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.
Going to watch a Man Utd football match at Old Trafford doesn’t require much imagination in terms of what you’re going to wear. The usual get-up for the lads normally consists of a football shirt, a pair of jeans, trainers and if you’re accessorising maybe a scarf or beany. Ladies can of course get away with a similar outfit which is clearly acceptable and in the spirit of the game. Football match outfits are all about letting loose, being warm and comfortable and being united with your team through the colours, logos and official team sportwear you choose to don. It’s a no brainer really.
But for fans who decide to attend more formal team events and parties at Old Trafford, panic often sets in. “What the hell shall I wear?” is often the question on everyone’s lips and this is undeniably a tough one. How do you dress formally whilst still representing your team and uniting with fellow fans? And it’s not just ladies that will be asking themselves this question admit it lads you’re stumped.
Well let’s begin with the fellas as you’ll probably lose interest if we go with the age old motto of ladies first. Now, when choosing an outfit bear in mind that you are going to be attending a formal, elegant soiree as opposed to an outdoor sporting event. You can certainly still represent your team through its colours but you should think about toning it down whilst injecting a sense of style and sophistication into your outfit. A great choice of outfit would be a classic black suit with a red shirt and a red hankerchief. Alternatively you could go for a dark red suit with a white or black shirt underneath just don’t overdo the red as you will go from formal and stylish to excessively bold. Having said that if your outfit is relatively conservative and you’re feeling adventurous you could don some red shoes – this tactic will no doubt get you noticed.
You could also opt for a red and white checked short but make sure you make it more formal with some classic suit trousers and office shoes. You could also add a skinny red, black or white tie for a more formal effect.
As this is a formal event remember that trainers, hoodies and polo shirts are out and obviously football shirts, jeans and the accessories that you might wear to a game should be left at home.
Now ladies fear not if in doubt remember that there was a reason for the famous Lady in Red song – women look incredible in red! In fact certain research has even indicated that men are more attracted to women wearing the colour. As this is a formal event however, try not to dress as though you were going clubbing. Anything tailored, smart and stylish should be favoured over something too revealing, poorly made and blinged up. A nice peplum, midi, or evening skater dress would be just the ticket.
You could also choose to accessorise your look with red, black or white shoes and a practical but stylish clutch bag
in any of these colours. A blazer in one of these colours to keep away the chill would also be a great addition to an event outfit.
What must Manchester United do to be respected in the football world? Contesting in every major competition where many other top teams (besides PSG and Bayern) are struggling apparently isn't enough. Playing the defending champions of the F.A Cup, Chelsea FC in quarter-finals, isn't enough. Close to eliminating Real Madrid and advancing to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions' League can hardly be accepted as enough either. Not even winning 23 out of 28 EPL games and leading with a massive 12 points measures up...why is this so?
Because of United's slump last season perhaps? Indeed letting go of 8 points in 6 final matches is a big deal and unforgettably etched in history and immortality. Or could it be because Chelsea FC is a formidable opponent and United could fail to eliminate them in the F.A Cup in the second leg at the bridge? After failing to go pass Real Madrid, only time would tell what the fixture against Chelsea would churn out but if we fail to beat Chelsea after losing out to Real Madrid, that shouldn’t be enough to assess what United have done all season. So what could be the major reason Manchester United is yet to get the respect they truly deserve? To followers and pundits of the beautiful game that reason is not far-fetched...
Manchester United despite their work ethics, their professionalism, their passion and their never-say-die attitude have not totally dominated games this season. Please don't get me wrong. United have been wonderful in many games, and they won't be where they are if they dependent on lady luck; what United have failed to do is to dominate their opponents in a heelbone-to-skulls manner. United have failed to stun, immobilize, crush teams in the manner of Bayern Munich and Barcelona (the Pep Guardiola and pre-surgery Tito Vilanova teams) have. United have given us fantastic games and victories but have not been very convincing in winning. Yes, United beat Norwich City 4-Nil at Old Trafford in week 28's fixture and yes, Shinji Kagawa got a landmark/unprecedented hat-trick but they were made to work tirelessly for it. Aren't football games meant to be unpredictable and exciting? What case is this writer making?
What do Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, Ottomar “Rekord Meister” Hitzfeld's Bayern Munich and Antonio Conte's Juventus FC (2011/2012) have in common? They were dominating teams. They turn up in big games and never suffered small teams gladly. They were winners with a difference. Winning is one thing but doing it with distinction is another matter entirely. Record breaking always involves a form of dominance and that's what United's missing sorely. That’s why there's a tinge of doubt on this present United team.
