Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hapless Blackburn no match for classy United and Berbatov...

It has been a very good week for Manchester United: in midweek the club secured their place in the knockout phase of the Champions League thanks to a 1-0 win away at Rangers; Following his off the field troubles, Wayne Rooney started and scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot. United completely dominated Rangers and thoroughly deserved to win and providing Valencia don't come out on top in the final game when they visit Old Trafford in December, the Red Devils should finish top of Group C.

On Saturday, an injury ravaged Blackburn Rovers visited Old Trafford. Sam Allardyce and his team were on the wrong end of a sound beating - from pretty much the first kick, the result was never really in doubt and United went on to win 7-1.

The margin of victory could have been even wider if Nani, Vidic and Obertan had taken their chances, but to complain would be churlish given the lavish entertainment and there was no doubting who was the star of the show: Dimitar Berbatov scored five and was unlucky not to have broken a Premier League record for the most goals in one game; instead the Bulgarian had to settle for matching the likes of Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Jermain Defoe.

The scoreline as well as Berbatov's scoring feat have grabbed the headlines and understandably so, and while there was no doubt about the gulf in class between the two teams, let us not forget that this was a weakened Blackburn Rovers team.

Nonetheless, United played some good football and no wonder Ferguson was delighted with Berbatov's return to form, but more than that, the manager had good reason to be well pleased with the team's overall performance. Anderson had arguably his best game to date for the club, the Brazilian has blown hot and cold ever since he arrived in England and it's fair to state he hasn't lived up to his star billing and expectations given his hefty price tag, but against Blackburn the former Porto midfield star gave a ninety minute performance, one that was full of energy and running.

Despite not scoring, Wayne Rooney looked to be in very good nick, his link-up play with Berbatov was as good as we've seen since the Bulgarian arrived at the club. Rooney has lost half a stone, as a result he looks lean and judging by his last two performances it surely won't be long before we see him back near his very best.

Against Blackburn, just about everyone played well for United and with Chelsea only drawing away at Newcastle on Sunday and with Man City dropping points along with Liverpool who lost to a last minute goal against Spurs, it really has been an excellent weekend. To cap it all, United have been drawn at home with Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup.

With key games against Chelsea and Arsenal looming, it is vital that the Red Devils find their best form. Intriguingly, there's talk of dressing room unrest at Stamford Bridge amidst talk that Roman Ambramovich isn't 100% happy with manager Carlo Ancelotti, so the clash with Chelsea cannot come soon enough.

If United can come out on top against Chelsea and Arsenal then December could prove to be a very important month. Next up, United face West Ham in the quarter final of the Carling Cup on Tuesday at Old Trafford, that game is followed by a tricky looking trip to Blackpool next weekend. Blackpool have been the surprise team of the season; the Seasiders have so far only lost once at home this season to Man City, so United can expect a very tough game next weekend.

The Premier League title looks like it's there for the taking and with at least four clubs in with a shout we could be in for one of the most exciting title battles for many a long season.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Preview: Rooney to run riot against Rangers? Plus your chance to sign for Manchester United....

United take on Rangers tonight at Ibrox needing just one point to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League, but they will be without Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher - arguably three of the most important players in the squad; even with the star trio, tonight's encounter would have been difficult, without them it is likely to be very difficult indeed.

Rangers could in theory qualify at United's expense, that is on the assumption that they win their next two games and the Red Devils lose their next two.

Wayne Rooney will return to the starting United XI following a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to personal matters, injuries and the saga surrounding his contract renewal. Rooney has much work to do if he is to rebuild bridges between himself and the club's supporters following talk that he was about to defect to bitter rivals Manchester City: to this end, a brace against Rangers tonight would do Rooney no harm at all and if United can come away with at least a draw it will avoid a potentially nail-biting final group game against Valencia.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rooney set to return to face boo boys?

So then, Wayne Rooney will be on the bench when United face Wigan later today; it's another interesting decision by Ferguson, who sent his talisman to Oregon last week for what has been described as "rehab".

Contrary to the views of his manager, Rooney has always maintained that he hasn't been injured this season, so only those involved will know why the player along with members of United's coaching staff were sent to North America (see the hilarious Special1 TV movie below for an alternative view).

However, Rooney is back and he's about to face the fans' who were less than impressed by his recent contract negotiation antics. In midweek, Ferguson was in Doha where he attended the ASPIRE4SPORT Conference and Exhibition, the Scot used the opportunity to tell the media that no one is bigger than the manager, he also had a pop at Paul Stretford, the player's agent.

