Monday, 31 January 2011

United vs Aston Villa Preview

United are back in league action on Tuesday night as they take on Aston Villa at Old Trafford. The Reds will look to extend their unbeaten record to 29 games (going back to April 2010) to consolidate their position at the summit. This would match a run that occurred between December 1998 and October 1999. United have won 11 of their 12 Premier League matches at Old Trafford this season, including the last eight.

A much changed team is expected to be selected following the poor showing in the FA Cup game against Southampton on Saturday. Not for the first time, United were poor in the first half and needed the very real threat of being embarrassed by their league one opponents to jolt them into action. A change of formation and the introduction of game changing substitutes meant that the Reds sneaked into the next round but a much improved performance will be expected at the Theatre of Dreams on Tuesday night.

Aston Villa will arrive on Tuesday on a run of just one win in their last six away matches. However, this could be seen as slightly misleading as the run transforms into two wins and a draw in the last three from all games. The purchase of Darren Bent and to a lesser extent, Jean Makoun has seen the return of a feel-good factor to the club following various levels of turmoil in the earlier part of the season. Previous manager Martin O'Neil quit in the week leading up to the start of the season and there have been rumblings of discontent among staff ever since Gerard Houllier was appointed.

The public display of faith in his manager by the Villa owner Randy Lerner has seemed to galvanise the club over the last couple of weeks to such an extent that the Villa fans have begun to sing the name of their under-fire French manager. This would have been unheard of prior to the massive £30 million outlay on Bent and Makoun.

Many will remember that Villa won the corresponding fixture last year but this was following a poor run of 25 games without victory against Manchester United in all competitions.

I would expect them to come to Old Trafford and play on the counter attack trying to utilise the pace of Young, Agbonlahor and Bent. They will defend in numbers and try to protect their aging centre back partnership of Dunne and Collins. The Reds defence will need to be on their guard as that attacking lineup is liable to cause problems.

Key Player - Daren Bent
What has been holding Villa back over the the years has always been the lack of a quality goal scorer and this was what persuaded them to part with £24 million for Sunderland's Darren Bent. Their top scorers this season are Downing, Heskey and Young who are all on a paltry six. The former Ipswich, Charlton and Spurs hitman begun to repay the faith shown in him by Villa by scoring the winner on his debut against City. Bent can be relied on to get goals for any team he plays for but is seen by many as purely a penalty box predator and that he does not offer much else in terms of team play. The United back line will need to be wary of his movement and although he is often caught offside, if he gets away, his pace would make it hard for him to be caught. A further quality is his ability to react quickly to situations which was shown by his follow up to the shot parried by Joe Hart against City. He was clearly on the move towards goal as the shot left the boot of his team mate ahead of the covering defender and got his reward. He also has a decent record of scoring against the bigger teams so is definitely one to watch.

United Thoughts
Normal service should be resumed in terms of team selection for Tuesday's game with all the "big guns" back in contention. The boss confirmed ahead of the game that the first choice back five should be fit to return after missing the FA Cup tie with Southampton for various reasons. The major boost will be the inclusion of Rio Ferdinand whose calm authority was missed from the game versus Blackpool. Also likely to return is Rafael who suffered a bout of concussion that looked to be more serious than has turned out.

Being at home, two wingers are expected to be selected which leaves the usual difficult decision to be made in the centre. Darren Fletcher missed the cup game so will be expected to return and his partner will surely come from either Scholes, Anderson or Carrick. After a poor run of form, it would be expected (or hoped!) that Darron Gibson will be left out but he may have to settle for a place on the bench. Michael Carrick is said to be struggling with a minor niggle so seems likely to be rested until fully fit unless his recovery has been quicker than expected. Scholes played the full 90 minutes on Saturday so with this game coming up so quickly, I will go for Anderson to be the man chosen. He will be looking for a swift return to form after his poorest display of the season last time out. The fact that he seems to be more comfortable on home turf will increase his chances of a good performance although this trait is starting to become a worry when looking to future games.

Up front, it would be a major shock if it was not Dimitar Berbatov plus one other selected. In a normal situation, that person would of course be Wayne Rooney and while it is still likely to be the case, Javier Hernandez is putting amazing pressure on his starting place. Sheer weight of goals from Chicharito means he is making an incredibly strong case for a regular berth in attack, combined with his all round attributes which make him a suitable partner for our top scoring Bulgarian. However, it cannot be denied that Blackpool apart, Rooney has been in reasonable form and has combined with Berbatov well and is simply lacking in a bit of confidence when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. Just think how the confidence will flood back when this happens, which will leave Sir Alex with an embarrassment of riches in attack once more. United cannot afford to leave the goal scoring burden with just Berbatov and it would be a welcome bonus to see other areas of the pitch chipping in.

Score Prediction
I am going to go for a narrow 2-1 home victory with goals from Nani and Berbatov. I feel that Villa may well score but it will only be a consolation.Gerard Houllier will want to get one over on his old friend so I would not expect the game to be a classic. The Frenchman has a record of five victories over Ferguson which is second only to compatriot Wenger with nine.

So, with three points hopefully on the way tomorrow, the Reds will move onto their next challenge against Wolves on Saturday knowing that the dream of a record 19th title is moving ever closer into view.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Southampton Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup despite yet another stuttering away performance at the St Mary's stadium against Southampton. For the second time in a week, it was left to veteran substitute Ryan Giggs to come to the rescue of the Reds who had fallen behind following a lacklustre first half display. Quick-fire goals from Michael Owen and Javier Hernandez spared the visitor's blushes and the result was harsh on the home team who dominated for long periods.

Sir Alex Ferguson made seven changes from the side that recovered from a two goal deficit against Blackpool on Tuesday. Making rare starts were the likes of Fabio, Evans, Gibson, Obertan and Owen with regulars such as Giggs, Nani, Berbatov and Rooney taking their place on a subs bench that was arguably the strongest of the season.There was a debut for Anders Lindegaard as the race to become Edwin Van Der Sar's successor began in earnest.

United were set up in a strange diamond formation with which by nature lacked width, something which is alien to a club who traditionally champion the use of wingers. After the game, Ferguson admitted that he had "meddled too much" with both team selection and formation. It was only after the introduction after an hour of Giggs and Nani that United reverted to their favoured 4-4-2 which led to a great deal of improvement and proved the key to victory as the home side tired. Obertan was dispatched to the familiarity of the right wing with Nani reverting to the left (a position he may have to get used to once Antonio Valencia returns). From this point on, Giggs and Scholes controlled the game from the centre of midfield although it did leave United a little open to Southampton on the counter atack.

