Thursday, 27 October 2011

Blue moon rises but hardly the Damned United

Sunday was a sobering day for Manchester United and their fans. A defeat may not have been surprising given how poor we have been since Bolton (whilst Chelsea was hardly an awful performance, they were the better team and luck won us the day), a 6-1 thumping was beyond belief. There are, admittedly, some mitigating factors, Jonny Evans sending-off: which, by the way, does not make him a bad defender, he’s been excellent this season – but perhaps more significantly the United mentality. It would have been easy to sit back and accept a 3-1 defeat, hardly a disaster given we’d played nearly half the game with 10 men, but it’s not how we go about our business. We went for it and David Silva, the Premier League’s premium player by a distance, tore us to shreds, making it an embarrassing 6-1.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changing”. United are no longer comfortable in Manchester, in fact, many would consider City league favourites now. On top of that, most, myself included, would put more City players than United in a Manchester XI (my team, for those who care, Hart, Richards, Vidic, Kompany, Evra, De Jong, Toure, Silva, Young, Rooney, Aguero). However, if English football has learned one thing about Manchester United, it is to never write them off.

It isn’t hard to find positives for United. So far this season United have played 7 of the top 10 – and another one being ourselves – whilst City still have Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and even Stoke away to go. By New Years, there is every chance we will have caught City up and possibly even overtaking and then we can buy a centre midfielder (let me dream, I know it won’t happen) – with Javi Martinez, Yann M’Vila and Danielle De Rossi all possibilities who could be registered for the later stages of the Champions League, assuming United get there which is by no means a certainty if we keep playing with the same complacency that has marked our games since Bolton. On top of this, we are currently 5 points behind City, a concerning margin. Yet last season, we were 6th and 8 points behind – albeit with a game in hand. It is hardly the time to assume all is lost.

The main position of envy for United fans is City’s midfield. Their defence is no better than ours, the amount of goals conceded is more down to the shocking lack of cover from our midfield, with fans favourite Michael Carrick the only natural defensive midfielder in the squad who, by Sir Alex’s own admission, “doesn’t get going until later on in the season”. In between the sticks, Joe Hart is a better keeper than David De Gea at this point but by no means is it a massive gap. As for attack, Aguero and Rooney are their teams talismans up top, in the top 3 in the Prem with Arsenal’s brilliant Robin Van Persie, and City have startling options in the mercurial but brilliant Mario Balotelli and the inconsistent Edin Dzeko whose mood and confidence dictates whether he’s a Heskey or Drogba. However, in Welbeck, Chicharito, Berbatov and Owen, we aren’t exactly lacking ourselves. The midfields are, however, classes apart. This was a point emphatically proven when Samir Nasri trotted off the bench. A player who would start for United coming on as his team were walking over us 3-0. United are crying out for a Yaya Toure or a Nigel De Jong to cover our defence.

The sheer fact that Tom Cleverley has been missed as though he was Andres Iniesta tells a story in itself. “Chunks” is a fantastic talent, with massive potential but he’s not yet a world class player and in fact, if too much pressure is applied to him, it could end up seeing him not reach the levels he could. The other half of our midfield is our wingers, Nani and Ashley Young. Both are quality players who started brilliantly but have faded a tad, Young perhaps becoming predictable as he seems to forget how good his left foot is and instead always comes in onto his right. Nani, on his day, has the ability to be one of the world’s best. However, that day is all too rare. City, however, have Silva. A majestic player, currently the world’s third best (on form, I would still have him as fifth on ability, hardly a shame to be behind La Liga’s sensational foursome of Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi and Iniesta), he was given the freedom of Manchester and boy, did he take it. His pass for Edin Dzeko’s second was one of the most majestic you are likely to see, finding the Bosnian with laser precision on the half volley.

The question being asked now is how to go improving the midfield. There are those who advocate buying quick and some who think we shouldn’t, just to let Morrison, Pogba, Tunnicliffe and Cleverley advance. Whilst not wanting to get too much into it, the main danger is that, without investment, City could run away with Premier League titles, never mind European football. As the ever spot-on Samuel Luckhurst pointed out, United are no longer the third favourites in Europe, Bayern Munich overtaking them in that respect and that won’t change without quality in the centre of the park. Is it worth the risk to not buy and allow the youngsters the chance to shine when we don’t even know if they will be world class? The midfield one is the most pressing for United. Their manager, mentality and the quality they still possess mean United are still very much in the title race, if not the European one. But get the midfield question wrong and that might change. The Blue Moon may be Rising but the Damned United? Certainly not.

By Diarmaid Hill (Follow me on Twitter)

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Aldershot vs Manchester United Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United sauntered to a 3-0 win against Aldershot at The Recreation Ground to advance to the quarter finals of the Carling Cup and remain on course for a third final appearance in four years.  The scoreline was the same as the previous round and the game overall bore similarities too. We played a team in white at their place, controlled the first half, scored the goals to make it comfortable and played out the second half without much incident.  Michael Owen was once again on the scoresheet, making it three goals in two Carling Cup appearances this season. His goal was sandwiched between a Dimitar Berbatov strike and an Antonio Valencia thunderbolt.

The Reds fielded a second string XI, making three changes from the game against Leeds. In came Vidic, Cleverley and Jones with Giggs, Carrick and Macheda dropping out.  It meant a second start for Zeki Fryers who was deployed at left back with Fabio switching to right back and Valencia moving further up the field.  Paul Pogba had to make do with a place on the bench along with his fellow Reserve team mates.  He did enter the fray on the hour mark to make his second appearance for United.  Ravel Morrison, a 70th minute substitute, also made his second senior appearance almost a year to the day after he made his first against Wolves in the Carling Cup last season.  Michael Keane’s introduction along with Morrison made him the fourth United debutant in this year’s competition.

While it was pleasing to see the younger lads get their opportunity, this game was all about giving squad players minutes on the pitch.  As Sir Alex stated before the match, with the games starting to come thick and fast as we enter the winter months, it is imperative everyone is match fit and ready to go when called upon.  It is for that reason it was essential for Berbatov, Owen, Valencia, Park and Vidic to get 90 minutes.  Most pleasing of all though was the return of Tom Cleverley from injury.  He managed 60 minutes before being replaced by Pogba and will have played his way in to contention for a starting spot against Everton on Saturday.  He was involved heavily in the move which led to the first goal and also teed up Valencia to make it three just after half time.  He has become a greater player in his absence in many supporters’ eyes which places a heavy burden on the boy’s shoulders but we have missed his spark in midfield. Ferguson will see his return as a welcome boost after Sunday’s shambolic display and will be pleased overall at the result and the performance of the team. 

Post Match Analysis

Goals – Easy as 1,2,3
Aldershot were far from disgraced in this match and can hold their heads up high but they will be disappointed at the manner in which they lost the goals.  The first came in the fifteenth minute and it was like someone had rewound the tape back to the start of the season. Park played the ball in to Cleverley and continued his run in to the box before being found with a neat pass from the latter. The South Korean then slid the ball to Berbatov who took a touch before slotting home in to the far corner. The passing and movement in and around the box was excellent to watch. It’s exactly what has been missing from the Reds play since the Chelsea match and it was no coincidence that Cleverley was at the forefront of the move.  It does have to be taken in to context though, it was against a League Two defence but it was still pleasing to see that type of goal return to our play.

