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Jan 202014

Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United
72383208 72383207 So Right, but So Wrong!How is it possible for Manchester United to get it so right and so wrong simultaneously? David Moyes was tactically daring in a manner I can’t remember before and his plan was actually working. Unfortunately, you have to have the horses and when you don’t–whether it be from the absence of Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney or the absent grey matter of his defensive line–you lose! What worked well was the placement of of Adnan Januzaj high up the pitch, usually a step in front of Danny Welbeck, with Welbeck dropping deep to draw the sting out of David Luiz or Ramires. This allowed Januzaj to drift and flit all about the left side of the field, giving Bronislav Ivanovic a heap of headaches.

With Jose Mourinho surprisingly reliant on the aforementioned Ivanovic to play like an old-fashioned sweeper to fill the holes caused by John Terry and Gary Cahill’s lack of speed, Moyes had United pour it on relentlessly down the left flank. Unfortunately, although the tactic worked, the Red Devils proved to be toothless. Ashley Young’s soft shot was saved by Petr Cech and, after a brilliant one-two with Welbeck, Patrice Evra fired into the side-netting. Unfortunately, because he no longer owns the ability to double-clutch on the run , tackle hard, or move laterally, Evra mostly doubled up the work Januzaj needed to do. Too Much of United’s play revolved around Januzaj. Twelve minutes in, he squared superbly for Welbeck, who couldn’t get the ball away from César Azpilicueta. His return pass was well hit, but Januzaj found nobody to pass to and the ball flew sideways past an empty goal.

For the first sixteen minutes United dominated but wasted their half-chances. Indeed, they owned the lion’s share of the ball and held their own against Chelsea’s technically superb midfield. Still, in spite of United’s midfield doing more than just managing to hang in there, however, there was United’s lack of concentration and fortitude at the back. The three three less-than-remarkable goals they conceded came about simply because of mistakes. The fact is that Chelsea never came close to penetrating United in open play. Jose Mourinho may indeed be an astute tactician, but there was nothing adventurous or surprising in the way Chelsea took down United. They were simply superior because they remained focused, relentlessly committed, concentrated and were fully prepared to do their jobs.

At any rate, a hat-trick by Samuel Eto’o kept United in the quicksand of no-Europe-next-season-land as they fell a full fourteen points behind the league leaders, Arsenal. Chelsea maintained the pressure on the Premier League pacesetters and surely ended Manchester United’s chances of retaining their title. Chelsea are now only two points behind leaders Arsenal and one adrift of Manchester City. And by February I predict the rest of the season will be a two horse-race between Manchester City and Chelsea. Meanwhile, United have their backs to the wall on Wednesday as they try to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford without their suspended captain, Nemanja Vidic. who starts a three-match ban after receiving a late red card.

Chelsea took the lead after 18 minutes when a weak left-footed shot from Eto’o took an unlucky touch off Michael Carrick’s outstretched leg before squirming over United keeper David de Gea, who might have done better. Minutes later, United were still showing some sharp teeth. A Januzaj cross dissected the Blues’ defence, landing at the feet of Welbeck. Their left back, Cesar Azpilicueta, really did seem to catch the England striker’s leg as he took the shot, but the referee, Phil Dowd, was having none of it after Cech caught the loose ball. After that the determination seemed to fall out of United’s collective will to win.

Then, just on the cusp of half-time, Eto’o drove a dagger into United’s heart, doubling Chelsea’s lead as Cahill squared an easily interceptable pass that United’s whole flat-footed defense frozen. Everybody was a watcher as the Cameroonian striker zipped in to casually thrust home just past De Gea’s outstretched fingertips. Moyes’ half-time pep-talk seemed to do no good whatsoever, however, as, only four miserable minutes into the second half, dreadful marking at a corner allowed an unchallenged John Terry to nod the ball in the direction of goal. De Gea scrambled the loose ball away, but Eto’o was there again, casually tapping the loose ball for his hat-trick.

The remainder of the game was a matter of Chelsea more or less casually retaining possession and United in damage control mode. When Hernandez gave the scoreline a little respectability in the 78th minute, pirouetting only a foot or so in front of the goalmouth to push home a sloppily executed Phil Jones shot, the United fan contingent came to life. With that Mourinho shored up his tired defense by introducing the team’s prodigal son from Benfica, Nemanja Matic, and Hard Man Jon Obi Mikel so that any momentary United late threat was snuffed out for good.

Finally, for no perceptible reason, a clearly frustrated Nemanja Vidic, took out a sprinting Eden Hazard and received the red card the foul deserved. Further to that, despite his team being down to ten men, Rafael Da Silva got some payback on Chelsea’s center back Gary Cahill with a studs-up foul and was extremely fortunate to receive no more than a yellow card.

After the match, David Moyes had a very difficult time holding his head up. “What we don’t do is throw the towel in until we can’t get there. The job is to finish first and we’ll try to do that,” he mumbled.
David Moyes Manchester Un 011 So Right, but So Wrong!

Pretty Convincing Villans

 Posted by on December 17, 2013 at 12:57 am  Aston Villa, Blogs/Media, England, EPL, Manchester United
Dec 172013

Aston Villa 0-3 Manchester United
71755039 welbeck getty Pretty Convincing VillansTouted as one of the hottest up-and-coming young managers in the Premier League, and Scottish to boot, Paul Lambert blew it big-time at home against Manchester United. With David Moyes’ United team going through a period of uncertainty after major internal managerial changes and a parallel inability to win consistently on the football field, Lambert clearly thought they were ripe for a beating at the hands of his young team. Physically small in general, United have often been pummeled by opposition this season, especially away from home. Clearly out to test the waters with the referee, Lee Mason, from the get-go, Lambert had his left-back, Antonio Luna, go after one of the red devils more hot-headed players, Rafael Da Silva only one minute in. When Mason chose to ignore a reckless body-check on Rafael by Luna that had the Brazilian wing-back flying through the air like a trapeze artist, he sent a clear message to both managers and their teams. By the time another ten minutes had gone by, Villa’s huge, lumbering center-back had already raked the back of Danny Welbeck’s thighs with his studs and stepped on Wayne Rooney’s foot while Luna also kneed winger Adnan Januzaj and then grabbed a handful of his shirt before tossing the tiny Kosovar to the ground which at least drew a whistle and a free kick from the indolent Mason.

Victories at Villa Park haven’t been difficult in years for United and this one was almost a route, because , simply put, Villa’s unconvincing Yobbo act served to motivate rather than intimidate United. Moyes pretty much got a good performance from everybody barring a leggy Evra. Particularly satisfying was the performance of the often unfathomable, but undeniably gifted striker Danny Welbeck, who had, up to Sunday’s match, repeatedly been a disappointment all season. Welbeck scored twice–his first goals in the Premier League for United since the opening day of the season–within a three minute period and the relief, to Welbeck himself, the manager, his teammates and the fans was clearly visible. Additionally, on a raw late Brum afternoon, Tom Cleverley, who has now flattered to deceive for United for around three seasons, notched up his first goal of the season. Best of all, if you’ve been embarrassed by United’s clear lack of technique and guts in midfield, the sight of Darren Fletcher returning to the team in the 70th minute as a substitute for Ryan Giggs was a sight for sore eyes after two years off caused by ulcerative colitis.

Their first victory in five matches put them up a place on the league ladder to eighth. Indeed an angry United salved their bruises of the body and the ego with an effortless dominance. Only a ridiculous profligacy in front of goal by Rooney, Welbeck and Cleverley prevented United from easily scoring eight or nine goals. Weird that they had started the game low in confidence, punchy from relentless criticism from the usual pundits, convinced by the fickle majority that they were cruising for a third PL loss in a row. Yet, by the end of the match, United were passing the ball around with the old virile swagger as the traveling red army warbled happily through their Christmas songbook. Indeed with fixtures against Stoke City, West Ham United, Hull City and Norwich before the transfer window opens up in January, things may really, actually be looking up.

