Wednesday, December 28, 2011

United keep pressure on City ahead of busy month of action ...

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In this festive update, we look forward to the New Year and assess the champions recent improvement on the pitch as well as United's prospects of retaining the title.

United have been in fine festive form scoring 10 goals without reply. Fulham were the first to be dispatched at Craven Cottage, where the champions ran out comfortable five-nil winners. Ferguson will have been very pleased to see the names of five different goal scorers. The contest was effectively over at half-time when the score was 3-0. Rooney and Berbatov chipped in with late goals to add to those scored in a scintillating first-half by Welbeck, Nani and Giggs.

Despite a catalogue of injury problems facing the manager, United put on the style for the fans' with a repeat performance on Boxing Day at Old Trafford where Wigan were the visitors. Dimitar Berbatov - United's very own Panto villain, was the hat-trick goal scoring star of the show. The Bulgarian striker was the club's top goalscorer last season, but he has fallen down the pecking-order behind Hernandez and Welbeck.

Not surprisingly, there has been much talk of a possible move to another club for last season's top goal-scorer - but for now at least - he is still a United player - one who is blessed with a silky touch and an eye for goal. One thing is for certain, Berbatov's goals will help United when it comes to negotiations in relation to any transfer fee...

Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia were also on target against Wigan. United's South Korean star opened the scoring following a superb driving run into the Wigan penalty area by Patrice Evra.

Evra has in the eyes of many observers, fallen well short of expectations over recent weeks, amidst talk that the Frenchman is 'lazy' - ironically, we never heard those claims when he was playing consistently well for the club. No matter, Evra will hopefully continue where he left off against Wigan.

While Berbatov and Evra have rightly been praised for their efforts, we shouldn't forget Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick - both were asked to play out of position due to Ferguson's injury problems. Against Wigan, United were without Ferdinand, Smalling, Vidic and Jones at the back.

Despite the fact that Rafael was on the bench, Ferguson opted to start with Valencia at rightback - where he was superb, while Carrick played alongside Evans.

Carrick, has of late, been receiving glowing reviews from his manager - but it hasn't always been like this, far from it. Carrick has at times been out of favour with Ferguson, but due to what could potentially be a long-term illness to Darren Fletcher, the former West Ham and Spurs midfield man has become more important. But against Wigan, Carrick demonstrated his versatility  and with some aplomb.

United's injury problems have been a tale of woe this season - those problems were made all the greater when Jonny Evans sustained a calf-injury mid-way through the game on Boxing Day, which led to another re-shuffle and an unlikely central defensive partnership of Evra and Carrick.

With so many injuries, Ferguson will no doubt have been thankful that the opposition wasn't as tough as it could have been. For the record, United have met Wigan 14 times and the champions have ran out winners on each occasion.

Hopefully, both Jones and Smalling will return in time for United's home game with Blackburn on New Year's Eve.

As a result of Man City dropping two points at West Brom, United pulled level at the top of the table. Not surprisingly, December's improvement on the pitch has led to revived talk of United finishing the season on top, but until the win over QPR earlier in the month, the champions have been blowing hot and cold and all too often, when doing 'just enough' to win games.

It is turning into a season of highs and lows. It doesn't get any lower than losing 6-1 at home in the derby and then of course United suffered the embarrassment of not reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League - in what was by common consensus an easy group from which to qualify.

The fact that United have been knocked out of Europe's elite club competition, appears if anything, to have spurred on the players' and the manager too - let us hope December's improvement continues well into the New Year...

Despite currently sharing top spot with City as we head towards the turn of the year, we know the big prizes are not decided until May - ergo, being top counts for very little at that this very early stage...

Looking ahead to January's fixtures, many pundits will surely concur that this could potentially be a defining month for the Champions. United have difficult looking games at Newcastle, Man City (away in the FA Cup), another derby at Old Trafford (of sorts) with Bolton, plus a tough looking assignment in North London with Arsenal. In the first two weeks of February, United take on Chelsea (away) and then Liverpool (home). United will then face Ajax in the much derided Europa League before the difficult looking trip to Carrow Road at the end of February.

The beginning of March sees United travelling to White Hart Lane where they will face red-hot, Spurs.

In marked contrast to United, with the exception of Arsenal, City have played the big guns away from home. City's remaining fixtures include away games at Norwich, Arsenal and Newcastle.

At Eastlands City have league games with Liverpool, Chelsea and United, but Roberto Mancini's record at home is the best in the division and given their fixture list, Man City are likely to remain the bookies favourites to win the Premier League.

Some City fans are concerned about the absence of Yaya Toure, who will miss the home game with Spurs and the away trip to Everton, plus the second semi-final leg of the Carling Cup with Liverpool due to the African Cup of Nations. But City's squad is without doubt the strongest in the division, surely they will cope without Yaya Toure?

No matter how well City perform, if United are still in contention following that Spurs game at the beginning of March at White Hart Lane then that will be the time to talk about the possibility of retaining the title.

Without any shadow of doubt, United have a much more difficult looking fixture list when compared to City and course they haven't suffered with injuries.

Coming up soon. We will be looking at Ferguson's future in relation Jose Mourinho's very interesting Boxing Day comments about coming back to manage in England and what that might mean for United. We will also be blogging about United's widely acknowledged midfield problems; recent talk of another contract extension for veteran Ryan Giggs has served, in part, to highlight those issues. It is widely accepted that Ferguson needs to add at least one world-class central midfield player to his squad, but when will this happen?...that's all coming up in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reds back on track, as transfer talk erupts.....

United played more like the United we know and love at Loftus Road on Sunday, the champions ran out 2-0 winners and deservedly so. Wayne Rooney opened the scoring with an early headed goal from an Atonio Valencia cross from the right. Michael Carrick sealed the victory with an all too rare solo goal in the second-half following a 50 yard run at the Rangers defence.

It was Carrick's first goal for the club in 70 games - a stat that will have concerned both manager and player, but against Rangers, Carrick, showed signs that he's forging a useful  relationship with midfield star in the making, Phil Jones.

Carrick, Jones and Rooney linked up well throughout Sunday's fixture. Jones should have added to his tally for the season - on another day, he could easily have scored a brace. The former Blackburn defender shaved the post with his best effort and his driving runs from deep are invoking memories of Bryan Robson.

While Jones and Carrick controlled the game from the middle of the park, it was Wayne Rooney who was the real star of the show. Rooney hasn't enjoyed the last few weeks, following a run of indifferent performances - it was starting look as though the England striker might need  a rest - but with so many injuries that would have been difficult for Ferguson.

Thankfully, on Sunday, Rooney played like he did at the beginning of the season. The flicks and deft touches were there in abundance.  When Rooney plays as he did against Rangers he looks like a world beater. Danny Welbeck started alongside Rooney, despite playing for England and showing signs of promise, the young striker is not the finished article and he was eventually replaced by Javier Hernandez who made a welcome return to action and very nearly scored with his first touch.

Ashley Young appears to have fallen out of favour with the manager following a good run of games at the start of the season. On Sunday, Young replaced Nani with just 12 minutes remaining, but he didn't really have time to impress.

There was better news to report where the back four is concerned. Jonny Evans had another solid game; Ferguson appears to have faith in the Northern Ireland international - certainly more so than many fans.

In the absence of Vidic, Rio Ferdinand was defending on the front foot; on more than one occasion he charged out of the back four when making timely interceptions in midfield and then played a good ball to feet - let us hope the former England captain can maintain the form he showed at Loftus Road on Sunday, because he too was superb.

Chris Smalling was once again steady at rightback, but on the opposite flank Patrice Evra continues to be a source of concern.

Evra appears to have lost a yard of pace amidst suggestions that the Frenchman is lazy - an accusation that has only recently surfaced from the lips of fans and pundits alike. We never heard talk of laziness a couple of season ago...

So United appear to be back on track following the huge disappointment of Champions League elimination, with the loss of face and not forgetting the lost TV millions.

As we head towards 2012, predictably, with the transfer window set to open, United are being linked to just about anyone and everyone again. It was ever thus.  If we are to believe the latest tittle-tattle, United are set to agree a deal worth up to 40 million Euro's for Benfica's Argentine midfielder Nicolas Gaitan. According to reports the deal will go through in the summer.

Next up: United face Fulham in West London. United must take all three points if they are to keep the pressure on leaders City.

Coming up later this week, we will be reviewing Roy Keane's latest spat with Ferguson and what that all means. And we will we be giving our views on the Patrice Evra Luis Suarez row over those racism claims. The Liverpool striker has been banned for 8 games and given a £40,000 fine by the FA.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

United to step-up search for Ferguson's replacement?....We give our verdict on the names in the frame...

At the time of posting, Manchester United are currently five points behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League. The gap between first and second placed club isn't unbridgeable, but City have the added advantage of a huge goal difference and truth be told, even at this relatively early stage of the season, they have the look of champions about them.

Not entirely unexpectedly, United and City were knocked out of the Champions League in mid-week and so both clubs will take their places at the paupers' table that is the Europa League.

