Saturday, 30 April 2011

United vs Arsenal Big Match Preview

Introduction
Manchester United are just two victories away from eclipsing Liverpool's record of 18 league championships as they return to action on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium. Fresh from a fantastic team display on Tuesday in the Champions League against Schalke, the Reds know that consecutive wins against the Gunners and then Chelsea next Sunday will seal their place in history.

With virtually a full strength squad to choose from, Sir Alex Ferguson has the resources to navigate his way through a busy schedule of matches while keeping everyone fresh for the challenges that lie in wait. Although a tough task, it would be a fitting way to achieve the nineteenth title.

The Reds have an excellent recent record against the Gunners in recent years.They are unbeaten in their last seven (having won six, unbeaten in four) and have lost just once in the last twelve. You could argue that currently United have something of a hold over Arsenal psychologically who appear to lack the conviction that they can beat the Reds on a consistent basis.

The Opposition
Arsenal have endured a difficult campaign with the end result being another trophyless season to go with the five others they have suffered in succession. In late February, they were competing on all four fronts and looking ahead to a glorious climax to the season but just a few short weeks later, their hopes rapidly faded as defeats to Birmingham, Barcelona and United meant they exited the cup competitions in rapid succession. A run of draws against unfancied opposition has also derailed their title credentials culminating in defeat against Bolton last Sunday.

There can be little doubt that the Gunners possess a vast array of talent within their squad with the likes of Fabregas, Wilshere, Van Persie and Nasri all enjoying productive seasons but at the final fence they appear to lack the mental stability so in abundance at Old Trafford. You would also have to question the role of the manager in their capitulation this season. Arsene Wenger has displayed numerous examples of mental disintegration in recent weeks with water bottles, referees and Kenny Dalglish all coming under either physical or verbal attacks. When the Arsenal players see these antics pitchside, one wonders the effect it has on their state of mind.

It will be an interesting summer at the Emirates in terms of movement in the transfer market. Will Wenger finally decide that a change in personnel and philosophy is required to change the fortunes of his team or will the stubbornness, that is bordering on recklessness, continue?

Tactics
This game has fascinating battles all over the pitch. Carrick, Anderson and Rooney versus Song, Fabregas and Wilshere looks a fantastic tussle and one which could ultimately decide the game. Both Carrick and Song, as the deepest players in midfield for their teams, like nothing more than to have time on the ball and are vulnerable when pressure is applied. I would look for Rooney to buzz around Song, upsetting him with a pressing game as he is susceptible to a rash challenge and poor distribution. On the other side, Fabregas may try to do a similar job on Carrick but the United man is a much better technical player than Song so should be able to handle this attention.

The wide areas will once again be fascinating. Both teams possess full backs that are better going forward than defensively (unless O'Shea plays). Sagna and Walcott down Arsenal's right will look to expose Evra's dip in form defensively but the Frenchman has repeatedly turned the tables on this duo by being one of the catalysts in the Reds counter attacking verve at the Emirates in recent years. Few will forget how he cruised past Walcott in helping to lay on a tap-in for Ronaldo a few years back. On the other side, Nasri and Clichy have suffered a drop in quality recently that United could exploit. Nasri will always looks to come inside and is not a winger as such, so Clichy may be a candidate for a United full back on the overlap.

The main key to United success in recent times at the Emirates has been the counter attack with memories of Ronaldo, Rooney, Park and Nani all enjoying the freedom of the park at times as the home side get caught by runners from all areas of the pitch. Tomorrow will be no different I am sure, but this time the Gunners will surely be more wary. They will not be able to play a high defensive line as Hernández' pace will be a concern so there should be plenty of space in midfield for the likes of Carrick and Rooney (when dropping deep) to exploit.

United


United approach the game on Sunday in fine fettle after the comfortable win against Schalke in midweek. With Chelsea having the opportunity to apply some pressure with a win in the early evening kick-off against Spurs tonight, meaning that they could cut the advantage to three points, the Reds will know what it is expected of them.

The back five is the one that was selected in Germany and the only real dilemma for the manager is whether to restore either Rafael or O'Shea at right back. I have chosen Fábio to retain his place after a sound display in midweek but it would not be a surprise to see either of those mentioned selected. 

The manager expressed his desire to give Giggs a break for this game so Carrick's midfield partner should be Anderson in preference to Gibson with Scholes suspended. The Brazilian will look to impress after a man of the match display against Everton last Saturday. He has often flattered to deceive in away games so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the games up against the likes of Song, Fabregas and Wilshere. United fans long for some consistency from Anderson and a solid display is required if the doubters are to be won over. My wide men for Sunday are Nani and Park. Both have good memories of the Emirates recently with both goals and assists prevalent and with a pacey counter attacking style likely to be on display once again, these two are perfect. It also allows the manager to rest the hard working Valencia ahead of games to come. The inclusion of Park also means that he can assist the midfield duo when required and helps the formation become more solid when the opposition have the ball. Nani's return on the right is also welcome as he is yet to convince when on the opposite side. If Fábio is selected at right back then it is feasible that Nani could play on the left as from a defensive point of view, the flank could be vulnerable. Switching Park to that side would make sense from this angle but Nani must exude greater confidence on his left foot than he has in recent weeks.

Although Dimitar Berbatov is restored to the squad after a groin injury, it is inconceivable that the first choice pairing of Rooney and Hernández will be broken up in such an important game. Sir Alex has spoken recently about the need to protect the little Mexican from potential burn out so the return leg against Schalke is a tie where he may well be left on the bench.

Score Prediction
With United in such vibrant form with Rooney pulling the strings and the Gunners looking mentally and physically drained, the Reds will go to the Emirates almost expecting a positive result. However, with the pressure off, Arsenal will be a dangerous opponent. Freed from the shackles of chasing United's coat tails for so long, it could have a dramatic revitalising effect on the home side. On the other hand, you could argue that you cannot simply expect to turn the tap of form on and off when required and that the Reds should simply be too strong.

Either way, it will be a fascinating battle as the Reds look for the points required to regain their title. Although it will be close, I can see the quality and spirit of United proving the difference as they force a narrow 1-2 victory over their rivals. The goals will come from Nani and Rooney sandwiched between a Nasri equaliser.

It would be easy to look at these two league fixtures and be concerned for United at such a crucial stage of the season but I will conclude with a quote from the manager that succinctly paraphrases the situation to perfection:

"Surely in the form we are in, we can win these matches. They are not easy games but they are not going to be easy games for Arsenal or Chelsea either are they?"

Both of our main rivals would prefer to be facing any other side than Manchester United at this time. 

What a fitting tribute to the class of 2010-11 if they are able to prevail against these sides thus securing the holy grail of league championship number nineteen in the process. In so doing, laying the foundations for further glory at Wembley in late May echoing the exploits of Busby's boys of 1968.

Do you agree with my team and score predictions above? Please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

United vs Schalke 1st Leg Post Mortem

Fabio & Evra perfect their slip catching stance ahead of the game last night!
Manchester United made a giant stride towards the Champions League Final with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Schalke last night. The visitors completely outplayed their opponents from start to finish and the only surprise is that the scoreline was not more of a reflection of United's total domination.

