Tag Manchester City

Tag Manchester City

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

City v United: modern classics

April 27, 2012 Tags: , Media 1 comment

To whet your appetite ahead of Monday night’s pivotal 163rd Manchester derby here are some modern classics matches between the sides. Forget Dennis Law’s back-heal, or the five goals scored by Manchester City at Maine Road in 1989; consign them to history – this is no time for negativity! Think instead about Manchester United’s five in 1994, comeback from two down in 1993, Michael Owen’s winner in September 2010, or Wayne Rooney’s last-minute overhead. Enjoy!

Manchester City 2 – 3 Manchester United, Maine Road, 1993
One of United’s greatest ever comebacks – this time in City’s backyard. Trailing by two Nial Quinn goals, United returned with strikes from Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, winning it in the final minute of the match thanks to Denis Irwin’s cross and Keane’s finish. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this.

 

Manchester United 5 – 0 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 1994
With that 1989 match at Maine Road still all too fresh in supporters’ minds, United’s flying Ukrainian winger Andrei Kanchelskis went on the rampage, scoring an Old Trafford hat-trick to banish all talk of ‘5-1’. It was the match that finally shut the Blues up and allowed United fans to lift their heads once again!

 

Manchester United 1 – 1 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2001
Roy Keane’s long-running feud with the Norwegian Alfe-Inge Haarland led to this horror tackle by the midfielder. Keane saw red and was banned for three matches. Keane’s biography, in which he suggested that he wanted to hurt the City player, cost the Irishman a further five match ban and £150,000 fine. Such a pity that Keane won’t get the chance to meet Carlos Tevez on the pitch Monday night, some of a crueller disposition might add.

 

Manchester United 4 – 3 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2009
Michael Owen scores a wonderful 96th minute winner from Ryan Giggs’ pass to beat City at Old Trafford. City boss Mark Hughes’ complaints over the amount of injury time added on dominated the headlines, but United’s excellence and Owen’s dramatic winner secured the points.

 

Manchester United 2 – 1 Manchester City, Old Trafford, 2011
Could there be a more dramatic way to win the derby than an overhead struck into the top corner in the final minutes of the game? Rooney’s spectacular strike was voted the second best in the world during 2011, but Reds will remember it with affection for more than the goal itself. Truly the stuff of schoolboy dreams!

City v United: the player’s perspective

April 26, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 15 comments

Monday’s title deciding Manchester derby is not the first time Reds and Blues have faced off for England’s top honour. Indeed, 43 years on many still remember the 1967-68 race between the two clubs – won by City on the last day of the season after United lost to Sunderland at Old Trafford.

Watching closely that day was 15-year-old schoolboy Brian Greenhoff, remembered fondly today as a versatile young midfielder, who went on to form a fine partnership with Martin Buchan in the heart of Manchester United’s defence. Decades later and Greenhoff remains a United fan, committed to seeing the Reds overcome the Blues this time round.

“I was offered a contract and it was up to me to decide where I went,” Greenhoff told United Rant this week.

“I went on holiday – it was my first time abroad – and then when I got back my dad asked ‘where are you going?’ It was always going to be United. Leeds wanted me too, but my dad would never have let me join them.”

It turned out to be a fine choice. Over six seasons in the United first team, and more than a decade with the club overall, the younger of the two Greenhoff brothers started 268 games and scored 17 goals for the Reds. Born in Barnsley, Greenhoff joined United’s youth team in August 1968 – just months after the team’s European Cup Final victory – having chosen the Reds ahead of a raft of suitors, including the aforementioned Leeds United.

The year is remembered by Reds for United’s emotional European Cup final win, coming a decade after the tragedy at Munich. Blues, meanwhile, recall City’s last domestic title triumph – soured when two weeks later at Wembley United trumped City’s achievement.

There will be no European Cup consolation for whichever team loses Monday’s game of course, although the emotions and rivalries remain intense.  And there are few who better understand the changing nature of both football and fandom between ’68 and the present title race than Greenhoff.