While this season may be going out of the picture (and United are bound to be successful as it winds up too), it's pertinent to note those player which if Manchester United were to sign, then we're in for an era of dominance in England and Europe. Which players you may ask…
Great teams are always built on the backbone of a solid defence. United's defence right now is built around an aged Rio Ferdinard (34 going on 35), an already aging and sometimes injury-prone Nemanja Vidic (31) and the youthful and sometimes boisterous Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. There’s no doubt they would look into the market and should he be available at any price around £12.5m-£18m, Sir Alex Ferguson shouldn't hesitate to sign Gerard Pique Bernabeu...again. The 6 foot 4 central defender was part of the 2007/2008 United team that pipped Chelsea to the Champions' League title. Once a Red-Devil, a return to Old Trafford might not even be a bad idea as Barcelona seems to be enduring a slump in fortunes ( I saw them beat Milan but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are on a downward slope) as United is climbing back to the pinnacle of football royalty and greatness. What's Pique got? He's strong in the air, a good marker, has good ball control and long passing range. On the flipside, he could get caught out of position especially during counter-attacks. Young, strong, with an eye for goals and no stranger to the English game plus his wealth of experience as a winner at club and international levels, Gerard Pique's signature is to die for. So who should join Gerard Pique?
The modern game revolves around an energetic and creative midfield. And more importantly, the engine room of a lot of teams is anchored by a 'regista', a deep-lying playmaker. Registas have taken the game by storm and every winning team has one, even two in some cases. Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo, these players are not defensive midfielders but are given a moderate amount of defensive responsibilities. They are granted freedom to dictate the play and attempt long range risky passes to the forwards. Should he be available for between £15m-£25m, United should snap up Arturo Erasmo Vidal Pardo. The Juventus player is a versatile box-to-box midfielder capable of playing both defensive and offensive roles and has a knack for scoring vital goals. Because of his youth (he's 25), Vidal's hard tackling and tenacity would be a welcome addition to United's engine room. He would be a perfect twin to Michael Carrick's usually laid-back but efficient style. He would also be a perfect partner/twin to Carrick's short passing style plus because he has good positional play, makes good tackles to cut off opposition offensive moves and can move the game from defence to attack with his through balls. On the flipside, however, his hard tackling makes him a frequent fouler and injury-prone against hard markers like him. These minuses take nothing away from Vidal's sterling qualities.
A beneficiary of all the hard work in the midfield should be someone with pace, good dribbling ability, a good supplier of balls to the opponents' danger area and sometimes a deadly finishing winger. While United could work with sharpening Antonio Valencia, Ashley young and other players on the right, on the left wing, however, is a gaping hole. Candidly, forking out £25m-£35m (maybe even more) would not be a bad investment on Gareth Frank Bale. This is one player perfectly suited to United's counter-attacking style and the heir-apparent to Ryan Giggs soon-to-be (if not already) vacant throne. He's got pace, great ball control, wonderful technical abilities and packs rocket shots in his boots. Did I say he packs rocket shots in his boots? Crucially, he's a dead-ball specialist, a good one at that. If there's a player born to adorn the number 11 jersey at Old Trafford, it's this young man and if there's a club capable of taking his game to the next level and fulfill his lofty career dreams and aspirations, it's Manchester United. United and Bale go together like bread and butter, like Mac and Cheese, like a hand in a glove...the downside to him is the accusation that Bale topples over a bit too easily (which fast player doesn't? Ronaldo? Robben? Ribery?) He could also have slight muscular injury problems. Bale and United are a match made in football heaven.
Make no mistakes about it, Manchester United already have a wonderful array of strikers but to put the fear of God and the United emblem into the opposition's mind, there's a need for one more. One with the ability to finish the build-up right in the opponents' vital area. A quick thinker with good ball control, swift feet and an aerial presence. If United can fork out £18m-£24m, then Robert Lewandowski is a must buy. Already he's dropped a "come-and-get-me" hint when he refused a contract extension at Dortmund and he's been known in the media to be a confessed-lover of the EPL. What could he bring, you ask? He's good finisher especially in the box 18, he's got wonderful aerial skills/presence and he possesses a good counter-attack threat quality. At 24, ready to take to the challenge of the EPL with matured calmness. The presence of Shinji Kagawa, a former BVB teammate could help him settle in rather well too. If there's anything to be wary about it may be because he's not known to be a good passer and holder to the ball (and there's little use for that in an opponent's box 18). He'd be a good addition to a dominating and all-conquering team Manchester United's hoping to be.
