Sunday, May 29, 2011

Too easy for Barca as United fall at final hurdle....

Everyone connected with Manchester United will be coming to terms with the club's second Champions League final defeat in two years. The 3-1 final scoreline was a fair one, it reflected the balance of play. United can have no complaints about the result, but as good as Barcelona undoubtedly were on the night, it does not alter the fact that it was mistakes that led directly to all three goals.

United did well in the first-half and just like two years ago, United started the better of the two teams, but the early promise in that opening 15 minutes didn't result in any clear cut goal-scoring opportunities. Predictably, once the Barcelona players found their feet they started to dominate possession and the gaps in the United defence soon followed.

Despite starting the better of the two teams, United had to fight back after conceding a Pedro goal on 27 minutes. But when United review video footage of the game they will realise that they made it far too easy for Barcelona.

On that first goal, Xavi was left completely unmarked midway inside the United half, and he dissected the United back-four with a pass to the feet of Pedro and by the time Ryan Giggs arrived on the scene the ball was nestling in the rigging. That was mistake number one. Either Giggs or Carrick should have been much closer to Xavi. It was by no means the first time that both Giggs and Carrick were caught hopelessly out of position in that first-half. Giggs was playing more like an attacking midfield player - one with license to roam - as time and time again he was caught on the wrong side of the advancing Barcelona midfield players.

The purists among us might argue that this cavalier approach made it an open game, and that much is true, but United had two weeks and mountains of video tapes to prepare for this game and the one thing you cannot do is allow Barcelona time and space in front of your back-four but that is exactly what happened on all three goals.

United came back strongly and replied to Pedro's opener with a brilliant Wayne Rooney goal and it was Giggs who played a big part in the build-up. Giggs charged into the Barcelona box following a passage of short passes, the Welshman laid the ball back invitingly to the feet of the United striker to score a superb goal from the edge of the box - one that was a match of any of the Barca goals on the night, that was just seven minutes after Barcelona had opened the scoring.

However, despite equalising you were still left feeling there was more to come from Barcelona who were controlling the game. On too many occasions there was a lack of positional sense and discipline in the United midfield; at one point in the first-half, Carrick went closing down the Barcelona right-back, when that task should have been left to Park on the left flank. Carrick should have been more central directing and leading in front of the back four. But that incident was typical of what was happening too often.

It's true that Ferguson had elected to start with two up front in Rooney and Hernandez, and in so doing he'd sacrificed a man in midfield, but that meant the two central midfield players could not afford to make any mistakes.

In a bid to do something about the lack of discipline in central midfield, Ferguson switched Park with Giggs at start of the second-half, but it made no difference. Barcelona started attacking down the United left, Giggs and Evra were both caught sleeping as the gaps appeared in defence at an alarming rate; it felt like it would only be a matter of time before Barcelona would score again. United were being run ragged in midfield.

Sure enough, United went on to pay a high price for sloppy marking in the second-half. Evra was caught half asleep on 54 minutes when leaving, Messi, of all players unmarked; you have to ask yourself how many times Ferguson would have told his players in the build-up to the final that they simply could not allow that to happen?

Messi scored and the task was made easy precisely because he'd been given time and space outside the United box. It was quite ridiculous - true, it all happened in the blink of an eye, but Messi is that good - he only needs a few seconds on the ball to work his magic.

United had already committed suicide twice on the night and then substitute Nani made it a hat-trick when laying-on the third goal with only his second touch and once again the ball fell at the feet of an unmarked Barcelona player outside the box; this time it was the turn of David Villa to give Van der Sar no chance with a very good curling finish. But from a United perspective it was yet another mistake. Nani should have cleared the danger area, but he didn't and there was now way back from there.

In the words of Fergie, "Barcelona gave United a hiding" and he was right. While it was good to see a final contested without the usual diving and cheating, in what was a very open game, it was too one-sided for long periods and sadly United have no one to blame but themselves.

