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Reds put boot in on Blues ahead of semi

April 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 17 comments

There’s nothing quite like kicking on old foe when he’s down; a habit doing the rounds at Old Trafford it seems, with key defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand cranking up the pressure ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final. Indeed, with Ferdinand claiming City’s sulking players would never make it at Old Trafford, and Vidic mocking the Blues’ desperation for a trophy, United’s finest have been unusually vocal during the build up to the big match.

Yet, there is more than a little truth to the pair’s comments this week. After all it is now more than 35 years since City’s last trophy – the 1976 League Cup – and with more than £150 million spent in the transfer market since Abu Dhabi’s takeover, silverware is long overdue.

Should City fail to lift the FA Cup or qualify for the Champions league – or possibly both – Roberto Mancini will almost certainly be out of a job come May. The Italian might well be anyway, with his squad in near riotous mutiny at times this season. James Milner’s tantrum on Monday night only served to highlight a growing problem at the Eastlands club, according to some observers.

It’s a crucial difference between United and City, says Ferdinand.

“You don’t see anyone come off the pitch shaking their head or being disgruntled or sitting on the bench in a sulk at this club,” said Ferdinand of City’s off-the-pitch troubles this season.

“That’s because everyone is delighted to play for this club and they all want to be here. The moment you show a bit of dissent like that, the manager pulls rank, and rightly so. It keeps people on their toes. People want to play here, they don’t want to be part of any other squad, and that’s the way it is at United.

“It comes out of respect for the manager, the club itself and the people who are here before you and present as well. There’s an unwritten rule here. You see it in the changing-room before games – there are no cliques. Players are wishing each other well before games, even if someone else is playing in your position. That’s just the way we are.”

But Ferdinand says nobody at United is taking Saturday’s semi for granted despite City’s heavy loss to Liverpool on Monday night. Indeed, even if former Red Carlos Tevez is out of the tie due to a hamstring injury, City can call on more than £50 million of forward talent in Mario Ballotelli and Edin Dzeko.

“We need to make sure we put the bad result they had against Liverpool out of the equation and treat it like any other game,” adds Ferdinand, who has returned to full fitness in time for the season’s dénouement.

“City have invested heavily in a lot of players so they’ve got a lot of talented players to come in [if Carlos Tevez is injured]. You don’t spend £27 million on a player who is average. Edin Dzeko is a good player, he’s played Champions League football for a few years, he’s won the league in Germany, so he’s a good player. We won’t be underestimating City.”

It is this heavy spending, allied with United’s excellent position in both Premier and Champions Leagues that means the pressure is heaped on City this weekend, according to captain Vidic. With many pundits predicting that City and not United would mount a title challenge this season, Mancini must deliver on last season’s promise to “tear down” the Stretford End banner than mocks City’s long run without silverware.

“Manchester City have an obsession about winning a trophy,” Vidic told the Daily Telegraph.

“After the big money they have spent, they want to win their first trophy. In the last few years we have had a lot of success. We have always been in quarter-finals, semi-finals, two Champions League finals. We are playing at the top level. Every team wants to do their best against us. But we will be ready.

“We don’t want to be arrogant or think we are the specials. We are just trying to do our best. Manchester City will be a very difficult game but a few players haven’t won the FA Cup, myself included, and we are hungry to achieve it.”

United supporters will take heart in Vidic’s words, even if the FA Cup surely Ferguson’s lowest priority during the run-in. This is especially true given the packed Premier and Champions League schedule over the next month. However, with Ferdinand, Vidic and a number of other United stars having missed out on a cup final win – United hasn’t emerged victorious in the showpiece since beating Millwall 2004 – there remains a hunger to win.

It’s a fact that gives Saturday’s fixture an extra edge and one that may just colour Ferguson’s thinking. In recent cup semi-finals the United manager has heavily rotated, especially in the 2009 loss to Everton in which Ferguson selected several fringe squad members. However, last season’s Carling Cup semi with City saw Ferguson deploy his strongest line-up. It’s a fact supporters will draw on ahead of Saturday’s match at Wembley.

Dozen games to win a treble

April 13, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 70 comments

Manchester United can replicate the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League this season but it’ll take nearly a dozen cup final performances to do it following Tuesday night’s victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford. With an FA Cup semi-final to come against Manchester City on Saturday, and a two-legged European semi-final against Schalke bracketing Premier League ties against Chelsea and Arsenal, United faces a hugely demanding season’s end.

Indeed, should Sir Alex Ferguson’s side make the FA Cup final after this weekend’s semi, the longest break his team will be afforded between now and the Champions League final on 28 May is just six days; a truly punishing schedule. Unless United loses at the weekend, Ferguson’s team will play two Premier League games after the FA Cup final – due to take place on 14 May – before a potential Champions League showpiece at Wembley.

Yet, with the Reds hitting top gear for arguably the first time this season, and Ferguson’s squad now almost fully fit, United supporters can dare to dream. Wayne Rooney’s return to sparkling form, even if the 25-year-old is suspended from the FA Cup semi, Antonio Valencia’s fitness and Rio Ferdinand’s reassuring presence make a huge difference to Ferguson’s options. Against Chelsea, Michael Carrick again stepped up a level, while Park Ji-Sung added another crucial goal to his impressive big-game collection.

It is impeccable timing from a side that had so rarely impressed during the opening six months of the season.

“I think we’ve hit our form, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Ferguson told Sky Sports after United’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Tuesday night.

