Monday, 26 September 2011

United vs FC Basel Champions League Preview

Manchester United go into their second match of this season's Champions League with a home match against FC Basel at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. The Reds go into the game after a bruising encounter with Stoke City at the weekend saw their 100% record disappear. Training ground injuries to Rooney, Carrick and Evans have depleted squad resources further which leaves just four recognised defenders fit and available.

Basel will have their most famous fan in attendance tomorrow at Old Trafford. Roger Federer will take time out from his busy schedule to watch the team at the Theatre of Dreams. The Swiss club go into the game on the back of a 1-1 draw with FC Thun at the weekend.

United drew their opening Champions League fixture against Benfica a fortnight ago after a Giggs strike cancelled out a first half opener from Cardozo. The Swiss defeated Romanian minnows Otelul Galati on matchday one with goals from Fabian and Alexander Frei.

The Opposition
FC Basel were founded in 1893. One of their early club captains was Joan Gamper who went on to establish Barcelona in Spain. They play their home fixtures at St Jacob-Park that has a capacity of 38,500 and was built in 2001. They have won the Swiss Super League 14 times in their history and have competed in European competition every year since 1999/00.

Thorsten Fink was appointed manager in June 2009 after the ten year reign of Christian Gross. Fink came on as a substitute in the Champions League final in 1999 after 80 minutes against United and witnessed one of the most dramatic ends to any final. Basel currently lie in 4th place in the league with a record of played ten, won four and drawn four.

Both Xherdan Shaqiri and Benjamin Huggel are suspended from the match at Old Trafford. Their principle threat will come from Swiss international Alexander Frei up front.

Stat zone by Rahul Singh
  • United & Basel last met in 2002-03 Champions League. Match ended in 1-1 draw at Old Trafford but United won 3-1 in aggregate.
  • United have lost only 1 of the last 32 CL home games.
  • Rooney has failed to score in his last five Champions League games at Old Trafford
  • United last Champions League defeat at Old Trafford was the 1-0 loss to Besiktas in the group stages two years ago.
  • One of only two goals Gary Neville scored in 110 CL games was against FC Basel in 2002-03
  • Darren Fletcher made his United debut when Basel visited Old Trafford on 12th March 2003
  • Basle have won only one of 11 matches against English clubs. They have lost 7 of those 11.
  • United only conceded four times at home in last season’s competition, but all teams they faced in the knockout stage scored at Old Trafford.
  • Alexander Frei is in red hot form for FC Basel, he has scored nine goals in five games.


The game at Old Trafford seems an ideal opportunity to give Anders Lindegaard another taste of first team football after an impressive display in Lisbon a fortnight ago. David De Gea came through his expected ordeal at the Britannia Stadium with flying colours and can now look forward to a more comfortable run of games in the Premier League.  The four fit defenders virtually pick themselves in my opinion with Valencia able to take a place further forward. The manager will be praying that no further injuries occur in the defence with the likes of Vidic, Smalling, Evans and Rafael all absent.

With Cleverley still sidelined and Fletcher putting in a 90 minute performance on Saturday I have gone for the partnership of Anderson and Carrick in the centre of midfield. There is a possibility that Giggs will be preferred to the Brazilian to reunite the most successful pairing of last season. With Nani and Young getting plenty of plaudits in the early weeks of the season, it will be an opportune time to allow Valencia and Park a run out in their preferred positions.

Up front, I would expect Danny Welbeck to be given a run out after his recent recovery from a hamstring injury with Berbatov alongside him. The likes of Owen, Macheda and Diouf will all be hoping for a place on the bench.

Score Prediction
I would expect a comfortable victory for United with Basel playing neat football throughout but failing to trouble our threadbare back four. Goals will come from Anderson, Park and Welbeck as United look well placed to achieve the ten points that usually secures a passage into the knock-out phases in the New Year.

Please leave your team and score predictions in the comments section below.

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Dimitar Berbatov - essential or expendable?

Last season's hero, now this season's most expendable player.  Who'd have thought, almost exactly one year after 'that' overhead kick rebounded in off the underside of the bar, we'd be calling Berba our 4th choice striker, behind Danny Welbeck, amongst others?

Can anyone point out just where it went wrong? Does anyone know why he's fallen from grace? Was he ever really there to begin with?

Berba has always been a player I've admired, but perhaps never one I've 'loved'. He's got better technique than possibly any other forward I've watched, but at times he frustrates and amazes in equal measure. For every sublime touch there's a finish that has went awry. It's no coincidence that in the past few years, at the business end of the season he's found himself keeping company with his tracksuited colleagues, or even at times, in a suit. It seems to all that Sir Alex just doesn't trust him.  The same could be said for a large majority of our fans, too.

Personally, I've never felt that Berba and Rooney are particularly well suited.  I think we've seen the best of Rooney since the arrival of Chicharito, whose runs in behind stretch defences, creating space for Rooney to operate.  I feel Rooney works best when he's dictating the game, seeing plenty of the ball and creating chances for others, as well as himself. However in Berba's time with us it's been he that has been the more creative of the two, with 10 assists in the Premier League in 08/09 and 7 in 09/10.  By comparison Rooney had 7 in 08/09 and 5 in 09/10.  Last season, however Rooney was our 2nd highest assister, with 11, most of which came in the 2nd half of the season, as he found his form (and his mind!), and his partnership with Chicharito blossomed.  It's no coincidence that this also came at the time Berba found himself out of the team.  Even in 09/10 when Rooney excelled in goalscoring terms, I didn't feel that he was playing particularly good football, and certainly not to the level that we've seen in 2011.  Rooney is potentially up there with the very best in the world, therefore I feel that everything should be done in order to get the best from him. 

In our first 5 games this season we scored 21 goals, had a +17 goal difference and had a 100% record, while Berba watched on from the bench.  At this stage last season we'd scored 14, conceded 7 and drew disastrously at both Fulham and Everton.  Last season's Manchester United got the job done, and not much more. To win the league having played so poorly, on so many occasions, was testament to the manager's nous and the player's sheer will to win. That we got to the Champions League final was a minor miracle, helped, of course, by a very kind draw.  Once there, though, Berba was banished, not even in the 18 man squad.  From the start of this year its been more of the same. The man who scored 3 separate Premier League hat-tricks, and in as many individual games as any other top striker in the league, has been cast aside.

This season, Manchester United look to be an altogether different proposition, but again one where Dimitar does not fit. Now we're all about pace, movement and youthful exuberance. There's no place for three amazing touches when Young, Rooney and Chicharito can have the ball in the net in that time. Once again we find Berba, the £30m sub, watching on.  Berbatov has featured in the past 2 matches, at Leeds and at Stoke, and while Michael Owen was able to twice find the net at Elland Road, Berba didn't so much as threaten.  As usual there was some sublime football, particularly the ball to Park, which created Owen's first, but more often than not the Bulgarian was on the periphery of the game.  The Stoke game was another poor performance by Berbatov, registering just 1 shot at goal, although it'd be unfair to single him out, given that nobody could really be said to have performed to standard on the day - Nani and De Gea aside.  However you can't help but feel that had Rooney started that game, we could well have came away with the points.  He'd almost certainly have had more impact on the game.

My personal opinion is that Berbatov should have left/been sold in the summer. He deserves first XI football and the world deserves to watch him play.  Perhaps we'll see a turnaround in fortunes, after all the season is still in it's infancy, but I feel that the style of fast, counter-attacking football that we've witnessed so far this season, when Berba hasn't been in the team, is here to stay.  For that reason I think his place is most likely to remain on the bench, in the stands, or possibly off to pastures new.