Picture courtesy of The Guardian
There wasn’t much the Shots could have done about the first goal to be fair but they will be desperately disappointed by the second goal which came five minutes before half time.  Owen dropped off to in to midfield to collect the ball, he turned and sent a raking 50 yard pass in behind the defence to Berbatov who ambled his way in to the box. He laid the ball on a plate to Owen who timed his run to perfection and made no mistake with the finish.  Owen’s run wasn’t picked up and the keeper could have done better with the shot but full credit to the ex-Liverpool man who started the move and showed the desire to get in the box and finish it.

The third goal came two minutes after the half time and killed off any faint hope Aldershot had of staging a miraculous comeback.  Cleverley collected the ball 25 yards from goal and spotted Valencia in acres of room to his right hand side. He laid the ball in to his path before the Ecuadorian took a touch and drilled an unstoppable shot past the helpless Warner.  The ball curled, swerved and dipped leaving the ‘keeper no chance.  It was a surprise to see Valencia take the shot on but it does show what he is capable of. 

Dimitar Berbatov – He’s still here
The enigmatic Bulgarian made only his third start of the season, his sixth appearance overall, and comfortably his best.  The sight of last season’s top scorer and a man who has more skill in his big toe than most have in their whole body appearing at The Recreation Ground against a mid table League Two side is akin to Mario Balotelli fronting a fireworks safety campaign – total madness... oh wait...right, anyway, never mind.  It’s testament to the man’s character that he didn’t grumble or moan but simply got on with the game and helped his team to victory.  Against Leeds he might as well have not been on the pitch but on Tuesday night he was involved in everything.  Touch, composure, vision, skill is what you come to expect from Berbatov and this game was no different.  But there was also a passion, a fighting spirit that saw him race back to win the ball or help out the midfield.  In truth it was just good to see him back out there.

He has kicked his heels on the bench for weeks as we have put in poor performance after poor performance but now might be the time for him to step up to the plate.  His movement, hold up play and intricate passing has been missing from the games were we have been below par.  Many feel the problem lies solely in central midfield but the front players have been substandard too and it might be time for something different.  He brings others in to the game and allows the midfield to get forward before building an attack. Yes, he sometimes slows the play down but we haven’t been playing the high tempo football we did at the start. It’s not clicking just now and a change is needed.  He was comfortably man of the match against Aldershot, and although it’s only Aldershot, it should give Ferguson something to think about. His only Premier League start came after the Leeds game and it may be that his second league starts comes against Everton this weekend. He can’t be ignored for much longer.

Morrison and Pogba – Is the future now?
As highlighted previously, Morrison and Pogba both made their second senior appearances for United tonight; the only disappointment being they were both off the bench rather than from the start.  In their brief cameos they showed glimpses of the undoubted potential they possess and why they are the future of Manchester United.  However, with the central midfield position being heavily criticised, the question remains are they ready now? The simple answer, and the correct one, is no. They still have a long way to go and people need to settle down and lower their expectations. Without raining on the parade or being too downbeat, they haven’t “made it” yet. Realism is needed.  Nevertheless, it would be unjust not to discuss the positives of both their cameos though and highlight the obvious potential that is there. 

Pogba once again showed he is a boy in a man’s body as he strolled around the pitch with ease but he also showed a maturity on the ball that belied his tender years.  He used it efficiently and kept it moving from one side of the pitch to the other.  He always made himself available for the ball and didn’t shirk responsibility in tight situations.  This, more than any other quality, is what makes him stand out.  Wanting the ball is the most important thing for a young kid when he comes in to the team and he always wants it.  There is no fear and that’s the way it should be.  He didn’t try many outlandish passes but switched the ball once beautifully out to Valencia, showcasing his passing repertoire.  He was also defensively disciplined, shielding the back four and not getting caught too high up the pitch. This maturity is why he is closer to the first team than others were at his age.

While Pogba was efficient and mature on the ball, Morrison had a spark about his game.  There was a swagger about his game, showcased with some showboating and a little back flick to Berbatov on the edge of the box which nearly resulted in him getting in on goal.  What makes him so special though is as well as being a match winner, he is equally adept at playing the game simple.  Time and again he got the ball, passed it on and kept moving. He rarely stops moving when he is on the pitch which is excellent to see. Sometimes he can stop moving when he has to track back but against Aldershot he showed a willingness to help out Fabio in defence and bust a gut to chase back his man 50 yards.  If there was one thing that did let him down, it was his positional play. He was brought on for Diouf who was playing wide left but you’d be lucky if Morrison occupied that position for more than two minutes.

This can be viewed as both a good thing and a bad thing.  He wanted to be involved in the game which is why he drifted inside and more or less played central midfield for the 20 minutes he was on.  He wanted to get on the ball and to make things happen.  He thrives playing where he decided to play on Tuesday night so it was refreshing to see a young man take it upon himself to involve himself in the game.  It was also a stark contrast to his first appearance against Wolves when he was also brought on at left midfield and barely moved off the touchline.  However, Ferguson may not have been enamoured by his positional indiscipline.  Although there was rarely a threat from Aldershot down that side, it may not have pleased the boss to see that flank so exposed at times.  Berbatov and Owen both covered him but the latter did gesture to Ravel to get wide and shut down the right back.  It is not a major thing especially against that sort of opposition but left midfield may be where his opportunities come in the future and he will need to show more discipline to impress the boss. 

Overall, they were two exciting cameos from two very promising players and lit up a somewhat dreary night.  They should have cemented their place in the squad for the next round but that may depend on the opposition.  The draw will be made on Saturday at noon with Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Cardiff in the hat along with ourselves.  Another four Premier League teams will join after Wednesday night’s matches.  The quarter final ties will be played on the week commencing 28th November.

Ratings: Amos 7, Fabio 6, Jones 6, Vidic 6, Fryers 6, Valencia 6, Cleverley 7, Park 7, Diouf 5, Owen 6, Berbatov 8
Subs: Pogba 7, Morrison 7, Keane 5

By Mick Higgins (Follow me on Twitter)

What were your thoughts on the game at Aldershot? Were you impressed by the likes of Pogba and Morrison. Please leave your comments below.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Aldershot vs United Carling Cup Preview

Manchester United resume their quest for a third League Cup in four years when they take on Aldershot at the The Recreation Ground in the fourth round on Tuesday night.  The League Two side were rewarded for their 2-1 win over Rochdale in the previous round with a tie against the Premier League Champions who convincingly dispatched of their fierce rivals Leeds United 3-0.  It is a glamour tie for Town and an opportunity for their young manager, former Wimbledon and Bolton striker, Dean Holdsworth to pit his wits against the most successful manager in English football history.