Key points :

  • Lindegaard - It was an impressive debut from the Dane who barely put a foot or hand wrong. He was given very little chance with Chaplow's goal but his handling and command of the penalty box was sound. What impressed me most was his composure and distribution. We have seen over the years how crucial this is to any United keeper with a quick throw out or accurate punt down field often being the start of a swift attack. Another key trait in the modern game essential for goalkeepers is the ability to be good with their feet and the debutant showed confidence from the start in this area. United fans will remember the likes of Bosnich and Foster who often left hearts in mouths as a ball was played back. The confidence in this area exuded by the likes of Schmeicel and Van Der Sar transmits itself to the back four and is crucial in building trust
  • Poor team selection - The manager admitted as much in his post match interview but it does seem to be a regular pattern in cup competitions. It cost United last year against Leeds and after a strong side being selected in the last round against Liverpool, it was hoped lessons were learned. The boss' justification will be that there are important league games coming thick and fast and while this is true, to risk an early exit was a touch risky. Surely the sensible decision would have been to just make the odd change and start with the so called "big guns", get the game won and then look to rest players with an eye to upcoming fixtures. As we all know, making things easy is not part of United's DNA, especially at the present time as we "stutter" towards an unbeaten league campaign.
  • Were United wearing grey again? The first half performance with numerous mis-placed passes reminded many of a previous encounter with Southampton when United took to the field in a hideous grey strip and promptly played like novices which led to the scrapping of the kit at half time. There were no such excuses last night for not finding a team mate but was very reminiscent of Tuesday's game against Blackpool. These careless passages of play are worrying and could lead to better teams punishing this as the season moves towards its climax
  • Poor midfield - Another continuing theme of this season is the lack of quality at the heart of the Reds midfield. Scholes, Anderson and Gibson were the selected trio and the latter two struggled throughout, with their misery only ending when substituted in the 58th minute. Anderson has been decent recently but it has to be noted that this has usually come in home games and I cannot remember the last away game in which he made a real impact. You get the impression with the young Brazilian that he tries too hard to impress and is always looking to play the killer final ball when a sensible one may be the better option. Anyone can have an off day and this will quickly be excused if his form returns. Darron Gibson is in a poor run of form and his regular recent inclusion has baffled many supporters. His passing is poor, he lacks energy and pace and seems to rely on having a powerful shot as his main contribution. He is certainly proving to be similar to Darren Fletcher (a few years ago) in the way he divides opinion amongst supporters.
  • Hernandez the improviser - Once again Javier Hernandez proved what a cool finisher he is after notching the winner at St Mary's. The manner in which the Little Pea has settled into the club and made such a huge impact is staggering. He is quickly establishing himself as key component of this United squad who is equally adept at changing the game off the bench or scoring goals from the start. What is currently setting him apart from other strikers is his remarkable ability to get the ball in the net by any means possible. His speed of thought means he is able to improvise in different ways to get the job done. Taking the goal against Southampton as a case in point, Hernandez was almost horizontal as he prodded the ball past the keeper . This ability, which is clearly not luck, means that he can be one step ahead of the opposition who will have no idea of how he is going to manufacture a way to get the ball across the line.

Player match ratings:
Lindegaard - 7, Fabio - 7, Evans - 7, Smalling - 6, O'Shea - 6, Obertan - 5, Anderson - 5, Gibson - 4, Scholes - 6, Owen - 6, Hernandez - 6. Subs: Brown - 6, Giggs - 8, Nani - 7

All eyes now move towards Tuesday as United face Villa at Old Trafford as the Reds continue their quest for a record 19th League title.

I will be back tomorrow with a preview of the game and this will also appear on United Zone where I pleased to announce I am a guest writer. 

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Friday, 28 January 2011

United vs Southampton Preview

Manchester United head to St Mary's Stadium tomorrow evening in the fourth round of the FA Cup to take on Southampton. Hot on the heels of their amazing comeback against Blackpool on Tuesday, the Reds will head for the South Coast high in confidence looking to progress to the latter stages of the prestigious domestic competition. With another crucial league match against Aston Villa coming up on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see the side picked by Sir Alex Ferguson.

The FA Cup is a competition close to many United supporters hearts. The club have won the famous old trophy a record eleven times and many hope for a decent cup run this season following a lack of success since 2004.

The Opposition
The Saints have a rich tradition in the FA Cup having won the competition in 1976 overcoming Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Southampton went into the game as massive underdogs having finished 6th in the old second division but a late goal from Bobby Stokes in front of nearly 100,000 spectators sent the South Coast club into ecstasy.

Re-live the 1976 FA Cup Final highlights here:

United have played their opponents on Saturday twice recently in the FA Cup at St Mary's. Both times have resulted in comfortable away victories by the margin of 0-4 (March 2005) and 0-3 (January 2009).

The Saints go into the game on the back of a record of three wins and two draws from the previous six home matches. Nigel Adkins men sit in 4th place in the League One standings and will be looking to push on in the second half of the season with promotion the clear goal.

The main dangers for United on Saturday will come from Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert who are joint leading scorers on nine goals. The highly rated youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be looking to make a strong impression on our large television audience having been heavily linked with all the major clubs in the country. It is possible that Sir Alex will use the game to speak to the chairman at St Mary's ahead of a swoop in the summer. The boss has been on record as saying that he regrets missing out on the likes of Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, both of who have progressed through the youth system at Southampton and he will not want to lose out a third time if a genuine interest exists.

In their run to the fourth round, the Saints are yet to concede a goal having dispatched Shrewsbury, Cheltenham and Blackpool on route.

They will clearly pose a significant threat to United if they are allowed to settle.

Predicting a Manchester United team sheet is always a bit of a lottery but predicting one for a cup game is nigh on impossible. A few clues have been gleaned from Sir Alex's pre-game press conference. He has stated that he will play a strong team with the exceptions of Van Der Sar, Evra, Ferdinand and Rafael who all missing for various reasons.

With the season heading towards its later stages, I would imagine that tomorrow's game will be one of the last opportunities to give a debut to our new Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard. The race to become Edwin's successor starts now and the new signing will be looking to make an impression for the first team so I would expect that he will get the nod with Kuszczak taking his place on the bench.

With so many absentees from the defence and with others needing some game time, the only major decision seems to be in the centre. John O'Shea and Fabio will surely be given the full back responsibilities and Jonny Evans will form one half of the centre back partnership after returning to the side in the previous round against Liverpool. His partner could well be Chris Smalling who has had a brief run in the team in the absence of Rio Ferdinand. However, the boss may decide that a bit of experience is needed and the mighty Serb Vidic may well be called into action rather than having a breather on the bench.

The make up of the midfield is once again difficult to assess. I would imagine that the old masters Giggs and Scholes will be either rested entirely or benched which leaves the possibility of Nani on the right with a starting place on the left for Gabriel Obertan who will be looking to impress if given a rare glimpse of the spotlight. In the centre, with Carrick doubtful, I will go for Fletcher and Anderson but would not be surprised to see Gibson given some time at some stage.

Up front, I think a well deserved break for Dimitar Berbatov is likely following his exploits recently and with one eye on the key league game on Tuesday. Michael Owen certainly needs some match practice so I think he is a definite starter and I therefore would expect Wayne Rooney to partner him, mainly because a goal would do him the world of good and also that Hernandez and Owen does not sound like a natural partnership.