The first half turned into goalkeeping practice for Manuel Neuer who demonstrated his capabilities with several fine saves although questions must be asked about the lack of a clinical finish. United were almost unchallenged as they created chance after chance through the guile of Carrick and Giggs and the invention and workrate of Rooney. With Park and Valencia stretching the home side at each opportunity from the flanks, the tie could well have been decided within the first half an hour.

The Reds patience was rewarded mid-way through the second half as wonderful interplay between Rooney and Giggs set the Welshman clear to finally plant the ball in the seemingly impregnable Germans net. Just a few minutes later, Valencia released Hernández who fed the on-rushing Rooney to send the travelling waves of United fans into ecstasy. The rest of the match resembled a training ground routine but the visitors were unable to add to their tally ahead of the second leg next Wednesday.

This was definitely one occasion where simply watching the pictures in front of you tells the story and really there are very few major talking points to arise from the game that demand in-depth analysis but here are a few things I have found to discuss:

Goal Analysis - Giggs opener
The first goal last night finally arrived mid-way through the second half as frustration was beginning to set in. From start to finish it was wonderful to behold.

The picture below shows Rooney on the ball having collected a pass from Evra. The eventual scorer, Giggs is being guarded by Jurado (circled). Look at the amount of space that the Englishman has found himself in as he turns towards goal assessing his next option. What happened next, is that Giggs began a surge towards the box just as Hernández on the edge creates the space by dragging Metzelder by an intelligent movement to the right. Jurado makes no attempt to track the Welshman's run and is punished suitably.

Rooney in space about to turn and play a wonderful reverse ball into Giggs' path
Just a few seconds later, Giggs is clear in on goal with Jurado (circled) frozen in the realisation that his man is about to put his side behind. The massive hole that Giggs ran into, wonderfully created by Hernández means that he is free to guide the ball past Neuer. Seven Schalke defenders are in shot and not one is able to stop the move progressing to its inevitable conclusion.

Jurado is stood motionless as the true realisation hits him that his man is about to strike.
The naivety of the Schalke defending defied belief at times as they allowed United the freedom of the Veltins Arena. Their failure to track runners from midfield or close up the space that Rooney found should have resulted in a much more convincing scoreline.

Carrick - time and space
Give Michael Carrick these two things and he will run the game. This is what happened last night with surprisingly little pressure being applied meaning that he had time to lift his head and pick out a team mate. Some of his play was majestic from the centre of the park last night and re-emphasised why he is so highly thought of by many of his peers in that position. What is also pleasing is the way he has reacted to the mistake that led to City's winner at Wembley. He quickly realised he was simply a fraction too late in off loading the pass and was cruelly punished by Touré and put this behind him as he knew his team required him to rise again.

What was also noticeable was the number of times he broke up play just as the home team looked to threaten. It goes to show how you do not need to be an aggressive ball winner to succeed in defensive midfield. Rarely will you see Carrick go to ground to win a tackle, a trait often perceived by United fans as a sure sign of lack of commitment. In the modern era, sliding aggressively into the tackle comes with it an inherent danger of yellow and red cards. Carrick's method, while understated, is proving effective especially in European games with stricter officials.

The Englishman also seems to flourish when partnered with a more dynamic team mate such as Fletcher, Giggs or Anderson. When Scholes is selected alongside, neither are particularly adept with making driving runs and displaying bursts of energy. This can mean they are liable to being over run when pressured as demonstrated by away league games at Liverpool and Chelsea (2nd half).

Rooney - the big performance on the big stage
It was a joy to watch United's talisman relish the limelight on the big stage once again last night. Throughout the game he found pockets of space in which to wield a huge influence over proceedings. The full range of his glorious repertoire were on display from incisive short and long range passing, dribbling and committing defenders to goals assists and finally goal scoring. Rarely will he get such time and space in which to ply his trade but he took full advantage to show Europe that the self styled "Big Man" was back and ready to stamp his authority across the remainder of the season.

What has also been noticeable since his return from suspension is the reduction in aggressive outbursts towards the official when things do not go his way. It is early days but hopefully a new found respect has been developed which can only help him from a disciplinary point of view whilst still retaining the fire in the belly that gives him the hunger to succeed.

What now for Michael Owen?
Conspicuous by his absence from the bench last night was Michael Owen. With the squad unable to call upon the services of leading scorer Berbatov last night, he would have expected to play a part at some stage. Instead, the manager was satisfied that packing the replacements with a mix of defenders and midfielders was enough with Rooney and Hernández on the pitch. It is a sad indictment on the current state of Owen's career that he does not warrant a spot on the bench in such a big game. It now seems likely he will be allowed to leave in the summer and it is hoped he finds a club capable of giving him regular football that his talent deserves. That will also free up a squad place for an emerging talent such as Welbeck or Macheda.

The Emirates awaits!
Next stop on the United tour brings them to the capital to face Arsenal on Sunday in a game where if three points are accrued then the title will be within touching distance and with the potential to secure it in front of a home crowd against Chelsea the following weekend. Recent results at the Emirates bode well for the Reds as speed on the counter attack has seen success in both the league and Europe. Whether Arsenal have an inferiority complex when they face United is open to question but they appear to lack their belief to overcome their rivals when the pressure is on. This last statement neatly sums up their season. A few weeks ago, they were fighting on all four fronts in an attempt to end their barren sequence without a trophy. A last gasp defeat in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham has precipitated a collapse of almost Devon Loch standards with exits from all competitions coming in quick succession. This culminated in a demoralising defeat to Bolton last weekend which was the final nail in their title aspirations this year.

Gunners fans will rightly point to all the talent they possess in their squad but the one key ingredient they lack is the one that United possess in huge quantity - mental toughness. This can manifest itself in many forms but the sheer will to win and inability to accept a cause is lost is not one that can be easily taught. It remains to be seen which Arsenal turn up on Sunday. Freed from the grip of pressure, the Gunners may well play in a manner that makes a mockery of recent form and the Reds must be wary of the wounded animal. They will like nothing more than to severely dent our title aspirations but with patience and our usual gameplan, United will be confident of success.

Do you agree with my thoughts above? Please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter.

Monday, 25 April 2011

United vs Schalke Champions League First Leg Preview


Introduction
Manchester United embark on a series of four fixtures that could ultimately decide the success of their season over the next couple of weeks. The first of those comes up tomorrow at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen as Schalke 04 host the Reds in the Champions League Semi Final First Leg. United will be boosted by the revitalising three points gained on Saturday against Everton which puts them within touching distance of a record 19th league championship. Apart from Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Fletcher, Sir Alex Ferguson accompanied a full strength squad as they departed for Germany from Manchester airport this morning. To have such a luxury at this stage of the season will be heartening and a comfort that the busy schedule over the next couple of weeks can be navigated successfully.

The Opposition
Schalke was founded in 1904 with their glory years being contained between 1934-42. Incredibly they did not lose a single league match between 1935 and 1939. The last few seasons have seen several managers come and go. In July 2009, Felix Magath was appointed but was relieved of his duties in March this year with Ralf Rangnick taking over and promptly presiding over their historic demolition of Inter Milan in the quarter finals.

