No matter what the situation, it’s always a horrible feeling to see your arch rivals celebrating on your own turf. And this was no different. Imagine peering out the window and witnessing your most despised childhood enemy gleefully destroying your prized winning lawn. Well, that must have been how Sir Alex felt as Sergio Aguero’s rocket blasted City into a matchwinning lead at Old Trafford. But every cloud has a silver lining, that’s what they say isn’t it? Even a cumulonimbus like this, obscuring the Theatre of Dreams in a shroud of dismay, brings with it a glow of optimism. Yes, City may have prevailed, yes, City may have deserved a escapist victory, directing their attention away from their impending disappointment, but it will count for nothing. There’s only so far local pride can go.They can rightfully claim the bragging rights for now but, when you can counter that with the “yeah, but who are the champions?” rhetoric, you may well have discovered the perfect way to shut up the critics. More pressing matters first though. Another home derby defeat. Not quite the humiliation of last year but that humble pie is beginning to taste very bitter.

Lack of importance = lack of quality

Late yellow card flurry aside, United vs City lacked the traditional iconography of a true, old fashioned, rough and tumble English derby. De Gea and Hart were relatively unworked in an uncompromising yet unceremonious affair. Aguero’s wondergoal was, in truth, the only moment of bonafide quality in a derby that looked more local under 12s encounter than superclub mêlée. Perhaps the 15 point gap was the worst possible factor for a game that was almost immediately billed as the title decider by various live betting sites when the fixtures went to press last summer. Unlike the death or glory battle royale of City’s 1-0 success this time last spring, volume II was as uninspiring a sequel as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, with Aguero in the ruinous role of Jar Jar Binks. Perhaps the seemingly eternal 15 point lead was the worst thing that could have happened in the eyes of the neutral. The must see finale of last season will not be repeated. The lack of intensity reflected this. Not so much a title claiming combat but, almost a testimonial to the season’s demise. After last year though, we’d certainly take “boring” wouldn’t we?

Hernandez should be first choice

Who would have thought that, with Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney in the front line, there would be calls for another man to take on the starring role at Old Trafford? Well, following another abject performance from the out-of-form Dutchman and the seemingly out-of-shape Merseysider, perhaps it’s time for a bit of Mexican magic in the centre forwards birth. Javier Hernandez has always had the reputation of being a truly clinical finisher, as Petr Cech will testify. Not only that, his aptitude for big goals at big times in big games marks him out as the perfect squad member. But, isn’t it about time he deserved more than that? Not once did United stretch the City defence. Not once were Kompany and Nastasic forced to stare into the whites of Joe Hart’s eyes. Hernandez’s introduction gives Sir Alex a different option. One he perhaps should be taking more advantage of.

Lack of midfield muscle cost United

Again the scaly demon of midfield criticism has raised its horrific head. Michael Carrick may have been the star of the show this season, putting in performances that he previously could only have accomplished on Fifa, while Ryan Giggs’ club legend status remains as deeply embedded as ever. Against City however, they were outnumbered, outran, outthought and, let’s be honest, outclassed. With a combined age of a gratis bus traveller, these seasoned veterans are just not the combination for a big game encounter. Against mobile opposition, Giggs and Carrick lack the legs to keep up with the pace of the game. Sir Alex must learn to pair an experienced campaigner with an enthusiastic youngster. Cleverley may not have been in the best of form recently, but his mobility and manoeuvrability is a must have. City predictably dominated possession and, subsequently, dominated the celebrations. A young midfielder is a must have. Unless Sir Alex gets his hands on some sort of “Back to the Future”-esque Delorean and gives Ryan Giggs the keys, the only answer is to put some faith in youth.

Welbeck is the answer to wing problems

OK, United need a new midfielder, we all admit to that, but there has been a recent clamour for a new wideman to etch his name into the Old Trafford squad list. With Wilfried Zaha following in the footsteps of his very near namesake, and continued speculation about a possible swoop for James Rodriguez; it’s clear that the media have made their mind up about who the new darling of Old Trafford should be. With Young, Nani and Valencia beginning to become as disappointing as each and every episode of the Walking Dead, Danny Welbeck has stepped up the plate, possibly providing the answer to our wing wizard equation. OK, he may be no Ronaldo, Giggs or Beckham. In fact, he’s not even a natural wideman. But his enthusiasm and willingness to play anywhere and everywhere makes him an essential commodity for Sir Alex. Where Young again disappointed, Welbeck impressed, giving Gael Clichy plenty of food for thought. Maybe Sir Alex can save that £36million after all.

Momentum has gone

Perhaps that Madrid robbery has had more of an impact than we first thought. It was a crime that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Channel 5 documentary and it seems like the victims are yet to recover from the trauma. 5 games since, just 2 wins, including disastrous defeats to, not only City, but Chelsea as well. The defence may have undergone a “Ten Years Younger” style makeover but the strikeforce has struggled to come to United’s rescue as they had done on such a consistent basis in the season’s early stages. On Sky Sport’s prided “Monday Night Football”, it appeared that the majority of the United squad had spent the weekend living life to the full, rather than preparing for the visit of the noisy neighbours. The momentum, the energy has gone, lethargy taking its place. Perhaps it’s lucky we’re so far ahead. Because the disastrous disassembling of this time last year is becoming more and more familiar.

It wasn’t quite a goal of such resonance to generate a season soundbite, but Sergio Aguero has a knack for rather meaningful strikes, as United were reminded of on Monday. It was a special goal to seal a dismal derby. City may be chortling now, but we will have the last laugh. They may have won the battle, but we will win the war. The gap is now 12 points but, if that was an option at the beginning of the season, be honest, you would have snapped anyone’s hand off. 4 points to seal the title. Away games against Stoke and West Ham to come. In truth, United should end the drama within the fortnight. If not, no matter. There are still a few winnable home games to follow. United need to put another derby defeat behind them and focus their efforts, their attention on the Britannia on Sunday. Back to the bread and butter, and Stoke away really is the main course in a staple diet. It may hurt now but, just think, in a few weeks this defeat will fade into insignificance. Then we will have the luxury of skipping it on the season review. And that, if nothing else, is the indication of a successful season.

Written By Daniel Owen
 
 
The Red Devils are certainly no strangers to change and it looks like the 2013 season is once again going to be packed with players being bought and sold. The latest speculation is that Burak, Matic, Lewandowski and Rooney could all be facing transfers, making it an interesting pick at the bookies for anyone who wants to take a bet where these players may end up.

Sir Alex Ferguson is keen to take on Robert Lewandowski who is currently playing at Borussia Dortmund for the season. Lewandowski has scored 26 goals so far and looks set to be a worthy investment for Man U. The Red Devils were interested last summer, but ended up signing Robin van Persie instead. The rumour mill is however in overdrive, with speculation that Sir Alex is in advanced negotiations with Bayern Munich.

With so much intrigue and anticipation surrounding transfers it has made online sports betting so much more exciting. In addition to the added air of anticipation the iPad has also made a huge impact on the way that fans place their bets and get information about the latest developments, match fixtures, stats and predictions about the games. The iPad allows for anyone to simultaneously watch a live match at the stadium whilst enjoying some online gaming at a site like http://www.ipadcasino.co.nz or to enjoy sports betting whilst mid game or after some research into the Red Devil players past performances.

Speculation that a new striker will be needed at Old Trafford is rife, as Wayne Rooney’s departure looks imminent. The Red Devils could sell the striker as early as the summer, and the deliberate exclusion of Rooney from the Man U team in the 2nd leg of the Champions League seems to suggest the writing is on the wall. It looks like uber wealthy Paris Saint-Germain who recently acquired David Beckham as their midfielder could be contenders, as they have been closely linked with Rooney’s move. Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic has warmly encouraged Rooney to transfer as they are desperately trying to establish themselves as the top club in Europe.

There is also speculation that Man U is keeping tabs on Nemanja Matic, the Benfica Midfielder who has become a regular first team player and has represented Serbia at an international level, but it seems this is being kept tightly under wraps for now.
 
 
As the cruel ringing of the alarm awoke Manchester United from their dream of FA Cup glory, there was the realisation that the sweet smell of the green Wembley grass will not be filling the nostrils of anyone connected to the Red Devils for yet another season. The lost to Chelsea mean my Free Football Predictions will make no returns. Domestic glory in the League may offset more disappointment in a knockout front but this season was supposed to be the year when United matched their treble magnificence of ’99, failing that, double glory that opponents Chelsea had enjoyed in abundance in recent years. It was a game of few chances, eventually sealed by two moments of blue brilliance at both ends of the formation spectrum, a sublime volley by Demba Ba equalled in splendour and importance by a wondrous save by Petr Cech. For this season, the dream may have died in the same place that has claimed the lives of so many formerly respected gaffers, but what can United do to ensure that next year, we come back bigger, badder and better. As a certain actor turned congressman once quipped “I’ll (in this case a collective “we’ll”) be back”. And who would dare argue with him?