The game comes at the perfect time for both United and Aldershot but for differing reasons.  Aldershot halted a 5 game losing streak at the weekend with an excellent 5-2 away win at Dagenham and Redbridge. They will go in to this tie high on confidence after that result. Contrastingly, the Reds will be happy to have a game so quickly after an utterly humiliating defeat at the hands of their noisy neighbours on Sunday.  A cup game against a lower league side should present the perfect opportunity to get back to winning ways and to put in a good performance to appease the fans.

The Opposition
Aldershot Town – The Rising Phoenix. Formed in 1992 after the demise of Aldershot FC, who were the first football team to fold during a season since Accrington Stanley in 1962, they regained their Football League status when they were promoted from the Conference in 2008. They made the play offs in their second season in League Two but lost out in the semi finals.  The following season they were at risk of relegation which prompted a change of management.  This saw Holdsworth take the reigns and he guided them to the safety of 14th place.

This season has been more a struggle for The Shots. They currently languish in 15th place having lost half of their 14 league games.  More than half of these defeats have come at home which must be a concern for them as the might of Manchester United come to visit.  They have fared better in the Carling Cup at home though, having beat League One opposition in the last two rounds at The Recreation Ground.  These followed a giant killing at Upton Park when they beat the Hammers 2-1 with a last minute winner. 
Those results will pale in to insignificance if they can get a result against the Reds.  They will look to last year’s Player of the Year, Luke Guttridge, to inspire them in midfield and hope Danny Hylton can continue his decent goal scoring form this season which has seen him bag 10 goals already.  Two of those ten came in the Carling Cup; winners against West Ham and Rochdale.

The Reds propensity to blood youngsters in this competition continued in the last round with Zeki Fryers making an impressive debut at centre back. There were also debuts for Paul Pogba and Larnell Cole as second half substitutes but the importance of the game in terms of who the opposition were probably restricted Ferguson from giving more full debuts to a few other youngsters.  For this game there is no excuse to not introduce more promising Reserve team players to first team football.  With the utmost respect to Aldershot, they arguably face sterner opposition in the Reserve league than they will against a mid table League Two side.  However, first team squad players need minutes on the pitch and Ferguson might also treat this game as a punishment for some players after the woeful display on Sunday.

Macheda ruled himself out of the game on Twitter due to an elbow injury and Rafael is also unlikely to feature as there has been no update on his shoulder injury. Unconfirmed rumours suggest Giggs is injured and that is why he missed the last two games so will possibly miss this one too.  One player who could make his return is Tom Cleverley.  Ferguson had hoped he would be ready for Liverpool which suggests he has been training. He might have made his return at the weekend had the opposition not been City so this match could provide the perfect opportunity for him to get match fit.  Vidic is also likely to feature after being left out of the squad on Sunday due to concerns over his fitness and ability to play three games in a short space of time.  Other first team players who could be doing with a game are Antonia Valencia, who has been awful since his return from injury, and Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen who have only featured once since the last round of the Cup.

The only reason the above named players should feature is because they need minutes. We shouldn’t need their experience against Aldershot.  Instead this game should be used to showcase the talents of Pogba, Morrison, Cole et al.  I will be surprised and extremely disappointed if there are not more youngsters involved than there was against Leeds.  Zeki Fryers, if fit after suffering whiplash in a recent Reserve outing, deserves to take his place in defence again after an outstanding performance against Leeds.  Pogba should get his first start in the centre of the park which could prove exciting if his partner is indeed Tom Cleverley.  Tom Thorpe or Michael Keane should get the nod to play at centre back.  There probably isn’t a better chance to play Ravel Morrison but I doubt he will start. Hopefully he’ll be on the bench and at least get 45 minutes. Larnell Cole and Jesse Lingard have made timely returns from injury and could feature in the squad after Ferguson name checked them before the third round draw was made. Davide Petrucci may also be a contender after finding his form for the Reserves in the last few weeks.

Once again though, the team will be impossible to correctly predict.  We’ll most likely go with a 4-4-2 formation but the player’s to fill those positions is anybody’s guess. Here’s mine:

Bench: Lindegaard, Thorpe, Brown, Morrison, Cole, Petrucci, W.Keane

Scoreline Prediction
I expect nothing less than a victory.  It should be convincing but knowing United in recent weeks, it won’t be that.  Nevertheless, I’ll go with a 4-0 win with Owen bagging a hat trick and Morrison coming off the bench to seal the win.

By Mick Higgins (Follow me on Twitter)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Manchester United vs Manchester City Big Match Preview

The biggest match of the season so far takes place at Old Trafford on Sunday when Manchester City are the visitors. Both sides are unbeaten thus far with the "noisy neighbours" having accumulated two more points and are two better off in terms of goal difference.

The boss reported in his pre-match press conference that he has a clean bill of health in his squad which gives him numerous options with which to build his master plan to beat City. Mancini will have Balotelli back in the squad after he missed the midweek Champions League encounter while Owen Hargreaves could be included in the squad against his former club.

StatZone by Rahul Singh

It is the first time since 1968 that City and United have met while occupying first and second place in the league table.
Manchester City have only won once at Old Trafford since 1974,  2-1 win in 2008.
Manchester City have fired in more shots on target (65) than any other side in the Premier League.
In last 25 Premier League games United have dropped only 2 points at Old Trafford & have won the last 19 games.
Michael Owen has scored 7 goals in eight Premier League games against Manchester City, Rooney has netted in 5 against them.

In the last 8 matches, all competitions between United & City there have been FIVE 90th min or extra time goals scored.

The Opposition
Roberto Mancini had a busy summer recruiting the likes of Clichy, Nasri and Aguero amongst others to further bolster a squad high on talent. They have begun the season well having dropped just two points after an away draw at Fulham. They have scored at least two goals in every Premier League game thus far which helps to emphasise the task facing United on Sunday.

The signing of Aguero was seen as a masterstroke by the Italian as it not only meant he was a replacement for the mercenary Tevez but arguably an upgrade in terms of quality. Nine goals already prove that point perfectly and added to a team ethic that the sly Argentinian can only dream of, it looks like Mancini has struck gold.

Samir Nasri was recruited from Arsenal for a significant fee despite being in the last year of his contract and while not excelling to any significant level as yet will no doubt add class and subtlety to City's attacking intent.

Mancini has dealt well with the ongoing tedium that is the Tevez affair. It seems inconceivable that that he will play for the club again but this is City we are talking about and you could never fully rule this out. The Italian has adopted a more attacking style this season which has brought its reward with the points accumulated thus far. It will be interesting to see if he reverts to a more defensive mindset as the season progresses or maintains this early season style. You get the impression that he would accept a point from Sunday's game right now so his team selection will be telling as to his true intent.


With United's long-standing weakness in midfield, you would imagine that Ferguson's formation choice will involve any extra man to match up with the opponent's likely lineup. This can often lead to the front man becoming isolated but this should be less prevalent with the team playing at home where natural momentum should mean that support is quick to join in.