By Tim Ferguson (Follow me on Twitter)

What are your views on Berbatov? Where does he fit at United? Is his time at United drawing to a close? Please leave your comments below.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

United vs Stoke Big Match Preview

Manchester United are back in league action on Saturday when they make the short trip to the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City. The Reds will be looking to continue their 100% league record having achieved the best ever start to a season under Sir Alex Ferguson with 21 goals scored and four conceded.

The Reds squad will be buoyed by a comfortable midweek victory over Leeds United in the Carling Cup where numerous squad players were given the game they needed to increase their match fitness. Tuesday's game also saw debuts for Fryers, Pogba and Cole who all performed admirably in a hostile atmosphere at Elland Road. Fryers in particular settled into a makeshift back four with ease alongside the experienced Michael Carrick as United cruised through the majority of the match.

Stoke were also in Carling Cup action on Tuesday as they hosted Spurs in a match that went to penalties with the home side prevailing 7-6. Whether this hinders their preparation in terms of Saturday's game remains to be seen but with a number of first team players involved, it cannot be positive that they played the full 120 minutes.

Javier Hernández looks set to miss the game despite returning to training this week after Ashley Cole's poor tackle on him last week. Danny Welbeck made a brief cameo at Elland Road after his hamstring injury and if he suffers no ill effects he can expect to be pushing for a starting berth. The likes of Vidic and Cleverley are expected to be missing for a couple more weeks.

Stat Zone by Rahul Singh

  1. Rooney is the first player to Score 9 goals in the first 5 PL games of the season.
  2. De Gea has the best saves to shots ratio, keeping out 88% of all shots on target faced. (via Opta)
  3. Stoke have only lost 1 of their last 11 PL games at home.
  4. United have won all six PL games against Stoke.
  5. Chicharito scored 3 goals in the two appearances last season against Stoke.

The Opposition
Tony Pulis had a busy summer as Stoke manager with the added pressure of Europa League football to consider this season. For this reason, he has strengthened his squad with some astute acquisitions with proven Premier League quality at the heart of it. Palacios, Crouch and Woodgate have all arrived from Spurs, Upson from West Ham and Jerome from Birmingham will supplement the existing squad who got to Wembley last season for the FA Cup final as well as finishing comfortably in the league table.

The likes of Huth, Shawcross, Etherington, Pennant and Jones form the backbone of the side that has done so well to cement its position in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons. Although, their set piece delivery can be a potent weapon, they have sufficient quality to cause teams problems all over the pitch.

Currently they sit 5th with a record of two wins and two draws from the opening five games. Last time out they suffered a heavy 4-0 defeat at Sunderland that owed much to a draining Thursday fixture against Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League. Scoring goals seems to be a problem at the current time with just three so far but I would expect this to change rapidly as Crouch settles in and gets used to the play of his colleagues as well as  combining with the likes of Jones, Jerome and Walters up front.

Please note - The above team was selected ahead of the manager's press conference on Friday morning

With Chris Smalling expected to be absent following his calf injury, I would expect Rio Ferdinand to take his place and slot into the same back five as at Bolton. Phil Jones will move across to right back. If Smalling had been fit, the manager may have been tempted to play Jonny Evans at left back and thus select an all centre back defence to counter the long ball barrage expected at set pieces. Evra is no stranger to this style of football now although there is little doubt he will be targeted along with De Gea in goal.

After Anderson's indifferent performance against Chelsea last weekend and bearing in mind that Saturday could be a bit of a battle, I have chosen Fletcher to partner Carrick in central midfield. While I would have no problem with the Brazilian playing, I feel it is the type of game that could pass him by so I would hold him in reserve for our next game. The form of Nani and Young means that they should take their places in the wide positions with the likes of Park, Valencia and Giggs jostling for a spot on the bench.

The one remaining conundrum is the identity of Rooney's partner up front. With Hernández sidelined, it is a fight between Welbeck, Owen, Berbatov or an extra midfielder. My choice is the languid Bulgarian mainly due to his seniority in terms of pecking order to Owen and that Welbeck has only just returned to action after a hamstring injury and it would be a risk to subject him to another game again so soon. The extra midfielder (Anderson) is possible if the manager feels that he needs to react to the increasing space that we are conceding the opposition in the final third but this option would appear unlikely given the swashbuckling start to the season that has been made. Michael Owen's midweek brace were a timely reminder of his class in terms of finishing but I feel he is best served as an impact substitute coming off the bench when a goal is required.

Scoreline Prediction
Games at the Britannia against Stoke have tended to be tight affairs and I can see this being little different given all the facts laid out above. There is little doubt that the home team will bombard the box when possible and look to unsettle De Gea in the United goal. I feel, however, that our defence can cope and although there will undoubtedly be a few scary moments, I am backing United to prevail 2-0 with goals from Berbatov and Young.

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What a difference a De Gea makes...

By Diarmaid Hill

Manchester United’s start to the Premier League season has been widely acclaimed by journalists, pundits and fans alike. A vibrancy and enthusiasm generated by a new breed of youth has swept aside its challengers so far and led many to believe the Premier League is already Manchester bound with United and their ever-loudening neighbours scrapping for it. And yet, Manchester United’s start has come with an all too familiar footnote – the man between the sticks. David De Gea endured a tough start to life at United, his errors for Edin Dzeko’s goal in the Community Shield and Shane Long’s goal against West Brom brought him in for intense criticism from all corners, with some United fans immediately writing him off.  The T-word was used. That incredibly offensive and degrading title for any keeper… Taibi. 

However, apart from the minority who wrote him off, the United fans have since engaged in one of the more admirable qualities that we as a fanbase possess. The shields went up. No criticism, past that reasonable for his two errors, was allowed without severe sanction. Whilst this faith and support for our players is great, there are always those who take it too far. James Ducker of the Times had the temerity to make the remark “De Gea looks like a school-kid who has won a competition to keep goal for United” on Twitter. How dare he? The response was so brutal, he quit Twitter. It was a shame to see innocent remarks, meant in good humour, be misconstrued into something insulting towards De Gea.  It would appear as though Ducker was making a joke, albeit one that was poorly-worded, and even if he was insulting De Gea, surely one of the brilliant things about the beautiful game is that people can have opposing opinions? Whilst it was done in an extreme and idiotic way, the response showed how quick United fans can be to defend our own.

De Gea’s career has been an opportunistic one – based on seizing his chances when they came. In 2009, Athletico’s number one Sergio Asenjo went to the under-20 World Cup with Spain, leaving De Gea to deputise to new number 1 Roberto. Unfortunately for Roberto and very fortunately for De Gea, Roberto was injured within 30 minutes of a Champion’s League game against Porto and on came De Gea. Whilst De Gea conceded 2 in a 2-0 loss, the door was now open for him. In the next game, at home versus Zaragoza, De Gea conceded a penalty in what seemed like a nightmare full debut but then immediately redeemed himself, saving from Marko Babic. Athletico went on to win 2-1. De Gea continued until Asenjo returned from international duty and then his more experienced teammate took over. Not for long however, as after a few major errors from Asenjo and Quique Sanchez Flores’ arrival as manager, De Gea became Athletico’s number one, playing in the rest of the games that season, including the 2-1 win over Fulham in the Europa League final. 