United need Rooney

Frustration aplenty for Sir Alex as, once again, an international break claimed the fitness of one of our big men for the biggest of occasions. Wayne Rooney, cruelly denied a piece of action due to a groin injury, was severely missing from United’s usual team selection. Akin to Harry Potter without his wand, or perhaps more appropriately Gareth Bale relinquished of his left peg, United lacked a bit of their typical magic. A spark was certainly missing, as the low frequency of chances created proves. Rooney’s power, pace and the ability to pull up trees like the Hulk in Sherwood Forest, was exactly what United needed to defeat a Chelsea side determined to ensure their unrivalled recent dominance in the FA Cup continued unrelentingly. Yes, Javier Hernandez did his customary bit for the cause but, without Rooney’s vision and ingenuity, United lacked the forward thrust that the English bullmastiff provides with maximum bite and relentless aggression. As a result, Cech’s net was, for the most part, as safe as Ant and Dec’s Best Entertainment Presenters award. United have City at home on Monday, the cork loosened on the champagne of success. We’ll all be praying that Rooney returns to provide the pop.

Welbeck is improving by the game

The stats will tell you that Danny Welbeck has just two goals to his name this season. For a forward, that suggests a season of Emanuel Adebayor-esque profligacy. Indisputable proof that the stats, for all their reputation of honesty and integrity, do, indeed, lie. The young English lion has rediscovered his roar in recent months and, if his performance at Stamford Bridge is anything to go by, is beginning to mature into the King of the Old Trafford jungle. And perhaps goalscoring is just not his forte. Fortunately, his possible transition from sturdy centre forward to wing wizard may be exactly what United need. In a team of prolific goalscorers and incompatible widemen, Welbeck’s recent eminence on the chalk straits has arrived at the ideal time. His trickery, speed and increasingly improving close control make him a nightmare for even the most experienced campaigners, as Ashley Cole found out to the detriment of his ageing hamstrings (we shouldn’t laugh at someone’s pain, but, on this occasion, we can make an exception). A sublime first time delivery from the right generated the games optimum chance, that Hernandez header. In truth, Welbeck provided the only real positive in an encounter that reminded us all of the tedious visits to Stamford Bridge of the Mourinho era. Stats. Ha! About as truthful as a Burger King menu.

What to do with Nani?

It seems that, even in our record breaking win machine, there seems to be a poor performance from a red-clad wideman every single game. Whether it’s Young, Valencia or, in this case, Luis Nani, it’s clear that the supposedly tabled deal for Porto prodigy James Rodriguez should perhaps be reignited. As inconsistent as an Oasis album track list, no one is ever 100% what the Portuguese winger is going to do. Even more worrying, not even the man himself seems totally confident anymore. That’s a surefire sign of decline. After a dismal start to the season, missed penalties and half-time substitutions, Nani looked back to his brilliant best in recent weeks only for an awful display at Stamford Bridge to cast clouds over his Old Trafford horizons once more. Poor touch, misplaced passing, typically terrible corners, what is the true Nani? Buoyant and brilliant or inconsistent, overrated? The fact is, we just don’t know. Does anyone? The only man who poses more questions than an episode of Lost, perhaps Sir Alex is fed up with trying to find answers.

Cleverley’s form has dipped

Tika taka protégé Tom Cleverley is arguably the finest young midfielder to strut his stuff at Carrington since Paul Scholes in the era of Britpop and backwards hats. But, recently his form has dipped lower than a military jet. Cleverley, deployed in a slightly wider position at Stamford Bridge, is lacking the haste and penetration of his early season game, replaced by a laboured movement and stray delivery. At the end of the day, John Obi Mikel is hardly the most fear inducing midfield opponent, but Nigeria’s answer to Carlton Palmer dominated the England playmaker out of the game. Cleverley’s influence on proceedings was severely limited. Perhaps this enigma can be accredited to a Raheem Sterling like burnout. He has been at the forefront of United’s leisurely, walk in the park style stroll to the Premier League title, has started every international fixture and represented Team GB at the Olympics. He is human after all. What he needs is a Summer break, a week or so to soak up the rays and rest his muscles at the most luxurious of Spanish villas. And next season, once again, United will reap the benefits of this supremely talented young midfielder.

Flexibility is key

These days, you study the United team sheet and get the feeling that the Sky Sports producers are merely guessing who will be playing where. This United team offers something that past incarnations have failed to provide: flexibility. The years of forcing square pegs into round holes are gone. Darren Fletcher on the wing, Ryan Giggs in defensive midfield, corner pieces in the Jigsaw’s central image. Finally, however, Sir Alex has enough options to keep the opponents guessing as much as a punter with an accumulator on Championship games. Welbeck, Kagawa, Jones, Rooney, Giggs, Rooney etc. All can ply their trade in a variety of positions. At United, formations can alter as rapidly as a politician in the centre of a media storm. And that is what makes this edition so special. In the capital, United may have lost, but their team selection comprised many pliable professionals. If the opposition don’t know your gameplan, stopping it becomes all the more difficult. As City will hopeful advocate in a few days time.

Stamford Bridge has never been a happy hunting ground for Manchester United. They had actually endured nine winless years before a solitary Rooney strike spilt blue blood in the 2011 Champions League. The recent FA Cup defeat harked back to the old days of Chelsea domination. Their monopolisation over the world’s oldest and most revered cup competition doesn’t look like ending any time soon but, as some out of touch French women once said, let them have their cake and eat it. Give Chelsea fans a ray of hope in their increasingly waning hopes. While they bask in the glory of the FA Cup, we will have another Premier League to add to the collection. Maybe that’s why this particular defeat didn’t cause too much pain. Most probably, it meant more to the boys in blue than it did to us. The main priority was the league title. So we’re not doing too badly, are we?

Written By Daniel Owen
 
 
They say, in life, that you make your own luck. And Robin Van Persie proved that there is still life in this middle-aged maxim yet. Although, let’s face it, with Titus Bramble at the heart of the opposition defence, your chances of getting the rub of the green are certainly not diminished in any way. The only goal, the winning goal pretty much summed up Sunderland vs Manchester United in a nutshell. A scrappy goal in an equally fragmentary encounter between two sides at polar opposites of the form table. But we’re used to United grinding out victories against dogged opposition. Been there, done that. They are a lean, mean winning machine, mass producing victories at a rate never witnessed before in the Premier League. 25 wins from 30. Yet another record bowled over by Sir Alex’s merchant avengers, relinquishing the unbridled horrors of their most recent visit to the Stadium of Light. There was a sense of revenge amongst the traveling hordes, the Wearside jeers of last May still ringing in their ears. The shoe is certainly on the other foot now, as Martin O’Neil was brutally booted from his job. Another gallant gaffer falls. While the Black Cats are facing a dreaded visit to the vets, Manchester United pounced on their misery to maintain their grip on a 20th league title. And it’s not always easy to discover something about your team after a rather disappointing display. Sometimes, you have to delve a little deeper to find the answers. 

Buttner shines again

With all the clamour for a certain Miles Kane lookalike to make the move from the Mersey to Manchester, it came as a relative, if slightly unceremonious surprise when Sir Alex splashed out just short of £4million to bring Vitesse Arnhem unknown Alexander Buttner over the shores of the North Sea. Spiked hair, heavily tattooed, the unfamiliar full-back resembled a member of Blink 182 rather than an essential component of a title winning team. But, over the last few months, an “essential component” is exactly what Alexander Buttner has become. OK, if he tried to count his number of Premier League starts on his fingers he’d only need to be one-handed, but the dynamic Dutchman, once again, showcased exactly what Sir Alex noticed that the rest of the footballing world appeared to remarkably overlook. Hey, their loss. It was an excellent performance. Forming an efficient partnership with Ashley Young, Buttner’s forward thrust and enthusiasm marked him down as the Man of the Match in many quarters. Look up the word “tenacity” in the dictionary and there should be a minute thumbnail of the man himself. An impressive crosser of the ball, Buttner personified his attacking prowess, twice forcing Simon Mignolet into showing off the feline reflexes appropriate to his team’s moniker. With age finally catching up with Patrice Evra, Buttner is set to make his dash towards first team recognition. Sir Alex certainly likes a bargain. And in this guy, he’s found one worthy of Del Boy himself. Lovely jubbly, indeed.

