward to it, but I am up for it, I am prepared for it and I think my players will be prepared for it so hopefully we will be OK.

“I suppose when the fixtures came out at the beginning of the season all roads pointed to this game. It was inevitable maybe. But we are where we are and it doesn’t matter what has happened before – the buildup to the game, who has dropped points and who hasn’t dropped points, it really is all down to this game. It will be a fantastic atmosphere and I hope it lives up to the billing.

“We are also smarting from throwing that game away last week, but in the context of our history we almost expected it, we make it hard for ourselves, our poor supporters have been subjected to that drama for years and years. God knows what they are like just now but hopefully we will make amends on Monday. It’s not a cup final, there are three games still, it is an important game. I think it could decide the title.”

However, United could be without two key players for the tie, with both defender Jonny Evans and winger Nani struggling for fitness. Evans trained on Friday as Ferguson took his players to Wales for a short break, but the Northern Irishman’s sore ankle has been a concern all week. Meanwhile, Nani is also suffering from an ankle problem, and Ferguson will leave a fitness assessment until the last moment.

United’s manager is unlikely to make significant changes despite the second-half horror show against Everton. Ferguson may bring Chris Smalling in at right-back, with Rafael as culpable as any for United’s poor defensive display against Everton. The Brazilian has performed admirably during the run-in, but Smalling’s defensive nous may win the 21-year-old a place.

There are unlikely to be many further changes, although Ferguson must decide whether to deploy both top goalscorer Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, or leave the Scouser to plough a lone furrow up-front.

Meanwhile, across town Mancini has spent the week playing down his side’s chances despite an uptick in recent form. United’s experience, says the Italian, is likely to win the day. Little more than mind games 101, cynics might add. Moreover, Mancini will be able to field a full strength side at Eastlands, including fit again Mario Balotelli and former Red Carlos Tevez.

Given the Blues have scored 10 in the past three fixtures, form is certainly on the Italian’s side.

“He probably wants to take pressure off his own players, that’s possible but it will not affect our approach or attitude, we know exactly the situation we are in here,” adds Ferguson.

“We are in a better position than Manchester City. We can get two results they can only get one, they have to win we can draw, we can win. But my attitude and the club’s attitude will be trying to win.”

Amen to that, Reds will concur, although Ferguson’s side is likely to adopt the ‘European approach’ at Eastlands, with five strung across midfield, and the visitors prepared to wait patiently for a chance. United supporters making the short trip across town will forgive any negative approach, if that is to be it, in exchange for three points and a 20th domestic league title.

Match Facts
Manchester City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Eastlands, 30 April 2012, 8pm.

Potential Line-ups
City (4-4-2): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Silva, Touré Y, Barry, Nasri; Tevez, Aguero. Subs from: Pantilimon, Taylor, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Savic, K Touré, De Jong, Milner, Pizarro, Johnson, Balotelli, Dzeko.

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Young; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Young, Cleverley, Giggs, Nani, Hernández, Berbatov, Owen.

Match Stats

  • Nani was given the nod over Ashley Young in last weekend’s 4-4 draw, and made the most of his opportunity with a goal and an assist against the Merseysiders;
  • The Portuguese winger has scored eight goals in 27 Premier League appearances this season, and has struck 51 per cent of his shots on target this season;
  • Wayne Rooney scored twice last weekend and has now overtaken George Best as United’s fourth highest goalscorer. Rooney remains a goal behind Robin van Persie as this season’s top goal scorer;
  • United had conceded just once in seven league fixtures until the calamity against Everton last weekend. David De Gea was an ever-present during that run, making 32 saves at an average of 3.5 per game. The most saves the United ‘keeper has made in any single game was 13 against Liverpool in October 2011;
  • Sergio Aguero slotted home City’s first last weekend – his 22nd of the season, putting the Argentinian third behind Rooney and van Persie in the leading goalscorers chart this season;
  • David Silva picked up another assist last weekend and remains at the top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for assists this season. Silva has also been one of City’s hardest workers this season, covering 190.2 miles to date;
  • Joe Hart pulled off two key saves to prevent Wolverhampton wanderers getting back into last weekend’s clash at Molineux. Hart is now ranked 15th in the Index, and is the leading ‘keeper;
  • United’s captain Patrice Evra is the highest ranking player in the Index to have not scored this season.
  • Rooney tops the rankings, scoring 30.9 percent of the Reds goals this season.

Form
City: DDLWWW
United: WWWLWD

Officials
Referee: Andre Marriner (Birmingham)
Assistants: A Watts, M McDonough
Fourth Official: M Jones