At the end if the season, he was widely praised, with Spanish Football expert Sid Lowe acclaiming him as the best player to come out of Athletico’s academy since Fernando Torres. The 2010-2011 season was even better for the youngster, especially it’s beginning, a 2-0 win against Inter in the Super Cup final, with the Spaniard saving a Diego Milito penalty. He went on to play every La Liga game that season, including sensational performances against Barcelona and Valencia. He was so good, he prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to miss only his third match in 24 years (at that time) to watch him. At the end of the season, De Gea was again widely praised, with Lowe naming him as the best goalkeeper of the year (though he admitted that he chose DDG over Valdes because of De Gea not playing for one of the big two). It was after Gary Neville’s testimonial on the 24th of May this year than Sir Alex announced a deal to sign the Spaniard had been agreed. This was denied by Athletico and De Gea’s advisor, though this was simply because De Gea was changing agents and didn’t want to sign before switching, thus avoiding paying a commission to his agent at the time. The deal was sealed after De Gea travelled to the under 21 European Championships with the Spanish teams. He excelled, making UEFA’s team of the tournament (I particularly remember a sensational save from Danny Sturridge in the first group game vs England). After the tournament, De Gea finally joined Manchester United on the 29th June (though it became apparent on the 27th after a blunder with United trying to hide the identity of the player having his medical).

That’s the story of De Gea’s career before United. As far as replacing Van Der Sar goes, De Gea was arguably second choice behind Manuel Neuer but at the point where people realised Neuer was around (after the Champions League tie versus United, despite him already being a regular starter for Germany it was this game that pushed his case in many people’s eyes) he was already halfway to Bayern Munich. Also, for the record, Neuer has enjoyed an inauspicious start at Bayern, where he was already hated by the fans. However, De Gea has always been compared to Van Der Sar, even garnering the nickname “Van Der Gea”, mainly because of how good both are at distributing the ball, a necessary attribute for a keeper who hopes to secure a place not only in United’s team but also hopes to overthrow Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes and Iker Casillas, no mean feat, eh? 

There is no doubt that Manchester United have signed a real gem, one of the top 3 young keepers about, sharing that distinction with De Gea’s replacement Thibaut Courtois (on loan from Chelsea) and Arsenal’s outstanding Pole Wojciech Szczesny. It’s rare that a keeper becomes truly world class at a really young age, Gigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Francesco Toldo being three notable exceptions, but all three of the aforementioned youngsters can become top keepers even at their young ages. Miguel Delaney wrote a fascinating article on this issue and pointed out that whilst few keepers can become world class early on, he uses the example of Victor Valdes as a keeper who wasn’t a great keeper straight away but with faith and a run in the first team, he has become one of the world’s finest. It is debateable whether such leeway will be granted to De Gea at United, with demanding fans and a brutal media ready to leap on any error he makes, however, under Sir Alex Ferguson he will be given every chance. Some even subscribe to the theory in some quarters than the recent media revelations that De Gea was to be dropped against Bolton came from the club in a move to show support for the Spaniard. Sir Alex’s reaction to questions about whether Anders Lindegaard would overthrow De Gea shows just how determined he is to support his big money signing. De Gea may be a flop at United but I seriously doubt it. His talent is not in question, the main problem being his mentality. However, Sid Lowe says his mental strength is a major attribute and when I asked Athletico Madrid fan blogger Gareth Nunn on the excellent Madrid Athleticos site about his thoughts on De Gea’s chances, he was confident. He emphasised that United’s new keeper was both very confident whilst remaining grounded, a seemingly recurring theme from anyone who speaks of him.

James Ducker’s phrase will long be remembered but it matters not whether “De Gea looks like a school-kid who has won a competition to keep goal for United”. What matters is whether he plays like it.

By Diarmaid Hill (Follow on Twitter)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

United vs Leeds Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United avenged the FA Cup loss they suffered in January 2010 by strolling to a 3-0 win over a very poor Leeds side.  A brace from Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs’ eleventh League Cup goal for United ensured safe progress in to the fourth round.  The Reds barely had to get out of second gear and had the luxury of finishing the game with ten men after debutant Ezekiel Fryers had to leave the game early with what looked like a calf injury. 

When the teams were released few could have predicted the match would have been so easy.  The starting line up comprised of four strikers, four midfielders and two defenders. It was something akin to a game of Football Manager.  However, we should know by now that more often than not Sir Alex gets it right and tonight he was spot on.  He was able to completely rest our only fit first choice defenders ahead of Stoke on Saturday.  This meant a debut for Zeki Fryers who partnered Michael Carrick in central defence with Ben Amos getting the nod ahead of Lindegaard between the sticks.  Owen, Diouf and Macheda all made their first appearances of the season in an extremely attacking front six.

Fears that this team could be exploited by a Leeds side who would surely be up for the occasion were soon dispelled when Owen gave United a 14th minute lead.  After good inter play from Giggs, Berbatov and Park, the latter fed Owen in the box who wrong footed the defender before slotting home.  In truth, Leeds were unlucky not to take the lead before this as they seen shots blocked three times in quick succession.  It was the only occasion they threatened in the first half before Ferguson’s men, led by a supreme Giggs cameo, asserted their authority on the game.  Owen doubled the lead with a sweet strike after good work from Diouf down the right hand side.  Valencia was unlucky not to make it three when he slid a shot past the post after being played in by Owen before Giggs did make it three on the stroke of half time and all but ended the game as a contest.  He played a short corner to Park and when he got the return pass, he squared up his man, nutmegged him, sped past him like he was still 21 then hit a shot with the outside of his left boot which took a deflection before ending up in the back of the net.

It was a sublime first half performance from United and the 3-0 scoreline did not flatter the visitors.  The Reds seen out an uneventful second half and gave debuts to Paul Pogba and Larnell Cole in the process.  All in all it was a successful night with many positives and few negatives.  Sir Alex will be happy to see his side get through to the fourth round unscathed and put Leeds in their place in the process.  The draw for the fourth round will be made on Saturday afternoon.

Post Match Debate

Debut boys: Fryers, Pogba and Cole
All the pre match talk was about the imminent debut of Paul Pogba. Many felt he would start the game but as I pointed out in my preview, I thought he would start on the bench.  He duly did and a surprise debut was handed to Ezekiel Fryers.  Maybe it should have been less as a surprise given our defensive situation but it was pleasing to see Sir Alex put faith in the 19 year old.  To be fair to Zeki it was just rewards for his impressive pre season form.  He has been excellent at the heart of the reserves defence at a time when his defensive colleagues were dropping like flies through injury.  He continued this form in to this game and was excellent from the first whistle until he had to depart 10 minutes early through injury.  Although rarely tested by a toothless Leeds front line, he coped with everything that came his way.  He won almost all his aerial duels, read the play well, showed excellent pace and his distribution was spot on.  The only time I think he misplaced a pass was when he tried an ambitious 60 yard cross field ball.  He should be pleased with his first team bow and expect further opportunities in the Carling Cup and possibly other competitions this season if he keeps up his current form.

Paul Pogba entered the fray at the start of the second half, coming on for the mercurial Giggs.  The first thing to say is Pogba is one for the future, not the present.  All those calling for his inclusion in the first team right now need to calm down. He isn’t ready just yet and tonight proved it.  That’s not to say he had a bad game but it was clear he still has a lot to learn at this level, something which has got to be expected.  Without showing flashes of his undoubted talent, he played sensibly most of the time which was more pleasing to see. He kept the balling moving and moved with it, always looking to receive it from whoever was in possession.  He was caught a couple of times and played some poor passes but he always held his hands up and acknowledged his mistakes.  He is a man amongst boys in youth football but he is still a boy amongst men at this level.  We should be happy and content at these brief cameos for now.

