Tag Manchester City

Tag Manchester City

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.

Hubris be damned

April 5, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 32 comments

“I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”

Julius Caesar (III, i, 60 – 62)

There is, of course, more than one reason to moderate any temptation to engage in Caesar’s hubris this spring, despite Manchester United’s increasingly powerful position in the Premier League title race. With just seven games remaining United lies five points clear of crosstown rivals Manchester City. Moreover, United can look forward to a series of fixtures – the derby at Eastlands aside – against teams in the lower reaches of the league.

Indeed, upcoming games against Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa and Everton, before the derby, should on current form at least, bring United 12 points. And if Sir Alex Ferguson’s men achieve that minor feat, the Reds can win the Premier League title, or will have already, at Eastlands on 30 April.

Confidence, perhaps, but many fans will ask the simple question: why not? After all, this is a relentless United side that is powering towards a 20th domestic title, seemingly unwilling to countenance its own limitations in pursuit of points and glory.

There have surely been far better United sides than this – at least three under Ferguson’s watch at Old Trafford over the past 25 years – but few were more determined. This is a trait of character demonstrated amply during the Reds’ 10 wins in the past 11 domestic fixtures since humiliating defeat at Newcastle United in January. What a turnaround it has been.

The weekend fixture against QPR is followed rapidly by the short trip to Wigan next week – two games that United expect to win. Ferguson will demand no less. And with City facing in-form Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday, Reds need no conceit to foresee a title-winning position emerging over the next few days.

Yet, while confidence in the stands is now at a season’s high, few United players will be anything other than professional in the pursuit of this title. This, despite the wild fist-pumping on-pitch celebrations that 7,000 traveling Reds witnessed at Ewood Park on Monday night.

“[The celebrations at Blackburn] were blown out of all proportion,” veteran defender Rio Ferdinand told ManUtd.com on Wednesday.

“Since I have been at the club, for the last 10 years, it has been a hard place to go. We have not had good results there and we wanted to put that right and make sure we got a good result.

“We are in the position we would like to be in at this stage of the season but it is not over, and I don’t think it is a time that says we won the league. Those celebrations weren’t because we thought it was over, it was because we got a good result at a place where, a couple of years ago, they helped stop us winning the league. So it was nice to get one back over them.”

But it is not solely United’s form that has fans counting the points before they are secured, to bastardise an old expression. Over at Eastlands the pressure, building for weeks while Ferguson’s side continued winning, seems to have finally told, with club official Patrick Vieira making two cack-handed attempts at engaging in media-friendly ‘mind games’ over the past fortnight.

Then, over in Abu Dhabi, an ill-advised mass-media briefing this week can only have piled more pressure on Roberto Mancini, with the word loud and clear – in three national newspapers – that the Italian’s job is dependant not solely on a title-winning conclusion to the campaign, but his ability to reign in the disparate and volatile factions at Eastlands. Good luck with that one, Roberto.

Meanwhile, on the pitch City has dropped points at Stoke City and then again, at home, to Sunderland last weekend. How different it is to the autumn, when press and, indeed, City fans proclaimed the title heading to Eastlands, fait accompli.

Not so. Mancini is now feeling the strain, and with the errant striker Mario Ballotelli doing his best to undermine his manager’s every move, there is a genuine risk of City’s title challenge blowing up in spectacular style. Arsenal is more than capable of ended the race as a contest by 6pm Sunday.

Even if Arsène Wenger’s north Londoners do not inflict catastrophic defeat on City, three away fixtures in the next four before the derby ensure no easy points for a Blues side that has become shot-shy on the road this season.

That level of ostentation is certainly a dangerous outlook for United – players and fans alike – but, even so, its bedfellow schadenfreude has certainly raised its head from the parapet this week. This is a run-in fans are enjoying, even if Ferdinand will have none of it.

“There is still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the season, when the trophies are handed out,” insists Ferdinand.

“We have to make sure we apply ourselves in the right way for every game. If we do that, put in the performances and get the results we want, we will hopefully be lifting the trophy at the end of the season. We know it can change very quickly as well, from being on a great run to having a dip. We have been there before.

“The only thing on our minds is to keep winning each game and not look beyond that. It is a cliché and it is boring, but that is the way it is. It is quite simple. Black and white. The next game is the most important one. You just have to keep ticking off the fixtures and winning games.”

Ferdinand, potentially in his final season with the club, could say little else. Certainly, there should be no repeat of United’s victory at Norwich that came so late and smacked, dare one say it, of complacency. After all, Ferguson’s side could still affect the title race negatively from here on in. In the old cliché, it is United’s to lose.

Few expect that now though – the Ides of March inflicted its damage firmly on City. And as Cesear might once have said, supporters’ confidence in the final outcome is only hubris if United fail.

Them’s the breaks

March 29, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments

There is a strange breed of football fan; you know the type, lurking in the nether reaches of cyberspace, conspiracy theorising to a fever pitch of mouth-frothing, self-aggrandising, irrational frenzy. Social media has magnified, even exacerbated the phenomenon, of course, but it has always existed in one form or another. The pub bore, cave-dwelling mouth breathers, for whom every poor refereeing decision – every break of ill fortune – is an international conspiracy of smoking-gun, grassy-knoll inhabiting, Jack Kennedyesque proportions.