“You’ve seen it in the second half at West Ham and the performance at Chelsea, plus the performance tonight. It’s a really good moment for us and the players are enjoying it. I think they’re relishing the challenges they’ve got now. You see the momentum the team’s under at the moment.

“Momentum is a great thing. everyone’s desperate to play on Saturday against Manchester City and they’re all desperate to play in every game now. The bonus I’ve got is that all my players are getting fit again now, and that’s a great boost to us.”

Will United win the treble?

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While Ferguson’s players will all want to play, the manager’s challenge is to rotate his resources at the right time, ensuring rested limbs but minimising the risk of dropped points. Yet, the Scot’s tendency to make five, six or eight changes in games he considers ‘winnable’ often plays into the opponents hands. The Reds’ muted performance against Fulham at the weekend is a case in point.

With games against mid-table Newcastle United and Everton coming up before fixtures with London title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal, Ferguson faces a considerable dilemma. Common sense says the Scot must rest key players before a likely Champions League tie with Schalke. However, lost points will only increase the pressure on United ahead of that crucial double-header with Chelsea and Arsenal in early May. By contrast two victories in upcoming Premier League matches may kill the title race stone-dead before May. There is, after all, no guarantee that Arsenal will take maximum points from games against Liverpool and then Tottenham Hotspur.

It’s a cliché of course, but modern football is indeed a squad game. Much as Ferguson’s side will win key matches with big performances from star players, the whole squad will pick up crucial points elsewhere. In this Wes Brown is as important as Ferdinand; Dimitar Berbatov as Rooney; Park as Ryan Giggs.

It is still a long road of course. With barely a midweek off for the next six weeks tired limbs and minds will inevitably lead to mistakes and therefore dropped points. Perusing the fixture list – Arsenal and Chelsea aside – Ferguson will look to United’s away fixtures first against Newcastle and then at Blackburn Rovers as potential banana skins. After all, the lifeless draw at Ewood Park last season effectively cost United the title and Ferguson’s side has so rarely sparkled on the road this campaign.

Yet, City’s inconsistency – allied to that of Arsenal’s – points to a Premier League victory and a place in the FA Cup final at the very least. In Europe, while Schalke has performed admirably in the Champions League, Ralf Rangnick’s side is still mid-table in the Bundesliga, although greatly recharged under new management. Still, Ferguson will surely feel that not since United faced – and lost to – Bayern Leverkusen in 2001 has the route to a European final been so open.

Then, if progress goes to plan, comes Barcelona or Real Madrid at Wembley in late May. At the season’s start, with Ferguson arguably possessing his weakest squad in five years, few pundits predicted a United league win, let alone a treble. And in a one-off game, even Barça is beatable. Perhaps.

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Just blame Carrick

April 12, 2011 Tags: Reads 56 comments

This season it seems that Michael Carrick has been blamed for everything. Rising house prices, the war in Iraq, the conflict in Libya; all Carrick’s fault. Joking apart though Carrick has taken a lot of flak in the past six months, some deserved but a lot unmerited. What then will it take for Carrick to return to a page in the supporters’ collective good book and to find consistently effective form in the heart of United’s midfield?

Never one to set the pulses racing, Carrick does a job and in his first seasons at United, did it very well. However, the common consensus amongst United fans is that he has not been the same since being taken apart by Messrs Andreas Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in the 2009 Champions League Final. That trauma, along with a change in role in the Reds’ midfield due to the extended absence of Owen Hargreaves, seems to have hampered Carrick’s progress. This was particularly true last season as his confidence seemed sapped and he was left out in favour of Darron Gibson in many of the crucial games at the end of the campaign.

However, Carrick has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks. Maybe the Geordie hasn’t hit the heights of his first couple of seasons in Red but the Carrick of old does seem to be emerging, particularly against Chelsea last Wednesday. At Stamford Bridge last week Carrick was crucial in United’s first win in west London since 2002, playing a huge part in Wayne Rooney’s winning goal and, along with the effervescent Ryan Giggs, effectively marshalling Chelsea’s imposing midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien.

Michael Carrick versus Rangers

Diagram 1, Carrick v Rangers

The midfielder’s passing was also impressive. Already considered one of his strong points, Carrick completed 83 per cent of all of his passes, which is a praise-worthy stat at such a tough venue. The 30-year-old also covered nearly ten kilometres – an extremely good shift only bettered by his central midfield partner Giggs – that puts paid to claims that Carrick is lazy.

Carrick is not a destructive midfielder in the ilk of Hargreaves or Darren Fletcher though, nor is he an out and out attacking midfielder like Anderson or Paul Scholes in his pomp. However, Carrick is exceptional at reading the game. In this season’s Champions League the midfielder has made a total of 35 interceptions, which betters two other players who are of similar ilk – Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has 13, and Real Madrid’s Xavi Alonso, who has 25.

The positional change referred to earlier has involved Carrick being deployed in a deeper role to screen the back four; a position in which Hargreaves excelled in during his first season at Old Trafford. Although billed as a defensive midfielder by many, Carrick seems to excel further up the pitch as a playmaker.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 2, Carrick v Marseille

Against Rangers (Diagram 1) Carrick started alongside Paul Scholes in a midfield that gave the Geordie licence to move further forward and influence United’s attacking play. By contrast against Marseille (Diagram 2), starting in a midfield three many of his forward passes were less apparent and many were unsuccessful. In the role Carrick played against Marseille he was expected to ‘get stuck in’ and play the Roy Keane tough-tackling midfield role. In fact, he saw less of the ball thus giving him less influence in United’s attack, although he still completed 43 of an attempted 52 passes.