The manager arguably has the option to pick his first choice back five once more with the expected return of Vidic after injury and following the resting of Rio Ferdinand from this week's trip to Romania. Chris Smalling looks to be first choice at right back now after his recent injury lay off curtailed his impressive early season form. De Gea will get his first taste of the cauldron that is a Manchester derby after impressing in recent games following a difficult start. His confidence looks to be rising with each outing and he will be a key figure on Sunday with his famed ability with the ball at his feet and out of hand to get United on the attack.

My pick in the midfield is Carrick sitting deep with Anderson and Fletcher alongside slightly advanced looking to support the front men. It is a big game for the Brazilian whose early season promise has evaporated into some increasingly frustrating displays that echo previous campaigns. Much of the midfield creativity will be on his shoulders with the workmanlike Scotsman expected to play a pressing and harrying role. With Tom Cleverley expected to return very soon, Anderson will hope that they can rekindle their partnership rather than the ex Porto man being the one to make way. Carrick was excellent in midweek and once more covered more yards than any other player. He will have to be wary of the movement from the City wide players who tend to roam and have a habit of popping up in central areas.

Up front, it has to be Nani, Rooney and Young as the three players with most form in the early part of the season. Valencia's poor display on Tuesday all but rules him out as he looked bereft of confidence and lacklustre when it came to crossing. His confidence may be low after missing much of pre-season and it is hoped that this will return very shortly. For these reasons, Nani deserves to start as right wing in each game. It is unfair to shift our most creative outlet onto the other flank where he is frequently ineffectual. Ashley Young's early season promise has dipped somewhat recently but it is hoped that a bumper home crowd can inspire him to hit the heights once again. His defensive capabilities will be much needed to assist Evra at times while the pair will also need to find the time to double up on Richards when the game allows. Rooney will be restored to the league lineup after being omitted from the Anfield battle last weekend. He has a fine record against our local rivals and will look to emulate his iconic overhead kick from last season that I had the privilege to be right behind from high up in the North stand.

A slightly bolder selection would see a central midfielder drop out with either Welbeck or Hernández being asked to play as the main forward and Rooney dropping deep to supplement both the attack and midfield when required. It would be something similar to what was seen last weekend as he slipped into a much deeper role as United chased their vital equaliser. This would be a high risk strategy though could be used if we are once more chasing the game.

Score Prediction
This could prove to be a pivotal game in the destiny of the Premier League so I would envisage it being a cagey and tight affair. In my opinion, both managers may well accept a point with all things considered. However, with the remarkable home record they possess, I think United will nick this 2-1 with goals from Rooney and Fletcher. These three points will set the Reds up perfectly for the rest of the season with all their rivals having been played and coming through relatively unscathed.

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Who would you pick for the derby on Sunday? Would you go for a more standard 4-4-2? Please leave any comments below.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Otelul Galati vs United Champions League Preview

Manchester United travel to Bucharest in the middle of a fixture maelstrom, this the second of seven fixtures in twenty days. Having drawn the first two group games and sitting wryly 3rd in the table, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will be looking for their first win in Europe this season and anything other than that will be felt like havoc. That being said, this encounter is the right match for United, less pressurized on the pitch than domestic football; a chance to get cobwebs shaken from heads and the continental passing game going once more.

United’s opponents on the night, Otelul Galati, made their champions league debut this season and fared reasonably well against tough oppositions like Benfica and Basel, albeit there’s nothing to show on the board. On Tuesday night, which is supposed to be the biggest night in club’s history, Romanian outfit will be eager to snatch their first point in Europe against an illustrious opposition in Manchester United. Having lost their first two games, it’s fair to say that, even the deep- rooted, dyed-in-the-wool Otelul supporters wouldn’t be expecting their team to be the knock-out stages.

Anyone expecting Otelul Galati to lie down and let United walk all over them may be in for a nasty surprise, though. As they often say, no easy games in Champions league and Ferguson’s been in football long enough to know that well.

StatZone by Rahul Singh
United began the legendary 1998-99 European campaign with two draws, but eventually ended up conquering Europe.

Otelul Galati will be playing an English club for the first time in their history, while United have played a Romanian club only once before - Dinamo Bucharest in 2004-05.

They are strong defensively, having conceded just 25 goals in 34 league games last season, and going unbeaten at home.

Last season, United did not concede a single goal in 540 minutes of away action en route to the final. So far this season already conceded 4 goals in 2 games.

The Opposition
Otelul Galati are making their first appearance in Champions league, having won the Romanian top division Liga title for the first time in their 46 years history. As their home ground doesn’t meet UEFA standards, they are playing their home matches in the National stadium in Bucharest. Like any other eastern European countries, a boisterous and hostile atmosphere will be welcoming United in the Romanian capital. That’s not to say Bucharest is an unknown, strange city to visit for United. To qualify for group stages of 2004-05 Champions league campaign, United visited the same stadium to face a stiff opposition in Dinamo Bucharest. An injury ravaged squad with Roy Keane and Silvestre as centre halves earned a hard fought win, before annihilating then Romanian champions 3-0 in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford. More about opposition; Otelul Galati currently sit 9th in the league with 3 wins, 3 draws and 4 losses; you know, not exactly how they would have liked their title defence to get underway.

Manager Dorinel Munteanu is an illustrious name in Romanian football history. A short trip back down the memory lane might be enough for every English fan to relive Munteanu’s cracking left-foot volley and harrumphing celebration in a match England eventually lost and made an early exit (shocker) at Euro 2000. 

Transformation of a bottom-half side to Romanian champions in just two years is a fine achievement by any standards and Munteanu deserves a large share of credit in Galati's turn of fortune. He prefers his side to play a defensively compact, aggressive and counter attacking football. If their first two games in Europe are anything to go by, Otelul Galati will be a difficult opposition to break down and have the discipline to play without the ball for long spells. Put simply, they make you work for it. But 'intensity without finesse' football could be very close to insignificant in Europe and Munteanu's team will be in need of a huge chunk of luck to manage anything out of this tie against English champions. The home side will be looking to Liviu Antal, Gabriel Paraschiv and Marius Pena to make a relevant impact in this big game.

Two points from two games and 3rd place in the table are fair reflections of how United have performed in Europe so far this season. Bountiful experience and relatively cozy opponents (compared to previous seasons) mean United remain favourites to top the group but self-conceit and complacency are something to be fearful of. As the stuffing up of historic proportions against Basel showed, odd moments of disconcerting sloppiness will not go unpunished in Europe and it is something the whole squad needs to work on. United have already conceded 4 goals this season- as many goals as they had to concede before going to Wembley a season before. From post match comments it was evident that both the manager and players were concerned with the sloppiness shown in the second half against FC Basel. United’s typical European away set up with a cautious and persistent approach will be enough to bring a huge improvement and see off this Romanian opposition. With all due respect to opponents, it is condescending to say this really is a winnable tie if United manage to get their basics right.
Unlike most cases, injury news didn't dominate pre-match but the manager has taken necessary precautions ahead of Manchester derby. Among others unavailable for this tie, Rio Ferdinand didn't travel to Romania as the boss decided to leave him at home. Tom Cleverley has to wait for his Champions league debut as he hasn't fully recovered from injury yet and hopefully, will be ready for Sunday. Other absentees are Rafael da Silva and Federico Macheda. 