In all honesty, what has been predicted above could end up wildly inaccurate as a case for inclusion could easily be justified for the likes of Kuszczak, Brown, Neville, Carrick, Gibson, Bebe and Berbatov.

Manchester United Expected Squad (from): Kuszczak, Lindegaard, O'Shea, Brown, Neville, Vidic, Smalling, Evans, Fabio, Nani, Obertan, Carrick, Fletcher, Scholes, Gibson, Anderson, Giggs, Bebe, Rooney, Berbatov, Hernandez, Owen.

I am going to go for a 3-1 victory for United. I would expect Southampton to play an open and attacking game against United and look to exploit the full backs that we select. United will know that an early goal will quieten the crowd and the fervour of their opponents, often a key factor when visiting a lower league ground in the cup. The other deciding factor could be fitness, this was seen the other night when United came on strong in the last twenty minutes against Blackpool who could not keep up with the superior conditioning of the Red Devils. Therefore, if the game is tight heading into the closing stages, do not be surprised to see a late goal from United for this reason. Of course, the team are masters of this anyway but the gap in fitness levels could prove decisive.

My predicted goalscorers for United will be Owen, Nani and Anderson. The first two are self explanatory but we have seen a willingness of the young Brazilian to break forward towards the penalty box in recent times so this guess is not quite as ludicrous as it would have been earlier in the season!

Please leave any predictions and thoughts on the game tomorrow below.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

How do you solve a problem like Wayne Rooney?

This is the task facing Sir Alex Ferguson in the coming weeks. It is a busy time with the Champions League kicking off once more and the start of the Premier League sprint finish. A fit and firing Wayne Rooney would undoubtedly be one of the first names on the team sheet. This would either be in a conventional 4-4-2 with a partner or as a lone striker in a 4-3-3/4-5-1, a role he performed to such a high level last year when he almost single handedly kept us in the chase for major silverware.

This time around, he is not even first or arguably second choice striker. The emergence of Javier Hernandez and the different skill set that he brings to the pitch has left Rooney at the cross roads of his season. The new dimension offered by the little Mexican of playing on the shoulder of the last defender and his lightning pace when played through means that the Englishman is sweating on his place in the team.

Berbatov is now rightly first choice after a prolific season that has seen him notch three hat tricks amid a nineteen goal league haul. Although, the understanding between Rooney and the Bulgarian has been growing over the season, they both like to drop off the front which can often lead to a lack of presence in the penalty box. This would be solved by the addition of Hernandez who is the archetypal penalty box striker, very much in the Ole Solskjaer predator mould sniffing out chances in the six yard box. His blistering pace offers an upgrade on the great Norwegian's talents but he still has a bit to go before cementing legendary status in the eyes of the Old Trafford faithful.

Back to Rooney and it is clear that this season has not gone quite to plan. Injuries have played their part but the transfer request saga and then the rapid u-turn resulting in a bumper new contract have not helped the player's standing in the eyes of United supporters. They want to see value for money which is clearly not the case after a return of just three goals all season with just a single one from open play.

Over the last month or so, we have seen Rooney being pushed out onto the left hand side which is very reminiscent of a few years ago when the likes of Tevez and Ronaldo were prominent. What is worrying for the player is that he seems to dislike the left hand side role and is pretty ineffective from an attacking point of view. The rationale behind it is to mainly assist Patrice Evra when faced with a tricky opponent such as against Aaron Lennon or against the likes of Barcelona in the Champions League Final. He performs the role manfully but it offers very little going forward.

Some pundits have suggested that maybe we have seen the best of Wayne Rooney on a football pitch. They feel that with the build he possesses coupled with a growing injury record that his time as a top class performer is drawing to an end. Whilst this may be a tad premature, it is not quite as preposterous a thought than it felt a few months ago. His genius on the field of play has dropped by such a level that he can often be seen mis-placing a pass or failing to control a simple ball from a team mate. This was unthinkable a year ago.

The opposite argument will say that Rooney still contributes to the needs of the team and you can never criticise his worth rate. They will also state that all he needs is a solid run in the team and a few goals and it will all come flooding back. This presence on the team sheet is now in serious doubt with the form of Hernandez but it is unlikely that Sir Alex will worry too much at the moment. The crucial time will come when the big games start arriving when team selection will be crucial. Antonio Valencia could well be back in contention by then and with Nani able to play left side in addition to Giggs, the choice of a solitary striker will surely be Berbatov on current form.

A wildcard suggestion could be to try Rooney as one of the three midfielders which may well be a longer term possibility as the years advance. It would be a way of getting him into the team and he certainly has all the attributes required to perform the role. Whether he sees it as demotion is another matter but it may well be one way of extending his career into his thirties.

I would think it is likely that Sir Alex will persist with Rooney in the hope of a return to goalscoring form, knowing full well he has quality in abundance on the bench if he fails to fire. It will certainly lead to some interesting team selections in the coming weeks with plenty of rotation required to nurse the ageing United squad towards the finishing line.

How would you solve a problem like Rooney? Is it a problem at all? Please let me know your thoughts.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"Beside the seaside" - United vs Blackpool post match post mortem

Ahead of last night's game, everyone recognised its importance in the context of the Premier League title race but few could have predicted the magnitude of the proceedings played out at Bloomfield Road.

After 70 minutes, with United two goals down, seemingly unable to string a couple of passes together or offer any kind of hint of invention in their play, the knives were being sharpened and the season obituaries being written. Then, a rare burst from midfield from Darren Fletcher and an incisive reverse pass from Nani left the Scotsman free on the right hand side of the box. A carefully weighted square ball followed and the ball was in the back of the net courtesy of United's enigmatic Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov.

Suddenly, a weight was lifted from the shoulders and the shackles were finally released. This was how the Red Devils play, this was why the phrase "never say die" was invented and has figured so strongly in Manchester United folklore.

Javier Hernandez, having been introduced from the bench for the ineffectual and out of sorts Wayne Rooney, quickly notched an equaliser with clinical precision. Watching it live meant the goal's beauty was easily overlooked - United had drawn level in a match that surely looked beyond them. The chance to draw breath and reflect on this moment after the final whistle, brought home the sheer quality and genius of the strike.

Van Der Sar started the move with a long kick down field where it headed towards another game-changing substitute in Ryan Giggs. The Welsh legend controlled the ball with sublime ease with that magic wand of a left foot before having the vision to see the effervescent Mexican peeling off his defender on the way to the penalty area. A perfectly weighted lofted pass was released, and Hernandez turned his head in mid stride to watch the flight of the ball drop perfectly onto his right foot. The ball was cushioned expertly so that it did not force him to break stride. The next action for the "Little Pea" was a quick glance as to the position of the onrushing keeper before calmly dispatching his side-footed effort into the corner of the net. And to think all that I have just described from Hernandez occurred in the blink of an eye, at such speed and without any kind of realisation as to the importance of the chance he was about to bury. In the words of someone who has not had the best of weeks..... "Take a bow son because that is genius"!

