Monday, 27 February 2012

Unsung Heroes #1 - Denis Irwin

Introducing a new series to Written Offside called "Unsung Heroes" where the great and the good of Twitter reveal the Manchester United players who largely crept under the radar of publicity yet arguably had as much impact on the success of the club as the more exciting names.

I will begin the series by profiling the ultimate unsung hero - Denis Irwin.

When a manager has been at one club for twenty five years and you are described by the man himself as his best pound for pound signing then it is some accolade to be "awarded". So when Sir Alex Ferguson bestowed this title upon Denis Irwin, you can have no better testimony to the impact made by the shy and unassuming Irishman during the twelve years he patrolled the full back positions for Manchester United.

Denis began his career at Leeds before moving onto Oldham where he shot to prominence under the guidance of Joe Royle. He appeared on United's radar having played against the Reds in the semi final of the FA Cup in 1990 where he impressed with his calm defending and progressive support of his wide colleague. Irwin became one of Ferguson's primary targets following the first trophy under his stewardship as he had been forced to play the reliable Mike Phelan at right back in an unaccustomed role for much of that season.

Fergie got his man for a bargain fee of just £625,000 and from the moment he made his league debut against Coventry at Old Trafford, he did not look back and became a mainstay of the United backline for the next decade. What made Irwin stand out from his peers in the full back department was his sheer consistency. Whether he was stationed on the right or the left, he performed his role with minimum fuss and rarely dropping below a 7/10 rating week in week out. Although right footed, he was equally adept on either side and in fact played the majority of games on the left, getting a privileged view watching a young Ryan Giggs emerge and flourish as well as the exciting talent of Lee Sharpe in the early 1990's.

The primary role for any full back will always be defending and it was exceedingly rare that you saw Denis beaten for either pace or trickery. In addition, his positioning was first class and he formed a terrific partnership with Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce and Pallister culminating in United's first League Championship for over a quarter of a century. Although the big Dane and the centre backs often received the plaudits, Irwin was a major factor in the club's success. With the introduction of the likes of Cantona, Giggs and Kanchelskis, the attacking instincts of the shy Irishman began to flourish as confidence flooded throughout the side.

This was epitomised by one of my favourite United goals of all time against Spurs at Old Trafford in the 1992/93 season. Irwin picked up the ball on the left about 25 yards from goal, spotting Cantona hovering inside anticipating a pass. Once he had laid the ball inside, it would have been easy to stand still and admire the artistry of the enigmatic Frenchman but not Irwin. He had something in mind and made a dart for the penalty box knowing that Cantona could find him with an incisive pass. What followed was pure genius from Eric as he "stabbed" the ball with the outside of his foot that saw the ball drift over the static Spurs defence meaning that Denis could take the ball in his stride before firing left footed high into the net. The goal was immortalised in Ken Loach's film "Looking for Eric" where the great man himself described it as his favourite moment and waxed lyrically about the Irishman saying "I knew how clever he was.... left, right footed".

Check out Cantona's description of the goal at 1:30

For such a shy character like Denis to blossom into such a wonderful attacking weapon in his time at the club was a joy to behold. As confidence rose, he added to United's armoury at set pieces becoming a wonderful free kick taker from the edge of the box and soon took up the mantle of penalty taker which considering the high pressure nature of these showed the ice cool aspect of his character.

The other stand out goal from the Irishman's time at United came against Wimbledon after a wonderful passage of play that saw the whole team involved with some neat, intricate passing before Irwin was found in the box by Paul Ince. There was plenty still to do but after turning his opponent the wrong way, he fired his shot past the flailing keeper. A great end to a marvellous team goal that can be enjoyed again below:

You can imagine that Irwin was a manager's dream of a player. Similar to Scholes in this aspect, you would envisage him never being late for training, always putting in 100% whether in training or in match situations and also no occurrences of being seen staggering out of nighclubs at unruly hours. The boss could rest easy knowing that Denis would be relaxing at home with his family away from the glare of publicity and celebrity.

His roll of honour places him high up in the stakes of most decorated players in the game. In total, he made 511 starts for the club and scored 33 goals. Along the way, he was richly rewarded with seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a Champions League trophy, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup.

He was awarded a testimonial in 2000 against Manchester City but had to subbed after 37 minutes after a bad challenge by George Weah. He went on to play for Wolves (famously being part of a side that defeated United) before retiring at the age of 38.