Flooding the midfield and putting one upfront has been a theme when it comes to United's away set up in Europe, but expect an attacking line up with two players upfront in Romania. There has been a breakdown in the application of the fluid 4-2-2-2 adopted in the early season. The hard working aspect required of the whole team, not just the midfield, went horribly awry against Norwich. Perhaps that can be attributed to the tired legs in the midfield, Cleverley's injury, slump in form of a few players. Assuming the Manchester derby coming up on Sunday won't play a massive part in deciding the starting eleven, there's a good chance of seeing Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, Anderson and Carrick return to the pitch after getting benched at Anfield. Park ji Sung might get the nod ahead of Ashley Young in pursuit of a better protection to the midfield.

A shake up in the back-line is also expected. Vidic was deemed 'not ready' on Saturday as “Liverpool game is such an intense, stamina-draining game that you want everyone to be 100 per cent“. Unless this game has come too early for him, it's highly sensible to give him his first appearance since the opening day of the season at The Hawthorns. In that case, in-form Jonny Evans will be given a rest and Chris Smalling will be asked to play in his favoured position at centre-back to partner the Serb. After a long and tiring run of games, Phil Jones may start from the bench. On the back of an indifferent display against Norwich, it'll be nonsensical to start Valencia at right back when Fabio is fully fit after a slight knock he gathered during Brazil's friendly match at Mexico.

Scoreline Prediction: 0-3
United start as huge favorites for this tie and I can't envisage anything other than three soild points at the end of it. Otelul Galati will be intent to get the 'ragtag bunch of inherited nondescripts' label off their back and happy with a stern contest.

By Redsnout (Follow me on Twitter)

What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Please leave your team and score predictions below.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Javier Hernández: The gift that just keeps on giving

The amazing story of Javier Hernandez continues to amaze and shock in equal measure, the latest page of this particularly riveting novel involved a late equaliser against Liverpool at Anfield in front of the joyous (albeit depleted) section of United’s travelling support. The young Mexican’s star continues to rise.

Hernandez made the telling difference yet again on Saturday afternoon, not just with his all-important equaliser but in the way United adapted to suit his capabilities. A telling factor that shows how highly Hernandez’s ability are looked upon is that Ferguson opted to drop Rooney into centre midfield to accommodate Hernandez and Welbeck up front when he could have easily shifted Welbeck to a wide position and put Rooney up top.

Adopting this 4-4-1-1 formation allowed Hernandez to do what he does best play right on the shoulder of the last defender, suddenly for the first time in the game Liverpool’s central-defensive partnership of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel suddenly looked concerned. Their previous ability to deal with the young and relatively inexperienced lone striker Danny Welbeck was a thing of the past as Welbeck could now drop off causing a lack of cohesion within their back four. Carragher and Skrtel were unwilling to go with Welbeck knowing the other will have been utterly outpaced should United put the ball into the subsequent gap for Hernandez to chase. It was no coincidence that United suddenly stepped it up a gear when Hernandez entered the fray, the Reds entered the game with a mind-set of stifling Liverpool, giving them little whilst quietening the crowd and hopefully nicking a goal in the process.

As it was all of the above worked apart from the ‘goal bit’,  in fact for most of the game United seemed to have forgotten the ‘attacking bit’ as surges forward were few and far between. In the immediate aftermath of Liverpool’s opening goal Ferguson threw on Rooney and Nani which of cause made an instant change to proceedings however on a personal note it was the introduction of the sprightly Mexican which proved the significant interjection.

It has been said before and it will be said again but hallmarks with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continue to carry more and more credence. As good an all-round goal scorer the Norwegian was he was the archetypal ‘super-sub’, from listening to Ole in countless interviews over the year I got the impression that Solskjaer wasn’t overly keen with that tag but it should not be belittled. Being an impact substitute is an art in itself, being able to emerge on to field of play with minutes remaining whilst you are still trying to get up to speed with the other twenty-one players on the pitch. You have to adapt quickly to the pace of the game and then make a telling impact, not an easy role to thrive in. Many strikers have been given the ‘super-sub’ role including Carlos Tevez and in his first season Alan Smith however nobody has ever done it quite like Ole, until now. Solskjaer was a master of over analysing the game he was watching, thinking of how he would integrate into proceedings or take advantage of a certain weak point in the oppositions rank. Hernandez clearly has the same aptitude for attention to detail as the man revered as a legend throughout the United supporting world, indeed Hernandez has now surpassed Solskjaer in terms of impact from the bench as his goal against Liverpool was his ninth in twenty one substitutes appearances giving him a scoring record of 42.9% . Of course much like Solskjaer Hernandez also has much more in his locker than just being an impact player, he is equally as effective playing from the start.

In his fledgling United career some questioned whether or not the young Mexican could cut it over ninety minutes, would the physical aspect of the Premier League get the better of him? Herein lies another impressive aspect of Hernandez’s persona, that he is willing to put the hard yards in behind the scenes to bulk himself up and get better and better, he scored twenty goals last season and you would have to be a brave man to bet against him doing it again. It’s easy to forget that Hernandez only really became a regular starter as of March with Berbatov occupying the second striking position for the bulk of the campaign. However now that the Mexican has well and truly put Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen in the shade he has only Danny Welbeck to contest for the slot alongside Rooney.

His comparison to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been present ever since the early stages of last season however recently Stoke manager Tony Pulis took this a step further in suggesting that Hernandez could even possess the legendary Denis Law, this takes things up another level and Chicharito does have a long way to go before achieving the dizzy heights achieved by the King of the Stretford End however he has started off his United career in the perfect vain. He has endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful with his likeable personality and his insatiable appetite for victory, the way he bounded with sheer delight toward the United faithful after notching his second goal in two appearances at Anfield was enough to delight any Red.

Like any other position at the club comparisons are always made with previous players of by-gone eras, Valencia and Coppell, Vidic and Bruce and dare I say it Jones and Edwards. As I have already mentioned Chicharito has had his fair share of comparisons in his short time at the club, namely Solskjaer, a young Michael Owen and Denis Law. However as he gets better and better the calibre of comparison also increases in standing and talent but I ask you as forwards go who could be better than Denis Law, of course Hernandez has only been at United for just over a season and has much to do before firmly cementing these comparisons but his ability and desire to improve have ensured that the sky is the limit for Hernandez, if he really wants to get there!

By Nathan Thomas (Follow me on Twitter)

With thanks to @OSullivanMUFC for the Hernandez stats.

How does Hernández compare to Solskjaer in your opinion? Please leave your thoughts below?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Liverpool vs United Big Match Preview

Manchester United are back in Premier League action on Saturday lunchtime for an eagerly awaited clash with Liverpool at Anfield. After a blistering start to the season, successive draws against Stoke and Basle followed by a stuttering win against newly promoted Norwich have caused alarm amid some abject defensive displays.