Local rivalries still ring true, but the media hype surrounding the build up to next Monday’s game has grown beyond recognition, says the 58-year-old.

“It wasn’t so much the media and TV, more local press in them days. Media was local then, but the hype with the game coming up is huge. It’s better not to watch it all. It’s going to be incredible,” says Greenhoff, who played in 10 derbies and holds supporters close to his heart.

“You are doing it for the fans; you want them to have the bragging rights and the big smile on their faces. I used to love playing in derby games, but don’t like watching them. I get too wound up, I want to kick somebody. I play the derby game more than any other.

“This is the biggest derby game since 1968. It went to the last game then and it’ll go to last game now, whatever happens.”

There was no title-deciding match-up in ‘68 – City beat United 3-1 at Old Trafford with 10 games still remaining – but the local edge to the clash was unmistakable. After all, while players from Shay Brennan to Nobby Stiles, John Fitzpatrick, George Best and Bobby Charlton may have hailed from all corners of the British Isles, many ‘grew up’ in United’s youth team.

“Danny Welbeck will probably be the only one,” adds Greenhoff, of the current crop of players.

“You want lads who’ve come through the ranks. When I’d played there were quite a few that came through. Even playing in the B team or the reserves we wanted to win the derby. It was always about putting one over your neighbour.

“I would knock around with [Manchester City’s] Dennis Tueart. We were all friends off the pitch, nobody hated each other. Fans seem to hate each other these days. It’s scary. The rules and intensity in football have changed.”

Loyalty is a theme Greenhoff returns to frequently. He was, after all, a player who “never had an agent” and would receive each contract offer via letter from the club.  Today’s players, Greenhoff says, are too often in it for the money. It gives the derby a different edge.

“When I made my debut I was only on £35 a week,” he adds.

“Tommy Docherty said ‘we’ll give you a rise every year as long as you’re in the side’. He kept his word, although it was never a lot because United were poor payers in those days.

“I do think modern players are mercenaries, but they’ll never admit it. Look at somebody like Nasri – it looked like he was signing for United, but then he was offered 75 grand more a week and went to City.

“Sir Alex had it right when he was talking about Pogba – when you play at Manchester United the money will come. Look at Welbeck, he’s in the papers today, and is going to earn 45 grand a week. That’s not bad for a 20-year-old is it? As a young lad you can see the rewards will be there if you dedicate yourself.”

Money remains a theme in Manchester though, with United seemingly burdened by debt, and City able to spend lavishly in the transfer market since the 2008 takeover by the Abu Dhabi royal family. The contrasting financial fortunes threaten United’s hegemony not only in Manchester, but the Premier League too – it’s a crown United will be fighting to retain on Monday night.

“City will be successful for the next 10 years, but will old Sheikh big pockets keep on subsidising the club or will he pull out?” asks Greenhoff.

“They’ve got to get the infrastructure correct – if they don’t do that it could fall apart quickly. It all depends on the Sheikh and if he keeps pumping money in. But if he makes them stand on their own two feet then they’ll have to look to the academy. And who would send their kid to that academy when they’re never going to get a game?”

Even if City’s strategy is based on trumping all in the market, Abu Dhabi’s investment looks likely to be long-term, with the Royal Family having ploughed more than £400 million into the club already.  It makes Ferguson’s ability to shape a side from youth, while coping with injuries this season, all the more impressive says Greenhoff.

“City have got a bottomless pit of money. They’ll spend until they win the prize. When you look at what they’ve spent already, for United to stay with them could be the greatest achievement, and with the amount of injuries it’s incredible.

“I’m sure the fans will blame the Glazers if United don’t succeed, but Sir Alex is always building for the future. He knows if players can still offer something to the game, and he buys players at a good age.

“United try to get players through from the academy all the time. Not just into the first team, but also think of all players they’ve sold from the academy.”

Greenhoff was eventually sold on to Leeds for £350,000  in 1979, but his affection for the club he calls “the greatest in the world” is undiminished more than 30 years on. After three years in Leeds he played in South Africa and then Finland before winding up a fine career alongside his older brother at Rochdale.