Tackling is not Carrick’s strong point Hhe’s got a tackle in him yes but many feel he is unwilling to ‘get stuck in’. This could be the case and if Carrick is unsure of his own ability in that area then this will be of detriment to his play. Diagram 3 could add credence to this view.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 3, Carrick v Marseille

Another criticism that is often made of Carrick is his in ability to pass forward. However, when Carrick plays in a more forward position – in the centre of the park – he seems to be more willing and confident in his ability to influence the Reds. This can be seen below in Carrick’s passing against Chelsea, compared to that against Marseille (Diagram 4). Although Carrick made more passes against Marseille he had a better success rate against Chelsea, furthermore United had to contain Chelsea for a lot longer than they did Marseille and had possession of the ball more sporadically. Carrick’s use of the ball seems to be more effective when playing in an advanced role.

Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson seems to be taking note as Carrick has not played in a midfield three since the game at Stade Velodrome. Carrick has featured in eight of the nine games since the first leg of the last 16 tie and in each he has featured alongside only one midfielder as opposed to two. Not only has Carrick improved but so has the team, Anfield aside.

When Carrick came on at the weekend for the last 15 minutes against Fulham he exuded a confidence that has been lacking at times over the past two seasons. The midfielder popped first time passes around with aplomb and looked very much like the Carrick of old.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille/Chelsea

Diagram 4, Carrick v Marseille/Chelsea

Another reason for Carrick’s upsurge in recent form could be the return of Antonio Valencia, which has enabled United to operate in a 4-4-2 formation more often, reverting to the 1994 style of two out-and-out wingers in Valencia and Nani. But stats mean little to some of course. Many supporters have already made their minds up about Carrick and, despite some praise-worthy metrics, have turned their back on the England international.

What is not in doubt: Carrick has recently signed a new three-year deal. Whether you believe this is because of Ferguson’s faith in United’s number 16 – recent performances merit this – or because the Reds are cash strapped and have been forced to offer the 30-year-old a contract that few were expecting, is up to you.

However, Carrick is going to be here for the foreseeable whether fans like it or not. It is hard to believe that Ferguson has signed up a player who he does not believe has the credentials to be the main man in United’s midfield.

Perhaps its time for a clean slate: give Carrick a chance. The faith may well be rewarded.

Fergie determined to end Chelsea ‘obsession’

April 12, 2011 Tags: , Matches 251 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has dismissed Roman Abramovich’s “obsession” with winning the Champions League, reiterating that his Manchester United side is just as desperate to secure Europe’s premier competition this season. Speaking ahead of the quarter-final second leg clash at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Ferguson claimed that the British press is “running away with sympathy for Chelsea,” with the Londoners’ only realistic chance of silverware now coming in Europe.

It’s a notion for which Ferguson holds much contempt and the 69-year-old United manager is determined that his side maintains a recent winning run, having beaten West Ham United, Chelsea and Fulham in the past 10 days and won the last six in succession.

However, Ferguson is likely to make significant chances to the side that overcame Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday. Wayne Rooney returns from a domestic suspension, while Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Ryan Giggs could both come back into the side. The Scot could even pick the same starting 11 that beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge a week ago.

“Momentum is key: it’s what keeps you from going off your stride,” Ferguson said on Monday.

“Every game from this point on is like a cup final – the players thrive on that. In that respect I see similarities to 1999, but the circumstances are completely different as we didn’t have any injuries back then.

“We’ve coped very well this season, particularly with the injuries we’ve had in defensive positions. Having the likes of Anderson, Rio [Ferdinand], and [Antonio] Valencia back makes an incredible difference at this time of the season. They’re fresh and they know how to play for the club, so it’s not like signing new players as they don’t need time to adapt.”

Ferguson must decide whether to bring Portuguese winger Nani back into his side despite Antonio Valencia’s outstanding form since the Ecuadorian’s return from injury. Although the Scot could stand down Park Ji-Sung the United manager is apt to pick the South Korean on European nights.

Manchester United v Chelsea, Old Trafford, 12th April 2011The same cannot be said of Dimitar Berbatov of course and the Bulgarian’s tepid display against Fulham will have done his chances of making tonight’s side few favours. Although Javier Hernández has made little impact in the two matches started against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this season, Ferguson clearly trusts the 22-year-old Mexican as a man for the big occasions.

And another striker, Chelsea’s £50 million Fernando Torres, is a symptom of Chelsea’s European obsession, says Ferguson. Torres started in preference to Nicolas Anelka last Wednesday but sat out Chelsea’s weekend Premier League match against Wigan Athletic.

“It does seem to be an obsession with Chelsea to win the European Cup. That is why they signed Fernando Torres,” added the Scot.

“The owner has every much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect. I have felt that for quite a while with him. To have an obsession of winning the European Cup is stretching yourself a wee bit. At the end of the day it is a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment – it’s fantastic.

“I had that obsession myself for a long time. Losing the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it.”

Another long derided forward, Rooney, will return to Ferguson’s team having completed one of a two match suspension for using “foul and abusive” language in United’s win at the Boleyn Ground recently. Indeed, the six-day break since Rooney scored against Chelsea in the first leg has enabled to striker to recharge his batteries, according to Ferguson.

“He will definitely be fresher after missing the game [against Fulham] on Saturday,” Ferguson said.