United will hope to welcome back several of their walking wounded for the key clash at the weekend. Vidic, Cleverley and Smalling are all battling to be fit with the big Serb making his comeback in midweek for his national side. Although he completed a comfortable 90 minutes, a missed penalty and elimination from the European Championships next year will hopefully double his determination to make a comeback with United.

United go into the match on the back of a poor recent record at Anfield. Three successive defeats coupled with some lacklustre performances mean that a vast improvement is required if the three points are going to come back to Manchester.

StatZone by Rahul Singh

Rooney has had an incredible 32 attempts at goal this season, one every 18 minutes, getting 59% on target.

United have lost each of the last 4 games when Fletcher have not started against Liverpool & have won the last three against them with Fletcher in the midfield.

Liverpool have won four of their last six Premier League games against United overall and the last three in a row at Anfield.

Last 5 PL encounters between the two sides have seen four penalties.

Liverpool have scored 45 goals against United in the PL, 2nd best to Chelsea who have netted 51 against us.

Out of 11 games officiated by Andre Marriner, United have won 10 & lost 1 (against Liverpool in 2009, away)

The Opposition
Liverpool have made a decent start to the season with four wins, two defeats and a draw from the opening seven games to leave them fifth in the Premier League. After a heavy outlay on new signings since Lord Dalglish's return in January, the pressure is on for them to finish in the top four. Anything else will be deemed as failure by their American owners.

Shorn of talisman Gerrard who was injured for six months with a serious groin complaint, much of the burden in the early part of the season has been placed on Luis Suarez. Signings such as Henderson, Downing, Adam have added depth to their squad but whether it is enough to regain a Champions League spot come the end of the season remains to be seen.

Liverpool have proved vulnerable in defence where lack of pace is a real issue. Carragher and Skrtel are solid but can be rash in the tackle. Their long standing left back problem looks to have been solved by the arrival of Enriqué from Newcastle who has impressed in tandem with Downing down the flank. The much under-rated Kuyt has regained his spot on the right of midfield in recent weeks after bewilderingly missing out to Henderson in the early weeks of the season. The Dutchman works tirelessly for the team cause and is always liable to pop up with a vital goal as United have found to their cost.

With Gerrard seemingly fit to return, it would appear that he will take his place behind Suarez with Carroll dropping to the bench. This would allow the Englishman to drop back to assist in midfield when required in an area that may go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. If Adam is picked alongside Lucas then it will be vital that he is pressed by his opponent as he has shown to be vulnerable in the past to such a tactic as given time and space, he can cause United problems with accurate passing.

The main danger, of course, will be Suarez who has settled well into life at Anfield since his arrival back in January. His skill, close control and quick feet have added a new dimension to a Liverpool side often bereft of creativity last season. He has also shown himself to be adept in winning fouls in dangerous areas and it will be vital that referee Marriner remains wary of this tendency in front of a partisan home crowd.


I am writing this ahead of the manager's press conference on Friday so any injuries picked up after the international break will not be taken into account. If fit, the back five just about picks itself. Chris Smalling is said to be back in training but with no match practice, it would be doubtful that he would be risked. Hopefully, the return of Vidic and Ferdinand will solidify a frequently porous United centre of defence recently. As mentioned earlier, the Serb completed 90 minutes on Tuesday and as long as he incurs no ill effect then he will surely regain the armband. Rio Ferdinand is an interesting case. Apparently he was fit for the Norwich game but was left on the bench so he may possibly have dropped down the pecking order following some recent sub-standard displays. If he has been able to train for the last couple of weeks then he will surely come into contention for a starting berth alongside his old comrade. Jones and Evra seem well equipped to deal with Liverpool's wide threat.

The big decision for the manager is whether to go with the standard 4-4-1-1 formation or tighten things up with a more defensive 4-3-3. My pick is the latter as the United central area has been so open at times and some solidity is now required even if it is to the detriment of our attacking threat at times. With Cleverley short of match practice after recovering from his injury, I have gone for a midfield trio of Carrick at the base supported by Anderson and Fletcher. The latter two will be expected to combine a pressing game with the ability to break forward and support Rooney up front. If Cleverley was fully match fit then on current form he would be picked but a place on the bench looks the best he can hope for.

The front three of Nani, Rooney and Young offer a potent threat with pace, movement and the ability to switch positions. It is vital that Rooney does not get isolated as frustration can set in and he can lose focus. Nani will look to keep Enriqué quiet from an attacking point of view and will be assisted by the marauding Jones. On the other flank the combination of Young and Evra has looked potent at times but Kelly and Kuyt for Liverpool may well mean that this threat is nullified to some extent.

Welbeck and Hernández may have to be content with a role from the bench which could mean an exclusion for Berbatov as additional midfield and defensive cover will be needed. With the little Mexican taking part in a bruising encounter with Brazil in his homeland early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it is feasible that he is left out to recuperate for the vital Champions League fixture next week. Also fighting for a spot on the bench could be the likes of Evans, Giggs, Park and Valencia.

Scoreline Prediction
I can foresee this being an incredibly tight match with neither wanting to give an inch. I would expect it to be low scoring so will go for a 1-1 draw with the United goal coming from Vidic. This prediction while pessimistic would stop the rot of three successive defeats at Anfield and I can see both managers being happy with this outcome.

United will then begin to look ahead to the biggest game of the season so far as City visit Old Trafford next Sunday with a Champions League trip to Romania sandwiched in between. October is always a vital month but this one will go a long way towards shaping the season.

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What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Where will the game be won and lost?

Anfield Agony - Can United reverse the recent trend?

O'Shea scores at the Kop end - cue pandemonium!
This weekend Manchester United travel to Anfield, to face Liverpool.  For the first time in the history of these great clubs, United will go into this match having won more domestic league titles than their North-West rivals; a fact which will surely not be lost on the supporters of both clubs.

As we approach my least favourite fixture of the domestic season, I felt it would be fitting to take a look back at some of our recent visits to Anfield.  You'd expect that with 4 titles in the past 5 seasons, our recent record at Anfield would be strong, however that's not the case.  In actual fact, in the past 5 seasons, Anfield has been our 3rd least successful ground (W, W, L, L, L)
, behind Stamford Bridge (D, L, D, L, L) and The Emirates (L, D, L, W, L).  

Let's take a look at the games over this period:

2006/2007 Liverpool 0 - 1 Manchester United

In a match that is easily forgotten, the end will live long in the memory, as John O'Shea acted out the dreams of every single Manchester United fan.  United rode their luck for long stages of the game, with Liverpool the better team throughout.  The first half was a drab affair with Liverpool creating a couple of half chances and United barely threatening.  The game came to life in the second half as Gerrard, Bellamy and Riise all had chances for Liverpool, shortly after the restart, however they were either wasteful or denied by the excellent Edwin Van Der Saar.  After 70 minutes the game had settled into what looked like being a fairly disappointing 0-0.  On a rare United attack, 12 minutes from time, Louis Saha was tumbled inside the box, however Martin Atkinson waved away the penalty appeals.  