In retirement Greenhoff worked for a local sports wholesaler before spending several years living in Spain. Now back in the north-west, his focus is again on football, and the big derby match next Monday. And while some Reds may be nervous of City’s vast wealth and new-found power, Greenhoff isn’t.

“United won’t go away. This is what I say to the City fans. Whatever happens, United are still going to be there.”

It’s a message with which fans can concur, whatever Monday’s result.

City v United: the referee

April 25, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 2 comments

Few, bar BSkyB one suspects, hope that the officials play a key role in next Monday’s crunch derby at Eastlands when the 2011/12 Premier League title will surely be decided in favour of either Manchester City or Manchester United. So it is with some suspicion, and no little surprise, that Andre Marriner has been appointed by the Premier League to referee the biggest game of the domestic season to date. The Birmingham-born official is, after all, no stranger to controversy involving Sir Alex Ferguson’s team , as well as others.

Indeed, many supporters will be surprised that Premier League has not entrusted the most highly anticipated game of the season to Howard Webb, given that the 2010 World Cup final official is widely considered a safest pair of hands by the game’s governing bodies. The widespread, yet erroneous, belief that Webb has previously favoured United surely did for the former Policeman’s chances.

Yet, even away from the Yorkshireman, Marriner was not the obvious choice. After all Mike Dean, Martin Atkinson, Mark Halsey and even Phil Dowd have officiated more Premier League games this season than Marriner.

But Marriner it is, and while the Brummie may now be one of the country’s top officials, his introduction to refereeing came quite by chance. While attending a grass root match as spectator in 1992 Marriner was asked to officiate when the appointed referee failed to show. He was paid £10 for the privilege, so the story goes, and has rarely looked back since.

Marriner rose through the ranks of the football pyramid, achieving Football League referee status in 2000, and being appointed to the select group officiating in the Premier League by 2005 – his first match pitted Wigan Athletic against Fulham at the DW Stadium. By 2009 Marriner was appointed to panel of international referees, taking charge of the under-21 fixture between Norway and Romania in May of that year.

Yet, like many officials Marriner has fallen foul of Ferguson’s ire. The legendary United manager laid into the official after his team’s 2-0 defeat at Anfield in 2009, when Marrier failed to dismiss Jamie Carragher after the Liverpool captain brought down Michael Owen. Carragher was Liverpool’s last defender and few observers believed the foul did anything bar deny a goal scoring opportunity.

Worse for United, Marriner also sent off Nemanja Vidic for two cautionable offences, with Ferguson accusing Marriner of bowing to a hostile Anfield crowd.

“It is very difficult atmosphere here,” mooted Ferguson in the game’s wake.

“There was a wounded animal aspect to the game and it was something we did not overcome. I think it affected our players and it affected the referee.

“There were so many controversial things that happened we have to feel aggrieved at some of them. The Vidic booking was the worst decision. It is a foul, fine. But the player has played on, he won the second ball and knocked it for a throw in and got booked.

“The most controversial decision was Carragher bringing down Michael Owen. He was clear through. The laws of the game were altered to prevent professional fouls of that nature and if Carragher goes off, he is their best player and their captain. It would have been a different game. They would have been under pressure. Michael was clean through.”

More controversial still was Marriner’s pivotal involvement in the Luis Suarez – Patrice Evra affair at Anfield last October, when the official took no action despite the Frenchman pointing the finger at his Uruguayan abuser. Indeed, far from taking charge, Marriner simply told Evra to “calm down” after the defender accused Suarez of calling him a “negro.”

Further evidence of Marriner’s inconsistency came a year later in the Brummie’s career, when the official took no action against Steven Gerrard’s two fingered salute. The teflon-coated Liverpool captain not only unfurled the obscene gesture in the referee’s direction, but uttered a series of expletives. Gerard had been booked for scything down a Wigan player in the 2010 Anfield encounter at the DW, but received no punishment for the verbals.