For many, Irwin is remembered as one of United's best full backs of all time and for his all round ability, it is hard to argue. He played a major role in the club's success in the 1990's, rarely being injured yet always producing the goods on the pitch. When I decided to start this series looking back at some unsung heroes, Denis' was the first name that sprang to mind when considering candidates for inclusion. He now enjoys spending his time as a pundit in the media safe in the knowledge that his legendary status at Old Trafford is secure and to such a degree that future United full backs should aspire to reach such an esteemed level of service.

In future posts in this series, you can read about Jesper Blomqvist, John O'Shea, Henning Berg and Ronny Johnsen among others. 

If you would like to leave your thoughts on Denis Irwin, please do so in the comments section below.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Europa League - In it to win it

By Nashat Hassan (Follow me on Twitter)

Most people have different ways of coping with a bad football result. Some people tend to vent their frustrations through swearing at the TV while others like to discuss the match they’ve just witnessed with their friends or family over a pint while talking about what went wrong that game. I’m the kind of person who likes to keep quiet after a dodgy result. Off goes the phone and on comes the Playstation3 as I try to recreate the same match on PES 2012, except this time my team wins.

Back in December, Manchester United travelled to St Jakob Park needing only a draw to proceed into the Uefa Champions League knock-out stages. It seemed like an easy task on paper, but we all know football loves to spring out surprises every now and then. Even though our form was poor at the time, we were still pretty much favourites to win the tie against a much weaker side in FC Basel. If asking for a win was too much however, a draw would still have been a good enough result for us to go through to the knock out rounds with the only real repercussion being an increased likelihood of us having to face a stronger opposition in the next stage of the competition.

I still remember being fairly confident before kick off, thinking we’ve been in these situations before. Being Manchester United, we’ve nearly always managed to squirm our way through almost any tough situation, time and time again. The phrase ‘they always score’ springs to mind.

Some 90 minutes later though, something had gone off inside me. Considering I do not normally blame the players and the manager, it really did come as a shock as to how furious and upset I was. There would be no excuses this time round. Most of my anger was aimed towards Sir Alex, where I felt he had let himself and the club down with poor managerial decisions throughout the course of our Champions League campaign, something which I am yet to change my stand on. I have always felt we tend to underestimate our opponents at the most dangerous and unnecessary times, with Leeds in the FA Cup being the most recent notable example that springs to mind in which we lost 1-0 at Old Trafford to a team two divisions below us.

Now, I can appreciate the importance of squad rotation in current day football with us playing around 70 games every season, but the way we managed our squad during those 6 relatively easy games was suicide. The fact that we had only won 2 games throughout the entire campaign, both against Otelul Galati, speaks volumes of how badly we had played during that period, something which I believe is a direct result of team selection inconsistencies and lack of rhythm within our play. Sir Alex described our draw at home to Basel as the key game that we should have won, especially after we were 2-0 up at one point.

I think the Basel result at home is the one where it went wrong. That’s the one where we’ve got to hold our hands up and say that was stupid. We threw it away that night - it was carelessness. It was 2-0 and could have been 5-0, so we’ve only got ourselves to blame in that aspect.” Sir Alex Ferguson

Well, after a run of poor performances, the almighty Manchester United had deservedly dropped out of the Uefa Champions League and had crash landed into a very unfamiliar territory which is often referred to as a ‘European League Cup’ due to most English sides playing their second string teams in the competition to reduce the risk of fatigue and injuries on the clubs attempts at doing as well as they can in their domestic league. Some fans would go as far as o say that ending up as forth in the group stages of the Champions League and being eliminated from all the European competitions altogether, would have even been a smaller loss than having to deal with the hassle of the Europa League and its late Thursday night kick offs. Admittedly, I shared the same feelings myself, as I dreaded the thought of having to face my non-United supporting friends. The vision of rival fans chanting “Thursday nights, Channel 5” grew in my head as I tried to imagine what it would be like for us for the next few months. Embarrassing.

However, I am delighted to say that just a few months after our elimination from the world’s most prestigious club tournament; I could not be any more excited about how well the Europa League has shaped up so far. 