Without a doubt, one of my favourite United goals of the season and arguably, one of the most important. Relive it here in all its glory, words alone cannot do it justice:

United had, in the space of just over two minutes, gone from the depths of despair to almost unbridled relief at having drawn level. A winning goal simply looked inevitable with so much time still on the clock and so it proved with the little maestro Scholes clipping a inch perfect ball to the feet of the rejuvenated Berbatov who advanced towards goal before dispatching a left footed drive into the Blackpool net whilst simultaneously breaking the hearts of the plucky seasiders and their supporters.

Some have described it as the ultimate game of two halves but really that does not do justice to the performance of the brave players of Blackpool. They controlled the game for three quarters of playing time, only for the valuable prize of three points to be ripped away from them as their legs gave way to the inevitable  tiredness brought on by their extensive exertion of the previous seventy minutes. They will rightly contest that they should have been awarded a penalty in the second half after a clumsy looking tackle by Rafael on the tricky winger Varney. But they should be heartened by their effort and numerous examples of skill, that saw them reduce their opponents to a performance resembling something akin to a pub team after a heavy Saturday night out. The Premier League needs teams like Blackpool so we should all hope and pray that they succeed in their battle against the drop that they could now be sucked towards. Certainly, if they contest each game in the same vein as they did last night, Ian Holloway's boys should have little to fear.

As for United, it is hard to underestimate the importance of this result. A damaging loss last night would have given renewed optimism to the chasing pack. They would have sensed immediate vulnerability had such a defeat taken place and been ready to strike. As it turned out, the confidence and belief that will be pumping through the veins of each of those United players that left the Bloomfield Road pitch last night should mean that a record 19th League title is no longer a distant dream. With just fifteen games left, the finishing line is beginning to appear on the horizon.

Tough challenges await but on the back of last night's drama, few will bet against the Govan supremo being able to celebrate yet another trophy being in residence at Old Trafford.

Footnote: A follow up piece looking at some of the negative aspects of last night will be published in the near future, including a discussion about how we deal with our highest paid player.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Quick Blackpool Preview

Manchester United head to Bloomfield Road tonight for a crucial fixture in their bid to win a record 19th League Championship. Hot on the heels of Saturday's demolition of Birmingham City, the Reds will go into the game with confidence high knowing that anything less than a victory will be seen as a massive disappointment.

The Opposition
The home team go into the game in their worst form of the season, having lost five of their last six games in all competitions and will surely be happy with a point from tonight's match up. Ian Holloway's men have been the surprise package of the season following promotion via the play offs with their entertaining brand of attacking football. However, their poor run of form leaves them just seven points off the bottom after a haul of 28 points from their 22 games and in danger of being sucked into the relegation scrap.

Their confidence may well be further undermined by the ongoing saga revolving around their best player Charlie Adam who yesterday handed in a transfer request following interest from Liverpool amongst others. He is expected to play tonight but his mind cannot be fully on the task in hand and United will look to exploit any uncertainty.

The leading scorer is DJ Campbell who is expected to return tonight having missed Saturday's defeat by Sunderland. It is worth noting that the striker has scored five goals in his last six appearances for the club but this is unlikely to send shock waves through the away team dressing room ahead of the game.

Predicting the Red Devils line-up is always a bit of a lottery but I would expect a vaguely similar team to last time out against Birmingham to take the field. Obvious changes to this will be the likely return of Rafael at full back and Fletcher for the injured Carrick in midfield. It is not clear whether Rio Ferdinand will return after a slight injury or whether the capable deputy Chris Smalling will continue to partner Vidic at the heart of the defence. With Anderson not always being 100% convincing away from home, there is a possibility that Sir Alex will recall Paul Scholes into centre midfield as he is in need of games after a lengthy absence. Playing two games in quick succession is not always what the boss looks to do with Ryan Giggs but he was withdrawn after an hour on Saturday so will be expected to take his place at Bloomfield Road.

Looking to continue their fine form up front will surely be Berbatov and Rooney with Owen expected to be selected for the weekend FA Cup fixture away at Southampton. It is uncertain whether Hernandez is available for tonight after missing Saturday, but it may be the little Mexican was given the game off following a busy first season at Old Trafford.

It is about time that both performance and result come together in an away game for United, and I think that tonight could well be the night. Confidence should be sky high and with the opposition being at a low ebb and generally short on quality, three points should be straightforward so I will go for a 3-0 away victory. On the score sheet will be Rooney with two and Nani.

Three points tonight will mean United move five points clear of nearest rivals Arsenal and six ahead of City and still with a game in hand on our Manchester rivals.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Post match analysis vs Birmingham

United crushed Birmingham 5-0 at Old Trafford with Dimitar Berbatov netting his third league hat trick of the season taking his tally to an impressive 17 for the season. Goals from Giggs and Nani completed the rout as Birmingham left Manchester embarrassed after a woeful display.

A few thoughts:

  • Nani - "Illuminating and frustrating at the same time" - that was how he was described by the commentator today and I think that sums up his display today. He had one of those days where his approach play was mainly very good but his crossing and in particular shooting were wayward up until he curled the ball into the net to add United's fifth. You cannot fault his effort for sure and being critical is harsh after such a good performance by all the team.
  • Rooney - A vital decision will have to made in the upcoming match against City on February 12th. To match the noisy neighbour's usual formation, the Reds will play three in midfield which means just one central striker. On current form that person would have to be Berbatov with Rooney struggling to hit the back of the net at the moment. The problem remains that the skillful Bulgarian plays best as part of a two and although playing Rooney wide left is an option, it is not best for the team who work better with the natural width of Giggs on the left. Could Rooney be left on the bench against City? A year ago it would have been unthinkable but not so now.
  • Blackpool - It is a vital match on Tuesday against the seasiders where three points must come home with United to consolidate and hopefully stretch the lead at the top. It would be refreshing and ominous for our challengers to see us claim the victory and do so with a swagger that has proved elusive in away games this season.
  • Anderson - The young Brazilian has been great in the crushing wins against Blackburn and Birmingham and is often a driving force in games at Old Trafford. It would be fantastic to see him have a similar influence on a vital away game to help establish his position in the heart of a midfield that has lacked skill and quality all season long. 
  • Owen - The former England striker came on for the final half an hour and it was interesting to notice how his game has changed over the years. From being a pacy live wire who was always perched on the shoulder of the last defender looking to run in behind, to the player he is now who drops deep and looks to link play and arguably means that the only real penalty box striker United possess is Javier Hernandez. Hopefully, Owen can use his limited time at Old Trafford to teach the Little Pea all the tricks of the trade although I see the young Mexican as a more rounded overall player.

All in all, a fantastic performance by the whole team and a walk in the park for our defence who will not have an easier game all season. Birmingham clearly had both eyes on their midweek Cup semi final which played into the home team's hands and led to the convincing scoreline.