Kagawa deserves a central role

Akin to those caused by a refreshing ice cream on a sweltering summers’ day, Sir Alex’s recurring headache is certainly bittersweet. A dilemma that would make even the most prestigious of philosophers partake in a few minutes of solitude. Van Persie’s position is secure. Centre forward, first choice, no doubt about it. But who should occupy that all-important number 10 role that has become so synonymous with modern day football? The cries of “Wayne Rooney” are almost deafening, but maybe some consideration should be given to Shinji Kagawa. After spending months out of fitness and out of form, the former Dortmund destroyer showed everyone why he’s so highly thought of amongst the experts of our field with a sublime treble against the wing clipped Canaries on their migration North. Starting slightly behind Rooney, he was provided with the space to finally do what he does best. Create and score. It’s a perfect combination. Again, he proved his worth on an uncharacteristically sunny, yet appropriately freezing early afternoon kick-off in the North East. Kagawa may not have provided Mignolet with any real food for thought, but his role at the tip of the tripartite central triangle fitted the Japanese playmaker like a tailored glove. Kagawa slowed down the game, almost toying with Sunderland’s battering ram midfield partnership of Gardner and N’Diaye, bringing his team mates into proceedings with consummate ease and swagger. Not too dissimilar to a mini me Berbatov. OK, he may not possess the power or the punch of Rooney, but he offers something very different to Sir Alex: the creative King the Old Trafford masses have been crying out for. The coronation of Kagawa: United latest midfield monarchy. Sir Alex had better get himself down to the pharmacist. Because this selection head-ache is not going to let up any time soon.

United need to rediscover that golden touch

As with any game, there are always negatives to balance the scales, almost like the Egyptian gods, weighing up whether the performance is worthy of a place in footballing heaven or hell. It is all well and good focusing on the positives, of which there were few in all honesty, but it’s the negatives that keep you grounded, keep you remembering that there is always ample room for improvement. Another 1-0 win for United. Yes, it’s three points, and who can argue with that, but again you just got the feeling that, had United really pushed on, they could have boosted their healthy goal difference, giving it superhuman vigour. Professionalism the key to unlocking success and, granted, too often last season’s gung-ho approach left us with faces as red as Sir Alex confronting a Turkish ref, but the first half at the Stadium of Light was the perfect opportunity to ensure that the scoreboard operator earned his wages. Mignolet was rarely stretched to any real capacity as United totally dominated proceedings. Danny Graham may well have stayed on the team coach for the first half, Sunderland really were that ineffective going forward. With that in mind, it was the perfect chance for United to commit more men forward and kill the game before the break, no mercy. Instead, they toyed with their prey, dragging out its pain, instead of putting it out of its misery. United need to rediscover that killer instinct, that dead eyed tiger shark mentality. Although, hopefully, they’re saving their ammunition for City next Monday.

Young’s time is up
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could get that Geordie bloke off Big Brother to speak on behalf of us fans? In any case, its high time Ashley Young was evicted from Manchester United. But hey, fair play to him, he was fantastic for England last Friday. A textbook performance, enhanced by a truly wondrous goal. Maybe he’s finally found his level. The joint worst international team in the entire footballing globe. In the self-proclaimed greatest league in the world then, he’s probably a little out of his depth. This season has been truly terrible. Talk about Liverpool squandering cash on overpriced England internationals, consider this: United forked out £17million to drag Ashley Young to the North-West. His performance on Wearside suggested we might as well bring back Bebe. Talk about desperation. Overhit delivery, misplaced passes; Young should have wrapped the game up in the dying embers, instead opting to roll a tame side-footer to Van Persie, having taken all of the momentum out of his initial forward burst. There’s only so much longer we can take, Sir Alex. He’s getting worse by the game. Suddenly, Nani is looking a very attractive option indeed. Who would have expected that a few months ago?

Defence is the best form of attack

At last, it seems Manchester United have rediscovered the dying art of defending. From that calamitous start to the season, culminating in that 4-3 victory at Reading where Sir Alex joked that he might as well play himself at the back, an attractive prospect at the time, United have revived their defensive durability. It just so happens that it’s coincided with a period of 1-0 wins. Coincidence? Don’t be ridiculous. United have now maintained six clean sheets in a row and not just because they’ve discovered the “new formula” of a certain garishly coloured cleaning product. Bang, and the defensive frailties are gone. Thank God. Could we take any more 4-3s? De Gea seems to have finally come to terms with the fact that he’s going to have to deal with some actual human contact in the Premier League, developing into, not only a top-class keeper, but a sweeper in the Victor Valdes mould. Vidic, Evans and Smalling were fearless, the aforementioned Buttner making up an awesome foursome at the back. From Ground Force to Grand Designs, United are now as secure as any structure in the top flight. It’s about time they got the recognition they deserve.

It may not have been a classic, hey, let’s be honest it was a fairly tepid encounter, but to come away with maximum points and a clean sheet from a side fighting tooth and nail for their Premier League status is nothing to be sniffed at. De Gea’s only moment of worry occurred when Nemanja Vidic got the Spaniard’s face confused with the ball, cue the six minutes of, aptly named, injury time. A return to goalscoring charts for Robin Van Persie (come on dubious goals panel, surely you don’t want Suarez to pick up the Golden Boot) and a clean sheet to throw into the bargain. It’s not a case of blasting teams out of the water, more a case of taking each game as it comes, getting fixtures out of the way. In the end, there will be no games left. And that’s when the trophy returns to its rightful place. It almost seems wasteful that you spend the whole season striving to wrestle back the trophy, only to lock it away in a cupboard for 12 months. Surely is should be on display somewhere. Maybe we’ll design a “Welcome to Manchester” poster complete with an action shot of Vidic, arms aloft, silverware in hand. 8 games left, just 3 wins required. Should be manageable, don’t you think?

Written Daniel Owen
 
 
Form is a fickle mistress. Sheer devotion one minute, back-stabbing betrayal the next. You wouldn’t be surprised to discover her and Lady Luck gossiping, cackling, devoting themselves to duplicity. Almost like a metaphorical Katie Price. For Antonio Valencia, form has been a cruel mistress of late. His mysterious girl. 2011/12’s Player of the Season has seen his status as Old Trafford’s Wing Wizard compromised by a dismal run of displays throughout this campaign. But don’t let that fool you. Valencia is still one of the world’s top widemen. He just needs to remind us of the fact. There’s space in his own personal trophy collection for another Manchester United medal but, with the imminent arrival of Wilfried Zaha and the returning form of prodigal son Nani, Valencia’s future is far from certain. How does Sir Alex solve a problem like Valencia?

There can be little doubt that Antonio Valencia is not far off the perfect professional. If a committee of the footballing Gods sat round a table, notepad and pens at the ready with the intention of developing a manager’s dream player, the jet-heeled South American would be the result. A figure of utmost class, both on and off the pitch. A man known for his back-page headlines rather than the front. Even his image. Shaved head, footwear of respectable apparel. An old school throwback to the “good old days”. An example to aspiring professionals everywhere. Maybe Sir Alex had this in mind when Valencia was hand-plucked to replace Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2009. Big, luminous shoes to fill. From one half of a right-wing partnership with Emerson Boyce to the bright lights of the Champions League to the tune of £17million. But if anyone could keep their feet on the ground it was Valencia. A parallel opposite to the preened and plucked departing demi-God. Who would have thought that a guy originating from relative obscurity, making his name at Wigan Athletic of all places would wind up replacing arguably the finest footballer the Premier League has ever had the privilege to witness? No one. Except the man who matters.

Sir Alex had been monitoring the effervescent Ecuadorian since he reduced Patrice Evra to a quivering wreck in the Latics 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford in early 2009. Pace, power, energy, if any man was powered by a Duracell battery, it was Valencia. When Ronnie finally said Adios to Manchester and Ola to Madrid, there was only ever one man to replace him. Valencia had gone big time.

Not that it fazed him. Over the course of the next four seasons, we witnessed Antonio Valencia develop into one of the most dangerous widemen in world football. Ok, he’s no Ronaldo, but who is? While the posturing Portuguese has sulked with green-eyed glances across at his little Argentinean nemesis, Valencia has simply got on with the job. Fuss? Barely minimal. Last season’s Player of the Year gong was a rare moment in the centre of the attention circle. Since then however, he has been thrust almost unwillingly into the light of lime hue. Remember that dog that was inexplicably voted as the biggest talent in Britain? Remember the fear in its eyes as it stared into an expectant multitude of masses? Sometimes media attention can be a very detrimental thing. Just look at Lindsay Lohan. And how much longer before Justin Bieber goes completely off the rails? Now, no-one’s saying Valencia’s going to lash out at a photographer or be two hours late for kick-off but perhaps he’s been blinded by the unforgiving glare of a paparazzo’s lense. From star to squad member. But can Valencia show a little bit of boucebackability?

If there’s one man who has ever had Ashley Cole shaking in his boots, it is undoubtedly Antonio Valencia. Love him or hate him (although most of you will surely favour the latter) the recent England centurion is probably the greatest left-back of the previous decade, although it pains to admit it. The student-shooting, Cheryl-cheating defender almost always survived a Ronaldo onslaught so the fact that Valencia has given him so many problems over the years is a testament to the winger’s ability. He started in United’s justly controversial victory at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season (it’s nice to get a bit of redemption, isn’t it?), coinciding with arguably his finest performance of the season. A brilliant driven cross supplying an instant second goal, Van Persie the benefactor of the Ecuadorian’s trademark accuracy. Once again, Cole was left spluttering on the dust generated from Valencia’s heels. So why can he effortlessly destroy the finest full-back of his generation, yet when he goes toe to toe with Enda Stevens or Ben Davies we are left disappointed, bordering on disillusioned?

In truth, Antonio Valencia only really has one, defining style. Bruce Willis, Ray Winstone, they’ve become compromised by their lack of flexibility, subsequently being stereotyped into a traditional character type. A recent trip to the cinema led to a rather predictable discovery. Willis appeared in a variety of varying, yet ultimately identical, action flicks, each featuring the bald bruiser returning from retirement to shoot-‘em-up, usually donned in a plain white T-shirt. As a result, you can often predict the plot by browsing the cast list. Maybe this bombastic metaphor can explain Valencia’s recent difficulties. Touch, shift, cross. The three-step rule to Antonio Valencia’s gameplan. On occasion, he is possibly the most lethal winger in the league but, on an off day, United might as well be playing with ten men. It’s a style that is often so effective, or completely ineffective. Unfortunately, this season has seen a proportional lead for the latter. Doubling up against him restricts the space, making crossing the ball as challenging and ultimately pointless as sitting through an episode of Eggheads. You know that you aren’t going to know any answers so why bother trying. At times, Valencia must feel the same way. Maybe it’s time for a change in style, time to break free of his stereotyped traditions. But then again, that’s probably about as likely as Bruce Willis starring in the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” catastrophe.

Sometimes you watch a footballer and you just wonder what is going through their mind. Money, cars, girls. OK, you could probably take a wild guess and come up with the right answer but, in terms of training, why on earth do some players remain so predominantly one-footed? Messi, Ronaldo, Falcao. The three greatest modern footballers. Would you be willing to let Messi take a right-footed shot, let Ronaldo cut inside onto his supposedly weaker peg? No. It’s the ability to mix it up that makes them so special. Valencia on the other hand, well, you pretty much know what he’s going to do. Look at Arjen Robben for instance. How many times have you watched with frustration as he has scampered inside and blazed a left-footed shot over the bar? Too many. These footballers become predictable, preventable. Honestly, how much effort does it take to work on your weaker side a bit after training? Is half an hour a day too much to ask? What do footballers actually do in the afternoon? A game of Fifa, a browse of the local shops, a cup of tea and Deal Or No Deal? Indisputably that time could be put to better use. Imagine how good Valencia would be if he had the ability to cut inside and shoot. Unpredictability is vital in the modern game. Surely being totally proficient with two feet makes you doubly dangerous. Doesn’t it? Could this be Antonio Valencia’s undoing? It certainly appears that way.

In a way, you would hope that Valencia knows what he must do to improve. Even at the height of his majestic powers, it was clear that he could do with a bit of variation. The difference is, back then his main, perhaps only, tactic was working a treat. Now even his tried and trusted style has betrayed him. It was inevitable that he was going to get found out eventually. The best we can hope for is that he rediscovers his pace, revives his confidence and the chalk-booted superstar we all loved returns in earnest. Failing that, the United number 7 shirt may be up for grabs once more. Supposedly Nani is the one heading for the exit. In truth, it’s probably more likely to be Valencia at the moment. He’s got about two months to save himself. Otherwise it’s going to be an interesting summer to say the least. Valencia, if you’re reading this: get down to Carrington and start working on that left foot. Then, drive home and stick on the Season Review for 2011/12. Remember how fantastic you were back then? Now figure out how to repeat it. Touch, shift, cross. Touch, shift, cross. It’s worked so well for you before. Let’s just hope, pray that it will again.

Written by Daniel Owen
 
 
No one should underestimate the importance of a couple of quality centre halves. Attack may be the best form of defence but there’s no doubting that there is a very real element of risk attached to that particular tactic. That old gameplan of “you score, we score more” is as rife as ever in our modern day thrillfest football. Defensive pragmatism, some would argue, went out with Mourinho. This is a time of forward thinkers, of goalscoring greats. 2012/13 has summed it all up in a neat little package of truth and evidence. Not too long ago, the likes of Nemanja Vidic and John Terry were serious contenders for the prestigious Player of the Year award. Not these days however. We live in an era where the Van Persies, the Suarezs and the Bales are the red-carpet stars at the ceremony. The defenders are left to watch at home, alone, wondering where their recognition is, again overlooked. Even at Manchester United, champions elect, defending has not been their strong suit. Despite being an unprecedented 15 points clear, constant criticism has been aimed squarely in the face of the Red Devils back four. In an era where conservation is criticised, where tackling is almost outlawed, has Sir Alex overlooked the goal-stoppers in favour of the goal-getters? With all the focus on a fragile midfield, has the need for a shiny new centre back been disregarded?

At the time of writing, Manchester United have conceded 31 Premier League goals in 31 games, despite running away with the title at the pace of Usain Bolt in danger of missing a bus. It’s an interesting paradox, an anomaly if you will. Last season United finished, well you all know where we finished, having conceded just 33 goals all season. The previous season? 37. And 2008/09? Just 24. However, we are on course for a record points tally and a scale-tipping number of net-busters. So what, you argue, is the problem? Well, the fact is, we are quite probably rather fortunate to have such a clear gap from our noisy neighbours, or “raucous rivals” for anyone sick of that overused alliterated cliché. United’s powers of recovery would rival the Messiah at this festive time of the calendar, but it’s not done our collective wellbeing any good. Beating hearts, shortness of breath, football can’t be good for your health. Thrilling comebacks, last minute winners have been far from short in supply. 3-2 vs Villa, 4-3 vs Newcastle, 3-2 vs City. Yeah, OK, there’s no better feeling that a last-gasp smash and grab but there’s only so much we can take. So often, we’ve generously, verging on arrogantly, given the opposition a head start, assuming that victory is assured. What was it Brian Kidd once said? “United never lose games, they just run out of time”. Fine philosophy from the former number two but it doesn’t always ring true. Remember that agonising home defeat to Spurs? 2-0 down, 3-1 down. Even with the clock ticking ominously in the top left corner, we just expected United to pull it out of the bag. Back down to Earth with an almighty bump, then. The defending in that game was truly dismal. Hardly Pentagon level security. Spurs exploited the space and took full advantage. Luckily for United, Super Wayne Rooney and sidekick Robin have come to our rescue time and time again, but, really, they shouldn’t have too. We should be able to hold our own defensively. That 4-3 victory over Reading, for example. Never have so many negatives been taken from such an exhilarating victory. Maybe changes are required. Or have we the answer to the problem already in our ranks?

There’s no coincidence what so ever that United’s improved defensive durability has corresponded with the return of stereotypical Serb, Nemanja Vidic. A battle-scarred warrior, our captain fantastic mercifully returned as committed and daunting as ever following an excruciating bout of injuries that would have knocked a lesser man out of the count. Akin to a championship heavyweight, Vidic’s return to the ring has been well worth the wait. Try embodying the power of the two Klitschko brothers, combined with the fear-factor of man-mountain Nikolai Valuev and, yeah, that pretty much sums up Vidic. And while we’re on the subject of continuously superlative veterans...