This season has been disappointing for the Royal Blues as they sit 10th in the Bundesliga with a record of 11 wins from their 31 games. Their home record reads as 7 wins and 6 defeats and overall they have scored just 35 league goals whilst conceding the same amount.

It has been a different story in the Champions League with just a sole defeat on matchday one against Lyon being followed by a fine record of 7 wins and 2 draws. This culminated in their success against holders Inter whom they defeated 5-2 in the San Siro before closing out the tie on their home turf.

Schalke's leading scorer is Spanish legend Raúl who graced the shirt of Real Madrid for 16 years before  his transfer to Germany last summer. Once described by Sir Alex as the greatest player in the world, it has not taken him long to become an iconic figure at the Veltins-Arena. He is the Champions League record scorer with 71 yet fails to get the recognition that his more high profile peers attracted. He is the club's leading scorer this season with 18.

Schalke are clearly the weakest of the final four but must not be underestimated. In goal, they have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer who looks likely to sign for Bayern Munich in the summer with the deal all but finalised. In defence they prefer to field the experienced Metzelder with young protegé Howedes who is seen as a star for the future. The latter is doubtful for the tie, however. Papadopoulos is expected to be selected to keep an eye on Wayne Rooney having successfully shackled Wesley Sneijder in the quarter finals. Jefferson Farfan, the Peruvian striker may well be employed on the right of a 5 man midfield and has 9 goals in all competitions this season. Edu is a possible starter up front alongside Raúl if Rangnick decides to attack.

Rangnick is seen in Germany as something of a Wenger/Professor type without the antics on the touchline. He played briefly for Southwick in the Sussex County league while on a year long placement from university back in his homeland and developed a love for English football during his stay in this country.

Tactics
As the home side do not possess a genuine winger they rely a great deal on their full backs providing the necessary width to their play. Frequently during their European campaign these have been Schmitz and Uchida. This means that they are vulnerable on the counter attack and is sure to be a weakness exploited by United's wide players in a style similar to the way the Reds have overcome Arsenal in recent years. The other area of known weakness for the Schalke defence is pace with the cumbersome Metzelder susceptible to the darting speed of Hernández.

I would expect Rangnick to be happy with a goalless draw on Tuesday night and then allow his team to take their chances at Old Trafford. I would not be surprised to see a defensive line up with just Raúl up front but even he will drop back into a deep role to assist his midfield. They will not want United to dominate in the centre in the way they did against Chelsea in the last round so the veteran Spaniard may well look to press Carrick if the Englishman looks to be getting too much time. United should be able to play a reasonably high line as space in behind the defence should not be too much of a worry.

Another big area that United will look to quell is the noise levels of the home crowd. An attendance of around 60,000 is expected and they will start the evening in full voice. If the away side can grasp control of the game then this will diminish and there is no way better than to score a vital away goal. With the likes of Rooney, Hernández, Valencia, Nani, and others all at the manager's disposal either starting or from the bench then that much heralded advantage must have a great chance of coming to fruition.

United

After one of the most difficult teams to predict on Saturday, I would be surprised if I do not have at least 8 or 9 correct in my guess above. The back five is our first choice line up and the only possible changes would if Ferdinand did come through Saturday successfully or if the manager decides throwing Rafael back into the fray is too big a risk.

The remainder of the side were the ones chosen against Chelsea so I see no need to change these in any way. Nani may be a touch unlucky not to get the right wing slot ahead of Valencia but away from home, the Ecuadorian's defensive capabilities just shade it for me. The full backs will once more be vital from an attacking point of view. With Ji Sung Park being more of a "defensive" wide man then I would expect Evra to support him as much as possible and often be the one most advanced. On the other side Rafael must be disciplined when in defensive areas but still offer runs on the overlap for Valencia. As mentioned previously, counter attacks could be prevalent for United tomorrow so look for Carrick and Rooney to spread the ball wide whenever possible in order to get behind Schalke's progressive full backs. Hernández up front will look to attach himself onto Metzelder and his movement and pace should cause the Germans no end of problems. There may be many instances of the Mexican being flagged offside as he looks to surge in behind but if the timing of just one run is correct then he will not be caught. 

Score Prediction
This will be Schalke's biggest game for many years so United must play on this and not give them any reason to settle into their stride. They will be nervous and with the expectation of a sizeable home crowd, it is possible they could wilt. However, this could well prove to be clutching at straws in the extreme seeing as they showed precious few nerves in the San Siro while dismantling Inter's campaign in the last round.

Looking at the two likely teams, you have to concede United will start as strong favourites but their superiority may only manifest itself in the second leg at Old Trafford. I would expect Schalke to be stubborn, fairly defensive and look to keep the Reds from not scoring rather than worry about themselves in front of goal. For that reason I will go for a tight 0-1 result in Germany with a second half goal by Rooney. If this is the case then the second leg should prove to be something of a formality ahead of a meeting with Barcelona or Madrid at Wembley in the final at the end of May.

Do you agree with my team and score predictions? Please leave a comment below or contact me via twitter.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

United vs Everton Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United took a giant stride towards their nineteenth league championship with a hard fought victory over Everton at Old Trafford. Not for the first time in this or many other seasons, United left it late before claiming the three points. Javier Hernández once again proved the difference with a far post header in the 83rd minute after Antonio Valencia's cross had taken a slight deflection. The Little Pea sent the home crowd into raptures with the realisation that victories in their next two games will see the club move ahead of Liverpool in the number of league titles accrued.

Everton battled hard all afternoon but ultimately the waves of United attacks proved decisive as their defence was breached with the final whistle looming. The Old Trafford faithful were starting to get restless with the clock ticking down and in the knowledge that United had not scored for almost three games. However, the never say die attitude and in-built fortitude shone through to see them one step closer to achieving their dreams.

The Red machine now moves to Germany on Tuesday with a Champions League semi final with Schalke before a visit to the Emirates where victory will consign the Gunners to yet another unfulfilled season and make the title a near certainty.

Here are my key talking points from yesterday's game:

Goal Analysis - Hernández
Regular readers of this blog will soon be getting fed up with my constant praise for the little Mexican but yesterday's goal, while simple in execution, had some interesting factors involved in order for it to come to fruition.

As Valencia picks up the ball after a mistake by Distin on the wide right side of the pitch, the picture below shows seven Everton defenders (plus Howard in goal) up against three red shirts with Rooney deep alongside the referee. At this moment, the defence is relatively happy, with only the petite presence of Owen and Hernández to "worry" them.
Note Hernández on the blind side of Jagielka giving a multitude of options depending on the quality of cross.
Jagielka is currently dealing with the Mexican (circled) just inside the box but not for the first time this season (please see many previous goal analysis posts), he has pulled behind the defender on his blind side. A simple dummy movement towards the near post fools Jagielka that is where he is headed but the opposite is in fact how it transpires. What his position in relation to the defender means is that Hernández can dart to the near post, stay central or drift off his man to the back post and there is not a lot that Jagielka can do to stop this from happening as he is only in his peripheral vision. Although it is harsh to criticise Jagielka after a fine game, the next stage of the build up demonstrates the wonderful in-built striker's instinct triumphing over the Englishman's grasp of the defensive art. Hibbert must also take his fair share of any blame as he fails to assess that the key danger to Howard's goal is the man in front rather than anyone arriving from behind.