If you cross Ferguson, there's usually only one winner and you cannot help but wonder if the manager's decision to start with Rooney on the bench is yet another set-piece - one which has been designed with the fans' in mind: imagine the scene, Rooney enters the action for the last 20 minutes and United are two-nil to the good, how will those fans' who were so angered at the prospect of a likely defection to Man City react to Rooney?

The fans' might not boo Rooney on his return, but the point is, the player will only know once he actually takes to the field - it's the thought of it actually happening that's the concern and you can bet Fergie will be secretly having a good giggle at Rooney who will be squirming throughout the afternoon until the moment of truth arrives.

Whatever happens today and whatever the reaction is, Rooney has some serious making up to do and it will be interesting to see how he handles the situation. Rooney is playing for his United future and his reputation - nothing less than full-out bollock busting performances will be accepted from now on.

Monday, November 15, 2010

United must improve wing-play if they are to turn draws into wins...

United by common consent had the better of the Manchester derby last week, but neither camp could, with any justification, claim that they should have won. It was a game of few chances, but it could have been oh so different if Carlos Tevez hadn't turned down Rio Ferdinand's invitation to shoot in the opening minutes of what turned out to be one of the most uneventful derby's for many a season. The end result was fair one, a 0-0 bore draw - though truth be told, it wasn't quite as boring as the media have been making out, because like any local derby there was a lot of tension on the night.

Edwin van der Sar was forced into the only real save of the night from a Tevez free-kick, but apart from that, neither 'keeper was made to earn their wages. In the wake of the derby result and several poor results and another draw at the weekend with Blackburn, Roberto Mancini has been on the receiving end of much finger pointing. Let us hope City start firing and hiring as only they can, the seemingly ever revolving exit door beckons for the current incumbent and long may it continue spinning...

As far as United are concerned, the Red Devils managed to somehow comeback from being 2-0 down at Villa Park on Saturday to come away with a 2-2 draw - a result that looked unlikely for much of the second-half in which Villa deservedly scored twice. In point of fact United, were lucky not to be dead and buried in the opening 30 minutes of the second period in which the home team hit the woodwork twice before they eventually scored from the penalty spot through Ashley Young.

Four minutes later and it was Villa's tormentor-in-chief, Albrighton, who doubled Villa's advantage after United were hit on the counter-attack following some sloppy play by substitute Kiko Macheda; the Italian gave the ball away cheaply deep in the Villa half, the home team broke quickly and punished United. It was worth noting that Patrice Evra was guilty of ball-watching when the cross came in from the left; the Frenchman should have done a lot better and you can be assured Ferguson will be having words with his left-back.

Likewise, Ferguson will have expected Nemja Vidic to have done better when chasing down Agbonlahor in the build-up to the penalty which led to the opening goal. At that point Villa were all over United like a rash, but it was in no small part down to United defending poorly again, as we have done too often in the current campaign - but unlike many of the drawn games this season, on Saturday, the team simply did not perform in the engine room or up front. Against Villa, United were quite simply collectively dreadful for long periods of the game.

United only really started to play once Villa had gone two-nil up. United had to thank Macheda and Vidic for producing two moments of magic, but Fletcher and Nani played their part in the build-up to both goals.

When United are playing really well the chances usually follow, and more often than not it's crosses from wide positions which often lead to those vital goal-scoring opportunities. Against Villa we saw Nani produce one such cross from which Vidic scored a majestic headed equaliser; another excellent first-half cross was spurned when neither Hernandez, or the once again out-of-sorts looking Berbatov failed to move quickly enough.

Apart from giving the ball away cheaply on far too many occasions, United are not getting behind opposing defences and pulling the ball from dangerous positions, as we have done for much of Ferguson's reign as manager; it is why United are not creating chances.

United might well be unbeaten but the team has, to a degree, been getting away with it, and so for anyone looking for reasons why United are drawing so many games and asking why the Red Devils are not creating chances in front of goal, the answer can be found out on the flanks where United are traditionally so strong.

The quality of the cross is of course all important, and at present, only Nani seems capable of unlocking the door: Park doesn't use the ball well and Bebe is raw, untrusted and inexperienced; Giggs has been out injured and of course Valencia will be out until February at the earliest.

It is turning into something of a topsy-turvy season, with the likes of unfancied Newcastle and Sunderland winning away at Arsenal and Chelsea respectively recently. United are still in with a shout of winning some silverware, but even the most die-hard Red must surely agree that winning the Champions League is looking highly unlikely - realistically, the winning the FA Cup and or the Carling Cup looks like the Reds best bet; but if we are to achieve those domestic goals, United need to improve and quickly.

