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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stop Pirlo, stop Italy?

Stopping Italy's fulcrum, Andrea Pirlo, has to be the priority for this Saturday's game against the Azzurri.

But how? Some suggest Wayne Rooney can do a job and though England's talisman has the dedication, whether he has the energy levels of a couple of years ago remains open to question.

Therefore, Roy Hodgson should take a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson's book. Unfortunately, the England manager cannot call upon Park Ji Sung, or a like for like replacement. The  South Korean's honourable mention is due to the effective job he did on Pirlo in a 2010 Champions League tie.

The Italian midfield maestro recently commented that Park was "the first nuclear powered South Korean in history" in reference to the shadowing job that he did on Pirlo.

Hodgson should take note of what Ferguson did last year when using Danny Welbeck in such a role against Xabi Alonso. Welbeck was instrumental in stopping the Madrid man from dictating play in much the same way as Pirlo likes to do. Furthermore, Welbeck's form is good, as has been demonstrated throughout the recent friendlies.

This then leaves the Rooney conundrum. Where does he play or do you even drop him entirely? Let's dismiss the latter, at least for now. He has bags of experience and still offers a goal threat, but with Welbeck operating centrally, should he be deployed to 'sit on' Pirlo, Rooney will have to move out wide.

This then leaves Hodgson with one more selection dilemma. Who to play on the other flank: Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana or James Milner.

A couple of weeks ago Lallana was at the front of the queue but his recent form could see him miss out. Sterling missed England's last friendly through suspension and could also, with his pace, be an effective substitute against tired Italian legs.

For these reasons, the prospect of James Milner starting has to be strong. And then when you add Glen Johnson's recent struggles at full back, some protection may be necessary and noone in the squad can offer that in the same way that the Manchester City wide man can.

This line up may seem a little on the cautious side, but there are still goals in this team. Rooney, Sturridge and even Welbeck, despite his destroying role, can still provide an attacking threat, and his scoring record for England is excellent.

Should England emerge with a point or more from this game, this should strengthen their chances of progressing and Italy may just feel the same. A long scoring draw may be on the cards for two nations who are notoriously slow starters.

My team: Hart; Johnson Cahill Jagielka Baines; Gerrard Henderson; Milner Welbeck Rooney; Sturridge

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Federer Nadal semi final could dictate who is the greatest

Respect: Rafa or Roger?
So nowadays Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are contesting semi finals, rather than finals, but this could perhaps be more significant than any of the previous encounters when it comes to where each will be placed in the pantheon of the greats.

With Novak Djokovic out following his surprise defeat to Stanislas Wawrinka, the winner of tomorrow's clash will be the clear favourite to take this year's Australian Open title on Sunday.

Should Federer claim his first Grand Slam in almost two years, his longest spell without one, he would gain his 18th career Slam, a seemingly unassailable lead over Nadal, who has 13, especially given the Spaniard's injury record.

However, should Rafa prevail the pendulum would swing in his direction, being just three behind his great rival and almost five years younger than the Swiss.

Both have won all four slams at one point in their career and though Rafa has the distinct advantage when it comes to their head to head record, 22-10, Federer will often have an edge in any argument over a pint given his overall number of Grand Slam titles won.

Perhaps this is a little premature as no one can tell quite what the future will hold in this unpredictable sport (who would have anticipated Djokovic breaking the aforementioned's duopoly) but this match could just give us a definitive answer to who is the sport's greatest ever player.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Farewell Fergie: thanks for the memories

One early November morning in 1986 I was sitting down having breakfast at the Beechwood, the hotel that my mother would look after every year for three weeks whilst the owners went on holiday to Australia, when I discovered, via the radio, that the team I supported would be having a new manager.

Following an embarrassing League Cup defeat at Southampton, the previous incumbent, Ron Atkinson, had been sacked and the club were about to embark on the most successful period in its history. Well, I say about to, we had to wait a few years for things to click into place but when they did, boy did they!

I remember the bad times during those early years, particularly the home cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in 1989. Even more painful was the that the league seemed even further away than it had done during Atkinson's tenure. This prompted the infamous message towards the end of 1989 that simply said:

At least Pete Molyneux accepts he was a little premature in unfurling this banner.

The first significant step towards success came at the County Ground, again Forest were the opponents, but this time with a very different result. Thanks to a Mark Robins header from an often forgotten sumptuous Mark Hughes pass (a part of Sparky's game that is frequently overlooked). We were on our way to Wembley. And what a road that was, including some memorable games against Oldham in the semis and Palace in the final.

Then came Rotterdam a year later and Barcelona were overcome in the European Cup Winners' Cup final, largely thanks to the inept goalkeeping of Carles Busquets, standing in for the injured Andoni Zubizararreta. Another slice of luck, admittedly, but Hughes took full advantage to win us our first European trophy since 1968.

Everything was beginning to look good until the culmination of the 1991/92 season. A 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on 26 April 1992 was, and still is, the most painful defeat in all my time as a United fan ( Why oh why?! We'd blown it. Fergie still remembers the shouts of "fuck you" from the home dressing room and the most galling moment of all for a young Ryan Giggs: outside the ground a Liverpool fan asked for his autograph and then laughed as he tore it up in front of the Welshman's face.

The tears flowed and flowed as I went to bed that night. Once again, the title seemed as far away as ever. It is funny to think that back then I genuinely wasn't sure if I would ever see us win the league.