Note the difference in distance between the striker and defender with just three seconds having elapsed.
The above picture shows the moment the Mexican heads the ball and how far he has advanced away from Jagielka and with the late and ultimately futile reaction of Hibbert, Hernández is able to direct his header beyond an unprotected Howard. If you look at the time graphic on the two pictures, just three seconds have elapsed. This once more goes to prove just how much can happen in such a short space of time and how intelligence, movement and instinct can give the striker his glorious reward.

If Sky's player camera was still in existence, then concentrating it solely on Hernández for 90 minutes would almost give you the perfect video for any aspiring youngster to learn from. Combine his lightening pace with such intelligent movement and you have a powerful combination that will haunt opposition defences for years to come. What can be certain is that the"Little Pea" has inherited so much from the other peas in his family pod given that he is the third concurrent member to play for his country. There is only so much you can teach a young footballer, a great deal of his wondrous ability comes from this magical footballing DNA coupled with sincerity, humility and sheer joy that exudes every time he speaks in public.

Anderson - Consistency required
There cannot be two more contrasting performances than those displayed by United's Brazilian midfielder Anderson this week. On Tuesday against Newcastle, he was ponderous, his passing was wayward, he lacked dynamism and in all honesty he looked some way short of having the ability required to control a midfield for Manchester United. Yesterday at Old Trafford, where few would argue almost all of his better displays occur, he was at times a joy to watch. His short passing was precise and accurate and when he attempted a more inventive, attacking pass more often than not it found its target and set United away. The lethargy, so apparent at St James' Park was a distant memory as he buzzed around the pitch always looking to get on the ball and to make a difference. As the saying goes "one swallow does not make a summer" so the key for Anderson between now and the end of the season is firstly, to stay fit, secondly to add some consistency to his play and thirdly to attempt to control a game of magnitude away from the safety of the Old Trafford comfort zone.

His poor shooting technique means that he is unlikely to ever rank highly in the goalscoring charts but he can make a worthwhile contribution to setting up play and being progressive when the situation arises. He needs to be freed of many of the shackles of defensive play and this is why playing in a three often tends to suit him more. However, he is not a player deemed of fantasy class that dictates a team is built around him, so he must continue to work hard, get trim and then he will be worthy of regular acclaim from the Old Trafford faithful.

A message to Nani: two feet are better than one!
The Portuguese winger has had a sensational season as shown by his creativity and aptitude in front of goal but with the return of Valencia, his role has changed. Being genuinely two-footed is a gift bestowed on precious few players in the modern age. While happier on his right, he is comfortable with his left foot and this is the reason why he has been the one to switch flanks rather than the returning Ecuadorian. To me, Nani is suffering a little from his heavy workload this season as his performance levels have dipped appreciably over recent weeks and although his switch to the left is a contributing factor, I do think that fatigue (mental and physical) may be setting in. A further, much overlooked reason for the drop in effectiveness could also be the mental scars from the assault on his leg by Jamie Caragher back in early March.

It is noticeable how when Nani receives the ball on the left side that defenders think instinctively he will cut inside onto his favoured right boot and far too often the Portuguese player is obliging making him a little too predictable. He would get such benefit from staying on his capable left boot at times as he would have to do precious little to get past his direct opponent as they are often seen with a poor body shape anticipating the cut in on his right.

His unwillingness to cross with his left was perfectly summed up by the passage of play that developed yesterday early on. The picture below shows Nani on the left hand side in a wonderful attacking position. The obvious and most dangerous option here would be a low cross along the six yard box where the predator Hernández is predictably lurking. Even if the cross is cut out, the chances of a defender inadvertently turning it towards goal are high.  

The simple ball across goal that could have led to a settling of nerves early on.
Instead, Nani dithered somewhat and ended up allowing the Everton defence to recover and ultimately led to him cutting in on that favoured right boot and a tame shot at goal. One would hope that the management are well aware of this apparent lack of confidence and it is being worked at in training as having a fit Valencia on one side and a confident two-footed player on the other is a potent combination.

Fabio - who will be the better Da Silva?
I love the Da Silva twins for so many reasons and they are destined to play a huge role in United's future. At the moment both are a touch injury prone which can happen early on in a career in a tough uncompromising league as they play in. What is clear from this season is that both are progressing well in all areas and next season will surely seem them making a record number of appearances. Both seem to be growing in stature with their defensive duties and slowly but surely any youthful impetuousness is being coached out of them.

At the moment in my opinion Fabio just shades it from his brother in terms of all round ability which reinforces the long term view held by those in their home country. Clearly they have similar traits in terms of speed, energy, determination and attacking intent, but it is in this last talent that I feel Fabio just edges ahead of his brother. Whether he plays left or right, he makes a conscious decision to get in the box as much as possible to assist the attacking players in the team and once there appears to have a more forward thinking mentality shown by his recent goals against Wigan and Arsenal. For this reason, it may well transpire that in future we see an all Da Silva right flank at times with Rafael performing the duties at full back and Fabio as winger. With the ability for these roles to switch at any time, the effect on opponents could be mesmerising as constant flashes of their curly locks patrol the flank at lightening speed!

Evra - a decisive impact
I have been highly critical of the Frenchman for his deficiencies in defence over recent weeks and I was pleased that he was given a break yesterday. His true class shone through following his introduction (along with Ryan Giggs) in the second half as the pair took over the left flank to reinvigorate a tiring United. As shown below, courtesy of the Guardian, two-thirds of the Frenchman's passes took place in the Everton half and coupled with 100% of Giggs' passes occurring here too, the away side were placed further on the back foot as the two combined well.

A further demonstration of the effect that game-changing substitutes can have on a team that is struggling to break down a resilient opposition.

Thoughts now turn to Tuesday with the visit to Schalke and I will be posting a full preview to this ahead of the game.

Only time will tell how pivotal yesterday's three points will prove as the season draws towards its conclusion. Any slip yesterday would have ignited the Chelsea desire to capitalise and maybe even spark Arsenal in one final push for unexpected glory. All the team can do now is concentrate on their own games and this comes into sharp focus with the next two matches against these challengers.

Avoiding defeat will be essential but a great record at the Emirates makes victory a distinct possibility while an almost faultless home record bodes well for the visit of Chelsea who may well have the odd psychological scar from Champions league defeats lingering.

In summary, Hernández's number 19 of the season made title number 19 a massive step closer as the mighty Manchester United bandwagon strides relentlessly towards the finish line.

Please leave any comments on this post below or contact me on Twitter where I am always happy to hear from followers with feedback or points to be made. 

Friday, 22 April 2011

United vs Everton Big Match Preview


Introduction
Manchester United are back in Premier League action on Saturday lunchtime as they take on in-form Everton at Old Trafford. With just five games left, anything less than three points will be seen as an open opportunity for rivals Chelsea & Arsenal to increase the pressure at the top of the table. United currently sit six points clear of their challengers from London with battles to follow against them in subsequent matches. Chelsea entertain West Ham tomorrow while Arsenal travel to Bolton on Sunday.