As the dust settled following United's embarrassing Champions League exit, Ferguson derided the Europa League when describing United's participation in the competition as a "UEFA punishment". Predictably, much back-tracking has followed in the wake of the manager's unwise choice of words, but we know what Ferguson meant all right.

As if being knocked out of the Champions League by Basel wasn't bad enough, United are coming to terms with the news that Vidic has been ruled out for the rest of the season with knee ligament damage. According to the likes of Gary Pallister and Rio Ferdinand (among others) United will bounce back and Vidic will not be missed *that much*. As ever, many supporters will no doubt take a more realistic view, because given the problems faced by the manager and his depleted squad, United will do well to finish in the top four.

United have been really struggling since the Manchester derby, in which the champions were totally outclassed and humiliated. Ferguson appears to have lost confidence in 4-4-2 - his previously favoured formation - that and his players ability to win by playing 'the United way'. As a result, much of United's play since the derby has been boring and to a degree predictable too.

Set against what is a gloomy looking backdrop, not surprisingly, sections of the media have once again started talking about the thorny issue that is Ferguson's future.

Ferguson will be 70 years of age at the turn of the year - quite obviously, he cannot carry on for much longer, so now seems like a good time to review the leading candidates.

The men who could replace Ferguson...

Guus Hiddink (born 8 November 1946) The much travelled Dutchman has recently parted company with the Turkish national team after failing to qualify for Euro 2012. The fact that Hiddink - with all his experience - is available is never a good thing for manager's who spend time looking over their shoulder. Chelsea's current manager André Villas-Boas has been under the spotlight following some indifferent performances this season, but having qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League the pressure is off, for now. Nonetheless, Hiddink's availability will only add to recent speculation should the situation take a turn for the worse.

As far as the Manchester United job is concerned, at this moment in time, the vacancy hasn't been posted. But, if Ferguson and Gill have had dialogue about the manager's future, now seems like a perfect time to open preliminary talks with Hiddink, about the possibility of becoming the new manager, possibly as soon as next season. Hiddink is one of a very small number of managers who ticks all the boxes. The former Chelsea caretaker manager knows the game inside out. He speaks English. Hiddink has won trophies at club level and he has a wealth of knowledge about the game. For all of those attributes, it appears as though Hiddink prefers the comparatively cushy number that is international football management.

Surprisingly, Hiddink is only five years younger than Ferguson, but that too could be a slight sticking point for both the Dutchman and United's decision-makers. But if Hiddink fancied one last big club challenge - potential age issues aside - then he would appear to be perfect for the United job.

Our Hiddink Verdict:
Suitability 4/5
Probability 2/5

Jose Mourinho (born 26 January 1963). By common consensus, Jose Mourinho is one of the finest manager's in the world right now, certainly at club level at least anyway. Mourinho is a born winner. Wherever he's been the current Real Madrid manager has won trophies and has been hugely popular with supporters. Mourinho has the charisma, charm, knowledge and of course he speaks excellent English.

Assuming David Gill was able to convince Mourinho that he would be able to sign whoever he wanted in the transfer market, then Jose could just be the man to turn to. Manchester City are currently playing a brand of football that isn't that far removed from the Mourinho coaching manual, though it's true to state that City are currently playing with more flair than we often saw from Chelsea under Mourinho. Despite the club's success, United have undoubtedly suffered from being tactically naive under Ferguson at times, especially in Europe - Mourinho is an expert in-game tactician and this could be a massive boon for the current champions. In bringing Mourinho to Old Trafford, United would definitely have the right man to take on City at their own game when it comes to not conceding and hitting teams on the break.

The drawbacks? There are a few. Mourinho likes to get his own way, much the same as Ferguson - and that could potentially be a sticking point for David Gill and the club's owners. When Fergie eventually retires, the club's decision-makers may opt for a less autocratic manager. Like Ferguson, Mourinho is something of a control freak, but unlike Ferguson, he isn't renowned for developing youngsters and turning them into superstars.

Despite his glowing CV, MourinhoMourinho's needs when it comes to his demands in the transfer market - given the size of the City challenge, the price will be sky high.

Finally, Mourinho's ego and his propensity to up sticks and move on every two to three years. For all of those undoubted question marks, if we are to believe some expert pundits, it isn't a question of if, but more like when he will become the next United manager. For the time being and for who knows how long, Mourinho is the current manager of Real Madrid who could be about to knock Barcelona off their lofty perch.

Our Mourinho Verdict:
Suitability 4/5
Probability 4/5

Mark Hughes (born 1 November 1963) Without a shadow of doubt, Hughes is WILL be among the bookies favourites to succeed Ferguson. Hughes is easily the most suitable of the British candidates and former United players who've turned their hand to management.

Hughes has done reasonably well wherever he's managed, his CV includes, Wales, Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham. The Welshman was unlucky to lose his post at Manchester City where he was doing a good job. After being sacked by City, Hughes took over at Fulham, but only lasted 11 months - he quit and later questioned the West London club's ambitions.

Hughes is of course a former United player, he is also available at this moment in time and he knows all about Manchester United. In terms of his personality and his style, Hughes has always been known as a quiet man - which somewhat contradicted his style as a player. Hughes was a formidable target man; opposing defenders always knew they were in for a battle with the Welshman.

Nothing fazed Hughes as a player and he has remained cool under pressure as a manager. Unlike, Mourinho, United could bank on Hughes to see the job through for the long term, nor would he go bleating to the press about any perceived wrong-doings inside or outside the club. Hughes also has age on his side. The downside is that Hughes hasn't won any silverware, but given his experience and taking an overall view, we firmly believe he could well turn out to be the next Manchester United manager.

Our Hughes Verdict:
Suitability 3/5
Probability 5/5

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Abject United lurching towards crisis: No defence for De Gea, Rooney and Ferguson as sorry Reds crash out of Champions League...

Not for the first time this season, Manchester United pressed the self-destruct button in Europe when losing 2-1 against Basel in Switzerland last night, a result which sees the champions dropping into the Europa League. It is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Ferguson, his players and the club. On a purely commercial level, United will be left to count the cost of lost TV revenues; on a playing level, the ramifications and fall-out could be much worse.

A hugely disappointing result and performance ended with an unedifying pitch-side spat between Ferguson and his former captain Roy Keane, in which the United legend pulled no punches when blaming the young players and the manager. Ferguson's withering response, did not reflect well on the United manager. The Scot labelled his former captain as a "TV critic" and went on to pour scorn on Keane's managerial credentials when saying "I don't know why you are bringing this up from a television critic," he said. "Roy had an opportunity to prove himself as a manager and it's a hard job". Perhaps Ferguson will live to regret his comments which some will view as personal and totally out of order.

When Keane spoke out, he was only saying what millions of onlooking United fans already knew, he was speaking like a fan and on behalf of the fans: Ferguson has failed to adequately strengthen his midfield. Oh, how United could have done with Keane on the pitch last night. Keane was the ultimate warrior - a man who could be relied upon in the heat of the battle. How could Ferguson label his former captain as a mere "TV critic"? Ferguson's comments on Keane were nothing short of a disgrace. Shame on you Ferguson.

In mitigation, there will, as ever, be those who will defend Ferguson and his team, but football is a results business and United have been abject in the Champions League this season. Too many performances have been littered with mistakes which have led directly to goals.

Against Basel, it was David de Gea who cost United dearly on nine minutes. United had started very brightly - albeit without ever seriously threatening to score - but the Swiss champions scored with their first serious attack following a collision between Smalling and Vidic, one that left the England defender prostrate on the pitch. The referee should have perhaps stopped the game for what looked like a head injury, but that did not happen and de Gea went on to make what could only be described as a schoolboy error when failing to deal with a low cross into the United penalty area. The Spanish stopper inexplicably tried to boot the ball to safety, but he failed to do so which led to Streller scoring.

While there is no escaping the fact that de Gea was badly at fault, he was not on his own; Evra and Rio Ferdinand were guilty of ball-watching - they should have reacted and closed down the space between ball and man - but both were rooted to the spot.

No matter what the fans and media say about de Gea from here on in, it will be his own performances that dictate his future. While there's no disputing de Gea is capable for brilliance, he also suffers when making the occasional technically poor error. In the early stages of last night's clash, the Spaniard came off his line and flapped badly at a cross, he failed to clear his lines and that led to United coming under pressure. It remains to be seen if de Gea will go on to have a long-term future at United; his performances will dictate whether or not he will be viewed as a legend or else a costly gamble that went badly wrong. De Gea cannot afford many more high-profile errors, we can be 100% certain of that.

Basel extended their lead as the game headed to its sorry conclusion with a goal from Frei and here again, it was in part down to another mistake when Smalling failed to deal with a cross into the box. Jones scored a late consolation goal following a melee in the Basel penalty area - but the game was up and it too little too late. United were simply not good enough to beat an average Swiss team - which in itself speaks volumes about the champions.

After the final whistle and set against the noisy backdrop of the visiting fans chanting his name, Keane criticised United's young players and he was right to do so. Ashley Young started his United career well, but since the derby, like too many others, he hasn't really been doing the business.