Firstly, the fact that the players and the manager have taken this competition seriously has given me a reason for wanting us to win it. The fact that we have never won the cup before is just an added incentive for us to go out there and give it our best shot. That aside, I would still feel we should try and win the competition should it have been any other way. There is no reason for us to sit here feeling sorry for ourselves when we can go out there and remind Europe that we’re still a force to be reckoned with.

Secondly, for our long term ambition, and for the large number of young players still  to gain any major experience in Europe, it is vital that they can go out there and learn their trade. This is something that can only benefit the likes of Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley who can use this competition as a spring-step to come back even stronger next season and help us push on towards our 4th Champions League trophy.

Thirdly, the fact that there are still many prestigious clubs battling it out alongside us in the tournament means we could be up for some top quality football matches. The thought of us being matched up against sides the like of Porto, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and of course our noisy neighbours Manchester City is mouth watering and something we should savour.

Lastly, and the most important factor for me, as it is without a doubt the biggest factor that has changed my views on why we should do our best in the Europa League is our fans. They have been nothing short of sensational in the way which they have dealt with the whole thing. While many other clubs would have sat there and moaned (a bit like me), our boys have gone out there every weekend and sung their hearts out to let the players know we’re right behind them. Choruses of “Oh Channel 5 is wonderful. It’s full of news, weather and United” have echoed weekly throughout Old Trafford and away grounds all over the country to mock our opposing fans who have tried to put a downer on our current state.

So, with us set to play Ajax at Old Trafford so soon, I will be looking forward to Sir Alex Ferguson setting out another strong attacking line up to take on our Dutch opponents, just like he did at Amsterdam where we we’re unfortunate to only win by a two goal margin. Hopefully we can up our performance by a few gears and dish out a good hammering to our opponents as a reward to our fans which is just what they deserve after how amazing they have been throughout the past couple of months. In case that doesn’t happen for whatever reason though, I’d just like to take a minute to say thank you to all our brilliant fans that made it so much easier for some of us more grumpy folk to look forward to May where, fingers crossed, we’ll be parading our 20th title across Manchester as well as our first ever Europa League trophy.

If you would like to leave a comment on this article, please do so below.

Monday, 20 February 2012

A top summer transfer target and where he could fit in at United

By Jonas Giæver

If I mentioned Nicolás Gaitán to the average United fan last season, I would've recieved a puzzled look, and perhaps a snarky grin. Now he seems to be on everyone's lips as this mysterious enigma that may be heading to Old Trafford come the summer. Perhaps not the highest of profiles, Gaitán is still regarded as one of the true diamonds in the rough world of football.

I remember watching Gaitán as he was part of a frontline that included the likes of Juan Román Riquelme and Martin Palermo at Boca Juniors. A speedy, devious little trickster, unafraid of trying to beat his man. He did seem a bit frail in terms of stature, and his understanding of the game was not as developed. To me, he seemed way too direct, and way too adament to stick to his guns. Not to mention, he was a lefty who lacked a right leg to spare. Much like in my assesment of Angel di María coming through at Rosario earlier, I was to be proven wrong.

When Di María was sold to Real Madrid, Benfica brought in «El Zurdo» (The Lefty) to replace him on their left flank. I saw this as selling a Ferrari and buying a Hummer. Not as much flash, not as much speed, but a more powerful, and perhaps hard-working and grunty style. Gaitán proved last season that the step up was nothing to worry about. He shined in a Benfica side that had sold vital players such as Ramires and Di María, and was to sell David Luiz mid-season as well.

Gaitán is a player whos position is not really defined, and there are some worries as to what position fits him the best. At Boca Juniors he was compared to Riquelme due to his playmaking skills, and his abillity to pick out passes and thread balls through defences. At Benfica he's become more of a winger who enjoys to drift inwards with the ball, and often switches flanks throughout the match to keep his defender guessing. In many ways he's a David Silva type. Silva also started out as a winger, and drifted inwards the pitch and now has an undefined role between midfield and attack. Left flank or right flank is no difference, he will keep his defender guessing by swinging in beautiful crosses, find his back on the overlap, go inwards, or play a one-two. He's not one to hold on the play, which has been the Achilles heel of a player such as Antonio Valencia when not in form.