“That has given him six days’ good preparation and that could make a difference. In the first leg, Wayne Rooney adapted very well to the role we asked him to play. He had to combine partly defensive duties but with an attacking thrust, so in that respect he did very well and of course he put in a good performance.

“He is capable of causing problems no one else can. Balance, power, speed and a great tactical brain – the boy’s got everything.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Ancelotti will choose two of Torres, Anelka and Didier Drogba, with the significant possibility that the Italian will accommodate an additional midfielder away from home. Despite playing without a traditional defensive central midfielder at Stamford Bridge last week – Michael Carrick and Giggs started – United dominated midfield, as Ferguson’s side had done in the Premier League encounter for 45 minutes.

The change might mean leaving Torres on the bench – a decision that might not go down well with owner Abramovich. However, Ancelotti can boast a fully-fit squad, with Yossi Benayoun and Alex returning to the side at the weekend. The Brazilian may start with fellow countryman David Luiz not eligible for the tie.

And Chelsea will have no fears at Old Trafford adds Ferguson, with familiarity an advantage non-domestic teams that normally visit Manchester on big these European nights.

“A British team coming here is different to a European team,” the Scot admitted.

“Although Juventus and Milan, over the years, have played here a few times. For Chelsea, they are here every year. There’s a familiarity with the stadium, the size of the pitch, the conditions of the pitch. All these things are in their favour compared with other European teams.”

It’s an advantage Ferguson hopes will not be significant with United looking for the draw or better than will secure passage through to the Champions League semi-final for the third time in the past four years. Indeed, with Schalke the likely opponents in the next round both teams will have one eye on a final. It would be United’s third since 2008. An obsession you might say.

Opposition
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anleka, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka, Bosingwa, Zhirkov, Torres.

United
United – 433 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.

Officials
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez, Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez
Additional assistant referees: Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, Carlos Clos Gómez
Fourth official: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP)

Form
United – WWWWWW
Chelsea – WDWDLW

Young deal on the cards; will he fit?

April 11, 2011 Tags: Reads 60 comments

It’s not often that Rant comments on transfer speculation, after all there are plenty of red tops chasing paper sales that suit the practice better. More to the point, there has been so little activity of note in recent seasons that speculation is, by definition, an exercise in futility. However, recent tabloid commentary about Aston Villa’s 25-year-old winger-come-forward Ashley Young not only has merit but might point to a deal that brings quality to Old Trafford at a price Sir Alex Ferguson considers ‘value’.

Such is the recent heightened speculation about Young that former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Jamie Redknapp assumes a transfer North is a done-deal. After all, his father, Spurs boss Harry, knows a thing or two about doing a deal and will have sounded-out the player, whose Villa deal expires in 2012.

Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Antonio Valencia’s transfer to United in summer 2009; a deal which United had effectively completed six months previously.

“Ashley Young looks better every time I see him, he has electric pace and dribbles with his head up; he looks a future Manchester United player to me, and an ideal replacement for Ryan Giggs,” said Redknapp today.

“Aston Villa will have to cash in on the England winger in the summer rather than let him go on a free next season.”

No Ryan Giggs of course, but Young’s star is on the rise; a talent that has progressed in each season since the player made his Premier League début with Watford in 2006. Moreover, United is a left-winger short though, with Giggs in his 38th year and Park Ji-Sung injury-prone and normally earmarked for a specific defensive job in the Champions League.

In fact Sir Alex Ferguson is heavily reliant on the pair, whom have played 51 times between them to date this season. Giggs has signed a new one-year deal with the club, keeping the Welsh legend at Old Trafford for one final hurrah, although Park is yet to extend a contract that runs out in 2012. The South Korean’s form this season is patchy enough to question his long-term future in Manchester.

Meanwhile, Young has progressed under Gerard Houllier even if his Villa team has gone decidedly backwards. Used as an orthodox winger by previous coach Martin O’Neil, Frenchman Houllier has discovered a greater flexibility in the player, with Young frequently deployed right or left in a forward three or ‘in the hole’ behind a target man this season. In fact, just the kind of adaptable forward Ferguson treasures.

Young’s statistics are a touch better than average this season, having scored eight and assisted 13 in a poor Villa side. It’s somewhat lower than the 17 assists credited to the former Watford player in 2007-08, although the player has half-a-dozen games to correct the statistics. By contrast, United’s Nani has 10 goals and 16 assists in all competitions this season.

The player would welcome a move to United of course, with Villa in free-fall this season and unlikely to qualify for European competition. Having broken into the England side since the World Cup, Young is unlikely to countenance another season in mid-table ahead of Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

“It’s always nice to be linked to those sort of teams [Spurs, United, Liverpool] but I’m an Aston Villa player, I’ve got a year left of my contract. I just want to do well for the club,” said Young this week, in the usual heavily media-trained guff that footballers normally emit before signing elsewhere at the first available opportunity.

“I’ve always said that I’m an ambitious person. To play in the biggest competitions, the European Championships, the Champions League, FA Cup finals, League Cup finals, the World Cup, the Euros, I want to play in them all. Every player would want to win trophies, titles and medals. I’m no different. I’m an ambitious person like any other person who’s in football.”

The question for United is twofold: is Young good enough for the club and is the deal at the right price? Certainly, Young’s price-tag is likely to be the Glazer family’s liking given the players contract situation. If Gareth Barry’s transfer to Manchester City for around £12 million in 2009 is a benchmark then United may just be close to sealing a bargain for a player whose star is on the rise.