The truth is that Villa, having attempted the thuggish approach, simply quit after Welbeck put United ahead in the 15th minute. The bruised Rafael and his intimidating Ecuadorian right-wing partner Antonio Valencia, utterly humiliated both Antonio Luna and his pivot back-up Nathan Baker who were about as useful to Villa as a couple of tree stumps.

Welbeck’s goal famine came to an end as Rafael da Silva wriggled clear of Nathan Baker despite his holding on to his shirt with both hands. The Brazilian fired a fine cross off his laces which an unmarked Januzaj headed hard against the far post. The ball then rebounded into Welbeck’s path and he volleyed home from six yards. A bare 180 seconds later, the gormless Nathan Baker carelessly allowed Januzaj to steal the ball off his toe 45 yards out from Villa’s goal. Januzaj, brilliant once again, nattily found Cleverley and he found Welbeck. A sweet one-two followed between Valencia and Welbeck. Valencia was off to the races then, accompanied neck and neck from the inside by Welbeck. A low cutback followed and the England international striker slid the ball into the corner of the net while Villa’s American goalie Brad Guzan remained static and frozen.

Had United taken a succession of yawning chances before the half-time whistle blew it would have been a rugby score. Valencia repeatedly took an ineffectual Antonio Luna to school. He fashioned two chances out of nothing as the superb Wayne Rooney mistimed a shot off his pass an inch past the post; and, another as Welbeck executed a wind-sprint to catch up with a perfectly hit through ball from the Ecuadorian in the inside-right channel, which he over-hit, dragging the ball narrowly wide.

When the third United goal finally arrived six minutes into the second half, Antonio Luna’s tough day at the office transitioned into a nightmare as he gifted possession to Tom Cleverley on the edge of Villa’s box. The Yorkshireman traded passes with Rooney before double-dummying both Nathan Baker and Matthew Lowton before beating an advancing Guzan with a shot inside his near post.

Watching Lambert’s Villa team is instructional for those of us who wish upon a star for young British talent to be blooded in the Premier League. A fine player for the likes of Glasgow Celtic and Borussia Dortmund in his pomp, Lambert has worked his way up from the ham-and-egg world of the Second Division to the PL, one division at a time. Inheriting what had been the league’s finest youth team (save for United’s) in 2004-05 and 2005-06 was thought of by the so-called experts as offering Lambert a huge opportunity. Indeed players like Matt Lowton, Kieran Westwood, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Delfouneso and Nathan Baker were supposed to mix with brilliant newly acquired rising stars like Fabian Delph, Christian Benteke and Karim El Ahmedi and form a challenging, low-budget quality club that could compete well in the top ten. This has not happened. In much the same as United have produced lots of fine warriors who compete well in the championship Division like Luke Chadwick, James Chester, Matty James and Robbie Brady, Villa have suffered from the same problems. Atypically, against United’s Rafael Da Silva and Antonio Valencia, Baker, Westwood, Clark and Westwood were all found desperately wanting. As we’ve seen so many times, most young British and Irish players just tend to not measure up.

At any rate, it was, all in all, a good night for Manchester United. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of missed chances, especially by Danny Welbeck–despite having scored two goals–still gives food for thought. With a number of upcoming fixtures offering a lesser threat quotient, including Olympiakos in the European Champions’ Cup, David Moyes can perhaps use the time to make the ruthless decisions he needs to make between now and midnight on January 31, 2014
danny welbeck 011 Pretty Convincing Villans

Dec 122013

Manchester United 1-0 Shakhtar Donetsk
Manchester United v Shakh 017 Jonesy Gets it Done!Ricky Cockcroft, my old, sad-sack, City-supporting mate since 1969, was all set for a rip-snorting party after this match followed by a day off work. The very idea of it: With fifty-one years having passed since United last experienced three consecutive defeats at Old Trafford on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis–even considering just how Manchester City, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers could have all left the Theater of Dreams victorious is unthinkable to me. Anyway–sigh!–even though his Abu Dhabian sky-blue mercenaries won in Munich and he called in sick as a dog anyway–the Red Devils somehow fashioned a win.

“You lot are finished, anyway,” he said. “It’s over. You lot are done.”

Nothing warms the wee cockles of my still-beating heart than deeply embittered City, Liverpool and Arsenal fans predicting, beyond, you know, our imminent temporary demise, that it’s over forever! Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been involved in a fair bit of binge, cringe and vomit of my own of late; but, as I say, having become a fan in 1957, I’ven repeatedly paid my fare at the turnstile and loved my red devils through thick and thin. This too shall pass, and whether it’s under the spiritual aegis of David Moyes or not, everything will ultimately be all right.

First things first, however, and this win over the Ukrainian champions, Shakhtar Donetsk, gives David Moyes a few hours breathing room before his feet are put in the fire again against Aston Villa on Sunday…

The strike that gave United their first victory of December was a moment of will-fuelled, half-volleyed inspiration from our dough-faced warrior Phil Jones in the 67th-minute. With our awesome crew of strikers undergoing a temporary collective crisis of form and confidence, just who gets it done hardly matters, provided the fatal deed gets done.

Although the seven point gap that lies between United and City for fourth place looms large in the Premier League table of the moment, we can only work our way back one match at a time. A win over the Ukrainian champions meant we did ourselves a huge favor, however, because now we will not have to play against any powerhouse favorites in the next round.

“We had a disappointing five days here at Old Trafford,” Moyes mused before kick-off, blinking repeatedly from the attention of photographers. It all gave me a certain daydreaming of a certain Dutch boy in red-white-&-black painted wooden clogs, standing there awkwardly looking at the press corps, who are all staring at his finger trapped inside a crack inside a dyke wall which no one acknowledges. “Prior to that we’d been on a healthy run and we now need to work hard to put together another sequence of good results. We are fully aware that we need to play better but on several occasions we have lacked a little bit of good fortune.”

Nice speech, ey? As with Dunkirk, the best British way is to act like nothing’s wrong and tap stout fellows like Phil Jones on the shoulder and tell them. “You’re it, bay-ba!”

Moyes, who Rio Ferdinand does himself no favors in publicly criticizing, picked his line-up just over an hour before kick-off. Robin van Persie was left on the bench, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Marouane Fellaini, and the long crocked Michael Carrick, who has an achilles injury, were all left out. With Januzaj, Kagawa, Young, Giggs and Rafael stroking the ball around there was reason for confidence. Phil Jones, partnering Ryan Giggs in central midfield, had an early go at goal, but Shakhtar’s goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov found it easy to collect.

Manchester United v Shakh 005 Jonesy Gets it Done!That would be more or less the last attack United managed to mount in the first-half. Incapable of holding the ball and plagued by an inability to make a successful pass, United once again fell into a state of collective apathy. Shakhtar’s high-quality Brazilian core midfield led by Taison, Teixeira, Fred and the ever-dangerous Douglas, repeatedly ran United’s wobbly defense ragged, particularly right-back Rafael Da Silva and a perpetually marooned Rio Ferdinand. Just how and why Shakhtar’s technically brilliant Brazilian contingent couldn’t put the ball in the net is not simple to explain, but Rafael, Evans and De Gea were a bulwark of determined fortitude, despite the fact that the twinkle-toed, fleet-footed Teixeira managed to give the Brazilian right-back a torrid time. Perhaps it was because there were so many club and national scouts in the crowd watching the four virtuosos who were later joined by the winger Bernard. Their dribbling runs and trickery earned and deserved much applause as United’s midfield and defense were repeatedly caught in flat-footed lapses. Luckily they were unable to conjure up that final blow in much the same way our own strikers have done of late.