If United decide to sign him, it could prove to be the marquee signing in attack this summer and we will probably see the end of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov. I imagine him being touted as a possible player to have in between attack and midfield, the same position that Rooney plays. That will free Rooney up, and make him another alternative in terms of who spearheads our attack. The role of striker is Rooney's primary position, as we all remember from the 2009/2010-season when he was absolutely unstoppable in front of goal. A possible signing of Gaitán may prove to be just what United need in attack, both in flair and creativity, as well as efficiency (not taking anything away from Hernández and Welbeck).

Gaitán is a tricky little handful, not afraid of tracking back. His big downside is that he's not consistent enough for my liking. He loses his touch, runs cold and disappears. He's a player that needs to be involved in order for him to maintain his form. Lat week we saw what happened when Zenit locked him off. He ran cold, was not as good on the ball, and struggled to make an impact on the game. To be fair, the pitch did not help him either. It's stll one of the things that he needs to work on. Gaitán is not a high profile player, and he won't make any of your «top 10 lists» any time soon, but his dedication, and sheer hunger to succeed is something that can't be ranked in any list.

Jonas is a Latin American football buff living in Norway. He writes for various outlets and is a lifelong Manchester United fan.

Please leave any comments or questions for Jonas on Gaitán below.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Redsnout's Ramble - United's resurgence, Scholes and Ajax

Still number 1 - Paul Scholes

By RedSnout

Here we are. The gentle waft of European football is just beginning to tanatlise the nostrils once again- naysayers say she's less fragrant and savoury than her prettier sister we usually go out with, but when you think of what happened on that bedeviled night in Basel, it's nothing less than what was deserved. Fair play though, as first night-outs go, a ravishing trip to Amsterdam is as grand as they come. More about it later.

Let's go a few weeks back in time. The air around the club, at the start of this year, had been grumpy with navel gazing and vein busting invective from the support section. Out of the Champions league and League cup, near-jeopardization of title chances with consecutive losses to Steve Kean's Blackburn and Alan Pardew's barcodes, rumours of Rooney exit thanks to shit-stirred, jaundiced journalism and underperforming/injured players. Add these to the ever growing frustration over manager's stubbornness to address the midfield issue which has been apparent for the last two years. The whispers in the corridor suggested a few arrivals, but they never echoed their way into type confirmation. A set of worries was irascibly poured out of every sweaty orifice of the interweb.

At that moment, asking for a convincing performance and win at giddy neighbour's backyard seemed a bit too far-fetched, but that's exactly what was followed, and, in my opinion, could turn out to be a seminal point of the season. Record books may suggest United's 3-2 win over local rivals as a routine cup win that holds no pertinence as they went on to fall in the next hurdle at Anfield. But, in hindsight, it not only ended United's barren run of form and restored belief with in the squad, but also broke City's air of invincibility at home and slowed down that billion-dollar juggernaut. United are unbeaten in the league since then, a run which includes convincing away performances at Arsenal and Chelsea, routine home wins against Bolton, Stoke and those sniveling vermin from Merseyside. If United manage to gain 13 points or more from the next 5 league matches (Norwich, Spurs, Westbrom, Wolves and Fulham), they will be in pole position for the title race when April starts.

There's a fair number of reasons behind United's recent resurgence, but none, I feel, more prominent than a certain ginger bloke from Oldham. To be honest I was quite sceptical about Scholes's return, partly due to the glaring concerns over his fitness and the prospect of him drawing an expendable figure in the squad. Not to mention the slight aggravation over club's apparent settlement to resort to a retired player rather than investing in the future. But, as succinctly put forward in this piece  by the brilliant Zac Hann (ManUtd24), Scholes has been the vital catalyst in United's revival. You could argue, regardless of the result at the end of this season, this move has already eclipsed Henrik Larsson deal in 2007 when it comes to influence on and off the pitch. His direction was something United needed for a number of reasons, but mostly for right footballing ones. Most of his performances this month, by their sheer class and composure, provided tangible gratification for supporters. Long may it continue.

