Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why winning Carling Cup isn't do or die for United...

It has been a rather boring week where United are concerned. West Ham visited Old Trafford on Tuesday and were sent packing back to London on their private jet (so much for no money) with what they deserved, precisely nothing. It was a thoroughly yawnful affair; the only bright spot was the goals; two from Rooney and one for second half substitute, Michael Owen. As a contest, the West Ham game isn't really worthy of further comment, the Hammers were that bad.

Next up, United face Aston Villa at Wembley in Sunday's Carling Cup final. The much maligned competition might well be United's best chance of winning silverware in what is turning into a very up and down season. Nonetheless, the Carling Cup isn't the manager's number one priority; it pales into insignificance with the prestige of winning either the Premier League or the FA Cup - the daddy of all competitions is of course the Champions League.

However, ahead of the two semi-final legs with Manchester City, the fans' wanted to secure a final place at any cost; we simply had to stop City winning a trophy, because they would in all probability have won the final. In the end and to the relief of the Red Army, the champions put City in their place. Since then the fortunes of both Manchester clubs have gone in very different directions; City have slumped badly and were knocked out of the FA Cup by Stoke City. In contrast, United are doing well on all fronts (aside from our dreadful performance in the FA Cup against the Neanderthals' from Leeds); we secured our first win against Milan in the intimidating San Siro and despite losing at Everton in the league, we are within touching distance of the leaders Chelsea.

Whatever the result is at Wembley on Sunday it will not be a disaster; in the context of the season so far; losing Rooney due to serious injury would truly be a major setback; quite simply because United have become over-reliant on one player. It really shouldn't be like this, but it is. In the pre-match build up Ferguson has strongly hinted Rooney might be rested and you can understand that decision if it comes about.

In other news this week, Anderson has been ruled out for the season; sadly the Brazilian's absence will be no great loss which says much about the player's lack of progress this season.

Edwin van der Sar signed a new contract and again this says a lot about Ferguson's current goalkeeping options. The Dutch stopper has been the pick of the bunch despite some questionable performances.

It is be hoped the manager spends some of the transfer funds he claims he access to when the window opens, but instead all we are reading about right now is talk of a summer clear-out with the likes of Michael Owen and Anderson reportedly ear-marked for the exit door.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rooney comes back to earth with a bang after "Lord Mayor's Show"...

United went to Milan last week in the Champions League for the first leg of their round of 16 tie, the champions were fortunate to avoid a first-half spanking, to their credit they came back strongly and won for the first time against the Italian giants.

On Saturday United were not so lucky against an in-form Everton side who have recently beaten league leaders Chelsea at Goodison Park. United went on to deservedly lose 3-1, and that was after they'd taken an early lead through Dimitar Berbatov.

Everton hit back strongly with a first-half eqauliser on 19 minutes from Bilyaletdinov. From that point onwards the Toffees were by far the better side. David Moyes showed he's not the only manager with the midas touch when he sent on Gosling and Rodwell, who both scored in the second-half to give Everton a handsome but rare victory over Ferguson.

After the game the United manager didn't use tiredness as an excuse, but he hinted it might have been a factor following the trip to Milan, but let us not forget the champions had the benefit of no Premier League fixture the previous weekend.

Ferguson didn't actually make any excuses when admitting United were very much second best against Everton. It was a very sloppy performance and too many players looked jaded and off colour. While Everton scored good goals the United manager will be concerned about the defending.

Evans and Evra should have done better for the first goal, but a slip by the Frenchman allowed Bilyaletdinov to run free and strike low and hard beyond the unsighted Van der Sar.

Valencia was caught ball watching on Everton's second goal when he should have been picking up his runner, and that allowed a free run and cross into the United penalty area and a goal for Gosling.

At the other, United' hero in Milan, Wayne Rooney had a very poor game; he lost control of the ball more or less every time it went anywhere near him. In the first half, Berbatov put Rooney through on goal with a brilliant flick but an unlucky touch with his left boot pushed the ball wide and the chance to score was gone in an instant - it could have been a very different result but for that unfortunate touch.

Rooney was very unlucky not to score from a second-half free-kick, only the faintest of touches from the head of Distin denied the United striker. Apart from that it really was a day to forget for Rooney.

As the game went on the pattern never really looked like changing and it cried out for substitutions; sadly from a United perspective the introduction of Scholes, Owen and Obertan had no effect. Valencia, Berbatov and Park made way, but if Rooney had been taken off he would have had no cause to complain.

While Fergie's changes made little or no impact it was David Moyes who stole the headlines along with Gosling and Rodwell, the latter scored a superb late goal to hammer the final nail into United's coffin; but again Ferguson will not be happy given the Everton youngster ran fully 20 yards with the ball and was unchallenged before firing home from inside the box.