With less than 5 minutes left Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso clashed, with the Englishman seeing red for raising his hands - despite no contact being made with his Spanish counterpart.  Shortly after this Edwin Van Der Saar produced an incredible save from a Peter Crouch shot, at the time seemingly guaranteeing United a point.  Still a twist was left in this tale, as Pepe Reina dropped a Ronaldo free-kick at the feet of John O'Shea, who gleefully smashed the ball home, in front of a horrified Kop End.  Cue pandemonium.  A wonderful 3 points, however far from a deserved win, truth be told.

2007/2008 Liverpool 0 - 1 Manchester United

After a summer of change at Old Trafford, this fixture saw a new look United take on their North-West rivals.  Carlos Tevez, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves were all making their debuts in this clash, and it was Tevez who would settle it.  Possibly the most exciting aspect of the game, though, was the way that new midfield star Anderson dominated the Liverpool midfield, including one Steven Gerrard.  A fairly even first half saw Anderson clear Liverpool's best effort off the United goal line, before Tevez capped United's best spell with the a goal in the 43rd minute.  A corner from Ryan Giggs found it's way to Rooney who lashed across goal to where Tevez was on hand to turn the ball into the roof of the net.  The second half proved to be a comfortable affair for United, as a strong defensive display easily kept Liverpool at bay.  In truth it should have been even more comfortable, however Rooney missed a sitter after a brilliant counter-attacking move, shooting wide from Ronaldo's pass.

2008/2009 Liverpool 2 - 1 Manchester United

Manchester United came into this early season fixture on the back of a couple of poor performances; a 1-1 draw against Newcastle, at Old Trafford and a 1-0 win away to Portsmouth - Darren Fletcher the unlikely scorer in both games.  What better way for the Champions to kickstart their season than with a win at Anfield, against their rivals, who were missing their key men, as Gerrard and Torres started on the bench.  3 minutes in and Carlos Tevez fired United into the lead, after a pull back by new £30m signing Dimitar Berbatov.  This, however, was as good as it got for United on the day.  Edwin Van Der Saar gave an unusually poor display and it was his error, coupled with a breakdown in communication, that saw Liverpool draw level through a Wes Brown own goal.  Defending which would have did the Keystone Kops proud.  Tevez then had a chance to restore United's lead not long after, however he blazed his shot high and wide.  

Following this Liverpool went on to dominate, creating much the better chances in the second half.  The winner finally came in the 77th minute, when Ryan Babel was on hand to turn in a Dirk Kuyt centre, after Ryan Giggs was carelessly dispossessed by Javier Mascherano on his own touchline.  United's misery was compounded when Nemanja Vidic was dismissed for leading with his elbow in an aerial challenge, meaning that he would miss the next game, away to Chelsea.

2009/2010 Liverpool 2 - 0 Manchester United

Going into this game Liverpool were on their worst run of results in more than two decades and pressure was starting to mount on manager Rafa Bentiez.  Liverpool were again denied the services of their influential captain Steven Gerrard, however United fans had learned their lesson from the previous season and were not lending too much weight to this.  A good start to the season saw United sitting top of the Premier League, and the odds were heavily in favour of the champions avenging the previous seasons defeat at Anfield.  From the start of the game, however, it became apparent that the Anfield club, backed by a vocal barrage of support for their under-fire manager, had other ideas.  Liverpool looked the hungrier side and were the winner in every 50/50 battle.  United's only real chance of the first half came from a Wayne Rooney header which went straight into the arms of a grateful Pepe Reina.  

At the other end Edwin Van Der Saar was by the far the busier of the two keepers.  A wonderful save in the 14th minute stopped a Fabio Aurelio free-kick which was destined for the top corner, and it was Aurelio again who was denied 10 minutes before half-time, when his free header went straight into the arms of Van Der Saar.  In the second half there was more of the same with United failing to muster any real threat.  The breakthrough came in the 65th minute when Fernando Torres lashed home, after being played through and easily shrugging off the attentions of Rio Ferdinand.  United did produce a rally of sorts and Antonio Valencia smashed a shot against the bar, after being set up by substitute Michael Owen.  In the 90th minute Nemanja Vidic was sent off for the 3rd successive game against Liverpool, before a counter-attack goal caught United pushing numbers forward and David Ngog coolly slotted home to make the points safe for Liverpool.

2010/2011 Liverpool 3 - 1 Manchester United

March 2011 saw Manchester United go to Anfield, hot on the heels of a 19th title.  A win here would put them 6 points clear of their nearest rivals, Arsenal, with just 9 games left to play.  United fans arrived armed with banners galore, and masks of the face of the Old Trafford legend, Eric Cantona.  The best banner of the day was surely the response to the Anfield faithful
s mocking message to Cantona; "Au revoir Cantona, come back when you've won 18".  The response from Manchester United fans was as simple as it was cutting; "You told us to come back when we've won 18.....we are back".  Of course another banner simply had to make reference to Sir Alex’s famous quote about Liverpool and their perch.  You all know the line.

Once the match started, though, the carnival atmosphere amongst the Manchester United fans soon died.  Bereft of first choice defensive pairing Ferdinand and Vidic, United had to rely on Wes Brown and Jonny Evans at centre-back, and those two were offered little in the way of protection from a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes - incidentally the same pairing who had started this fixture 5 years previously.  Liverpool started the brighter of the two teams, with Luis Suarez missing a presentable chance just 2 minutes in, however United hit back through Berbatov, whose long-range drive hit the outside of the post.  Wes Brown also went close with a header which was cleared off the line.  35 minutes in and the ever-dangerous Suarez produced a moment of magic, evading 3 tackles inside the United penalty area before squaring to Kuyt for the easiest of tap-ins.  As good as the Uruguayan's piece of skill was, the lack of any real challenge from Rafael, Brown and Michael Carrick was unforgivable.  5 minutes later, another shocking piece of defending was to cost United a second goal.  Nani, while attempting to clear the ball, inexplicably headed back across goal to where Kuyt was waiting, and he duly accepted the gift to put Liverpool 2-0 up.  

Just before half-time things flared up between both teams.  Jamie Carragher put an end to Nani's game with a knee-high tackle, which unbelievably didn't earn him a red card from match official Phil Dowd.  Rafael was then lucky not to be red carded for a flying lunge at his compatriot, Lucas.  Although it went unnoticed by most at the time, Rafael's tackle was undoubtedly the result of frustration due to Maxi Rodriguez's thigh-high,studs-up challenge on him, just seconds before he lunged at Lucas.  The second half started much like the first, with Liverpool on the offensive and United offering little going forward.  Edwin Van Der Saar saved well from a Raul Meireles shot, however he was then at fault in the 65th minute, allowing a Suarez free-kick to spill from his grasp, which Kuyt lashed home to complete his hat-trick.  Javier Hernandez, on as a replacement for Nani, added some respectability to the scoreline with a 92nd minute header, however it was definitely a case of too little, too late as United were deservedly beaten.