Larnell Cole was the third debutant of the night, getting a run out ahead of Tom Thorpe, Michael Keane and Reece Brown who would have all been looking to get some minutes too.  No doubt one of them would have had Cole not been brought on before Fryers succumbed to his injury.  Nevertheless, Cole buzzed about the pitch in his brief time on it. He wasn’t that involved but had the audacity to backheel the ball to Valencia with a Leeds player in close proximity.  He is another for the future and could benefit from United’s progress in this competition.

Kiko Macheda: Where art thou?
Kiko, Kiko, Kiko. The memories of you turning on a sixpence and curling in to the far corner are getting more and more distant with every passing performance.  Of course it doesn’t help when he is shunted out wide.  He isn’t a winger, you can’t even get away with playing him out there like you can with Welbeck and Diouf. However, this does not excuse his ineptitude at carrying out the basics.  His passing was awful, he couldn’t make a simple 10 yard pass inside to Giggs. He took too many touches on the ball when a simple pass was on.  His decision making was poor and his link up play was non-existent.  His all round offensive game was terrible.  If I could pick out one positive it was his work rate, he got up and down the left flank most of the night and helped out Fabio at left back but you’d struggle to find another positive.  You can’t question his desire or his thirst to be a United player but he needs to start performing and taking these kinds of opportunities or he could find himself surplus to requirements.

The curious case of Ryan Giggs
Once again the Welsh Wizard turned back the clock and put in a performance that belies his advancing years.  You wouldn’t think he was approaching 38 years of age and in (all probability) the final season of his career.  He continues to make his opponents look foolish with his quick change of direction and burst of pace over 5 yards.  His performance was a master class and the youngsters on the bench should have been paying close attention to a player who has won it all in club football.  His goal capped off a superb first half cameo before he made way at the interval.  It was disappointing he went off and was probably the main reason we didn’t score in the second half as every move in the first 45 minutes went through the Welshmen.  It is performances like this we need to savour as the curtain comes down on his glittering career. Appreciate what we still have as it won’t be round for much longer.

Player Ratings:
Amos 7, Valencia 7, Carrick 7, Fryers 8, Fabio 7, Diouf 6, Park 7, Giggs 8, Macheda 5, Owen 7, Berbatov 6. Subs: Pogba 6, Welbeck 5, Cole 5

By Mick Higgins (Follow Mick on Twitter)

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

History repeating? Could Man United win their first ten games?

Manchester United's perfect start to the new season with five wins out of five has brought back memories of the class of 1985/86 under the guidance of Ron Atkinson who opened the season with ten straight wins without the distraction of a European campaign. The tragic scenes at Heysel meant that beating Everton in the 1985 FA Cup final did not lead onto a fight for the Cup Winners Cup.

Wind the clock back 26 years and I was merely an excitable nine year old whose sole method of keeping up to date with the latest scores was via Radio 2 on a Saturday afternoon and the dulcet tones of Peter Jones and Bryon Butler. This was then supplemented by Final Score on Grandstand where the famous vidiprinter made an appearance with either Bob Wilson or Des Lynam navigating their way round the day's games. Of course, this was the time before real football began (according to Sky and the advent of the Premier League!) and there was no Soccer Saturday or late live game to round off the afternoon. In fact, there was no live football at all in 1985 as contract talks had broken down over plans for a deal worth £19 million across a four year period. When you think of the multi-billion pound deals now being signed world-wide by the Premier League, this emphasises the huge shift in demand for our national sport. This television blackout meant that United's historic start to the season went completely under the radar in terms of coverage on the box and when a deal finally was secured, just six matches were shown live until the end of the season! Fast forward to 2011/12 and Sky will show that number across a couple of weekends! If you would like to read more about the 1985 TV blackout, please click here for an excellent article from the Independent.

Having secured the FA Cup after Big Norman's curling effort at Wembley soared past Neville Southall, hopes were high as Big Ron looked forward to the new season and the holy grail of a first league championship for 19 years. The United squad had quality throughout with the likes of Robson, Whiteside, McGrath and Strachan and an emerging talent in Mark Hughes whose electric form would tail off once details of a move to Barcelona in the following summer emerged.

The details of those opening ten matches are shown below:

Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia
Big Ron Atkinson
Confidence grew from the opening day defeat of Villa at Old Trafford as a record of 27 goals scored and just three conceded meant that the United faithful were starting to believe that their long wait for league success since 1967 was coming to an end. However, the following match against Luton ended in a disappointing draw and the season began to unravel. The next ten games saw just four wins and although United remained top of the league until early February, the momentum was lost and the promise of such success slipped away. The final 32 games brought just 12 victories as the team limped across the line in 4th spot. The title was won by bitter rivals Liverpool who triumphed for the 16th time in their history with this one under player-manager Kenny Dalglish. How times change as United are now looking toward their 20th this season and Liverpool have only won two more league titles and none for the last 20 years. The failed quest for the league championship ultimately led to the sacking of Ron Atkinson and the appointment of Alex Ferguson in November 1986 and the rest, as they say, is history!

The challenge facing the present side is undoubtedly greater than that of their predecessors 26 years ago. The added burden of European football, greater squad depth of their rivals, frequent international breaks among other things mean that if the current crop ascertain ten straight victories it will be a fine achievement. I would also suggest that the ten fixtures faced by United at the start of this season is their toughest to date in the Premier League era. After overcoming the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea, they will face Liverpool (A), Manchester City (H) and Everton (A) in their 8th, 9th and 10th fixtures. If they come unscathed through these, then it will be difficult to see past United for a record 20th title unless widespread complacency rears its head. As this is something that does not even feature in the vocabulary of the management team at Old Trafford, one would expect a relentless march towards the finishing line.

There have been enough signs in these opening five league fixtures to suggest that despite the free flowing football they have displayed that they will come unstuck at some point along the way towards that magic ten victory mark. A moment of luck from the opposition is all it takes for the achievement to be consigned to history yet you get the feeling that such a setback will not derail this current squad to quite the same extent that it did to the talented players who graced the Old Trafford turf 26 years ago.

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Monday, 19 September 2011

United vs Chelsea Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United continued their 100% start to the season with a less than convincing victory over an impressive Chelsea side.  Both sides served up the game of the season thus far in a match that will be remembered for a horror miss from Fernando Torres rather than the sublime attacking football that was on show.  A game, which was also littered with mistakes, was settled by goals from Smalling, Nani and Rooney but in truth the scoreline could have been anything had both sides taken the gilt edged chances that were created.

United went in to the game, once again, without Rio Ferdinand. The 32 year old missed out due to another niggling calf injury that must place further doubts over his long term future at the club. There was a time when fans would have been worried at his absence but the emergence of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling this season has laid rest to those fears. The former again deputised admirably at the centre of defence alongside Jonny Evans with Smalling slotting in at right back. The other selection headache Sir Alex had ahead of the game was who to partner with Anderson in central midfield. Fletcher got the nod and he was a welcome returnee to the side.

Chelsea started the game brightly but United took the lead through Chris Smalling after he converted a delicious Ashley Young free kick with a simple header.  The Blues should have at least been level the time Nani doubled the lead with a quite breath taking strike.  First Ramires missed an open goal on the stretch and then Torres screwed wide after being gifted the ball by Anderson.  Wayne Rooney seemingly put the game beyond Chelsea before half time when he tapped in following a surging run from Phil Jones.  However, Chelsea hit back immediately after the restart when Torres showed class is permanent with a sublime chipped finish over De Gea’s left shoulder.

United held on to their 3-1 advantage to go two points clear at the top of the table after Manchester City dropped points at Craven Cottage earlier in the day.  Next up for the Reds is Leeds in the third round of the Carling Cup before making the short trip down the M6 to face Stoke.