It has been a very strange week, United have defended badly in their last two games, but they came away from Milan with a great result, sadly, that wasn't the case at Goodison Park yesterday where once again they defended poorly.

As for the strikers, it wasn't that long ago that Fergie was adamant that United needed four top quality strikers; in sharp contrast, many pundits would agree we now have just the one and you do wonder if Rooney is starting to feel the strain. United are undoubtedly relying on the 'white Pete' too much and everyone knows it.

The champions are back in action against West Ham on Tuesday when the Hammers visit Old Trafford, there's no time for resting and it remains to be seen if the manager will freshen up his attack in a bid to quickly get back to winning ways.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Should Fergie send Vidic to Coventry?...

I'm certain I'm not the only United fan who is more than a bit concerned about Nemanja Vidic's no-shows this season. The Serbian pulled out of the recent fateful FA cup tie with Leeds. If we are to believe the rumours, that was by no means the first time there has been question marks about Vidic's willingness to pull on the red shirt.

We have been led to believe the player has started to suffer with niggling injury problems; it is quite hard to accept given this hitherto man of iron has seemingly transformed into another Louis Saha - a player who needed to be wrapped in cotton wool. Unlike Saha, Vidic has been a regular first choice pick and the feeling was United's former French striker was something of a mard arse. So much so that in the end it was something of a blessed relief when Saha was sold to Everton, he had become a pain in the backside.

Fergie was asked about Vidic's injury problems prior to the Milan game this week; he didn't hide his frustration, when letting it be known the player has been in full training for fully 10 days. It isn't as if Vidic has been out injured with a broken leg, or that he's had a big operation like Hargreaves, no, not a bit of it. The clear inference being there's nothing wrong with Vidic - he is fit to play.

Whatever game Vidic is playing it is likely to end in tears - if he's angling for an improved deal, someone needs to tell him he is going about it the wrong way.

Personally, I'm amazed that Fergie has put up with the nonsense for as long as he has and I have no faith in Vidic's claims about him wanting to stay at the club for the duration of his contract. I fully expect Vidic to be sold either to one of the big Spanish club's or else the self proclaimed "biggest club in the world" Man City.

Vidic had hero status, but he is fast becoming a full blown Pariah.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Milan v United: Iceman Rooney earns his 'big game' stripes......

Last night's Champions League clash with AC Milan was one of the strangest United games for many a long year. The champions were simply dreadful in the opening minutes in front a packed San Siro. United could so easily have been three-nil down after just eleven minutes. The Reds had deservedly gone behind on just three minutes following a poor attempted clearance by Patrice Evra from a Beckham free-kick that fell kindly to the feet of Ronaldinho, who scored with a deflected effort that gave Van der Sar no chance.

Frankly, United could have had no complaints if they'd conceded three or four in the opening period, but amazingly they went into the half-time break on level terms thanks to another bizarre goal, this time from Paul Scholes, who somewhat embarrassingly scored with his standing leg.

As the game entered the second period the champions slowly gained more confidence as they clawed their way back into what was turning into an absorbing contest: as United got better, in contrast Milan visibly wilted, which made it compelling viewing.

Ferguson had taken the unusual step of electing to start with Fletcher on the left, no doubt in a bid to curb David Beckham (a point that went completely over the head of Sky's "expert" pundit Andy Gray...). Once United's midfield trio of Fletcher, Carrick and Scholes took control of midfield the goal scoring opportunities soon followed. Rooney had been fed off scraps in the first-half, but as United gained confidence, they started play to a more incisive brand of football and Milan had no answer.

One of the key moments of the second-half was the introduction of Valencia for Nani, who had a poor game. United's Portuguese winger has had a good month, but against Milan he was back to his worst, he was quite simply awful, his final ball was more often than not way off target.

It came as no surprise that Nani was hauled off, and it didn't take his replacement long to make an impact. It was Valencia who supplied a superb cross to the back stick where he found Rooney who rose like a Salmon and calmly planted his header over Dida in the Milan goal and into the top corner.

At this point United were very much on top and they made their superiority pay with another pin-point cross, this time from Fletcher. The Scotland midfield star dissected the Milan centre-backs and found the head of unmarked Rooney, who took his goal in the manner of a training ground knockout. Rooney has been superb in front of goal this season and Ferguson's faith has been repaid in spades.

However, while there is much to celebrate, there was also some degree of concern because Rooney collected a yellow card for his troubles. In another clash Rooney's boot appeared to make contact with the head of Milan's Bonera, which left the Italian defender nursing a sore head as well as a centre parting. But the last thing United need now is to lose Rooney due to ill-discipline.