Keane singled out Ryan Giggs for a degree of praise, when saying it was ridiculous that United were relying on a veteran who is pushing 40. Here again, Keane was bang on the money and on this note it is Ferguson who must ultimately carry the can. Ferguson has failed to strengthen United's engine room and there is no excuse for that, not when Man City have signed David Silva who was available - if only the manager and his scouts had the gumption to spot him. As far as we know, United never even tried to sign Silva...and that is damning.

For his part, Wayne Rooney is not beyond criticism; the United striker was in red-hot form earlier in the season, but since the derby, the England striker has been poor. Rooney had a stinker against Basel last night - not only did he miss an open goal, but he barely hit the target with any of his efforts on goal. As ridiculous as this may sound, at times, it was almost as if he was trying NOT to score...

So what does the future hold for United and Ferguson? For starters, with games being played on Thursday, the Europa League will cause havoc for Ferguson and his injury ravaged squad. Vidic became latest injury victim when he went off with suspected knee ligament damage. Ferguson is in trouble, of that there is no doubt. In the wake of the derby, there is a theory shared by some pundits and fans that the United manager may well have under-mined his players confidence with his changes in formation and his chopping and changing. Whether or not that is a factor is open to debate and only the players themselves can answer that question.

What is beyond doubt is the fact that United are struggling and come the end of the season, we might well be grateful if the team goes on to secure a Champions League spot for next season - that we confidently predict, will turn out to be main goal in what is fast becoming a season to forget. Finally, do not be surprised if last night's Champions League tie was Ferguson's last in the competition...he cannot continue forever.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

City v United in the FA Cup: It's the worst draw possible for Ferguson...

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Manchester United haven't been the same team since the derby. The early season swagger, attacking play and flair that saw the champions serge to the summit of the Premier League seems like a distant memory. City currently lead United by five points, that and a massive goal difference. In terms of style and approach, City are playing a calculated brand of football, one that is based on not conceding and punishing any mistakes made by their opponents. Arsene Wenger recently hinted that City could have the League title wrapped up by Christmas - while that is highly unlikely, we know what the Arsenal manager meant.

In short, and while it is hard to acknowledge this, Mancini is doing a stunning job for his club, so much so that the Italian is making it all look a bit too easy. City are on target to smash the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season. Chelsea are the current holders of that record with 103 goals in 2009-2010. Ironically, City currently hold the record for the lowest number of home goals in 2006-2007, but, oh, how times have changed. At the current rate, City will score over 130 goals - if that happens they won't broken the record, they will have blown it to smithereens.

Mancini weighed up the Premier League for a couple of seasons and after initially being criticised for being too defensive, he now looks to have found the perfect system; one look at the goals for column backs up that theory. City are very difficult to score against and they are ruthlessly efficient at the other end - it is proving to be a lethal combination, one that is not without style, with David Silva pulling the strings.

United fans cannot complain too much, given the club's success under Ferguson, but as we head towards the turn of the year, and with another derby on the horizon in the 3rd round of FA Cup, we are heading into the unknown. Anything could happen. City could well go on to dominate English football for the next decade - in the same way that United have dominated on the domestic front. With the backing of an oil-rich nation, City can continue to buy who they choose. It is nothing short of a near miracle turnaround for a club that not so long ago was regarded as a yo-yo-club.

With Ferguson pushing 70, he will not be around to stop City for much longer.
The United manager suffered the most embarrassing defeat of his career when the two teams last met in October and the worry is, City are playing so well, we cannot rule out a similar scoreline in January.

United are not playing well - everyone knows it - and Ferguson's job is being made more difficult with a succession of injuries to key players. Javier Hernandez became the latest injury victim at Villa Park on Saturday when he inexplicably fell over for no apparent reason and damaged ankle ligaments. It was a bizarre injury, one that will have left Ferguson cursing his luck. United won at Villa Park and Phil Jones was the goal hero. The overall performance was marginally better than we've seen of late, but United are still not quite collectively at it and you worry about the battles ahead.

United travel to Basel on Wednesday night needing just a draw to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League. For their part, Basel need to win to avoid being relegated to the Europa League. If United lose, they will end up in the Europa League and that in itself will without any shadow of doubt have implications for the champions. Europa League games are played on Thursdays and that means you lose a day's rest ahead of domestic games and it's one reason why Premier League club's have struggled in this competition. City could also easily end up in the Europa League, if Napoli win away at Villarreal.

It's going to be an emotional roller-coaster...

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Another "wake-up call" for Fergie, as Palace dump sorry Reds out of Carling Cup...

Crystal Palace deservedly dumped Manchester United out of the Carling Cup at Old Trafford last night. The performance and the result was hugely disappointing from a Red perspective and for the second time in recent weeks Ferguson was left apologising to the fans.

The United manager described last month's 6-1 derby thrashing as a "wake-up call". Following the Palace defeat last night, Ferguson didn't mince his words, he simply apologised to the fans when saying "that wasn't a Manchester United performance". There was a hint of "...this is the first time this happened this season" in the manager's tone. We know what the manager meant alright, but sadly, many will beg to differ, because frankly, United have been awful since the derby.

On an individual and collective level, last night's performance was so poor - it barely merits space on this page. But all credit to Crystal Palace who were the better team. United can complain about the manner of the winning goal, but the mid-table Championship club were good value for the victory.

The truth is, there has been too many performances that have fallen way below the expectations of the fans this season; but by and large United have been getting away with it because the team has been winning. Nonetheless, it doesn't alter the fact that the punters are less than happy with much of the fare being served up by the manager and his players.

There's nothing particularly new about domestic cup home defeats; York City won 3-0 at Old Trafford in '95-'96 and of course Leeds embarrassed the champions in the FA Cup two years ago. Such defeats are never forgotten, but they are seen for what they usually are - nothing more than a blip in the big scheme of things.

Worryingly, this loss of form and attacking confidence appears to be much more than a blip, because United have started to struggle at home at Old Trafford and that is a danger sign for any team with serious trophy winning aspirations.

It was only a week ago that Ferguson attempted to brazenly laugh off suggestions from the media that United are struggling in Europe. The fact is, Fergie can laugh as much as he likes, but Basel could quite easily wipe that smile off his face when the two sides meet in the final Group C game which could see United being eliminated from the Champions League.

United are struggling, everyone, and most of all Ferguson knows it. The big question is, what if anything in the short-term can be done to address the problems?

Those hoping that Ferguson will address his central midfield problems in January, are likely to be disappointed, because according to Ferguson, no one of the desired quality is available.

The first part of that problem is identifying your targets; is it fair to ask if David Silva was ever on Fergie's radar? United have been too busy chasing the likes of Sneijder, when we know, at least one potential target most definitely was available, but the manager stands charged of not even trying to sign a player who has lit up the Premier League this season.

The serious issues in central midfield were first exposed by Barcelona in Rome two years ago in that one-sided Champions League final. We saw a repeat of that dispiriting performance by United in last year's final when Barcelona easily cantered to victory. Since then Ferguson has done precious little to address the midfield problems, apart from complain about the "lack of value in the market".

It's one thing losing to the best team on the planet, quite another seeing United humiliated at home by the likes of City and then losing to lower division clubs. United are not playing well in the bread and butter games - and that should be a big concern for everyone connected with the club.

United have stagnated and the manager's buying has been mixed. There has been some unqualified success stories, like Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but there has been other less successful deals.

Perhaps Ferguson needs more help from his assistants when it comes to buying, scouting and tactics, and on this note, some fans are asking if the manager has surrounded himself with too many 'yes men'. Only time will tell what the future holds. But for now, United look beatable at Old Trafford and the word has gone out. The way the team is playing, Palace won't be the last opposing team to win on the champions turf.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fergie to give Morrison and Pogba their chances knowing he risks losing both this summer?

Manchester United are in action on Wednesday night at Old Trafford in the quarter finals of the Carling Cup, where they will face Crystal Palace.

It's always quite difficult to gauge how seriously Ferguson takes the once maligned Carling Cup - a competition that has risen slightly above the level of joke status in recent seasons. In the last round, United travelled to Aldershot - it was the first game after the mother-of-all hidings by Man City. There was no way Fergie was going to allow his team to be humiliated twice in a week and certainly not by a third division outfit and United went on to win 3-0.

While the champions haven't lost since the derby, United's football of late hasn't been what we the fans have come to expect, but then we have been spoilt down the years by Ferguson and his players. But the fact is, since the demolition derby, United have been very underwhelming. The team has shown all too brief glimpses of their old swash-buckling attacking play, but United have drawn the last two home games. It finished 2-2 apiece with Benfica in the Champions League last week and then on Saturday, it was 1-1 with Newcastle. Both performances left a lot to be desired.

True enough, Newcastle were gifted a point by the linesman who wrongly awarded the Geordies a very dodgy penalty. There was nothing wrong with Rio Ferdinand's tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa - in point of fact it was a great tackle. Fergie was right to describe the assistant referee's decision as a "travesty"; there's no disputing how bad that decision was and only time will tell how costly that howler of a mistake will turn out to be. While wen can, with some justification, carp on about poor decision making, there's no escaping the fact that United simply weren't good enough around the Newcastle box on Saturday. The final ball into the visitors' penalty area was all too often poor. For once, Javier Hernandez wasn't on song, as someone put it "is Chicharito wearing Berbatov's boots"?