This, football-loving members of the human race, have come to understand, and even joyfully mock at times. But when the cult of paranoia stretches from the terraces, through the dugout, and up into the boardroom it is fair to assess that this season’s title run-in has nerves more on edge than usual. Pressure has hit home for some. Hard.

And so to Manchester City’s ‘Football Development Executive’, former French international and Arsenal player, Patrick Vieira, who fresh from labelling Paul Scholes’ hugely successful return to Manchester United as “desperate”, to a predictable Sir Alex Ferguson ear-bashing, has been at it again this week, claiming a conspiracy of officialdom to benefit the Reds. It was, no doubt, music to complot-loving Blues’ ears throughout Stockport, Manchester, nay the World.

Vieira’s assertion on Wednesday that United benefit not only from favourable referee decisions, but that it is widely understood machination of the game, is of course as laughably inaccurate as the Frenchman’s previous musing on Scholes.

Accuracy is not the point though, not when the chance to build influence through a media all to keen to wave the flag of ‘mind games’ presents itself. The headlines alone tell that particular tale, while Vieira’s assertion is one long-held in folk-lore, with no basis in evidential proof.

“When United play at home, they may get some advantage that some other teams do not get,” Vieira told BBC Sport reporter Dan Roan.

“I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it’s always difficult to go against these kind of teams. This is the way it is. It’s something the teams who are used to winning get all the time, so we need to win games so we may have this kind of advantage in the future.”

Vieira followed up his interview with a spectacularly inept attempt to back-track. ‘Message delivered captain Vieira, now lets see if plausible deniability kicks in!’ It didn’t. Indeed, feigning mock indignity Vieira, through the safety of a club statement, blamed the Beeb’s journalist for the widespread headlines.

“I am very angry with Dan Roan. I feel he has misrepresented me,” Vieira told City’s official club website.

“I made it clear in the interview twice that I wanted to avoid criticising United and even stated that I didn’t watch the United game against Fulham and had not seen the incident to which the reporter referred.

“That part of the interview was ignored and my comments were taken completely out of context. I called the reporter twice to ask for a retraction and an apology which has not come. I feel Dan Roan and the BBC have shown a complete lack of respect for me, the ‘Football Against Hunger’ charity and Manchester City Football Club.”

Context may well be king, but Vieira is certainly wise enough to understand that if a question is asked, on a premise with which you disagree, don’t answer it; a sermon Sir Alex has preached for many a campaign. No surprise then that Sir Alex offered little sympathy for Vieira’s position, especially after the Scot had protested so loudly about a perceived penalty area handball not given his side’s way in Monday night’s game against Fulham at Old Trafford.

“I think we could have had a penalty on Monday night,” said Ferguson on Thursday.

“But you don’t often get these ones when a wide player has crossed the ball and the player almost caught the ball between his arm and his body. We could have got a penalty but I wouldn’t have expected one to be honest with you. I think that from the referee’s position I could see why the referee didn’t give one when Danny Murphy was brought down because the ball was moved to the angle as Michael Carrick challenged him.

“But then City could have had a penalty kick against them at Stoke, as everyone saw, with Gareth Barry (challenge on Glenn Whelan). So you get breaks here and there. Every club gets good breaks, they get bad breaks that even themselves out over a season and that will never change. We’ve had some terrible decisions at Old Trafford, when Newcastle got a penalty kick. Tottenham could claim the same when Balotelli wasn’t sent off and ended up scoring the winning goal (in City’s 3-2 win).

“I think you maybe have a point that the smaller clubs feel that way. Someone said that to me some years ago that United always get penalty kicks at Old Trafford but you go back through the 25 years I’ve been here, it’s only averaged three a year. You can’t say that’s a lot when we’re attacking teams every minute of the day.”

Indeed, Ferguson surely has a point in addressing City’s ‘small club’ persecuted mentality, epitomised in Vieira’s rant. The former Arsenal man’s position, not reported inaccurately, is one of paranoia that he would never have stooped too as a player; at least not until Vieira pitched up at Eastlands. It will certainly not be taken seriously in any part of Manchester beyond the reaches of the Etihad Campus.

Moreover, Vieira’s continued focus on United begs the question – just how much pressure are those at Eastland’s now feeling? Certainly, the contrast between Ferguson’s relaxed demeanour on Thursday, and Roberto Mancini’s permanent rabbit-in-the-headlights expression, is stark.

There is, it seems, a fine line between chip-on-the-shoulder cockiness of early season victories, and the gritty reality of a Premier League run-in. Not that the distinction will be understood by keyboard warriors in Blue. Paranoia still runs through it in some parts.

Meanwhile, Ferguson will carry on with a renewed sense of calm, cognisant that he no longer needs to actually take part in the aforementioned ‘mind games’ to win them. Now there’s a conspiracy for those over in M11 to chew on.