United were simply not good enough in central midfield. Carrick was replaced on 76 minutes by Scholes and you couldn't help think back to previous midfield generals' like Robson, Keane and even Paul Ince and wonder if Fergie would have substituted any of them in similar circumstances? The answer is an unequivocal no. In fairness, Carrick had been pretty much left on his own, because Giggs was caught out of position too often, especially in that opening period when attempting to push on in an attempt to support Rooney and Hernandez.

It isn't much of a consolation that United made it to the final and lost again, but despite the lack of organisation and "the hiding" which came about as a result of that, there is no disgrace in losing to a team who are widely regarded as the finest Europe has seen in the last 30 years.

So what now for Fergie and his players? You cannot help but feel that time has caught up with Scholes and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent Giggs too. Van der Sar has retired, the final will have been a big disappointment for him, but he could do nothing about the three Barcelona goals. The big Dutchman was blameless and the fans will wish him well as he says goodbye to United.

Berbatov didn't even make the United bench and surprisingly the manager opted for Michael Owen. Reports claim United's Bulgarian striker didn't even stay to watch the final and that has sparked rumours suggesting he could be heading back to Spurs. Do not be surprised if Modric arrives at United in exchange for Berbatov plus a hefty fee. The squad rebuilding work at United cannot start soon enough.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

United vs Barca: Attack or sit back? That is the question for Fergie and his players..

United odds Champions League final

The waiting is nearly over, United are about to face Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley. Most expert pundits are tipping Barcelona to win comfortably and worryingly for United fans, Pep Guardiola is demanding an improved performance from his players. The Barcelona manager says that his team must play better than they did in the 2009 final when they last met United. United fans won't need reminding that Barcelona won that final too easily thanks to goals by Eto'o and Messi.

No one outside of the United camp can be sure what formation Feguson will start with. There are two schools of thought; Fergie try to contain Barca in midfield and he will play with just one striker in Rooney, or will he go toe-to-toe with the La Liga title winners and start with Hernandez and Rooney?

If the United manager tells his players to sit back and soak up Barcelona's attacks he will almost certainly be inviting trouble and sooner or later the defence will buckle under the weight of pressure - at least that is the big danger.

If Fergie starts with two strikers it will at least give his midfield players and defenders two targets instead of just one. Starting with just striker would give United more bodies in midfield, but the danger is the lone striker could be come isolated.

There is no easy answers. Barcelona are the most complete team in many a long season. The Catalans are superb midfield, but United must try to match them and they must not allow players like Messi to run unchallenged at the back-four.

There are injury concerns to Carlos Puyol who is being tipped to start at left-back and if that happens Valencia will certainly fancy his chances of success against a defender who is more comfortable in the centre of defence. Former Liverpool midfield star Javier Mascherano is expected to partner Gerard Pique the centre of Barca's defence and here again the United strikers will probably fancy their chances of success against this pairing.

Ahead of what will hopefully turn out to be a good game, United have been pretty much written off by the media; Ferguson will do his level best to use this as motiviation, he will need to use every trick in the book, if he is to pull this off.

We do not expect Nani to start the final, because he doesn't work hard enough when the opposition has the ball. Park and Valencia will more than likely get the nod to play on the flanks. We expect Giggs to start with Carrick in central midfield and Rooney will drop back when Barca have the ball. Hernandez will hopefully get the nod to start. United must take their chances, because we failed to do that in 2009 and went on to pay a heavy price.

United odds Champions League final

Thursday, May 26, 2011

United's Messi plan: Is "collective responsibility" the answer? Oh for a Nobby Stiles...

United odds Champions League final

"Manchester United's Messi Plan": It sounds like a tabloid newspaper headline. The club's supporters will be hoping the word "backfires" is not tagged onto the end of it on Sunday's back pages following the Champions League final with Barcelona at Wembley on Saturday night. It will be Manchester United's third final in four years, that in itself is quite remarkable.