Only Wayne Rooney managed to operate successfully, but he was repeatedly surrounded and double-marked by Shakhtar defenders. His sole highlight after drawing a foul was a 25-yard free-kick which hooked almost perfectly, but tumbled perhaps an inch too far left into the side-netting. Directly afterward, though, having picked up a loose ball from Andrey Pyatov’s goal-kick, Rio casually gave away the ball to Teixeira and shrugged ridiculously as the Brazilian dynamo took off. After turning Rafael around twice, Teixeira inexplicably decided not to go it alone and fired a sweet pass to a surprised Fred, whose wicked shot was blocked by Evans and De Gea.

Manchester United vs Shak 016 Jonesy Gets it Done!Something way beyond sarcasm and rage was surely unleashed on the team by Moyes on the team at half-time, though. Once back on the field, United actually began ratcheting up the tempo. First, Wayne Rooney then Young (twice) had chances but these only came close. One was almost wonderful, as Ashley Young took a leaf out of Douglas’ book, dispossessing Darijo Srna, shimmying this way and that before streaking past an advancing Pyatov, but then unfathomably firing his gentle lob over the goalie but wide of the goal. Young’s other miss, when he was left completely alone at the edge of the box and allowed to blast the ball a foot wide of an empty net was just one more nail in the coffin of his disappointing career in a United kit.

Then both Kagawa and Rooney blasted over Pyatov at more or less pointblank range and hearts began to sink. Moyes did get it right then, however. Van Persie and Cleverley were more than adequate replacements for the ineffective Young and Giggs in the 63rd minute. Van Persie is still notably wrapped up around the right thigh and a little hindered in his usual mode of sudden lateral sprinting. Nevertheless, his left foot is always a lethal weapon. Having only been on the pitch for four minutes the Dutch striker instantaneously sewed panic in the Ukrainian champions’ box. after a desperate Srna clearance. Van Persie’s corner dipped before Pyatov could commit to diving into a melée to receive it. Jones charged in to meet it, moving sideways to avoid connecting with Stepanenko, his left shoulder out to break the fall, his big head tucked into his left shoulder, he threw himself to his left and fired a sweet right-footed half-volley into the net to kill the will of the Ukrainians for the final twenty minutes.

Moyes’s men finished their group campaign with an impressive 14 points and four wins from six matches. Yes. On paper, we still look very very daunting in Europe.

“You lot are s%i*,” Rickey emailed me. “You’re not going to win an egg cup!”

“Enjoy your Christmas now,” I replied, “because only Manchester United celebrate Christmas in May!”
Manchester Uniteds Young 012 Jonesy Gets it Done!

Dec 092013

“David Moyes is kidding himself if he thinks he has the luxury of a ‘transitional period!’”—————————————————————————–Ron Atkinson

Manchester United 0-1 Newcastle United
Manchester United v Newcastle United Premier League 29011261 Moyes Magpie NightmareThe last time Manchester United lost at home to Newcastle United, it was 1972 and Frank O’Farrell was the manager. Following Wednesday’s first home loss to Everton in 21 years, the talk is no longer about coming back and making an April smash-and-grab to steal a way back into the top four. Now the talk is about resignation, pride and survival and the probability of blooding more youth players before the January transfer window opens up its big greedy maw.

Ask Paddy Crerand and he’ll tell you. Frank O’Farell was the nicest man to ever manage United. Indeed, when it dawned on Sir Matt Busby what an old school, sweet gentleman O’Farrell was–despite all his previous success in the lower divisions and a relatively big contract–an utterly ruthless stepped in after eighteen months(although it seemed much shorter at the time!), just as he also had with O’Farrell’s predecessor, Wilf McGuinness, and gave him the heave-ho. It really is unlikely that Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill would advise the Glazers to act quickly to nip this problem in the bud before it goes into free fall, but this utter, gutless capitulation to Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United–a team with an ongoing soap-opera of its very own–will surely have the heavy hitters on the club’s board burning each others ears off between Salford and Tampa.

Shockingly still and silent in the first half, a mute Stretford End certainly communicated something; but, the only sound that could be heard was of the Magpie choir mocking the locals. Toothless without Wayne Rooney, United, led by a bandaged Robin Van Persie played collectively like one overweight mierda-faced drunk. In the first half they produced a single soft shot from Phil Jones on Tim Krull’s goal. Only Little Boy Red, Adnan Januzaj, produced anything at all resembling a threat to a disdainful Newcastle midfield without even coming within the vicinity of their penalty area. United’s midfield pairing of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverly, after taking note of the disdainful manner in which referee André Marriner treated their appeals for justice after repeatedly being rough-housed by Cheik Tioté and the cheeky, grinning Vernon Anita pretty much gave up the ghost early. Indeed, like a puppy resigned to being whipped by his master’s extension cord, Tom Cleverley has these days consistently become any opponents twelfth man.

The truth is that Newcastle were not really that much of a better team during a dire, dull first half. They were precise and made no mistakes, yet a far cry from the buccaneering Everton side the club faced three days before or the schizophrenic Spurs side we tested a week ago. United were only truly found out badly when Loïc Rémy caught a tired Patrice Evra napping with a brilliant curving pass to a marauding Mathieu Debuchy which forced a fantastic reflex save from David de Gea in injury time.

Cheik Tiote and Phil Jones compete for the ball 2901209 Moyes Magpie NightmareMoyes must have raised his voice at half-time because the Red Devils upped their tempo for the first ten minutes of the second half. Krul made a save off Hernández after he connected to a superb Van Persie diagonal ball. United were a bit unlucky that Evra’s set-piece header from a Nani cross was blocked by Anita at the far post, maybe with his arm. Minus Wayne Rooney and with Robin Van Persie very much in a subdued mood, United were toothless.

Then things finally fell apart an hour in when Newcastle nicked the lead. Predictably, it was Patrice Evra, now a desiccated husk of a defender, incapable of coping with the run from anyone capable of shifting gears, who cost us dear again. Having picked off another dithered moment of Cleverley indecision, the superb Moussa Sissoko waggled his tongue as he zipped past Evra, zig-zagging beautifully into open before tapping a sweet cut-back for Cabaye. Cabaye–a superb General for the French national team, back from the brink of elimination in the World Cup– has an elegant eye for goal. His perfectly hit angled shot was definitely headed toward goal with David De Gea diving for it, when Vidic’s heel inadvertently caught it and gave it just a tad more force on its way into the net. If any one player in the Premier League would suit our style of play, it’s Cabaye.

David Moyes’ frustrated response was to take off Nani and a clueless Cleverley for Wilfried Zaha and Anderson, clearly bamboozling anybody who’s been observing his lack of faith in the latter two over the first quarter of the season. For good measure he also sent on Antonio Valencia, replacing Rafael da Silva. Completely unfazed, the Magpies boss Alan Pardew brought on Hatem Ben-Arfa, a pesky master of ball retention and tricky wing play who upped their energy ante even higher so that Newcastle’s confidence level peaked as they continued to pass the ball around confidently, whle Cheik Tioté repeatedly dispossessed any United player willing to clash with him.

Worse, as the clock ticked down and possession become more and more essential with every second that passed, why did Anderson and Januzaj keep giving away the ball? And call me old-fashioned, but with so much at stake, doesn’t it seem like maybe Moyies might have been screaming at them? Too little too late, once again.

It is acceptable for Moyes to confess that he is thus far way out of his depth when it comes to swimming with the big boys at the deep end of the pool. A certain amount of cleaning up should have been done by Sir Alex Ferguson before he gave his office keys to the secretary, to be sure. Unable or unwilling to let go the likes of Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand, both of whom were past what should have been their sell-by dates two seasons ago, the old more ruthless Fergie, it seems, was already fading. Anyway, someone was somehow able to convince Moyes that he needed them. Additionally, the triple conundrum which are Nani , Young and Anderson fooled us fans for years and also received the benefit of the doubt from the new boss. Additionally, the weird shenanigans concerning Zaha on Moyes’ part carried on into this afternoon when he was introduced late for Nani. If Moyes is willing to play him, why would he have made the statement a few weeks back that the lad was six months away from being ready for playing in the Premiership? What does that do for his confidence? It’s a sad, rotten shame that so much August dithering will not only lead to some painful bloodletting and bitterness next month as the players in question are allowed to leave for fees way below their market value or in highly speculative swap moves.