United aren't playing well  in the wake of the derby - we are still playing like trauma victims. And so what can Fergie do about this? With the transfer window set to open in January, the fans are hoping the manager will do what he should have done following the first embarrassing defeat against Barcelona in that Champions League final - that is he should have signed at least one world-class midfield player.

Sadly, Fergie hasn't done much to address the glaring issues in United's engine room. If anything, United have gone backwards this season where midfield is concerned. Giggs is a year older. Scholes has retired. Cleverley's stop-start season has had an impact on the manager's planning, but United should not be relying on one so young.

Some fans are saying NOW is the time to give Pogba and Morrison their chances. Some are saying, if it doesn't happen now given how poor our midfield is, then just maybe it will NEVER happen as far as these two young stars in the making are concerned. While some pundits and fans might well nod in agreement with that last statement, we have to take a broader view of the overall picture. We have to try to think like the Lord himself.... Fergie is a very fair manager, of that there is no doubt. If he picks Pogba at the expense of say Fletcher and or Carrick, quite how will that affect these senior players? As far as Morrison is concerned, like Pogba, it is feared he could be tempted away from Old Trafford, speculation suggestions that could happen as early as this summer....Perhaps Morrison believes he is better than he actually is? That scenario could also be playing a part in Fergie's mind. Morrison recently tweeted that he couldn't wait for the summer to arrive..some people interpreted this as a warning that the player was planning to turn his back on the champions.

Whatever happens there's no way Ferguson will put up with any antics from players like Morrison who has so far only made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fergie has a great record when it comes to managing young players. Morrison and Pogba will have to bide their time, like every other United player.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another win, another totally uninspiring United performance...

Manchester United were in action at the Liberty Stadium yesterday and for the third league game on the spin it finished up one-nil to the champions. Javier Hernandez grabbed another poachers goal just ten minutes into the game with help from Ryan Giggs and a howler of a mistake by Angel Rangel, who gifted United's midfield veteran possession on the edge of the Swansea penalty area. Giggs intercepted Angel's attempted pass and threaded the ball to Hernandez and the Mexican's finish did not disappoint the travelling Red Army. Sadly for the visiting fans and the millions watching the game live on TV, that was one of the few highlights from a United perspective. Phil Jones was very unlucky not to score late on but his low driven shot rebounded off the post. Nani should have scored as United applied pressure with the game heading to its conclusion, but apart from those opportunities, it was another performance which had all too few moments to remember.

In his post-match interview, Ferguson praised the manner of his players concentration in relation to defending and he was right about that, but Swansea could quite easily have taken a point from this game. Scot Sinclair was guilty of missing what some are describing as the "miss of the season" on twenty minutes. Quite how Sinclair did not score from close range beggared belief. But the Swansea winger did miss and the rest is history.

While there are undoubtedly some positives in relation to United's recent improvement where the issue of defending is concerned, the same cannot be said about the team's attacking play in the final third.

United really struggled to open up Everton, Sunderland and it wasn't much better at Swansea. At least Ferguson started with Rooney up front against Swansea, which didn't happen in the previous two league games. Playing Rooney in midfield, amounts to an admission of failure on the part of the manager - you don't play your best player out of position unless you really have to. Clearly, the derby thrashing by City has impacted on Ferguson's thinking about tactics, the players at his disposal and the formation. As a result, the manager's thinking has become muddled since the derby defeat - at least that is how many fans see it.

The fact is there's very little Ferguson can do about Manchester City, but one gets the feeling that perhaps the United manager is considering reverting to a more defensive formation, one that would mean dispensing with at least one winger. Evidence of that theory has been all too obvious since the derby defeat; United haven't started a league game with two wingers - factor-in Rooney playing in central midfield in two of those games adds further weight to the theory that the manager has without any doubt been adopting a more cautious approach.

If Fergie really wanted to copy City's tactics as well as their formation he would have to sign at least one specialist defensive midfield player - because right now, he doesn't have one. Nor, does Ferguson have a player like David Silva, or come to that an Aguero or a Tevez.

While it is true that United have been far too open at the back this season - until the derby - front an attacking perspective, the team was by and large playing reasonably well and scoring goals. In the wake of the derby hammering, United have been playing like trauma victims. The manager needs to set his team up to attack teams again - in short we need to see United playing 'the United way'. Fergie cannot do much about City and so he must concentrate on Manchester United.

As for the battles that lie ahead, we can only hope that the league leaders slip up soon in what looks like a difficult run of games. However, even at this very early stage of the season, Manchester City look like racing certainties to secure the league title. The thought of City winning the title is something of a doomsday scenario, but even among time-served United fans the debate has started to move on from "..will they win it?" to "...it is now a question of by how many points..".

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Message to Fergie: Forget about City and concentrate on Manchester United...

Manchester United may well have won every game since that embarrassing 6-1 derby thrashing - but the quality of the football has been very poor by the champions standards. One cannot help but feel that Ferguson is reassessing United's tactics and formation in the wake of that comprehensive defeat. United have played two league games since the derby, there was no wingers in the team that started against Everton at Goodison Park, Nani and Valencia were left on the bench. Nani started against Sunderland, but the overall performance in both games was poor. Perhaps the biggest single change since the derby has been Rooney dropping back into midfield.

A lot of observers believe that Rooney's future could well be in midfield, that theory has been the subject of debate for a while, but the fact that Ferguson has asked Rooney to play in midfield on three occasions since the derby suggests the manager is not happy. According to Fergie, the reason Rooney has been deployed in midfield is down to injuries. Not So. At Everton, United had Nani, and Valencia on the bench. Rooney and Cleverley started in midfield at Goodison Park, but sadly that partnership had to be broken up after just 17 minutes thanks to yet another injury to Cleverley, who we are told will be out until Christmas - a blow of such significance that it could potentially effectively hand the Premier League title to Manchester City.

Against Sunderland, Rooney was once again deployed in midfield when Carrick and Fabio were both on the bench. Make no mistake, Fergie most definitely IS going through a very dark period, we firmly believe the United manager is reevaluating everything about his team, the players at his disposal and his formation.

While many fans will see the potential virtues of harnessing Rooney and Cleverley together in central midfield, one has to ask if Fergie's thinking has become clouded. We have to keep recent events in perspective. Yes, United were given the mother of all thrashings by City, but the champions are more than capable of beating the rest of the league and come to that most of Europe's leading clubs if they stick to what United have done down the years and that is to attack teams using the full width of the pitch with wingers.

Fergie has to stop worrying about City and the manner of that defeat and get back to what United do best and that is to attack. There is nothing the manager can do in the short term about City - the time to add quality to midfield has been and gone. Nonetheless, it is worth asking why didn't United spot the potential of David Silva - perhaps Fergie was too wrapped up in chasing Wesley Sneijder? What now looks to be beyond question is the fact that the manager failed to adequately strengthen his midfield options over the last few transfer windows - that charge has been underlined with the recent deployment of Rooney in the engine room.

On the subject of Manchester City's spending power - obviously no other club can compete, but it's worth pointing out that City have spent over £460m on new players in the last four years. However, according to MUST, United have spent over £523m on servicing the Glazers debts over the last six years...clearly, United could compete with City if it wasn't for the owners who saddled the club with so much debt - what's more, that money has been generated by United - it hasn't been given to the club by an oil rich nation.

United have travelled to Wales to take on Swansea later today, nothing less than three points will do with Manchester City looking in serious danger of running away with the Premier League.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Post 6-1: Fergie facing biggest challenge of his 25 years at United.....

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Every football pundit in the land might well be talking about Fergie's glorious 25 years in charge of the champions, but for many of the followers of United and especially City, the events of the most recent Manchester derby are still reverberating around the city and its suburbs.

United fans wanted to move on as quickly as possible and they also quite rightly expected the right response from the team and the manager; well that response hasn't exactly instilled a great deal of confidence going forward. United might well have won three out of three, but much of the football against Everton and Galati left an awful lot to be desired and that is putting it mildly. There was no way United were going to come unstuck against plucky Aldershot in the Carling Cup, not with the team that Fergie started with.

In the immediate aftermath of the derby, this blog suggested that Fergie might eventually abandon the club's attacking traditions and revert to a 4-3-3 formation. We still think that might happen - that could well turn out to be one of the consequences of such a heavy defeat and of course it was against the worst of all opponents.

While United fans find it difficult to give City any credit for their success on the pitch - largely because their club is nothing more than a 'rich man's play-thing' - we have to acknowledge that Mancini has bought some fine players, none better than David Silva who many expect to win a clutch of awards this season. United fans might even ask why was it that Fergie didn't make a move for the brilliant Spaniard? Only Fergie can answer that question.