The next twist was to come once again whilst I was staying at the Beechwood Hotel, in November 1992. When I picked up one of the resident's newspapers to discover the signing of Eric Cantona for a mere £1.2 million.

This was the catalyst.

The first league title was secured following the Frenchman's arrival and then came the next objective. The European Cup. That was the thing with Fergie, once one goal had been achieved, there was always the next one.

A steep learning curve in Europe was to follow but, in 1999, the holy grail was achieved in spectacular style, in 'Fergie time'. "And Solskjaer has won it," screamed Clive Tyldsley incredulously as the Norwegian prodded home to complete a remarkable injury time turnaround.

More domestic success followed but then came the dark years, between 2003 and 2007, when more questions surfaced over whether Fergie was still up to it. He's lost the plot, he's over the hill, the critics claimed.

As a result, winning the title in 2007 was one of the sweetest.

Winning the Champions League in 2008 was monumental and one of the things that sticks in my head the most, as I stood there in the Luzhniki Stadium on that rainy night, is the image of Sir Bobby Charlton leading us up the steps to collect the trophy, 50 years after he survived the Munich air crash, unlike several of his less fortunate teammates. Once again I began to well up.

If there is anything that illustrates the difference between United and the beaten finalists it was seeing Peter Kenyon lead Chelsea up the steps to collect their runners up medals. United chose a legend who embodied the club like no other, Chelsea chose a Chief Executive and supposed lifelong Man United fan. Fake.

No more success on Europe's biggest stage. A couple of finals where we were well beaten by Barcelona and then there was this year's campaign.

Little did I know back in March when the pain of defeat at the hands of Real Madrid meant I had to go for a long walk, late at night, to try and clear my head. That shock and disappointment pales in comparison to the news of Ferguson's imminent departure. Once again tears were apparent. Especially during his speech at Old Trafford last Sunday, but I wasn't alone in doing this. Emotional.

It was hardly surprising that Ferguson's retirement has provoked such strong emotions. This man, after all, has been responsible for some of the best moments of my life, from the Nou Camp to Moscow, from the Stadio Delle Alpi to Old Trafford. This man has caused me to travel the continent at great expense. But it has been worth it. Every single penny. Thank you Sir Alex.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Manchester United will hope to come up smelling of roses

Real Madrid - Manchester United: they don't come much bigger than this
Oh, how I love the smell of the city prior to hosting a Champions League clash of mammoth proportions.

OK so it is only the last 16 but I have not been this excited about a Champions League tie in years. Maybe not since the final in 2009. Sure, Manchester United made the final again in 2011 but noone truly believed they would prevail against Barcelona that night and those fears were realised as Messi, Iniesta, Xavi et al pummelled the Red Devils.

Tonight, however, represents a possible step towards redemption and a tantalising prospect at a fourth European Cup. Of course, there would still be the Catalan obstacle but this United side are significantly better than the one well beaten two years ago at Wembley. In addition, the belief that a victory over Madrid would provide could help them go on to lift the cup with the big ears once more.

As for the game itself, a nil nil would represent a good result to take back to Manchester, despite all the fears that a lack of an away goal would provide. More often than not, the away team ends up going through after such a result, though the memories of Monaco '98 and Madrid in 2000, where United ended up with a goalless draw, still bring back a feeling of dread as United crashed out.

However, given the porous defences on show a nil nil draw is about as likely as an imminent end to the financial crisis here in Spain.

2-1 to Los Blancos is this observer's prediction, which would still give Sir Alex Ferguson something to cling onto ahead of the return at Old Trafford next month.

Ferguson's line up is even harder to predict than the score but here goes. De Gea, Rafael Rio Evans Evra, Jones Carrick Cleverley, Valencia Van Persie Rooney.

This is not the most attacking of line ups which is the norm for United in Europe against heavyweight opposition. This formation could even morph into a 4-4-2 with Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones moving out to the wide midfield slots. The clearest advantage to this line up would be, effectively, three players being available to help quell the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo (Jones and Cleverley abley abetted by Valencia). Furthermore, Rooney maybe designated with the job of pressurising Alonso, when in possession, in a way not too dissimilar to the job Mario Goetze unselfishly performed in Dortmund's impressive results against Real.

The trouble is, these tactics will neglect the threat offered by Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria. Furthermore, they will inevitably negate any attacking threat that United have of their own, though the possibility of pinching a goal always remain when matchwinners like Robin van Persie and Rooney himself remain on the pitch.

No doubt Jose Mourinho will have some tricks up his sleeve but it is the selction of his opposite number that is of greater intrigue.

Such negative tactics or not, nothing can quell the sense of anticipation I have in the pit of my stomach right now.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Best goal ever? You're having a laugh

Steven Gerrard says it is the best goal he has even seen 'live'. Alan Shearer went one step further and said it was the best of all time. It even left motormouth commentator Alan Green speechless.

What a load of guff. Zlatan himself said that he has scored better and that his first on the night, the first in the newly opened stadium in Stockholm, was more pleasurable for historical reasons.

Personally, I was not blown away by it one iota. At the end of the day, it was an overhead kick into an open goal in a meaningless friendly against mediocre opposition following a goalkeeping error.

Compare that with Diego Maradona's solo effort against England in a World Cup quarter-final or Marco van Basten's incredible volley in the final of Euro 2008 and Ibrahimovic's strike pales into insignificance.

Maradona's and van Basten's goals not only took the breath away but were big goals on big occasions that helped their national sides win major tournaments.