Team Ratings:
Van Der Sar - 6, Evra - 6, Vidic - 6, O'Shea - 6, Giggs - 7, Carrick - 6, Anderson - 7, Nani - 7, Rooney - 7, Berbatov - 9. Subs: Gibson - 6, Fabio - 7, Owen - 5

Friday, 21 January 2011

United vs Birmingham Preview

United will welcome Birmingham to Old Trafford tomorrow as they look to consolidate their lead at the top of the table. The visitors have only won one away game all season and coupled with United's excellent home record, it looks an inevitable home banker.

The Blues last won at Old Trafford in January 1978 and Alex McLeish will be looking to get one over on his old manager. Sir Alex has an enviable record against his former players having lost only 5 of 65 games.

The opposition
A further reason for home side optimism ahead of the game will be the destabilising effect of the loss of key defender Scott Dann from Birmingham's back line. His partnership with Roger Johnson has been the main reason behind their solid defensive record that has seen them concede only 26 goals in the League this season (joint 8th best). Dann has had surgery this week on a torn hamstring and it looks like Liam Ridgewell will again deputise. Another reason for their lack of goals conceded is the form of ex United goalkeeper Ben Foster who has enjoyed an excellent start to his career at St Andrew's.

The main reason for the visitors lowly league position is their lack of firepower. Just 21 from the same number of games means that only Wigan are below them in the goals scored table. Their leading scorer is midfielder Craig Gardner with four. It is little wonder that boss Alex McLeish is on the lookout for a quality forward in the transfer window. Jerome and Zigic only have 5 goals between them all season. One good signing made by Brum is the loan acquisition of David Bentley from Spurs who will bring much needed skill and crossing ability to a midfield that will have the likes of Ferguson and Bowyer trying to upset United's rhythm.

Another variable to throw into the mix is the fact that the Blues may have their attention firmly on next week's Carling Cup semi final vs West Ham. Although their current league position looks precarious and they should be focussed on getting something from tomorrow's game, the chance of getting to Wembley does not come around too often so having one eye on this is understandable.

The Reds will go into the game on the back of a run of four wins and two draws from their last six league matches. They will be confident of adding three points to their tally in their pursuit of a record 19th title. The makeup of the team will be very interesting with the next few games coming thick and fast so the boss will carefully plan his lineup with this in mind. I would hope that Fabio will be given the right back slot in the absence of his brother especially as it is a home game and there is no need for a defensive full back like O'Shea or Brown.

The selection in centre midfield is much more difficult to pick. Presuming United will play two wingers and two up front (Nani, Giggs, Rooney, Berbatov likely), then that leaves two slots available. I think that Paul Scholes will be given a run out in order to build up match fitness. Anyone who saw the master class he provided in the midweek reserve fixture against Bury without breaking sweat will be glad to see the Ginger Genius back where he belongs. Granted, the opposition were not up to the usual standard but the way he strolled through the game and managed to wield his usual influence on the back of being out for a while was impressive.

I am sure the packed home crowd will want Anderson to slot in alongside Scholes tomorrow. This would be an exciting gamble by Fergie but one that has been used in the past even if neither is particularly strong defensively. More likely I feel is Carrick being the one selected and then the young Brazilian takes over from Scholes after an hour when the opposition are tiring when his dribbling and high energy could prove effective. A 4-5-1 formation is possible on Tuesday vs Blackpool where Fletcher will probably come back in. Whether a team top of the table with the talent of United should be choosing this formation against plucky minnows like them is a question for another day.

I would fully expect Rooney and Berbatov to be picked up front with both in need of a goal to boost confidence. After his goal against West Brom, many expected this to be the kick start to a purple patch of scoring for the United number 10 but an injury picked up later in the match put paid to this. Rooney is a player who scores in runs of matches so lets hope that a goal tomorrow will lead to a tally in the games to come. The Bulgarian could be placed in the same bracket with eight of his league goals coming in just two games (Liverpool and Blackburn) and United certainly need their front two to fire them towards the title finishing line. Maybe the early season loss of Valencia could be a contributing factor to Rooney's lack of firepower following last season when his assists were a common feature.

Predicted Team and Formation

Predicted Result
I am going to go for a comfortable 2-0 with goals from Rooney and Nani. I expect the first half to be tight and it may take half and hour to break Birmingham down. If the first goal comes early then it could mean three or four. United'sRidgewell who can be dangerous.

As for our title rivals, I would expect Arsenal to cruise past Wigan, City to draw against Villa, Spurs to draw against Newcastle and Chelsea to edge past Bolton.

What are your predictions for the weekend? Do you agree with my guess at the team and formation? Please comment below.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Midweek Thoughts - 20/01/11

It has been a relatively quiet January so far with games coming thick and fast after the Christmas period following some cancellations during the wintry weather we experienced.

Here are a few thoughts on football related matters from this week:

  • Rafael - unfortunately as soon as he got the 2nd yellow last Sunday it was inevitable that he would be facing an additional FA charge. I would expect him to get a 2 game ban (one extra game for failing to leave the pitch). As others have pointed out over the course of the week, it does seem like one rule for United and another for everyone else as different players have reacted in a similar manner and get no extra punishment. United can certainly cope without him vs Birmingham and probably Blackpool and it will probably do the young Brazilian good to take some time out and reflect on what has been a pretty promising season for him. He can be a bit naive at times but it has to be remembered how young he is and he will learn more from the bad experiences such as this like he did following the red card against Bayern.
  • Squad reshuffle - James Ducker in the Times has written this morning that he expects a squad overhaul to be undertaken in the summer. He expects the likes of Kuszczak and Wes Brown to leave with VDS and Gary Neville set to retire. Owen Hargreaves will surely be given until the end of the season to prove his fitness or will have to be shown the exit door. Whilst I agree with the above, I would guess it more likely that several younger players will come into the squad rather than buying up to six new players. The likes of Cleverley, Welbeck and Macheda could all return following their loan spells to boost the squad. Clearly, a new goalkeeper will be sought and I would expect this to be someone experienced as the United goalkeeper jersey has been somewhat of a poisoned chalice over the last 20 years, Schmeichel and Van Der Sar apart. The security and confidence exuded by a top class number one cannot be underestimated and this is one decision that cannot afford to go wrong. As for possible names, I would suggest the likes of Neuer, Adler, Van Stekelenburg, Julio Cesar will all be mentioned but I wonder if someone already in the Premier League will be chosen such as Craig Gordon at Sunderland. I would also imagine that Sir Alex will look to bolster his midfield options with a holding and creative player at the top of his list. I could possibly see both Carrick and Gibson leaving in the summer which would leave a hole in terms of numbers but would allow the boss to freshen up an area that has long been seen as a weakness.
  • Patrice Evra - it is being reported again this week that our feisty French left back could well be heading towards Spain for a new challenge in the summer.While he would undoubtedly be a success both at Barcelona or Real Madrid, I am skeptical that he really wants to leave. I get the impression in interviews or media articles that he is proud to wear the red shirt and understands and respects the history that comes with it. These rumours have been around for a while which proves something is going on but hopefully it is just a case of his agent leaking some stories in order to get his client a bumper new contract. The player himself should recognise just how much being a United player has improved him and although five years is a decent stint, he should understand that the grass is not always greener and he may live to regret leaving a platform that gives him the adulation his performances deserve. He is rightly ranked in the top three left back's in Europe which should allow United to ask for big money if the Spanish giants call and surely only a huge offer would make them consider a sale.
  •  Youth Cup - I caught bits of the Youth Cup game last night and was pleased that the lads managed the victory at Upton Park. A few players look decent but the one who seems to warrant all the attention is Paul Pogba. He looks a real powerhouse with a good engine and a great shot on him. I am sure he will be knocking on the first team door really soon and he may even be taken along on the summer tour for experience. Others who have impressed me over this season and last are Will Keane, Tunnicliffe and Cofie. It would be great to see some of these breaking through to the first team in future but there are numerous examples of youngsters who failed to fulfil their early potential but fingers crossed with these lads. Another youngster with lots of ability is Ravel Morrison. A few stories have emerged recently regarding him and it is hoped that he knuckles down and makes the most of the amazing opportunity he has been given at United - he will not find a better place to learn his trade.
I hope to be back soon with a preview of the Birmingham game which is fast approaching as United look to consolidate their place at the top of the table.