United have pretty much been written off by neutral pundits such as Gary Lineker who says "It is Barca's to lose", which is a polite way of saying "United will be lucky to avoid a good stuffing". Let's be honest, many gloating neutrals are hoping for that outcome - some United fans will be fearing the same, because Barcelona have been nothing short of sensational over the last two seasons.

Even Fergie has admitted that Barca have improved since the two teams last met in the final and of course at the same time United have lost Ronaldo and Tevez.

To use boxing parlance United have a 'punchers chance'. United must take full advantage of any chances that come our way.

United are as good as the Catalans when it comes to finishing; the newly crowned English champions are arguably more than their match in defence, but in the engine room it is an entirely different story... United's midfield isn't what it used to be. As good as they have been, Fergie has relied on veteran's Giggs and Scholes for too long. There will be no place in the starting eleven for Scholes and the final could yet prove to be his last game.

It is difficult to see how United can live with Barca in midfield and the danger is the back four will be over-run. Earlier this week, Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson were both asked if they had a plan for dealing with Messi aka "the Flea", Fergie replied, yes, "there is always a plan". Ferdinand says that it will be down to collective responsibility and truth be told that is the only plan because, not since the days of Nobby Stiles has the club had a specialist man-to-man marker.

United's midfield must not allow Messi to run at the back four unchallenged, because if they do, that will surely lead to calamity, panic and in all probability goals.

If there is a ray of hope, it is that Barca have injury concerns at the back and Javier Mascherano could well partner Piquet in the absence of Carles Puyol.

It will also be Edwin van der Sar's last game and how fitting it would be if he was the hero..

Latest Champions League final betting odds

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Retribution: Fergie bans hack for asking about troubled Giggsy...

Sir Alex Ferguson has banned an AP journalist from attending Friday's pre-Champions League final press conference for asking about Ryan Giggs. In banning this journalist the manager has sent out a clear message that asking about Ryan Giggs is off-limits.

Giggs is at the centre of a self-inflicted crisis, but notwithstanding the fact that he is to blame for the mess he finds himself in, many will surely agree that Giggs should pursue the well known journalist who outed the Welshman.

The super-injunction granted to the veteran winger was put in place in a bid to protect his private life, that privacy has been breached and someone should pay. The journalist in question could get up to years in jail.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's goodbye Blackpool and Ancelotti as United enjoy Sunday stroll...

United strolled out onto the lush Old Trafford turf today for the final league game of the season against relegation threatened Blackpool; the pressure was off the newly crowned champions, but it was an altogether different story for the visitors.

Prior to kick-off, we were given a real treat when the home fans sent out a clear message to our 'old friends' at the wrong end of the East Lancs Road. The home fans spelled out the '19 Champions' message in a spectacularly colourful red and white mosaic - one that stretched the breadth of the lower tiers of the Stretord End, the old United Road Paddock (north stand) and the old Scoreboard End (East stand).

With the Premier League title already wrapped up, many United fans surely wouldn't have begrudged the struggling Seasiders a vital victory that would have saved them from relegation. It wasn't to be as United ran out 4-2 winners.

Blackpool have tried to play the game the 'right way'; they have tried to play attacking football and it's a real shame that they will once again be playing in the Championship next season. Ian Holloway and his players have been a breath of fresh air and you have to wonder how long it will be before we see Blackpool in the top flight again. Holloway will probably move on to a club with more resources and good luck to him for sticking to his attacking principles.

From a United perspective, today's performance wasn't exactly ideal preparation for next weekend's Champions League final with Barcelona. Blackpool put on a good show and with better finishing and a bit of luck, they might well have won. Fergie opted to ring the changes when bringing in the likes of Jonny Evans, Fletcher and Berbatov - but the manager was true to his word - it was a strong starting eleven.

It was Edwin van der Sar's last league game for United and he had to be at his best on a couple of occasions against Blackpool, but he could do nothing about a superb Charlie Adam free-kick five minutes before the break and a well worked goal on 57 minutes scored by Taylor-Fletcher.