Well, I would be in dereliction of duty not to chow down on the tasty dish that is Ajax- United. This is normally a tie that could light any competition this continent can offer. It's surprising that, In spite of being the powerhouses of Europe for the last few decades, their last competitive meeting was way back in 1976 UEFA cup tie at Old Trafford, where United recorded a 2-1 win. It's difficult to imagine Sir Alex, despite his reiterations on this point, taking this competition as seriously as Docherty did that day. There's a coherent argument that the squad is too thin to challenge for two titles, and this competition is hardly lucrative for a club of United's stature. But actually it is no more a distraction than Champions league, something United have been accustomed to for 20 years. Europa also stages a low-pressure environment for players like Berbatov, Hernandez, Anderson, Park, Cleverley, Fabio, etc where they don't have to come and deliver straight away. We'll have to wait and see the squad-sheet against Ajax to gauge Sir Alex's plans for this competition, I think.

Ajax, unlike United, had a very commendable group stage campaign in Champions league, and should consider very unlucky with the way they went out of it. Need to be said though, their subsequent domestic performances have been quite shambolic but were largely overshadowed by the power struggle between Mr. consigliere Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal. Their win over 17th placed NAC Breda on Saturday was their first this year. Three losses and one draw prior to that this year had tarnished any chance of defending the Dutch title. If there was any good time to face Ajax, I think it's now. This is not to suggest it'll be a cakewalk for United. Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena is always a different proposition and they have the players to hurt a complacent opposition. Christian Eriksen, diminutive Danish player with nimble feet, could prove to be quite handy for United's defence if their midfielders leave space behind them. If Theo Janssen and Nicolai Boilesen are declared to be fit, their participation will lift the squad morale. Toby Alderweireld also has comeback from injury and will partner captain Jan Vertonghen to form an effective CB pairing. Injury to first team players like Gregory van der Wiel, Derk Boerrigter and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson makes Ajax's task on the night an enormous one though.

It’s not easy predicting United lineups when the team is in the form and injured players are coming back. Common sense would suggest that manager will rest a few first team players with the intention of keeping them fresh after a tough run of games. Tom Cleverley, who's been injured out for almost 4 months, could make his European debut today. Hernandez, Pogba and Park Ji-Sung are players who've done well when they came on, and deserve chances. 

My starting line-up will be De Gea- Jones, Smalling, Evans, Fabio- Young, Carrick, Cleverley, Park- Rooney, Hernandez. What's yours?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Man United vs Liverpool Preview - including View from the Kop

With one of the biggest matches of the season coming up on Saturday at Old Trafford when United take on their old foes Liverpool, I had a chat with Liverpool fan Matt Stephens to get his view on progress of his team this season and his expectations for the match.

Liverpool currently lie seventh in the Premier League. Did you expect to be in this position or is it below expectation?

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. However, as bad as it sounds 4th was always the target for most realistic fans which is still very much achievable. What is disappointing is our lack of goals and how we have struggled at home. Seems we miss creativity and consistent finishing. 

What will be seen as a decent season for Liverpool? Would a cup win compensate for missing out on the top 4?

Frankly no. It will lessen the blow but 4th to me is the target. 

Briefly, what was your take on the Suarez/Evra affair?

Think it's almost impossible to deal with this briefly. But I think it's important to point out that Suarez was found to be guilty on the balance of probability. Its not beyond a reasonable doubt so it leaves room for any reasoned person to agree or disagree with the reports findings. I don't agree, not because I 100% believe Suarez or that I support Liverpool Football Club,  but on reading the report I came to my own conclusion that differed to those of the FA, and to those opinions of  some of your readers. 

Would you agree that the affair has been a PR disaster for the club?

Without a doubt. Whoever was in charge of Liverpool's PR needs to be sacked. However I will say that the club doesn't deserve all the slating in the press it received. Some press reporting has been a joke. Some of it has been deserved. 

Liverpool FC do not see Suarez as a racist. They do not agree with the findings of the panel thus they see themselves as backing their player against an incorrect charge. People need to realise this. I'm not saying they need to agree with it. 

What are your memories of Liverpool/United clashes over the years? Is it still viewed by fans as the biggest game of the season?

For me  it is THE biggest game in the year. Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea Man City, Spurs, although big games do not give me butterflies before kick off. I still get that nervous feeling!

I have many memories of Liverpool/United games over the years but the one that sticks in my mind most is January 1994. I was on a family holiday in Tenerife and remember thinking when United went 3 up that this was the worst holiday ever. Obviously things changed. 

Worst memory was the FA cup final. It was a terrible game. But then that's  probably because we lost!!!!

Dalglish's signings have, on the whole, been questionable. What is the view of Liverpool fans on this?