United quite obviously are lacking genuine star quality in central midfield, save for the fast emerging Tom Cleverley, but alas he's been injured for much of the season and so it came as no great surprise to see Wayne Rooney being asked to drop back into the engine room in the last two games.

Rooney was one of the few who could hold his head up to some degree after the derby, because at least he tried, but it wasn't an error free performance by the England striker, far from it.

Last weekend United travelled to Goodison Park and Rooney was asked to play in midfield alongside Cleverley, Fletcher and Park. United won thanks to a first-half goal by Hernandez, but the performance was disjointed and the champions attacking play wasn't what we have come to expect.

The team that started at Goodison Park and the performance that followed raised a couple of important questions; firstly, did Ferie ask Rooney to play in midfield because of the events of the weekend before? Was this the first real signs of a major tactical change with no genuine winger in the starting eleven?

Then in midweek in the Champions League, Rooney was once again asked to play in central midfield against Galati and he had a very good game. United won again, this time by the margin of two-nil, but the second goal took a horrible deflection and being honest the Romanian champions didn't deserve that slice of bad luck. In his post-match interview, Ferguson was asked if Rooney's immediate future could lie in central midfield. The United manager insisted that Rooney was only playing in midfield because he was short of numbers. Well, we are not going to call Fergie a liar, but he has been known to spin the odd yarn to the media over so called injuries to his players. Ryan Giggs is supposedly injured, but he hasn't kicked a ball in anger for the first-team proper since he jumped out of the way of that Gerrard free-kick at Anfield. And Carrick, we are told, is injured again...

Whatever the truth behind these 'injuries', the decision to play Rooney in midfield has only served to highlight what millions of United fans have been saying for at least three years that is we need to add more genuine quality in midfield.

While we don't want to keep on harping on about the derby, United have been far too open this season at Old Trafford and Mancini knew that his players would get their chances providing City didn't concede in the first-half and then those chances would surely follow and so they did.

Mancini is no stranger to criticism, he was labeled as 'too defensive' not so long ago, but it sure looks like he's found the right blend now. City are rock solid in defence and they have genuine class up front and with Silva pulling the strings, they could go a long way on all fronts this season.

Even if Fergie wanted to he couldn't ape the City system and why is that you might well ask? The answer is simple: He doesn't have the players. Of course Fergie could try to copy the City system, but it wouldn't work nearly as well, because he doesn't have a genuine defensive midfield player (City have at least two, if not three) also quite obviously and perhaps most importantly, Fergie doesn't have a David Silva.

Despite what Fergie says about Rooney's role - don't be surprised if his future is in central midfield. We think that everything is in a state of flux following the derby; Rio Ferdinand is seemingly on borrowed time - which comes as no great surprise, Berbatov is little more than a spectator these days, as is Michael Owen and a host of other players including Gibson and Diouf.

Fergie is facing up to the biggest challenge of his brilliant United career, yes knocking Liverpool of that fu**ingdiehard red will find very hard to stomach and only one man can stop it from happening. Fergie, Fergie, sort it out.

United take on Sunderland at Old Trafford tomorrow. Nothing less than three points is expected.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Will City mauling bring about changes at United? Fans will want to see a reaction and an apology ...

Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson finally ran out of luck today at Old Trafford in the worst possible manner and as far as the fans are concerned against the worst possible opponents, neighbours Manchester City. United lost 6-1, yes, that's right, six bloody one. It is the biggest home defeat since 1926 when the blues repeated that scoring feat.

The final scoreline and especially the manner of the second-half 'performance' has rocked Old Trafford to its foundations. City took United apart in the second-half, with ruthless professionalism and efficiency. City took an early lead against the run of play with a Mario Balotelli goal, Jonny Evans could have and perhaps should have been closer to the City striker, but the Italian's cool finish was that of a player bang in form.

United tried to hit back, but could find no way through City's well organised defence. Time and time again, United's attacking moves broke down on the edge of the City penalty area - that was the story of the champions first-half performance. United simply didn't have the guile or know-how to unlock City's packed defence.

United have been blowing hot cold this season, but over the last few weeks the defence that has been the bedrock of so much success has looked anything but solid. Even before today we've seen visiting teams exploiting the wide open spaces in front of United's back-four. Basel did it in the Champions League when coming back from two-nil down to lead 3-2. Norwich were unfortunate to lose 2-0 recently and prior to that, and as totally ridiculous as they may sound (to those with short memories) Arsenal missed a catalogue of chances in that 8-2 mauling and who would have predicted today's outcome after that result? Not many.

Given the manner of United's defending in recent weeks, it came as no great surprise to see Mancini's team come to Old Trafford today with a simple game plan, one that involved not conceding and hitting United on the break. It's a tactic that United themselves have used many times away from home, under Ferguson down the years, but today the champions were on the receiving end and the final score did not in any way flatter the visitors who were good value.

The turning point of today's derby came in the 46th minute, when Aguero and Balotelli combined with a smart inter-change of passing outside the United penalty box, which left Evans isolated and up against City's Italian striker. Fearing Balotelli was going to out-pace him, the Northern Ireland international grabbed the Italian's arm and referee Mark Clattenburg had no option but to brandish his red card.

From that point on, City made good use of the extra man, but without really forcing the pace of the game; the visitors simply carried on waiting for their chances on the break, and sadly for the home supporters, all too often United were guilty of gifting possession back to the league leaders. It was all a bit too easy for City and that in part made it even harder to stomach.

City eventually made their dominance pay with a very well worked goal and once again it was Balotelli who did the damage, but as on so many other occasions this season it was David Silva who was the architect. Silva was outstanding again for City and any honest United fan would tell you that they'd love to see the mercurial Spaniard in the famous red shirt. But United simply don't have a David Silva and how Ferguson must regret never making a move for him when he had opportunities in the past.

City sealed the win on 69 minutes thanks to Aguero with another well worked goal. Darren Fletcher scored what turned out to be nothing more than a consolation goal, albeit a very good one, but the joy of scoring was short-lived as City really took United apart as they went on to hammer three more nails in the champions coffin with a brace by substitute Dzeko and goal by the man of the match David Silva.

Until this week, Fergie hadn't really given City and Mancini that much credit, and when he has given credit it has been through gritted teeth. Going into today's derby, one had the sense that many United fans feared losing this game, but no one will have anticipated such a heavy defeat.

The worry perhaps for United fans is that such defeats can have far reaching consequences. On the face of it, United have been doing well with good wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and a creditable draw away at Anfield, but following a run of indifferent performances the early season optimism has worn off.

Going into the season many fans and pundits voiced concerns about a perceived lack of genuine star quality in the United engine room. Granted, Tom Cleverley was doing very well, so good in fact that he confounded many of those critics, but that was prior to the clumsy intervention of Bolton's Kevin Davies whose rash tackle at the Reebok left the rapidly rising midfield star on the sidelines. No doubting many United fans will have been left wondering if Cleverley might have made a difference today, if he'd been 100% fit to play. We will never know.

What we do know is this, thrashings of the like we saw today, can have short to medium term affects on the team, the players and even the manager. Take the recent 8-2 hammering of Arsenal, the Gunners haven't really recovered from that stuffing, the growing calls for WengerUnited's confidence could be badly affected following such a heavy derby defeat.

Nonetheless, what happened today at Old Trafford could potentially have implications. In his post-match interview, Fergie says that he was 'shattered' and he also pointed the finger squarely at senior defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra for allowing United to continue to attack City at a time when the champions were a man down. United have a reputation for pulling off sensational comebacks, and on countless occasions Fergie has stated that his team only knows one way of playing and that is THE UNITED WAY, which is to "attack, attack, attack, attack, attack". United tried to attack City today, but once Evans went off City really took control and made the champions look second best in every department and that was another very worrying aspect of what we saw today.

So what if anything, can Fergie do about the current situation? The manager quite evidently needs to add some genuine star quality in central midfield. As we saw today, United quite evidently do not have quality strength in depth in central midfield, but those who believe in Michael Carrick, Anderson and Darren Fletcher might argue otherwise.

Whatever anyone says, United do not have a player of the quality of David Sivla. One might also ask questions about the strikers. Danny Welbeck has done really well so far this season, but would he get into City's first-team, or even Chelsea's?

While it's obvious that City can out-spend their rivals and we have to acknowledge there is no easy answers for the manager, perhaps after this soul-searching defeat, Fergie and his backroom team will have to think about a change in formation and tactics. United have looked far too open this season and this isn't just a knee-jerk reaction to today's embarrassing defeat, it has been blindingly obvious over recent weeks. Perhaps worryingly, one suspects Fergie himself has been saying the same things to his team...

If what happened today does not bring about some changes both in terms of personnel and possibly changes in tactics, then this blog will be very surprised indeed.

Fergie and his backroom team may well conclude that we need to get back that continuity in the key central defensive positions, that is likely to be a starting point in the post-mortem and the resulting action plan that is sure to follow.

Fergie and the fans might also wonder what might have happened if Evans had stayed on the pitch, but we are only kidding ourselves if we believe that we can continue to keep pace with City if we don't add more quality. Whatever else happens in the weeks and months ahead, United fans will be looking for a reaction from the team and an apology from the players for what happened today, it is the least we should expect.