Post Match Debate

Goal analysis: Offside?
United took a 2-0 lead thanks, in part, to two offside calls that went their way.  Firstly, Chris Smalling strayed ahead of the last Chelsea defender before getting on the end of Young’s sublime cross.  It was fractional but he was offside.  It was a tough call for the linesman to make with so many bodies on the edge of the 18 yard box.  Chelsea will feel aggrieved but they should also look at their slack defending.  Lampard was the man charged with marking Smalling but he looked lost when a little bit of movement allowed the 21 year old to escape his attentions and have a free header.  Even if Smalling had let it go, Evans, who was onside, was lurking behind to slot home.  It was terribly slack marking from Chelsea who were duly punished for not picking up their men and having such a high line from the free kick.

The second goal from Nani was an equally tight decision for the linesman to make.  The Portuguese winger was making his way back from an offside position when Evans sent a raking cross field pass over to the right wing.  When Nani collected the ball he was 5 yards onside making it appear like he was never offside.  It was only when the replays were shown that it came to light he was, like Smalling, fractionally offside when the ball was played.  However, like the first goal Chelsea must look at their own poor defending. As Nani brought the ball forward, Mata hung a leg out as a token gesture for a tackle.  When he skipped past that challenge, no Blue shirt came to close him down quick enough and he unleashed a ferocious strike in to the top corner.

Chelsea contributed to their own downfall but will feel hard done by as both goals were offside. However, United will feel these decisions go some way to making up for the decisions they have been on the wrong side off in recent years against the Blues.

Nani – Man of the Match
Luis Nani turned in his best performance of the season, as many around him turned in their weakest, and deservedly claimed the man of the match award.  He was exceptional from start to finish and Ashley Cole must have been glad when Phil Dowd blew for full time. He teased, tormented and dominated the England left back in a way few others can claim to have done.  He jinked past Cole time and again, sucking him in with close control and skill on the ball before bursting away with explosive pace.  In one particularly pleasing incident in the second half, he nutmegged Cole who was left sitting on the ground as Nani sped away up the right wing.  It was great play from a player who was full of confidence following his stunning first half goal.

He has always had to contend with the Ronaldo comparisons and questions of him living in his shadow.  The following stat was wheeled out after the game and has been repeated to death but it is nonetheless fascinating. In his first 100 Premier League games, Ronaldo scored 19 goals and had 12 assists. Yesterday was Nani’s 100th Premier League game and he has also scored 19 goals but has 21 more assists.  Yes Nani is older than what Cristiano was but it is still great to see the contribution he has made to the team when so many people have doubted him.  He’s had a quiet start to the season but announced his arrival yesterday.  Now he has to kick on and produce more performances like that.

Rooney and Torres: Slips and misses
Wayne Rooney will thank Fernando Torres for taking the spotlight off him after the Spaniards horror miss late in the game.  Prior to the Chelsea forwards sitter, Rooney had done his best John Terry impression by slipping as he struck the penalty awarded after Bosingwa was adjudged to have fouled Nani in the box.  If that wasn’t bad enough, he then fluffed his lines when ten yards from goal and scuffed a shot on to the post with only Cech to beat.  It was two awful moments for the Premier Leagues top scorer who was debuting his new Nike boots.  Maybe you should have stuck with the ones that had served you so well in the opening 4 league games, eh Wayne?

Nevertheless, Rooney’s blushes were saved by one of the most remarkable misses you are ever likely to see.  As Torres rounded De Gea and faced an empty goal, every United fan feared the remaining seven minutes.  It was already tense but with the scoreline at 3-2 and less than 10 minutes to go, it was going to be excruciating.  Those fears were to be allayed when Torres proceeded to screw the ball wide with the goal at his mercy.  Forget Ronnie Rosenthal, this miss was worse.  It will be played over and over and over again.  It will be in every bloopers DVD and video reel in the world.  It’s a miss he’ll want to forget but one he will never be allowed to forget.

Cole on Hernandez: Penalty? Red Card?
The other main talking point from the game, aside from Torres’ shocking miss, is the reckless challenge from Ashley Cole on Javier Hernandez.  As the ball rebounded off the post from Rooney’s scuffed effort, Hernandez struck a shot from a tight angle before crumpling in a heap screaming in pain.  Cole had obviously caught the little Mexican as he lunged in to block the shot.  The replays showed the challenge was lot more dangerous than on first viewing.  Phil Dowd was called over by his linesman who had spotted the incident and presumably instructed Dowd the challenge merited a booking but not a penalty as the ball was already out of play.

Cole was lucky to escape with just a booking, it was a red card challenge but I think he genuinely went to block the ball and didn’t intend to hurt Hernandez.  It was a lunge and it was high but it’s a natural challenge when you are diving in to block a shot.  It does not excuse the challenge but I don’t think he should be vilified for it.  Hernandez will be lucky to escape without serious injury but it was a good sign he was able to walk down the tunnel. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed he is only out for weeks rather than months.

Player Ratings:
De Gea 7, Smalling 7, Jones 7, Evans 7, Evra 6, Nani 9, Anderson 6, Fletcher 7, Young 6, Rooney 6, Hernandez 6.  Subs: Valencia 7, Carrick 6, Berbatov 6.

By Mick Higgins (Follow Mick on Twitter)

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United vs Leeds Carling Cup Preview

Manchester United resumes its fierce rivalry with Leeds United on Tuesday night in an eagerly anticipated Carling Cup third round clash.  With Leeds decline in recent years, these clashes are no longer common occurrences on the calendar and so fans, and players alike, will relish the chance to lock horns again.  The Reds will be looking to avenge a 1-0 loss they suffered at the hands of their bitter rivals in an FA Cup third round tie in January 2010.  A hostile atmosphere will await at Elland Road with Leeds fans sure to remind Ferguson and his men of that famous win.

United will go in to the game in high spirits and full of confidence after having their best ever start to a season under Sir Alex Ferguson.  Five wins on the bounce in the Premier League and a credible draw away at Benfica in the Champions League has seen the Reds impress all observers with their attacking intent and fluid play.  It would be easy to be complacent ahead tomorrow night after this start but after suffering that humiliation 20 months ago, Ferguson will want to make sure there is no repeat this time. 

The Opposition
Simon Grayson will hope to continue his Leeds revival with another famous win over the Reds.  After gaining promotion in 2009/2010 from League One, he narrowly missed out on guiding Leeds to the Championship play offs last season; falling short by only three points.  Grayson has continued to evolve his side to take them back to the top tier of English football and that is why the Leeds squad to face United will contain only 3 starters from the FA Cup game in 2010.

The hero of that day, Jermaine Beckford, moved on to Everton before winding up at Leicester this season.  He has been replaced by Ross McCormack who will hope to emulate Beckford and continue his current goal scoring form on Tuesday night.  The young Scot could be partnered up front by last season’s top scorer Luciano Becchio.  The Argentine hitman recently returned from a 5 month layoff by scoring in his first appearance of the season against Crystal Palace then setting up McCormack for the winner at the weekend in his second appearance.  These telling contributions could see him get his first start of the season ahead of Andy Keogh and Mikael Forssell.

Leeds will look to outfight United once again and that could see the deployment of midfield “hard man” Michael Brown in the centre of the park.  I use the term hard man loosely as some may refer to him as nothing more than a thug.  He became a hate figure with United fans after a horrendous tackle on Ryan Giggs in 2006. However, this is a game he will relish and his battling qualities are exactly what Leeds will need if they are to get a result.