At any rate, with January looming, speculation on what Moyes will do with the line-up against Shakhtar and Aston Villa ought to be interesting. Considering Fabio Da Silva over the defensively toxic Patrice Evra at the left-back position would be a start. Trying out his twin Rafael in midfield next to Fellaini or Jones couldn’t hurt, either.
71600925 454110509 Moyes Magpie Nightmare

Nov 042013

Fulham 1-3 Manchester United
Robin van Persie scores 001 Thirteen Minutes Of EcstacyUnited’s manager David Moyes will surely be delighted with his team’s thirteen minute spell of razor-sharp ruthlessness, expanding their unbeaten run to seven games in all competitions with a well deserved fourth consecutive win. Not bad at all, but we want more!

Victories featuring the fingers-crossed, gormless pairing of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley in central midfield are bound to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Allowed huge mounts of space by the geriatric, stiff-upper-lipped London-Lad pairing of Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker, Messrs, Van Persie and Rooney had the run of Craven Cottage and enjoyed themselves tremendously. This season they will rarely get as easy a first half as they did at Craven Cottage.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Fulham’s embattled manager, Martin Jol; but, if it’s horses for courses, his team never stood a chance. A lackluster defeat at Southampton last weekend and a mid-week Capital One Cup exit to Leicester City in midweek have Jol teetering like a drunk on the North Face of the Eiger. After having made the footballing Lord of laissez-faire, Dimitar Berbatov, his captain for the day, it may be that the big Dutchman has given up the ghost already and is simply awaiting the whisper of the axe. The latest bookmaker free bets can be especially interesting.

Fulham fell a goal behind only nine minutes in as a sharp United effortlessly dissected the Cottagers anemic defense. Beautifully functional in execution, Robin Van Persie hoovered up a long Nemanja Vidic pass and swiveled exquisitely before playing in an unselfish Rooney, who cut the ball back to Valencia. The Ecuadorian winger took his time and expertly prodded home his chance.

With Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones quicker than Sidwell and Parker in the first half, who needed Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini? But having made a few useful plays, once relaxed, Tom Cleverley really does love to give the ball away to the opposition and Scott Parker seized on two telegraphed efforts. The first time, he, too missed with his pass, but the second time he put in a fine pass to Dimitar Berbatov. Fortunately, Rafael Da Silva made a clever, well-timed tackle to frustrate the Bulgarian striker. Moments later, however, United dismantled any sense of self-esteem the West Londoners had quickly built up, scoring twice more in the space of four minutes.

The brilliant Adnan Januzaj was the instrument of the second goal. After having been dispossessed by Parker, Parker went down in a dramatic heap after losing it back to the young Belgian. But the referee, Lee Probert, was having none of it and, while Parker jumped back up to argue, the baby-faced assassin was off to the races before passing to an unmarked Van Persie, who powered the ball home from 15 yards out. Two minutes more and Rooney made child’s play of a tap-in after a fine sweeping diagonal run made it 3-0.

In the second half, not helped at all by injuries to Rafael, Cleverley and Evans, United made three substitutions and suddenly turned promiscuously lax. It would be pointless to blame Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini or Shinji Kagawa, when collective vanity and complacency were the true problem. With Jones and Fellaini now policing midfield, United were too static to to think in terms of their usual counterattacking tactics. Apart from Rooney, Van Persie, and the ebulient Januzaj, United’s collective confidence seemed to suddenly drain away.

Fulham v Manchester Unite 011 Thirteen Minutes Of EcstacyRelentlessly sloppy, United looked all set to botch yet another match after the 65th minute, when a 20-yard shot by Alexander Kacaniklic pinged into the net after taking a deflection off Valencia. Still way too casual even then, United began to miss pass after pass and stopped chasing and pressing. And things really tightened up tremendously after Jol made a couple of wise decisions. First, in the 75th minute, the big Dutchman substituted Berbatov’s partner-in-sloth Bryan Ruiz with Adel Taarabt. Soon after, on came Darren Bent for a tired Scott Parker. The graft and passing prowess that Taraabt added to his team’s midfield almost paid off with a couple of headers from Bent and Berbatov that hit United’s upright.

The subdued home crowd were only roused when it came to booing. Letting Bryan Ruiz have it when he left the field and Darren Bent when he came on. There was also a serious confrontation between Marouane Fellaini and right back Sascha Riether after the Fulham defender clearly appeared to stamp on Adnan Januzaj. Clearly, Januzaj, with his amazing capacity to dribble, enrage his opponents and draw free kicks so well, is already becoming a special part of the Premier League.

Considering the concussion suffered by Tom Cleverley and the high number of foul and indignities perpetrated on Adnan Januzaj, it’s about time Marouane Fellaini was kept out on the pitch to serve and protect his teammates. This protection factor is, right now, essential!
70868974 708688961 Thirteen Minutes Of Ecstacy

Aug 122013

Manchester United 2-0 Wigan Athletic
Manchester Uniteds Nemanj 008 Manchester United Win the Community ShieldEverybody can say anything they want about United’s brand-new manager David Moyes. A mixture of fair, bad and indifferent may be all that the Glaswegian former Celtic center back has to recommend himself after the usual moneymaking tour, the relentless eggs-to-omelette journo drudge about the future of Wayne Rooney and the circus of rumor mill hijinx involving Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, although the Lads did not play at all well, Manchester United got done what needed to be done and claimed their very first trophy of the 2013-14 season with a 2-0 win over a direly stodgy and physical Wigan Athletic side. It wasn’t pretty and most of it wasn’t United’s fault really. Wigan played like the guerilla warrior championship side they are now, fouling, packing the box, smothering the red devils every way they could. Thank Jah for United’s talismanic striker, Robin Van Persie, who actually had a pretty invisible game when he wasn’t there to do his brilliant predator’s job. Indeed, although these two goals don’t count toward the Golden Boot, the sleek Netherlander looks to be already on the correct mental track to retain his goalscoring award for a third consecutive season.

Van Persie only needed just six minutes to cheer the crowd with a beautifully taken header off a beautifully directed pass from Patrice Evra that left Wigan’s goalie Scott Carson, only just back in the Premier League from two seasons away in Turkey, clawing at empty air.

After so much riveting action in the first few moments, the game went awry. It was a stodgy performance at times from United and, after such an encouraging start, probably a surprise to Moyes, too. Michael Carrick was his usual elegant self, but the pass-and-move coupling of Welbeck and Giggs did not work. United have definitely missed the tempo supplied by Kagawa(or Rooney) behind whoever has been picked as the main striker thus far this season. Giggs, now into his 24th season, often looked like a Lost Boy, his aging legs not so much unequal to the task, but, rather, unable to work up any kind of understanding with an immature Welbeck, who can’t seem to get past his own on-field issues. With an aimless, sloppy Tom Cleverley giving the ball away repeatedly, all of United’s exploration and finesse fell to Evra, the fleet-footed Zaha, and, later, Januzaj.

Tenacious at least, Wigan had a new Scottish manager of their own and a mostly different line-up from a year ago. Wigan were even gifted a couple of clear chances thanks to the shockingly lax largesse of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Unfortunately, neither James McClean nor Emmerson Boyce, each left holding the ball, alone and unmarked, could get it together enough to attempt a proper shot on David De Gea’s goal.
The most rambunctious moments of the day involved a running handbag war between the large, testy Grant Holt and Nemanja Vidic. With the referee Mark Clattenburg clearly feeling benevolent and philanthropical after a few months off the job, Vidic got some payback for the series of cheap-shot elbows Holt thrust into the faces of Smalling, Jones and Evra. Holt may just be exactly what the Latics need to stay hungry in the Championship, but one can’t help be amazed that he didn’t land himself in more trouble during his sojourn in the Premier League with Norwich City.