Yet, United supporters will rightly ask questions of Young’s pedigree. After all, the 25-year-old is no top performer in the Champions League, nor is he an 18-year-old with a world of progress ahead. On the cusp of United’s upper age-bracket for transfers, Young can add only to the Reds’ squad resources rather than take Ferguson’s team significantly forward.

Supporters asked the same questions of Valencia though, before the Ecuadorian’s £14 million move from Wigan Athletic. And Valencia, who is only six months younger than the Villa forward, has been a huge hit at Old Trafford. Time will tell whether Young will join the Ecuadorian; in Manchester and success.

Faith in youth

April 11, 2011 Tags: , Reads 11 comments

There is something pure about watching youth football. Far away from the prima donnas of the Premier League, the FA Youth Cup offers not only a glimpse of the future but a world without celebrities, gossip and scandal. And even with the constant reorganisation of youth football in England – one that has not always served the country well – the competition still retains its attraction.

Indeed, even as Manchester United youth lost 3-2 to Chelsea’s age group team at Stamford Bridge today, around 1,000 Reds made the trip south. Noisy Reds too, in a crowd a touch over 5,000 in West London. There might well be more than 30,000 at Old Trafford for the return in just under a fortnight.

Much as age group games are entertainment in their own right – and Sunday’s match at the Bridge was certainly that – the essential purpose is of course to bring players through to the first team. In that regard United’s success over the past decade is muted. Arguably only Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher have graduated through the academy and become first team regulars in the past 10 years. Before them Wes Brown and John O’Shea each made their United débuts in the late 1990s.It is far from the “Class of ’92.”

In recent years United’s focus has moved away producing ‘home grown’ players – those from the British Isles – to a strategy that now includes obtaining the most promising players from other clubs academies. Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique may have been forerunners for the policy but in recent years United has increased an overseas scouting network that now includes a Brazilian training centre.

It is also a policy that has engendered controversy, with more than one club complaining loudly in the press, although not actually to FIFA, about United’s predatory tactics.

Few of the new breed has made it at United to date though, although both Rossi and Pique were sold at considerable profit before achieving much on continental Europe. In fact United has made a healthy profit on selling former academy players over the past decade. Of course, Rafael da Silva is now a regular and his brother Fabio is on the cusp of regular action. Each cost the club a fraction of the fee that might be commanded on the open market today, pointing the way to the primary reason behind United’s shift in youth policy in recent years.

There is much promise in United’s current 18-year-old age group though. Sunday’s team included three players recruited from abroad: brilliant Frenchman Paul Pogba, Italian defender Michele Fornasier and flying Dutch winger Gyliano van Velzen. Another supremely talented youth, Mats Møller Dæhli, made a late substitute appearance.

Pogba’s class is self-evident – the rangy midfielder almost kept United in Sunday’s game on his own such is his influence at youth level. It is likely to be the last season 18-year-old Pogba spends with the youth team, before graduating fully to United’s reserves and possibly the first team squad next season.

Fornasier’s composure in a variety of defensive positions bode well for the future, while van Velzen comes with the pedigree of a former Ajax trainee.

There is local talent too, including the athletic Ryan Tunnicliffe who recently made Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team squad. But absent today was the star of United’s youth side – Ravel Morrison – with the 18-year-old is serving out a suspension for a recent red card. The teenager’s well documented problems may, or may not, inhibit his progress but his talent is certainly recognised within the club. After all, first team manager Ferguson drafted in the gifted player into the first team for United’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this season.

Such are the vagaries of youth development that none of today’s youth cup semi-final team is guaranteed to progress into Ferguson’s first team. It would be a real disappointment.

Morrison could have made a difference today against a tough and talented Chelsea outfit, which included the much-lauded Josh McEcharan. While the 17-year-old offered a muted display his team-mates passed the ball better than United for the most part and took full advantage of a suspect visiting line-up that included more than one player out of position.

Yet, from 2-0 down at half-time United produced a stirring second-half performance, led by Pogba’s drive, to ensure that the young Reds remain in with a shout on 22 April at Old Trafford.

Thousands will be there, in part for entertainment but also to witness the birth of new talents.

FA Youth Cup semi-final, first leg

Chelsea youth 3 – 2 Manchester United youth
Chalobah (30,42), Devyne (72) – Lingard (56), Pogba (77)

United: Johnstone; M.Keane, Thorpe (c), Fornasier, McGinty; Tunnicliffe, Pogba, Cole, Lingard (Lawrence 84), van Velzen; W.Keane (Daehli 89). Subs not used: Ekangamene, Coll, Rudge.

Reds win but with little panache

April 10, 2011 Tags: , Matches 10 comments

It says something for the recent upturn in Manchester United’s performances that securing a 10 point Premier League lead in beating Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday came with its disappointments. United beat Mark Hughes’ mid-table Londoners but there was little convincing about the Reds’ 15th home victory of the season. Yet, with Arsenal not in action until Sunday, United take a commanding lead into the last six matches of the Premier League campaign.

Goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia sealed the win but Fulham can feel unfortunate not to have taken something out of the match. Indeed, the Londoners started brightly and will point to the minor details, which changed a game that rarely shone as bright as the unseasonal Manchester weather. Berbatov benefited from whatever doubt there may have been in being ruled onside on 12 minutes and then a deflection on Nani’s cross enabled Valencia to nod home just the second goal of an injury hit season.