It was by no means a dirty contest, but Michael Carrick was sent-off, harshly it has to be said, for kicking the ball away, it was his second booking of the night and as a result he will miss the return leg at Old Trafford.

Clarence Seedorf came off the bench and scored would could prove to be a vital second goal late on for Milan with a clever flick that beat Van der Sar all ends up at his near post.

United ended up three two winners, but it could so easily have been very different. Rio Ferdinand was the pick of United's back four, he made one vital second-half block that almost certainly would have resulted in a goal but for the new England captain's intervention. Rooney was United's man of the match, largely because of his coolness in front of goal.

United should be confident of progressing through to the last eight, but they will know Milan pose a serious threat with players like Pato, Beckham, Pirlo and Ronaldinho.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nothing lucky about United's own goals...

SO United's second top scorer with ten has the initials 'OG', that'll be Mr Own Goal. No doubting we can look forward to the experts having their say on what is admittedly an unusually high number of OG’s, on what will be a relatively quiet FA Cup weekend.

Darren Fletcher has put his finger on the reason why the champions have been forcing defenders into making so many mistakes; it is the weight of pressure being exerted on to United's opponents inside their own penalty area.

United currently lie in second place in the table, just a point adrift of Chelsea, but the champions have a goal difference of 41, that's two more than the league leaders, but there's absolutely nothing lucky about the number of goals Fergie's team have plundered, it is down to tactics and getting the ball into dangerous areas.

Unlike many Premier League sides, especially those outside of the leading contenders, United get the ball wide; players like Valencia, Nani and Giggs then play dangerous balls across the box and that is why so many defenders have been made to look foolish. In contrast, all too often, teams from the mid to lower reaches of England's top division tend to play balls from deep into central areas; they do not pull opposing central defenders out of position.

The secret is to make those opposing central defenders turn so they are not facing you and to get your attacking players in and around your opponent’s penalty area; this in turn creates space, and often panic. It is easier said than done and of course not every club has players like Giggs, Valencia and Nani. In Rafael da Silva and Evra, United can also apply pressure from over-lapping fullbacks; both have created goals this season.

United would score even more goals if they had the perfect foil for Wayne Rooney, but currently they don't. The fact that Fergie is relying so heavily on his only genuine goal-scoring talisman is a major concern. If Rooney gets injured for any length of time, there's no way Mr OG will finish up top scorer and it's doubful the club will retain the title.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

St Gerrard would have got away with Nani challenge...

United took a creditable point from last night's clash with Aston Villa after playing for an hour with only ten men. With Chelsea losing at Everton and Liverpool losing at Arsenal it was a pretty good night for the champions. Few will have backed the Toffees to beat the West London club, and United fans will have taken a degree of satisfaction from hearing that Liverpool's top four aspirations took another knock at the Emirates.

The main talking point of United's performance at Villa Park surrounded the sending off of Nani for a two footed lunge at Stiliyan Petrov - at least that is how Peter Walton saw it. It wasn't a good challenge; Ferguson later described it as naive - 'poor' would have been a better word.

Fergie went on to say Nani isn't a dirty player; he's right on that score. Nani doesn't have a reputation, other than that of being a diver, so we United fans cannot suggest the referee had it in for him. But when you looked at the TV replays, Nani appeared to be going for the ball and not the man. It was a challenge right out of the Steven Gerrard archives.

I've seen Gerrard go over the ball on countless occasions, he was at it in last weekend's Merseyside derby - ironically when Liverpool were also down to ten men; however, there's one big difference between player's like St Gerrard and Nani. The Liverpool captain consistently gets away with making rash challenges whereas others like Nani are not so lucky.

I have no idea why St Gerrard gets away with making so many bad challenges, but he does, more so than any other leading player that I can recall.

Carping aside, the Villa Park result was a fair one, neither team deserved to lose. Giggsy was sent for an arm x-ray, but apart from that United can now look forward to the trip to Milan next with no game this coming weekend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steward sacking: Glazers' ensure spotlight is on "Green and Gold" campaign...

Oh dear, they've scored another own goal. I'm not referring Portsmouth, no, I'm on about the Glazer family and CES who provide the stewards on match-days at Old Trafford. If I'm being totally honest, I find it quite difficult to feel sorry for Granville Boden, who has been sacked for handing back an anti Glazer banner to its owners after it was confiscated at the recent Burnley game. It isn't personal, I don't know Boden, he's probably a decent bloke and he could have been a reasonable steward, not all of them are total ****s. Judging by his actions, Boden clearly is a decent bloke, he is a long-standing fan too.