Stat Zone by Rahul Singh (Follow Rahul on Twitter)
  • Manchester Utd & Leeds have met 106 times in their long history. Manchester United have 45 wins, Leeds have 26 wins & 35 matches ending level.
  • Leeds and Manchester United have met four times in the League Cup, with United coming out victorious on all four occasions & scoring nine goals.
  • Man Utd & Leeds have not met in this competition since 2003 when David Bellion, Diego Forlan and Eric Djemba-Djemba won the game for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
  • The two sides last met in January 2010 when Leeds surprised United with a 1-0 victory in the FA Cup third round at Old Trafford
  • Elland Road is a happy hunting ground for Manchester United. We have won 5 out of their last 10 visits to Leeds.
  • Leeds  have only won twice in the fixture against United at Elland Road in the last 15 years.
  • This season Leeds at home have won three out of four games.


The League Cup has always been a breeding ground for United’s youngsters and this year Sir Alex has once again highlighted some up and coming Reds that could feature in this seasons competition.  Paul Pogba, Will and Michael Keane, Zeki Fryers, Larnell Cole and Jesse Lingard were all mentioned as possible United debutants this year but that was before the draw was made.  When Leeds came out the hat, I’m sure that plan was revised and Tuesday’s game may prove too important an occasion to blood the young lads.
Nevertheless, the squad will need to be rotated.  The game comes 48 hours after a tough encounter with Chelsea and I’m sure Sir Alex will have one eye on an equally difficult game away at Stoke on Saturday afternoon.  That is why it is unlikely players like Rooney, Nani, Young and Anderson will feature tomorrow.  

Even without such important players, United will be able to field an experienced and strong side with the likes of Valencia, Park, Owen and Berbatov vying for a place in the starting line up.
The one area where United may have to field some youngsters is in defence.  There is somewhat of a defensive crisis on our hands at the minute with Vidic and Rafael still out, Rio struggling with a calf injury and Smalling coming off at the weekend with a groin injury.  We are left with only four fit first team defenders although Rio may make it back in to the squad as he had trained before the Chelsea game, just not enough to be considered.  Michael Keane and Zeki Fryers could come in to the reckoning for at least a place on the bench. Reece Brown may also fancy his chances after starring at the under-20 World Cup for England in the summer.  Nonetheless, I’d be surprised if any of them started and I’d expect Sir Alex to go with his four first team defenders.

The one player all United fans will want to see in action is Paul Pogba.  Quotes emerging from Sir Alex today say he intends to play him but that does not mean he intends to start him.  I refuse to get giddy at the thought of him starting as I still feel he’ll have to settle for a place on the bench.  I do hope I am wrong though.  Experience and guile will be needed in the centre of the pitch to combat a possible midfield triumvirate from Leeds especially when one of those three could be the aforementioned Michael Brown.  I’d expect more game time to be given to Carrick and Giggs.  Both have started one game so far this season and have only played 184 minutes and 160 minutes respectively.  Tomorrow night’s game provides the perfect opportunity for them to get more minutes under their belts.

Without question, the starting XI for this game has been the hardest to predict so far this season.  I believe the formation will be a straightforward 4-4-2 although we could go 4-5-1 if Pogba starts to offer him a little more protection.

Predicted bench: Amos, M.Keane, Ferdinand, Fryers, Pogba, Macheda, Diouf

Scoreline Prediction
Like the team, the scoreline is equally tough to predict.  I’ll be happy to get out of the game with a victory and no injuries but if we do blood a few youngsters and manage a draw I will be equally as pleased.  Being positive I’ll go with a 2-0 victory for the Reds.

By Mick Higgins (Follow Mick on Twitter)

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Saturday, 17 September 2011

United vs Chelsea Big Match Preview

Manchester United return to league action on Sunday when they welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford looking to extend their 100% record. The Reds go into the game off the back of a midweek draw in Lisbon in the Champions League where the team was rotated for the first time this season. With 18 goals in their first four matches in the league, United will be full of confidence against a Chelsea side who have dropped just two points so far without being entirely convincing.

An opening day draw against Stoke has been followed by wins against West Brom, Norwich and Sunderland. Despite their lengthy pursuit of Luka Modric across the summer, new manager Andre Villas Boas had to contend himself with the creative midfield addition of Raul Meireles on transfer deadline day. Their most high profile signing was Juan Mata from Valencia who will add undoubted craft and guile to an ageing squad. Romelu Lukaku arrived from Anderlecht and will surely take the place of his hero Drogba at some stage in the next few years.

The Opposition
Villas Boas arrived from Porto in the summer with a reputation for being a keen student of the game following analysis roles under José Mourinho. A season of great success put the 33 year old to the top of many a chief executive's wishlist but it was Roman Abramovich who took the plunge and placed his faith in the charismatic Portuguese manager. Stability at Stamford Bridge is what is needed after a conveyor belt of bosses has seen the squad remain in tact but undoubtedly fail to improve to any great extent.

The biggest conundrum facing the Chelsea management is how to get the best out of Fernando Torres following his move from Liverpool in January. The £50m striker has scored just once for Chelsea since the move and has thus far looked a long way from the player that many were hailing as the premier striker in world football just a few years previously. The astute capture of compatriot Mata will no doubt assist in this quest but whether he can go onto regain his form is another matter entirely.

The failed pursuit of Modric was a blow to the Chelsea hierarchy as midfield invention has been a weakness at the club for a couple of seasons. While Meireles is a quality squad player, he does not possess the defence unlocking capability of the Croatian and it remains to be seen where he fits into the team when everyone is fit.

Neutral observers have been commenting on the ageing nature of the squad for a few seasons now yet they still remain competitive in each competition they take part in. Whether this turns out to be a season too far for the likes of Terry and Lampard remains to be seen but they will surely still be a major force once more this year.

Statzone compiled by Rahul Singh:
  • The last three Premier League meetings between Chelsea and United all ended 2-1 as did the last meeting in the Champions League.
  • If United beat Chelsea, it will be our 5th straight win & the best start in the League campaign since 1985.
  • Chelsea have earned 22 points from 19 Premier League visits to Old Trafford, six points better than any other club.
  • Chelsea are looking to avoid a fourth successive defeat against United in all competitions. United won four of our five meetings last season.
  • The Blues have only kept one clean sheet in our last eight Premier League games - at Stoke on the opening day of the season.
  • United are looking for an 18th successive Premier League win at Old Trafford
  • The last occasion United dropped points at Old Trafford was in the 2-2 draw against West Brom on 16 October last year
  • Since Chelsea beat us in April 2010 we have won 22 and drawn one of the home league games and are unbeaten there in 34 games in all competitions.
  • Chelsea have won five times at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, more often than any other team
  • United have averaged fewer points per game at home against Chelsea than against any other opponent (1.47)

Tactical Thoughts
The key to games between these two is often found out wide. United will look to Ashley Young to continue his fine form up against the defensively weak Boswinga while Nani will look to make a similar impact on Ashley Cole as Valencia made in the corresponding fixture last season. With Evra looking dangerous when he makes breaks into the opposition's half, the Reds will look to isolate Boswinga who will need assistance from Sturridge, a role that he has not shown he is capable of thus far.

The other main battle ground will be in central midfield where United will likely go in with a two man selection of Carrick and Anderson up against Chelsea's standard triumvirate of recent seasons. This has proved a successful tactic in the three most recent match ups between the teams (2 Champions League and 1 Premier League) as the Reds swift passing and stretching of the Chelsea team has ultimately led to success. If Mikel plays as the sitting midfielder then once again, I would expect Rooney to station himself in his area and deny him the time and space he is usually afforded. The Nigerian can be easily put off his game when placed under pressure as he lacks the necessary ball skills and awareness to cope.