The positive events of this season are rejuvenating Sir Alex Ferguson already. He's like a shark tasting the blood and can't seem to wait to build a team that would rival/stand alongside the Bayern and Ajax of the 70s, the AC Milan of the 90s, the Barcelona of 00s and his treble-winning team of 1999. The next signings are vital; I just hope these footballers are at the heart of the next Manchester United acquisitions. What do you think?
My name is Olumide Ogungbemi and I'm a Lagosian that reps Manchester United...
The magic of the FA Cup. Manchester United vs Chelsea proved that it is very much alive and kicking. Sparks well and truly flew at Old Trafford, one flick of Eden Hazard’s wand of a right boot hauling the visitors back into the contest before the very un-Brazilian Ramires struck a goal worthy of his homeland, earning everyone’s most hated side a dogged, deserved draw. But where does that leave Manchester United? Yes, the title is looking an inevitability but, after the midweek robbery, they needed something positive. A kick up the backsides, a miracle drug to help them to recover from their European ailments. It was a contest United should have won; Chelsea should have had no right of recovery. Once again, victory slipped through their fingers but, this time, there was no Turkish ref to shoulder to blame. Clichés aplenty. A game of two halves. It’s a funny old game. John Motson would have had a field day. Although there were plentiful positives to take from their doomed encounter against Madrid, they were few and far between on Cup night. So what went wrong as the wheels came off and the wagon crashed headfirst into the blue wall? And furthermore, how can United ensure that the wrongs are righted at Stamford Bridge in a few weeks time?
It was a start so perfect you could have forgiven for thinking you’d dreamed the opening 12 minutes. A majestic long pass, not long ball, from Michael Carrick matched only by a header of complete perfection from Chicharito. A bit of Mexican magic. And then, just as you’d finished celebrating the first, it was two. A flighted free-kick evading all before it. Wayne Rooney. What a way to silence the critics. One wonders what “groundbreaking” stories the tabloids will invent next. Well, Van Persie was on the bench so he’s obviously packing his bags for Paris, right? Tabloid lambasting aside, it was a beginning that sent all that midweek frustration flooding from the system of every United fanatic. In reality, it should have been more. Petr Cech’s fine double save from Rooney and what looked like Sideshow Bob, seemingly aiming of an Iain Dowie style O.G, keeping Chelsea in with a shout. A decisive moment, as it transpired. A second half dominated by the visitors. The Red army was swamped by a relentless Blue sea, a tidal wave of pressure. The issue is obvious. After breathing space was established, United turned off the gas, foot slammed down from the accelerator to the brake. Cech was a mere spectator thereafter for the most part. Against the likes of Norwich or Reading, with all due respect, you can afford to sit back, put your feet up for a bit. Conserve the energy then hit them full force with the sucker punch. Against the likes of Mata, Hazard, Oscar ect. you simply cannot afford to let them dictate the play, as United found to their peril. At times, it felt like we had only 10 men again, although maybe that had something to do with the arrival of Antonio Valencia. What has happened to him? A shadow of his former self. He and Nani have seemingly undergone a “Freaky Friday”-esque transition, although maybe without an enchanted fortune cookie. Why can we not have two in-form wingers? Is that really too much to ask? The relaxed approach proved to be United’s downfall. At Stamford Bridge, Sir Alex will know exactly what to do. Don’t give them space, keep it tight, and, for sake of our FA Cup hopes, do not drop the tempo. Simple.