The problem is being a steward has taken on a stigma at Old Trafford, at least that is the view of many supporters; this is largely because of their heavy handed approach to stewarding, some of them are proper little Hitlers.

But in the defence of the stewards, just like the Nazis' they are only "carrying out orders". In this case, we are referring to directives from the very top to clamp down on anything or anyone who speaks out against the Glazer regime.

But what the Glazers and CES are doing is actually counter productive; in sacking Boden and removing those banners, the fans Green and Gold campaign is being given even greater exposure in the media. It's win, win for the fans'.

Keep it up Malc and & Co, at this rate everyone will soon be sporting the Green and Gold.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Glazers' strongarm tactics failing to silence Green and Gold revolution...

The Green and Gold campaign to oust the Glazer family from Old Trafford is gathering pace. At yesterday's Premier League clash with Portsmouth, the colours Green and Gold were much in evidence as the Champions ran out comfortable 5-0 winners. Two Green and Gold banners were held aloft towards the end of the game but were subsequently forcibly taken down by club 'stewards'.

It isn't the first time these so called stewards' have taken such action recently and no doubting it won't be the last. In the bigger picture, it is unlikely to have any effect on the campaign; if anything it just gives it more publicity. BBC5 Live's commentary team repeatedly gave mention to the swathes of Green and Gold colours in the stands, the stewards’ action didn't go unnoticed either.

February 6th is of course a special day in the United calendar, it marks the anniversary of the 1958 Munich air disaster in which so many players and club officials lost their lives.

Prior to the Portsmouth clash that fell on the anniversary of that fateful day, a minute's silence was impeccably held, it was befitting of the occasion. At the end of the tribute the supporters' held aloft their scarves, many of them in the green and gold of Newton Heath. Predictably, once again a club steward was caught by the media telling a supporter to put down his Green and Gold club colours. But again the act backfired as Radio 5 Live's presenter conveyed the act to tens of millions of fans listening around the world...

It was a day that the team scored five goals on the pitch and the Glazers' henchmen scored a net full of it as the Green and Gold anti Glazer movement gathers more steam.

United dust Pompey's rubbing rags, as Berbatov shines...

The five-nil score-line didn't tell the whole story, but it didn't flatter United either, as the champions predictably secured a comfortable win over relegation certs Portsmouth.

However, in the early exchanges Saturday's visitors to Old Trafford could easily have taken the lead: Jonny Evans had to make a goal-line clearance from El Hadj with Edwin van der Sar beaten. But once again it was Wayne Rooney who opened the scoring five minutes before the interval with an easy header from a pin-point Darren Fletcher cross from United's right. While it was a good United goal, there were question marks about David James who failed to react in a bid to deny Rooney.

Vanden Borre deflected a Nani effort beyond David James to make it two-nil ahead of the break and once again the England stopper was beaten too easily. On what turned out to be a nightmare day for the Portsmouth defenders', they weren't helped a bit by their veteran 'keeper, whose reactions were that of a 46-year-old and not a 36-year-old.

From that point on, as a contest it was game over. Pompey conceded three second-half goals, Hughes deflected a good Michael Carrick drive into his own net on 59 minutes. Three minutes later, Dimitar Berbatov scored the goal of the game following a clever run that started deep inside the Portsmouth penalty area, Ben-Haim looked to have initially shadowed the Bulgarian to the relative safety of the edge of the visitors' box, but then elected to leave the United striker unmarked, the £30m man wasted no time as he drilled home a low curling effort beyond James.

It was a pretty good day for Berbatov who was the pick of the United team: if you give good players time and space they will punish you and that is exactly what happened. Berbatov had several 'eye-catching' moments, his goal was the pick of the bunch, but a second-half flick over the head of a Pompey defender to the feet of Nani inside the box ran it close. Rooney, Fletcher and Berbatov were replaced late on. Not surprisingly, the Bulgarian was given a standing ovation - which hasn't happened often enough since his big money move to United.

Mark Wilson had the indignity of scoring the fifth and what a beauty it was too, Patrice Evra crossed from the left and the Pompey defender thundered his well placed volley beyond James, in so doing scoring a genuine contender for own goal of the season.

On a day of embarrassment in and around the visitors' penalty area, it was left to new boy Diouf to miss an open goal after good work by Michael Owen.

It turned out to be an excellent day on and off the pitch, as the fans' Green and Gold campaign against the Glazers' gathers pace. The home fans could be heard singing anti Glazer songs throughout the contest and there was plenty of green and gold in the crowd.