Desperados

March 23, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 14 comments

When Patrick Vieira, this week, labelled Paul Scholes’ return to Manchester United “desperate,” the former Arsenal midfield struck a chord. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to re-recruit the 37-year-old midfielder came just months after Scholes had retired, with the player’s admission that his ‘legs had gone’, firmly front-of-mind.

Almost three months after the midfielder’s return and the Manchester City staffer, along with fans of all persuasions, have been left to ponder their mistake. Indeed, so strong have Scholes’ performances been that the veteran has been instrumental in United’s run of eight wins in the past nine Premier League fixtures.

Vieira has a point, though, in raising the question of – for want of another word – the scale of United’s ambition. Classy though Scholes will always be, the 688-game United player would have found little room in Ferguson’s squad had it not been for the lack of funds for new recruits. Or, indeed, injuries to Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher.

Scholes may have pushed for a return in January, as is now the customary party line, but there are few leading clubs in Europe that would have planned for a major star’s departure by doing, well, absolutely nothing. By the New Year United needed Scholes more than the player needed a return. It is a line that Vieira followed on Wednesday.

“Paul Scholes is a player that I really love and admire. But for him to come back just shows a little bit of weakness in United, because they had to bring a player back who was 37,” said Vieira on Wednesday.

“I think it shows that, in the next few years, it will be really difficult for United to cope with other teams because, with all the respect I have for Scholes, him coming back shows that they don’t have talent in there to replace him.”

What Vieira didn’t count on, of course, is picking a foe as formidable as Ferguson, whose defence both of Scholes and his own transfer policy was always going to be robust. There is rarely any quarter given by the Scot; certainly never when it comes to questions of United’s weaknesses.

Little surprise then that Ferguson chose his Friday press conference to hit back at Vieira and City manager Roberto Mancini. With just nine games to go in the Premier League title race, a relaxed Ferguson is clearly in his element, ready to work the media ‘mind games’ once again.

“If it’s desperation bringing the best midfielder in Britain back for the last 20 years then I think we can accept that,” said Ferguson.

“I think he (Vieira) was programmed for that. Roberto had a wee dig a couple of weeks back. We’re all going to play our hand that way. There will be plenty of ammunition for that. If you talk about desperation, they played a player the other night (Tevez) who refused to go on the pitch, the manager said he’d never play again and he takes a five-month holiday in Argentina. What is that? Could that come under the description of desperation?”

Indeed, Carlos Tevez’ return to City’s side during Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Eastlands comes at a delicate time in the race, with United having recently taken the lead the Blues recently held by five points.

Mancini’s willingness not only to countenance the Argentinian striker’s return to the squad, but to play the 28-year-old, says much. After all, here is a player who refused to play for City – or warm up – and then spent an extended unpaid holiday on various golf courses, with the manager loudly proclaiming Tevez would never play for City again.

Pressure does strange things though, and United’s determined erosion of the Blues’ league lead has nerves jangling in east Manchester. Though the Eastland’s crowd departed happy on Wednesday night those fans who bothered to turn up did so after more than a few nervy moments. With Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights look in recent weeks the early season bravado has certainly disappeared from Blues both on and off the field-of-play.

So then to Tevez’ return, which may add additional firepower to a goal-shy City side. While the Blues’ home record is impeccable in the league, form on the road has, for some time, threatened to derail Mancini’s attempt to construct a title-winning side.

Yet, the former United striker’s integration back in the Eastland’s fold is unlikely to be universally popular, despite all the right noises. He is, after all, a player who walked away from the cause five months ago.

Moreover, the striker’s return only serves to expose Mancini’s personal weakness; as if the manager is now beholden to his errant star’s wishes. Not long ago Tevez was ostracised, now Mancini, with no little hint of ignominy, publicly praises the striker. It is a large chink in the Italian’s armour that Ferguson is sure to exploit in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, if United does go on to collect a 20th domestic title come May then Scholes will have played an instrumental part in the glory. Few, aside from Ferguson at least, could have predicted just how important the Salford-born midfield would again become to United’s cause. Scholes’ ability to dictate games has shone through in recent weeks, with the flame-haired midfielder repeatedly exceeding a 95 per cent pass completion rate.

“He’s useless,” joked Ferguson of Scholes on Friday.

“What he does is he can dictate the tempo of a match. That experience helps, of course, and he has a terrific football brain which helps him. The amazing thing is he made the decision he made at the time simply because he didn’t want to play 25 games. He wanted to play 50 games, that’s the reason he wanted to retire. I said to him at the time, you can play 25 games no problem but he didn’t want that. He felt he didn’t have enough appreciation but what I was trying to do was look at it sensibly and what you can get out of a 37 year-old.”

Change is always round the corner though. In the coming summer Mancini will likely, and finally, rid himself of the Tevez problem, signing an expensive replacement in the Argentinian’s stead. Menwhile, Ferguson will seek to sign Scholes on for another season in the knowledge that United will not – cannot some might add – replace the veteran with a player of equal quality in the market.

The contrast is stark even if the motivation behind both players return is from a similar concomitance. Ferguson, hamstrung by his paymasters, and Mancini on the precipice of failure, has each sought to gain one final advantage this season. Neither was a move born of certainty.