The second half was more of the same as the first. What we call the Salford Grind. Finally, after much frustration for United, Evra, clearly trying to prove himself and prevent Moyes’ flirtation with Leighton Baines at Everton from being consummated, was involved in the second goal also. The Frenchman picked up the ball after Cleverley and Welbeck worked the ball down field and Evra, stranded far away from his allotted left back position, screened the ball for Van Persie. The ever ruthless striker hovered up the ball, pirouetted like thetre was radar in his head and let loose an awkward shot. The ball whizzed up at an awkward angle and it was unfortunate for Wigan that the ball bounced off James Perch, fooled a wrong-footed Carson and flew into the net. Manchester United v Wigan 005 Manchester United Win the Community Shield

That was all she wrote save for a number of failed stutters from both sides.The bad news of the day was a hamstring injury for Rafael Da Silva, who was only on the pitch for fifteen minutes before Chris Smalling was brought on and Phil Jones switched from centre-half to right-back. Unfortunately, he could be out for five weeks. Wilfried Zaha was also limping as he left the pitch in the second half after yet another short-lived Jeyll and Hyde performance. Zaha is shaping into something equal-parts awkward and brilliant. Always chasing the ball, he was aggressive, flash and repeatedly willing to take on men and use flicks and tricks to fool hos often much wiser opponents. Brilliant and frustrating in equal parts, be forewarned that he is bound to make dire mistakes in tandem with moments of utter sublimeness.

With the Community Shield now won, done and dusted, Moyes has now won the second trophy of his career after winning Division 1 with Preston North End in 1998-99. Nothing for it this week but training and tactics before next Sunday’s crucial starting match with Swansea City and–fingers crossed!–a wit bit of shopping.
Manchester United v Wigan 009 Manchester United Win the Community Shield

May 082013

Manchester United 0 -1 Chelsea
2013 05 05T171237Z 1 CBRE9441BT700 RTROPTP 2 SOCCER ENGLAND Shameless on the field of Our Dreams!It was, according to my old mate and midfield partner from the Prestwich Heys team, Rob Cockcroft, in the message he sent me from Pnom Penh, the very worst single display of a team at its worse in at least 34 years. An exaggerations, perhaps, or else an apt clarification of just how mediocre the football has been in the Premier League this season. Having been crowned champions, however, good, bad, or mostly mediocre, as I would have it, the players of Manchester United have quit. All well and good for them. It’s nice to be a millionaire. But, really, for the season ticket holders, satellite dish owners and suckers who order a la carte from their cable supplier, expecting the lads to at least give enough of a damn to try just a bit seems too much. Why is this asking so much? Worse yet, is the sound of my Spurs’ fan acquaintances’ sarcasm, as, humiliated by 63 years of the F.A.’s favoritism, they sincerely wonder why United’s players would prefer not to have them in ECC instead of Spurs. Even the guys on Republica Deportivo posited the idea that not qualifying for the top four will cause Spurs’ owner to flog Gareth Bale to United(and thus why we would let them win!). That, of course, is ridiculous, but no less ridiculous than the fact that Danny Levy would rather sell the Welsh chimp boy to Les Gooners than Us.

Not that Chelsea were particularly good. Going into their 65th match of a long long season, the royal blues had to do without an injured Eden Hazard. Yet, even minus the slick Belgian playmaker, Chelsea were far more creative than a jaded United, who were bound and determined from the get-go not to score at Old Trafford for the first time in 67 league matches, and didn’t. Adding another piquant soup con of insult to treating their millions of fans around the world like a roll of one-ply toilet paper, the red devils appropriated their very first red card of the season as a dimwitted Rafael Da Silva let himself get suckered into retaliating against his fellow Brazilian tormentor, David Luiz.

Yet none of any of this would have mattered a whit had not the indefatigable Oscar not located Juan Mata with an absolutely exquisite pass four minutes from full-time. With Patrice Evra’s elderly legs having given out somewhere after the beginning of the second half, he was a frozen, grinning twit of a witness as Mata seized the moment. Firing a curving left-footer at the bulk of Phil Jones, Mata was like a sniper doing maty in his head, calculating wind and spin and the manner in which United’s goalie Anders Lindegaard–who had virtually nothing to do throughout the game–would angle his dive for the ball. And even though the goal will be credited as a Jones own goal, we’ve all seen enough of these clever Mata deflected masterpieces that they may soon deserve a category all of their own.

Hard to say much about the rest of this match. Chelsea were marginally better in a yawn of a first half. Mata missed twice after nice passes from Demba Ba. Moses shot over the bar and Lindegaard made a single save, smothering a fine shot from Oscar at the post. United’s single tactic seemed to involve always locating Robin van Persie after too many tiki-tiki-tak short passes. Indeed, only Ryan Giggs manage to surprise the flat-footed Chelsea back four as he stole the ball off RVP’s toe and shot past a diving Peter Cech, only to see the ball waylaid by a bump and go a centimeter or so past the post. The old wizard also came close with a header off a Vidic cross, but Cech was there in the way with plenty of time to to smother it.

Poor Tom Cleverley, slow on the uptake as ever, was well set up by both Anderson and Giggs, and allowed all the time in the world on the edge of the box, but twice he hammered the ball on the edge of the area, yet with a better opportunity than he possibly realized the fringe player lacked the composure to take advantage, shooting early and blazing over the bar. Those of you who are as utterly exhausted by the mediocrity of Cleverley and puzzled by Roy Hodgson’s penchant for picking him for England must remember, he simply is not very good and has regressed rather than improved. As he was such a hit under the tutelage of Roberto Martínez at Wigan Athletic, I suggest we put him in a parcel with a bow and pawn him off in some kind of part-exchange for Jamie McCarthy.

Chelsea might have had a penalty at the start of the second half when Giggs hauled down David Luiz as he entered the area. Howard Webb waved away their claims, however, which seemed reasonable as the offense seemed to originate outside the box, though it appeared overly generous of the referee not even to award a free-kick or a red card after Luiz managed to simultaneously take the kick and dive forward as if wounded from behind my a high caliber bullet.

Even introductions of Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres as substitutes didn’t work. Both seemed distracted. Rooney looked particularly enfeebled. All the repeated rumors of Rooney’s transfer requests to leave for new partnerships with Lewandowski at Bayern or Ibrahimovich at Paris S.G. may have been deemed absurd, but there clearly is something wrong once again with Wayne Rooney. His losing of the ball to the aggressive Ramires in his own half is clearly understandable. Goes with the territory? Right! But Wazza’s attitude, having only just arrived on the pitch full of pizzazz, was, one might reasonably expect, to give chase. Ramires, clearly Chelsea’s best, most consistent player this year, was off to the races but clearly exhausted, puffing as he looked all around for someone to pass to. Our stocky little Scouse should have easily been able to run him down, but he did not.

Consequently, although United and Chelsea had each looked deliriously happy enough to settle for a draw. Ramires urinated in the punch bowl. Ramires to Lampard to Oscar who found Mata before the Spaniard fired a masterpiece of a left-footed beauty fit to deflect in off Jones’ back and wrong foot Lindegaard at the far post.

Any last second hope of a last-second United miracle comeback evaporated as David Luiz made easy sucker-work out of his Brazilian compatriot Rafael Da Silva after elbowing him twice and then falling down tragically once again “like a dying swan,” as Fergie put it. United ‘s hotheaded right back really ought to know better now that he is no longer an adolescent. Sure, Luiz was seen all over the world smirking at the referee, Howard Webb, after he sent Fabio off. It was indeed sad for the club to receive its first red card of the season over something so petty. Yet the collective naïveté of the team is not at all touching as it is in a club full of kiddiwinkies like Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa. Nothing cute at all, just embarrassment.

Ferguson was clearly not best pleased when he made his post-match appearance before the press. With his face fixed in a sort of gargoyle state of rictus, the old veteran looked as devastated as he had more than a year ago after the club took a 6-1 home hammering to Manchester City. “The desire was not there,” he said from between pursed lips. “It just wasn’t there.”Chelseas Juan Mata and a 008 Shameless on the field of Our Dreams!