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Sunday, 16 January 2011

United vs Spurs - Post game thoughts

The one result that no one thought likely with all the attacking threat on the pitch was played out at White Hart Lane. While a goalless draw is an acceptable result considering this was always going to be one of our toughest remaining fixtures, some will see it as two points dropped.

The main reason for this is the way United were extremely careless in possession at times and certainly lax when it came to placing a killer ball in the final third. With a little more quality, the three points could well have been heading back up North tonight.

Based on the pattern of play, then a draw was a fair result even if United were holding on a bit in the final fifteen minutes once the effervescent Rafael was harshly sent off for a second yellow by Mike Dean.

The case for the defence
Huge praise must go to the United back line, marshalled splendidly by the Serbian war horse Vidic who seems to have gone up a level since being awarded the captaincy at the start of the season. Along with Rafael, Ferdinand, VDS and Evra, by and large Spurs were limited to speculative crosses and the odd half chance.

Although you could describe the game as "end to end" and nothing less than compulsive viewing at all times, quality in the final third from both teams was poor with defence's on top.

Modric caught the eye for our opponents certainly in the first half when Fletcher and Carrick were wasteful in possession and at times slow to react when Spurs pressed. This was the key to their game plan until they started to tire in the second half. No United player was allowed time on the ball and this led to loss of possession or an aimless final ball.

Legend passes 600 mark
Ryan Giggs was making his 600th league appearance for the Red Devils and this is an amazing achievement that will surely never be surpassed. He did, however, mark the occasion with frequent mis-placed passes which seemed to frustrate his team mates and perhaps shows that the legend is starting to show he is mortal after all. Let's hope that he knows when it is time to bow out rather than begin to be a bit of a liability like Gary Neville has unfortunately started to resemble.

It has to be said that all four wingers on the pitch did not make the mark that was expected of them considering the quality they all possess. This goes to show just how well both sets of full backs played.

The centre of attention
The big talking point of the game was the sending off of Rafael which unfortunately looked almost inevitable as the game wore on. The first tackle was a touch reckless and although he seemed to make contact with the ball, in this day and age if you leave the ground when making a tackle you do run the risk of a card happy official brandishing the red card. Although Mike Dean was sensible in this case and only produced a yellow, you felt that he was looking for an excuse to whip out a second one to make him the centre of attention that he often likes to be. No one can argue the non validity of the second yellow as Assou-Ekotto simply crossed the young Brazilian's path with minimal contact. There is no right of appeal available for Rafael and he will miss the next game but I am sure that United could get away with naming Fabio on the team sheet as right back and then simply hand the shirt to Rafael! Surely no one would know.

Apart from the two cards, Rafael had another fine game and was more prevalent in an attacking sense than in previous games. He tends to be a bit impetuous at times but he is learning all the time and it is a great thought to imagine him and Fabio rampaging up and down the flanks in the coming years.

In summary, a point and a clean sheet means we are well placed to land the Premier League title in May. It is a minor miracle that we are still unbeaten in light of some of our performances but with our opponents all dropping points regularly, one of them is going to have to string together a consistent run to overcome the Reds. The main worry is that one defeat (if it comes) could lead to two or three and allow our rivals to pounce. For now all is looking good and it was pleasing to see such a strong bench today which augurs well for the coming weeks. I can see the return of the genius that is Paul Scholes playing a vital role as his know-how and calmness will rub off positively on his team mates.

Match ratings:
VDS - 6, Rafael - 7, Rio - 8, Vidic - 9, Evra - 7, Nani - 6, Fletcher - 6, Carrick - 6, Giggs - 5, Rooney - 6, Berbatov - 5. Anderson - 6, Hernandez - 6.

What are your views on the goalless draw to Spurs?

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Saturday, 15 January 2011

MUFC vs Spurs Preview

Tomorrow's game has been widely anticipated by fans and pundits alike for many weeks. Nearly every result prediction I have seen has leaned towards a comfortable Spurs victory to allegedly throw the title race wide open. 

While I would agree it is a key game and one of the toughest that United will face as they begin the race towards the finish line, the result will not in any way prove decisive and I am sure there will be plenty of twists and turns to come.

United have a great record against their hosts from White Hart Lane having not lost any of the last 23 meetings in all competitions and having won 15 out of the last 19 league games. Spurs will have to overcome this psychological  problem in order to succeed and the longer the game remains level or in United's favour then the higher the chance that the Reds will prevail.

Of the many previews I have read both in newspapers and on the Internet, most have pointed towards the battle on United's right where the young Brazilian Rafael will lock horns with the pacey Welsh winger Gareth Bale. Whilst I agree that this clash is important, I think the midfield is where the game will be won and lost.

Midfield the key battleground
I think I can say with some certainty that Spurs will select just two central midfielders with Modric and one of Jenas and Palacios alongside the talented Croatian. It has to be said that in the big away games, United tend to go in with three in the central area and I would rate the likelihood fairly highly that this will continue. I would expect Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson to be the ones selected by Sir Alex with Scholes coming back to full fitness.

From what I have seen of Spurs this season, Modric has often been their key player from an attacking sense with his swift, accurate passing mixed in with the occasional dribble to put opponent's on the back foot. I would expect Ferguson to ask Fletcher to keep a close eye on Modric and not allow him the time and space to dictate matters. In addition, once United have the ball, he will be keen to get Anderson on the ball to play a similar role to Modric for Untied. He will hope that the lively Brazilian can drive towards the Spurs backline and draw defenders out of position before releasing the attacking threat that the Red Devils possess. Whether Ando is up to the task remains to be seen as he often goes missing in away games and can be liable to lose possession with an over ambitious pass. Carrick will sit at the base and look to thread small passes to release Anderson and the likes of Nani and Giggs.