The swift and fluid style that has epitomised the fast start United have made to the season could well turn out to be another crucial area. The likes of Terry, Alex and Ivanovic are all slow on the turn and the manager will look to Hernández to unsettle them at every opportunity as he looks to run in behind. The Chelsea back four will be unable to play the high line they are accustomed to doing against more pedestrian sides and this should create plenty of space in which the highly rated front four can work their magic.

From the away side's point of view, they will look to use the space that has been noticeable between the Reds defence and midfield in the early weeks of the season as a source for applying their own stamp on the game. Pressure on the opposition when in sight of goal has been lacking at times for a while now and this is an area that may well be punished very soon if it is not resolved. This was amply demonstrated in the Champions League Final against Barcelona and also in the pre-season friendly between the two in America.


In my opinion, there are two main areas of contention in the United line up for Sunday's game. Firstly in defence where Rio Ferdinand will surely slot back into the side after being left behind for the midweek trip to Lisbon. His partner though, is open to question. Smalling, Evans and Jones are the three under consideration and to be honest all of them would be acceptable to the vast majority of knowledgeable United fans. Phil Jones is my pick based purely on his wonderful start to life at United almost demanding a starting place. Chris Smalling would then slot in at right back with Jonny Evans dropping to the bench. It is entirely conceivable that Evans and Ferdinand will resume their partnership from the Bolton game last weekend with Jones at right back but I just get the feeling that Ferguson will want Jones in his customary role in the centre.

The other conundrum is the identity of Anderson's midfield partner. Michael Carrick would appear the favourite with Darren Fletcher a close second. However, the Scotsman is still feeling his way back to full fitness after his debilitating virus so I will go for Carrick to be the more defensive minded of the two. Arguments could be made for the selection of Giggs and Park after recent wonderful displays against this opposition but I see them best served on the bench ready to make an impression if the need arises.

For me the front four pick themselves. Although the return in midweek of Antonio Valencia was heartening and will add depth to the squad in the wide areas, it will be a few weeks before he achieves full match fitness.

The outside bet would be that the manager goes for a 4-5-1 formation to match up Chelsea in the central area of the pitch. While this is a possibility, I see no reason to disrupt the attacking force that we have seen in the opening weeks of the season devastate almost every defence. A more defensive formation sends out the wrong message rather than simply sending out our best available team and backing it to prevail.

Scoreline Prediction
For all the reasons listed above, I am very confident of victory in this match tomorrow. I feel that our high intensity and speed in the attacking third will prove too much for the likes of Terry and his colleagues to cope with. Although Chelsea will be a threat, I have faith in David De Gea and his team mates to snuff out any away team threat to see the Reds through to a comfortable 2-0 victory. On the scoresheet will be Young and Anderson.

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Do you agree with my predictions above? Would you go with Evans ahead of Jones in the centre of defence? Would you be happier with Fletcher alongside Anderson in the midfield? Please leave your comments below and I will respond to each one.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

United vs Benfica Champions League Preview

Manchester United kick off their quest for a fourth Champions League crown with a tricky opening fixture against Benfica in the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. The squad will be in fine spirits after a wonderful start to the season has seen the Reds win every game thus far.

The beginning of the Champions League group phase sees the fixtures begin to come thick and fast and Sir Alex Ferguson will need all his experience to guide the squad through the busy schedule whilst maintaining the expected high levels of performance. In many ways, this is a good time for this fixture to arise as there are players that could do with a game but have been unable to force their way into the team due to the terrific results achieved thus far.

As ever the manager will look towards the magic figure of ten points which usually guarantees progression into the next round. Being able to reach this haul after four games allows the squad to be rotated for the final two matches at a busy time of the season.

The travelling squad left Manchester this morning without Rio Ferdinand who will be saved for this Sunday's clash against Chelsea. Other absentees were to be expected as Vidic, Rafael, Cleverley and Welbeck are currently on the injured list. It could be an important game for the likes of Fletcher and Valencia who need some match practice after returning from illness and injury respectively along with Carrick, Giggs, Berbatov and Park who have been relegated to the bench in the opening weeks of the season.

The Opposition
Jorge Jesus took over from Quique Sánchez Flores in June 2009 and had done well to cope with the loss of star players such as Di Maria, Luiz, Ramires and Coentrao and still remaining competitive in the Portuguese top division. March 2010 brought Jesus his first piece of silverware for the Lisbon club as they crushed rivals  Porto 3-0 to win the League Cup. They were crowned champions in May as Cardozo finished top scorer with 26 goals. Their Champions League campaign ended prematurely the next season as they finished third in their group and were eliminated from the Europa League at the semi final stage by Braga. A disappointing campaign was rounded off by finishing second to Porto in the league with their rivals finishing a massive 21 points ahead under the stewardship of Andre Villas Boas.

This season has started well as they sit second in the table with a record of three wins and a draw from the opening four fixtures. There is plenty of talent within the squad with the likes of Luisao, Garay and Capdevilla in defence, Gaitan, Witsel and Aimar in the midfield and the threat of Saviola and Cardozo up front. Although they are not to be feared they must be respected as it will be a tough proposition for United to leave Lisbon with all three points.

They reached the group stages of this year's competition by defeating FC Twente 5-2 on aggregate and warmed up for their game with United by beating Guimaraes 2-1 at the weekend. This game was notable for the fact that Benfica were awarded three first half penalties with two converted by Cardozo and the other hitting the bar and rebounding out to safety.

Dangerman - Óscar Cardozo:
  • aged 28, wears the number seven shirt and is a Paraguay international
  • Has scored 72 goals in 109 appearances for Benfica
  • Was purchased from Newell's Old Boys in 2007 for a fee of €9.2 million
  • Is a free kick specialist and is also the penalty taker for Benfica
  • Has scored eight goals for Paraguay in 40 appearances
  • Has a wonderful total career record of 173 goals in 264 games


This is a very difficult team to pick as the manager will surely have one eye on Sunday's clash at Old Trafford against Chelsea. With only five defenders making the trip to Lisbon, I feel it will be Fábio that misses out although you could quite easily make a case for him starting at right back in place of Smalling. It appears that both Evans and Evra have shaken off the knocks they picked up on Saturday. Lindegaard will most likely remain on the bench until next week's Carling Cup game at Elland Road.

Darren Fletcher completed both of Scotland's games last week so I think we may well see him in central midfield alongside the resurgent Anderson although you could quite easily argue that a three man midfield could be employed with either Carrick or Giggs joining these two. Ashley Young has had a frenetic start to his United career and I feel this is a perfect opportunity to give him a break. I would expect Park to be picked with the instructions to tuck in and help out in the centre when required. Nani should keep his place on the right in his homeland and will no doubt have to endure some abuse as he played for Benfica's rivals Sporting Lisbon. Although Valencia is now fit, I would think it is likely he will come on as a second half substitute to ease him back into the fray.

Rooney is playing so well currently that he almost demands selection despite reservations about his workload. He is the type of player that thrives on games so I would have no issue with him being selected with the promise of  a break next week. Although Hernández returned to the starting lineup against Bolton, this games provides an opportunity to give Berbatov a game in the less frenetic environment of the Champions League.