But maybe this has highlighted a very real problem in the Old Trafford ranks. In the cold light of day, when the pressure is on, who do we possess in the way of a true defensive midfielder? Carrick? Cleverley? Scholes? Anderson? Giggs? It’s a question that just cannot be answered. Not effectively anyway. Five supremely talented footballers, each with their own pros and cons, but not a midfield enforcer in sight. Who do we have to lead us in to battle, to rally the troops when the going gets tough in the centre of the park? It was the ideal game for one Darren Fletcher. The sooner he returns the better. But will he be the same player who so resembled a young Roy Keane in his personal glory days of 2008-2010? Maybe the checkbook will, again, have to provide the answer. Don’t spend £60m+ on Ronaldo. We’ve got enough in the tank going forwards. A top-class defensive midfielder is what we are truly lacking. Against Chelsea, Mata was presented with space and time. A lethal combination. No one effectively “did a job” on the Spanish schemer. But hey, don’t get too down. Don’t forget: Phil Jones! Is he the answer to the problem, the solution to the equation? Maybe a little hasty with the checkbook. Do we really need to splash the cash? Time and time again, that always seems to be the cry from the masses, the demand of the common man. A little misguided perhaps? Fellaini at Old Trafford, Ronaldo in Madrid. They were playing weren’t they? Not that you would have noticed. With Super Phil around, their influence was kept to a minimum. Maybe he can do the same to Mata at Stamford Bridge. Another man-marking job. And who better than Phil Jones to perform it? Football’s answer to Chuck Norris. The occasion doesn’t intimidate Phil Jones. Phil Jones intimidates the occasion.
At the end of the day, we’ve come away with a draw and we just need to look ahead to Stamford Bridge in a few weeks and try and get a result. Well, that’s what the post-match interviews cleared up anyway. Let’s not forget, we didn’t lose the game. We still haven’t awoken from the FA Cup dream. And to say there were no positives would simple be a misconception. Another fine display from a reborn Nani. Crucified by fans and pundits alike, the pacey Portuguese attacker has resurrected, reminding everyone of his long since seen quality. A couple of impressive deliveries from wide, Nani’s vision and flexibility will make him a real asset to United in the title run-in. That’s if that hamstring strain doesn’t keep him out too long. With the continued decline of Valencia and Ashley “built like a breadstick” Young our other wide options, Sir Alex will be praying to the footballing Gods that Nani is back, fighting fit as soon as possible.
For the most part, the defence stood firm. Forget that erratic, nerve-ridden spell of the last 20 or so minutes, Evans and Ferdinand were a peerless partnership again. Chelsea’s midfielders may have ran the game but Demba Ba and, latterly, Fernando Torres barely felt the ball against the leather of their multi-coloured footwear. Is Evans ready to fill the colossal boots, metaphorically and literally, of Nemanja Vidic? In the first half in particular, he was reminiscent of the super Serb. A no holds barred, take no prisoners performance, the Ireland international attacked the ball with determination and fortitude. Now all he needs is a broken nose. The surefire sign of a bona-fide world class defender. For now though, Evans is developing into a top-class centre half with all his facial features intact.
And we can’t overlook David De Gea. At last, the doubters have been silenced. After coming of age in the Bernabau, the maturing ‘keeper has continued that fine form, keeping his sheets clean against Fulham, Everton and Norwich. And, once again against the boys in Blue, he proved to be United’s hero. A last-gasp, world-class save to deny Juan Mata. Now where have we heard that before. An unconventional ‘keeper, there’s no doubt about it but De Gea’s unrivalled ability to save with his feet marks him out as a special talent. So much criticism comes his way for using his boots rather than his gloves to deny the opposition but ask yourself this: Surely the ability to save with four limbs rather than two makes him a better shot-stopper? It’s just more ways to keep the ball out of his net, as Mata found out to his dismay. So keep the faith everyone. De Gea will be the globe’s finest. We’ll never hear from the doubters ever again.
Yes, it was a dismal second half display but it could have been a lot worse. Chelsea’s profligacy has let us off the hook. Let’s make them pay on their own turf. With City waiting at Wembley, what more incentive do United need to put the Blues to the sword, to slay our rivals. Jones should be fit and firing once more, Nani is improving by the game and, what’s more, there’s no Champions League to tire out the squad. Every cloud has a silver lining, even the darkest, stormiest ones. At Stamford Bridge, the pressure, the onus, even the expectation, will be on the home side to take the game to United. Counter attacks, ahoy. Wembley waits for the winners. And even if we don’t progress, it’s not the end of the world. Remember the pain of last May when we ended the season trophyless. That won’t happen again. First and foremost, the League is of paramount importance. Everything else is secondary. Whatever happens at Stamford Bridge, a 20th league title is an incredible achievement. Remember that.
And a final word for the Chelsea “fans”. Claiming our support is, ahem, not so good. Absolutely priceless. Apparently “irony” is an unknown concept down at the Bridge.
If a robbery of such a nature had been deliberately devised by Bonnie and Clyde, it would have gone down in literary history. But, as Cristiano Ronaldo, inevitably it has to be said, fatally struck in the 69th minute; the Champions League was instantly snatched from under the gradually purpling nose of the sickened Sir Alex Ferguson. It had been a truly remarkable performance. Talk about a perfect gameplan. A goal up on the night, a huge advantage on aggregate. Yes, a famous, an iconic victory over the mighty Real Madrid was looming on the horizon. But you know that feeling when you create a fantastic piece of work, you’ve spent infinite care and attention on it, developing it, making it perfect? And then someone chucks your laptop out of a three story window? Yeah, that just about sums up the emotion felt by the Old Trafford faithful as the b*****d in the blue decided that this was his time to shine, his 15 seconds of fame if you will. The chance of appearing on the back page of the Daily Star was obviously too much of an opportunity to let pass by for Turkish whistle-blower and professional Berlusconi look-a-like Cuneyt Cakir. It was difficult enough with 11 vs 11. Try 10 vs 12. Red card, red mist, red faces for UEFA. Cue a grey cloud over Manchester which, for once, had nothing to do with the North West climate. Jose Mourinho said the best team won. Well at least someone got a verdict right at Old Trafford. In truth, there were very few negatives to take from the performance. Yet again, we learned so much about character, about grit, about spirit, fight and determination. One gloomy night does not darken the future. Like the Police Academy franchise, Manchester United will return. Make no mistake. And, unlike the Police Academy franchise, they will return bigger and better than ever. They always do.
United the Real winners
It was a superlative European performance from Manchester United. Don’t let an aforementioned card-brandishing fool get in the way of the fact that they did English football proud, in miserable Manchester and sunny Spain. Once again Sir Alex pulled it out of the bag that has seen so much use over the years. Just when you think the managerial magician has finished his act, become predictable, he pulls another trick from his suited sleeve. “No Wayne Rooney!?” screamed the masses, ignorant in their assessment of Sir Alex’s team selection. Nani, Welbeck, Giggs. The trusted trio. And what a job they did. A shock selection totally justified. Unremitting Rottweilers, they ran Real ragged, fighting tooth and claw for every loose ball, snapping at the heels, snarling, gnashing for victory. The exuberant England forward came of age against Real. Giggs: not bad for 40, is he? And Nani, almost unrecognisable. A true footballing makeover that would make Gok Wan glow with delight. Ask yourself this: preceding the dismal dismissal, how many chances did the visiting Galacticos generate? Very few. Alonso nullified, Ozil neutralised, Di Maria, a casualty of battle. And Ronaldo a mere prisoner. Locked firmly in Rafael’s back pocket. De Gea was but a spectator for the most part, a simple observer. A member of the Old Trafford crowd. Except he gets paid to be there, not the other way round. United simply could not have done more. It just wasn’t to be. Coldplay in 2005. A terrific new single, loved, adored across the nation. A shoe-in for number one right? Wrong. Pipped at the post by the Crazy Frog, a true symbol of everything wrong with a generation. Don’t worry, Chris Martin. You’re not alone. We know how it feels to come so close to a dream result and have everything ripped away by someone so incessantly irritating. We’ve just got to forget it and move on.
Rafael is number one: official!
This just in; Rafael Da Silva is the greatest right-back in world football. It’s official. We even have evidence to back up this remarkable story. If you view ITV’s footage of Manchester United vs Real Madrid, you’ll notice that Rafael has accomplished something extraordinary. He has marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game. If you discount his winning goal (which we will attempt to do for until the pain stops), the perma-tanned Portuguese powerhouse was relatively restricted by the buoyant Brazilian battler. The homecoming was not going to plan, to Mourinho’s meticulous dossier. A trick here, a shot there, his staccato performance was a direct result of Rafael’s determined disruption to the Ronaldo Regime. But, of course, you can only keep a good man down for so long. If you can really describe Los Blanco’s numero 7 as a “man”. Maybe more like a footballing cyborg, a Ronaldo Robocop. Designed by committee, with the sole purpose to play football. If any unsuspecting defender stood up to his mechanized magnificence, they would be destroyed with a cannon blast from his right boot. Yes, he may have netted the decisive winner but it was hardly a Ronnie Rocket. More like a Linekar tap-in. How many of you at home genuinely claim “I could have scored that!” on a by-weekly basis? Well, this time, you probably could. It’s been a while since Ronaldo has engaged in such a battle. A credit to Rafael. Not for the first time, he’s proven himself against the very best. We’ve witnessed his emotional journey from boy to man. You could almost break into song. Simply the best. Better than all the rest. Better than anyone ect, ect.