It’s fair to say, Rio Ferdinand has had to put up with his fair share of criticism lately. Whether it’s down to his grammar on Twitter (get a life prescriptivists, we’re not living in Downton Abbey) or having to contend with racial abuse from, most recently, so-called England “fans”. It’s testament to Rio’s conviction that this season has been his greatest in years. Not since that record-breaking year (14 consecutive league games without conceding) have United had the privilege of pairing Rio and Nemanja together. Almost like football’s Gary and Robbie. Yeah, they do well on their own but together they are unstoppable. Now, no-one’s suggesting they are going to release a Hoddle and Waddle-esque pop disaster, but United’s defensive double act have shown the fans what they have been missing over the course of four, injury ruined seasons. His yards of pace may have transformed into mere inches, but Rio’s ability to read the game and start attacks from deep runs pure within his Peckham veins. Combined with Vidic’s no-nonsense spirit, United possess the blueprint for the perfect partnership. Undoubtedly, the supreme pairing, where centre-backs are concerned, is that you need one uncompromising bruise bringer (Vidic) and one ball-playing position master (Ferdinand). Puyol and Pique. Terry and Carvalho. Bould and Adams. It’s a tried and tested tradition in the world of football. And if it works, and it does, who are we to argue?

However, at 31 and 34 respectively, and a sustained string of injuries behind them, it’s obvious that Vidic and Ferdinand cannot last forever. Everything has it’s time and everything ends. Sir Alex must make sure that these fantastic athletes have someone to pass the baton to. But, in Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, United have a new breed of centre-back superstars. The new Fergie Fledglings are waiting in the wings, about to fly the nest and make their own way in the world of professional football. Towards the finale of last season, during the feel-good factor of our 8 point lead Sir Alex described young Ulsterman Jonny Evans as “arguably the best defender in the country”. Notice the word “arguably”, there was certainly some debate, but what our great gaffer was referring to was the measurable, perceptible strides made by Evans in recent seasons. So often criticised, at times downright blamed for a lack of collective resilience, the undoubted focal point of the Northern Irish international team (yes, even more so than Notts County’s Jeff Hughes would you believe) has transformed into one of the first names on Sir Alex’s teamsheet, if the usual duo are unavailable of course. If you glance back, or peek through your fingers, at the horror show that was United’s 4-0 capitulation at West Ham in the Carling Cup in 2010, where Evans was subsequently dropped for six, yes SIX weeks, it will make you appreciate what a wonderful young defender the 25 year old has become.

And, of course, the inseparable duo of Jones and Smalling, almost moulded in the image of Vidic and Ferdinand. Team mates at under-21 level for England, they are both hammering, Jack Nicholson-esque, on the door of Roy Hodgson’s first team. At 21 and 23, their careers have barely just begun. Two top-class defenders in the making, Sir Alex splashed out huge sums to take them both to Old Trafford where their versatility, flexibility have made them indispensable members of a title-winning unit. Both possess that all-too-rare ability to ply their trade at full-back but the centre is where the future lies for these young bucks. OK, granted, United sometimes look as secure as a shelving bracket purchased from IKEA when they are paired at the back, but time is on their side. But hey, let’s not be too hasty. Vidic and Ferdinand have plenty of life in those ageing limbs yet. Don’t write them off. Chelsea take note: age is but a number. Quality is where it counts. At the end of the day, maybe you could put this season down to a learning curve, a year of transition. Centre-backs, like a fine wine, tend to get better with age. We’ll drink to that, right?

OK, let’s just say were pressed for an answer: which centre-back should Sir Alex sign? Well, if you’re looking close to home, it’s difficult to look beyond Ashley Williams and not just because of his 6ft frame. A consistent performer for Swansea, his inspiration leadership guided them to their first ever major cup final, and inevitable victory this season. A daunting, dependable defender. But perhaps the ultimate target has to be Mats Hummels. Bayern must be kicking themselves with the force of a Rooney rocket shot for letting him go. As fans, we can’t help but make for the Beckenbauer comparisons. A fine footballer and owner of perhaps the greatest fact in the modern game: Hummels is so revered for bringing the ball out from the back, that opposition managers instruct their centre forwards attempt to mark him out of the game. Incredible!

We all know where the manager’s transfer priorities must lie come the opening of the transfer window. First and foremost, the midfield needs work to make United fearsome again abroad as well as in a domestic sense. The fact is, our defence does need to be strengthened but maybe not by the means of an open checkbook. We have an outstanding array of young centre-halves at our disposal. The operative word being “young”. They have plenty of time to learn the tricks of the trade and who better to learn from than two of the finest defenders of the Premier League era. Yes, the defence must be a priority, improvements must be made but, perhaps, now is not the time. There are more pressing matters to deal with. We will continue to put our collective faith in the old heads and the new kids on the block. Hey, it’s not like we are short on numbers or, in fact, quality. Vidic, Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling, Jones. Five fantastic defenders, each with their own merits and attributes. And besides, a recent upturn in defensive performances suggest that the early season problems were just a blip, an overcome issue. One day, United will need replacements for Vidic and Ferdinand. But, who knows, perhaps they are already here. Keep the faith in the stars of the future, the men of tomorrow. Their time is only just beginning.

 
 
The Manchester United goalkeeping equation. For years it has puzzled the fans, mystified the experts and, at times, has cost United dear in their continued hunt for silverware. An often unanswerable conundrum, Sir Alex Ferguson has often struggled to come up with the right answer. But was the summer of 2011 his Eureka moment? The moment of divine inspiration? David De Gea, a £20million summer switch from radiant Madrid to rainy Manchester (it’s lucky we’ve got a decent football team isn’t it?). Almost two years later and the jury is still out, the case ongoing. Is he good enough? Are United in safe hands? The fact that the debate is still raging suggests the Goalkeeping Equation is still without a definite answer. Is De Gea the right man for one of football’s great poison chalices? Or is he just another in a long line of net-keeping calamities?

It’s never easy to follow someone so successful. Matt Smith after David Tennant, Nick Grimshaw after Chris Moyles. An unenviable task. The opportunity may be massive but a relative unknown stepping into the shoes of a much-loved legend will always have its difficulties as Avram Grant will testify. Comparisons, criticisms, it’s just part of the inevitable process. The media keeping a watchful, almost omniscient eye over proceedings, often praying for a slip-up doesn’t really make things easier in the grand scheme of things. Despite often telling ourselves otherwise, the world of football is no different. Following the retirement of “Great Dane” Peter Schmeichel in 1999, Sir Alex instantly had a job on his hands. Now, if you’re looking to bow out in a blaze of glory but not sure how, look no further than footballs answer to Mr Octopus. A lesson in “legendaryness”. Come on, the word should be in the dictionary, a little picture of Schmeichel (no, not Chesney’s dog in Corrie) next to it as a definition. Treble winning glory, a comeback second only to Tony Christie re-releasing Amarillo with a little helping hand from Peter Kay and a stumbling Ronnie Corbet. Even by Manchester United’s standards, 1999 was something rather special. A Hollywood script worthy of Jackson, Spielberg, Lucas, well anyone with the imagination, the inspiration to conduct such a remarkable yarn. Legend Peter left a legacy unmatched, unrivalled, and unconquerable. In a way, you have to pity those who followed him. For many, the pressure of the number one shirt proved just too heavy, akin to a Newcastle 9 or a Liverpool 7. The fans, the media, it’s a pressure-cooker environment.

OK, Fabien Barthez wasn’t quite in the same league of lethargy as Obafemi Martins or Harry Kewell, but the tremendously bald Frenchman was never likely to live up to Big Pete’s supreme standards. He was memorable, certainly, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill was unforgettable. Though not in a good way. Whether Barthez ever spent a day dressed up as his sister remains uncertain but they do say you have to be a bit mad to be a goalkeeper. Well, let’s just say Fabien Barthez took this tired old cliché to a whole new level. You could call him “as mad as a box of frogs” unless you wished to avoid the rather stereotypical pun. The King of the Timewasters, Mr Unconventional. Even now, he still manages to remind you of that slightly weird uncle you only ever met at the weddings of distant relatives, getting so inebriated that he ends up swaying side to side on the permanently empty dancefloor, belting out the lyrics to “Cotton Eye Joe”. It’s fair to say that Fabien’s glove story (get it?) with Manchester United was never likely to last.

Eventually, at long, long last, the saviour, the messiah arrived. Edwin Van Der Sar, a 2005 transfer from Fulham, following the distinctly average Tim Howard and part-footballer, part-juggler Roy Carroll. Four Premier Leagues, three Carling Cups and, what else, oh yeah, the deciding save in the Champions League shoot-out. He did alright really, didn’t he? Even into his fourth decade, Van Der Sar remained a world-class goalkeeper. If there was any undeniable proof that age is but a number, Van Der Sar was it. So imagine the pressure heaped upon De Gea, a man half his age, and ten times his transfer fee when he donned the number one for the first time. Enough to make you feel more than a little nervous.

Lanky, tousled, skinny, De Gea looked every bit a teenager when making his long-awaited debut against Manchester City in the Community Shield. Optimism, however, was high. As the sky, some might say. In his breakthrough seasons with Atletico in the tika-taka loving La Liga, the bearded boy- wonder was making quite a splash, thrown straight into the deep end. Admittedly, your correspondent was thrilled upon the first confirmed news of talks between United and Atletico’s representatives following Van Der Sar’s inevitable retirement earlier in the summer. Quick, agile, with the reflexes of a trained tabby, De Gea was clearly a superstar in the making. This analysis coming from someone who had watched his progress with awe, developing from a plucky 17 year old to the undisputed net-guarding favourite. The first half of his debut at Wembley however, was didn’t quite go according to plan. Two down at half time, De Gea was left bamboozled by a “hit it and hope” punt from Edin Dzeko. The following week, a daisycutting scuff-shot from Shane Long bobbled in against West Brom. De Gea’s gloves and some extremely slippery butter seemed to have come into close contact. Had Sir Alex purchased another dud? A Taibi for the new generation? The way it was going, the prospect of “Bradley Walsh’s De Gea Disasters” was becoming ever the more likely.

Luckily for us all, lovers of United and un-cringeworthy festive montages, the slim Spaniard improved. Well, slightly. There was still the odd howler. Grant Hanley’s winner for Blackburn at Old Trafford, a certain unmentionable Manchester derby, but there were moments of genuine brilliance. He, quite literally, single handedly kept United in the Europa League. Although, looking back now, all he achieved was to drag out the prolonged humiliation in the Thursday Night Cup with its Channel 5 logo and (shudder) Stan Collymore commentary. It must be horrible being a Liverpool fan. But that save against Juan Mata. Wow. Just enough to make that Man of the Match champagne taste that little bit sweeter. A fine end which has continued into a new beginning. Just what you need when your hearts are as broken as they were last May.

The improvement has been a continued process. Continued talk of maturity, De Gea’s shirt no longer hangs of his slim figure like a Zorro-esque cape, his integration has been one long learning curve. From doughnut stealing teen to undisputed number one. It’s been a bumpy ride, a road trip to redemption. Whisper it; the errors have seemingly been eradicated. When was the last time De Gea could really be blamed for a goal? It’s been a while. Thank God. That heroic display in Madrid will live long in the memory, even if the bittersweet recollection has been rather tainted by a tabloid aspiring Turk. He may have a lot to learn but, at 22, he has ample time to learn it. It takes time to become the very best. And time is something De Gea has in abundance. Look at Harry Potter. Despite the inevitable talent that comes with being the protagonist in a fantasy, he was a bit disappointing at first. But, hey, it all worked out in the end. Now, no-one is saying De Gea’s going to go on and defeat an evil dark lord, but progression arrives with experience. This season has been a defining one. Anders Lindegaard should really think about bringing a cushion to games these days. He’s going to have to make himself comfortable on that subs bench.

De Gea is number one now. Don’t let the teenage visage fool you, he means business. For once, the mouths of the media have been well and truly slammed shut. United have the finest young shot-stopper in the world, even if crosses are still not his forte. So why on earth would they look elsewhere? David De Gea is here to stay. Potentially, for the next decade (until Real Madrid inevitably come calling that is), United are in safe hands.
 
 
It’s very nearly finale time. The final hurrah. And, at this stage of the season, results take centre stage, the leading role in a West End play. Performances fall into their subordinate role as extras, the backing cast, the sheep in the Christmas fete as Manchester United took another step towards a return to the glory that eluded their grasp so cruelly last season, Tom chasing Jerry, Team Rocket pursuing Pikachu. But, like these cartoon classics, the very thing they desired proved to be tantalisingly out of reach.  The time for redemption is almost upon us. Yes, it may have been a below-par, sub-standard, or any other hyphenated put-down you can think of, display, but the three points are what football is all about. The food and drink of a title winning unit, something United have resembled in earnest for the majority of the campaign. Like flip-flops on black ice, City are slipping while United have taken the sensible, secure route. A pair of thick-soled ice grippers. If you want excitement, drama and an ending to all endings, watch the season review of 2011/12. This time, the drama is over (cue sighs of relief from all United fans). But what can we learn from another display of maximum professionalism? 

Ferdinand deserves his place

Ok, Rio may have been forced to withdraw from Roy Hodgson’s latest party of 23 in keeping with his strict fitness programme, but there’s no doubt that he was included on the guest list purely on merit. It’s been a long time since Ferdinand was invited along for the trip, too long. His performances this season have been fitting of the England legend. For those of you scoffing at the, admittedly overused, term “legend”, you don’t get 81 caps for nothing. Obviously these head-warming freebies have given our multi-talented, entrepreneurial centre-half plenty of inspiration, a recent clothing range set up in the footballing fashionista’s name pointing in the direction of a renewed life after his sporting career breathes its last breath. His performance against the Royals was fit for a King. A truly regal display (who doesn’t love an obvious pun?). David De Gea could have brought an armchair and his new Sudoku book for all the work he had to do. Rio’s dominant display ensured another clean-sheet for United ever-improving backline. And do we credit him with the assist? Of course we do. How many other 34 year old would you witness galloping from his own half, a superb stallion, dribble past a raft of opponents then set up the winning goal? Yeah. Exactly.

Smalling’s future is at centre-half

We do love a good comparison. The “new Ronaldo”, the “new Messi”. Even the “new David De Gea” was bandied around recently. Come on, that’s a bit soon right? Surely, at 20, there cannot be a “new” version. He’s a bit young for all that. That’s like, erm, Harry Styles releasing an autobiography at 19. Oh wait. He has. Well, anyway, one player at Manchester United has become synonymous in terms of comparisons with a certain Old Trafford team-mate. Yes, the aforementioned Rio Ferdinand. The similarities are all there. Aerial prowess, the all-too-rare ability to stride confidently out of the back four. They even look fairly similar. Surely then, all the signs point to a successful career at centre-half for the former Maidstone United graduate. If his performance against Reading is anything to go by, he’s certainly more suited centrally than at right-back. Smalling has consistently proven his worth as an able deputy on the right but, with the emergence of Rafael as number one, or more appropriately, number two, maybe the ball-playing battler should be given more of a chance in the centre. Over-hit crosses, poor link up play and a theme of finding himself caught out of position, it wasn’t the display of a young Gary Neville. The number 5 shirt awaits for club and country. Smalling certainly has the ability, the style, the temperament to rival his experienced counterpart. Along with Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, Smalling’s future at Old Trafford is so bright, it’s practically gleaming. Just not at right back.

Is Rooney top dog once more?

With all the accolades being directed almost universally at one certain Dutch super-striker, Wayne Rooney has almost been left out in the cold this season, scratching on the door, a stray cat yearning for acceptance. But as Van Persie’s goals have inexplicably dried up, Wayne has come to the rescue. His looping strike against Reading was his 16th of the season. Now that’s hardly a poor tally is it? It’s been a sudden role reversal for the United’s dynamic duopoly, Van Persie’s early season extravaganza coinciding with an out of shape, out of form Scouse striker. Flash forwards to late March and the two are almost unrecognisable. Is Rooney the top dog, the King of the castle, the darling of Old Trafford once more(if you have any more metaphorical clichés, answers on a postcard please)? His future now assured, his form in a shade of the purest purple, Rooney is back. The customary “bang”; a sheer inevitability. One chance one goal. It just about sums up Wayne Rooney at the moment. With just nine games till the finish line, it’s not a bad time to find your form. Some would say ideal.

Buttner offers hope

For about six seasons now, the left-back position at Manchester United has been pretty much copyrighted by Patrice Evra. Some say change is a dangerous concept. In the footballing sphere, that could not be truer. In an era where managers are shown the door in the blinking of an eye, quite literally as most haven’t been at the club long enough to learn where the exit actually is, change has never been more risky. But, who was it who said “winners take risks”? Come to think of it, it was UK grime rapper Sway. Hardly Freud is it? And it’s hard to imaging Sir Alex Ferguson getting a sudden strike of inspiration while listening to club hit “Level Up”, featuring Tubes off’ve Soccer AM, by the way. In the 5ft9ins frame of Alexander Buttner (pronounced Bertner), the gallant gaffer possesses enough assurance to ensure that his risk is a more than calculated one. Ok, he may have more rough edges that a wall constructed by the Cowboy Builders but the Dutch almost-international (do call-ups count?) was again impressive in United’s narrow success over Reading. A courageous, swashbuckling attacker, Buttner’s defensive durability is often overlooked.  A player with an eye for both the spectacular and a well-timed interception, Patrice Evra had better start looking over his shoulder. Because he is no longer safe. Buttner’s in town and he wants your position. Get set for Evra vs Heinze part two. This time, though, it’s Buttner.

Is Anderson finished?

Now, even in his 5th season at Old Trafford, Anderson still managers to divide opinion. Even your correspondent is relatively unsure. After all, you can only give someone the benefit of the doubt for so long. Eventually, poor performances are going to take their toll. And, once more, Anderson seemed to give the impression that he is not up for the task of running the Old Trafford engine room. Often unavailable due to hamstring problems, knee problems, or overall ability problems, it’s been another unconvincing season from the blasé Brazilian. Akin to an episode of hit series Lost, just when you think you’ve figured him out, you’re left frustrated by another question, adding to the increasing pile of unanswered interrogatives. At home to Reading, the away side dominated possession for large periods. Let’s be honest, Mikele Leigertwood is hardly a footballer of any measureable skill or talent so the fact that Carlton Palmer The Second dominated Anderson out of the game for long periods is a real worry. It’s only so many times you can check the player ratings, then see Anderson’ name followed by a 6/10 “steady performance”. We might as well have kept Darron Gibson if “steady” is what we’re looking for. Manchester United need midfielders of quality, of majesty, of game-changing eminence. And this is a category that Anderson is becoming increasingly distanced from. He’s running out of time to prove himself. Maybe, after all these years of transition, it’s time for realism. Anderson is not cut out for Manchester United. Until his next brilliant performance when he’ll be the “new Paul Scholes “again. Whoever said football fans are a fickle bunch? 

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to determine whether we have more positives or negatives to take from the game. A win, three points, a clean sheet. But, on the other end of the spectrum, a laboured display, lack of quality, only one goal against a struggling team with no manager. But, let’s look at the bigger picture. Yes, we won’t be reminiscing fondly about this game come the end of the season but that’s in part to the fact that we’ll have too much celebrating to do. This season has produced so many memories. A return to Premier League glory plus wins at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad. A 1-0 win over Reading is just another component in a season of success. In truth, there’s only one real worry. After all the times your correspondent has claimed the title race is over, finished, caput, if we do throw it away again, then it won’t just be Manchester United who loses all credibility. All the more incentive to cheer our boys to victory come May.

Written by Daniel Owen

 
 
Now, let’s not understate the importance of a good old scrappy 1-0 win. At this vitally important stage of the season, who cares how you win or how many goals you smash past a despairing ‘keeper? At the end of the day, you take home exactly the same number of points for a single goal success as you do for a thumping thriller. 1-0, 2-0, 6-0. Goal difference aside, it makes no difference. Well, apart from last season anyway. But fear not, that classic capitulation will not occur this time around. Consistency is key and United have it by an industrial sized bucketload. That nervy victory at home to manager-less, danger-less Reading is just another step on the path to glory. A trophy cabinet so full of silverware its beginning to resemble the kitchenware section of Debenhams. How can anyone criticise three points? Don’t you think City would snap your hands, legs and all other limbs off for a 1-0 triumph now? Of course they would. While Mancini did a Fergie and blanked the press, Manchester’s main manager was enjoying a cool class of red in front of Match of the Day, hands itching for the cold grasp of reflective metal. 1-0s win titles. Don’t they just. United have had their fair share of close run things in the past few years, mostly with the same end result. Victory. Was Reading on Saturday the latest in a long, long line of defining yet nerve-shredding wins? It certainly feels that way.

Let’s take a trip down Memory Lane, stopping of at Nostalgia Close and Reminiscence Road. It’s a justly balmy April afternoon in 2011 and Manchester United are playing host to the notoriously sticky Toffees. Everton have come to town, bringing their typically vocal support with them. The sun beats unforgivingly down on the glorious green Old Trafford turf ahead of a potentially decisive 90 minutes in a truly topsy-turvy title race. One win separating the challengers from the champions, Carlo Ancelotti’s increasingly doomed Chelsea know that a United victory in the early kick-off would put them to within touching distance of the blue-donned trophy. An expectedly dogged, determined Everton fought tooth and claw for every ball, refusing to roll over and submit. Phil Jagielka’s awesome display looked set to frustrate United to a third successive goalless game but, as the clock ticked over 83 minutes, Javier Hernandez popped up at the far post to clinically head home. 1-0. Job done. Three weeks later, the title was sealed. Record breakers. A 19th league title. The sound of Liverpool falling, plummeting from their perch was music to the ears. Their wings clipped as United soared majestically into the history books. Until the next chapter. Episode 20.

And you thought that was leaving it late. You know that feeling when you can almost see the relief, its abstract form developing into a physical entity right before your disbelieving, barely comprehending eyes. Well, perhaps “disbelieving, barely comprehending” are not quite the appropriate lexis for the situation. Maybe, “expectant” or “accustomed” is more suitable. Because, let’s be honest, it’s not like a last minute smash and grab is anything new to us, right? Akin to the continued Die Hard franchise, we’ve seen it all before. But this doesn’t make it any less thrilling. 17th January 2009. There are very few similarities between Dimitar Berbatov and Bruce Willis but on this sub-zero 3pm kick-off, the comparisons were countless. The hero. The man to rise to the occasion and save the day. OK, for every other single minute of their separate existences, there is literally no association to be made but, for this moment, Berbatov was the Hollywood hero. In truth, it was hardly a brilliant Bolton side. Chris Basham, Sebastien Puygrenier and the Goalaphobic Ariza Makakula. If you don’t have the privilege of remembering the paltry Portuguese in action, try imagining a slightly less mobile Kevin Davies with a total lack of aerial prowess, defying his 6ft3ins frame. But, as the blasé Bulgarian stooped to nod home literally seconds into stoppage time, it kick-started a tremendous sprint to another champagne soaked day in late May. United had disposed a strangely strong Liverpool side, complete with a competent Fernando Torres, and topped the table for the first time. This was supposed to be Liverpool’s year. Their return to the glory days. Well, you can’t criticise their optimism. Maybe they could give City a lesson in hope. Although they would just be wasting their time. Unless they give Oussama Assaidi the job. Hey, it’s not like he’ll be playing anytime soon.

What would be the ultimate way to seal the title? Just consider that for a few seconds. How about this: two league games left to play. On the ground of your local rivals. Complete with a match-winner from the ultimate oppositions enemy. Yeah, that’s not a bad way to do it. But imagine if dreams could turn to reality? That would be incredible wouldn’t it? What do you mean it’s already happened! Hang on, 5th May 2007. Manchester City vs Manchester United. Two games from the finale. A winner from Cristiano Ronaldo. Even a collection of the finest directors in Hollywood could struggle to write this script. It was a day when Michael Ball became the traditional villain, the desperado of the narrative. A vicious, vindictive stamp on United’s soon-to-be matchwinner followed by the trip that resulted in the defining penalty. Ronaldo on the spot. Only one outcome. You would think Ball couldn’t make more of an embarrassment of himself wouldn’t you? Don’t underestimate the one-capped left-back. A dive that would not have looked out of place on a certain ITV catastrophe. Could Darius Vassell (yes, he was City’s first choice goal-getter back then) deliver a potentially fatal blow to United’s quest for a first title in four years. Of course he couldn’t. Edwin Van Der Sar with a supreme stop, although he could probably have saved it if he had elected to simply remain motionless. As the final whistle blew, United could celebrate. The long wait was over. And what a place, what a way to do it. Is this the finest 1-0 of all time? You’d struggle to argue otherwise.

Still doubting the vitality of a 1-0 win? Well, look at the table. 15 points clear. 9 games to go. Another clean sheet to add to the recently increasing collection. City sloppy, United unerring. And besides, sometimes there’s only so many 4-3s a fan can take. Ok, looking back as we re-watch the season review over and over and over again, we can appreciate the magnificence of the Barclays Premier League. But what would a manager want? What would Sir Alex be happier with? Three points and a clean sheet every single day of the footballing calendar. United may not have been at their best but, as Wayne Rooney’s effort looped home for the winner, there was clear clarity. This is a side who know what they are doing, how to get the job done. The mission: take back the Premier League. Mission, very nearly, completed. If this title race was an action film, it be the most boring movie ever made, an Adam Sandler cameo away from a clean sweep at the Razzies. But, after the heartbreak of last May, we’re more than happy with boring. As long as it gets the job done. For all the thrillers in the world, any win is a great win. And that’s worth remembering.

Written By Daniel Owen
 
 
Wayne Rooney. Born in Croxeth, made in Manchester. A true rags to riches tale. From a Liverpudlian council estate to the King of Old Trafford. It’s like a Channel 4 take on Cinderella. From child prodigy to prolific marksman. Football’s Mozart. A master of his art. Unfortunately, however, he may only be truly revered beyond his time. But for now, he remains a born leader of Manchester United’s new generation. Now 27 (doesn’t it make you feel old), Wayne Rooney’s development days lay in the past. But has he realised his potential? The most gifted player of his generation? Or just another underachieving “wonderkid”. His father-son relationship with Sir Alex is under strain, well, so say the tabloids. Some even go on to say he is sick and tired of been left on the bench at United and spends most of his time at home having a flutter on www.Partybingo.com Not that they can be believed. But with the arrival of RVP, coupled with concerns over his form and fitness, Rooney is at a career crossroads. Which way will he turn? His peak years approaching but even his once guaranteed starting spot is under threat, more than ever before. What now Wayne? Where does your future lie. Maybe we don’t need a crystal ball to figure it out. Is the answer really more obvious than those behind the editorial desk would have us believe?

Let’s be frank. Wayne Rooney is a world class footballer. Anyone arguing otherwise is simply kidding themselves. The green eyed monster obstructs a truly terrific talent. But the doors of the exclusive Ballon D’Or club remain closed, Rooney a mere ambitious teen with a fake ID. The untouchable two, Ronaldo and Messi remain the VIP guests, the chosen few amongst the smartphone snapshots. The once anticipated greatest player in world football has never quite reached their heights. But maybe Wayne is not to blame. Unquestionably, we heap far too much pressure on young footballers. Your teenage years are supposed to be the best of your life. Where anything feels possible. There was no doubting an adolescent Wayne’s confidence or self-assurance but, with an international bow at just 17 and the task of leading the line at Euro 2004 a year later, Wayne’s world had been turned upside down, in a spin cycle. And talking of pressure; a summer switch to the biggest club in world football, becoming most expensive teenager of all time in the process. Yeah, that’s got to take its toll. Since that explosive debut campaign and four goal salvo in the Portuguese heat (a far cry from summers on the Mersey), the general opinion is that the Scouse thoroughbred has failed to recreate the excitement, the exhilaration of his growth from that determined young boy, so desperate to defy his youth, to a man of real maturity (well, most of the time anyway). Just one solitary international tournament goal since. A simple header from two yards against hosts Ukraine last summer. Even the pub-going, pint-drinking masses could probably have put that one away. “I could have scored that”. Yeah, in all fairness, you probably could.

But maybe the burden is too heavy. For the older generation out there, remember the pressure- induced stress of your A-Level exams. Well, imagine the whole nation was on your back, tabloids running stories about how you were to break records for an essay about the fall of Richard III. Every waking moment, hounded by expectation. The strain can become too much. Look at Frodo and the ring. He certainly had a tough time of it. And didn’t we know it. He never stopped complaining. At the end of the day, Rooney is a world-class footballer but he is not the “White Pele”. He never will be. And while some would argue that this makes him a failure, consider this; 33 goals for country, 196 for club. Don’t bother scouring the earth for a disappointed Manchester United fan. You might as well turn your attentions to capturing Bigfoot for all the success you’ll achieve.

For those of the disposition that 2012/13 has been a disappointment, consider the stats. 15 goals in 30 games. Not bad really is it. Made even more impressive when you consider the string of injuries Wayne has suffered in recent months. But if anyone defines “bouncebackability” (who says footballers have bad grammar?) its Wayne. Flashback. It’s February 12th 2011. Bang in the middle of the most trying, testing season of the powerhouse forwards sparkling career. A disastrous World Cup, allegations about his personal life, a crisis of confidence, that very public contract spat and continued hair-loss. It’s fair to say, Wayne’s World was hardly rosy. Any Scouser has to do something extremely special to win the hearts of Manchester but Rooney’s “man of the people” status was far from secure following that nightmarish half-week in late October when a switch from red to blue was became initially conceivable. How could he win back his once adoring crowd? Well, that Manchester derby goal was not a bad place to start. Breath-taking, heart-stopping. If any goal had the power to kill, it would have been this. A second by second commentary of the overhead spectacular seems rather pointless. We all remember it. We’ve witnessed every single camera angle Sky Sports could possibly have given us. A goal like never before. “I can’t ever remember a better goal at Old Trafford”, stated the stunned gaffer. High praise indeed. He’s seen a fair few spectacular strikes over the years. But Rooney’s seemingly slow-motion blockbuster has left Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo trailing in his stardust. Since that fateful day, he has never once glanced back. Why would he? 37 goals the following season, Rooney enjoyed his most prolific season to date as he fired United to within one swing of an Argentine’s right boot of a 20th league title. Is there a more lethal, consistent marksman in the Premier League? His domestic tally of 155 suggests not. People say the table never lies. Well, the stats are relatively truthful. And Rooney’s all point towards a brilliant centre forward. Failure? What failure?

Have a quick browse of the BBC Sport Gossip column. Go on, you know you want to. Even though we all know it’s total rubbish, we usually cannot abstain. We all love gossip. How else can you explain the success of “Take a Break” magazine? “My face wrecked my wedding!” We really should not be interested. Yet, for some unknown reason, we are. An interesting insight into the human mind amidst an article about Wayne Rooney. Who would have though it? Anyway, back to our original discussion, with every guarantee, you will be “informed” of a variety of footballers either imminently arriving at Old Trafford or packing their bags for Madrid, Paris, the other side of Manchester etc. So when the hardly fruitful Danny Welbeck was handpicked for the sequel of football’s clash of the titans, Manchester United vs Real Madrid Part II, the papers had a field day. Now, if there was ever indisputable proof not to believe everything you read in the newspapers, it was this latest “exclusive” episode. Not that this has shut them up or, more appropriately, stalled the typing. Just today, Rooney’s off to PSG. Sorry to disappoint you, it’s not going to happen. Time and time again, people jump to the same old conclusion.

Rooney was not dropped because the sands of time were ticking away on his Manchester United career. It was a purely tactical decision, with an FA Cup quarter final in mind. Chelsea, Old Trafford, a Wembley place up for grabs. Ring any bells? Great player, yes. Superhuman, no. He cannot sprint the dimensions of the turf for 90 minutes every single Matchday. With the embarrassment of attacking riches at Sir Alex’s disposal, the United manager is a very wealthy man indeed. For the first time since the bygone Ronaldo-era, there is scope for a selection switch-up. But maybe this is where the problem lies. The snake in the grass. Van Persie has been an instant hit. Is this a knockout for Wayne? Floored in the ring by the newcomer. The new “darling of Old Trafford”. Suddenly, the Dutch destroyer is the leading man, Wayne just a member of the supporting cast. But football is a collectivist society in the constant war that is the Premier League as United ride into battle again and again. The needs of the individual are subservient to the needs of the community. There should be no number one. Just a brave assortment of men, fighting for the cause. Rooney’s form since the turn of the year has been exceptional. Recent match winning performances against Southampton and Fulham prove his continued eminence. When United lift the trophy in May, Wayne wear his medal with pride. He’s done his bit. Long may it continue. It may be United’s strongest squad in years, but Wayne Rooney remains a significant, if not imperative, component.

It’s safe to say, Wayne is not finished yet. One game on the bench does not constitute a career elsewhere. Sir Alex Ferguson will never part with his prized asset. A Ferrari in a garage of Bentleys, Rooney continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest, gleaming alloys and a V8 engine. An enthusiasts dream. Why would he be sold? Why would he leave? It’s a question that baffles yet is so frequently uttered. He is, without a shadow of doubt, an invaluable commodity, Wayne’s ability, temperament and goal-rate make him as vital as ever. And besides, he’s got records to break. Bobby Charlton’s unrivalled tally for club and country is under threat. In many ways, Wayne Rooney’s career is only just beginning. So why would he be looking for a fresh start? Every season is a new challenge, a new chance to prove the doubters wrong. Wayne Rooney needs Manchester United. And, what’s more, Manchester United need Wayne Rooney.