But it was United who had taken the lead thanks to Park on 21 minutes, but prior to that Blackpool had squandered a couple of good chances to open the scoring. The visitors equalised before the break, and then went ahead thanks to Taylor-Fletcher. United responded when cranking up the pressure and it Anderson who scored a rare goal with a good finish from just inside the box, that was just three minutes after the visitors had taken the lead.

Lady luck deserted Blackpool on 74 minutes when Evatt had the misfortune to prod the ball into his own net with a clumsy attempted clearance. United went looking for the killer goal and piled on the pressure. Any doubt about the result and Blackpool's future, was settled on 81 minutes when substitute Michael Owed scored with a typical finish after he'd been put clean through on goal by Anderson. From that point on it was all over bar the shouting.

So what can we read into today's performance in the context of next weekend's final? For one thing, you can be 100% certain Berbatov will be on the bench. Berbatov had umpteen chances to score today, but he looked very much out of sorts when missing too many good openings - albeit chances he'd created himself. Park was taken off in the second-half and so he will be a racing-cert to face Barca, as will Rooney and Hernandez who was given a complete rest today.

The future of Paul Scholes is still very uncertain and if he does decide to retire, it will come as no great surprise. Scholes played today, but you do wonder if that will turn out to be his last game.

At the end of the game, Fergie did his usual bit on the mic, but it had a familiar ring about it, because we've done it so many times before, but following the disappointment of losing out to Chelsea last season, it felt good to know United are back on top. Fergie also paid tribute to Gary Neville and this blog will be posting more about Neville over the coming days.

For anyone like myself who was hoping that United fans were going to continue to bait City fans with a new banner following the removal of the quite brilliant 35 years ticker style banner from the Stretford End, there was a slight sense of disappointment, because the replacement looks like it will be aimed at Liverpool with the message '19 Times'. Still, if that turns out to be the replacement banner, it will surely have the desired effect... Listening to pretty much everyone connected with Man City - even Mancini - carping about that 35 years banner has been hilarious. Let's hope we can continue laughing for a few more years yet.

Moneybags Chelsea have parted company with Carlo Ancelotti - if anything sums up the total madness of the modern game, and in particular a club like Chelsea, it is this. Chelsea won the double in the Italian's first season. They have failed this season, but Ancelotti is a good coach with a good record.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Champions again: Whatever happens against Barca, United are most successful club in the land...

Manchester United wrapped up the Premier League title on Saturday thanks to a scrappy 1-1 draw away at Blackburn. Surprisingly, it was a nervy performance by the then champions elect. United went behind in the first-half when Emerton scored on 20 minutes. Rooney settled the nerves of the Red Army with a well taken penalty in the 73rd minute and the game ended in a stalemate as both teams were happy to settle for a point apiece. In truth, it was something of an anti-climax at Ewood Park but let's not forget, United had done the job when beating Chelsea the week before.

In what at times has been an unusual season, United have been labelled as the team who "know how to win", or alternatively "the team that just does enough" and of course the Premier League title winners still have to face Barcelona at Wembley in the Champions League final at the end of May. Before that huge game, Blackpool will visit Old Trafford for the final league game of the season; it is to be hoped there's no repeat of United rolling over as happened when West Ham clung on to their Premier League status in 2007 thanks to a Carlos Tevez goal and of course Fergie had fielded a weakened team...

Looking ahead to the Champions League final at Wembley, United will take on Barcelona as under-dogs and rightly so, because even the most die-hard red would surely have to agree that the Catalans' standalone at present. No one can match Barcelona's passing, movement and come to that few match their work-rate. So Barcelona deserve to be favourites. United have a chance and it isn't all doom and gloom, because we know we have players like Chicharito, Rooney and Berbatov who can score against any team given the chance. United also have pace and power on both wings and this area could be interesting because it will mean Barca's attacking defenders will have to think twice before pushing on to support their attack.

United's defence is as good as any in the competition, but midfield will, as ever, be the key area and it's here where Barca are at their collective best.