I've fallen out with some of my friends over this. I tend to give players my full backing for at least a season before I pass judgement. I like to remind my friends of my stance on Lucas while they slated him and now he has turned into a great player for us. 

Carroll: Dont think Andy will never be a £35m player. But then Torres won't be a £50m player. Andy has shown glimpses in the last 3 games of why we bought him. It's not his fault he cost £35m. If he gets a chance he will be very important for Liverpool but just like De Gea for United I don't know if he will get that chance.

Suarez: Simply put I rate him highly. Leaving all the controversy aside he is a quality player. Just wish he wasn't so wasteful with the ball.

Downing: I expected more to be honest. Last year before we signed him I trawled the villa forums and consensus for the most part was that he was a better player that Young. Sadly, I just think that he is lacking confidence to actually push on and beat the fullback. This might be because Enrique is so aggressive at getting forward and downing sees it as easier outlet to pass to him. 

Need to stress that we have the worst chance conversion rate in the league. Downing has created many goal scoring opportunities that haven't been put away. He has been somewhat unlucky in that regard. 

Enrique: Kenny's best signing. Great player. Just wish he didn't think the game was a 90 minute WWE slot.  Watch him when he next plays, every tackle is a wrestling match.

Henderson: I rate this lad a lot. Very intelligent with the ball. Runs all day (so would
Heskey I know). Another that has been laboured by the weight of his price tag it seems. Somewhat unfairly by the press in my opinion. 

Adam: On the fence here. Started superbly but always giving away free kicks. Can't tackle. Surprisingly high number of assists though. 

Bellamy: Awesome bit of business. Love the annoying wee shite. 

Coates: Haven't really been able to see him due to our defence playing so well, but looks promising from what I have watched of him. Think he was brought in to replace Carra with thought that Skrtel wasn't really in the picture but he (Skrtel) has been one of our best players this year.

Where do you see the game on Saturday being won and lost?

This is going to sound awfully simple but I think our problems in front of goal will be a major factor. For us to win we will need to score at least twice as I can't see us holding you out for 90 minutes.

If we sit back too much, the Old Trafford crowd will spur the team on more than what they did at Anfield (obviously) and as a result it will be harder to keep the granny banger and Co out.

What are your thoughts on United's season so far and who do you see as our dangermen ahead of the game?

Seems to me that everyone is slating your squad but I can't see why. With the injuries United have had this year and you are sitting in 2nd?!? However a club like United, it probably has been disappointing due to the FA Cup (yeooooo) and Champions league exits (yeoooo). 

It still has an excellent chance of being a very good season with you sitting where you are in the league.

Danger men : Nani (if he turns up) Rooney, Young, Hernandez. Old cliché but you can score from anywhere. The one player who has stood out for me lately though is Valencia. Hope he doesn't play on Saturday.

If you had to pick a side combined with Liverpool and United players, who would be in your first team?



Johnson   Skrtel        Agger         Enrique (evra was never going to get picked)


               Gerrard       Scholes 

Valencia                                 Suarez 


Disclaimer1:  I know. It's biased. I don't care. 

Disclaimer 2: I don't rate ferdinand. 

Disclaimer 3: I love Lucas. 

Seriously though, our defence has been awesome this year hence the selection. However Vidic would definitely be there if fit. 

Finally, what is your prediction for the outcome of the game?

I hope they have a minutes silence / applause for the Munich victims. This needs to be respected by all Liverpool fans. 

If you offered me a draw now I'd take it so with that in mind I'm going for 2-2. 

If Suarez starts, I'm predicting that he will be yellow carded and subbed. I also think he will score. 

A big thank you to Matt for taking the time to answer these questions. If you want a balanced and humourous Liverpool fan (who doesn't?!) to follow on Twitter then you could do a lot worse. He is always up for a debate and although he will fight his corner from a Liverpool point of view, he is not averse to criticising the club when appropriate.

My thoughts on the game:

As Matt says above, for both clubs fans this is still the biggest game of the season. There is no other match that gets the butterflies flowing than the visit of Liverpool to Old Trafford. This tends to bring out the pessimist in me and I start to have nightmares about Gerrard kissing the camera for the umpteenth time and of Bellamy skinning Rio for pace as he has done previously.

