Saturday, March 31, 2012

United on target to retain title, but doubts persist ....

Manchester United went back to the top of the Barclays Premier League on Monday night thanks to a late first-half goal by Wayne Rooney. This very important league fixture ended in controversy, when Fulham were denied what looked like a certain penalty in the dying moments, after referee Michael Oliver gave Michael Carrick the benefit of doubt following his clumsy challenge on Danny Murphy inside the box.

Understandably, and all too predictably, there has been plenty of media focus on "yet another penalty that wasn't given to a visiting team at Old Trafford".
Tommy Docherty added his twopenneth on Radio 5-live this week when claiming, "visiting teams do not get many penalties and it has pretty much always been like that". The former Manchester United manager isn't slow at coming forward with controversial views and so the Doc's comments will have surprised few, but at the same time no doubt agitated neutrals and City fans alike. In the hullabaloo that followed, the fact that United were denied what looked like a definite penalty in the first-half for handball has been quickly forgotten. It was ever thus. You win some, you lose some. As Ferguson rightly said "these things tend to even themselves out over a season". Quite.

While the win over Fulham meant that United leapfrogged Man City to open up a slender three point lead at the top of the table, there wasn't really much else to shout about following what was another dire Old Trafford performance by the champions.

Despite dominating possession for long spells, United were simply dreadful and couldn't open up a well organised Fulham defence. Those United fans hoping for a goal avalanche - one that could have wiped out City's goal difference advantage - will have been left disappointed at the fayre served by a United team, that not for the first time at home this season, lacked guile, know-how and any real sense of urgency in the final third.

Increasingly, one finds one-self questioning the quality of the Premier League, because over the last two seasons, United, Chelsea, Arsenal and yes, even Liverpool too, have all seen their performance levels drop and alarmingly so, especially where genuine quality is concerned. In contrast when we look at Barcelona, it's almost as if they are playing a different game - such is their superiority on pretty much every level. Athletic Bilboa gave United a torrid time in the Europa League, in so doing, giving many observers cause to review the generally accepted - but not entirely fair - assertion that there are only two quality teams in La Liga.

United have been rank bad awful in Europe this season, we cannot deny that fact, but so were Arsenal; Manchester City were in a much tougher looking Champions League group and so their elimination was not so difficult to accept for their followers; but like the champions, much less acceptable was the manner in which City were also knocked out of the Europa League - a competition that badly needs to be revamped if it is ever going to be taken *seriously* by Europe's leading clubs.

While we can ask questions, with real justification, about the quality of the Premier League, it's fair to state that Man City and Spurs have improved immensely this season and they've really shaken up the 'top four'.  Spurs are currently in a real slump, but City are still fighting tooth and nail to wrest the title from United.

Hopefully, United will go on to retain the title, but there's no real signs that this latest Ferguson team will go on to seriously compete with Europe's elite clubs. If Ferguson is going to make United great again, he must address the glaring issues in midfield. Yes, it was the right decision to bring back Scholes, the United manager has far used his midfield general sparingly and sensibly; in total Scholes has so far played in 14 games, but six of those were from the bench.

There is hope in the form of Paul Pogba. The young French midfield star looks like a prodigious talent. Ferguson must use all of his powers of persuasion to convince Pogba to sign that new contract. Less convincing, is the hope that is Tom Cleverley who increasingly looks like a player whose career could be blighted by injuries, but time will tell. Even if Pogba signs that new deal, Ferguson MUST go out and sign another top quality midfield general.

The United manager also needs to sign another striker, because Welbeck, while being a good link man in certain situations, lacks that vital killer instinct inside the box. Hernandez is the complete opposite of Welbeck - deadly in the box, not so good in open play. United need to sign 'the next Didier Drogba', as much as we hate those comparisons - but that is the type of all round striker Ferguson must strive to find.

Finally, if United do go on the secure their 20th league title, contrary to the views of one well known journalist, the achievement most definitely will NOT surpass that historic, 1999 treble victory.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

United turn tables on City as Pogba set to give champs massive boost...

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There are just ten league games to go, the champions have somehow clawed their way back to the top of the Premier League, and with reports claiming Paul Pogba is set to give Ferguson a massive boost by committing himself to the club by signing a new contract, we cast a critical eye over United's recent performances and ask will the manager and his players make this a season to remember.

It was only a few weeks ago that the prospect of Manchester United knocking Manchester City's off top spot in the Barclays Premier League seemed, even in the eyes of many a die-hard red, improbable at best.

There's no disputing City have been *the team* of the season so far: they have scored the most goals, conceded the least and until the events of last weekend they were top of the table. But City's away form has been letting them down of late and on Sunday they deservedly lost to Swansea, at the Liberty Stadium. With the champions winning at home to West Brom, it meant that for the first time since October, Manchester United were back at the summit of the Premier League. Yet, just 48 hours earlier everyone connected with Manchester United was coming to terms with another deflating home defeat in the Europa League, following Athletic Bilbao's stunning 2-3 win.