The tried and trusted mantra of taking each game as it comes and concentrating on our own results will be proclaimed by the manager as the key with matches counting down. After two successive goalless games from United, a fast start will be essential. With the Champions league semi final looming large on Tuesday, the ideal scenario would be to get the game wrapped up in the first half and then be in a position to stroll through the second. However, given Everton's form and the pressures associated with being involved in a championship race, this is unlikely to occur!

The Opposition
David Moyes' men lie seventh in the table with a record of eleven wins and 47 points from their 33 matches. As seems to be the case almost every season, the Toffee men have recovered from a mid-season injury jinx to storm up the table in the final stages to leave them with an outside chance of finishing above local rivals Liverpool. Only five teams have a better record away from home than Everton with their record of four wins and seven draws from their 16 games. 

Their current form is excellent as they sit second in the form table behind Chelsea over the last eight games with just one defeat and five wins. This record is despite being without the likes of Arteta, Saha, Cahill and Fellaini at various points. Of the above "star" names, only Cahill has a chance of appearing at Old Trafford but is doubtful with a foot injury.

Scoring goals seems to be their major weakness. This has been a recurring theme over the last few years with the inability to keep ex United forward Louis Saha on the pitch. On his day the Frenchman is a sensational player but unfortunately the injury prone tag has always been associated with the lively striker and he is destined to finish his career unfulfilled. Despite his injury worries, Saha is still Everton's leading scorer with ten in all competitions closely followed by Beckford and Cahill with nine.

For me, Everton can be characterised by some of the names on their squad list who, while unable to be described as great players, epitomise the spirit and work ethic instilled under Moyes' regime. Neville, Osman, Baines, Coleman, Distin and Jagielka to name just a few are examples of players who give their all for the Everton cause whilst never getting the recognition they deserve for their footballing ability.

United
Predicting a United team is always a tricky process to get correct and Saturday's game will be no different. What makes it harder still is the Schalke tie on Tuesday. In my view, team rotation is not an option for the match against Everton, the boss needs to pick his strongest side, get the victory and then worry about the Germans. I fear, however, that a weakened team may be selected but I would not understand the logic behind this view. United fans want title number 19 ahead of all others and would willingly sacrifice the Champions League trophy if a choice has to be made. Sir Alex may feel differently and based on our almost perfect home record, trust whoever is selected to get the job done. 

I will therefore predict the team that I think should be played tomorrow.

The back five picks itself with Rio Ferdinand returning to the starting lineup after a break in midweek. Rafael will come back into the side at right back in place of John O'Shea.

As it is a home game then 4-4-1-1 is likely to be the formation. I cannot see Giggs playing in both this game and on Tuesday so it is perhaps likely he will start on the bench with Anderson playing alongside Carrick in the centre of midfield. As many will know, I am not a huge fan of the Brazilian in a two man midfield but at home, with United on the front foot then it is acceptable. If Arteta and Cahill had both been available then I would no doubt have felt differently as his energy levels up against players of that quality can be brought into question. On the wings I can see Valencia on the right and Ji Sung Park on the left. Nani was disappointing on Tuesday and may well be given a spot on the bench ahead of the Schalke tie. Park's industry, while not always effective from an attacking point of view at home, adds something to the United side and I would also expect to see him play at the Emirates next Sunday in which has been a happy hunting ground for the South Korean in recent years. Valencia was quiet in his brief cameo appearance at St James' Park as for once, he struggled to get into the pace of the game after a substitute appearance.

Up front, I can see no other selection than Rooney and Hernández. The Mexican will look to use his pace up against Jagielka and Distin with Rooney conducting proceedings from the hole. Berbatov's strange absence from the bench last week only fuelled further rumours about his future but the Bulgarian has had a great season and will have an important part to play in the matches to come. 

Scoreline Prediction
I can see tomorrow being tense and tight for long periods. As mentioned previously, an early goal would be a godsend after two blanks in the last couple of games. This would settle both the team and importantly the crowd. However, if the Reds struggle to impose their play on Everton then the tension will be palpable as the game progresses. This is where the experience of the United team to prevail against the odds will see them through with a 2-0 victory with goals in each half from Rooney and Valencia. 

With three points gained, the pressure then switches to our rivals and while I cannot see anything but a Chelsea win versus West Ham, a trip to Bolton could see Arsenal slip up once again. This could be vital ahead of the meeting at the Emirates next Sunday. If the Gunners are effectively out of the title race then their motivation has decreased somewhat. Alternatively, you could make a strong case for Arsenal being very dangerous with the pressure off and the freedom to just go out and play. Their mental fragility has been there for all to see so with the release of this tension, it could make them much more dangerous opponents! I am sure they would like nothing more than to put a dent in the United bandwagon ahead of the remainder of the season.

Do you agree with my team and score predictions above? Leave a comment, rate the article by clicking on a box or contact me on Twitter.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In Conversation: Martin Lipton talks to Written Offside

With the Premier League title race reaching a climax in the coming weeks, I caught up with the Daily Mirror's Chief Football Writer Martin Lipton to get his opinion on the destiny of the title, the challengers and United's plans for the summer transfer market. During nearly 20 years as a football reporter he has covered eight major championships.
Martin is a regular on Sky's Sunday Supplement.


After the latest round of matches this week, how do you assess the title race? Are Chelsea now United's biggest challengers? 

Still very much United's to lose and 10 points out of 15 shouldn't be a problem. Chelsea have the momentum, especially now that Drogba has been afforded his rightful position and Torres benched. The two big tests are obvious and two draws might well be enough, although a draw and a defeat could mean it goes all the way to the final weekend. Still can't see beyond United. Danger is them taking their eyes off the ball at Arsenal because it's between the Schalke games and then Chelsea coming to Old Trafford knowing they can break it wide open by winning as they did last year, Even so, United by five in the end.


It has been a strange season in many ways, how would you rate the quality of the league this year? 


You could make a case for saying the league is weaker. Maybe it is but it has also been more competitive, which has to be good thing. One obvious statistic that stands out is the number of draws. United have drawn 10 out of 33, Arsenal nine, Spurs 12. That is unusually high for teams at the top of the table and suggests, too, that there has been a levelling up of standards from the bottom as well as a levelling down from the top. And how can you explain Wolves beating United, Chelsea, City and Liverpool but being bottom of the league with six matches to go? Remember, too, that we had three Premier League teams in the last eight of the Champions League, and Arsenal missed out only because they messed up the group stage and had to play Barcelona. Barca and Real Madrid might be the best two teams in Europe but the next five are all in the Premier League.


What did you make of Wenger's comments that winning trophies is not everything? Have they made progress over last few years? 

First of all, I don't think he meant it. It was juts a defence mechanism. Wenger is a worse loser than Fergie - much worse - and his mantra has always been: "Show me a good loser - and I'll show you a loser!" I don't think anything has changed but he is trying to deflect attention away from his own sense of frustration. You cannot say Arsenal have advanced since 2005. The lack of trophies makes that case and they have been hamstrung by the hidden costs of the move to The Emirates, and Wenger's own unquestioned stubbornness. But I still say that, on their day, the two teams you would pay to watch are United and Arsenal, followed by Spurs. Chelsea remain functional and joyless, but mightily efficient if Drogba, Lampard and Co are playing well. City have no ambition on the pitch. That is due to Mancini's innate caution. But eventually they will get a manager - Mourinho? - who has that extra drive. 
 