This season Marriner was dropped by the Premier League after allowing a controversial Blackburn Rovers goal to stand in the November 2011 fixture with Wigan. Latics’ manager Roberto Martinez was incensed after Blackburn winger Morten Gamst Pederson dribbled a corner into the box and set up Junior Hoilet to score, even though no player bar the Norwegian had actually touched the ball before the goalscoring strike.

Martinez received an official apology from referees’ chief Mike Riley, and Marriner was dropped for one round of Premier League matches.

“Obviously, it is a very difficult action to explain. It is not something that you are going to see on a football pitch too often and I saw it as very careless at that moment. It is probably one of the few aspects where refereeing in a game is black and white, with no grey areas. You have to deal with it with a little bit more care,” said a dignified Martinez afterwards.

Yet the incident, alongside others, paints a picture of an official who has made mistakes like any other, but can also be impressionable and weak; an official who is not always in control. It is with hope, rather than expectation, that fans are not discussing the official after next Monday’s game.

Monday’s Officials
Referee: A Marriner (Birmingham)
Assistants: A Watts, M McDonough
Fourth Official: M Jones
Match Delegate: T Dolan
PGMO: J Worrall

Andre Marriner’s Career

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Referees 2011/12

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Poll: Will United win, lose or draw at City?

April 23, 2012 Tags: , , Polls 65 comments

Following Manchester United’s draw with Everton on Sunday – and Manchester City’s victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers – the Reds’ Premier League lead is now just three points. With just a trio of games to go in the Premier League season the title race could well come down to next Monday’s derby at Eastlands.

Indeed, victory for City will leave Roberto Mancini’s outfit top of the Premier League on goal difference. By contrast, should United triumph at Eastlands Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will require just a single point from matches against Swansea City and Sunderland to secure a 20th domestic league title.

Form and location may favour Mancini’s side, but Ferguson and his experienced lieutenants certainly know how to convert tight situations into victories. Despite City’s infamous 6-1 victory at Old Trafford in the Premier League this season, it was United that took the FA Cup third round fixture at Eastlands in January.

Sir Alex has already labelled next Monday’s match the biggest derby during his 25 year reign in charge of United, claiming that United’s draw with Everton has handed City the initiative. Meanwhile, Mancini has sought to play down expectations at Eastlands by stating that United has already won the Premier League.

But what do you think will be the result in Monday’s derby?

Will United win, lose or draw at City?

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Slack United sacrifice title advantage on the altar of conceit

April 22, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 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.

United in triumph over divided City

April 9, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 29 comments

There was a fleeting moment of guilty pleasure just prior to 6pm on Sunday night. The pleasure as Mario Balotelli finally, deservedly, saw red and Manchester City’s title bid evaporated at the Emirates. Guilt as a young City fan broke down in tears, live on national television. Inconsolable heart-break played out for all to see in its humiliating indignity.

Oh no. That’s right. It was, of course, pure joy. Every last moment.

Not least because of the £210 million spent over the past two summers under Roberto Mancini’s management; each moment of presumptuous crowing last autumn; and every last reference to United’s apparent demise. “This City is ours,” they cried. Not yet it isn’t.

City’s defeat was all the more fun for the spineless manner in which the Blues caved against Arsenal. In a match Mancini’s men absolutely had to win, coming after United’s victory earlier on Sunday, City was fortunate to escape north London without suffering a severe hiding, so abject was the side’s display.

Yet, if City’s demise has brought joy to United fans, who can now prepare to celebrate domestic title number 20, what machinations must Mancini’s paymasters in back in Abu Dhabi be planning? Half-a-billion pounds investment has earned, if not the title, then a dignified campaign. This has been anything but.

On the pitch City’s autumn form, which brought a string of eye-catching wins – not least that match – disappeared as the year turned. That Mancini’s side transmogrified from the ‘next Barcelona’, to a side that cannot win on the road, and whose collective spirit is broken, can do little else but shock. Not least when placed in stark relief with a United side that has powered to 11 wins in the past 12 Premier League fixtures.