Much could depend on Fergie's approach: Does he tell his players to hit Barca hard early doors as happened against Chelsea at Old Trafford? Or does he tell his players to sit back and try to soak up Barca's pressure and hit them on the break? The latter scenario would surely be inviting the inevitable? But however United approach the final there are no obvious answers when it comes to tactics. Hopefully, United will take the game to Barca and the final will worthy of the name and it is memorable for the right reasons. Whatever, happens we reds know our club is the most successful in the land and how the dirties won't like that...we can all smile about that over the summer.

Finally, the Red Army have removed that '35 years' banner from the Stretford End. In over 40 odd years of watching United I've never known a banner cause so much distress; it has been hilarious listening to the bitters complaining. But with all that money, even City were not going to continue to mess it up forever; it was just a question of time before they won that first major trophy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Title champagne on chill ahead of super Saturday: Are City really going to lose Cup Final on the reds coronation day?..

With two games remaining and needing just one point to secure the Premier League, surely nothing will stop United winning the title now. It is all over bar the shouting.

IT will be a sweet moment for everyone connected with United, because it will be title number 19 and it will mean that the club is the most successful in the land; Liverpool will have been finally knocked off that perch. Cheating Chelsea have also been put in their place this season and that just makes it all the sweeter.

By the time Manchester City kick-off in the FA Cup Final against Stoke at Wembley tomorrow, United could well be the new champions.

The FA Cup has without any shadow of doubt lost some of its appeal and its shine, but it is still regarded as a major trophy, but whatever happens at Wembley events at Ewood Park are likely to overshadow the Cup Final.

Many United fans will be hoping City lose, but sooner or later they will break that thirty odd year trophyless hoodoo, but will it be tomorrow? Surprisingly, many local Blues are not over confident about beating Stoke City. It is going to be emotional.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Fergie making all the right moves: Faith in squad key to United's 19th title....

It would take the mother of all catastrophes for United not to win their 19th league title following Sunday's 2-1 win over Chelsea. That six point gap at the top of the table looks unassailable and with luck this coming weekend United will be crowned Champions of England for the 19th time.

It will be a remarkable achievement given United's away performances in the Premier League this season, which saw them losing to struggling Wolves, and on too many occasions dropping valuable points away at Bolton, Birmingham, Fulham and Everton. At one point in the season, United were the Premier League's draw specialists, but even when the team couldn't convert winning positions into three points, importantly, they did not lose.

The defence has been the cornerstone of what has been an up and down season at times; many pundits have said that this United team isn't that special. The fact that United don't have a superstar currently in the squad and that they've been tagged as the team who know how to win games by just 'doing enough' doesn't really matter one jot, because when we look back at the record books in years to come the only fact that matters is that United finished top in 2010-2011.

Everyone has an opinion about football, it is partly what makes it such a great game, and while we the fans question our illustrious great leader at times, none of us can question his loyalty to his players and it is that in part which makes him stand out from many other managers.

Ferguson is one of the fairest manager's of all time; it is why he commands so much respect from his players. If we look back to the recent home game with Arsenal, many people were aghast at his starting line-up, given the personal and the number of changes, but Fergie knew what he was doing. The same can be said of the team that started against Schalke last week in the Champions League semi-final - there was nine changes but United ran out comfortable winners.

Ferguson trusts his players and they know that; take the example of Sunday's hero Ji-Sung Park, the South Korean comes in for some stick because he is not every one's idea of the model first-class midfield player. But against Chelsea, Park played like a man possessed - he never gave up when chasing down the opposition. Park was man of the match against Chelsea and he thoroughly deserved the plaudits which came his way following that lung busting performance.

Everyone who played against Chelsea played well and the result means that United can now hopefully concentrate on the next big task and that of course is how to beat Barcelona.

Whatever happens in the Champions League final, the vast majority of United fans will be just delighted at overtaking Liverpool, because from now on United will be referred to as England's most successful club.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

CL Final tickets: How could Platini get it so wrong?