Could the signing of Torres ultimately be one that costs Chelsea the title in light of the change of formation and lack of partnership being struck with Drogba? 

If you look at the results in the Premier League, then you'd have to say no. They did lose to Liverpool in Torres' first match but since then it's six wins and a draw, which is better form than United. Chelsea lost the league in Ancelotti's "bad moment" when they picked up only 10 points out of 33 between October and the start of January. Torres did help cost them the Champions League, because he is a square peg in a round hole. Ancelotti had to play him for fear of wrath of Roman but knows the squad is still designed and mind-setted (if that is a word?) to play to Drogba's chest. Had he started Drogba in the second leg, I might have been flying to Germany on Monday with Chelsea, rather than United.


What do you think is the key to the destiny of the title in the remaining five games? 

The normal one at this stage of the season - keeping calm and focused. United know what they have to do. They have done it before. Should they lose at Arsenal to open the door then it could get hairy. We all know what happened when Chelsea went to Old Trafford last season - and before you moan about Drogba's offside goal, you all seem to forget Macheda batted the United goal in with his hands and that should never have counted either - and knowledge of that could play on United minds, especially as Chelsea would feel things might be turning their way and confidence can make such a difference in football. I expect United will get there but professionally I hope it goes to the last day, to keep up the interest.  


How do you explain United's poor away form this season? Could it cost them? 

Fergie can't explain the poor form - if he could, he'd have fixed it - so I'm not sure how I can. Some of the games were thrown away by loss of concentration - Fulham and Everton - the odd one by poor decisions by the officials, such as Birmingham and Chelsea (although United get more calls in their favour than against them) and some because they didn't deserve any more (Wolves, Liverpool, arguably City, who were a disgrace on the day, and certainly Spurs). And maybe because with Rooney not firing until recently and no Ronaldo or Tevez any more, teams are less intimidated by United than they used to be and sense more vulnerability.


Who has been your United player of the season and why? Who has been the biggest disappointment and why? 

For me, purely because nobody has a right to be so good at 40, in his final year, Van der Sar. I think he's made one mistake all season (West Brom at home) and has pulled off so many important saves because he has that priceless ability, that only the very best keepers have and was beyond the likes of Carroll and Foster, of being able to retain his focus and concentration for the one moment in the game that it is required. But I think Giggs has been remarkable, more like 27 than 37 when he plays, Vidic has been excellent, Ferdinand when he played, Smalling has done well. You've missed Fletcher recently and I feel a bit sorry for Berbatov, who is a beautiful technical player but doesn't quite fit into the United framework, despite his goals. Hernandez, of course, has been a brilliant signing. As for let-downs, Rooney knows he should have been better, Carrick too. And I feel so, so sorry for Owen Hargreaves. A cracking guy but sadly crocked for good.


Looking ahead to the summer, do you see United being busy in the transfer market and if so, who do you think is on their radar? Can you see any players leaving and if so who? 

There will be changes, of course. It looks likely to be De Gea in goal (I'd have gone for Neuer) with Kuszczak leaving along with Van Der Sar. Think it's the end of the line for Brown and possibly O'Shea too, while it wouldn't surprise me if Scholes hangs up his boots. Can't see Berbatov wanting to stay, either, now he's dropped down the pecking order. I'd like to see a Llorente-type striker coming in, some real midfield passing quality - Modric would be ideal but the Spurs fan in me is desperate for him to stay at The Lane - and maybe a natural midfield holder, if there is one out there.

Arsenal seem to struggle mentally, what are your thoughts on this and the reasons why United are the opposite in this department?
 
It comes, to a degree, from the manager. Wenger gives his players too many get-outs. Fergie might blast the referee but privately tells his players it was not good enough, that they are playing for United, that the onus is on them to win. As Mark Hughes told me a few years ago, "United never lose; they just sometimes run out of time". It sums the mentality up perfectly. That's why they score so often late-on, because they never accept a cause is lost. Arsenal, by contrast, seem to look for excuses too often.

Finally, what are your predictions for the Premier League and Champions League winners? 

United, by five points (although I'd love it to go to the wire). And, sadly, the winner of Real v Barcelona, although you would always give United a puncher's chance (and more than that) in a one-off game. 


A big thanks to Martin for taking the time to answer my questions. Please make sure you follow him on Twitter where he often tweets from games and gives great insight into life as a journalist.


If you have any comments on the above interview, please leave them below or contact me via Twitter

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

United vs Newcastle Big Match Preview


Introduction
Manchester United go in search of a vital three points on Tuesday night as they return to league action against Newcastle United at St James' Park. Arsenal's late lapse on Sunday against Liverpool means the Reds are six points clear with the Gunners facing North London rivals Spurs on Wednesday.  Numerous times this season Arsenal have proved fallible when the pressure is on and many believe that victory tonight will see them mentally wilt once more.

United will look to bounce back from their defeat to City at Wembley and will be boosted by the return of Wayne Rooney who was sorely missed at the weekend. Newcastle will be without leading scorer Kevin Nolan and have doubts over Steve Harper and Shola Ameobi.

The Opposition
Since taking over from Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew has done remarkably well in the face of supporter unrest following the removal of the much admired previous regime. Pardew has steered Newcastle to tenth position in their first season back in the top flight and although not mathematically safe from relegation, it looks unlikely they will be dragged into a last minute dogfight to secure their place. Having lost Andy Carroll in the January transfer window and effectively replaced him with a journeyman like Shefki Kuqi, the Toon have done well to thrive in the Premier League. One would imagine that reinvestment in the team will have to follow in the summer but given owner Mike Ashley's reticence in this area, nothing would surprise the football world once more about goings on at St James' Park.

Following promotion, a lot of hope revolving around survival would have been based on solid home form seeing them through. However, a record of just five wins from 16 is not what they had in mind. Their saving grace this term has been their away form with the same number of victories meaning only six other teams have a better overall away record. They have won just one of their last five at home and with leading scorer Nolan suspended, Carroll sold and Ameobi doubtful, one wonders where the goals will come from to threaten United's back line.

Although their much heralded support can be worth a goal at times, they are notoriously fickle and are quick to get on the team's back if performing poorly. United will look to quell any early home side pressure before impressing their style on the game in the quest for a vital three points.


United

In my view, the above side should comfortably be able to get the result required tonight. With Rafael doubtful after a brief injury layoff, I would expect O'Shea to deputise at right back. My one concern as outlined in previous posts is the form of Patrice Evra. He has struggled defensively for a while now and looks in need of rejuvenation. It is possible he could be rested tonight for Fabio but more likely this could come on Saturday at home versus Everton. 

After a rest on Saturday, I would anticipate a return to central midfield for the evergreen Ryan Giggs alongside Michael Carrick. It is hoped that the Englishman quickly puts his mistake at the weekend behind him and remembers his excellent recent form. You could notice his head drop a little on Saturday and it has been suggested that he can be a little fragile mentally but a mis-placed pass can happen at any time so any damage to his confidence should be short lived. On the flanks I have selected Valencia and Nani with Park on the bench. Our wingers will come up against the much under-rated Enriqué and former United youth product Danny Simpson at full back and both have had impressive seasons for Newcastle.