And with nine games to go, it is not long before either Ferguson or Mancini is proven correct. History and 12 Premier League titles suggest where fans should put their hard-earned money; it is a lesson Vieira would do well to learn.

The day City possibly, maybe, blew the title

March 12, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 36 comments

Schadenfreude is a dangerous sport, not least when it comes to the ebb and flow of a Premier League title race. But there was undoubtedly a collective chuckle from the Red half of Manchester on Sunday at the delicious sight of a Manchester City fan breaking down in tears. Was it a death in the family that caused such public, and humiliating distress, mooted writer Daniel Harris? Perhaps the outbreak of war, or a death in the family. None of the above your honour; simply the trauma of City falling a goal behind to Swansea in the 11th-to-last match of the campaign.

Thousands of Manchester United fans joined in the fun, readily mocking John Millington, the City supporter, and joyously celebrating the Reds’ return to the top of the Premier League table. It was, or at least seemed to be, a turning point in the campaign. For all City’s wealth, and United’s catastrophic winter injury crisis, here was United taking top spot after beating West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, while the Blues lost again on the road, this time at Swansea City.

Winning the title isn’t that simple of course, and while the momentum is squarely with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, the single point gap is hardly a royal flush waiting to be called. Indeed, just as City had not won the title in October, despite the Robert Mancini-led outfit storming to a seven point lead, the Reds will be wary to prematurely claim a 20th domestic title with 10 games to go.

Yet, there is undeniably a sense of panic enveloping Eastlands, with Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights expression when questioned about his side’s chances of victory come May. United will drop points, surmised the Italian; the unconvincing aside coming barely a day after Mancini called on his players to win all of their remaining Premier League matches.

Worse may come for the Blues, with Mancini’s side facing another five games on the road before the season concludes. After all, the Abu Dhabi-owned outfit has recorded just eight points from a similar number of games away from Eastlands. Banana-skin fixtures against Chelsea in Manchester, Stoke City away and Martin O’Neil’s vibrant Sunderland come before March is out.

By contrast United faces no team inside the top 10 before travelling to meet City in a potentially decisive fixture in east Manchester on 30 April. Decisive, that is, if City is still within touching distances by that point. Indeed, the business-like manner in which United is now racking up the points, despite all the injuries, lack of squad depth, and a calamitous European campaign, says much for the mood at Old Trafford.

“It was a great performance,” said Sir Alex of United’s comfortable victory over West Brom.

“We took a bit of time to get the rhythm of the game right but once we got that we played some exciting stuff and some really good football. We could have scored a lot of goals today. If there is a criticism then that is it. But we produced a stern performance; it was determined and there was a great will to win.

“We created a lot of chances and missed them. Fortunately we got the second goal and we still missed chances after that, but we kept our drive for the whole game, which was good. The players didn’t stop; they tried to score from every attacking situation.”

Profligacy could still cost the Reds, as could complacency of the kind displayed at Norwich City a fortnight ago. Change comes in a heartbeat, and United’s weekend fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and then City’s three days later versus Chelsea, could bring yet another swing.

Such is momentum’s importance that Ferguson is unlikely to disrupt United’s domestic flow on Thursday when the Reds meet Athletic Club in Bilbao. United’s tie at Wolves ensures that supporters can expect a fringe and reserve squad to face the excellent Basque outfit, despite any claims that Ferguson’s side can turn the tie around.

At this point the consequences of fielding a full-strength side and still potentially losing, outweigh any benefits victory brings. After all, elimination from the Champions League, and defeats to Athletic and Ajax in UEFA’s second string competition, have brought no discernible negative reaction domestically.

Meanwhile, City face Sporting in Manchester followed by the home clash with managerless Chelsea. City’s home form is imperious; Chelsea’s record on the road has brought four defeats. The odds on two home victories are high, but such is the battering City’s confidence has taken that a reversal in either game will no bring surprise.

Mancini’s rhetoric is adding little more than doubt to the equation. It is as if the Italian believes no longer in his side, or his ability to turn it around. The excuses are flowing quickly now, in stark contrast to Ferguson’s confidence. Despite two Serie A titles, Mancini is a relative novice in England, and this time there is no Calciopoli to aid the former Sampdoria striker’s managerial progress.

“There are 10 games to go, and it’s important we start to score and win again,” said Mancini after City’s 1-0 loss in Wales.

“Some players may be tired after seven months of the season, but I think we have a lot of energy to get back to the top. It all depends on us; we have 10 games and anything could happen. We have to be strong, when you’re at the top it’s easy, when you’re not you have to be strong. I don’t think we deserved another result like this, but now we can do nothing.”

By contrast Ferguson exuded experienced calm after United’s routine win at Old Trafford; a man, more than 25 years into United job, who lives for these moments. While much of the Scot’s side exhibits the callow enthusiasm of youth, a core of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney are sure to start United’s biggest games from here on in. It is a quintet in which Ferguson trusts.

United’s focus and City’s troubles is a truism that will resonate strongly at Eastlands, where pressure has been building since Christmas.