2011/2012 Liverpool ? - ? Manchester United
All of which brings us to this weekend's game.  Surely the rot has to stop?  In my opinion, given the relative ease with which teams have cut United open this season, something needs to change in midfield if we are to avoid being overrun.  Although the style of our attacking football has been a joy to behold at times, I think it could be in our interests to set up a little more defensively on this occasion and attempt to hit Liverpool on the counter-attack.  Possibly a 4-3-3 with a mobile front 3 of Nani, Young and Rooney.  To supplement this I'd go for a midfield 3 of Carrick, Jones and Anderson.  I think Phil Jones has shown enough in his games this season that he should at least be considered as a midfield option, given our relative weakness in that area.  Jones has played there regularly for Blackburn so it's not as if the role would be alien to him.  Anderson would be given licence to get forward and support the attack, with Jones and Carrick there to cover for him.  Jones would also be able to go on his marauding runs, as we've seen him do numerous times, without worrying about leaving his defence exposed.  In defence I would go with De Gea, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, provided they are all fit and available for selection.

Of course a compelling argument could also be made for playing 4-4-2 given that Liverpool’s weakness is undoubtedly their defence.  A 4-3-3 formation often stifles Rooney and leads to him becoming frustrated and ineffective.  As I alluded to in my piece on Danny Welbeck, I would start him up top with Rooney playing off him.  I think Welbeck’s overall gameplay is superior to Hernandez’s and it’s important that we don’t surrender possession cheaply in this game, if we are to avoid our 2 man midfield being overrun.  Again I’d be tempted to play Jones in midfield, alongside Anderson, however I’d say it’s more likely that Sir Alex would play Darren Fletcher.  Given that Fletcher and Anderson completed 0 tackles in 90 minutes against Norwich (an unbelievable statistic), a marked improvement would be needed from both if we are to expect anything from this fixture.  An argument could also be made for a pairing of Giggs and Carrick, with Rooney playing just in front of them.  Both players will be fresh after the international break and it was this pairing that dominated Chelsea in both legs of last season’s European tie, as well as the league game at Old Trafford. 

Whatever team and formation is selected, I just hope that we can come out of this game with our heads held high, unlike the past few seasons.  Come on United!

By Tim Ferguson

What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Would you go 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? Please leave your comments below:

Monday, 10 October 2011

Danny Welbeck: Local boy in the photograph

"There's no mistake, I smell that smell, it's that time of year again, the clocks go back......."

As we approach the time of year when the clocks go back, I never expected Danny Welbeck to be the the flavour of the month with the Manchester United fans.  At the start of the season I'd have had him down as United's 5th choice striker, behind Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov and Owen.  So far this season he's played himself into at least 3rd choice, if not an automatic starting role.  Hernandez's season is yet to really get going, having been dogged by niggling injuries, and it's fair to say that Welbeck has been the more impressive of the two.  I'm sure Danny doesn't like to see his team-mates suffering, however he's grasped the opportunity with both hands.

In the 5 league games Welbeck has featured in, he's scored 3 goals, and he's also bagged 2 in the Champions League, in just 1 appearance.  However, it's more than just the goals that has impressed.  Welbeck's overall gameplay has been something of a revelation.  His pace, power ,movement, and excellent link up play have gone far beyond the level I'd expected.  Last summer he left us a boy, for a season on loan at Sunderland, however he's now returned, a man, as he himself has alluded to in recent interviews.  He couldn't cut a more different figure than the skinny teenager who rifled in against Stoke, from 30 yards, on his Premier League debut. You can watch his debut strike below:

It seemed at the time that this would see Welbeck's United career kick into gear, but it didn't quite turn out like that.  Obviously nobody expected him to be a starter, with the likes of Rooney, Berbatov, Tevez and Ronaldo for competition, but I thought we'd at least see him given plenty of opportunities.  As it turned out Welbeck featured only twice more in the league that season, failing to add to his goal tally on either occasion.  The following season followed a similar pattern, with 5 Premier League appearances and 0 goals.  The blame for the poor goalscoring form can not be laid solely at the feet of Welbeck, however, as he was often used out of position, usually on the left wing, where he never truly looked comfortable.  Infamously, Welbeck played in the 1-0 home defeat to Besiktas in December '09, coming in for a lot of criticism for his performance on the night - he was far from alone in giving a poor display, though,as a 4 year unbeaten home record came to an end.

Perhaps sensing that United fans were losing faith in the local boy, Sir Alex decided to send him on loan to Preston North End, at the time managed by his son, Darren.  The hope would surely have been that Welbeck would gain some much needed first team experience in a competitive environment, however things did not go according to plan.  Welbeck managed 2 goals in 8 appearances before a knee injury flared up and the loan had to be cut short.  Welbeck was recalled in March, in order to have surgery on the problem, which brought a disappointing campaign to an end.

August 2010 saw a move to Steve Bruce's Sunderland, on a season long loan, in what could possibly have been described as a make or break move for the player.  If this didn't work out, you'd think that he'd have been unlikely to come back to Manchester United for any other reason than to be placed on the transfer list.  Thankfully things didn't pan out that way.  A modest return of 6 goals in 28 appearances doesn't tell the true story of Welbeck's time at Sunderland, where he was often a key player in the side.  Some vital goals were scored along the way, including the winner in a home game against Bolton and a goal in the 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge - which will only have endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful, as well as Sir Alex.  Welbeck's form prompted talk of an England call up, which duly came in an international friendly against Ghana, in March.  Once again, though, the season ended on a disappointing note, as an injury in April forced a return to his parent club, for treatment.

Having watched Welbeck regularly when he played for Sunderland, I was both surprised and impressed.  He had a new-found presence, a directness and, seemingly, a belief in himself which, at times, had been missing when playing for United.  This was undoubtedly the result of being a key component, as opposed to a bit-part player, and also due to getting more games in his natural position.  I remember commenting that although Macheda played his way into our hearts with that goal against Villa, Welbeck had considerably more to his game.  When it was announced at the start of this season that there would be no loan spell for any of the young lads, I was excited to see what they could bring to the team.  So far Welbeck has surpassed all my expectations.

It's been a long time since Manchester United have had a convincing home-grown centre forward.  In my opinion Mark Hughes was the last one.  It seems like Danny Welbeck could be the man to finally end that drought.  Given how things have went so far this season, if we're to play 2 up front at Anfield, personally I think Welbeck should get the nod ahead of Hernandez, due to his superior all round game play.  If we're to avoid being overrun, as has happened the past couple of seasons at Anfield, I think it's imperative not to surrender possession cheaply, and I think Danny will do a better job of retaining it than Chich.  Of course I don't pick the team, so we'll leave that down to the genius from Govan.  

Let's hope that in many years to come, the last lines of the wonderful Stereophonics song ring true; "all the friends lay down the flowers, sit on the banks and drink for hours, talk of the days they saw him last, the local boy in the photograph."

By Tim Ferguson (Follow me on Twitter)

What are your thoughts on the progress of Danny Welbeck? Would you start him against Liverpool?