I don't often laugh out loud concerning football matters, but I did recently when I heard UEFA big wig Michel Platini hint that one of the reasons ticket prices for this year's Champions League Final at Wembley are so expensive is because it might deter ticket touts; is he having a laugh, I thought to myself?!!

This year's final at Wembley between United and Barca is a touts' paradise. A cursory search around the net today returned the following results: Cheapest ticket £925, most expensive £3075.

All tickets have now been 'sold' but they were available in three price categories: Category 1 – £300; Category 2 – £225 (or £338 for a youth package comprising one adult and one child); Category 3 – £150; and Wheelchair £80.

The cheapest tickets (Category 3) for the Rome final at £80 now look affordable. It doesn't alter the fact that sky-high cost of the 2011 final tickets is nothing short of a total disgrace.

To add insult and more pain, there was also a £26 admin fee per two-ticket booking – or £36 outside Europe – this was justified by the robbers' spokesman who said it because "costs are involved".

My 1999 Champions League final ticket cost me £12. I kid you not. Oh how things have changed and it doesn't seem like yesterday. Needless to say, I will be watching this year's final on TV.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

United vs Barca: A feast of football (and or) a thrashing in prospect?

SO then United have eased their way into what will be the club's third Champions League final in four years. Whatever happens in the Wembley final with Barca, it is a remarkable achievement given the funds at Ferguson's disposal and importantly following the loss of two quality strikers in Ronaldo and Tevez.

United qualified for the final thanks to two thoroughly professional performances in the semi-final against Schalke. The job was pretty much done in last week's first leg in which United ran out deserved winners; the two-nil scoreline could have been much heavier.

In the wake of that first-leg victory, commentators such as Martin Tyler (Arsenal fan) suggested that non-league Crawley Town had given United a tougher game earlier this season in the FA Cup. Premier League manager Ian Holloway suggested his Blackpool team are better than Schalke. Well, following last night's 4-1 second-leg demolition job at Old Trafford, it would come as no surprise if someone in the media claims that Accrington Stanley would have given United a tougher game - because the Germans were made to look that bad.

Ahead of the second-leg, Ferguson made nine changes to the team which lost limply at the Emirates over the weekend. It was a bold gamble by the United manager, one that saw Berbatov restored to the starting line-up as the lone striker. On a night when hitherto consistent under-achieving performers like Anderson and Gibson shone brightly at times, United's Bulgarian striker failed to inspire. Once Schalke had gone behind thanks to a superb goal by Valencia on 26 minutes, it was pretty much game over.

United went on to hammer another three nails in the Germans coffin with goals from Gibson and a brace from Anderson; you were left wondering if the Brazilian, had in fact put the wrong boots on; instead of his own, those of "twinkle toes" Javier Hernandez. Whatever the reason for this sudden rush of goals from Anderson, it was most welcome.

Berbatov did in fact provide an assist for Anderson's second goal, but apart from that he was one of the few United players who failed to impress against a largely hapless Schalke.

Injuries aside, it's fair a bet to assume that there will be no place in the starting line-up for Berbatov against Chelsea on Sunday or Barca in the Champions League final. The 4-1 (6-1) final scoreline did not flatter United one bit and so yes, it was quite difficult to believe that this was a Champions League semi final, because Schalke really were that bad and for this reason it is quite difficult to put the performances of players like Anderson and Gibson into any meaningful context.

Following a lengthy lay off due to a "mystery virus", Darren Fletcher came on as a substitute for the last 15 minutes and United fans will be wondering if he will be one of the players the manager will turn to in the final.

When United last met Barcelona in the final two years ago, following what was a very promising start, it ending looking like a miss-match - such was the Catalans dominance. Two years on little has changed, if anything what looked like a gaping chasm in class at that time has become even wider.

No matter what anyone says between now and the final later this month, United will be travelling to Wembley more than in hope rather than with any sense of genuine expectation. But sometimes the underdog does win and when they do it just makes it all the sweeter. Let us hope United do at least put on a show and do not end up playing like frightened rabbits caught in the full glare of the spotlight as was the case in Rome.