Giggs: still got it
As if you didn’t know this already. If there were even the slightest, niggling beliefs that Ryan Giggs was starting to go downhill, you know who you are, doubters, then the Champions League clash of the titans certainly proved them wrong. 1000 games? Check. Next stop, 2000. At this rate, you wouldn’t put it past him. OK, it may take another 40 years but even a pension-earning Ryan Giggs could give even the most talented full-back a run for his money. Fabio Coentrao. Supposedly one of the fastest widemen in world football. So it must have been rather embarrassing for him as a guy old enough to have fathered the peroxide Portuguese himself, mowed him down with another perfectly timed challenge. You couldn’t even compare the Welsh wing wizard to a fine wine. That old cliché, “he gets better with age”. Because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t bad two decades ago. Man United 4-3 Real Madrid, 2003. Who would have thought, ten years down the line, Ryan Giggs would grace the same fixture once more with his dazzling footwork and dexterous dribbling. The James Bond of professional football. Constantly reinventing himself, Giggs’ seemingly lasts forever. Not that his enemies can ever sleep easy. As lethal as ever. Ryan Giggs. License to thrill.
Is Rooney on his way out?
Just one, solitary omission from the starting line-up and suddenly Wayne Rooney’s time at Manchester United is up. Is this another indication of the worsening relationship of his the prodigal son and his footballing father figure? Are the sands of time slipping slowly away on his career as the darling of Old Trafford? Well, those pesky journalists seem to think so. Once again, Wayne Rooney has become front-page fodder, a summer switch to Stamford Bridge supposedly a possibility (repressed laughter). The question has to be, quite simply: why? Why would Rooney leave and why would Sir Alex sell him? Oh yeah, he’s signed two bona-fide world-class footballers in Kagawa and Van Persie, both of whom can play the Rooney role, so yeah just let him go. Just dismantle the greatest squad United have had in years. Yeah that’s a fantastic idea. Thanks “The Sun”. You’ve really cleared it up for us. We should just get rid. Forget about his sensational goal against Norwich. Forget about Sir Alex’s meticulous, perfect tactics which worked a treat until the ref had his moment in the limelight. The selection of Nani, Welbeck, Giggs and Cleverley may have worked an initial treat, highlighting Sir Alex’s kid in a candy shop dilemma but, the fact is, Rooney remains as vital as ever. He will never be sold. But don’t let that get in the way of a good story.
Next year is our year
It’s the Manchester United trademark. Go out with a whimper and return with a roar, the undisputed Kings of the footballing jungle. The title in the bag, signed, sealed and delivered to the Old Trafford trophy cabinet. Disappointment spurs them on. It will do so again. United have built the foundations for success. Sir Alex’s Grand Designs. But, like a traditional episode of Channel 4’s shock success, something incredibly irritating prevented the progress. Whether it’s some Swedish windows not being delivered in time or an astonishing refereeing call, once again disequilibrium has disrupted the narrative. But, like everything on TV, it will all work out in the end. United would have defeated Real. With the impending abdication of the Kings of Catalonia, this was their year, their chance of glory. With the likes of Evans, Valencia, Kagawa and, of course, a certain Wayne Rooney warming the bench, the quality of the squad cannot be overlooked. Like the new series of a hit show, improvements will be made, new arrivals will be brought in and they will be stronger than ever before. For the first time in years, United looked convincing in Europe. 2013/14, glory awaits. A gold medal or at least a podium finish.They will do our country proud in an era of footballing disillusionment. A shining beacon of hope.
Sometimes things are just not meant to be. It’s just unfortunate that Cuneyt Cakir decided to play God with Manchester United’s Champions League hopes, drowning us in a flood of disappointment. But come on. It’s not like we have no positives to take from the performance. It was a display fit for the competition of Kings. A regal showing against the mighty Madrid. A red card howler away from the quarter finals. A Luka Modric wonder-goal and a Ronaldo robbery. It was the stuff of crime fiction. But now we know that United can compete. They can share a stage with the very finest of our generation and command the limelight. The show has only just begun. Roll on 2013/14. Because if United play akin to this, with a little bit of luck along the way, there’s no limit to what they can achieve. For now, the focus could not be clearer. The Champions League had almost begun to cloud the view of what is truly imperative. Seal the league title. Take back the trophy. And then, the double. Make no mistake, the glory days are returning to Manchester United. Take The Terminator’s menacing German declarative. We’ll “be back”. And who would argue with him?
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