The manager's selection dilemmas come in the centre of midfield, out wide and up front. I see no reason to change the back five from last weekend with Rafael at right back being rewarded for his excellent recent form. Smalling and Jones are likely to be missing so Ferdinand and Evans should continue in the centre. Although Giggs started in midfield at Stamford Bridge, I think Scholes will get the nod tomorrow. There is talk of Cleverley being thrown straight back in after a three month lay off but this would be risky in the extreme given his injury record so I would have him warming the bench. Valencia will play right in the continuing absence of Nani with Young on the left edging out Giggs and Park. The former may well come on in the second half and attempt to weave the magic seen at Arsenal and Chelsea in recent weeks. Up front, the choice of Rooney's partner comes down to Welbeck or Hernández. The Englishman's recent form coupled with the Mexican's lack of quality outside the box swing the decision in Welbeck's favour for me but either way the movement and pace of these two will test the solidity of Agger and Skrtel.

For Liverpool, the main selection question is who to pick in forward areas where the likes of Bellamy, Kuyt, Suarez and Carroll are all vying for starting places. It is likely that Dalglish will go with just one up front and if so then Suarez must be favourite with Carroll left on the bench. Bellamy and Kuyt could play wide to help counter United's threat in that area. The atmosphere will be red hot if Suarez was to start but it would not surprise me to see the heat taken out of the situation by Dalglish picking Carroll and leaving the temperamental Uruguayan on the bench. The former Newcastle flop has been in better form in recent weeks and means that the away side can play a more direct style.

Overall, I think the game will be very tight and I could make a decent argument for any of the three possible results. I will go for United to edge it 2-1 but I do so with very little conviction. With our bench once again looking strong, it could perhaps be our well renowned game changers who have a big impact.

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Friday, 3 February 2012

Chelsea vs Manchester United: Where it will be won and lost

Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday for a pivotal fixture in the destination of the Barclays Premier League title.

By way of a preview, I will be looking at the key areas that will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the game:

Valencia vs Bertrand - Following the dismissal of Ashley Cole against Swansea, Chelsea are likely to go into the game with rookie Ryan Bertrand at left back. Even if the England international had been available, this would still have been identified as a potential area that United could exploit, bearing in mind the torrid time handed out to Cole by Valencia in recent fixtures. The Ecuadorian is in the form of his life at the moment and will truly fancy his chances of inflicting the sort of damage that could change the game. Valencia is very much an old fashioned winger. He does not possess a "trick" as such to beat his man but relies on his pace and movement to get to the byline before unleashing a testing cross. The phrase "getting chalk on his boots" is incredibly apt for him at the moment as he hugs the touchline inviting long balls from the likes of Carrick and Scholes from the centre thus helping to stretch the opposition. Another key to his recent resurgence has been the combination play with his colleague at full back meaning that his opponent has often had to deal with both. The choice of right back on Sunday appears to come between the attacking verve and youthful enthusiasm of Rafael or the more conservative and defensive selection of Chris Smalling. Ferguson's propensity to err on the side of caution will probably mean that the Englishman gets the nod but he may just alter his mindset knowing that Cole will be absent.

Welbeck/Rooney vs Terry/Luiz - The news that United fans wanted was duly announced by the boss in his weekly press conference when he revealed that Rooney, Nani, Young and Cleverley could all be in the squad travelling to London. The return of United's number ten is the most noteworthy as it means that the away side can go into the game with him playing off a front man (most likely Welbeck) with Rooney able to drop deep to assist the midfield two as he has done successfully in recent away fixtures against City and Arsenal. A key feature of the game will be how the Englishman can affect the time and space afforded to Chelsea's defensive anchor whether it is Romeu or the returning Essien. It is a role he has carried out with varying degrees of success in recent years when one remembers encounters against Mikel (successful) and Busquets (much less so!). It will be in the final third that United will hope that the forward duo will have most effect on the match up against Luiz and Terry (injury permitting, otherwise Ivanovic). Welbeck's exciting form this season owes a lot to his impressive movement and pace which has helped to stretch opposition back lines and if he can isolate either of the two centre backs then United will surely prosper. To be fair, Chelsea's defence has tightened recently somewhat from their early season mishaps but one still gets the impression that Luiz is an accident waiting to happen and either Terry or Ivanovic are susceptible to pace and guile.