I would expect these two to be the wide men selected for United and another potential key to victory. Neither Hutton or Assou-Ekottu are strong defensively and Ferguson will target keeping them occupied in their own half rather than having them cross the halfway line where they could pose a potent threat alongside Bale and Lennon.

Lennon against Evra will be another exciting encounter as they have had numerous tussles over the last few years with the England man often proving to be a tough proposition. Expect the Frenchman to try to force his opponent back into his own half by counter attacking when the Reds are in possession. He may also be a fair bet for an early booking as he looks to make his mark.

United must also be aware that Tottenham have recouped more points from losing positions (16) than any other team in the Premier League. The other stat to worry the visitors is that 84% of  the goals United have conceded have come in the second half, a higher proportion than any other team in the top flight. Mix these two together and even if they are leading at half time, they must be wary of a Spurs comeback and remain vigilant throughout. The likes of Liverpool and Wolves will testify to this having led well into the 2nd period and being helpless to stop the home side steamroller their back line over the closing minutes. 

Predicted team
VDS, Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Rooney.

Predicted Result
I think that the match will end in a draw, a result that I think most United fans would just about accept seeing as they have games in hand against the likes of City, Arsenal and Chelsea. I will plump for 1-1 with Rooney opening the scoring for the Reds with Spurs levelling matters in the second half.

What is your predicted team and result?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

United vs Liverpool - Immediate Thoughts 09/01/11

A 1-0 win against the old enemy is always good news but you could say that today's performance summed up our season. We got the win, looked fairly comfortable but were not good enough to press on and put the result to bed leading to a nervous final ten minutes.

Main Points:
  • Penalty Decision - I have to admit it was a bit soft but there was contact and due to this it cannot be called a dive. Berba merely exaggerated the touch on him by Agger and the ref deemed it fit to award the penalty. It was a bit of a surprise that Webb gave it considering his assistant had much the better view.
  • Gerrard red card - Finally a referee has the courage to send off the seemingly untouchable Steven Gerrard. It was a nasty two footed lunge that could have ended Carrick's season. Let no one forget that the Liverpool captain has "form" when it comes to tackles like this and general thuggery on the pitch (elbow on Welbeck earlier this season) but always gets away with it as he is the darling of the media. I can think of numerous instances over the years where he has escaped punishment so he can have little complaint. He should reflect that his red card basically cost his team the tie as they may well have forced a replay if he had stayed on his feet. The look on his face as he dragged himself off the pitch was telling - he knew he deserved to be heading for the dressing room but it was funny to see him falling out with Rio prior to Webb showing the red card. 
  • Poor passing - I lost count of the number of times, especially in the first half, where United lost possession by failing to find a man in the same colour shirt. The passing stats will not make pretty reading and does not help in the pursuit of trying to control the game. Admittedly things improved in the second half but I feel we missed a trick by surrendering possession so often and thus failing to tire out our opponents who were down to ten men. Liverpool were there for the taking after the red card yet we seemed incapable of forcing home the advantage and racking up a few goals to humiliate our lacklustre opponents.
  • Positive performances - I was pleased for Jonny Evans who has taken a lot of stick since the West Ham cup tie. It looked like a month out has done him the world of good and has helped to get him mentally back on track. He is still young and loss of form can happen but he has showed enough over the last couple of years to allow patience and he rewarded his manager and fans with a confident display. Numerous times he got in timely interceptions ahead of the workshy Torres and also showed poise on the ball bringing it forward from defence. Another impressive player today was Rafael who seems to learn more with each game he plays and increasingly gets the balance between defence and attack correct. Ryan Giggs rolled back the years and was a hive of incisive running and energy, Rio cruised through the game as expected and gives so much confidence to others around him. Carrick also performed at a higher level than a few recent performances, passing the ball sensibly and without fuss.
  • Negative performances - Not too much to complain about really with only Fletcher, Evra (first half) and Nani slightly under performing. Evra seemed to be having one of his lazy days in the first half where he seems uninterested in defending but this may be down to being unwell as he was seen being treated on the pitch. He was a man transformed in the 2nd half and attacked and defended with a lot more energy. After being impressed by Fletcher last Tuesday against Stoke, he was not on form today. This may be partly due to an early yellow card which curbed his aggressive intent to a certain extent but overall he is not enjoying the best of season's which can be said sums up our lack of quality in midfield this season
Overall it's great to be in the next round and a trip to Southampton should be reasonably comfortable. As for Liverpool, it will be interesting to see how they cope without their talisman for the next three games which include a Merseyside derby. Will "King Kenny" be seen as the messiah if he leads his side to successive defeats? Frankly, who cares? They are no threat to us and won't be for many years with the likes of Reina and Torres sure to jump the sinking ship at the end of the season!

What did you make of the United performance and the sending off of Gerrard?

Please leave any comments below.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Magic of the FA Cup - 1983

It is one of the highlights of the football calendar this weekend as the FA Cup third round rolls around. Many have said that the romance of the world's oldest cup competition has regressed over the last ten years or so but it is still a magical tournament for me as it was the first trophy I saw being won by Man United since I had begun supporting them in the early 1980's.

My FA Cup memories began in 1981 with the final contested between Man City and Spurs. I can vividly remember huddling around our first colour TV watching Ricky Villa waltz his way through the City defence. From this moment on, I have been hooked on the magic of the FA Cup and longed for my beloved Red Devils to make their way to Wembley.

My dreams came true just two years later. I had been heartbroken earlier that year when the Reds had been beaten in the Milk Cup by our arch rivals from Merseyside. Seeing Ronnie Whelan curl an unstoppable shot high into our net helped to seal a life long hatred of Liverpool. I was heartbroken watching them celebrate round the wonderful Wembley stadium parading the trophy to their supporters.

After a relatively comfortable passage to the Semi Finals after victories against West Ham, Derby, Luton and Everton having not conceded a goal, we were drawn against Arsenal with the game to be played at Villa Park which has subsequently become a popular neutral Semi Final venue for the Reds over the years.

I remember marvelling at Norman Whiteside's  volleyed winner which took us through to Wembley. The way he watched the ball bounce and then caught it perfectly with that magical left foot (which would be used to similar effect just two years later, curling a majestic shot past Neville Southall) was a joy to behold. As John Motson described that day it was "absolutely fantastic". Re-live the moment with the You Tube clip below. Love Arthur Albiston jumping on Jim McGregor and planting a huge smacker on his lips!

Our path to FA Cup glory was now blocked by the ultimate underdogs Brighton & Hove Albion who had overcome Sheffield Wednesday to reach Wembley in the same season that they had been relegated from Division One. Surely we could not fail to beat the boys from the South Coast who had their inspirational captain and talisman Steve Foster (remember the bright white head band and bushy beard?) suspended. Brighton did not read the script however and gave us an almighty fright and should have won it in the last minute when Gordon Smith went one on one with Gary Bailey leading to the now legendary commentary quote "and Smith must score" from Peter Jones on BBC Radio. Thankfully, our keeper smothered the shot and we made it to a replay a few days later. Our goals that day were scored by Stapleton and a rare beauty from Ray Wilkins.