Monday, November 08, 2010

United must improve or face derby consequences..

Manchester United were in action against Wolves on Saturday, it was arguably the most disjointed performance of the season so far. United eventually ran out 2-1 winners but had to rely on a 93rd minute winner from the unlikely source of Ji-Sung Park; The South Korean also grabbed the Reds opening goal on the stroke of half-time. Former United starlet Ebanks-Blake was on target for the visitors, and on another day Wolves could easily have taken all three points.

United have now gone 18 games unbeaten this season, it's a remarkable statistic given the manner of some of the defending and mistakes made in the early part of the season. Next up, United face neighbours Manchester City at Eastlands on Wednesday; Roberto Mancini's team came off the back of a losing run of three consecutive games to win convincingly away at West Brom on Sunday and so the Citizens will be full confidence going into the derby, especially with Carlos Tevez back in harness.

City's captain always gives 100% - he is the consummate professional and he will be keen as ever to prove to Ferguson and United that they made a big mistake when screwing up and allowing him to slip away to the club's bitterest rivals.

United's unbeaten run will be given the severest test to date on Wednesday, of that we can be certain; if United play anywhere near as poorly as they did against Wolves on Saturday, then City will be level on points at the end of 90 minutes because they will have closed the gap, in so doing they will have ended that unbeaten run.

Against Wolves, for long periods United were quite simply dreadful; there was no cohesiveness and too many players gave away possession cheaply and too often. Owen Hargreaves made a surprise return to action following a lengthy spell on the sidelines, but he only lasted five minutes - but his replacement, Bebe, was awful. Bebe's crossing was terrible, as was his touch; the Portuguese winger suffered the ignominy of being replaced late on in the game by Macheda. Scholes restored a degree of control to United's attacking play after replacing John O'Shea in the 74th minute.

Ahead of the derby, Ferguson will be wrestling with the problem of who should start against City and with no Wayne Rooney, the United manager is likely to start the derby with just one striker, Berbatov, could well get the nod, but it's by no means a knocking bet, given his recent poor body language and head-shaking.

Fergie will probably start the derby with five across midfield; if Ryan Giggs does not recover from his recent injury problems, Park will be asked to play on the left with Nani on the opposite flank. Scholes will more than likely play in front of Carrick and Fletcher. City are very strong down both flanks and so whoever plays in the wide positions it is vital that they track back and help their respective fullback.

United must match City for effort from front to back and from start to finish. As ever, midfield will be a key area and it's here where City completely dominated both Liverpool and Chelsea at Eastlands earlier this season - United must not allow that to happen because if they do, the outcome will be disastrous.

United can win on Wednesday, but only if the collective and individual performance reaches levels not yet seen this season - a win looks like a big ask and a draw could prove to be a good bet.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Rooney off to USA prior to January sales?

So Wayne Rooney is being sent to Oregon for a week's conditioning; given United's facilities and in-house expertise and given Rooney has claimed there has been nothing wrong with him all season, then you have to wonder what is really going on here.

Despite the fact that Rooney decided to put pen to paper on that new five-year contract - in so doing performing a complete volte-face - the media and fans alike haven't really stopped talking about the player's future.

When news broke of Rooney's change of heart, everyone within Manchester United appeared to be delighted, at least they did on the face it; Ferguson and David Gill were happy to put on a united front for the world's media, but since then Rooney has been completely frozen out of the first-team picture.

Rooney was given time off to recover from what we were led to believe was a genuine injury following a tackle by Scholes in training, he was also given time off to patch up his marriage following the lurid allegations surrounding his private life.

The latest news that Rooney is being sent to the USA for 'conditioning' will without any doubt re-ignite speculation about his future, because the January transfer window is within sight.

According to United's latest medical bulletin, Rooney could be out for up to three weeks; there's talk that the home game with Wigan on November 20th is a likely return date - but only if this coming week goes to plan.

You have to wonder what is going on in the mind of Ferguson, there a several scenarios:

1) We are to believe what we are being told by the manager and his assistant

2) United are planning to sell Rooney in January - that is they are providing someone offers the right money - but for now, the player is being wrapped in cotton wool, hence his prolonged absence

3) Having been publicly humiliated over the Rooney saga, Ferguson is playing psychological games with the player - by freezing him out of the first-team he is telling his star striker he is not bigger than the club - the aim of the game is to make Rooney hungry for a first-team recall and to show who is boss

4) Ferguson is testing the mettle of his squad and gauging public support for the player who so openly questioned his management and outed him when he idirectly called him a liar

5) Ferguson is preparing for life after Rooney so that if and when the club receives a big money offer then he will know what those charged with scoring the goals can do.