The Beautiful Number 20!

 Posted by on April 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm  Aston Villa, Blogs/Media, England, Manchester United
Apr 242013

Manchester United 3-0 Aston Villa
Manchester United celebra 006 The Beautiful Number 20!Ah! Where to begin? Twenty minutes after the end of the match Sir Alex Ferguson is bowing to the Stretford End while, across the field, Robin Van Persie is encircled by the Dutch press, both of them serenaded by Queen’s We Are the Champions. Is this the same crowd–most of them clad in the green and yellow striped scarves of M.U.S.T. protest–that has repeatedly voiced so much ambivalence about their manager’s unrelenting support for the club’s American owners, the Glazer family? On the night, resentments have been set to one side. They adore him and he adores them back. As with most families. The relationships may be fractious and sometimes truculent, but the club is beloved by all in their own way and winning the championship back is sweet to all and sundry.
Meanwhile, Robin Van Persie is being adored and assaulted with questions by a Nederlander press corps he talks to on a first name basis. An old aquaintance from Rotterdam, Henk Van Sleewanhoek, who has , I’m told, been his tormenter since leaving Arsenal for United instead of (the journo’s preference) Juventus gets the most attention.
“Did you ever think you’d come out of your dry spell of terrible misses?” the cheeky writer asks.
“I was worried,” says Robin. “I was not sleeping.”
“So this hat-trick you scored must feel fantastic.”
“I have never been so happy, This is my greatest day ever as a player and the first time in my career I have ever won a championship. No thanks to you, Henk!”
I only mention all this because I caught it all on the iPad of a Dutch friend. A long time mate and a fellow United fan, Jaapie has been following Van Persie’s career since way before he signed for Feyenoord in the Eredvisie. With a history of never ever having played a full season of football until last season’s contract year, Van Persie had been thought of as an inconsistently brilliant. An awesome talent who, like his compatriot, Arjen Robben, was unable or unwilling to play through pain. United paid a fee of £24m and wages of £220,000 per week for a player who was too often hurt and it seemed like no bargain at all, especially because he was taking up a place in the squad vacated by the departure to Fulham of Ferguson’s grand folly, the consistently inconsistent Dimitar Berbatov. Well, we were as wrong can be! Van Persie has been as brilliant as a newly discovered sun appearing in the firmament out of some black hole. Beyond the spectacular goals he has scored is his place as the best Manchester United table-setter I have ever seen. A brilliant taker of corners and free-kicks his clever linkup play has been instrumental in the improvement of Wayne Rooney, who is now a more complete player than ever before; Javíer Hernandéz, who is becoming better and better at screening the ball and setting up teammates; even the sometimes out-of-control ungainly presence of Danny Welbeck has been much improved by playing in his proximity.
Robin Van Persie celebrat 003 The Beautiful Number 20!

Of course, there were hints of this at the last World Cup. Especially when RVP, alongside Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van Der Vart dismantled Brazil’s self-anointed Samba machine. A great player for the great occasion, Van Persie arrived at Old Trafford on Monday afternoon about as ready as ready has ever been. Having won the championship nineteen times and having blown it big-time a year ago on, of all things, goal average, United played like a team of destiny. This has not always been the case over a surprisingly inconsistent season, but United wanted to clinch at home, especially considering next week away match away at United’s long time rivals Arsenal, who just happen, in case you live in a vacuum and don’t know, to be Robin Van Persie’s old club. Primed and prepareed, thy were a red steamroller determined to be reunited with their trophy. And with Robin van Persie playing at his maximum exquisite artistic best, it seemed apt and altogether natural that he would completely dominate the match. Indeed, it felt appropriate that the Dutchman should be so transcendent and dominant on the night.

Van Persie might not win the individual honors but he has certainly had the greatest impact of any player on the Premier League this season and his first-half hat-trick, taking him to 24 league goals, saw him leapfrogging Luis Suárez as the leading scorer in the division. And having just been suspended from playing for ten games after a biting offense against Chelsea’s Bronislav Ivanovic in Sunday’s 2-2 tie, Suarez will clearly not win this year’s Golden Boot award. Such accolades and awards are well deserved by Van Persie who is clearly the best striker playing in England. In the match, he was everything, the warhead of United’s multi-faceted attacking game, a constant menace. It seems absurd to think that making it feel like a trick of the imagination that only one week ago he was overreacting to chances, devastated by a short, debilitating patch where he couldn’t score.

Going in with a 13-point lead, Ferguson set the team up with Wayne Rooney as its play making fulcrum. Inspired as much as Van Persie, it seems, Rooney was both a bodyguard for the brilliant-but-brittle Michael Carrick and an inspired passer. If Paul Lambert’s pack of young midfield jackals pressed him, Rooney would execute short and square to the Geordie greyhound. If they tried to cut off Carrick, Rooney was ready and waiting to ping Ginger Prince-style long, probing chip shots from United’s half. And poor Villa, who have let in a grand nightmare total of 64 goals this season were simply powerless to resist.

Two minutes in and Manchester United needed to be nervous no more. A long seeing-eye pass from Rooney found Antonio Valencia on the right. Rafael Da Silva swept up behind the Ecuadorian in support, jinking this way and that toward Villa’s box before finding the Old Master, Ryan Giggs, at the far post. Giggs casually squared his cross into Van Persie’s path out of a clawing Brad Guzan’s reach and, only two steps off the goal line, the Dutchman fired a simple tapper home.
Villa were already gob smacked and semi-destroyed. Four minutes later. Surrounded after picking up a Carrick chip, RVP fired a thirty-yarder of a volley over Guzan’s bar by a bare inch. He was just warming up. however. As if on cue, eleven minutes later, Rooney and van Persie gave us a bit of oo-wah-wow up there with Cantona and the blessed Trinity. Wazza dished up a superb curving chip that Van Persie somehow timed his run onto with a perfect moment of synchronization for the ages. Looking up, he somehow calculated the spinning trajectory of the ball and his perfect left-footed volley, as pure a piece of combined power and execution as I’ll ever see, went flying past Villa’s frozen, open mouthed goalie into the net. Did anyone ever make it look so simple? What followed, his victory run from one end of the pitch to the other with a victorious arm raised, really was the stuff of which legends are made.

For most of the half, Manchester united was a thing of beauty. Giggs repeatedly mugging and nutmegging poor Matthew Lowton. Carrick and Rooney grinning as the crowd sang their songs between marvelous examples of the passer’s art, ran Villa ragged. The sight of Giggsy out sprinting a player sixteen years his junior was the stuff of dreams. And in the midst of a familiar Stretford End serenade about Le Maitre Cantona, the Red Devils struck again.

33 minutes in, Rooney and the casually fluid Shinji Kagawa double one-two’d it in midfield and Giggs was free and clear of his marker Ron Vlar on the left. Robin Van Persie picked up his cross, snaked past Brad Guzan, and utilizing his brilliantly cool, cruel acumen, ignoring the four defenders around him, feinted toward a sprinting Lowton, shifted his balance to his right and pushed the ball home.

To the chagrin of many of the celebrating fans, United eased off the accelerator from then on. The boys taking it light and easy, especially after the interval. Villa launched themselves back into things and, even though they own no worthwhile defensive quality beyond the Job-like sufferings of Ron Vlar, Paul Lambert’s kids gave it a good go. Indeed, Ferguson was angry enough at Patrice Evra for repeatedly fouling a wing-heeled Kieran Westwood and receiving a yellow card that he ventured early to the touchline and gestured both his disapproval at his fading left back and his suddenly lackadaisical teammates. Indeed, Evra, already booked, was way beyond lucky that the referee, Anthony Taylor, did not punish a pair of brutal tackles from behind on both N’Zogbia and Weimann. Van Persie even became a defensive hero late in the match when he headed away a superb shot from Andreas Weimann off the goal line.