Scoreline prediction
I think this will prove to be a very tricky match for United as the home crowd will be vociferous in the early stages and the Reds may have to withstand a barrage of pressure. If they can come through this and then impose their style of football on the opposition then I can see no reason why United will not prevail by a score of 2-1 with goals from Anderson and Park. This is a slight change from my prediction made last night in the latest episode of our podcast when I went for a draw but optimism has overcome me this morning so I have amended by prediction!

You can listen to our preview of the Benfica match along with a review of Bolton by clicking the play button below:

Episode Eight- Can They Score- Man Utd Podcast by Can They Score Podcast

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What are your team and score predictions for the game on Wednesday, please leave them in the comments section below.

Man United podcast #8 - Bolton, Benfica, Jones and Rooney

Episode 8 of our podcast discussing the Bolton game, previewing Benfica and all things United.

Episode Eight- Can They Score- Man Utd Podcast by Can They Score Podcast

Sunday, 11 September 2011

United vs Bolton Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United continued their relentless start to the Premier League season with a five goal victory over neighbours Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium. Rio Ferdinand was restored to the starting line-up with Chris Smalling given a break after his international exploits. Phil Jones was moved to right back, further emphasising his versatility with Hernández selected up front in place of Welbeck who is expected back in training next week after his hamstring injury picked up against Arsenal.

The Reds were soon into their stride with some slick passing although a heavy and late challenge by Davies saw Cleverley leave the pitch with a suspected broken foot. Hernández opened the scoring after a further example of his devastating movement left Cahill in no man's land as he met Nani's cross with a deft finish at the near post. Rooney soon trebled United's advantage with a brace that owed much to the quality of Jones from right back. His first came as a result of an excellent cross while the second was a close range finish after a mazy dribble from the ex Blackburn man.

The second half  was a comfortable affair for the Reds as they exhibited further fluent football adding goals from their deadly front pair giving Rooney back-to-back hat tricks and the little Mexican another to his burgeoning United tally.

De Gea and the defence were rarely troubled as the Bolton bombardment failed to materialise as class prevailed over honest toil.

United now move onto a Champions League opener against Benfica in Lisbon on Wednesday before all eyes turn to Old Trafford next Sunday when rivals Chelsea visit the new football capital of England. Without doubt the manager will rotate his squad with the emphasis on protecting his young talent for the league so I would expect an experienced side to be picked in midweek with the likes of Lindegaard, Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs, Park and Berbatov all likely to see some action. It would not surprise me to see Rooney and Young left at home bearing in mind their heavy workload in the early weeks of the season.

Post Match Debate:

Goal Analysis - Hernández
Javier Hernández returned to the goal trail with a brace against Bolton but it will be his opener that rightly gets spoken about the most. With any new player that has a wonderful debut season, the question of second season syndrome is mentioned but this was never going to be an affliction that affected our livewire striker. The reasons for this were amply demonstrated by the quality of his movement for his first goal. Gary Cahill is a defender of growing class for club and country but he experienced his own version of the Hokey Cokey as the little Mexican twisted him in and out in the build up to the goal. The camera shot from high up in the stand was a perfect example of why young strikers should look to emulate this skill. In reality, there was not much Cahill could have done to stop the goal unless he guessed correctly where Hernández was going to end up. He almost repeated the trick a short while before half time but was correctly adjudged offside. The quality of Nani's cross should also not be underestimated as it would have been easy to over hit or lay it back to the penalty spot for an onrushing support player.

Jones: Midfield Maestro?
Another majestic performance from our recent recruit from Blackburn in an unaccustomed position got me thinking post game about where he can best be utilised in the years to come. Although, he is earmarked to fill the role of centre back for the club, the more I see him, the more I feel it could be a waste of his supreme talent. For this reason, I feel he could emerge as a wonderful midfield maestro who can not only break up play but also supplement the attack with strong running and sound passing ability. In my mind, this sounds exactly the kind of player that United have been looking for over the last couple of years and with careful nurturing there is no reason why Jones cannot fill this void. It may take a few years before this comes to fruition as the youngster learns his trade in the back four but you get the feeling whatever challenge is placed in front of him, there is nothing to suggest that he cannot overcome any such obstacle.

The value of this to the club would be huge as this kind of player would command a large fee on the transfer market and the next few years gives the manager the chance to shape the role for the big youngster as he learns his trade.

De Gea Distribution
As mentioned earlier, De Gea had a relatively trouble free evening in the United goal despite morning rumours suggesting the manger was thinking of saving him from the Reebok experience. What stood out yesterday (not for the first time) was the quality of his distribution as back passes often resulted in him playing simple passes to available team mates rather than launching the ball upfield which would most likely end up back in the possession of the opposition with no target man to aim for. Quality with ball at the feet is now a pre-requisite for all United keepers and it could turn out that the young Spaniard will prove to be the best we have ever had in this department. Another notable moment was when he almost created a goal for Hernández with an accurate punt down field soon after the break. It demonstrates once more just how often a devastating attack can often begin from deep in a team's own half and ensures a defence can never rest easy.

Rooney - the big man is most definitely back!
The superlatives for the Croxteth born player are close to being used up in the early weeks of the season after another imperious display at the Reebok on Saturday. Quite simply, when Rooney plays well then so do both his club and country. He is the conductor and everything goes through him and when you add in such a significant goal threat then you have a potent threat that possibly only the likes of Messi and Ronaldo can match. The challenge for Rooney is perform to this level for a significant period of time (like his aforementioned contempories) to drive his team towards glory over the course of the season. What has also been noticeable this season is just how settled and content he appears. There has been little sign of the dissent or aggression that has often blighted his performances in recent years that it could be argued means he takes his eye of the ball. More than likely is that he has matured to a much higher level after all of his experiences in the last year or so and perhaps the added responsibility of fatherhood has poured some level of calm over this aspect of his character. While you would not want him to lose the fire in the belly, if he can keep it controlled then his focus remains on helping drive his team on rather than some presumed injustice. Whatever happens, it will be an exciting adventure watching Rooney continue his progress into the world class playmaker we all know he is capable of.

Other notable performances
Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were solid at the back yesterday as the booking for Davies seemed to quell his aggression and Klasnic did not possess the threat that he so often can. Anderson continued his wonderful start to the season with another classy display at the heart of the midfield. His passing was controlled and incisive while he pressed and harried to good effect. This new found confidence also means that he is beginning to take charge of the central area and boss things to such an extent that he is making himself one of the first names on the teamsheet. Consistency is now the key for the talented Brazilian but he cannot have done more to change many minds among the United faithful. Michael Carrick took over the midfield duties from Cleverley after his early exit and settled comfortably into his usual role with little fuss and quiet efficiency as would be expected. Ashley Young has had a busy couple of weeks and was relatively quiet yesterday but even so he worked hard and was always available for his team mates. Hernández and Rooney resumed their partnership that so lit up the climax to the season last year and it appears that they will cause plenty of havoc to opposition defences in the years to come. They dovetailed perfectly again with the Mexican playing on the shoulder of the last defender while Rooney floated all round the pitch causing havoc wherever he popped up. If they can stay fit, then there is a high chance of over 50 goals resulting from this partnership over the course of the season but the one caveat to this is the extent of rotation that could ensue as the season progresses.

Player Ratings:
De Gea 6, Jones 8, Ferdinand 7, Evans 6, Evra 6, Nani 7, Cleverley 6, Anderson 8, Young 6, Rooney 9, Hernández 7. Subs: Carrick 6, Giggs 7, Smalling 6.

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What are your thoughts on Phil Jones? Could he be our next midfield kingpin or would you keep him in defence?

How impressed were you by Hernández's movement for the first goal?

What are your thoughts on how De Gea is settling into United life?