Whatever the reason for Rooney's absence you can expect more speculation about his future over the coming days. Personally, I do not believe that Rooney is injured and so that leaves just four scenarios - it's probably a bit of all four.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bebe and Obertan: despite the goals the jury is still very much out....

United did a thoroughly professional job on Bursapor on Tuesday when winning 3-0 away in Turkey. The result ensured United remain top of Group C and following a less than impressive opening Champions League performance against Rangers, it now looks like the Red Devils could finish as winners of the group.

Apart from the goals, it could be argued that the most notable aspect of this clash was the performance of the home supporters, who were quite simply amazing throughout despite the fact that they were watching their team lose.

As for the performance on the pitch, United controlled it pretty much from start to finish but without ever really turning on the style. Ferguson elected to start with Berbatov as the lone striker and he was flanked by Obertan on the right and Nani on the left. United's Portuguese winger never really does as well when he's played on the left and that certainly was the case again against Bursaspor. Nani had a poor game by his recent standards and was replaced by Park due to sustaining a groin injury on 30 minutes.

On the opposite flank and contrary to reports, Obertan didn't have a great game, he lost possession cheaply on too many occasions. However, the Frenchman scored his first Champions League goal for the club to make the score 2-0 and when it arrived it was worth the wait, because it was a stunning effort from fully 20 yards out. Hopefully, Obertan's goal will give him the confidence he needs to progress because in his previous outings he has shown signs that he has ability.

Fletcher had given United the lead just after half-time following United's most coherent attacking move of the game; the Scot raced into the Bursapor penalty area and was picked out by Michael Carrick, the Scotland captain's finish was clinical.

Fletcher picked up an ankle injury and was replaced by Bebe on 62 minutes. Bebe went on to score to seal the points for United and he also supplied one good cross following a surging run down the right.

The signing of Bebe has been mired in controversy following revelations that Ferguson had never actually seen him play before sanctioning a relatively hefty fee.

The jury is still very much out on Bebe, United's £7.4m winger has pace, but he lacks touch and pushes the ball too far in front of himself which allows defenders to easily pinch the ball; just like Bebe's first goal for the club, there was a huge slice of good fortune about the one he scored on Tuesday as it took another deflection; as Sky's Martin Tyler gleefully pointed out during the commentary, there is no dubious goals panel in the Carling Cup - it was an oblique reference to Bebe's first goal for the club.

Perhaps most worrying of all for Ferguson was the almost seemingly constant head-shaking by Berbatov; for the second game in a row the Bulgarian striker looked really out of sorts with his game. Perhaps Berbatov has become frustrated with his team-mates who should be doing better on the ball. There can be no doubt there's a great deal of room for improvement where retaining possession is concerned, like Obertan, Fletcher was guilty was giving the ball away cheaply on several occasions.

In summary, United played as well as they had to against a very average Bursapor, who have yet to score in the Champions League this season. United will need to raise their game by several notches if they are to stand any chance of progessing in the knockout phase of the competition.

Monday, November 01, 2010

'Carry-on' Clattenburg: Nani 'goal' wouldn't have changed result - so please do stop carping...

IT was one of the funniest things that I've seen happen on a football pitch in a long while - arguably the funniest since Paul di Canio pushed over Paul Durkin and in something of an ironic twist, Harry Redknapp was indirectly involved in that particular incident too as he was the then West Ham manager: I am of course referring to Nani's much talked about goal against Spurs on Saturday.

In the wake of this controversy, Spurs manager Redknapp has, predictably, been carping to the press and just about anyone else who'd listen - as always happens following these perceived unjust incidents.

So in a bid to clear up the rights and wrongs let us look at the facts:

Prior to Nani scoring (with just six minutes of the game remaining), United were already winning thanks to Vidic's first-half header.

Spurs never looked like scoring once Van der Vaart had left the pitch.

One of the first things you learn when you start playing the game is to play to the referee's whistle: Nani did it, but Spurs goalkeeper Gomez did not.

The referee and his linesman didn't see Nani's handball, but of course they should have done.

All in all, Spurs have every right to be upset, but even if the goal had been ruled out they still would have lost...

In the aftermath of Saturday's game Redknapp must have near worn out his soap-box this week but instead of focusing on the real issues, such as why was Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon so ineffective on the day, the Spurs manager has been moaning about Mark 'carry-on' Clattenburg.

The truth is, both Redknapp and Ferguson are past masters at deflecting attention away from the real issues. Still it was a very entertaining game, all the more so due to the incompetence of one our so called top have to laugh really.