Even if United go on to win the title, what happened in today's derby will not be forgotten for a very long time. Fergie, Fergie, sort it out.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The derby: Everyone talking about City, but United can come out on top, but only if the team defends properly...

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Sunday's Manchester derby has added significance as City are playing really well and they are the current league leaders. Fergie has finally acknowledged that Manchester City along with Chelsea, are a major threat to United's domestic dominance.

United are of course at home where they have a superb record at Old Trafford, but over the last month the champions have been less than impressive both at home and away.

United squandered a two-nil lead against Basel in the Champions League and in the end could only manage a 3-3 draw, thanks to a late equaliser from Ashley Young. Norwich City were the last visitors to Old Trafford, but the champions 2-0 victory was anything but comfortable.

There has been much chopping and changing in the United team over recent weeks, largely due to a catalogue of injuries and this in part has led to a lack of continuity, especially in the heart of the defence.

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have both been out of action having endured lengthy spells on the sidelines. United's Serbian defender made a welcome return to action against Galati in Bucharest on Tuesday night in the Champions League, but he was sent-off in the second-half as United ran out deserved 2-0 winners on the night, albeit thanks to yet another disjointed performance. Vidic didn't look 100% match sharp, he somewhat uncharacteristically gave the ball away on a couple of occasions and his performance will have given Ferguson something to think about ahead of the derby. The same applies to Rio Ferdinand who has been singled out for criticism unfairly by sections of the media following a run of relatively poor performances by the Champions.

There's no doubting that United will need to be at their defence best against City, anything less will lead to probable defeat, however, while fingers have been pointed at one or two individuals, we have to remember that defending is a collective responsibility and so whoever plays in midfield must ensure they too fulfil their defensive obligations. From an attacking perspective, it is vital that Rooney and Co. convert any goal scoring chances that come their way.

United are currently the team with the most goals for at home in the division, and City are the team with the most goals for from away games. It could be a real cracker and Mancini has hinted his team will attack United.

United have no new injury worries and many fans are hoping that Tom Cleverley will return to the team after recovering from a foot injury, but he's been out for several weeks, so a place on the bench is probably the best we can hope for.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Neville reveals Fergie's secrets as unconvincing champions prepare for City...

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United were in action on Tuesday night in Bucharest in a vital Champions League Group C fixture against Otelul Galati, Wayne Rooney grabbed the headlines with a brace from the penalty spot as the Reds ran out 2-0 winners. Rooney has of course been at the centre of media attention for the wrong reasons over the last two weeks following his sending off against Montenegro, which has potentially dire implications for England at the Euro2012 finals next summer. UEFA subsequently banned Rooney for three games when many media pundits were only expecting a maximum of a two game suspension, the FA have yet to decide if they will appeal. From a Manchester United perspective, the club and many of its supporters will not be too concerned about Rooney's England commitments - especially if any ban cuts down the potential to miss games for United due to injuries.

With Manchester City set to visit Old Trafford on Sunday in the first derby of the season, it was great to see Rooney confidently converting those penalties against Galati, but it wasn't a great night for the champions who laboured for long periods against the Romanian champions.

Nemanja Vidic made a welcome return to action following a lengthy spell on the sidelines, but the Serbian defender looked rusty and was worse still was sent-off in the second-half for a rash looking challenge on Giurgiu, but in truth, it was a poor decision by German referee Brych. Vidic deserved to be booked for what was a high challenge, but it wasn't dangerous - it was one of those that looked much worse than it actually was.

United's defence has been uncharacteristically shaky over the last few weeks, and perhaps for more than any other reason, this has been down to too many changes in the heart of the back four. Vidic and Ferdinand have been the bedrock of United's defence in recent seasons, but in their absence due to injuries Ferguson has been chopping and changing.

Last night was no different, there was nine changes to the team that started and went on to draw with Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday. United were collectively poor in what is always a very important fixture in any season. In the build up to Saturday's visit to Anfield some pundits had even gone as far as describing the fixture as the biggest in club football. There is no doubting the depth of bad feeling which extends beyond the confines of the stands and into the dressing room as recently confirmed by Paul Scholes who said that the two sets of players didn't mix well.

While the stage was set for what many hoped would be a blood curdling contest, as happens all too often, the fixture failed to live up to expectations and a large part of that was down to the team that Fergie had selected.

There was no starting place in the team for Rooney, Hernandez, Valencia or Nani; it was Manchester United light. With just Danny Welbeck up front, United really struggled to make any real impact in and around the Liverpool penalty area. Liverpool eventually took the lead thanks to Steven Gerrard, from what was a poor free-kick - one that is likely to haunt Ryan Giggs for many years to come, because the Welshman was guilty of jumping out of the way of the ball, rather than taking one for the team.

Thankfully, United went on to equalise and once against it was Hernandez who scored with more or less his first touch of the ball from a corner kick after coming on to replace Phil Jones. While the movement of Hernandez inside the Liverpool penalty area has rightly been praised highly, we shouldn't forget the part Danny Welbeck played in that equaliser as he fended off Jamie Caragher in the manner of a wily old Premier League fox - it was yet another sign of his growing maturity.

While there's no doubting Fergie's selection for the Liverpool game will have been greeted with several million collective curses from the massed ranks of the red army, many of us also knew that the great leader had a plan, one that had been drawn up with the trip to Bucharest and the Manchester derby in mind.

In the build-up to the trip to Anfield, Fergie even suggested that Rooney was down in the dumps following news of UEFA's three match international ban - this was of course complete and utter nonsense; it was the sort of rubbish reason that Fergie gives to the media from time to time when a big name player has unexpectedly been omitted from the United team, but nonetheless it was rubbish all the same. We knows this because Fergie has told us all on countless occasions that Rooney wants to play in EVERY game and there's none bigger than a trip to Anfield. Alas, it wasn't to be and United just about deserved that point, but the performance was collectively lacking and totally uninspiring, but a point at Anfield is rarely looked upon as a bad result. The Anfield part of Fergie's plan, may well have been imperfect, but it was effective as was the second part of the plan in Bucharest as United came away with the points, albeit thanks to another disjointed performance.

So why have United been all over the place in the last month or so? The answer is that there's been too many changes; the early season continuity coupled with that superb free flowing attacking football isn't happening on a consistent basis and the defending has become collectively sloppy too.

In total fairness to Fergie, injuries have been been the key driver - that has been the main reason for so much chopping and changing. While this seemingly constant shuffling might not be ideal, Ferguson has the managerial skills to steer the ship back on course

Ferguson has great faith in his players and to a man we have to believe they trust the manager. Following last night's Champions League win in Bucharest, Gary Neville revealed one of the bosses great strengths, that is his communication skills.

Neville is currently working as a match summariser on SKY and he says that Ferguson will take a player on one side and will always explain his reasoning when it comes to selection issues; sometimes a player might be told as much as two weeks in advance of an important fixture. While these pep talks might not sound that ground breaking, or indeed revolutionary, which they are not, you can bet that not many of his managerial counterparts show the same commitment when it comes to those oh so important communication skills.

Next up United take on City for what definitely is the most important derby for quite some time. City have a two point lead over United plus a superior goal difference. Game on.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rooney's red card for England: Every cloud has a silver lining....

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Wayne Rooney has been grabbing the headlines for the wrong reasons since he was sent-off in Podgorica on Friday night. Referee Wolfgang Stark had no alternative but to wave a red card in the direction of Rooney in the 74th minute, for what was a reckless challenge on Miodrag Dzudovic.

As a result of the dismissal, UEFA are likely to give Rooney a two-match ban on Thursday, one that will take effect at the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and the Ukraine. In a worst case scenario that ban could be stretched to three games and if that happens the Premier League's top goal-scorer could be miss all of England's group games.

The media have predictably been hammering Rooney and on this occasion even die-hard Reds will find it difficult to defend United's talisman. For his part, Fabio Capello has if, anything, just added to that familiar feeling of despair which seems to surround the England team whenever a big tournament comes around, because the Italian has decreed that Rooney will take no further playing part in preparation for the finals. This news is a massive boon for Manchester United and its supporters; we know that our most important player will not suffer a needless injury while playing for his country.

To the annoyance of the media, Capello's decision to axe Rooney has just added to their collective anger. Many in the media fell out of love with Capello long before England's dismal showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Without question, Capello should have been sacked after that tournament, but that did not happen thanks to the totally and utterly incompetent FA. England are stuck with the Italian and his colossal salary, but the clocking is ticking to his retirement date which cannot come soon enough.

Capello says he wants to try something different - that is his rationale for axing Rooney - frankly, United fans do not care, but the England's manager's decision has not been greeted with universal joy.

Next up, United face Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday for what always is one of the most important league games of the season. Liverpool have disgracefully slashed United's ticket allocation to just 1,900. Perhaps Manchester United should reciprocate and slash Liverpool's allocation for the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford?

There is better news to report regarding Tom Cleverley, who has signed a contract extension and quite right too. Cleverley has been a breath of fresh air in United's engine room this season and after recovering from ligament damage he is fit to face Liverpool, but chances are he will only be on the bench.

There will be more news on the injury front later in the week following the conclusion of this latest round of international fixtures.

"LFC single out United"

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Wayne Rooney: You cannot defend the undefendable...

Wayne Rooney has been absolutely superb this season for Manchester United, he is the Premier League's top goalscorer with nine goals. However, he was sent-off while playing for England last night in a Euro 2012 qualifier. It is the second time Rooney has been sent-off while playing for his country. In the wake of that early bath and in time honoured tradition, predictably, the press have savaged the United striker.

As a result of last night's red card, Rooney will miss up to three games in next summer's finals in Poland and the Ukraine. It is a bitter blow to any hope England may have had of winning the competition - as unlikely as that hope surely is.

For their part, some United fans have been trying to rally round their talisman, but on this occasion, it is difficult to defend Rooney, because in lashing out, he was wild and uncontrolled. He had to go and there was no question about that.

You have to wonder what on earth makes Rooney tick, because you cannot imagine him lashing out in a similar manner while playing for United - at least we Reds would like to believe that is the case. Maybe Rooney simply doesn't respect England and Capello in particular? Some people are asking if the player should have been rested following the news that the Rooney family have become embroiled in an alleged betting scandal, one that involves his father and an uncle. Being wise after the event serves no purpose, the damage is done as far as Capello and England are concerned.

The final score in Podgorica finished up 2-2 thanks to a spirited fight-back by Montenegro. Ashley Young gave England the lead just eleven minutes into the game. England were by far the better team in the first-half and it came as no surprise when Fabio Capello's team doubled their advantage after Rooney and Young combined well in the build up to Darren Bent's goal on 31 minutes.

From that point on victory should have been assured, but Montenegro hit back just before half-time through Elsad Zverotić and they went on to deservedly equalise in the 91st minute thanks to substitute Andrija Delibašić.

In the end, and despite Rooney's sending off in the 74th minute, Montenegro were good value for the draw because they were by far the better team in the second period, even when both teams had eleven players on the pitch.

Despite a couple of worrying moments, Phil Jones had a solid game at right-back and Danny Welbeck came on as a late but confident looking substitute when replacing Theo Walcott on 76 minutes in a Capello tactical reshuffle following Rooney's red card. Ashley Young was also subbed with what looked like a swollen knee, Ferguson will be hoping all of his stars' return unscathed from international duty with United set to visit Anfield next weekend.

As a result of that 2-2 draw, England have qualified for the Euro 2012 Finals and Montenegro are through to the play-offs.

Tottenham's Scott Parker was England's man of the match.

Referee, Wolfgang Stark had a very good game in the middle.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The continual character assassination of Carlos Tevez is pointless: Time to move on for United fans.

Why is it that many football fans become all bitter and twisted when a star play leaves your club? For the uninitiated casual observer sitting on the sidelines, it might be a fair question to ask,  because in just about every other walk of life, we tend to remember the good times and we try not to dwell on events that we'd rather forget. Part of the problem is that accepted normal behaviour goes completely out of the window when it comes to football - the game that was famously described by Desmond Morris as 'tribal' - which it is surely is.

A case in point is Carlos Tevez, who left Manchester United to join neighbours City, in what was a very controversial transfer. It goes without saying that joining a local rival like City would upset many a die-hard Red, for every obvious reasons. When a player joins one of your biggest rivals as Tevez did when joining City - you are crossing the big city divide and in so doing, you can expect the flak that comes with it.

But, it was by no means the first time a player has left United to join City. The list of former Reds' who've pulled on the blue shirt includes: Denis Law, Brian Kidd and Sammy McIlroy; of those three only Law joined directly after leaving United and that was after he'd made 309 appearances and scored 171 goals.

As far as Tevez is concerned, it was an entirely different scenario because unlike the aforementioned legendary trio, the Argentine was still at the very top of his game when he quit to join bitter rivals City, and what's more there was an offer on the table to stay at United, which Tevez and his camp turned down.

Even though United made it clear that there was an offer stay, Fergie then went out of his way to very publicly state that Tevez was little more than a trier and that he wasn't worth his reported valuation.  In fairness, United had their collective noses well and truly rubbed in it by City who upped the ante when ill advisedly stoking the raging fire unnecessarily with that now infamous giant "Welcome to Manchester" billboard - a cheap publicity stunt that has subsequently backfired spectacularly following Tevez's refusal to play against Bayern Munich.

Nonetheless, in making those comments about Tevez, Ferguson had made himself look a bit foolish - because in essence he was admitting he was willing to pay top money to retain a player who he later deemed not worth it.. Then United manager also made the big mistake of stooping to the same sorry levels as City.

United fans need to remember that the club had broken several promises to make the Tevez transfer permanent, and when that opportunity came along again in the summer of 2008, instead the money was used to sign Berbatov. Twelve months later, Tevez left to join City - had the player's patience finally run out with United? The answer to that question is open to debate, but it's a fair question to ask.

Everyone knows that City made Tevez and his camp a better offer, that is a given and no one will question that point. We also know that Tevez knew exactly what he would be letting himself in for, after all, the rivalry and bitterness that exists between City and United is by no means unique.  In the eyes of many Reds' - Tevez was and still is FAIR GAME.

Back in the 70s Manchester United legend George Best was uniquely adored both women and men, but following his reported refusal to turn-out for City against Bayern in the Champions League, in what was a tragic and self-inflicted fall from grace, the Argentine is now seemingly uniquely despised by followers of both Manchester clubs and that takes some doing, it has to be said.

While many United fans will concur that getting rid has turned out to be good business and we can all laugh at the events at City, we should not forget that until this latest sorry episode, Tevez has been nothing but a consummate professional while on the field of play. Whether he was playing for West Ham, United or City, Tevez has always given 100% and his goals last season made Fergie's comments look foolish.

City have given us United fans plenty to laugh at down the years, their crass behaviour continues to amuse, but let's just forget about Tevez and move on.

Monday, October 03, 2011

United must heed Canaries warning signs and improve or else....

Manchester United were in action on Saturday when newly promoted Norwich City were the visitors to Old Trafford, both teams have enjoyed good starts to the new season, but after only managing a draw with Stoke City the weekend before and after surrendering a two-nil lead against Basel in the Champions League in midweek, the champions went into the clash with the Canaries with more than a degree of apprehension.

United fans, Ferguson and no doubting his players too, expected a tough game, but they will have also anticipated nothing less than three points. As things turned out that is exactly what happened but the 2-0 final score didn't tell the whole story.

The champions dominated possession - as so often happens at Old Trafford - but Paul Lambert had done his homework and United found it difficult to break down the defensive wall in front of the Norwich defence.

Norwich were always a threat on the counter-attack and if Anthony Pilkington had taken his chances then the visitors could have taken at least a point, but thankfully, from a United perspective it wasn't his day in front of goal.

In a bid to change the pattern of the game, Ferguson sent on Giggs for Nani and Welbeck for Hernandez in the 64th and 65 minutes respectively.

It was a game that cried out for a goal and when it finally arrived in the 68th minute, it came from the unlikey source of Anderson's head following an assist by Wayne Rooney.

The goal led to more chances for both teams and Pilkington had further opportunities to test Anders Lindegaard, who had been selected in the United goal in preference to David De Gea, however, it was the champions who doubled their advantage thanks Danny Welbeck on 87 minutes, after Ji-Sung Park unlocked the door with an assist.

While the result was a good one, the performance left a lot to be desired from a red perspective because once again a visiting team found it too easy to create goal scoring opportunities. The other major issue was the lack of creativity in and around the visitors penalty area. With Liverpool and Manchester City on the horizon, United really needed a thumping confidence boosting win against Norwich, who to their credit didn't really deserve to lose on Saturday.

To a large degree Ferguson's hands have been tied due to a catalogue of early season injury problems and this has led to too many changes in key central defensive positions.

Rio Ferdinand was only a substitute on Saturday, which led to sections of the media speculating that the player might have paid the price for some indifferent defensive performances.

Truth be told, Ferdinand has been no worse, or come to it, no better, than any of those around him of late, but maybe the manager expects more from his senior central defender and that could be why he didn't start against the Canaries.

Ferdinand was belatedly given a run out against Norwich when he replaced Anderson in the 76th minute and he was also named in the England squad who take on Montenegro on Friday, along with Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney.

The international break, has for once, come at the right time for United who need to regroup ahead of two very important league games against two bitter rivals.

It is to be hoped United will continue to fend off the challenge of Manchester City, but for that to happen, we will need to see a big improvement, especially in midfield and in defence where the champions have become uncharacteristically careless over the last few games.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Basel roller-coaster: Gary Neville hits nail on head, as Manchester United struggle in average Champions League group...

Manchester United were involved in an error ridden Champions League goal fest at Old Trafford last night. It was a roller-coaster of a game, it finished up 3-3. Basel were two-nil down at half-time, but fought back strongly in the second-half and deservedly led 3-2 thanks to goals by Alexander and Fabien Frei. Ashley Young rescued what could turn out to be an important point, with a late but very important Champions League debut goal.

In taking what was a well earned point, the Swiss champions became the first visiting team to Old Trafford to exploit the gaps in the United defence. Despite hammering Arsenal 8-2, and Chelsea 3-1 recently, United have been somewhat uncharacteristically wide open at the back at Old Trafford this season. A better team than Arsenal might have scored five against United. And let us not forget that Chelsea were also guilty of failing to take advantage of some very good chances to score; including what has been described as "the miss of the season" when £50m striker Fernando Torres missed that open goal.

Basel could and should have, scored more than three goals last night - three was bad enough, but it could have been much more. On the flip side, United also missed several gilt edged chances, especially in the first-half. Danny Welbeck scored two goals within a minute, after good work by Ryan Giggs who provided both. Those goals should have signalled the end for Basel, but to their credit, the visitors kept on attacking United and their enterprise was eventually rewarded in the second-half with two well taken goals and a controversial penalty.

Ferguson will be alarmed when he reviews TV replays of the game, but it should come as no great shock because gaping holes in United's defence have been appearing too often this season.

So where is it going wrong at the back for United? Last night's Sky Sports co-commentator, Gary Neville put his finger on one of the big issues during the game when he said "too many changes in defence". United have been at their best when Vidic and Ferdinand have been at the heart of the back-four. That partnership has been the bedrock of United's recent success. Vidic has been a defensive rock and Rio has been one of the finest interceptors in world football - but alas that is no longer the case.

Rio Ferdinand didn't cover himself in glory at the Britannia stadium last weekend when United could only manage a draw. Ferdinand should have done better against Stoke's goalscorer Peter Crouch. United conceded three goals against Basel, the last one came from a very debatable penalty after Jones failed to clear his lines.  In the wake of that dramatic 3-3 draw many supporters will be blaming Ferdinand. However, if you review the match footage, both fullbacks were at fault when it came to failing to track-back; Fabio was caught out of position on several first-half occasions and when Basel equalised it was Evra who was guilty of failing to pick up a runner.

Gary Neville knows all about Manchester United of course and having hung up his boots, he has in short order, taken to the task of becoming an informative match-day summariser on Sky Sports.

Without being pressed enough by those who share the comfy Sky Sports sofa, Neville has been alluding to Ferguson's unhappiness with his team's collective failure to defend as a unit pretty much all season. Neville made reference to the problems at the back during last night's game, as he did against Chelsea.

Against Basel, it wasn't just the defence that was at fault, it was midfield too. Anderson gets caught out of position often, but this isn't entirely his fault, because if an attacking move breaks down due to a forward losing possession cheaply, then the supporting players will be out of position and that has been a recurring aspect of United's play at times this season.

Danny Welbeck might have scored two goals against Basel, but it should have been at least three, maybe even four. The young United striker failed to take advantage of a great cross late on and he narrowly missed the target with a glancing header. Second-half sub Berbatov should have wrapped up the points late on,  the Bulgarian took the wrong option, when his shot hit the side netting, instead the ball should have been driven across the face of the goal into the opposite corner.

In summary, while fingers will rightly be pointed at Fabio and Jones for their part in that very poor defensive showing, let us not forget that the same two players were involved in at least one of United's goals. When those injuries eventually clear up, United need to get back to some sort of defensive stability. As Neville said last night, you cannot keep on swapping and changing the back-four. While it might well be exciting, United need to improve and as Fergie said in his post-match conference, the performance and the result was a 'wake-up call', and so it was. United have much work to do on the domestic and European front, but Ferguson will get it right, of that we can be fairly certain.




Sunday, September 25, 2011

United look ordinary at Stoke as Walton denies champs definite penalty...

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Manchester United were made to work extremely hard for their point at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, it finished up 1-1 apiece, Nani was the champions goal hero. It could have been so different if Peter Walton had done what he should have done in the opening minutes of what turned out to be a hard fought contest and that was to award the visitors a cast-iron penalty after Jonathan Woodgate had blatantly barged into the back of Hernandez.

As a direct result of Woodgate's poor challenge, United lost the services of Hernandez. Michael Owen came on as a replacement, but he struggled to make any real impact alongside Dimitar Berbatov who had been restored to the starting line-up.

Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about Walton's failure to award United that penalty in his post-match interview, and he said it was "too early in the game" - a comment that many fans will find hard to accept. How can it be too early in the game? It shouldn't matter when an offence is committed - it doesn't matter if it's the first or the 90th minute; Woodgate and Stoke should have been punished, but they weren't. As a direct result of Woodgate's poor challenge, United lost the services of Hernandez, thanks to what looked like a head injury.

United eventually took the lead through Nani who scored a very good individual goal in the 27th minute. Nani's goal was one of the few highlights on what was an otherwise very disappointing day as United completely failed to stamp their class and authority onto what was technically a very poor game.

Peter Crouch equalised with a second-half header, and truth be told, United's defenders didn't handle the former Spurs and Liverpool striker very well. Crouch might have added to his tally, if not for his poor finishing.

After the game, Fergie said that Stoke had deserved a point, but he should have said that if Peter Walton had done his job properly United would have been two up in the first-half and that in all probability the champions would have gone on to win comfortably, but the inaction of the referee ensured that did not happen.

Wayne Rooney wasn't included in the United squad, nor was Michael Carrick or Chris Smalling. According to Fergie, Rooney and Carrick picked up injuries in training, however; one cannot help but wonder if the United manager had taken a calculated risk by resting the aforementioned trio? That would in part, explain the manager's somewhat measured response to dropping two valuable points. Ferguson isn't normally one who accepts poor refereeing decisions lightly, but on Saturday, he seemed somewhat sheepish in is post-match interview and perhaps that's because he felt he had contributed to the result by his own actions when resting three key players?

IF we are to believe Ferguson, then Rooney could be out for up to two weeks; here again, you have to wonder if the player is really injured, or is the boss playing games?

With Manchester City flying high and pressing United at the top of the Premier League table, it's worth asking if the manager can afford to continue to take such risks? Going into this game, Ferguson had several selection dilemmas: Michael Owen scored two goals at Leeds in the Carling Cup, Darren Fletcher needs games, Valencia looked good at right-back in midweek and of course he cannot continue to leave Berbatov out. We can all appreciate those selection dilemmas and Fergie is the best at managing his players and to be fair, the manager usually gets away with it when making the right calls, but that wasn't the case at Stoke.

It's a well known fact that Ferguson doesn't always tell the truth when it comes to explaining his reasoning behind his team selections. As someone once famously said "the Lord works in mysterious ways" and that is certainly the case where Fergie is concerned, because he quite evidently prefers to fabricate injuries rather than tell the truth when someone has been completely axed, but more often than not, it is usually the case that the player concerned has simply been rested in the name of squad rotation.

Whatever the truth behind the decision to shuffle the pack at Stoke, United were pretty awful. There was zero punch up front. Owen and Berbatov didn't have a great deal of joy, but the service was lousy. Young wasn't in the game enough - he seems to play his best football when Rooney is in the team. Nani and Jones were United's star men, but truth be told it was a very poor showing. Darren Fletcher is really struggling to make any real impact following his long battle with that mystery virus.

With 20 minutes still on the clock, Giggs and Welbeck came on for Young and  Berbatov respetively. The Welshman missed United's only other really decent goal scoring chance late on when pulling his shot horribly wide of the target.  Welbeck huffed and puffed like the rest of the United team, but struggled to make any real impact on the game and that was the story of the afternoon.

United were a shadow of team we've seen so far this season, there was no creative spark, no zip and in many ways it was a 'backs against the wall performance' against a team of journeymen who play a dreadful brand of robotic football, but United didn't the where-with-all to rise above it. In then end and largely because of poor refereeing, Stoke did deserve their point, but that said as much about United's collective failings as it did about the hard-working home team.

Next up United face, Basle in the Champions League and it will be interesting to see if Rooney, Carrick and Smalling make Lazarus like returns to action..

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hargreaves' turns spotlight onto United's medics following Manchester City debut...

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Owen Hargreaves' made his Manchester City debut this week and scored a very good goal against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup. Manchester City won two-nil and Hargreaves' showed no signs of the injuries that plagued him during this three years with United.

Sir Alex Ferguson and his backroom team took the decision to release Hargreaves' in the summer after trying but ultimately failing to resolve his many injury issues. But, the player's subsequent Lazarus like return to goal scoring action this week has left United looking like chumps with red faces to boot.

Hargreaves' cost United £17m when they signed him from Bayern Munich and with wages, the champions have lost more than £20m following the club's decision to release the player, who had reportedly offered to play for free...

Ahead of United's trip to Stoke City on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about Hargreaves' in his Friday morning press conference, looking slightly and understandably rattled, the United manager tried to rebuff any suggestion that his medical staff might not be up to the job. Nonetheless, the facts are that a £17m player has signed for a major rival for nothing - it is only right that questions are asked and answered. United say they will respond to the player's claims that some of his medical treatment in the last three years might not have been appropriate.

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