“It was a result but I wouldn’t say it was a job well done at all,” said manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

“We were a bit casual and lackadaisical. In the first half we played some very good football and could have scored a couple more, but we became wasteful with our possession in the second and might have suffered for that.”

Berbatov’s goal was the 22nd of a fruitful if sometimes frustrating season and a beautifully worked team strike at that. Yet the Bulgarian rarely sparkled as he had done in United’s second-half comeback at West Ham United last week. If the striker was often subdued, then his colleagues often followed suit, prompted perhaps by the eight changes made by Ferguson.

“You trust the squad. It wasn’t a risk when you know the players. I picked the right team,” added Ferguson.

Ferguson’s use of his full squad was never in doubt and the absent Wayne Rooney, banned for two matches this week by the Football Association for use of foul language, would probably have started on the bench. Still, with Javier Hernández, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Edwin van der Sar all rested, United’s performance was understandably disjointed at times.

United has dropped only two points at home in the league this season and with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Tuesday Ferguson will be pleased to chalk off another three points.

Yet Fulham could easily have taken the lead before Berbatov’s controversial early strike. Recalled Pole Tomasz Kuszczak, who confirmed yesterday he will leave United in the summer, saved long-range efforts from Gael Kakuta and Moussa Dembele, while Bobby Zamora wasted a good early chance by firing high and wide.

However, in width United possessed the game’s two most dangerous figures. Nani on the left and Valencia on the opposite flank consistently create openings for the hosts. Nani’s mazy run, and exchange of passes with the returning Anderson, created the opening for Berbatov’s strike. The Portuguese then set up Valencia for the second ten minutes later, beating Mark Schwartzer to a loose ball before crossing with the aid of a deflection.

The two assists takes the former Sporting player to 18 for the season and nine goals, although incredibly not on to the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. The much-lauded Gareth Bale, by contrast, has seven goals and one assist in the Premier League to his name.

The early goals enabled United to take a degree of control in an Old Trafford atmosphere that will surely be more lively in Gary Neville’s recently announced testimonial, which will take place in mid-May.

Anderson, not for the first time, should have scored but screwed his shot wide, and then Chris Smalling headed just wide against his former club. Further chances were wasted by Anderson and Darron Gibson could have increased United’s lead in the second half, although the visitors again gave as good as they got.

“They could win everything,” added Hughes, whose relationship with the United manager has never been anything less that spikey.

“They are ticking games off and when you get to this stage of the season, they have been here, understand what needs to happen and what it takes. It is a big ask. Sir Alex would say himself it is very difficult to do, but trust me, it is something they will try and achieve. Good luck to them.”

Indeed, with United one up in the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, 10 points ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League and facing inconsistent Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final, Untied supporters have every right to dream.

In Europe the path to a third final in four years is open, with United likely to meet mid-table German side Schalke in the semi-finals should Ferguson’s side overcome Chelsea on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, winnable games against Everton and Newcastle United come before the Reds face Arsenal and Chelsea in early may.

It is indeed a remarkable season. In many ways United’s side without “stardust” is seemingly the worst at Old Trafford for five years. Yet nothing supersedes the results, which now point to another historic season.

Match Facts
United – 451 – Kuszczak; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Owen 73), Gibson, Scholes, Anderson (Fabio Da Silva 76), Nani (Carrick 87); Berbatov

Fulham – 442 – Schwarzer; Hughes, Hangeland, Baird, Salcido; Dempsey, Murphy (Greening 82), Etuhu (Gera 67), Kakuta; Zamora, Dembele (Gudjohnsen 55)

Attendance – 75,339
Man of the Match – Nani

Possession: United 54% – 46% Fulham
Attempts: 16 – 12
On Target: 12 – 5
Corners: 8 – 3
Fouls: 12 – 8

Fergie circles United wagons ahead of Fulham tie

April 9, 2011 Tags: , Matches 59 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has accused the Football Association of victimizing his Manchester United team, with the 69-year-old Scot claiming that it is now “an obvious trend” within the governing body. The FA has handed out a five-match touchline ban to the United manager and a two-match playing ban to striker Wayne Rooney in the past month, with the Reds’ management vigorously contesting each sanction.

Indeed Ferguson, whose side meets 10th placed Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday, accused the FA of pressuring referee Lee Mason to alter his post-match report after United’s victory at the Boleyn Ground last weekend.

“He was put under pressure [by the FA], there is no doubt about that. He’s now put himself in the spotlight and if he doesn’t send a player off for swearing the question will be: has he got double standards? It’s a very difficult position. I don’t know how his career is going to go now.”

And asked if he believed the two-match ban imposed by the FA, was fair, Ferguson said: “I don’t know if you can use that word ‘fair’ any longer.”

“But we can use it. The support will be fantastic now. You watch it. It will be absolutely magnificent. And the players are absolutely brilliant.”

But if off-the-field events have dominated this week’s headlines then Ferguson is at least boosted by an almost fully fit squad for the Londoners’ visit. While Brazilian youngster Rafael da Silva will miss the game with a dead leg, fellow defenders Wes Brown and John O’Shea return following injury, although Jonny Evans is suspended.

Ferguson will also welcome back midfielder Anderson, who scored twice in United reserves’ 2-1 victory over Manchester City this week. The 22-year-old Brazilian has missed two months with a knee injury but could make the bench, with Paul Scholes also in line for a return to United’s midfield. Nani is likely to be given another rest, with the Portuguese winger looking jaded in recent weeks.

Manchester United v Fulham, Old Trafford, 9 April 2011Indeed, Ferguson may be tempted to protect key players ahead of United’s crunch Champions League quarter-final second leg with Chelsea on Tuesday night. While Rio Ferdinand came through the tie at Stamford Bridge without reaction, Ferguson could turn to Chris Smalling in defence. Meanwhile, with Rooney suspended Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov will start in attack.

Yet, Ferguson chose to focus on outside pressures, saying that recent events will strengthen United’s resolve to win a record 19th domestic title in May.

“I want us to make it clear that we can rise above recent problems and that we are a club who can overcome all difficulties and attempts to knock us off our perch,” Ferguson wrote in his programme notes for United Review.

“We have done it before, and we can do it again if we pull together at this vital stage of the season as we go from one major fixture to another. This is the fighting spirit that makes Manchester United such a great club, and which has helped us over the line to success so many times in the past.”

Meanwhile, former United favourite Mark Hughes is could be without winger Damien Duff, who is suffering from a sore Achilles but may make the bench. Defender Aaron Hughes is available after recovering from a head injury.

The west London club hasn’t won at Old Trafford since 2003 but boasts just one loss to United in the last four meetings between the sides. United must also guard against complacency with the Reds having taken 49 points from a possible 51 in their last 17 Premier League games at Old Trafford.

“Every game is difficult now,” midfielder Scholes added in United Review.

“Bolton at home proves it – that was a game we were expected to get three points from and we almost didn’t. The games aren’t turning out as people think they will. Bolton were very organised and had chances to win the game themselves. We know Fulham are a similar team. They like to get the ball down and play. They’ve got dangerous players and a manager who’s hungry for them to do well.

“It’s going to be difficult but, being at home, we’d like to think we can win it.”

With league games against Newcastle United and Everton coming after the cup double-header in this week, victory will be another huge step towards regaining the Premier League title. Indeed, should United win each of the next three the title will surely be heading to Old Trafford. And with Arsenal not in action until Sunday, United will move 10 points clear of the Gunners with victory today.

Opposition

Fulham – 4411 – Schwarzer; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Salcido; Davies, Etuhu, Murphy, Sidwell; Dempsey; Zamora. Subs from: Johnson, Dembele, Stockdale, Kelly, Gudjohnsen, Kakuta, Duff, Greening.

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

Officials
Referee: Mark Jones
Assistant referees: Stuart Burt & Scott Ledger
Fourth official: Michael Oliver

Form
United – DWWWWW
Fulham – DLDWLW

United times peak to perfection

April 7, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 14 comments

Perhaps there is something in the Spring sunshine that has enveloped the nation. Not only is the Manchester United squad approaching full fitness for the first time in months but Sir Alex Ferguson’s team has twice won on the road inside a week. Where failure has come all too often this season, Ferguson’s side succeeded away from Old Trafford; the Scot’s side did so with some panache too.

Indeed, such is the momentous nature of the Reds’ victories over West Ham United and Chelsea over the past four days that even off-the-field distraction cannot detract from the club’s confidence-boosting achievement. Ferguson is part way though a five-match touchline ban, of course, while star striker Wayne Rooney will begin a two-match sanction that will keep the 25-year-old out of this weekend’s game with Fulham and then the FA Cup semi-final. Yet, even the Football Association’s senselessness is unlikely to divert the confidence now coursing through the United collective.

It’s a far cry from the sense of doom brought with successive defeats at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool and then Chelsea at the turn of the year. It is no exaggeration to say those losses threatened the very core of United’s season. With games due against Arsenal in the FA Cup and then Marseille in the Champions League there was a genuine chance that Ferguson’s ‘team without stardust’ might enter spring staring at failure.

Perhaps, in the most unlikely of circumstances, Ferguson’s team of seven defenders – the one which inexplicably knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup – has made a season. It has certainly broken Arsenal’s. Defeat to the Gunners would have been a third in succession, potentially mentally and physically damaging beyond repair. Instead, the vibrant nature of United’s cup victory not only broke a sequence but ushered home a new sense of belief at Old Trafford.

Champions League victory almost inevitably followed against Marseille before Dimitar Berbatov poked home a last-gasp winner against Bolton Wanderers to maintain a sense of momentum. Destiny? Perhaps not. Great timing; absolutely.

Rooney’s two-match ban, confirmed by a duplicitous FA commission on Thursday morning, will affect United’s chances in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City next weekend of course, although Ferguson was always likely to rotate his resources. In the current mood, the ban will do little but help Ferguson circle his wagons and Rooney will take a well-earned rest in time for United’s final push towards the finishing line.

Still, the striker issued a surprisingly blunt statement after today’s FA announcement, reflecting both Rooney’s anger and that of the club. That Rooney’s sanction is both severe, unprecedented and not reflective of his crime – or rapid apology – was well understood in United’s management team. The dismay at the game’s governing body cannot be underplayed.

“I am gutted to miss two matches, one of which is an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley,” said the player’s statement.

“I am not the first player to have sworn on TV and I won’t be the last. Unlike others who have been caught swearing on camera, I apologised immediately. And yet I am the only person banned for swearing. That doesn’t seem right.

“Whatever, I have to accept that what’s happened has happened and move on from here. That’s what I intend to do.”

Even so, with key defender Rio Ferdinand now fit, Antonio Valencia back into a groove so soon after breaking his leg last September and Anderson due to return at the weekend, even Rooney’s ban will not unduly concern Ferguson . Indeed, the Scot’s team has overcome far greater obstacles this season already.

There is also little doubt that Ferguson’s outfit is finding form and fitness at the right time. Fulham arrive on Saturday, followed in quick succession by Chelsea and City in cup competitions. Whatever the knock-out results United’s form points to victory over the Cottagers, with games against lowly  Newcastle United in the North East and then Everton at home to come before May.

Nine points – whether the club remains in the FA Cup and Champions League or not – and United will surely be close to a 19th domestic title.

“Everyone is very happy. We’ve got a great result, scored the away goal and kept a clean sheet. That’s what we wanted before the game,” captain Nemanja Vidic said of United’s victory at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

“We weren’t afraid to come here and play with two forwards; we did that last time and played some good football.

“The job is not done yet. It will be difficult but with our crowd behind us I believe.”

Work to be done perhaps, but form says Ferguson should throw an FA Cup final and Champions League semi into the mix. It’s a remarkable transition in United’s fortunes.

Rio returns as Fergie backs strikers for Euro glory

April 6, 2011 Tags: , Matches 213 comments

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is backing his strikeforce to fire the Reds into the Champions League semi-final. While the 69-year-old Scot is seemingly unlikely to deploy Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández at Stamford Bridge tonight, the trio has now scored 50 goals between them this season. It’s the kind of firepower that took United to the treble in 1999, with Ferguson this week evoking memories of the club’s glory 12 seasons ago.

Ferguson, who says his forwards has covered up for deficiencies in United’s defence recently, is also boosted by the return of key defenders Rafael da Silva and Rio Ferdinand. The Brazilian youngster is certain to start against Chelsea, while Ferdinand, who has trained all week, is a high-profile risk in a key game.

“Johnny Evans is available for tomorrow, Ferdinand has been training for over a week, whether he is ready, I’m not sure,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.

“Rafael is available and O’Shea and Brown are back training.”

The good news in defence is a welcome bonus after the United manager was forced to dig deep into his resources in the past month. But it is United’s forward play that has Ferguson purring ahead of a potentially season-defining fixture in London.

“What has kept us going despite the injuries we have had in defensive positions is that there has been a good goal threat from us. We have forwards who can win matches,” added the United manager.

“Scoring is what strikers are all about. When you are scoring goals, the confidence is great, you never think you are going to stop.”

“I am happy with our forward play. Chicharito’s development is a great bonus. Wayne Rooney’s form is coming back. They have been marvellous the two of them together.

“I said at the start of the season if we get two players who can score over 20 goals we are in with a great chance of winning something. Wayne is now on 12. Chicharito is on 17 and Berbatov is on 21. That is a good return and we have quite a few games left. I think my prediction is going to be accurate.”

While Rooney faces a domestic ban for the “foul and abusive language” used in United’s 4-2 win at the Boleyn Ground on Saturday, no such distractions follow the 25-year-old into Europe. Indeed, Rooney scored a fine goal at Stamford Bridge in the recent Premier League meeting between the two sides and now has nine since the turn of the year.

Chelsea v Manchester United, Stamford Bridge, 6 April 2011Ferguson must choose whether to deploy the former Evertonian in the lone front-running role favoured by the Scot in Europe, or take advantage of Chelsea’s lack of defensive pace by bringing Hernández into the side. After all, the Mexican began United’s match against Chelsea in London earlier this season.

In midfield Ferguson could welcome back Paul Scholes after the 36-year-old’s recent suspension. The flame-haired midfielder is likely to be partnered by Michael Carrick, although Ryan Giggs is also in contention for a place in the side.

And Ferguson was unusually ebullient this week, prompting talk of another treble in an interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. It’s the kind of talk that 69-year-old normally resists.

“It is 14 games in two months if everything goes our way and, at United, we are used to this kind of thing, which is to our advantage,” he told the paper.

“In the past I have said many times that to win just one trophy would be great. But we have to take the chance of winning all three now. We can repeat the treble of 1999.”

To repeat that feat United will have to improve on an awful recent record against the Londoners. Chelsea completed a double over Ferguson’s side in the Premier League last year and secured a controversial 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Indeed, United has not won at the Londoners’ home ground for eight years, while manager Carlo Ancelotti can also boast a strong record against United in Europe.

Yet, despite the rivalry Ferguson had kind words for both Ancelotti and new £50 million striker Fernando Torres ahead of tonight’s tie. Ancelotti is widely expected to step down from his role at Chelsea when the season ends in May.

“It’s incredible for Carlo, he won the Double last season. How can Chelsea think of changing such a coach?

“Carlo is a fantastic guy, a really nice person. There is nothing really between our two teams. Both possess excellent footballers, both have international experience, experienced good coaches. Really, I don’t know where all the criticism comes from.

“Of course he will score again,” Ferguson added of Torres, who has not scored since the move south in January.

“When Chelsea signed him, everyone was saying: ‘What a great signing.’ Now, because he has not scored, he is a bad signing. Can people be more ridiculous? Maybe he is just settling in from the Liverpool system to the Chelsea system.”

Ferguson will hope that Torres does not add to the three goals in eight games the Spaniard scored against United during the his time at Liverpool.

Opposition
Chelsea – 442 – Cech; Bosingwa, Terry, Ivanovic, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Zhirkov; Drogba, Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka.

United
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.

Officials
Referee: Alberto Undiano Ibanez (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez & Yuan Carlos Yuste Jimenez
Fourth official: David Fernandez Borbalan

Form
Chelsea – WWWDWD
United – WDWWWW