The side selected by Ron Atkinson that day contained an FA Cup debutant in Alan Davies who was a right winger who only played for United seven times (due to a succession of injuries) but no Red will forget his performances both in the Final and the Replay. Tragically Davies committed suicide in 1992. The United defence contained the tried and tested Duxbury, McQueen, Moran and Albiston. Centre midfield was packed with the class of Robson and Wilkins complemented by the classy left footed genius that was Arnold Muhren (who I had seen many times at Portman Road, Ipswich) and the right winger Davies. Up front was Frank Stapleton and Norman Whiteside. Looking through the names just mentioned, that team looks awesomely strong and not one to take on in a battle. If Big Gordon and Kevin Moran didn't clatter you then waiting in the wings would be Captain Marvel and the likes of Whiteside and Stapleton. These were the days of just a single substitute and Ashley Grimes filled the role in both games.

A 4-0  replay victory duly followed with goals from Robson (2), Whiteside and a Muhren penalty. I loved the game so much that I can remember watching it back numerous times on our top loader VCR (complete with remote control on a long lead!) to such an extent that I could recite the majority of John Motson's commentary.

What are your memories of the 1983 FA Cup Final? Does the FA Cup still hold the same magic for you?

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Ashes 2010 Verdict - The end of 24 years of hurt!

Massive congratulations to England's cricketers who duly completed the humiliation of their Aussie counterparts in the early hours of this morning.

The Victorious England Cricket Team (pic via BBC Sport)

The main reasons for victory, in my opinion, are listed below:

  1. Preparation - no English cricket team have been better prepared than this one. Following the debacle of the last Ashes tour under the captaincy of Andrew Flintoff where the players went into the first test without a decent game under their belts, Andy Flower and his team started preparing for this tour well ahead of departure. Testing warm up games against strong opposition were arranged meaning that all the intended first XI got time in the middle ahead of the Brisbane opener.
  2. Team Spirit - The backbone of any successful team, team spirit has been nurtured over the last couple of years by Flower and the team. This is a collection of talented cricketers, with no superstars who need special attention with everyone buying into the team ethic. You can tell simply from viewing the comic talents of Graeme Swann in his online ECB tour diary that none of the team take themselves too seriously and how this has led to a spirit which shines through when in the heat of battle out in the middle. They all fight for one another and enjoy eachother's success which is a rare quality in modern day sport.
  3. Sheer weight of runs - Before the series started, many observers wondered if England's top order had the skill and desire to score the weight of runs required to put Australia under pressure. Well, they certainly put any doubts to bed as early as the 2nd innings in Brisbane where Strauss, Cook and Trott broke various batting records on the way to 517-1. With this example now set, they never looked back for the rest of the series, amassing a shed load of runs which in turn ground the opposition bowlers into the dirt. All of the top seven in the order notched up centuries except Collingwood and they were all scored at a quick rate to allow the bowlers time to knock over the Aussie top order. Cook's haul from the five Tests will go down in history as one of the greatest contributions ever in an Ashes series and deserves special praise as many observers (including me) doubted whether he had the technique or mental toughness to overcome a poor run of form over the last few series. Clearly a huge amount of work has been put in with his mentor Graham Gooch and praise once again should go to the selectors who stood by the Essex opener when previous regimes would have discarded him prior to the tour leaving our shores.
  4. Fielding - A much overlooked skill that has often let England down in the past has now become an area of play that they pride themselves on. Clearly a great deal of work has been done by Richard Halsall (specialist fielding coach) to such an extent that the members of this England team feel disappointed if they fail to pull off a spectacular catch or run out a batsmen in every innings. To transform average fielders such as Cook and Trott into ones whose actions can help shape a Test Match through their intervention in the field deserves a lot of praise. Twice, Jonathan Trott earned England the first wicket of an innings with a sharp piece of fielding which helps to undermine the confidence of their opponents. That Australia failed to run out one of England's batsmen over the course of the series speaks volumes for the gulf in class between the two sides. Nothing demoralises a bowler more than when a jaffer of a delivery takes the edge and is then spilled by one of their team mates. Looking back over the Ashes, it was England that took all the great catches. Special mention to Collingwood whose effort to dismiss Ponting at Adelaide was one of the highlights of the whole tour and helped to underline his importance to the side at a time when he was not contributing with the bat.
  5. Targeting of Aussie batsmen's weaknesses - Clearly England had devised a plan for each of the Australian batsmen and had the skill to execute these to perfection out in the middle. Two of the mainstays of the middle order (Ponting and Clarke) were dismissed numerous times for low scores culminating in these two highly talented players only amassing one half century each through the whole Ashes campaign. Ponting's lack of foot movement early on and tendency to bring his bat down at a strange angle and Clarke's uncertainty against the short ball led to their downfall and undermined their confidence to such an extent that it no doubt affected the minds of their team mates seeing these two struggle. The only negative to mention on this front was that it took England until the 4th Test to work out a way to get Mike Hussey out and once they did, he was dismissed early on each time thus further undermining their opponents belief that their saviour would drag them to safety once more.
  6. Back room staff - Andy Flower has done an amazing job as England coach and one of his greatest legacies will be that he has left no stone unturned in his mission to transform this England side into the world's best. Central to this has been the appointment of a number of specialists that make up his back room staff. Richard Halsall (Fielding), Graham Gooch (batting), Mushtaq Ahmed (spin bowling) and David Saker (bowling) have all been wonderful selections who clearly have inspired the members of this team to great heights that many thought was not possible. Many less visible members such as physios, masseurs, analysts etc have all combined to ensure Team England give themselves the best possible chance of defeating the opposition.
  7. Squad Strength - When Stuart Broad was ruled out of the rest of the series following the victory at Adelaide, many observers thought this could allow the Aussies back into the series. That Chris Tremlett slotted into the side seamlessly is yet another big reason why England were so successful and is testament to the strength in depth that Team England now possess. Further credence was given to this view when Tim Bresnan was drafted into the side to replace Steven Finn who had been the leading English wicket taker after the first three Tests. Bresnan came in and played his role to perfection giving Strauss control in the field by bowling tightly yet still picking up wickets at crucial stages. With Ajmal Shazhad waiting in the wings, England have never had such an armoury of capable bowlers at their disposal which will allow them to pick "horses for courses" in their quest to win each game whatever the condition of the wicket they arrive to play on.
  8. The Barmy Army - Last but by no means least, I have to mention the incredible loyalty of the England supporters who flock overseas in their thousands to witness the exploits of their team. That some of the English players felt it was like playing at home speaks volumes for the effect they have on the team and the opposition. To witness the vast numbers joining in the celebrations this morning was a joy to watch and must have been an amazing experience to be a part of. 

Do you agree or disagree with anything written above? Please leave any comments below.