“We felt if we came through those tough away fixtures [during the winter] we would be setting ourselves up for the rest of the season,” added winger Ashley Young.

“We have managed to do that and now our home form is key. A lot of people might not have thought we would be in front of City but we have that belief. As long as we are winning our games, the pressure is on them.”

So much that the returning carpetbagger Carlos Tevez will be welcomed back into the first team with open arms when the 28-year-old is match fit. After Mancini so publicly defenestrated the Argentinian any move to welcome Tevez back is little more than an act of desperation, critics will correctly add.

Meanwhile, Ferguson is brimming with confidence; a man who has once again confounded the critics and supporters by taking a thin United squad further, domestically at least, than many has predicted.

“We have that experience and it does help,” concluded the United boss.

“We won’t get nervous. Against West Brom we kept playing our football even at 1-0 when the fans were thinking ‘just get us a second’. It didn’t concern the players one bit. It is good to see that kind of temperament.”

Over at Eastlands the crying supporter has rapidly become a poster boy for the moment. Millington denied his public distress – he could do little else. But the fan, much like Mancini, will have woken this morning with a significant dent to both pride and confidence.

Reds ride luck as pressure piles on City

March 4, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments

One down, 11 to go in what could become one of the closest Premier League title races in recent years. Manchester United’s 3-1 victory at White Hart Lane on Sunday was not without good fortune, but three points will increase the pressure Roberto Mancini’s side. After all, rivals will note that United’s trip to Manchester City in April aside, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team faces 10 eminently winnable games in the Premier League.

Victory against Tottenham Hotspur came despite the home side enjoying more possession, territory and shots at goal, although media summary of the hosts ‘dominating’ the match in north London is entirely not borne out in the game’s statistics.

That said, this was one of the few occasions that United was out-passed this season, with the Spurs recording more than 500 passes in north London. The hosts also attempted three times as many shots at goal, although only six of 18 found the target – a telling statistic on a day when United converted 40 per cent of chances created by the visitors.

But those are mere details. The big picture – another three points for United in a hugely difficult away fixture – is far more important.

“It’s an entirely unbelievable result,” admitted Ferguson.

“I would say that’s our hardest away game of the season. They’d only lost one game; it was their first home game, I think, against City, when they had a few injury problems. That was the magnitude of our challenge today. And, in fairness, the first half we were never at the races. It was a great performance by Tottenham and maybe we got our tactics wrong in the first half.

“In the second half we improved, we told them at half-time to get pushed up on their back four and not let them build up their play. After the second goal we played very well. We had a bit of luck, and we scored right on half-time with our first shot on goal.

“Tottenham are a very good team and this is only their second defeat at home since the start of the season. It was a massive result.”

Indeed, the advantage may now just be with United, despite City’s narrow Premier League lead. After all, with just 11 games to go United now play just one of the present top six – City – and five of the bottom half-dozen. By contrast, the Blues face four of the top six, against just two of those near the foot of the table. City retains a two point lead and a healthy goal difference advantage, but the fixture list suggests this is anybody’s game.

It’s this situation that had Ferguson confidently predicting last week that United’s trip to Eastlands on 30 April is set up nicely as the clichéd title decider. Nothing about the result at White Hart Lane will change the legendary Scot’s viewpoint.

“We showed a determination to get the result,” Ferguson added.

“We’ve played all the big teams since January, it was a really busy spell and we’ve come through that and played well in most of the games We know exactly what we have to do. You can drop surprise points and I think both sides will, but the important thing is to drop less points than our opponents. A battling performance today tells you that we are up for it.”

United faces a resurgent West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford next, followed by a trip to the Midlands to face the sinking ship Wolverhampton Wanderers. The trip to City aside, Ferguson will look only to the final day match with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light as one where United could genuinely drops points.

Meanwhile, the Blues travel to Swansea City next weekend and then face managerless Chelsea at Eastlands in a fortnight. With the mutinous Chelsea dressing room having scored victory over yet another post-José Mourinho manager, the west Londoners may well now receive the ‘bump’ Roman Abramovich is seeking.

But it is to City’s trip to Arsenal that all eyes will now turn. Indeed, Arsène Wenger’s men have gone from hopeless to players in a matter of weeks. Should Robin van Persie remain fit, Mancini will know that points could be dropped at the Emirates.

Given the fixture programme the Eastlands derby could well see United having already taken over at the head of the Premier League table. Ferguson’s men may have pulled more than one rabbit out of the hat recently, but the Scot will be disappointed if United don’t put very close to maximum points on the board over the next eight games.

After all, the injury crisis that engulfed United during the winter is coming to an end, with only long-term absentees Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić set to miss the run-in. Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley will return in the coming week, while Michael Owen is available for selection and Anderson made the bench for United’s win at Tottenham.

Pressure is building though – a situation few of Mancini’s men have experienced, and certainly not as a group. Mancini, officially at least, has three Serie A titles. The first coming as Juventus was stripped of Serie A during Calciopoli, the next two with the Old Lady in Serie B. How the Italian will react during the presssure, drama and intensity of a Premier League run-in is, as yet, unknown.

Meanwhile, seven of Mancini’s players have won championships over the years: former Arsenal men Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, and Kolo Touré, together with Edin Džeko, Yaya Touré, Carlos Tévez and Nigel de Jong. But it is hard to see where Tévez or Kolo will feature during the run-in, while Nasri, Džeko and de Jong have spent more time on the bench than pitch this season. In truth, for Mancini’s most important players this is a first.

There will be swings over the next 11 games of course, but Ferguson will now be content with United’s position. That says much. For all City’s wealth, nothing buys the Scot’s experience.

“We’ve got experience. We won’t get nervous, we’re enjoying it,” Ferguson added. And on a day when United secured three points when frequently under the kosh, the Reds’ luck may be turning as well.

Remaining fixtures

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Fergie confident of United triumph

February 28, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 6 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the weekend fixture with Tottenham Hotspur still chasing Manchester City at the head of the Premier League But, with Sunday’s game one of two remaining that may swing the title either side of Manchester, the 70-year-old manager is placing faith in his squad’s experience and hunger with 12 games to go.

Spurs, coming off the back of a 5-2 hiding by local rivals Arsenal, will be keen to restore momentum in the club’s challenge for Champions League qualification this season. It makes both for the most important United-Spurs clash of recent seasons and, potentially, a key moment in this campaign’s title race.

Indeed, with City to face both Arsenal and Chelsea before the season closes in May, a United victory at White Hart Lane this coming weekend should set up the title race for a decisive clash between the Manchester clubs at Eastlands in late April.

“It’s going to be a massive game,” Ferguson told Inside United of the Sunday afternoon clash with Harry Redknapp’s outfit.

“If we can survive that one, then we’ll have a big, big chance of winning the league. Yes, I would take [being two points behind City]. I would rather go there on level points. But if we could go there within striking distance of being top of the league, I’d take it.”

Ferguson can have greater confidence in the Reds’ title challenge now that an injury crisis, which at times has stretched to 11 personnel this season, has waned. United should travel to north London with Wayne Rooney, who is still recovering from a throat infection, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all fit. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia may feature at White Hart Lane, while Tom Cleverley’s ankle injury is far less serious that first feared.

“I should have more players available than I’ve had in the last few weeks because we’ve had a terrible spell of injuries,” added Ferguson.

“But we’ve done the right thing in the treatment of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, we’ve given them a break. They are young players and they had been carrying little strains for weeks. Then all of a sudden it hits them, and we had to take stock, to get them back. We’ve given them a fair break and they’re fresh now.”

While youngsters Smalling and Jones hunt for the second and first titles of fledgling careers, Ferguson is also mindful of the vast experience available in his squad. Weekend goalscorers Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are sure to play key roles during the run in, while striker Rooney is coming to the close of an eighth campaign as a United player. No longer the new kid, Rooney is a both a senior pro at the club and key to United’s success – or failure – in the coming months.

“Wayne Rooney’s been with us for nearly eight years now and he’s won a few championship medals,” Sir Alex adds.

“He knows what it takes to win it. When he and Cristiano Ronaldo first came to the club, it was all new to them – the demands of winning the league here. I think the aim for all the players is to try and get to four or five league medals, and then they’ll have great experience of how to handle the title race.”

At the other end of that scale Ferguson is likely to place an emphasis on United-trained youngsters including Cleverley and Danny Welbeck during the run-in. While Cleverley has missed much of the campaign with injury, Welbeck has proven a key weapon in United’s title defence. The England international has not only forced his way into Ferguson’s team, but ahead of Javier Hernández in the pecking order.

“I’m so hungry,” striker Welbeck told ManUtd.com.

“I was just talking about it before in the canteen with Tom Cleverley. Clevz was biting his fork as well as his food and growling. We both want it so much. I don’t think anybody understands how hungry we are for this title. We want to fulfil our dreams, win the title and keep winning and keep winning. There’s nothing going to stop us.”

How typical of Ferguson to successfully integrate experience and youth into a winning combination. Indeed, in a campaign where United has been struck low by injury and, at times, lack of quality together with infuriating complacency, there is little surprise Ferguson is happy with his side’s current position. City should be out of sight by now given the club’s resources and United’s comparative limitations.

Yet, before any trophies are lifted, corks popped or backs slapped, the Reds must negotiate Spurs at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon. It is a fixture from which United normally emerges triumphant. In the previous 10 visits to the lane Ferguson’s side has won seven times. Spurs have not beaten United in London since a 3-1 victory in 2001.

Moreover, with Redknapp’s focus on the England job his players’ have lost a little momentum in recent weeks. Spurs’ two wins in the past five fixtures is not the record of potential champions. Whether the Londoners can respond to thumping defeat last weekend is unknown. Without the side’s leader Scott Parker the task against United will surely be that much more difficult.

By contrast, there is no doubt Ferguson’s players have the bit between the teeth.

Reds’ win leaves title race on the edge

January 23, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 3 comments

The bookies will tell you today that Manchester City is now odds-on for the Premier League title after recording an injury time win over Tottenham Hotspur at Eastlands on Sunday afternoon. The win, together with Manchester United’s away victory at Arsenal, leaves City three points clear with 16 games to go. But even if one of the Blues’ toughest remaining fixtures is now out-of-the-way, with 100 per cent home record still intact, the contrasting manner of the two Manchester clubs’ victories says much for how the prevailing wind may now be blowing in the Premier League.

Indeed, City manager Roberto Mancini was thankful for some overly generous refereeing decisions, and Spurs’ inability to finish chances, for the 3-2 victory in east Manchester. Meanwhile, United traveled south to face an Arsenal side that had been the country’s in-form outfit until recent defeats to Fulham and Swansea City. The Reds emerged with a stunning victory in the capital.

City’s plentiful resources, together with United’s ongoing – and lengthening – injury list dictates that Mancini’s side remains logical favourites for the title. But United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his players emerged from the Arsenal encounter with confidence sky-high, believing that the ‘noisy neighbours’ can be reeled in before the season is out.

“It was important to win after City had won their game, but the manner in which we won was the more pleasing thing for me,” admitted Ferguson.

“I think we won in the right way – we played really adventurous football, we were positive and had great belief in ourselves. I’m delighted to see that at this important time in the season. What we need to do is stay on City’s coat-tails. Football is a funny game. The game at City today tells you things can happen and there will be changes [before the end of the season]. We’ve just got to stay on their coat-tails.

Should United stay in touch, both sides will look to the derby on 28 April at Eastlands as a potentially title deciding encounter.

In the meantime, United dominated against Arsenal for long periods, although the Londoners’ attacking response after half-time almost gained Arsène Wenger’s men a result at the Emirates. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s youthful verve and Robin van Persie’s predatory finishing brought the Gunners back into the game. For a moment, with defeat a real possibility, United stared at the precipice. The ensuing six point gap, had Arsenal won, would surely have handed City the title.

But as the momentum swung back in United’s favour on Sunday afternoon, with Wenger aiding the process by removing Arsenal’s best player in Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Reds’ confidence visibly grew. By the time Danny Welbeck lashed home from Antonio Valencia’s mazy run and cut back, there was no doubt about whether United would leave the Emirates with three points.

Ferguson gambled on an attacking formation, despite so few resources at his disposal, and came up trumps once again. The victory leaves United’s players believing that domestic title number 20 will be lifted at Old Trafford in May.

“I think (our gameplan) was to go straight forward, it makes a lot of pressure on the left-back and the right-back and that’s what we did,” captain Patrice Evra told Sky Sports.

“It was a good performance from the team. I think in the second half there were 15 minutes where Arsenal played very well, but we kept strong and had good shape, and after we scored a nice goal. The most important thing for us was to win. Three points were really important if we want to win the title.

“I always say the league is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We are still behind City but we have to keep going, keep winning games and I’m really confident in the team because everyone is working really hard and when we play with the United spirit it is difficult to beat us.”

Victory was United’s eighth on the road this season; a record that is five points better than any other team in the division. It is a series all the more remarkable for United’s poor form away from Old Trafford last time out. And the prevailing mood among the United squad now appears to be one of remorseless pursuit, ensuring that each victory brings pressure to bear on the club’s title rivals.

“I think we had the tougher game because it is always more difficult to go away, and we’ve got the three points,” added veteran midfielder Paul Scholes.

“There’s still three months of the season to go and hopefully we’ll be in the right place when the time comes. Obviously City are going well at the minute but we are only three points behind and funny things can happen towards the end of the season. We just have to make sure we look after ourselves and get the right results.”

That goal is not helped by the ongoing injury problems at the club. Long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher and Fábio da Silva missed the trip south. As did defender Rio Ferdinand, whose back problem has flared up once again. History dictates that the veteran could be out for anything from days to weeks.

Further bad news came during the game when Phil Jones turned over his right ankle. Ferguson confirmed that the £16.5 million former Blackburn Rovers defender will miss “weeks” of the season after damaging ligaments. It could not come at a more inopportune time, although Jones’ injury is hardly surprising given the heavy workload the teenager has faced this season.

Worse still, Michael Carrick played through the second half with a tight hamstring, while Nani did not complete the game after hobbling off with a late ankle problem. The Portuguese winger left London in a protective boot.

Add potential injury to Wayne Rooney into the mix and Ferguson is likely to heavily rotate his team for the FA Cup fixture with Liverpool next weekend. It leaves United to cope, once again, without a plethora of stars. Yet, the ongoing injury problems have seemingly galvanising Ferguson’s squad spirit. Them against us, has become us against the world.

Indeed, injury aside, there were few downsides to victory in London. Ferguson’s team emerged from the Emirates not only with the points, but a genuine sense of momentum in the title race. City may have also won earlier in the day, but Mancini’s side was more than a little fortunate to do so. Add Mario Ballotelli’s inevitable lengthy ban for stamping on Scott Parker’s head, and the Blues could face yet more pressure.

“Soon enough, if we keep ticking these wins then they’ll crumble,” added defender Chris Smalling, who was immense as Jonny Evans’ central defensive partner in London.