Nani or Park? Boswinga or Ivanovic - The news that Nani has trained in the last couple of days will be another boost to the club based on his generally excellent form this season. When he limped off the pitch at the Emirates, many feared a lengthy absence due to a dreaded metatarsal break but these fears have been allayed and the Portuguese flyer will look to inflict similar damage on Chelsea as he did to Djourou against Arsenal. If Nani is not deemed sufficiently fit to resume his role down the left then the likely selection will be Park whose defensive capabilities can be an asset away from home but he offers little in terms of attacking threat in most situations. Ashley Young is also close to a return and United suddenly look like they have a wide range of options with which to plot the downfall of the opposition from the wide areas. In recent games, Ivanovic has been the right back of choice against United due to his defensive intelligence when compared to the more forward thinking Boswinga. Either way, Nani will fancy his chances and one hopes that he trusts his left foot a little more as his opponents have a tendency to show him inside (an option he all too frequently takes) and thus leaving themselves vulnerable to being caught flat footed as the winger goes on his left foot. The recent resurgence in form of Evra is also worth noting and his attacking threat has meant that opposition full backs have their hands full if their wide man fails to track back (as seen at Arsenal where Oxlade Chamberlain left Djourou exposed).

The midfield battle - I would expect Carrick and Giggs to be chosen in the centre at Stamford Bridge, a ground where they have excelled as a partnership in recent years (except the second half of last season's league game!). With Rooney assisting when appropriate, United will look to gain control with astute passing and sensible positioning. The injury to Ramires will be welcome to this duo who can have a tendency to lose midfield runners and the slim Brazilian can often be found ahead of his strikers as he breaks into the box. Although Lampard (if fit and selected) had this quality, age is catching up somewhat and his forward surges are not quite the threat they once were. The return of Essien (if deemed match fit) will be a huge boost for the Londoners after a lengthy lay off. Although youngster Romeu has settled in admirably, the swashbuckling Ghanaian adds bite and drive to the central area. Raul Meireles is another option in the holding midfield role but he is better suited to a more attacking position and could be unsettled by the presence of Rooney in his face. With two wide men on the pitch, look for Carrick and Giggs to attempt to spread the ball out to the wings when possible and put the onus on them to beat their opponent or to supply the ammunition for Rooney and Welbeck.

Off the bench - The return of a few of the walking wounded for United also has a knock on effect that it strengthens the options available to Ferguson if he needs to change the game or close it out. In recent weeks, the likes of the Will Keane, Pogba, Cole and Fryers have all been selected on the bench and while it is heartening to see their progress, it is asking a lot of them to change a game at the highest level. On Sunday, United's bench could possibly have the likes of Hernández, Berbatov, Young, Cleverley and Scholes all as options which significantly increases the chances of a notable impact as the starting players tire.

The Chelsea threat - The primary threat from the home side will come naturally from their front three and notably their players either side of Torres. Mata has had an encouraging start to life in the Premier League where his guile and creativity have given Chelsea an extra edge sadly lacking last season. The Spaniard has a  tendency to roam across the pitch at times in order to make an impact and although from an attacking point of view this can be an asset, the left back can be left exposed. When Ashley Cole is in residence, that is less of a problem but his suspension and the subsequent promotion of Bertrand means Mata may have to be more rigid in his positioning. He will be tasked with orchestrating United's downfall by threading passes in behind Ferdinand and Evans whilst hoping that Torres has his shooting boots on. Sturridge on the right will look to isolate Evra one on one and use his movement to cause a lapse in positioning. The Frenchman will need to be wary of him at the back post as he looks to get into goal scoring positions when the ball is delivered from the left. The mis-firing Torres tends to raise his game at the prospect of facing United and there would be no better game for his potency to return than at home against their rivals. He cannot be underestimated by United's centre backs as although he has lost a yard of the once renowned blistering pace, he can still get into positions of threat. 

Team Prediction

Score Prediction
Based on what I have written above and my general bias towards United, I will go for a 2-1 away victory. The caveat to this is the return of Rooney and Nani to the first team. If either are unfit then a low scoring draw is more likely as Ferguson may well go with Park and Scholes (as at Anfield) which would isolate Welbeck once more. Not for the first time, I have a feeling that the winner may come via an introduction from the bench so maybe a certain Mexican will pop up with a late United winner.

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