Up front, I think Rooney's return will be combined with the restoration to the first team of Javier Hernández. This blossoming partnership should be able to cause the home team defence no end of problems with their movement and intelligence. Pace at the heart of the back line is an issue and there is no one better to exploit this than our little Mexican poacher. With Rooney finally looking back to his best and high on confidence, I would expect him to once more excel in his role off the front man. When Newcastle have the ball, he will drop into midfield to supplement the presence of Carrick and Giggs and look to stop Tioté having time on the ball. It will be his job to feed our wide man in a similar fashion to how he did against Chelsea last week with intelligent switching of play.

Scoreline Prediction
There is little doubt that Liverpool's equaliser on Sunday would have been like a dagger through the heart for Arsenal and a huge morale boost for United after their Wembley defeat. They will be well aware that another three points tonight will pile almost intolerable pressure on the Gunners ahead of their derby the following day. I am quietly confident that United will prevail tonight and will predict a 0-2 scoreline with goals from Hernández and Nani. With the home team looking short on goals and also almost certainly safe from relegation, I see nothing other than three points being brought back to Manchester.

Pivotal moments like tonight do not come along very often in a season and United must view this fixture as arguably their most important. Win and the main prize will be a very large step closer in my eyes. Dropped points could well galvanise a mentally frail Arsenal into a renewed surge that could lead to some more twists and turns before the end of the season.

The Reds have the mentality and experience to keep their foot firmly on the Gunners throats as the phrase "Never give a sucker an even break" springs to mind. Games are counting down and points can still be dropped but one imagines that Sir Alex Ferguson will let no obstacle block his path as United march inexorably towards a record 19th league championship.

Do you agree with my team and score predictions above? Please leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

United vs City FA Cup Post Mortem

Picture courtesy of The Observer

From the glorious highs of defeating Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday to the crushing low of losing to City at Wembley in an FA Cup semi final on Saturday, as a famous Scottish knight of the realm once uttered, "Football, bloody hell!!.

United's treble chance ultimately became, as many suspected, an impossible dream with a disappointing defeat at Wembley. The first half was notable only for a couple of Dimitar Berbatov missed chances that if converted would have changed the whole complexion of the match. The first effort came as a result of terrific interplay between Scholes and Park who fed Berbatov only to be denied by the on-rushing Hart who smothered the Bulgarian's shot. The second, coming in the next phase of play, is harder to legislate for. Nani jinked inside Zabaletta and rolled the ball invitingly across the six yard box where a lunging Berbatov managed to scoop the ball over the bar from just a few yards out. Although a glaring miss, his stretch towards the ball was the reason it ended up over the bar in combination with the speed of impact on the ball.

The second half was dominated by City for the most part after their defence were belatedly pushed up at half time by Mancini, safe in the knowledge that pace over the top was not a viable threat until the late introduction of Hernández. The player that stepped up for the blue side of Manchester and ultimately proved the difference between the two side was Yaya Touré who broke from midfield time and time again and was on hand when a Carrick pass was anticipated and intercepted. A driving, trademark run across Vidic left him with Van Der Sar  in his sights and the Ivorian somewhat fortuitously found a gap between the Dutchman's legs to send City fans into ecstasy.  

The expected United onslaught never really materialised and their chances were compounded by the dismissal of Scholes for a high challenge on Zabaletta. The exuberance of subs Hernández and Anderson only made a minimal impact and United were left to ponder the reasons that a team can experience such a high in the same week as this depressing low.

A few talking points from the game

Rooney absence keenly felt
In the build up to the game, a lot of the talk was which of the respective side's warriors would be missed the most. Surprisingly, the loss of Rooney became one of the keys to the United loss. The main reason for this was demonstrated by the recent Champions League tie with Chelsea. With the Englishman in the side, it allowed the manager to play just Carrick and Giggs in central midfield due to Rooney's insatiable work ethic in his role off the front where he can drop in and make a three when the opposition has the ball. For all of Berbatov's wonderful qualities, defensive responsibility does not rank highly so a third central midfielder was required to match City in this department and the knock on effect from an attacking point of view was keenly felt.
Picture courtesy of The Observer

The Bulgarian became isolated from his colleagues and the attacking midfielder selected (Park) was not able to support him sufficiently to prove an effective threat. With Rooney in the team, neither De Jong or Barry would have had time on the ball and the likely inclusion of Hernández would have created space in a congested midfield as their back line would have had to drop deep to ensure the Mexican could not run in behind. This is not a criticism of Berbatov as him and Rooney are totally different players but you can certainly see the reasons why Rooney and Hernández are currently the first choice striking partnership.

Farewell to a legend?
As Paul Scholes trudged off the Wembley turf after his thigh high lunge had brought a tenth red card, my mind instantly pondered whether we were seeing the last chapter in a glittering career being played out in front of us. The wonderful, instinctive ability is still there without a doubt but with each mis-timed tackle and inevitable retribution from the referee's pocket comes a realisation in his own mind that perhaps the sands of time are catching up with him finally. When under little pressure or the game is slow, the little master can still control a game but when the pressure is applied or he begins to tire, a rash tackle is a sure sign of frustration as his ageing body struggles to stamp any authority on the game.

Given his introverted personality, when his exit from the stage is announced expect it to be without fuss and any kind of fanfare. There is talk that a testimonial is planned for August when a galaxy of stars past and present can display their appreciation for the most gifted player of his generation. Scholes is my favourite United player over the last twenty years or so and I, for one would like to see him bow out after another successful, trophy laden season rather than see him almost forced into retirement by poor performance or disciplinary problems. Replacing him will be impossible and the number 18 shirt will carry a memorable legacy. One would expect him to stay in the game, out of the limelight I would imagine, but perhaps coaching youngsters and handing down the wealth of experience gathered ever since he made his first appearance in the league cup against Port Vale back in September 1994.

How do you solve a problem like Patrice?
United fans love Patrice Evra, that is unequivocal. But there is little doubt that in the course of this season he has lost his joie de vivre. Many observers point to his role in France's calamitous World Cup campaign and subsequent suspension as a possible reason but one imagines that must be more to it. Although still a threat in attacking areas, he has frequently been caught out from a defensive point of view as the season has progressed and this week demonstrates the fact perfectly. While he was often a conspicuous threat down the left flank this week, he was at fault for Drogba's goal in midweek and several times yesterday seemed to be caught out of position or beaten too easily. A mini-break for the next two games would do him the world of good and with the effervescent Fabio an able deputy, United can cope ahead of greater challenges in the weeks ahead. There is little doubt that when on-form, he ranks in the top three left backs in world football and all players are liable to slumps in form so it is hoped that he can be nursed through the rest of the season without further mishap before a richly deserved summer break sees him back firing next season.