On the day United went back to the top of the table, it wasn't a perfect weekend as far as our local rivals are concerned with Liverpool somewhat fortunately winning the Merseyside derby 1-0. But City lost again this time 2-1 at Hull, as their Carling Cup exit hangover continues: the travelling City fans could be heard singing "USA, USA, USA" at the KC Stadium, however, the same ironic chants were rammed down their bitter throats when Hull City's American striker Altidore opened the scoring which promptly led to the home fans singing "USA, USA, USA". Sweet.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The ghost of Ronaldo comes back to haunt Arsenal in the form of Nani....

United put on a vintage performance in the capital yesterday that saw them crush title rivals Arsenal 3-1. It could have been and should have been a greater margin. Arsenal defended badly, but United were right on top of their game following the morale boosting win over Manchester City in midweek. Prior to that Carling Cup semi-final, you wondered how the result would affect the champions: win it and it could give United momentum for the challenges ahead and that is precisely how things look going forward.

City were in action too on Sunday, they were lucky to come out 2-0 winners against bottom of the table Pompey at the Council House, aka Eastlands: in his post-match interview, City manager, Roberto Mancini said that his players were 'tired' after midweek, he actually said it twice. Compare and contrast with the champions who showed no sign of fatigue at the Emirates - that is what winning can do for you.

It has been a magnificent week for Ferguson and his players. Against Arsenal every single United player did their job well, but two stood out; Nani and Rooney.

Nani has been written off more times than I care to recall on this blog: at various times he has been described as 'a waste of space', 'hopelessly inconsistent' and a 'show pony', I will not retract a single word. The player fully deserved those unwanted tags. It is precisely why his manager has seen fit to leave him on the sidelines for so long.

However, Nani has been reborn in his last three games, so much so that he has been man of the match in all three. The Portuguese winger came to Old Trafford with a hefty price tag around his neck and with expectations to match. At times he has shown the odd moment of brilliance, but we haven't been treated to many of those showman back-flips since his early days, largely because the brilliance hasn't been much in evidence. Not surprisingly, he fell out with Ferguson in a very public way after talking to the press about the way the manager has treated him.

It is never wise to cross Ferguson: those that do pay the price. Nani has paid his penance and as Mike Phelan said in his post-match interview yesterday "a big penny has dropped, Nani can be a Manchester United player".

It isn't stretching the facts to state that at times against Arsenal, Nani was every bit as good as anything Ronaldo did for United. He was quite simply superb. IF Nani isn't credited with the opening goal it will be nothing short of a travesty, there was nothing more Almunia could have done, he was at full stretch when he tried but failed to tip the ball away from danger and importantly it was going to hit the rigging without that faint touch of the gloves.

If Nani's opening goal was special, the part he played in the second goal was just as impressive. Rooney started the move from deep within the United half and fittingly ended it with a genuine contender for goal of the season. It was almost a carbon copy of the goal Ronaldo scored against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final at the Emirates last season. It was another one of those blistering breakaway counter-attacking moves - no matter that Arsenal are defending like schoolboys at present, you can only beat what is put in front of you.

Of all people it was Park who scored the vital third goal seven minutes after the break. Ferguson appears to have a soft spot for Park, but the South Korean isn't a big favourite among the fans'. I wish had a fiver for every United supporter who would have surely been screaming at the Korean to square the ball to Rooney yesterday, but amazingly, after a long run with the ball he found the confidence to hold his nerve and beat Almunia to make it three-nil. From that moment on, the points were pretty much in the bag.

It was very nearly all over bar the shouting, but it wouldn't be United without conceding a goal away at Arsenal, when it came it was another soft one, deflected off Jonny Evans. United have been on the wrong end of many a dodgy decision and have dropped silly points at the Emirates and Highbury over the last few seasons, but the win yesterday goes some way to addressing those bitter memories.

In many ways the performance against Arsenal vindicated just about everything about Ferguson's management this season. Scholes, Nani and Park have largely been reduced to bit-part roles this season; surprisingly as far as Scholes and Park were concerned, they were given starting places against title chasing Arsenal. Ferguson is one of, it not THE fairest manager in all the land, when it comes to selection issues, that is until you cross him... (as Nani will surely testify and as Vidic is finding out IMO).

Ferguson started with just Rooney up front, the ploy didn't work against City for 50 minutes in midweek; but against Arsenal it worked for pretty much the whole game. Even the defence that has been without Vidic and Ferdinand for too long, and has at times defended like the Keystone Cops in some recent games, barely put a foot wrong and United defended from front to back, unlike the Gunners who were shambolic.

The only complaint yesterday was we didn't score more, but when you've been given such royal entertainment, it seems churlish to even mention it.