Monday, March 31, 2008

Rampant Reds must be wary of Roma...

United brimming with confidence after some recent thumping wins on the domestic front take on AS Roma in the eternal city on Tuesday night in the first-leg of their Champions League quarter final. Fergie and his players' will fancy the task having had much the better of the Romans' in recent encounters, but United lost the first-leg of last seasons quarter-final in the same venue when going down to the odd goal in three, but then went on to thrash Spalletti's team in the return leg. The Reds have played Roma twice already in this season’s competition and they haven’t been beaten, winning the first-leg one-nil and drawing the second 1-1.

Until their clash with Cagliari that ended 1-1, Roma had knocked in nine from four without reply. However, at the weekend several key players were missing from their starting line-up due to suspensions. To add to Roma's problems, their talisman, Totti, who played the whole game, but later complained of a 'thigh injury' that makes him an 'injury doubt' ahead of what is a massive game in the Olympic stadium.

Ferguson wont be distracted any smoke and mirror tactics leading up to this clash and United will hopefully be only too wary of what happened when Roma came to Old Trafford last season with a devil may care attitude with a slim 2-1 advantage - they were given a hiding that they will never forget with the Reds winning 7-1. United while they are riding high on the back of the goal-fests against Villa and Liverpool they must not allow themselves to be over-confident, nor sloppy at the back.

There must be a strong temptation to start the match in Rome with the same team that hammered Aston Villa, but that is unlikely to happen. Fergie will probably start the match with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 line-up with Tevez and Scholes being left on the bench and Anderson and Hargreaves or Carrick coming into the starting eleven. That said there is an argument for pairing Tevez and Rooney again, but my gut feeling is the Scot won’t do that until later in the game.

United must go to Rome with a view to winning the tie at Old Trafford, that means scoring at least one away goal and hopefully not getting beaten on Tuesday. If United are solid at the back over both legs of this quarter final - as they have been pretty much all season - then there's every reason to be confident of reaching another semi-final.

As ever there will no doubt be a great deal of focus regarding off-the-field matters where visiting supporters are concerned. It is to be hoped that the joke that is the Rome police force will not once again end up in the spotlight for either handing out indiscriminate beatings to United supporters and inaction where the Roma fans are concerned.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Vintage United performance leaves Reds within touching distance of glory...

Before the clash with Aston Villa on Saturday I'd posted that with one eye firmly fixed upon Tuesday's clash with Roma, Fergie would likely rest Rooney, but I also added that there was a strong argument for starting with his most offensive line-up and sans injured Saha that meant the former Everton striker had to start. Fergie will have thought long and hard about his options and eventually he went for it with Tevez and Rooney in harness up front. Thank the football gods and Fergie that he did so, because the result was nothing short of a superb display pretty much from start to finish, but especially in that second-half in which the champions were majestic.

It was a performance which personified Manchester United's attacking style of play down the years - no other club in England - not even the current Arsenal at their very best with their admittedly excellent passing game have produced the same level of excitement. Against Aston Villa, United were at the very best and it was a joy to watch.

At the heart of it was Cristiano Ronaldo who was once again by far their best player on the pitch. The former Sporting Lisbon winger is now being called "the greatest player in the world" (rightly so) scored one and made three. It doesn't get much better than that.

Ronaldo's goal on 17 minutes was out of the George Best/Denis Law archives. It was a goal that only a genius could even contemplate scoring. In one magical movement, the Portuguese star took control of the ball inside the Villa penalty box after Wilfred Bouma had deflected a Giggs' corner and back-healed it into the net. There will be those who will question continue to question Ronaldo, but in that one moment he weighed up the situation, dispatched the ball in one movement and in doing so he outwitted the whole of the Villa defence before they had time to react.

If the Ronaldo opener had the mark of sheer individual brilliance, the second on 33 minutes was the nearest thing to a perfect team goal. The execution was clinical and the build up was just as good as the ball was pinged around the Villa half with a series of swift inter-passing before Ronaldo's raking cross found Tevez who had started the move from inside the visitors half and then ended it when smashing home a powerful header when unmarked at the far post.

At that point Villa could have been four down, but the bad news for Martin O'Niell and his players' was that United were only warming to the task, it began to look like a question of how many and the Old Trafford crowd just loves that.

Rooney, who had not scored a league goal at OT since last October finally ended that barren run with two fine second-half goals, it should have been more, but no one was complaining, and of course it was Ronaldo who supplied the final killer balls again with the impudence of a genius.

Villa for their part, while being outclassed had their chances, Maloney was unlucky on two occasions as he brought out the very best from stand-in 'keeper Tomasz Kuszczak. Ronaldo could have scored a hatrick, it was that kind of game and if had finished up 6-2 it would have been a fair reflection of what was very entertaining match which will be rightly remembered for the brilliance of Ronaldo.

United and the fans will want to see more of the same in the remaining games, but Fergie has little room for error domestically with some very tough looking games on the horizon. After the win over Villa the United manager was taking nothing for granted and quite right too, but the Reds are in a very strong position now, we are on count down to retaining the title.

Next up it's Roma and once again the manager has the task of deciding how to approach this huge Champions League quarter final. Does he take the cautious route and start with just Rooney, or does he go for it as he did against Villa? While the fans would love to see a repeat performance in the eternal city on Tuesday, it's more likely that Fergie will try to flood the midfield with the hope of snatching an away goal and worst case a draw. However, both teams know each other so well now and so it is to be hoped that Fergie pitches it just right. Bring on the Romans'.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Analysis: Big week for United as striker dilemma resurfaces...

United take on Aston Villa later today and once again the Reds will be without injured Louis "sicknote" Saha, who has, apparently, pulled a hamstring. It's a great pity for United because it would have been an ideal opportunity for the French striker to start especially with next Tuesday's clash with Roma in mind. This latest injury blow concerning Saha serves to once again highlight how wrong Ferguson was when saying that his squad did not need strengthening in January.

To that end United fans will be hoping that this summer the manager goes out and finally resolves his forward line options with the addition of an out and out target man - and someone who isn't injury prone. United have secured Angolan striker Manucho, but according to reports there are still work permit issues to resolve.

Against Liverpool last weekend the Reds started with just one striker, today the manager will do likewise except this time Carlos Tevez will more than likely start, while Wayne Rooney will be on the bench.

The Merseyside Reds were somewhat surprisingly caught out on numerous occasions when United simply lobbed the ball over the top of their central defenders. Having been no doubt been impressed by Rooney (finishing apart) last weekend Fabio Capello deployed the Reds hitman as a lone striker against France in midweek, but the service was poor and the tactic simply did not work, which left many observers to once again concur that in order to make the most of Rooney's undoubted talents he needs a partner in crime.

Against Liverpool, the tactic of deploying a solitary striker worked, not least because the visitors defending and 'keeping was some way below their usual best. However, if United are to go on and win the Premier League and the Champions League the manager will have to continue to pray that both Rooney and Tevez can avoid injury as his resources are pitifully thin up front.

Villa haven't won in four games, scoring just two goals along the way, but at the beginning of the month they should have beaten the Gunners at the Emirates only for Arsenal to grab an unlikely equaliser late on in the game.

Today's clash represents another great chance to cement the Reds lead at the top of the table. Nothing less than three points will be acceptable. There is a strong argument for starting with your strongest/most offensive team - which would include both Rooney and Tevez - the same can be said of the clash with Roma who have scored nine in their last four without reply. However, Ferguson tends to be cautious ahead of and in the really big games which has meant that United have started some games in with just one striker.

If this tactic leads the Reds to glory in their remaining competitions, no one will complain, but should we fail the fans will no doubt look back on this cautious approach and once again wonder what could have been - especially if we fail in the Champions League. As far as the Premier League goes, we can only throw it away now as United are very much in the driving seat.

As for the rest of the team news, Nani is struggling with a knock and Darren Fletcher has been ruled out for what is left of the rest of the season after playing for Scotland in a meaningless friendly. Ryan Giggs could start along with Scholes, both need to improve on recent performances, though Fergie may opt to start with Park in preference to the Welshman.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Manchester United and the Temple of Doom....(one for the anoraks)

It surely cannot be that often that a football club has played part in helping to make a Steven Spielberg / George Lucas film, but that is precisely what happened when they were making the Temple of Doom - which formed part of the Indiana Jones trilogy.

The leading star the film was of course none other than Harrison Ford; however, while riding an elephant in Sri Lanka, Ford dislodged a disc in his back. The star of the silver-screen first travelled to London's Harley Street in the hope of fixing the problem. Fearing that there could be litigation issues if the Harley Street doctors' made Ford's back worse, they all refused treatment.

Harrison Ford then turned to Manchester United's club doctor for help, which was duly given allowing shooting to continue, although he eventually ended up having surgery back in California which finally resolved his back problems.

Not a lot of people know that Spielberg served as an uncredited executive producer on, Shrek, but rumours that the Hollywood director modelled the cartoon character on Wayne Rooney are not actually true, nor are the rumours that Sir Alex Ferguson could be cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi ("use the *@*@ing force Rooney...") in a mooted remake of Stars Wars.

However, there could be some substance behind the stories suggesting that Peter Crouch could star in Steven Spielberg's proposed remake of the 1934 classic "The Circus Clown". Watch this space.

Capello compares Beckham to Ronaldo and Rooney to Torres - has he last the plot?

According to the Daily Star's Brian Woolnough, Fabio Capello was not only happy with England's unconvincing performance in Paris, but he also gave an interview in which he compared Beckham to Ronaldo - he went further suggesting that Rooney could be like Fernando Torres. Has the Italian been reading the Kevin Keegan book on football management?

Ronaldo and Beckham cannot seriously be compared, nor can Rooney and Torres, but according to Woolnough the Italian was being deadly serious. The fact is given Capello's record he can say what he likes, the tabloids wont lay into him - not yet anyway - but the FA should be slightly alarmed at such statements (if they are collectively awake that is).

Perhaps having taken stock of the English players at his disposal Capello has been left clutching at straws - it's certainly sounds like that is the case. If any previous England manager had made the same comparisons the tabloids would have had a field day, as the Sun did with the "Turnip" aka Graham Taylor. Added to which there would be calls for the men in white coats to take the manager away. We are nowhere near that stage yet with the former Real Madrid coach.

They are coming to take me away, haha heehee...

However, the Italian's honeymoon period looks to be coming to a swift end, the question is how long with the marriage last? One thing is for sure if Capello carries on like this he might give us the fans a few laughs along the way - I'd like to see him losing the plot with the FA and the press. Do they really need to be told that there are not enough quality English players in the Premier League? Do they really need to be told that something HAS to be done about this? One of the problems is the agenda setting journalists ALL have their own reasons for not supporting initiatives on player quotas - which in my view will help the English national side in the long term. The imposition of quotas might be against EU laws - but that doesn't make it right.

Perhaps the greatest single thing that the Italian can bring to the English game is a different perspective and given his standing in the game it is hoped that those in power will listen to him when he speaks out, if only he doesn't continue to give Keeganesq press briefings....

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arsenal fans pay Anderson back-handed compliment...

Reports claim that fans at the Emirates stadium booed Manchester United midfielder Anderson when Brazil took on Sweden last night. It is assumed that those who booed the Brazilian were Arsenal fans - no surprise there. Over the years fans have always given rival stars stick, when it happens it's usually a sign that the player in question is doing well, so rather than be upset Anderson should take this as a back-handed compliment. After a somewhat quiet start to his United career the former Porto star has really looked the business for the Red Devils this season.

Elsewhere on a night lacking in high-drama on the pitch, most fans were surely dividing their attention between watching two teams trying to off-load fish on Islington Market as the new series of the Apprentice got under way and France vs England in Paris - which turned out to be a damp squib.

Question; Was anyone surprised that England lost, even though France were seriously under strength? I for one was not. Capello will not provide any answers to England's problems and the sooner everyone realises that the better. Appointing an Italian was a joke, the FA should have given the job to either Steve Coppell or even Alan Curbishley, at least they are English. If we are going to be a laughing stock we might as well do it with one of our own in charge.

An Englishman being slapped around the head with a giant Cod - the FA have beeng doing it for decades to English fans...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Capello right to give Rio skipper's armband...

Fabio Capello has already proven he's not averse to ruffling a few feathers when he left out David Beckham from his first squad. Goldenballs has of course been included in the latest squad that will face France this week, but the really big news is that John Terry hasn't been given the captain's armband, instead it has gone to Rio Ferdinand who says he is delighted and honoured to be the new skipper, if only on a temporary basis until the Italian settles on a permanent captain.

Ferguson recently said that Rio could be an England captain, maybe Fabio has taken the United manager's comments onboard? I personally believe that Rio's style of defending is more effective than John Terry where international football is concerned. Terry isn't that quick and Rio is arguably the best in the business at making interceptions, which in my view is more important than the ability to dive-in and make last-ditch tackles as the Chelsea star has done so expertly for the Blues over the last few seasons.

On top of which United have conceded fewer goals than Chelsea this season in the league, this is another indicator that Rio has been doing an excellent job alongside Vidic whose style is more like that of John Terry.

It's another bold move by the Italian coach and it will be interesting to see how the players respond to the new coach.

Arsenal's title challenge over?

It remains to be seen what will happen to Arsenal following their capitulation against Chelsea at the weekend. Wenger's team failed to deal with the power of Drogba - who looks like he's coming back to his menacing best. Furthermore, this coming weekend Arsenal travel to Bolton where they have dropped points on their travels before and with the Trotters fighting for their Premier League survival, failure to win against Megson's side could signal the end of another title challenge - especially if Manchester United beat Aston Villa at Old Trafford later in the afternoon.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

United serve up Easter feast as Liverpool are thrashed...

Manchester United heaped more pressure onto Arsenal and Chelsea by hammering a strangely out of sorts looking Liverpool team by three goals to nil at Old Trafford on Easter Sunday - a result which could go a long way towards the champions retaining their title.

As early as the fifth minute Wayne Rooney could have - and perhaps should have - opened the scoring when put through on goal by Anderson, but the England striker failed to beat Pepe Reina, in fairness to the former Everton star Jamie Carragher had nudged the United forward before he fired tamely at the Liverpool 'keeper. Four minutes later Rooney was put through again, this time by Paul Scholes, but a very poor first-touch resulted in another let-off for the visitors.

Despite paying Liverpool the compliment of leaving out Carlos Tevez and starting the game with a somewhat cautious 4-3-3 with Scholes and Giggs preferred to Hargreaves and Nani, it was United who looked by far the more dangerous with the visitors failing to seriously test the returning Edwin Van der Sar in the United goal.

Liverpool's goal machine Fernando Torres was kept in check by Rio Ferdinand who had recovered from a back injury. To make matters much worse Rafa Benitez, Javier Mascherano was sent-off after picking up two first half yellow cards. Referee Steve Bennett cautioned the Argentine early on in the game after a series of fouls by the former West Ham star. The final straw came after Scholes had been felled in a challenge that in truth wasn't that bad, but as far as Bennett was concerned it looked to be case of a totting-up offences.

United continued to attack the visitors who were living a somewhat charmed-life as Ronaldo missed another golden opportunity to score, this time from only two yards out when hitting the post after a flicked header by Vidic, only for the linesman to wrongly raise his flag for offside.

Liverpool's luck eventually ran out on 34 minutes after excellent work by Wes Brown who launched an attack by firstly winning the ball back for United, Scholes then found Rooney wide left and his resulting cross was bravely headed-home by the Reds contract rebel. Wes Brown will not score many more important goals in his career and the fans will be hoping this one will go a long way towards securing that new deal...

If the visiting supporters were expecting a Liverpool revival it simply did not materialise and the problems for Benitez were made a lot worse on 40 minutes following another booking by Bennett, this time for Torres and then Mascherano who had continued to verbally badger the referee who had no alternative but to send the Argentine for an early bath.

No doubting that Liverpool and their fans will argue that this was the main turning-point in the game, it wasn't, because in point of fact the Merseyside Reds were lucky not to be three-nil down at that point.

The visitors' mounted a brief five minute offensive midway through the second period, but again without seriously troubling Edwin Van der Sar. Before that Rooney had missed another great chance to put the Reds further ahead when once again clean through on goal, this time the England star pulled the ball down expertly with a glorious first touch only for him to shoot straight at Reina - either side of the Spaniard would have surely led to a certain goal.

The only mystery at that point in the game for many United fans, apart from the narrow one-nil lead, was why it took so long for Fergie to swap the largely ineffective Ryan Giggs for Carlos Tevez. United were facing only ten men yet we had only striker on the pitch. Thankfully, the penny finally dropped as Ferguson sent on Tevez and Nani for Giggs and the tiring Anderson - who had wasted one glorious chance for United to extend their lead only for the Brazilian to blaze high into the Stretford End.

Ronaldo then wasted another gilt-edged opportunity to score when only six yards out as Pepe Reina atoned for some fairly hapless 'keeping by deflecting the ball out of play. However, the Spanish stopper's reprieve was only short-lived as the Portuguese winger wasn't to be denied as he headed home after rising high to meet the ball first ahead of Reina from the resulting corner. It was a goal that was totally in keeping with the general flow of the game and it was thoroughly deserved. Nani then waltzed beyond the half-hearted challenge of two Liverpool defenders before firing into the corner to complete the rout.

The final score flattered Liverpool because if had finished up six or seven nil, they could have had no complaints. Only the most blinkered of Liverpool fans will argue on that point.

Grand slam Sunday: Time for Rooney to deliver...

Ahead of the clash with fierce North West rivals Liverpool the team news for United fans is not good as Rio Ferdinand continues to have back problems. If the England defender does not recover in time to face the Merseyside Reds then it's likely Wes Brown or Gerard Pique will fill-in at centre-back. There's better news to report on the 'keeper situation as early reports suggest that Edwin Van der Sar is likely to return.

With Chelsea and Arsenal facing each other later in the day it's vital that United take all three points from what is always a hard fought contest. The best result for United on what has been billed by Sky Sports as Grand Slam Sunday would be for the Red Devils to beat Liverpool and for Chelsea to draw with Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. If results go to plan for United, it would be a great platform for the Reds to push home their advantage in the final weeks of the season.

If United are to win today they will need to ensure that they do their utmost to ensure that Fernando Torres is kept in check. While the Reds have an impressive home record, there has been some alarming reverses this season, against Man City the team did not function in any way shape or form in what was an abject performance on the day, sans banned Wayne Rooney.

Pompey knocked the Reds out of the FA Cup, after delivering a sucker-punch late on in a game that the home to team should have won comfortably. Earlier this week against Derby at Pride Park United were wasteful in front of goal and worryingly less than rock solid at the back - the excellent Ben Foster had to produce two top drawer saves to deny the Rams. Against Bolton in midweek, while the Reds were able to rely upon the brilliance of Ronaldo the visitors came back into the game in the second-half with United unable to push home their first-half advantage.

Rafa Benitez will be fully aware of any perceived weaknesses in United's recent performances and no doubting today's visitors to Old Trafford will be seeking to exploit any gaps at the back, in particular Fergie will be stressing to his defenders that they must not get caught on the counter-attack.

Ferguson will be keen for his team to win the battle for control of midfield and to that end it's likely that United will start with Carlos Tevez on the bench, which could lead to a midfield stalemate. If that happens then once again the Reds will have to rely on Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney who has the chance to dent Liverpool's hopes of securing a Champions League place - to that end on-looking Evertonian's will no doubt be jumping for joy if their former star can help put one over on their bitter local rivals. The England striker is due a goal and today it could be a case of perfect timing if his goals secure all three points for the home team and for this Red that will more than make up for him missing the Manchester derby through suspension. It is time for Rooney to deliver.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reds go 3 points clear as Chelsea held by Spurs

Wednesday night produced a comfortable win at Old Trafford for United as two piece's of Ronaldo magic sunk Bolton. The Portugese winger bagged a brace with 2 early first half goals to kill off a Bolton team lacking in any kind of killer instinct.

The match was notable for another stunning free kick from the number 7 as Ronaldo unleashed a rasper to strand Bolton goalie Al Habsi. This piece of brilliance came after the fleet-footed forward had already broken the deadlock with a well taken half volley after a goalmouth scramble from a Nani corner.

Ronaldo's quality aside, the biggest talking point of the game was Fergie's team selection, as the wily Scot rested 3 of his 4 first choice defenders ahead of the big game against Liverpool this Sunday. Sir Alex did state that Rio Ferdinand had picked up a knock, but this blogger would be amazed if the cultured centre-half didn't start against United's bitter rivals on Sunday afternoon. The omissions of Paul Scholes, Evra, Wes Brown, Ferdinand and Rooney indicates the gaffer had one eye on the decisive clash at the weekend.

On a side note, Ronaldo was given the United captaincy in what could be part of Ferguson's charm offensive to keep his star man out of Real Madrid's clutches once again this summer.

While the United result never looked in doubt, Chelsea and Tottenham played out a pulsating 4-4 all draw at White Hart Lane. Chelsea will feel they should have won, after squandering the lead on no less than three occassions. Spurs will also feel they should have taken the points though as Ashley Cole should have walked for a horror challenge on Alan Hutton in the first half. Added to that, Dimitar Berbatov missed a golden chance to get a late winner after being denied by a tremendous save from Cudicini.

All in all a good night for United - now 3 clear of the Gunners and 5 points ahead of Chelsea. A win against Liverpool this Sunday will see that lead extended over one if not both of these teams as all eyes will be on Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge when the top four go nose to nose.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bookies make United Champions League favourites...hmm...

Firstly let's kick off this post by wishing a Happy St Patrick's Day to any Irish Reds still sober enough to read this blog, which at 19:22pm, probably isn't very many of you.

The bookmakers were quick to adjust their odds following the Champions League Quarter Final draw this past Friday afternoon and it was much to my surprise when I read over the weekend that United were favourites to win the crown that has so often eluded them. William Hill were today offering 3/1 to that the Red Devils will triumph in Moscow - pretty stingy odds when you consider the quality of competition still left in Europe's premier tournament.

Had United landed on the other side of the draw then I may have been slightly more confident that the Red hoardes will be descending into Russia in 2 months time. Over two legs I would be pretty confident that United could despatch any of our domestic rivals, mainly due to the Red's ability to hit teams where it hurts away from home, and the miserly defending of the irrepressive Vidic and Ferdinand. I would also fancy United to wipe the floor with Fenerbache - despite all the off-pitch difficulties that would come with that particular fixture.

However, as fate would have it, United have landed on the more continental half of the draw, with two gruelling legs against Roma awaiting us in the Quarters. Barcelona and Schalke of Germany contest the other tie on this side of the draw.

Following the drawing of the balls, United and Sir Alex in particular, seemed delighted to have avoided domestic opposition. Unfortunately, I fear this optimism could be misplaced. After Liverpool put away Serie A leaders Inter in both legs and Arsenal passed their way to victory over AC a week earlier, English football seems to be under the impression that Italian football has well and truly hit the buffers.

Many observers will recall that Liverpool could only breach the Inter rearguard after playing for about 65% of the game against 10 men. Again, in the second fixture it took another Inter red card before Torres closed the tie and on this occassion the Inter defence was ravaged by both injury and suspension. As for Arsenal against AC - it was apparent the best team won.

To deem Roma a cake-walk would be a short-sighted view for United fans to take prior to a double header against a team we have already faced four times in the last 12 months. Let us not forget that United looked pretty ordinary in the away leg to Roma last season and this was compounded by a 2-1 reverse in that fixture. The 7-1 demolition in the second leg was probably one of the club's best ever European performances and only the most red tinted of spectacle wearers would predict a repeat of that thrashing this time around. AS Roma are no mugs - just ask Real Madrid who they dumped out of the competition in the last 16.

While I would back United to beat Roma it is no easy assignment and an aggregate score of 8-3 is highly unlikely on this occassion.

Should United get past the Italians then there is the small of matter of Barcelona - arguably possessing some of the best attacking footballers in the world, or indeed Shalke, who have a gargantuan task in trying to stop the Spaniards. United versus Barca over two legs is the game all neutrals, and dare I say most United fans would want to see. After all, it is this type of fixture that the Champions League was made for.

Should United qualify and make it to the Semi's, then it would leave the Red Devils in a situation that we have come accustomed to in the years following the 1999 Nou Camp Final. That situation would be coming up against one of European football's genuine superpowers or coming up against unfancied German opposition.

On both these counts United have scored poorly in Champions League knock-out games. Since lifting the European crown United have faced both Real Madrid and AC Milan twice respectively in knockout Champions League football. On each occassion against both these clubs United have been knocked out of the tournament, be it in a blaze of glory (Madrid 4-3 win at home, lost 6-5 on aggregate) or with their tails between their legs (Milan 2-0 on aggregate in 2005 springs to mind).

Similarly, the men in red have disappointed when put against Bavarian opponents ever since turning over the Germans in the '99 Final. While there may have been no shame in going out to eventual tournament winners Bayern Munich in 2001, most United fans believe the Reds blew a golden opportunity to win the trophy for a 3rd time in 2002 by going out to Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in the semi-finals.

Even FC Porto managed to get past United, with the Portugese outfit even playing in the spirit of true German effiecency under Jose Mourinho, in the tie that arguably put the Special One on the map.

While United can certainly claim not to have had much Champions League luck (99 Final aside), it's a sad reality that we haven't put our mark on this competition in the way that many had hoped for after that night in Barcelona.

In all reality, if United overcome Roma then a tie against the Catalans would hopefully await Sir Alex's team. This could potentially be one of the best Champions League ties of the decade if both sides honour their attacking principles.

If United were to face Shalke, then I, along with most other sane football supporters, would back United to put them to the sword. However that memory of Leverkusen still occurs at semi final time - like a bad dream that won't go away.

United versus Barcelona would be far too close to call with any potential game being over one month away.

However, there's only one thing for certain at this stage of the competition, at 3/1 to win the tournament, this red will be keeping his money in his wallet for the time being.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

United Go Top as Derby Restore Some Pride

It was a good day for United in the Premiership on Saturday as Fergie's men ground out an important 1-0 victory over bottom of the table Derby which springboarded the Reds to the summit of the league table. Even better news was to occur later in the day as Arsenal's league form continued to capitulate with a 1-1 home drawn against Middlesboro - leaving the Red Devils at the top of the shop on goal difference, but with a crucial game in hand.

The win over Paul Jewell's Rams should have been business as usual for Fergie's boys, however this win was far from routine. Derby were coming into this one after a 6-1 spanking at Stamford Bridge in midweek and for the first twenty minutes it seemed inevitable that they would have their collective asses handed to them once again as United, and Ronaldo in particular, carved open some excellent chances.

However United spurned chances and as Derby weathered the storm it was they who nearly took the lead before the break, with United debutant Ben Foster twice denying Scotsman Kenny Miller.

Indeed it was fairly lively debut for Foster, who had a good game despite leaving some question marks over his kicking. Interestingly, his opposite number was former United goalie Roy Carroll, who probably had a better game in this one than many he had when representing the Red Devils.

Thankfully for United, the Irishman's goal was eventually breached with Wayne Rooney crossing in for the unstoppable Ronaldo to put away his 31st goal of the season in the 74th minute. After the Portuguese had broken the deadlock the result was never in doubt, with Carroll again having to deny his former team mates on more than one occasion.

The importance of this result was compounded by the news that Arsenal were later held to their fourth league draw on the trot with Middlesboro grabbing a share of the spoils at the Emirates. Ironically for the Gunners it was Arsenal old boy Jerome Aliadiere who did for them with a goal for the Smoggies on his return to North London. Kolo Toure bagged a late leveler for the Gunners but it wasn't enough to return Wenger's team to pole position.

This could be a crucial weekend in the title race with Arsenal gearing up to face Chelsea, Liverpool and United in three out of their next four league fixtures. Not to mention the added distraction of what could be two energy sapping games against Liverpool in the Champions League during this spell.

Only a fool would count Chelsea out of the race and despite some poor cup results, Avram Grant's flat track bullies are stalking the top two with brutal efficiency. Another league game and another win saw Chelsea's impressive league form continue at Sunderland as John Terry popped up with a crucial goal to put Roy Keane's Blackcats to the sword. This leaves Grant's men within just 3 points of both United and Arsenal, and like United, they have a game in hand on the Gunners.

Those games in hand will happen this Wednesday night as United entertain local rivals Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea travel to their Carling Cup conquerors Tottenham Hotspur. United have eminently the more winnable fixture and while Bolton will be looking to inflict an unlikely double over the Champions, Ferguson has enough aces in his pack to get a measure of revenge over Megson's men. Make no mistake, if United fail to put a bit of daylight between themselves and Arsenal on Wednesday night, then it can be considered an outright disaster by anyone's standards.

Chelsea will also have revenge on their minds as they go into the first of two consecutive clashes against North London opposition. Spurs made Chelsea look ordinary in the Carling Cup Final and the Ramos Revolutionaries will be more than confident of taking some points off their bitter local rivals on Wednesday night. The match may also be a true litmus test of Chelsea's title aspirations, the team from the Kings Road have bulldozed inferior opponents all season (Barnsley aside), but have come up short in the big league matches and in two recent cup ties. If they are going to keep pace with the leaders then the Stamford Bridge outfit really need to take something at White Hart Lane and while their outstanding record on this ground shouldn't be ignored, Ramos's team may have a psychological advantage following their Wembley victory.

In the cold light of day, even a Chelsea loss won't knock them out of the race this Wednesday, chiefly because both United and Arsenal need to visit the Blues before the end of the season and Chelsea's home record is second to none. However, failure to take the points against Spurs will leave Grant with a bloody nose, and the media, possibly along with Chelsea honcho Roman Abramovich, will start to sharpen those knives once again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

FA guilty of duplicity over Queiroz comments...

Last week Sepp Blatter called for more protection for players like Cristiano Ronaldo and the very unfortunate Eduardo who will be out of the game for up to 15 long month's with a badly broken leg following a poor tackle committed by Birmingham's Martin Taylor.

Immediately after the recent game between Birmingham and Arsenal in which the Croatia striker sustained that serious injury, Arsene Wenger called for a life-ban for Taylor. The FA did not charge the Arsenal manager with bringing the game into disrepute, largely because Wenger, in part, retracted his earlier comments, added to which Wenger got the sympathy vote.

Last weekend Manchester United were dumped out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth. It was a defeat largely of the Reds' own making. The game did not pass without a huge degree of controversy. The main talking point, which later proved to be Fergie's biggest post-match gripe was a cast-iron penalty for a first-half rugby style block by Sylvain Distin on Ronaldo, but referee Martin Atkinson did not give the award.

Atkinson went on to award a penalty to the visitors in the second-half, but there was more controversy here because the referee decided to send off Tomas Kuszczak, United's stand-in 'keeper, there was a fair degree of debate about whether or not it was actually a sending-off. Not only had Atkinson got one big decision completely wrong, he had allowed the visiting players to block and stop Ronaldo when making no attempt to play the ball without Atkinson brandishing the yellow card early enough. The referee had a stinker of a game and few, barring the many Reds detractors, would argue with that.

In a TV interview Fergie later blasted Atkinson and referee's assessor Keith Hackett, when saying that his performances needed to be monitored too. For this the United manager has been summoned by the FA to answer questions about his remarks with the threat of a trumped-up 'bringing the game into disrepute' charge.

As if to make matters worse in a live post-match TV interview, United's assistant manager Carlos Quieroz then went on to make an unfortunate comparison between the treatment dished out to Ronaldo and Eduardo when appearing to attack Martin Taylor. To his credit, like Wenger before him, Quieroz later retracted his comments when apologising to Taylor, yet along with Ferguson he too has been summoned to face the FAs Kangaroo court.

So over the last two weeks the president of FIFA has spoken out about the need to protect players, Arsene Wenger has also voiced his concerns, as did Gordon Taylor (PFA) along with Fergie and Queiroz, but the United duo will have to answer questions about their comments, even though the Reds' assistant manager has already apologised. Clearly this is a case of duplicity in action where Quieroz and the FA are concerned.

Fergie has not retracted his comments about Hackett, why should he? Clearly many high-profile figures within the game are not happy with the standard of refereeing and protection afforded to the players. Something needs to be done to improve the standard of refereeing in England. The question is what? Personally, I'm not in favour of the threat of a life-ban for tackles which led to Eduardo ending up out of the game for 15 months, reason being there's a huge element of doubt about Taylor's intentions. By going down this slippery road there's a serious danger that we could end up taking tackling out of the game altogether, which would be totally ridiculous.

By attacking Hackett, Fergie has at least brought the debate out into the public domain, something has to be done. The resulting fines for the United management duo will amount to a slap on the wrist. However, the fear is that the FA will believe that in fining Fergie and Queiroz they have dealt with the issue, this must not cannot be allowed to happen, the issue isn't about managers' speaking out, the issue should be about raising the standard of ****-poor refereeing and how to deal with players who commit dangerous fouls.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Shambolic United dumped out of FA Cup aided by appalling referee...

As FA Cup upsets go, Portsmouth dumping Manchester United out of the FA Cup in a quarter final at Old Trafford is arguably as big as any in the Reds illustrious history of this grand old competition. No doubting the bookies and those who despise everything that the Red Devils stand for, including the Pompey fans, will be absolutely delighted at the outcome of what was a very unlikely one-nil victory.

Pompey supporters cannot say that they truly deserved this win, because it came about in no small part down to extremely poor refereeing and bad finishing by the home team.

The game should have been put to bed by half-time, the fact that it wasn't was down to an out of sorts looking Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, both contrived to miss gilt-edged chances when through on goal with only David James to beat.

For his part, the man-in-the-middle Martin Atkinson, will not want to see replays of one of the worst decisions that fans have ever seen at Old Trafford. The referee denied United a blatant first-half penalty when Sylvain Distin clearly made no attempt to play the ball as he took Cristiano Ronaldo out with what can only described as bodycheck that was more in keeping with the code of rugby rather than association football.

No doubting the pundit buffoons will trot-out the often used excuse 'the fact that Ronaldo goes looking for them probably influenced the referee's decision', that school of thought is complete and utter rubbish. Only those looking to cover the sorry ass of Martin Atkinson will repeat that line, along with those basking in the after-glow of this unlikely victory will agree with that assertion.

Pathetic refereeing apart, United only have themselves to blame for not reaching this year's FA Cup semi-final. Prior to today's game, the United manager had once again swung the selection lottery wheel of fortune and today's lucky numbers included number 18, Paul Scholes, at the expense of the younger and more energetic Anderson. While Scholes has done well in some games since his return from a long injury absence, like Wayne Rooney, he did not cover himself in glory today, in fact no one in the Red shirt played that well, but still United created enough chances to have won two games. It was that bad.

Late in the second period against the odds and with the tie looking likely to go to a replay, Pompey launched a counter-attack which caught United napping, Kranjcar broke down the right and played in substitute Baros, who was brought down by stand-in Kuszczak, who had replaced Edwin van der Sarr at half-time. There was no doubt it was another cast-iron penalty, but the hapless official then sent-off the United 'keeper - even though the Reds had two players behind the Polish stopper.

This defeat is very worrying for United fans for a number of reasons. Firstly, as many fans have pointed out on more than one occasion already this season, Ferguson clearly still does not know what his strongest team is. The United manager cannot keep on leaving out Anderson.

Secondly, United once again struggled at home against another well organised defence, the same thing happened in the derby and against Lyon, if the Reds are to go on and win the Premier league and Champions League then they will have to do better than they did today against what was a hard-working but workman like team of journeymen.

Rooney looked sluggish, there's no doubting his brilliance, but against Pompey he lost the ball and made the wrong decisions and coupled with Ronaldo not firing on all cylinders the Reds were unable to unlock the door and even when they did, like when Carrick was put through by Ronaldo late-on, the former West Ham star could not finish. It was one of those days.

Thirdly, while United only have themselves and Atkinson to blame for this defeat. Ferguson's options are limited in the striker department; this is largely a situation of his own making, as he maintains his squad is good enough. Few Reds that I know personally agree with Fergie on this point and today it was highlighted, with our very own man-in-bandages, aka Louis Saha once again picking up another injury in the warm up before today's game. Unbelievable.

Finally, in the same week that Sepp Blatter has been dishing out edicts on just about everything perhaps the FIFA president can bring out a new test (which includes a visit to SpecSavers) in a bid to ensure that referee's actually know the rules of the game, going off today Martin Atkinson would surely fail any such test.

Blathering Blatter wrong over Taylor tackle on Eduardo...

Sepp Blatter went on the offensive earlier this week stating that those who 'deliberately' go out to harm opponents should receive longer bans when players like Arsenal's Eduardo are on the end of career threatening tackles. Immediately after the game that ended with the Croatian striker being rushed to hospital, an emotional Arsene Wenger called for a life-ban for Martin Taylor who had committed the foul, however, the Arsenal manager later retracted that statement when saying he had himself gone over the top when giving his damning judgement on the future of the Birmingham defender.

However, Blatter has reignited the debate on career threatening tackles, the FIFA president has often courted controversy with his forthright views on issues which affect the world game. The big problem with this latest threat is who decides when a player has deliberately gone out to injure an opponent? Take the example of Martin Taylor, most 'expert pundits' have agreed that Taylor's tackle on Eduardo was clumsy rather than malicious.

Call it badly timed, or clumsy no one wants to see a repeat of the type of injuries sustained by the unfortunate Eduardo who could be out for up to 15 long months. But while Blatter will have gained widespread support from the supporters over his staunch opposition to the Premier League's controversial 39th money-grabbing game proposal, the FIFA president will have bewildered fans in equal measure over this latest unworkable threat to dish out extra punishment for those who have been adjudged to have been guilty of reckless tackling.

There is an argument which suggests that players do need some form of greater protection if injuries such as the one sustained by Eduardo are to be avoided in the future, but as supporters will testify, even with the aid of TV replays on too many occasions the FA et al cannot be trusted to get decisions 100% right, and going down the path of issuing lengthy bans for clumsy challenges will only lead to yet more controversy, it is unlikely to solve the problem. For this reason, no doubting many supporters will be hoping that common sense prevails and that this latest edict will be consigned to the seemingly ever growing Blatter junk-pile along with some his previous bad ideas like the "golden" and "silver" goals.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Are United really good enough to win the Champions League?

Ferguson is arguably the best British manager of all time; at least he is based on the number of domestic trophies that he was won for both United and Aberdeen. However, in Europe doubts persist about his tactical nouse, some Reds believe that if United are going to win Europe's premier club competition this season it will largely be in spite of the manager. Fergie has himself admitted tactics are not his strongest point. Time and time again United have failed to reach the Champions League final and on Tuesday they once again reached the quarter final by disposing of Lyon, some pundits have described the Reds passage to the last eight as comfortable - that view is charitable, in truth on the night both teams were poor.

Personally, I was totally baffled by Fergie's starting selection, because on a night when United needed to win at home with the backing of 75,000 fans and you do not have an out and out striker, then you need to play with two up front, but no, amazingly Carlos Tevez was left on the bench. It was only late on in the second period following the introduction of the Argentine that United looked like a team who might be capable of winning the competition, until that point they had been unimpressive.

Leaving out the former West Ham striker was a totally ridiculous decision and one which had all the hallmarks of a manager riven by fear of losing. United have a tradition of going forward and attacking teams, they are not very good at defending a slim advantage, which made the manager's starting selection against Lyon all the more baffling.

It isn't the first time that Fergie has got it totally wrong; when Porto controversially knocked United out of the competition in 2004 he left Ronaldo out of both starting line-ups.

In the San Siro against AC Milan last season, the players didn't even appear to have the right boots on. It had been a very wet day and yet when the game started too many United defenders were slipping and falling over, but the home team had no problem on this tricky surface. The Reds were pretty much dead and buried after the first 45 minutes as they once again went on to whimper out of the competition. The AC Milan defeat wasn't about poor tactics, it was worse than that, the Reds failed on the basics of preparation, they went out without giving themselves a chance. It was a bit like sending out your leading batsman, sans bat. Milan didn't beat United, they humiliated us winning three-nil on the night.

Given United's appalling European record, few if any Reds will be that surprised if the manager and his team once again fail this season. However, there is every reason to hopeful, many would back United to win against any of the remaining teams in the competition, but nonetheless there's a nagging feeling that if it is going to happen then it could be down to luck rather than judgment on the manager's part.

United have arguably the best equiped team with the least tactically sound manager in the last eight. Leaving out Tevez against Lyon at Old Trafford does not bode well for what remains of the competition and only die-hard red-tinted spectacle wearing United fans will argue otherwise.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

United to bank on Iron Curtain to keep Moscow hopes alive...

If Manchester United are to reach this year's Champions League final in May, then they will have to keep Karim Benzema quiet tonight when Lyon are the visitors to Old Trafford. The concern for Ferguson is the French striker has already notched against the Reds in the first-leg in a manner which suggests that there's an awful lot more to come from a player who is being courted by Europe's top clubs including the Red Devils.

Benzema has a bit of everything, and for once it looks like the hype surrounding a potential transfer target is justified, he appears to be the real deal. Despite the wealth of talent at the club United do not have a striker who poses the same threat when deployed on his own up front. At Monday's pre-match press conference Fergie said "Benzema plays as a lone striker and he's a goal threat because of that." Conversely, one could have asked the United manager if Rooney plays up front on his own will he pose more of a threat? The answer to that question is an emphatic no, which only serves to highlight a slight weakness in the current squad.

The United manager went to say that the Lyon striker scored a goal out of nothing, which is true - he could have scored more goals against the Reds in that opening leg of this tie. It is therefore vital that everyone in that United team does their defensive duties to a man against Lyon and that includes the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney, but above all others Vidic and Ferdinand will be told that they must ensure Benzema is not allowed to once again breach the Reds Iron Curtain otherwise hopes of another European Cup final could well lay in tatters as has happened too many times in the past.

Come tomorrow; let's hope all the headlines are about Rooney and Ronaldo driving the Reds a bit further down the road that leads to Moscow.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

United turn up the heat on Arsenal...

As expected United took all three points from the clash with Fulham earlier today when running out comfortable three-nil winners in what turned out to be a very one-sided game. Owen Hargreaves registered his goal for the club when he out thought Fulham 'keeper Niemi on 15 minutes to open the scoring with a stunning free-kick from 20 yards out.

Fergie had predictably started the game sans Ronaldo and Rooney. Louis Saha made a rare start against his former club, on five minutes the Frenchman contrived to miss a sitter before United opened the scoring. Despite looking very much second best Fulham managed to create an excellent chance of their own, the visitors had to rely on Edwin van der Sarr who denied Danny Murphy when saving his point-blank header.

United went on to waste a hatful of chances before Ji-Sung Park eventually made it two-nil on 44 minutes and once again the Reds player of the first-half Scholes was the creator, the ginger prince crossed and the Korean winger headed home to effectively end the game as a contest.

The second-half went a bit flat and it came as no surprise that Rooney and Ronaldo were introduced on 69 minutes for Tevez and Saha. With 18 minutes to go Davies had the misfortune to score an own goal when diverting John O'Shea's shot.

While United were strolling to victory in West London, Arsenal were struggling at the Emirates against Aston Villa and had to rely on an injury equaliser to salvage a point from a game that by all accounts they didn't deserve anything. There's going to be a lot of twists and turns in what remains of the title race, but fans are starting to ask if the Gunners are starting to wobble under pressure from United? Time will tell.