Bilbao pretty much out-played United for 90 minutes on Thursday, and Ferguson's less than convincing post-match assertion that United would put matters right this week in the second-leg will not be shared by many supporters; there is an argument for NOT progressing any further in the deservedly maligned competition - the problem is not the quality of the participating teams, no, not a bit of it, it's the bloody ridiculous match schedule and early kick-off's. UEFA need to revisit the scheduling of Europa League fixtures; if they don't, the competition will continue to be a very poor second best to the Champions League.

United's participation and questionable performances in the Europa League will hopefully prove to be a wake-up call for Ferguson, his players, and most importantly, the Glazers', because while the current squad has done okay on the domestic front, the same squad has been lousy in Europe this season. Ferguson desperately needs to add a world-class central midfield playmaker - it is as clear as Fergie's big red nose. The manager's wish-list should also include a striker and another left-back.

As if it should be needed, the recent defeats at home to Ajax and Bilbao will hopefully have given Ferguson even more impetus to sign that world-class playmaker.

Bringing Scholes out of retirement was only a good idea because of the totally ridiculous situation the club finds itself in. Good damn it, Manchester United should NOT be relying on veteran stars like Giggs and Scholes. Scholes has without question fully justified his return and Giggs continues to amaze, but Ferguson is kidding no one: he has been and continues to, paper over the cracks.

The home defeats against Ajax and Bilbao (as good as the Basques undoubtedly were) will hopefully have given Ferguson and his backroom team, good reason to reflect on the current state of the squad. In order to do that, they must look at how the team has performed in Europe this season. United threw it away at home against Basel in the Champions League, and only managed a draw thanks to a dramatic late equaliser by Ashley Young. It was the same story against Benfica at Old Trafford, United were simply not good enough to beat opponents who in years gone by would have been considered as fodder.

Given how poorly England's top clubs have performed in Europe and especially United, many pundits (and this blog included) have concluded that the Premier League isn't currently worthy of its widely accepted status as one of Europe's top leagues: the fact that United, City and Arsenal are already out of the Champions League is testament to that.

We must never fall into the trap of confusing excitement with technical quality / genuine class. From a United perspective, despite the glaring weaknesses in the squad, no doubting to the collective annoyance of our noisy neighbours, Fergie's team somehow continues to grind out improbable results.

In a season littered with mistakes and too many setbacks, two recent results standout: United's away wins at Carrow Road and White Hart Lane. Who among us wouldn't have liked a Fiver for every City fan that found themselves cursing United and Giggsy after the Welshman slotted that winner 75 seconds into added time against Norwich? And then came that very tough looking away assignment at White Hart Lane.

The weekend prior to United's visit to North London, Arsenal had panned Spurs 5-2 at the Emirates. If that wasn't bad enough, Spurs had somehow managed to throw away a two-goal lead and then they lost Gareth Bale due to injury.

So going into the Spurs game and following the win at Carrow Road, United had every reason to be confident, but what followed once again left us breathless. Spurs pretty much played United off the park in the first-half, but remarkably, after 69 minutes the champions were 3-0 up. Defoe pulled a late goal back for Spurs but United ran out 1-3 winners.

Those two Premier League away wins could well turn out to be season defining, not least because many pundits and fans alike fully expected United to drop points. It didn't happen and what's more the wins at Carrow Road and White Hart Lane came in between the two home defeats in the Europa League - which again raises questions about the quality of the League as well as United's title credentials...

But with just 10 league games to go, no one can confidently predict the outcome. We can be sure the battle for the title will continue to provide us with excitement and many talking points.

While it is fair to ask questions about the squad, we cannot deny United have suffered more than most with injuries this season, but on that score, things are starting to look up. Tom Cleverley is fit again - for how long remains to be seen - but if he can win back his starting place, we could see him linking up with Rooney and Young to stunning effect.

Then there's Paul Pogba, who was reportedly set to spurn United in preference for Juventus. Putting it bluntly: Manchester United cannot afford to lose a player like Pogba who has bags of potential. If Pogba joined Juventus, it would have sent out an awful message about the current state of United and yes, it would have reflected badly on the player, but also on Ferguson too. Hopefully, Pogba will soon sign that new contract and he will go on cement a place in the heart of United's engine room over the next 12 months.

If United are going to continue to keep pace with City and go on to retain the title, every player in the squad will have to play close to their best when called upon.

Wayne Rooney is currently in a hot run of scoring form (five from the last three games), but in the eyes of many, he isn't playing even close to his best.

The spotlight has been firmly on David de Gea, and rightly so following some of his performances this season. The young Spanish goalkeeper was under the spotlight because he'd made some awful errors, but following a lengthy spell on the bench, to his eternal credit he has comeback all the stronger and he has started re-pay that huge transfer fee and as well as the manager's faith in him.

United have managed to turn the tables on City (for now), but there will be many more twists and turns before the end of what is turning into a fascinating season. Will the title be decided when United travel to Eastlands for the derby at the end of April, as Roberto Mancini claims? Don't be surprised if it goes to the last game of the season, is our verdict. Fasten your seat-belts, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

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