From then on it was all party. And clearly, had United put their war faces on again, many more goals could have been scored. Still, both Rooney and Kagawa saw their shots rattle off the bar. Having clinched with the win at home against Villa following Manchester City’s loss to Tottenham Hotspur, the challenge now, with four matches left is to beat out Chelsea’s best ever Premier League tally of 96 points.lRobin van Persie 002 The Beautiful Number 20!

Mar 122013

Manchester United 2-2 Chelsea
“I think, therefore I choke!”
article 0 188DA923000005DC 184 634x464 The Choking Kind Choking in sports gets to be a painful habit. I’ve observed it for years in Everton, Spurs and the England national team. But with vices becoming habits and the same old suspects trotting out the usual litany of garbled excuses, Manchester United have not simply had an accident on the Yellow brick Road, but thrown themselves under the wheels of their very own bus. Leading 2-0, United literally had a reeling devastated Chelsea team in the palm of their hand. That the game only ended up tied at 2-2 may be the greatest miracle since Bernadette of Lourdes shared this earth with us mortals. Sir Alex Ferguson’s dog-ate-my-homework excuse, that the lads were mentally and physically knackered after the circus that was the quarterfinal of the European Champions Cup really doesn’t convince anyone in March. What a difference five days makes. How does a team go from relentlessly thinking out loud about winning the Treble and being superior to the now legendary team of 1998-99 to worrying about holding on to its twelve point lead in the Premier League? What happened?

Meanwhile, moneybags Chelsea, for all their problems, have an awesome squad of midfield players which will challenge the rest of the division for at least another decade. Their clownish manager Rafa ‘The Tapas Waiter’ Benítez is a sensitive, funny fellow who needs to grow a thicker skin vis-à-vis the temporary nature of his position and the rivalry he feels toward Sir Alex Ferguson, who has outfoxed him a multitude of times over the years. Benítez, who is proud enough of his Roman Catholic faith that he feels the repeated need to announce to the world that he goes to church at least twice a day, 365 days per year, must, consequently, believes in miracles. A couple of savvy substitutions and a sixty minute choke by United aren’t really much of a miracle when you’re an unbeliever like me, but to Rafa, a draw surely tastes exactly like a win and the refusal of a gentlemanly handshake from the ungentlemanly maestro, the Gaffer, reads like a total diss but is just the human reaction of a bad loser to another one.
All of this, of course, is gassy rhetoric. United scored two sweet goals within the first eleven minutes and, later, Chelsea scored two exquisite goals of their own. However, had David De Gea–who, to be fair, did not have the best of days between the sticks for United, his distribution repeatedly dreadful throughout–not made one fantastic save and five ‘normal’ ones, the two clubs wouldn’t be whining about finding a date in their busy schedules to go at it in a Stamford Bridge replay.

The first goal came from one of Rafa’s substitutes, Eden Hazard, and was a beauty. The second, from Ramires, followed a wonderful move of classy, incisive counterattacking. Benítez’s team have not been renowned for their perseverance and competitive courage under his watch but they would have booked a place at Wembley were it not for an exceptional save from De Gea, jutting out his right boot to deny Juan Mata in the last minute of normal time. Even then, there were still three other separate chances where Chelsea’s fluid midfield penetration might have won the match and prevented the rigmarole of trying to shoehorn a replay into an already congested fixture schedule.

The transformation was remarkable, especially considering  the way Chelsea began the match, their interplay riddled with errors, looking short of confidence and perhaps suffering their own fatigue. Ferguson was entitled to blame tired legs and minds but Chelsea, lest it be forgotten, did not get back from their Europa League tie against Steaua Bucharest until the early hours of Friday.

Thus, it only took five minutes for a perfectly weighted 40-yard lob off the foot of Michael Carrick to completely fool goalie Peter Cech. Deftly placed to a slow running Chicharito, all the Mexican striker had to do was put the softest bit of contact on the ball with the side of his head and United had the lead. It won’t win any awards at the end of the season, but  it was a goal of true, unique beauty, nevertheless. Then, only six minutes farther along, with Chelsea in a state of total disorganization, Wayne Rooney, back in the line-up, lifted a floating free kick in the direction of Peter Cech’s far post. Both David Luiz and Demba Ba leapt high to head the ball, but somehow, both missed and it eluded a distracted Cech, again, and took an awkward bounce into the net to make it 2-0.

article 0 188D3BA3000005DC 30 634x351 The Choking Kind What happened to United then can only be conjectured upon. First the tricky Nani, who had been turning Chelsea’s left back Ashley Cole into a frustrated pretzel, pulled himself out of the game, claiming a hamstring injury. His substitute, Antonío Valencía, never got to warm up properly and somehow never seemed to get his head into the game.  This bit of bad luck was followed by  Cech, who had suffered an abysmal beginning, finally start to make some fine saves. To be sure, just on the cusp of half-time Cech stopped a shocking David Luiz miscue from scoring an own goal, right after stopping a superb shot on the edge of the box from Rooney. Unfortunately, at the same time, a passing rot had already set in as numerous one-touch give-aways saw Cleverley, Carrick, Nani, then his substitute Valencia, and then Rafael and Evra make it simply seem as if no one wanted the ball or felt even the slightest sense of responsibility. In the five minutes before the half time whistle I counted eleven United passes missing their target.

And for Chelsea, before that whistle blew for blessed half time, it’s enough to say that their best chances–when they weren’t being presented with gift passes by Cleverley, who might have been wearing a blue shirt–was a Victor Moses snap shot which hit the corner flag. Indeed, as Benitez left the field, the Chelsea fan entourage–clearly louder than United’s fans who seem to have left it all behind in the Real Madrid match, too–kept singing ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!” Did the tapas waiter feel lonely on his walk to the dressing room? You betcha by golly!

As of Monday morning, Fleet Street has heroicized Rafa as a savvy coach for seeing fit to bring on Eden Hazard and, more importantly, Obi Mikel Jon, but, really what alternatives did he have? With Hazard free on the right flank, Juan Mata and Ramires were no longer burdened with handling Carrick and Cleverley. Free to go where they pleased and gifted the ball repeatedly by Cleverley, Carrick and Valencia, Hazard, Ramires and Mata simply overwhelmed the Reds. And if Carrick and Cleverley felt any sense of adventure or machismo, Obi Mikel, grinning his gargoyle grin repeatedly kicking them into a state of cowed submission. Mikel, who has been relentlessly and repeatedly criticized by the press for his lack of football gravitas, also took on the John Terry role, repeatedly screaming at and cajoling Chelsea’s two erratic center backs, Gary Cahill and the sometimes brilliant-but-childlike David Luiz. For the whole second half, after Mikel took charge, Chelsea quit making goofy errors and the Chelsea midfield performed like a dream.

Chelsea scoring became simply a matter of time. Carrick, so gobsmackingly awesome in the first half hour, suddenly looked like the Gaffer had issued him a velvet smoking jacket and a pair of slippers. Locked in competition with Cleverley, Carrick’s passes were each more and more impetuously misplaced. To their credit, with a visibly aging Patrice Evra repeatedly left gasping in midfield and Rafael Da Silva running from flank to flank trying to stop every opposition run, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand held the fort with an almost perverse stubbornness. In the 59th minute, however, the levee finally cracked. A few minutes after coming on for Victor Moses, Hazard picked up a Cleverley pass, wrong-footed Rafael twice, shifted gears, approached De Gea at an extremely acute angle before curling the ball into the net.

Nine minutes later, gifted the ball by Carrick, Demba Ba took off next to the tiny Oscar. Executing a beautiful double give-and-go they dissected United’s defense before Oscar connected with a sprinting Ramires, who cut into United’s box before firing a perfect left-footer past De Gea, who, although he made fingertip contact with the spinning ball, could not prevent it from squeezing in at the far right post.