A midfield enforcer?
The one position I feel needs attention in the summer is that of a defensive midfielder. Unfortunately we can no longer expect a Lazarus like recovery from Owen Hargreaves so reinforcement must be sought from elsewhere. With our defence well stocked both now and for the future and safe in the knowledge that we are the top scorers this season, attack is not particularly a worry, the midfield is the area that will come under close scrutiny in the summer. The addition of an enforcer would be beneficial in the type of games where keeping it tight is essential while not diminishing any attacking intent. As mentioned earlier, Rooney's inclusion in his favoured role off the front means that when the opposition have the ball we play effectively a three in that department but a strong ball winner alongside a ball player would be a perfect balance. They would have to be a special player who buys into the team ethic quickly as his role in lesser games may well be to close out the game from the substitutes bench. Therefore, this very specific role would surely suit an experienced player who would relish a new challenge at a bigger club. As I write the name that springs to mind is Scott Parker. Stranger things have happened!

Looking forward
Although bitterly disappointing, United must re-group as the next battle looms large on the horizon on Tuesday and it takes on huge significance in a season that is rapidly heading towards its climax. Newcastle at St James' Park has been a favoured fixture for the most part over the years and it is vital that three points are accumulated as well as next Saturday against Everton. With Arsenal having tough fixtures against Liverpool (Sunday) and then the North London derby on Wednesday, the current gloom brought on by yesterday could well be blown away with the holy grail of Championship number 19 edging closer as each game passes. Team selection for Tuesday will be key of course and one would expect the return to the starting lineup of Rooney, Giggs and Hernández will prove too much for Newcastle to overcome.

Please leave any comments on my post below or contact me via Twitter. I welcome your views at any time and always do my best to reply.

As mentioned after our last defeat in the league against Liverpool, keep calm and have belief in your team and its staff. The treble was always likely to prove to be the impossible dream but the double is still on and who better to drive us towards the finishing line than the manager who has done so numerous times over the last 25 years.

Friday, 15 April 2011

United vs City FA Cup Preview


Manchester United embark on the next step in their trophy quest on Saturday evening when they make the trip to Wembley Stadium to take on neighbours Manchester City in the FA Cup Semi Final.

The two clubs will kick off with wildly contrasting levels of confidence. City visited Anfield on Monday and were three down by half time after being given a torrid examination by Carroll and Suarez. To add insult to injury, their talisman Carlos Tevez pulled a hamstring early on and misses the big game. On the other hand, United confidently breezed past Chelsea in the Champions League to book their spot in the Semi Finals. The Reds will also be missing one of their key players following the suspension of Wayne Rooney.

Road to Wembley
City & United's fixtures thus far - graphic courtesy of Football 365
The Opposition
City have endured a very inconsistent season in all competitions. Excellent early season victories over Liverpool and Chelsea were mixed in with disappointing defeats by Sunderland and Wolves. Overall, they have lost eight league games this term as opposed to just five at the same time last season. In addition, they have scored 19 fewer goals but have tightened up at the back considerably with eleven less conceded.

Their recent form perfectly demonstrates their tendency to be inconsistent with a record of played 8, won 3, drawn 2 and lost 3.

The absence of Tevez will be a huge blow to City. In my view, it ranks above Rooney missing for United. With the Argentinian in their side, you get the feeling he gives them confidence and belief. Without him, as well as missing his energy and goals, you feel the psychological effect could be particularly damaging.

To be fair, City have plenty of class players that should be able to step up and help to overcome this loss in the likes of Silva, Johnson, Touré, Dzeko and Balotelli but whether they can raise their game to compensate is another matter.

Their strength clearly lies defence with the excellent Kompany a mainstay of the back line all season. They are ably supported by De Jong and Touré in midfield while Hart has had a solid season in goal.

Tactics
After the hammering they took on Monday, I can see Mancini once again reverting to a more defensive outlook with Barry joining De Jong and Touré in the centre in a bid to dominate the midfield. The Italian would be hammered by all concerned if he decided to risk an attacking strategy in what is the club's last hope of ending their long painful quest for a trophy this season. City will look to sit deep and absorb the waves of United pressure and then break at speed through Silva and Johnson wide and Dzeko up front. The long striding Touré will try to assist the Bosnian in the box.

For United, as usual they will target the full backs. Richards on the right could return after an injury lay-off and could be vulnerable while Zabaleta on the other side was given a rough ride by Nani in the league game so will surely come under pressure again. The Reds may also look to exploit any defensive weakness in David Silva's game by doubling up on his full back.

United

Once again, predicting United's team correctly will be almost impossible. The whole club, including the fans will agree that the FA Cup is the lowest on the list of priorities this season but bearing in mind it has been a while since we have had our hands on the famous old trophy, you get the feeling that many want to add it to their CV. Bearing in mind the City strength in central midfield, I have opted for a 4-3-3 formation. 

It is feasible that Van Der Sar will be given the weekend off in order to prepare for the tough fixtures coming up but unless his slight calf strain is troubling him, I can see him being there. Accompanying him in defence, I have Fabio, Smalling and Brown with Vidic retained as captain and leader. Although he will be desperate to play, I think another mini-break for Ferdinand is viable with Evra joining him after a few shaky displays in defence recently. Bearing in mind City's height, I can see Brown slotting in at right back after O'Shea got the nod on Tuesday.

My midfield trio are Anderson, Scholes and Carrick. The Brazilian needs games after his injury lay off and although he made an appearance in the reserves last night, I can see him being asked to break forward and support the lone front man. Scholes had to sit out the Chelsea games but I can see him returning at Wembley and using his renowned technical skills to set United's attacking threat free. With Giggs and Park deserving of a break after their fabulous exertions in midweek, I would expect both Nani and Valencia to start on the flanks. Both should love the space available to them on Saturday and they will look for the likes of Carrick and Scholes to supply the ammunition.

Up front, I have chosen Dimitar Berbatov on his own. Against any other team, I would have expected a 4-4-2 similar to Tuesday but I feel the boss will leave Hernández on the bench alongside Owen who will be itching to make an impression for United. The worry for the Reds will be that Berbatov loves to drop deep and this will leave the penalty box vacant for the crosses supplied by the wide men. If Anderson does play, then the onus will be on him to get up to assist but given his poor goal record and lack of a decent shooting technique, we will not be expecting too much!

Scoreline Prediction
If the formation predictions above come to fruition then I can only see a tight, defensive game which could be won with a moment of genius from either side. When I look at both teams, I can see more match winners and big game players in red, so I will go for United to edge it by a single goal scored late in the second half by Valencia. I would love to be proved wrong (as I was in midweek) and the boss decides on a 4-4-2 with Owen supporting Berbatov (Hernández kept in reserve) but I think it is unlikely.

If the above comes true then the United juggernaut will roll on, gathering momentum with each victory as the season draws towards a sensational climax. League action resumes on Tuesday with a trip to Newcastle followed by the visit of Everton next weekend ahead of the first leg of the Champions League semi final. Arsenal have the chance to close the gap on United to four points on Sunday if they can overcome Liverpool at the Emirates. For the second time in a week, United supporters will brave the unthinkable and support the Scousers in a match against one of their rivals. Anything less than an Arsenal victory will nudge the Reds closer to that magical 19th title and with a North London battle on Wednesday for the Gunners, the table could be looking distinctly favourable come Thursday morning.

Do you agree with my team and score predictions above? Please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter.