Thursday, April 30, 2009
United could have and perhaps should have put the tie to bed by half-time. Almunia denied Ronaldo and Tevez with point-blank saves and Ronaldo hit the crossbar in the second-half, but the champions failed to score that vital second goal that would have given them confidence and a cushion ahead of the semi-final return leg next week at the Emirates.
Going into the game Arsene Wenger had promised to attack United, but Edwin van der Sar was rarely troubled, indeed the United 'keeper was at the centre of the biggest scare of the night late on when he made a schoolboy like mistake when coming for a high ball that was never going to be his following an Arsenal free-kick, as a result the clumsy Dutchman took out Rio Ferdinand who is now said to be an injury doubt for United's next game away at Middlesbrough, which could prove to be very costly for the champions.
While Arsenal lacked punch up front they did take a measure of control in midfield for much of the second-half. In the opening period the visitors had been penned back deep in their own half. Wenger's half-time team talk clearly influenced the balance of play as it was a far more even contest after the break.
For their part United's midfield trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Anderson worked hard; the latter was by far the most effective on the night so it was somewhat surprising to see the Brazilian replaced by Giggs. Fletcher was the player who should have been replaced, because frankly he was awful throughout.
To his obvious dismay, Carlos Tevez, who against the odds had started this game, was also replaced by Berbatov, not long after his introduction the Bulgarian's lack of pace was cruelly exposed when he came second in a race with Toure that he should have won comfortably.
Fergie's substitutions had barely any impact on a slightly disappointing second half which eventually fizzled out with both teams cancelling each other out.
Looking ahead to next week, United fans and the players alike will not be as confident as they should have been given the chances the Reds squandered in the first half. Arsenal can and will play an awful lot better in the return leg and the champions have yet to win at the Emirates. I personally cannot help but feel that United will have to score at least one if not two goals next week.
Edwin van der Sar 3 - shocking decision making late on could potentially cost United the league and Champions League, looked slow to react at times when he needed to come off his line quickly.
Evra 4 - once again, well below his best but he did manage to pretty much keep Walcott in check
Vidic 6 - Kept Adebayor at bay, steady and dependable as ever
Ferdinand 5 - Looked a bit suspect at times and indecisive
O'Shea 5 - Scored the goal but wasn't really tested
Fletcher 3 - Huffed and puffed, gave the ball away a lot
Carrick 5 - Did okay but no more than that - can and must do better
Anderson 6 - United's star man in midfield, his surging runs with the ball impressed, faded in the second period but didn't deserve to be subbed, but United lost control of midfield for which he must take some of the blame
Ronaldo 6 - United's most dangerous attacking player, should have scored with his first half header, unlucky not to score when hitting the woodwork. Can do better and will have to next week
Tevez 5 - Worked hard as ever, unlucky not to score first-half didn't really deserve to be taken off, but Fergie needed to try to change the game..
Rooney 5 - Worked hard but didn't really put his stamp on the game.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Fergie is quite rightly concerned about the possibility of Arsenal scoring an away goal - but anyone who saw the Chelsea v Liverpool quarter finals will no doubt concur that they were two of the best games seen in recent years in any competition. Isn't attack the best form of defence?
It would be wrong to totally dismiss Fergie's pre-match banter, because he almost always uses the opportunity to send out a few coded messages. Ahead of what are the biggest games of the season so far, the United manager has voiced concerns about the Gunners' scoring that away goal when he stated the blinding obvious that the tie will not be decided in the first-leg. The United manager also added that the champions second-half performance at the weekend has given him food for thought, but sadly he seemed to be advocating plotting a more cautious passage to the final.
So what exactly can United fans expect and what exactly are the coded messages on this occasion? For starters, Carlos Tevez and or Berbatov are likely to start the game from the bench - nothing new here for the luckless Argentine, and the Bulgarian is still in the bad books after missing that penalty against Everton, what's more, no one, including Fergie I strongly suspect, is actually sure that the former Spurs player is going to prove to be true United material, which is a bit ridiculous given his transfer fee, but the fact his Berbatov remains something of an enigma. United will also probably start the game with a cautious 4:3:3. I'm expecting Ryan Giggs to be detailed to help Evra stop the threat of Theo Walcott raiding.
In complete contrast and knowing his team cannot defend for toffee, Arsene Wenger has said his team will approach the semi-final in the true spirit and that his team will attack United.
It's fair to point out that while Arsenal have huge problems in defence currently, it is easy for Wenger to say his team will attack, Fergie on the other hand knows his team can defend well, when they do it properly.
The question is would United fans like to see a really open contest from the kick-off? Because I predict that is what it will turn out to be once the game starts. The point is if you send out an attacking team from the kick-off then you start the game with attacking in mind, which traditionally has always been the United way. I would like to see Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney and despite his sins Berbatov starting. United are not facing Liverpool or Chelsea who are usually collectively better at defending than the Gunners' - this semi-final could and should be a good old fashioned slug-fest.
If we hear the United fans singing "Argentina, Argentina" at any point during the first-half, it will more than likely mean that Fergie's containment plan will be consigned to the dustbin, I for one wouldn't be surprised if that happens and if that is so then it could be a very interesting night.
Tonight's probable team line up:
Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Giggs, Carrick, Anderson, Rooney, Berbatov, Ronaldo.
United fans might well recall Liverpool's 2007 victory parade bus, the one that was never actually used! All dolled up with nowhere to go...
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Today's tabloid rumours are claiming Nani is hoping to move to Inter Milan - as unlikely as that might turn out to be, but assuming for one moment that Jose Mourinho would like to actually sign a player who has failed to make any real impact at Old Trafford - you do wonder if Nani would find himself on bench warming duty at the Italian club.
Competition for places at Old Trafford is fierce, as Carlos Tevez will testify and even though Fergie has at times been less than fair with his Argentine striker few will argue that Nani deserves anything more than a place on the United bench.
Following his four goals against Liverpool, Manchester United supporters were left asking why the club didn't sign Arshavin instead of Nani, who is no better now than when he first arrived at Old Trafford.
On the few occasions when Nani has actually played he has been consistently guilty of giving the ball away, what's more he doesn't help his team-mates where defensive duties are concerned - nor does Ronaldo - but he scores goals, and for the time being the World player of The Year has managed to get away with neglecting that part of his game, in contrast Nani makes it easy for Fergie to leave him out.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Giggs has been a model professional ever since he arrived on the scene at the age of just 17; he must be a manager's dream, in a magical 18-year trophy laden Manchester United career I do not recall a single public show of dissent towards Fergie.
Although Giggsy played for Wales at international level he was a local boy who honed his skills on the playing-fields of Swinton and Salford and having followed United for over 40 years I cannot think of a better example where role models are concerned.
Ryan scored one of my favourite United goals of all time in that never to be forgotten 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal - whenever I think of Giggs when he eventually retires I will always remember that superb goal which was one of the cornerstones of that historic treble winning season.
Giggsy scored what turned out to be United's winning penalty in the Champions League Final last May, you do wonder if there's more medals to come this season and with the prospect of renewing rivalries with Arsenal in sight as well as an amazing 800th appearance for the club his fairy-tale career looks set to continue.
In a class of his own...
Sunday, April 26, 2009
I must admit when I first saw Michael Carrick brought down by Gomez my initial reaction was no penalty - but after studying the slow-motion replays I am totally convinced that Webb made the right decision - the Spurs 'keeper brought down Carrick BEFORE he touched the ball.
The penalty award, has as usual where United are concerned, been followed by a storm of protests and it came as no surprise to hear various so called experts saying it wasn't a penalty. The fact is these experts have their own allegiances; I refer to Steve McManaman (Liverpool), Alan Hansen (Liverpool) and Lee Dixon (Man City). Did we United fans expect them to say anything else other than it wasn't a penalty?
In case anyone needs reminding a goalkeeper cannot bring down an opponent inside the box, then get the slightest of touches on the ball and expect to get away with it, because that is precisely what happened.
Setanta's coverage of the incident was far clearer when compared to BBC Match of the Day, because the Satellite broadcaster actually slowed down the action and had superior camera angles. In contrast, the BBC appeared to replay the action much faster - which only served to back-up the studio pundits argument, because in real-time it didn't look like a penalty. MOTD's coverage of the incident was nothing short of disgraceful and it begs the question - are they trying influence officials in the run-in so that United do not get any more penalties at Old Trafford?
It's true to say that Webb wasn't best placed to make the decision, but on this occasion, remarkably, he was actually right to give United a penalty.
Shortly after the final-whistle and before he'd had chance to study the action replays, Fergie was asked about the penalty; it was put to him that the champions had been a bit lucky, in response the United said that maybe we had been a bit fortunate. Sir Alex went on to talk about recent incidents where the decision has wrongly gone against the club.
For his part, the Spurs manager had a rant at referee Howard Webb and you do wonder if he will be charged by the FA, because recently Rafa Benitez suggested ONLY Fergie gets away with slaughtering officials after the game - the fact is, Rafa is completely wrong as all top-flight managers' do it - but still you do wonder if the FA will take the matter further.
Redknapp didn't go as far as David Moyes, who apparently recently asked a journalist if it was true that Mike Riley is a United fan. On this occasion the Spurs manager said HE WAS NOT suggesting that Webb is a United supporter, nonetheless the words "United fan and referee" were brought into the mix - was Redknapp really trying to plant these words into the sub-conscious minds of the viewing public?
Whatever the machinations of Harry, you do wonder if his rant was devised to cover-up the shortcomings of a team who had just surrendered a two-nil lead and shipped five second-half goals, we accept it was a controversial penalty award, but what about conceding the other four goals?
Reds' fans will recall that Howard Webb has made some truly awful decisions when refereeing United games; he sent-off Ronaldo in the derby and if you search this blog for the word "Webb" you will find a catalogue of complaints about his performances where the champions are concerned.
Carping about the blatant biased against United aside, it was a superb fight-back and make no mistake the catalyst was fans' favourite Carlos Tevez, his introduction at the break quickened United's slow play as the dashing Argentine was here there and everywhere.
It would be an act of complete madness not to make his signing permanent. Further to which, I have been saying all season long that Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov can play together in the same side. Who among us would select Park over Tevez, or come to that any other United player excluding the trio mentioned? It is so frustrating that Ferguson continues to be blinded by the obvious, it begs the question following yesterday's five-goal blitz, has the penny finally dropped? Only time will tell.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Last summer moneybags Manchester City somehow managed to worm their way to the Milan negotiating table in a bid to prize Kaka away from Italy, but they never even got as far as talking to the player. The negotiations ended in acrimony and an embarrassing farce when City's CEO Gary Cook made a complete co*k of himself when claiming Milan had bottled it.
If City had pulled that transfer off who knows what would have happened, the prospect of pairing Robinho and Kaka, along with Elano would have been exciting to say the least. When the deal broke down Kaka was keen to publicly state his future was with Milan and that he'd only ever move if the club wanted to sell him.
After a disappointing season in which Milan missed out on Champions League football, you do wonder if Kaka is now ready to try a different experience and if so would England be a likely destination?
The Sun is today claiming Kaka has spoken of his affinity for the champions, saying: “They have some great players in Giggs and Scholes and especially Wayne Rooney. “One of my best friends, Anderson, is also there — how can anyone say no? “They are the English and European champions and a great club to play for.”
United fans will no doubt be rightly very sceptical about this story, Kaka, 27, is in his prime, when he has the pick of any club in the world, including Real Madrid, why would he want to come to rainy Manchester? Kaka, might even prefer the bright lights of London to Manchester...
You have to wonder if the story has been leaked to the Sun by agents working on behalf of Manchester United in the build-up to selling Ronaldo to Real Madrid in the summer, because if there was any truth in the Sun story, the player would not be publicly making statements of this nature for fear of upsetting the Milan supporters.
It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if United are indirectly guilty of leaking this story to the media, because like many other fans I am becoming increasingly certain that Ronaldo will be sold this summer. The club fearing a supporter backlash might well have conceived a cunning Blackadder like plan to appease unhappy supporters by appearing to be in for Kaka - only for the plot to unravel in true Baldrick fashion.
I actually predict this particular plot will unravel a lot sooner than the summer as I'm fully expecting Kaka to deny the claims. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if the Kaka quotes have been embellished - and that is putting it politely.
While suggesting the source of this story is probably a lot closer to Manchester than Milan, we cannot rule out that in the worst practices of gutter journalism the whole story has been fabricated with a view to selling newspapers on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning.
If and it's a big if, the story turns out to be true and Kaka does sign then I'll be obviously more than happy.
Full story - Ronaldo out Kaka in?
Friday, April 24, 2009
What we do know is Keane was driven as a player, by all accounts he is just as driven as a manager, but when he left relegation threatened Sunderland, his confidant Eamon Dunphy went on record saying that he doubted his fellow Irishman had the qualities to become a top manager and basically that Keane had lost the plot.
To be fair to Dunphy, he also said that maybe Keane needed to follow the example of Brian Clough and learn his trade in the lower divisions, it may well have been a case of "Hobsons Choice", but Ipswich Town are a club who don't part company with their managers' on a frequent basis.
Perhaps Keano will drive the Tractor boys on to the promised land of the Premier League, the only thing we can be sure for now is the bumpy ride.
Given that The Times football Editor Tony Evans is a big Liverpool fan, then you wonder how much truth there actually is behind this story. The timing of this speculation is suspicious to say the least. Are Liverpool's many friends in the media so desperate that they will go to any lengths in a bid to derail United's title hopes?
There's no doubting that Evans will be well connected at Liverpool and there's no doubt that Tevez is a brilliant striker - all the more annoying that United paid silly money for the show pony that is Nani and the disappointment that is Berbatov, yet they are dithering over the future of a player who is not only loved by the fans, but is also the genuine article.
The bottom line is newspapers like The Times can publish speculation knowing that there will be no comeback even if it is a tissue of lies and or half-truths, so there's nothing new there.
Whether or not this is a case of mischief-making in a bid to rankle Ferguson, who in turn could keep on leaving out Tevez, it is hard know, but that view is being touted by the fans.
Perhaps United's friends in the media should return the compliment by suggesting the champions want to sign Daniel Agger...
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick were on target on what turned out to be a night of missed opportunities for United, it very much a workman-like performance but it means that the league leaders still have a game in hand over the Merseyside Reds who could only manage a draw with Arsenal on Tuesday at Anfield.
United supporters and the manager will be concerned about the prospect of facing an in-form Arsenal team next week in the Champions League, because against Liverpool they looked fresh and full of running, in contrast the Reds once again looked out of sorts and disjointed at times against Portsmouth.
United have played more games than any other Premier League club this season and it is starting to show, to add to Fergie's concerns Gary Neville and John O'Shea picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for a few weeks. Some United fans might well argue that's no bad thing in the case of the Irishman - but in fairness, he has done a reasonable job for the team of late when slotting-in both fullback positions.
For his part and since his return from a lengthy spell on the sidelines, Neville looks to have lost at least a yard of pace and it's questionable how much longer he can go on at the highest level of the game.
The good news is Rafael and Wes Brown are both fit. The really bad news is that Carlos Tevev has given perhaps his strongest hint yet that he will leave the club this summer. The Argentine is a massive fans favourite and many will be unhappy if the club do make his contract permanent, as promised on several occasions. Tevez wants to play in the big games, but since the arrival of Berbatov - who has failed to live up to expectations - the former West Ham striker has been on bench warming duty.
The fans will not be too surprised to learn that reports are claiming Ronaldo will finally get his own way this summer with a big money move to Real Madrid, but that will depend largely on Ferguson, who has previously stated he wouldn't sell the Spanish club a virus. Following an indifferent season from Ronaldo and despite his apparent apathy towards playing in England, he remains United's top scorer, but it might be the case that Fergie will grant the player his wish and set him free.
Losing both Ronaldo and Tevez would hurt United and it would mean the club would have to bring in two quality replacements. Given Tevez wants to stay and play; it would seem like an act of complete madness not to let that happen.
United would be far better off cutting their loses on Berbatov and selling Ronaldo for £100m + then signing another top striker. The club needs to do transfer any deals early, certainly before the sale of Ronaldo is announced, because once rival clubs know United are "cash rich" the asking price for potential targets will rocket.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
However, Wenger has changed Arsenal's style over the last few seasons and it's for the better, the North London club lost the "boring, boring Arsenal" tag a long time ago, and the intimidating style of Vieira et al is a thing of the past too. These days Arsenal play quick incisive football to feet and it's good to watch, so much so that last night's match with Liverpool was as entertaining as any that I can recall between any two teams in recent years - and for a United fan, that really IS saying something about the respective teams.
What we saw last night at Anfield was a near win or die duel between title-chasing Liverpool and an in-form Arsenal who were without their top goal-scorers, it finished up 4-4 and on a night of glittering performances it was Andre Arshavin who was the real star of the show.
Arsenal's Russian star scored four wonderful goals and dare I say it SHOULD have been five, because he had one disallowed for off-side, but it looked like a good goal. For their part, Liverpool's defence was every bit as woeful as the visitors, but at the other end, Torres and Benayoun were deadly in front of goal.
Even for the neutral fan, it was a pulsating game to watch, it was played like a cup-tie.
Arsenal deserve a huge amount of credit for the way they took the game to Liverpool who looked capable of scoring with every attack due to some fairly hapless defending by the Gunners - but for the superb performance of Fabianski in the Arsenal goal, Liverpool's many friends in the media would this morning be doing all they can to spin the Merseyside Reds on to title success. It ended up all square and as a result the ball is now very much back in Manchester United's court.
Liverpool fans will this morning be coming to terms with the harsh reality, which is that it is looking unlikely that they will win the title because although they are level top of the table with United on goal-difference, they only have another 15 points to play for, whereas the champions’ have a possible 21 points to play for. United can afford to lose one and draw one game and STILL retain the title - in contrast and to stand any chance winning their first Premier League title, Liverpool cannot afford to drop a single point in their remaining five games.
Finally, if you've been reading my blog for any length of time you know that I wanted United so sign Arshavin back in the summer, alas we cannot sign every top player, but if only we had done in the case of the Russian... Fergie, Fergie sign him on...
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The reaction of the supporters is predictable because while Berbatov has been a limited success since his big money move to United, his worth has divided opinion among the fans. Not since the signing of Juan Sebastian Veron have the supporters been so split regarding the merits of a big money signing. To be fair, prior to the then Spurs star signing, many United fans were unsure if Berbatov's languid style would suit Manchester United where expectations are and standards are at the highest end of the scale.
Apparently, official stats on Berbatov suggest that his contribution has been better than the generally held negative perception of the player thus far, well all I will say about that is "lies, damned lies and statistics"...but worryingly, the stats do confirm that the partnership of Rooney and Berbatov is not working and it explains why United's normal brand of attacking free-flowing football hasn't quite been what we have come to expect.
The recent introduction of boy-wonder Federico Macheda has if anything only served to highlight what the true role of a genuine centre-forward actually is; that is to hold up the ball for the team in difficult situations, often when receiving the ball with one's back to goal. United's young Italian striker looks comfortable in any given situation; he is quick, strong, confident and not easy to push off the ball. Berbatov is confident, but he's slow and is easily pushed off the ball and has no great presence up front as the lone striker.
Comparisons between former and present players are almost always unfair, and Berbatov has been burdened with being likened to United legend Eric Cantona - which is completely unfair, but there are some similarities when comparing the Frenchman and the Bulgarian. Like Cantona, Berbatov likes to drop deep, but unlike Eric, Dimitar does not command the respect of opposing players. I can barely remember Cantona being tackled during his glorious United career - it must have happened - but nowhere near as much as it does with Berbatov.
Some might well rightly argue that Berbatov is not a genuine centre-forward and that Fergie knew that when he signed him for £30m. However, harking back to the days of Cantona who was given a free role by the United manager, at that time we DID have a genuine goal-scoring centre-forward in Andy Cole, the trouble is now we don't, not unless the manager starts selecting Macheda. Cole was never the perfect foil for Cantona, but importantly he had presence - whenever he played he was a constant danger and goal threat with his blistering pace.
The fact is the more the fans see of Berbatov, the more it looks like his signing was a huge mistake and if that is so then Fergie must shoulder the blame, but do not expect the United manager to admit it, because even after Veron was sold on he maintained that the Argentine was a great player.
Far from being the final piece that completed Fergie's jigsaw, it increasingly looks like he is the rogue piece in the box, the one that will never fit in, if that is so then United have a massive problem, but because they are looking at a huge loss if they decide to sell the player. The money spent on Berbatov would have been better spent on securing the future of Carlos Tevez which is what should have happened in the last transfer window.
Sir Alex Ferguson was right to stick with his young guns for Sunday's FA Cup semi-final even though it ended in defeat for the Red Devils.
The Scot has come under fire from the media and fans alike for fielding a virtual reserve side in the goalless draw with Everton at Wembley.
His under-strength line-up almost pulled off a victory, but for the failure of Mike Riley to award a penalty for Phil Jagielka's second-half challenge on Danny Welbeck.
And as expected Fergie has been slaughtered in the press for devaluing the FA Cup after United failed to repeat their shoot-out success against Spurs in the Carling Cup and went on to lose 4-2 on penalties.
The tabloids have questioned how Fergie could treat the fans and the world's greatest tournament like a pre-season kick about and toss their realistic hopes of a quintuple aside.
Well, simple the United chief knows the Premier League and Champions League are their prioirities, but more importantly he wanted to show a belief that the players who had got United to the semi-final were good enough to compete there.
And for the most part Fergie's XI, with an average age of just 22, were the best side and the only team who were looking to win the game.
Of course he would have preferred to have won the game, but he still believes he fielded the right side and the experience gained by the likes of Welbeck, Kicko Macheda, Darron Gibson, Fabio and Rafael will benefit them in the long run.
His youngs stars now know he has faith in them and the confidence and belief instilled will also pay dividends long term.
"I am absolutely convinced I picked the right team," said Fergie.
"I have no regrets about it at all.
"I knew there would be some criticism because it did not work for us.
"But we are coming to that period now where it is game after game. It is all go and I need to pick the right teams.
"It is not nice to lose a semi-final and this one is no different.
"But there is enough freshness in the rest of the squad for Wednesday now, which is how we planned it."
Monday, April 20, 2009
The United manager left out Ronaldo along with Neville, Giggs and Van der Sar; he also rested a host of star names including Scholes, Berbatov and Evra. Far from being annoyed or even upset, many United fans will have been delighted to see Fabio and Rafael da Silva, Ben Foster, Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck and boy-wonder Fedrico Macheda starting this showpiece semi-final and quite right too.
It was a bold selection by Ferguson, and even though the FA Cup was clearly third on the manager's priority list, the team that faced Everton was built on solid foundations with Vidic and Ferdinand at the back. It was a calculated gamble by Fergie, but it was by no means reckless.
Going into this game, many feared that the Champions might wobble against a hungry in-form Everton, but those fears looked to be unfounded as soon as the semi-final kicked-off, because United's youngsters were more than a match for an experienced Everton team. Anderson was given the responsiblity of taking charge of the champions midfield alongside Gibson, the Brazilian battled hard and took the eye with his surging runs and tackling.
The average age of United's team was just 22 - the youngest player on the pitch, Federico Macheda, was the arguably the most composed of the lot. Although he's only played three times for United's first-team, the 17-year-old striker once again looked like the real deal.
Playing at Wembley is a test for any forward, not least because of the size of the pitch, and then there's the energy sapping turf and the sense of occasion. Wembley didn't faze Macheda in any sense; his link-up play with Welbeck was hugely impressive. Unlike, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov who are all essentially second strikers, the young Italian is a genuine number nine in the making, he leads the line superbly and his close control is excellent.
Against what was an excellent Everton defence Macheda was happy to receive the ball in any situation, such a pity that United couldn't make that vital breakthrough before the dreaded penalty shoot-out, on another day referee Mike Riley could have and perhaps should have awarded the champions a penalty following a clumsy challenge on Welbeck.
It wasn't that surprising that Macheda looked to be suffering with cramp late on due to his none-stop running in what was a hard fought contest, but it is questionable if he was so tired that he needed to be replaced ahead of extra-time. Fergie opted to bring on Berbatov for Macheda and it's fair to say the former Spurs striker made little or no impact on the game.
While Macheda plays like a genuine number nine, quite often with his back to goal and around the opposition penalty area, all too often Berbatov drops deep, but unlike Cantona, who the Bulgarian has been compared to, he doesn't always make things happen. Worse still, Berbatov is easily knocked off the ball, loses possession cheaply and lacks pace. Berbatov was awful against Porto last week, he wasn't much better against Everton.
It was sickening to see the Bulgarian waste a golden opportunity to give United an early lead in the penalty shoot-out; this after Cahill had blazed over the bar when taking Everton's first spot-kick. If Ferguson does not have strong words with Berbatov about what was a pathetic penalty attempt, then I for one will be surprised, if he is ever given the responsibility in the future, suffice to say do not expect him to try that trick again.
It is hard to criticise Ferdinand, who failed to score United's second penalty, because he'd had another great game at the back, but he should have done better and he will know that.
While everyone will be disappointed, we United fans can take a degree of satisfaction from this game because for the first time in a good while, it looks like the club may well have the nucleus of another exciting young team.
In the not too distant future I can see Macheda edging out Berbatov, because it can surely be only a matter of time before Fergie and his backroom team realise that one is a genuine striker and the other flatters to deceive in the wrong areas of the pitch. While moaning about Berbatov's performance and his casual attitude, it would be wrong not to mention Carlos Tevez who was for once disappointing too.
It's also worth mentioning the now defunct FA CUP semi-final replays and what might have been in years gone by, because while there's no doubting replays have given us some great games down the years, prior to Sunday's semi-final United had played 58 games this season when compared to Everton's 41. The champions could really have done without a replay, so until someone comes up with a better way of ending games, penalties it will continue to be.
Man of the match: Vidic, closely followed by Anderson.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The answer is quite simple, I believe that the Toffees will have two advantages going into the semi-final; United will undoubtedly be the more fatigued of the two teams having played in the Champions League in midweek, true enough Fergie will ring the changes in midfield and probably at the back too.
The question is will the United manager risk playing Rio Ferdinand again just a few days after the trip to Oporto? The England defender has just returned to action after being out injured with a groin injury and the club cannot afford to lose him for the League game at Old Trafford with Portsmouth on Wednesday, because as we saw against Porto, as good as Jonny Evans undoubtedly is, the partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic is tried and trusted.
While Fergie should NOT be taking any chances ahead of the Pompey game, he may well think that he can risk losing to Everton by resting a few players, I for one strongly suspect that for this reason Evans will play from the start and if that is so then United could come under serious pressure from set pieces with Fellaini being an obvious threat in the air.
Whoever Fergie selects at centre half, I'm hoping we see some of United's younger players given a chance today; I'd like to see Rafael play some part along with Macheda - if that happens it will only add to the entertainment factor. Wayne Rooney is expected to miss the semi-final after sustaining a foot injury against Porto, the damage is apparently worse than first thought, but knowing "Wazza" he will demand to play even at the expense of worsening his injury.
The other slight advantage for Everton could be the Wembley turf, which has come in for a degree of criticism following the Arsenal v Chelsea semi-final yesterday. It might well have cost over £750m to build, but the owners of the new Wembley appear to have allowed the state of the pitch to be neglected - at this time of year and given so few games are played on it and with pitch technology today it is nothing short of a disgrace that the turf isn't in perfect condition for a show-piece semi-final.
My head says United should win today, but my doubting inner-self has been nagging me all week telling me it could be Everton's day, I hope my doubting inner-self is wrong.
Friday, April 17, 2009
It's no secret there is no love lost between the two men, but after Benitez's actions in Liverpool's 4-0 win over Sam Allardyce's Blackburn, Fergie has lambasted the Spaniard.
Benitez seemed to signal the game was over after Liverpool's second goal at Anfield and Fergie has not minced his words.
Speaking ahead of Sunday's FA Cup semi-final with David Moyes' Everton he said: "David (Moyes) has built a good club and a big club and despite Rafa Benitez saying they are a small club, they're a big club and that just points to his arrogance.
"And you can't forgive his contempt to Sam Allardyce last week when they (Liverpool) scored their second goal. It was absolute contempt - game finished!
"I don't think Sam deserved that and I don't think another Liverpool manager would have done that."
Benitez's dismissive actions against an under-strength Rovers team not only irked Fergie but also left Allardyce fuming with the Anfield chief.
"I wanted to clarify his gestures after the second goal as they were pretty dismissive.
"They were disrespectful and humiliating. I wanted to meet him after the game in his room, but unfortunately he didn't turn up," said Allardyce.
Fergie already has Moyes and Allardyce on side and while the Rafa Benitez fan club seems to be diminishing by the day it is a safe football bet that we can still expect an interesting war of words as the title race comes to a climax.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Following last night's Champions League results, United will meet Arsenal in the semi-final in what could turn out to be heaven or hell depending on the outcome from a red perspective. In the other semi-final, Chelsea have the unenviable task of facing tournament favourites Barcelona - given the alternative both United and Arsenal will no doubt be happy about the prospect of facing an English rival because Barca are playing some scintillating football in the Nou Camp.
Will it be another all English Champions League final then? I for one believe there's every chance because while Barca have been superb thus far, they were knocked out by United last season, that was largely because the champions had the better defence. For the very same reason, it is quite probable Chelsea will see off the challenge of the Catalan club this time around.
Naturally, I want United to win the other semi-final, but whether or not that happens will once again depend on how well the defence performs over the two legs. If United's back-four does its job, then we have the forwards to score the goals. For their part, Arsenal will be thinking exactly the same, in that they have the firepower to overcome the champions defence which has been uncharacteristically leaking goals of late.
The purists will want to see Barcelona in the final because they only know one way to play and that is to go forward. United and the club's supporters will not be keen on giving Chelsea the opportunity to avenge the outcome of last season's Moscow final - so United vs. Barca in the final it will hopefully be.
You also do wonder what former Arsenal star Thierry Henry is thinking with the prospect of possibly shooting-down his old team-mates in the final?
All in all, it is set up for what will be an intruiging season end.
While United have to thank Ronaldo for firing them into a mouth-watering looking semi-final against Arsenal, the man who made the biggest contribution on the night was Rio Ferdinand. The England defender has been out on the sidelines after sustaining a groin injury while on international duty and how United have missed his calming influence at the back.
Some believe that Ferdinand is the world's best defensive interceptor; he snuffs out trouble before it develops into a catastrophe by using his pace and by reading the game. Ferdinand's partnership with Vidic has undoubtedly been at the very heart of United's success this season, when either player has been missing due to injury or suspension the defence has been all at sea.
The contrast between the two United performances against Porto was almost unbelievable. In the first leg, United's defence once again all over the place after Jonny Evans gifted the visitors possession early doors which led directly to a goal - that mistake set the tone of the first leg because it gave a hungry looking Porto encouragement to keep on going forward. For their part United looked to be on course to fall apart due to the team malfunctioning all over the pitch. The first leg ended 2-2 and the general consensus was that United were very fortunate to get anything from the game.
United then faced Sunderland and only just managed to sneak a victory following the late introduction of boy-wonder Federico Macheda, but once again poor defending was a feature of the champions play. It was for good reason that many supporters had a bad feeling about the impending trip to Portugal - if your team struggles against a club haunted by the threat of relegation, then what are your prospects of victory against team like Porto who looked mean and 'up for it' at Old Trafford?
As it turned out last night's game in Porto was relatively trouble free from United's perspective. All of a sudden the defence that has been all too easy to breach looked solid again, as a result Porto were restricted to long-range efforts and a couple of headers. In contrast to the first-leg at Old Trafford, United's defence held firm and the midfield did their job when closing down the space in front of the back four.
Instead of sitting too deeply and allowing Porto to dictate the play, Ferdinand was stepping out of defence and intercepting on the half-way line when making important challenges. In the first-leg, the Hulk was rampant, at times it took two United players to stop his raiding, last night he was reduced to a bit-part player - he couldn't make his presence felt because he had been marginalised along with his team-mates.
At this stage it is impossible to predict how the rest of the season will pan out for United, many fans were starting to have negative thoughts about the challenges ahead, but the win against Porto could see the team galvanised and back on the road to what is still a hugely improbable quintuple.
It would be wrong not to mention the part played by Fergie, who isn't acknowledged as a great tactical thinker, because last night he switched Rooney from the left flank where he played against Sunderland at the weekend to the opposite wing. Rooney had no doubt been detailed to help his fullback stop the Hulk and Cissokho. On the opposite flank, Giggs was brought in partly to deny Porto raiding down that wing. The plan worked a treat.
It was by no means a perfect United performance. Berbatov, while retaining possession quite well at times, all too often the Bulgarian was slow in foot races and on other occasions too easily brushed off the ball.
Michael Carrick's passing was once again wayward at times, which has been a feature of his recent performances, but to his credit he did an excellent defensive job for the team.
Ronaldo's goal needs no in-depth analysis - few players in the world are capable of scoring a goal like that on such an occasion - but it was only his second goal in this season's Champions League campaign, when compared to last season we know he can give a lot more.
Anderson had his best game of the season and was close to being my man of the match, but that accolade goes to Ferdinand who didn't put a foot wrong.
United can and hopefully will build on the win over Porto, but make no mistake it is going to be another very bumpy ride - bring on the Arsenal.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
No one epitomised than driving force better than former skipper and legend Roy Keane, who memorably led the team back from the dead in Turin in 1999, when scoring after the Reds had gone two-nil down in the opening minutes against Juventus. United went to on to win the Champions League in what turned out to be a historic treble winning season. Everyone connected with the club has their own favourite memories of 1999, but there's no question that the champions performance in the Stadio Delle Alpi was without doubt one of United's finest in the club's history.
Ferguson knows his team are not playing well, everyone knows it. The defence has been all over the place in recent weeks due to injuries and suspensions, tonight the team must gel from front to back, and there cannot be any repeat of the sloppiness at the back that has seen United conceding goals like a team threatened with relegation.
Ahead of the big game, Fergie has issued a clarion call to his players in a bid to invoke the Spirit of Turin; the question is who among the current United team is capable of taking the game by the scruff of its neck and powering them forward to victory? I give you my four main candidates: Rooney, Tevez, Vidic or maybe Ronaldo, but sadly Tevez will likely start from the bench - and if that is so then I fear the worst, because he HAS to start for United to have any chance of winning.
Rooney and Ronaldo are capable of winning any game - we know that Rooney will give 100%, we cannot say the same of Ronaldo... the question is, will he respond to the situation, it is to be hoped so because he is after all playing in his homeland.
Vidic owes United a big performance and so here again he is a potential match-winner.
United can win tonight providing Fergie picks the right team from the start, which in my mind means leaving out Berbatov from the starting eleven. However, if United go out, it might be better to lose to Porto rather than against Arsenal in the semi-final, because on current form that is a real possibility.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Whether or not Fergie wins the Champions League again, logic and time surely dictate that he can stay on as manager for the most two more seasons; it will probably be one more season. If that turns out to be the case then United's power-brokers will no doubt be interested to learn that Jose Mourinho will become available in 2011. From the outside looking in, it seems his dalliance with Italian football will be a short one.
Chelsea's former manager continues to speak about his love of English football; by default Mourinho appears to be plotting a course back to his former stomping ground. However, if the Inter manager has any thoughts of taking over at Chelsea then he will be slightly disappointed to learn that Bruce Buck has gone on record stating in no uncertain terms that Mourinho will not be a Chelsea manager any time soon.
There appears to be a growing clamour among United supporters that Jose is the man to replace Fergie. Added to which, it is well documented that Fergie has been dropping hints that he likes Jose - could he be Fergie's heir apparent?
For their part, United fans should perhaps take a moment to consider Mourinho's record; while no one can question the man's tactical genius and his trophy haul, longevity and loyalty are words rarely used in connection with the Inter Milan manager. Mourinho is still in his first season in Italy, but already he has hinted about where his future lies and that talk fuels speculation.
Mourinho plays the media like a well used fiddle, he loves the limelight and the guessing games; he is the managerial equivalent of David Beckham - his life is one big soap opera - the saving grace is he isn't married to one of the Spice girls.
While Fergie and Mourinho get along famously they are in fact complete opposites; both have enjoyed huge success on the field, but there the comparisons end. When Fergie wins a trophy, the very next day he thinks about winning the next one for United; when Mourinho wins a trophy he talks a lot about a lot of things and as he shown he is not averse to dropping hints about moving on to his next challenge. For this reason as well as the baggage that comes with Jose, it came as no surprise to read that United legends, Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson apparently have doubts about Jose Mourinho taking over from Fergie. United's decision makers will have also taken note of Bruce Buck's comments which appear to rule out any way back for Jose at Chelsea.
Part of Mourinho's appeal is his magnetic personality, his record as a manager speaks for itself, it is a powerful mix, it could be described as a seductive cocktail that players and media alike find hard to resist. However, given his near gypsy like propensity to up sticks and move his caravan on to the next challenge, you do wonder if football's stellar names will start to think twice and put their own careers first given Jose's seemingly ever rolling bandwagon.
When Mourinho left Chelsea, noises coming out of the Chelsea camp suggested that some players were less than happy about that parting of the ways because they'd agreed to sign new deals on the back of Jose Mourinho's commitment to the Blues cause - it was of course a mutual separation - but here again, there was a self-destruct element to this parting of the ways with many suggesting that Mourinho was himself the instigator.
Mourinho is currently is being linked to Manchester City, who despite their new found wealth, are increasingly becoming an even bigger laughing stock; in the space of a week the Citizens have been humiliated losing 3-1 twice - results which could well lead to Mark Hughes facing the sack.
In many ways Mourinho would be perfect for City; they are in no position to dictate terms, quite the reverse. I personally doubt money is a big motivation for Jose, but if it was, just imagine what sort of obscene deal he could secure and in all probability it would be ring-fenced with get-out-clauses galore should a big job be offered in the future.
Mourinho at City would in the eyes of their Arab owners be viewed as confirmation that the club has arrived. It wouldn't matter if Mourinho's tenure at Eastlands was short-lived because if the club actually won a trophy or two along the way with all the publicity that comes with it, it would be mission accomplished.
The Mourinho story so far makes for compelling reading and you do wonder how the next chapter will pan out; it could well be the case that Jose will have no choice but to accept what he might well describe as a "massive challenge" by taking a step down and control of the reins of a second-tier club like Manchester City. If Spurs could afford Jose's excesses where new signings are concerned, they would surely be in with a strong shout given his love of London.
For now and the foreseeable short-term future, the guessing games will continue.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Going into Saturday's game the fans were hoping to see evidence of a revival from the champions following what has been an alarming slump, but it simply didn't materialise as collectively the team made too many mistakes.
Paul Scholes and Berbatov were restored to the team; Edwin van der Sar was rested along with Ronaldo and Evra. United started the game brightly enough with Rooney blazing just wide early doors as the visitors went on to dominate the opening exchanges. Vidic was extremely unlucky not to score from a corner with a trademark towering header, only to see his effort blocked on the line.
Wayne Rooney played out of position, wide on the left in a 4-3-3 formation and all credit to "Wazza" who not only supplied the cross for Paul Scholes (19) to score with a text-book flicked header, but also worked tirelessly for the team. Rooney was United's star man, only Carlos Tevez came close to securing that accolade in what turned out to be another very mixed-bag of a performance.
United went into the interval one-nil to the good, but the visitors didn't have it all their own way with the United back four once again looking shaky when threatened. Vidic and Foster shared what could have been calamitous moment when the Serbian and his 'keeper were involved in an awful mix-up.
While United are undoubtedly missing the calming influence and speed of thought of Rio Ferdinand, the fullback positions - especially at right back - are providing opponents with a profitable avenue of attack.
Gary Neville was at fault last weekend for both of Aston Villa's goals, admittedly the first was down to Fergie's bizarre decision to play him against John Carew, but for the second he allowed the ball to be crossed to Agbonlahor too easily.
It has been extremely difficult season for Neville; it is hard enough playing at the age of 34, but when you've been out injured for a lengthy spell it is even harder.
So it comes are no surprise to see Neville struggling at times, which was certainly the case against Sunderland who eventually deservedly equalised 10 minutes into the second-half. Many observers blamed Foster who came and failed to deal with a cross from United's right - but what many observers failed to pick up on, was the fact that once again Neville had been exposed prior to Jones scoring following yet more mistakes in the United back four.
In a bid to wrest control of the game, Fergie sent on Ronaldo, Macheda and Anderson. Thankfully, United's 17-year-old secret-weapon did the job again, this time with his first touch which left United's many enemies in the media, particularly those who on BBC 5 Live choking on their ABU bile when commenting (several times) that it was "a lucky, lucky goal". How would they know what Macheda was trying to do? It doesn't matter, the Italian looks to have the cold deadly eye of a Mafia hitman. Macheda has had a massive influence on the title race; I wouldn't rule him out scoring more important goals this season.
Next up United travel to Porto, needing to win, it could be one of the most exciting games we have seen in a long time, providing the real United turns up. The worry is, the team looks tired and it's not surprising because they have played more games than any other Premier League club including Aston Villa and Man City who started the season a month early in the Intertoto Cup.
Thursday, April 09, 2009
While pre-tax turnover and profits have also increased following a hugely successful season on the pitch, fans will continue to be concerned about the future of the football club given that debts are rising sharply - this at a time when United won the Premier League title and the Champions League. It begs the question, what would happen to Red Football's finances following a poor season which would undoubtedly have a negative effect on the balance sheet?
Manchester United is more than just a football club, it is an institution and it should in part belong to the fans who have continued to give their unqualified support and hard-earned cash, many over a lifetime.
Given the plight of the club and the current ownership regime, it is hard to envisage United following the public ownership model adopted by Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona - as far as all of the big English clubs are concerned, sadly that is an unrealistic vision of utopia.
Nonetheless, this latest news is likely to strengthen Michel Platini's resolve to sort out footballs' finances in a bid to ensure its future. Platini has vowed to take action if the clubs cannot act responsibly where finance is concerned. It remains to be seen how this might work in practise, if indeed it is possible and legal.
The Glazer family couldn't afford to buy United using their own money without borrowing huge sums from the banks, but following a period of continued success under Ferguson it begs the question where is it all going direction wise, because clearly no football club can continue for any length of time while being burdened with such debts. Where finance is concerned, Manchester United are on the road to nowhere under the Glazer regime, the short term has undoubtedly been good on the pitch, but off it the longer term is much harder to define.
Speaking on Tuesday on Five Live ahead of United's Champions League draw with Porto, the former Red Devils boss said the striker has not lived up to expectations at Old Trafford.
But while Docherty might have been unnecessarily harsh on the Bulgarian frontman, I think it's fair to say the majority of fans were expecting more from United's record signing.
Berbatov arrived from Spurs for a record £30.75million in September and while he was not expected to show the same desire and work-rate of fellow forwards Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, I was expecting him to have more of an impact with the champions.
The former Spurs man - who is currently sidelined with an ankle injury - has scored 13 goals in 33 starts this term and while he has shown touches on genius, on too many other occasions he has been a passenger.
Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko has labelled Berbatov an 'arrogant snob', but Sir Alex has continued - as predicted - to back the 28-year-old.
"He is a different type of player to what we had last season," Fergie said last month.
"He has a patience and composure in the last third of the field that is helping us.
"That is quite a number of winning goals for us now.
"Eric Cantona used to score important goals as well and if he keeps on scoring important goals then it is an emphatic result for us."
For many fans the jury's still out on Berbatov and while his languid style will never please eveyone, with crunch games looming it's certainly time for Berbatov to come to the fore and score some big goals - just like Eric did.
It certainly wouldn't be wise for those interested in football betting to go against the striker hitting top form when it really matters.
By Phil Tomlinson
However, Chelsea's 3-1 win at Anfield could have an adverse affect on Liverpool, because it wasn't just the result it was the manner of the defeat - it was all a little bit too easy for the West London club. Hiddink won the tactical battle hands down. It made United's 2-2 result with Porto the night before look like a good one, Benitez and Liverpool were out-thought before a ball had been kicked.
It hasn't taken Guus Hiddink long to make his mark on English football, it should be no surprise because the Dutchman is a solid tactician with donkeys years of experience managing at all levels of the game. I don't know why it has taken so long for it to happen, because to me this has been blindingly obvious for a number of weeks and following that 4-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool I stated on this blog that United lost largely because Fergie didn't have a tactical plan to deal with Steven Gerrard. It is always easier said that done, but importantly Hiddink did have a plan and it centred on Michael Essien man marking the Liverpool skipper who as a result was completely ineffective, so much so that Gerrard had to drop back from his attacking role into a deeper position.
It will be interesting to see how Hiddink approaches the return leg next week, given that his team hold a 3-1 advantage; there’s no need for Chelsea to attack and take chances. It is therefore likely we will see a repeat performance from Essien who will once again likely to try to snuff out Gerrard's attempts at breaking unmarked into the Chelsea penalty area. You cannot allow someone with Gerrard's power and pace time and space to get at your defenders in one-on-one situations around the penalty area - that is suicide, as United found to their cost recently.
With any luck, a repeat performance from Chelsea will see Liverpool knocked-out of Europe and as a result their collective confidence could be shaken to the core and of course their next game will be at home to Arsenal.
Before that this weekend Liverpool face Blackburn and following the drama at Anfield Sky's pundits were last night suggesting that Big Sam Allardyce will have noted Essien's man-marking job on Gerrard - will we see a repeat this weekend with the former Bolton and Newcastle manager detailing a marker on the Liverpool skipper? Stating the obvious, but not every club has a player like Michael Essien, who was once linked strongly to United, the club could certainly do with someone like him right now with Hargreave's out injured.
In the other Champions League quarter final, Barcelona destroyed hapless Bayern Munich 4-0, the Bavarian club have shipped nine goals in two games. It turned out to be a first-half feast of goals at the Nou Camp, Barca created chances at will, so much so that it should have been a lot more.
Messi, Henry and Eto'o are in irresistible form at the present which is why Barca are the tournament favourites. The secret of Barcelona's success is moving the ball quickly on the deck and running off the ball, which makes it extremely difficult for visiting teams to mark Messi et al around the box. Looking back, it beggars belief that the current United defence didn't concede over two legs against the same Barca trio last season.
However, I for one have nagging doubts about the Barcelona back four. Chelsea or even Liverpool will give Barcelona a much tougher game in the semi-final and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if either of the English clubs wins through to the final.
Before all of that this coming weekend United take on Sunderland and it will be interesting to see what team Fergie sends out to battle, I'm expecting one or two stars to be rested ahead of the trip to Porto, we might even see Fredrico Macheda starting...
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Going into what turned out to be a good game for the viewing neutral, but a nightmare for United supporters, Fergie had warned that Porto would represent tough opposition - that view wasn't necessarily shared by the fans given that in the previous round we had knocked out Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.
Ahead of the game, there were fears that there might well have been repeat of the diving and cheating that was all too evident when United last met Porto in 2004. Questions were also raised about referee Konrad Plautz, who was said to be card-happy, but truth be told the man-in-the-middle gave a near faultless performance and Porto were excellent from start to finish.
United for their part were once again awful, but unlike against Liverpool and Aston Villa recently, it was the visitors who took the lead through Rodriguez who was a danger throughout. The manner of Porto's opening goal was to say the least disappointing, because once again it was United's own sloppy play that directly led to the goal. Jonny Evans failed to effectively deal with what should have been a regulation clearance and instead gifted possession back to this visitors - this after Ronaldo had lost the ball cheaply moments beforehand.
Just 48 hours earlier Aston Villa had given United a torrid time when going into a 2-1 lead at Old Trafford on Sunday in another energy sapping match, but against the odds late second-half goals by Ronaldo and Fredrico Macheda led to an unlikely victory.
Against Porto, after shooting themselves in their collective feet in the opening minutes, instead of United fighting back strongly, it was the visitors who looked more likely to go on to score yet more goals. We will never know what might have happened in the context of this Champions League tie and the rest of the season if Evans had not given that ball away, but what we do know for sure, is that United are now in big trouble.
Old Trafford is supposed to be a hostile arena for visiting teams whenever the club plays in Europe - it wasn't the case last night - for long periods of this game the home crowd did not get behind the team, not until late on at any rate.
If the fans were nervous about the team’s prospects they have every right to be, because quite frankly the game could be up in the Champions League and quite possibly in the League and FA Cup too.
The team that looked capable of conquering all before them just a few weeks ago is not functioning. Paul Scholes was restored to the engine room, having had the benefit of two weeks preparation for this game, but sadly his legs are no longer working in tandem with his genius level football brain - his passing in the first-half was dire.
Scholes wasn't the only player who fell way below expectations; John O'Shea, Carrick and Fletcher were all sloppy on the ball. Park's lack of genuine star quality was once again in evidence as he huffed and puffed but failed to deliver any meaningful contribution in this game.
At times in the opening 45 minutes it was like watching a pub team play, United were that bad. That said, much credit to Porto who were closing down United all over the park and whenever the home team managed to get the ball wide on the flanks there was almost always two defenders who in turn blocked any would be crosses into the box.
At the other end, the player known as the Hulk was playing like a human battering ram and United struggled to contain him throughout the game, he was the biggest difference between the two teams because from start to finish he was a thorn in United's side and a constant threat.
United were extremely fortunate to go into the half-time break on level terms after Rooney levelled against the run of play following Porto's only real mistake of the night.
The second-half was much better from United's perspective as Ronaldo and Rooney worked for the team and gave the home fans a degree of hope. United's collective passing was much better too, but on balance the visitors were still the better side.
However, once again against the odds and the run of play United scored late on following the introduction of Tevez after he scored quite brilliantly following a clever flick-on by Rooney.
With just a few minutes to go it looked as though United would be going to Porto defending a slender lead, alas it wasn't to be, because Mariano Gonzalez (89) scored with a little help from John O'Shea.
A draw was a fair result, United certainly did not deserve to win this match, nor did Porto deserve to lose it.
So what has gone wrong with this United team, the same one that a few weeks ago looked unstoppable? Was it the Liverpool defeat that led to the current slump? Have United been guilty of trying to win too many competitions? Has player fatigue and injuries taken their toll?
My own view is that it's a combination of all of the above. The defence which had been hitherto rock solid, but has now conceded 10 goals in the last four games looks to be all but shot to pieces confidence wise - the same can be said of midfield.
In the absence of Rafael da Silva and Neville, Fergie has had to rely on John O'Shea who has been very iffy in many recent games. Against Porto, Patrice Evra was caught out of position on too many second-half occasions and looked jaded/knackered. Instead of being the cornerstone of the back four, Vidic, had a complete aberration against Liverpool and paid the price with a costly suspension and course Ferdinand is currently out injured.
IF United's defence had been at full strength and playing like it was a few weeks ago, then the outlook could still be rosy, but like the rest of the team as a unit it is not functioning well.
In midfield if you keep on giving the ball away, you end up chasing the game which is precisely what happened against Porto and if your players are already suffering due to tiredness, it will not be long before your energy reserves are running on empty which again is precisely what has been happening in too many recent games.
Injuries and tiredness are definitely conspiring against United at present, but given that Fergie recently suggested this is his strongest squad ever, then it's fair to question that assertion. I personally vehemently disagree with Fergie's views on that point.
Fergie is now facing something of a dilemma, does he pick his strongest team at the weekend for the trip to Sunderland, or does he pick a team in preparation for the must win Porto game? He will do his very best and that is all we the fans can hope for.
Once the dust has settled on the events of last night Fergie will hopefully realise that drawing wasn't such a bad result, because although United conceded two goals and it was one of the worst first-half performances in Europe at Old Trafford for a very long time, United now know that they have to go to Porto and win - we are up against it - on the face of it, the odds are stacked against it happening given no other English team has won away at Porto.
But to end this on something of a positive note, United are not the best at defending a slender lead; is it not better that we know we have to win rather than Fergie confuse his players with tactics which would unlikely work especially in the event of Porto scoring early, is it not better knowing that you simply have to score more goals than the opposition?
United can still turn this tie around, but the players are going to have to dig deep for it to happen and everyone is going to have to play their part.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
United have already paid back Jose Mourinho, Porto's former manager, when knocking out his current club Inter Milan in the Champions League round of 16; many a critic had predicted the Italian champions would be too good for their English counterparts but on this occasion Fergie had the last laugh.
Tonight United will try to make the return leg a formality by putting some daylight between themselves and the visitors. The team will be bolstered by the most welcome return of Vidic, Rooney and Scholes who have all been serving domestic suspensions. Rio Ferdinand is an injury doubt after aggravating a groin strain while on international duty.
Ahead of the game, Fergie went on record saying that United are wary of Porto because they will be full of confidence and they have strong attacking players, namely Hulk.
It is to be hoped that Fergie has forewarned the players about another character with comic book potential, no less than referee Konrad Plautz. Apparently this particular official is known to be a strict disciplinarian, what's more he has his own website... which concerns this particular red, it begs the question is this another limelight lover, and if so, does he wrongly believe that he is the star of the show? United fans will be hoping the man-in-the middle doesn't become Konrad the Unbearable...
On the subject of self-promoting referee's I had to laugh at Graham Poll, who writes a column in the tragic Daily Mail at the weekend; the former referee wrote that he "regretted" not doing more in a bid to control Wayne Rooney. Poll cites a couple examples when Rooney over-stepped the mark, in one game the then Everton star told him to f*ck-off 27 times. Many fans will concur that Poll probably deserved it for making so many mistakes. Is there anything worse in football than a retired self-styled caped custodian of the game like Graham Poll?
I digress; Rooney is one yellow card away from suspension, as is Porto's version of the Hulk along with team-mates Cristian Rodriguez and Ionut Sapunaru.
Let us hope we do not see a repeat of the diving / cheating histrionics from the Porto players as was the case back in 2004 - you never know our Austrian referee might even does us a favour on that score. Let us hope we aren't left relying on officials and good fortune, but do not bet against it...
Monday, April 06, 2009
In fairness, United have had their own share of late wins this season and in years gone by, but you have to go back to 1992 when Steve Bruce scored that late winner against Sheffield Wednesday which eventually helped Fergie secure his first league title to match the drama of what happened at Old Trafford on Sunday as the champions fought back from being 2-1 down to win 3-2.
Going into Sunday's clash injuries and suspensions meant that United were without Rooney, Scholes, Vidic, Ferdinand and Berbatov. For their part Villa needed to win after their mauling at Anfield last time out. United themselves were coming off the back of two damaging league defeats in a row and badly needed to get back to winning ways ahead of the midweek Champions League clash with Porto.
Given Fergie's selection options, many United fans will have been concerned about the team that faced Aston Villa and those fears were well founded as the visitors trumped Ronaldo's (14) early goal when scoring twice through Carew (30) and Agbonlahor (58) courtesy of two well taken headers.
It came as no surprise that Villa had taken the lead given the pattern of the game with United reverting to lumping the ball down the park in the manner of a poor third division team on too many occasions. However, just three minutes after going behind following Agbonlahor's second-half header events took a dramatic turn after Fergie sent on Fredrico Macheda when replacing the once again totally ineffective Nani.
The 17-year-old Italian striker quickly made his presence felt when going down inside the Villa penalty area after a challenge with scouse wannabe Gareth Barry. It is fair to say that the introduction of United's young Italian star completely changed the pattern of the game, because from looking clueless and lacking any bite up front United suddenly started to tick when going forward.
It is also fair to ask if Villa having gone ahead, decided to sit back in a bid to hold on to their lead, whatever the merits of the visitors tactical plan, United set about the task of getting themselves back into the game with a series of well worked attacking moves which hitherto had been sadly lacking until Macheda's entrance.
The combination of Giggs and Tevez up front simply did not work, and despite flying half-way round the world to face Villa after playing for his country, United's Argentine striker gave his all in the red cause - it isn't stretching the facts to say that he worked until he dropped through sheer exhaustion when falling over in pursuit of the ball on several occasions. Tevez was eventually substituted and once again he received a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd.
If United were going to score, it was likely that the responsibility would fall to the World Player of the Year again, but having scored once and then played a big part in Villa's second goal when giving possession away cheaply, it looked unlikely that Ronaldo would score again given that he was playing nowhere near his full capability. At that point in the game, it looked like Ronaldo would once again be cast as both hero and villain.
The seemingly ever growing army of United fans who believe that the club has no option but to get rid and sell Ronaldo to Real Madrid were given further evidence of his apparent lack of commitment to the club and his team-mates as the Portuguese star strolled through this game.
But then on 80 minutes, Ronaldo answered his critics, as only he can, when improbably scoring with a well taken effort that left Brad Friedel clutching at thin air as the ball whistled beyond his reach before nestling in the corner of the rigging. All of a sudden from looking likely to lose three Premier League games on the spin United scented blood and the goal scoring chances soon followed with Fletcher and substitute Wellbeck testing the Villa keeper.
If the match had finished up 2-2 few would have complained, but then Fredico Macheda scored arguably the best goal of the season so far. The goal was a sweet as any you will see and was worthy of winning any game, that it should come on Macheda's United first-team debut made it all the more special.
I cannot pay a higher compliment than to repeat what someone close to me said after the game "Macheda gave us what we have been lacking - what we expected of Berbatov when he arrived, he gave us presence, he held the ball up battled and looked quality", so true.
After the game a delighted Gary Neville thanked Macheda for his winning contribution, but then went on to suggest that despite his own mistakes which led to both goals, the team had kept on playing football, which clearly was not the case until Fergie made those crucial second-half substitutions.
Neville's revisionism will have certainly baffled many fans because for the majority of this game United were simply awful. Fergie further muddied the waters when offering his reasoning for playing Neville against big John Carew. The United manager then dug an even bigger hole for himself when stating that the team which faced Villa had more experience than the 1992 side that famously came back from the dead to win against Sheffield Wednesday.
Still, it was a case of who cares, United fought back to win when for all the world it looked like our title challenge was collapsing before our very eyes. However, following a moment of sheer inspiration and no small measure of skill Macheda fired United back to the summit of the Premier League table, in so doing leaving the many on-looking Liverpool fans cursing.
Apparently the Liverpool fans were singing "we are going to win the league" for twenty minutes after the final whistle at Craven Cottage. You do wonder if they started celebrating a little too soon....
Fergie says that whoever goes on to win the Liverpool vs Chelsea Champions League quarter final will push United the hardest in the title race. I do not agree. I say whoever comes off better against Arsenal will likely win the title.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Against centrally strong midfields, like Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle, Tottenham and even City, we have a need to subdue and overpower opponents without playing a designated defensive midfielder behind two others, which would nullify our most potent weapons of width and speed. In the fast paced environment of the English Premier League, the ability to transisition between defence and attack and vice-versa is critical. This is where Fletcher stands head and shoulders above the rest of United's other central midfielders. While some are great visionaries, and can find gaps where there semmingly are none, and while othersare great with or without the ball at the feet, none of them combine these traits to the extent of Fletcher. True his range of passing may not yet equal Carrick or Anderson, and may not be able to weave past a handful of defenders like Giggs, or pick out a striker behind a wall of defenders like Scholes, he can do all of the above to a more than adequate level, making him very useful in games when all methods of attack and defence are needed to win games, and players need to be able to multitask without becoming a liability.
His ability to play a variety of roles, and do as the situation demands sets him apart from other midfield players in the Premier League. Its not often you see a midfielder play well as a right back and in the same game, go forward and get a goal, supporting the forwards. His ability to do suppress the "flair players" of opponents sets him apart from his club peers, and his ability to keep possession under pressure, and inturn apply pressure is crucial to the United style of attack. In short, he makes United tick, and our most balanced starting lineup should include him alongside Carrick in central midfield. At the age of 25, many United supporters think he's not good enough to keep a place in the 1st team, and that he'd be better off playing every week at a 'smaller' club. This season he has shown in matches, the improvement made in the off season, and the fact that he has added muscle mass to his frame makes him more competitive against the leagues' stronger players.
His finishing, defending and confidence "on the ball" have all improved this season, and United's title successes, in my opinion, relies more heavily on the performance of Fletcher and the other central midfielders, than it does on Ronaldo's wizardry.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Everyone is wondering if United will bounce back and get back to winning ways against Aston Villa after two humbling league defeats in a row. During the mini hiatus, I have personally been taking soundings from several respected time-served Reds and their prognosis for the remainder of the current season is awful, but I'm not going to put a downer on our chances of coming good again - so for now at least, I am going to put my faith the wizard's ability to invoke the expected response from United - I refer to Fergie.
After the Liverpool defeat Fergie said that United would bounce back - because we always do - well now is the time for the players to stand up and be counted. Ronaldo needs to be told that the team cannot carry passengers, which is what the World Player of the Year has been in the last two games; Fergie has to tell Ronaldo to start working or else bench him.
Meanwhile, any United fans looking for a cheap flight to Porto for the Champions League quarter final might be interested to learn that BMI have announced they have places for 148 fans, the flight leaves Manchester on the day of the game (14.04.09) at 08.30 and returns at 0115 the following morning. Prices start at just £146.99 including all taxes - book your cheap BMI flight early to avoid disappointment
Also of interest to anyone who fancies a new United shirt is the Republik of Mancunia shirt competition , get on it quickly while you still can.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
There will be some who will argue that the result will not affect anything, strictly speaking where points are concerned this is true, but having lost badly to Liverpool and then Fulham there must be a serious danger that player morale and confidence could start to ebb away if United collect less than three points from what will undoubtedly be a tough game. In-form Liverpool demolished Aston Villa and so they will be fired-up to prove a point to their manager and supporters alike.
I cannot overstate the importance of this fixture for United, because I predict that if the Reds do not win this weekend they will finish the season in Devon Loch style, that is they will go on throw the title away when it was ours for the winning, as did the Queen mother's horse in the 1956 Grand National when leading with just 45 metres from the winning post Devon Loch collapsed.
Manchester United need to win this weekend, it doesn't matter how we win, but win we must.