“It was a massive win for us. Even at 1-1, we all knew that we really needed to win this game because of what happened earlier, and I think we showed real character.”

It is the very same character that may bring Old Trafford the Premier League trophy come May. Much against the odds and prevailing wisdom.

Spurs make it a three horse race

January 12, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 8 comments

The darkest horse is often the one sneaking up the rail, unseen until the final bend, only to win by a nose. And to push the horse analogy as far as it will stretch, the Premier League title race is yet to enter the final furlong, but Tottenham Hotspur’s victory over a limp Everton side on Wednesday now has the London side very much on Manchester United’s heels. Indeed, Spurs’ victory brings Harry Redknapp’s in-form side level on points with United, and just three behind Manchester City, with 18 games to go.

Even if Redknapp’s side remains third favourites in an increasingly three-horse race, only the foolhardy will now discount Spurs altogether. After all, while the Londoners face a tough couple of months – hosting United, and visiting City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea – Redknapp’s men will enjoy nine winnable games to end the season. If the north London side remains in touch of the leaders after the fixture with Chelsea on 9 March, Redknapp’s outfit could well pick up a first title since 1961.

It’s a remarkable turnaround in a season that began poorly amid the acrimony surrounding star midfielder Luka Modrić’s and his potential transfer to Chelsea. Injuries and poor form saw Spurs pick up just X points from the first 10 games.

And now, says Redknapp, the pressure will be on City, with the two sides clashing at Eastlands on 22 January in what could yet be a pivotal tie in the title race.

“The pressure is on Man City [because of] their squad and the money they have been able to spend,” said Redknapp after Spurs’ win over Everton on Wednesday.

“They are expected to be there and win. We are just hanging in there at the moment and playing well. Nothing’s impossible. I wasn’t there but someone said William Gallas came in the other day and said to everyone: ‘Listen, we have a chance here’. You have to keep believing and apart from that I enjoy the way we play. If you don’t enjoy the way we play, then you shouldn’t be watching football.

“We don’t put pressure on the players [but] we are playing well, playing with smiles on our faces. We had a bad start to the season. I’ve been around football clubs long enough to know when there’s a good feeling or a bad feeling. We had bad pre-season, we had problems off the pitch with Luka Modrić and injuries in midfield.

“Then we bring in Scott Parker, who I’d been chasing for months, and Emmanuel Adebayor arrives and Luka gets sorted out and suddenly we look a different team and we’ve not looked back since then.”

The chastening 5-0 defeat to City in August, just hours before United thrashed Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford, did not deflate Redknapp’s belief though as Spurs picked up momentum through the Autumn. But with United having beaten the London side 3-0 at Old Trafford earlier this season Redknapp’s side will have to turn around poor results against the division’s leading sides if it is to stay in touch over the next 10 weeks. While the Londoner’s form is outstanding, few supporters will be genuinely shocked if Redknapp’s side drops points against other contenders in the coming weeks.

It is a challenge Redknapp believes his team can meet, especially with Spurs facing no further European commitments this season. Indeed, in Sir Alex Ferguson, Redknapp has an ally in the belief that the London side can pick up the title this season, despite United’s experience and City’s vast sovereign wealth. Insisting that Arsenal and Chelsea are out of the title race, Ferguson claimed that “Tottenham can definitely win it They play the best football in the country and their current form is the best in the country.”

However, genuine doubts surround the size and scope of Spurs’ squad, together with the complete lack of experience in Redknapp’s outfit when it comes to challenging for titles. Injuries to key players including Modrić, together with Bale and in-form Emmanuel Adebayor could scupper the challenge. Roberto Mancini will be grateful that Premier League rules preclude the Togan facing his parent club in a fortnight’s time. Meanwhile, the Italian will be without the Touré brothers and potentially Mario Ballotelli, and David Silva for the clash, each of whom has suffered injury in recent weeks.

The same could be said of United too though, for whom injuries continue to bite. With Paul Scholes back in the squad, Ferguson is unlikely to rush Tom Cleverley back into action, while Anderson is still short of match fitness and Darron Gibson is likely to be sold. In defence captain Nemanja Vidić will not return until next season, meaning that any further injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in particular could seriously impact United’s chances.

All of which adds up to a fascinating run-in, shorn for the first time in years of both Arsenal and Chelsea. It is a race in which there is no clear favourite although Mancini’s outfit currently holds a three point lead, and a healthy goal difference advantage.

Yet, just as United threw away points against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle in recent weeks, so will City and Spurs in the weeks to come. Mancini’s ability to prevent a mini blip – four defeats in eight games – turning into a full-blown crisis will be key to the Blues chances.

For Redknapp, simply maintaining the side’s recent form will be a bonus.

United Rant Live: City v United!

January 7, 2012 Tags: , , Matches 218 comments

On Sunday, Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul will be live blogging the FA Cup third round tie with Manchester City at Eastlands. It’s the first time we have done this on United Rant. Join in on the comments section below, email or Tweet Paul – @UtdRantCast and Ed – @unitedrant.

It all kicks off at Eastlands Sunday, 8 January 2012, 1pm GMT. We’ll be with you around 30 minutes before the whistle!

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