All that was left was for United to hang on by their blessed fingertips. Indeed, only an absolutely fantastic reflex save off David De Gea’s foot one minute from time prevented Juan Mata from scoring with a wickedly accurate shot after a fine, mazy run through United’s defense.

There was an incident during the last ten minutes of the game where the cameras caught Rio Ferdinand laying a cheap-shot on his old foe Fernando Torres. Ferdinand may face censure and a suspension over an infraction that the referee, Howard Webb, clearly never caught. These two have been going at it for years and one only needs to go to You Tube to see a number of incidents both were involved in during Torres’ Liverpool days. As Rio has probably been overused by Ferguson lately, however, a few matches off might well do him good.

Just when the F.A. will pick a date for the match replay is a conundrum. Still, provided United can manage to maintain their twelve point lead at the top of the Premier League, a Sixth Round replay should now be a stress-free affair as winning a treble is a vanquished dream. With the prospect of facing Manchester City at Wembley as thee reward for beating Chelsea, a victory would be nice, but is certainly not a priority.


Mar 062013

Manchester United 1-2 Real Madrid
66220586 alex ferguson The Gaffer Rages As United See RedFor anyone who hates Manchester United, the pleasure principle really kicked in last night at Old Trafford. In spite of a glorious Spring night and at least two-thirds of a brilliant Manchester United display that was, at moments, the apotheosis of perfection and grace, United’s stunning, late 2-1 loss to Real Madrid may well be the saddest single moment of Sir Alex Ferguson’s long, brilliant career. In spite of a number of controversies before, during and after the game, the Gaffer’s team gave its all in a vain effort to overcome both Jose Mourinho’s team of neuvo galacticos and a shockingly biassed group of EUFA-sactioned officials. Unfortunately, their all was simply not enough to overturn the capricious will of either the football Gods, or Michelle Platini and his caporegimes at EUFA.

After the fact, EUFA officials have called a disciplinary meeting concerned with the manner in which Ferguson was seen jabbing his finger in front of the nose of the game’s pip-squeak Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, and seconds later as Rio Ferdinand gave the officials face a sardonic round of applause. Yet the fact is that a  bomb went off 53 minutes in when Cakir took his sweet time to show the Red Devils’ winger Nani a red card for what he later explained was the act of embedding his studs into Alvaro Arbeloa’s midriff as he went to control a high ball. And although multiple viewings from different angles of the incident show that a careless Nani actually makes contact with Arbeloa’s elbow before the Spaniard falls over as if machine-gunned, rolls over three times and then springs up on his foot, none the worse for wear and tear, Cakir’s decision stands and life goes on. Of course, a careless Nani really could indeed have hurt Arbeloa, but he didn’t. Notions of “intent” versus “accident” will be discussed for weeks . Now they’re moot.

More questions about the referee later, but, finally there’s a devastated, apoplectic Ferguson who, in over 26 years at the club, has never previously sent one of his assistants–in this case Mike Phelan–to face the press at the post-match conference. “It speaks volumes I am sat here,” a tight lipped Phelan said.

Superb throughout. United let Real keep most of the possession. Rather than locking in nine men behind the ball, United defended effectively in small groups, restricting Real’s desperate desire for usable space. At the same time, when United got a chance to break they took it repeatedly and were faster and more effective than their favored opponents, outplaying them at their own specialty.

Sadly, Danny Welbeck, who more often than not creates his own chances out of nothing, is a shockingly erratic erratic finisher and, his partner on the night, Robin Van Persie is either suffering through a barren spell or is turning out to be the prodigal son of Eric Cantona: An assassin in the Premier League, but less effective on the European stage. At any rate, although the team looked fluid, confident and had the lion’s share of quality, Sir Alex Ferguson’s gamble in leaving Rooney and Kagawa out may have hurt the team fatally. Clearly armchair hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s an undeniable fact that, over two legs, United squandered way too many genuine chances. Indeed, when United actually scored they were extremely fortunate as Sergío Ramos accidentally touched a Nani cross, deflecting the ball past an otherwise superb Diego Lopez, who had a dream match.

Only six minutes later, while United kept up the kind of neat passing patterns that reminded aficionados of the brilliant lateral and diagonal  A.C. Milan stylings utilized to great affect seven seasons against us, Nani raised his studs in an effort to catch up with an over hit, high Carrick pass. Nani’s boot was definitely raised and whether there was malice in his heart, or not, the consequences were fatal. That said, there was still palpable shock when the red card was brandished. Once Nani was removed by Cekir, Jose Mourinho instantaneously threw the dice, bringing on Luka Modric.

Manchester United v Real Madrid Nani Jose Mou 2910130 The Gaffer Rages As United See RedModric, having been labeled Real Madrid’s ‘worst ever buy’ by the local press and riding the bench pretty much all season, proceeded to play thirty minutes of absolutely brilliant virtuoso football. Normally dependent on the industry of Angel Di Maria, Mehmet Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and Fabio Coentrao, Real’s Portuguese superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, was smothered by the selfless hard work of United’s whole starting team, the hard running Rafael Da Silva in particular. But once the tiny Croatian arrived, the passing lines were narrowed and with United’s full backs always aware of the danger posed by Modric’s lightning turn-on-a-dime footwork to aging center backs Ferdinand and Vidic, Ronaldo suddenly had more time to sprint, surf the angles and pick his spots.

Modric’s equalizer was fantastic. Taking a leaf out of Arjen Robben’s book, Modric gave no inkling of his intentions as he dipped down before straightening up and slotting a bullet off a diving David De Gea’s left-hand post from 23 yards out. Accompanying this dagger to United’s jugular was a an audible whooshing sound. With the Stretford End holding forth at its loudest in years, the pure shock of it was inescapable. And less than three minutes later, with United’s defense trying to regroup and adjust to Modric, the mighty Croatian flea struck again. While holding off a visibly exhausted Evra, Modric fed Gonzalo Higuain. And although Higuain’s attempted diagonal rocket missed the target ,Rafael Da Silva somehow lost his fix on Ronaldo. Whippet-quick the ex-United Wonder Boy made up for all his previous near-misses and failures by arriving at the far post to push Higuain’s errant drive home and give Real the lead.

Despite United being disappointed by the lack of ruthlessness on the part of Van Persie and Welbeck, there can be no doubt that goalkeeper Diego Lopez, bought in as defensive cover for an injured Iker Casillas in January by Real, has in the past week, twice against Barcelona and against United, been playing out of his skin. With Welbeck dominating both Ramos and Varane, Lopez was forced to make save after brilliant save from Nani, Vidic, Welbeck and Carrick. Without their two unlikely heroes, Lopez and Modric, Real Madrid would be headed back to Spain bereft of any hope for silverware this season.

Despite the loss, there are bright spots. Ryan Giggs 1, 000th game is an awesome achievement. 39-years-old and soon to be forty, he is the consummate British professional. David De Gea, Rafael Da Silva and the Reds’ pugnacious captain, Nemanja Vidic were all world-class at the back. Doubtless, because of the loss, Ferguson will be relentlessly criticized by some for leaving out Wayne Rooney. Depending upon which historian you read, it was either Wellington or Napoleon who said: “It was a near run thing!” Sometimes, it seems, you can get it wrong while you’re getting it right!

Finally there’s Cuneyt Cakir, the creepy referee. Having witnessed his card-happy persona previously in games featuring Manchester City, Chelsea, the Republic of Ireland and England, and the very dramatic shows which accompanied red cards for Keith Andrews, John Terry, Vincent Kompany, and Mario Balotelli, I think it’s pretty clear that this referee has political (or other issues) with the British and Irish. Life is like that, of course, and British referees surely own some bigotry’s and prejudices of their own. What rankles, however, is that other powerful managers like Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have protested and won appeals through EUFA against certain referees they feel hold grudges against them before matches are played. Sir Alex Ferguson seems to have missed out on his homework vis-a-vis Mr. Cekir. It will surely not be a mistake he makes again.

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