Moreover, while Mancini’s performance is judged predominantly by results, it is off-the-field events that have largely shaped City’s season. These are events in which Mancini is highly culpable.

Carlos Tevez’ refusal to play warm-up against Bayern Munich in last September precipitated a break down in team unity that has only been magnified by Mario Balotelli’s irresponsible behaviour. Far from the lovable rogue of a thousand articles, the Italian has proven to be little more than a petulant thug with an overbearing sense of entitlement. From training ground fights with Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng, to the disgraceful studs-up challenge on Alex Song at the Emirate.

Mancini may not be the cause of his players’ errant behaviour, but he is certainly responsible. That is, after all, management in a very literal sense. And as a senior City executive – “the most important employee” as Sir Alex might put it – so too comes accountability.

The Italian has shown little to date. Only now when the desperation of his team’s situation is in full bloom has Mancini rounded on Balotelli, claiming that the young striker may never play for the club again. After a similar statement about Tevez, the coach has no credibility left in the bank.

“I like him as a guy and a player,” said Mancini of Balotelli, who signed from Inter Milan for £24m.

“He is not a bad guy and a fantastic player but I’m very sorry for him as he continues to lose his talent and his quality. I don’t have any words for his behaviour. I hope for him he can understand he is in a bad way for his future and I really hope that he can change his behaviour in the future.

“He will probably not play in the next six games. I need to be sure I always have 11 players on the pitch and with Mario this is a big risk. Mario made a mistake and I hope for him – not me – that he can change. He clearly created a big problem, but he has also scored important goals for us this season. He needs to change his behaviour if he wants to continue to play.”

Yet, it is almost unimaginable that Ferguson would have tolerated Balotelli’s behaviour, no matter how talented the Italian. Ravel Morrison will attest to that. So too will a string of former United players who failed to conform to Ferguson’s demand for a unified front.

How Sir Alex must have enjoyed the campaign, despite European failure. The Scot, often at his obdurate worst when discussing the club’s financial situation, has nevertheless taken criticism of his squad’s quality as a personal affront. It has proven to be a key tenet of United’s season.

Many an assessment of Ferguson’s squad is legitimate; structural weaknesses in midfield and defence have been exposed at times this season. Not least in Europe, where the Reds suffered two humiliating campaigns. But Ferguson has forged a side that is, to invoke the old cliché, greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly one whose unity is admirable.

No wonder Ferguson was so sharp in his assessment of City’s public division after Balotelli and Aleksander Kolarov squared up during last weekend’s draw between the Blues and Sunderland.

“I wouldn’t allow it but it can happen at moments in a game,” said the United manager on Friday.

“Peter Schmeichel used to have a go at Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister and they’d give it back. Roy Keane used to do it. There’s a difference, though, a distinction there. The general demeanour of a team is more important. The general atmosphere when a team scores a goal. That’s how you judge it. You need unity if a team is going to win the league.

“Teams are about unity – we have got experience of that. Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can ensure that’s the case. Young players in the dressing room can look at how they have lasted so long – they are great examples. We take unity for granted here. We expect it – but it doesn’t happen everywhere.

“The unity and spirit you get when players stay together is now coming through,” added Ferguson, who took his side on a three day golfing break to Scotland before United’s victory over Fulham last week. “That trip to St Andrews was fantastic.”

How Mancini could learn something from Sir Alex’ ability to forge a group. The Italian’s brusque style, in contrast to his laid-back public demeanour, has seemingly served only to create tensions among a group of players brought together primarily for financial gain.

Ferguson is often painted as a bruiser, unleashing the hairdryer at the slightest provocation. Yet, there is unlikely to be a United player unwilling to lay everything on the line for the cause this season. Mancini cannot make that claim, which is an assessment that if also concluded in Abu Dhabi, may yet lead to the Italian’s demise.

And despite the frustrations of a campaign that has often overwhelmed, United will come out with a 20th domestic title. Far from the greatest team to don United’s red this may be, but beating the most expensively assembled team in the history of English football is no little feat.

In that there is much joy for United fans, with not a hint of guilt.