Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Day Hell Froze Over

L-R: Will Unwin, Marcus Chippindale, James Johnson, John Dickens, Me.

Our 3,144-mile trip for 31 minutes of football

When Juventus fans travelled all the way from Turin to Istanbul to see their team face Galatasaray in a crucial Champions League tie only for the match to be abandoned after half an hour, they were disappointed - but not as disappointed as the five idiots who made the 3,144-mile round trip from Luton Airport.

As a group of former-or-current sports journalists, we've probably visited every one of England's 92 football league grounds between us. We are also a diverse cross-section of football fandom: Manchester United; Manchester City; Rangers; Blackpool, and Portsmouth. British football would be unlikely to serve up something at least one of us hadn't seen before - our Jolly Boys' Outing needed to be planned with imagination.

So it was decided that we would travel to the other side of the continent to watch a match in what is simply and affectionately referred to as 'Hell'.

We planned an affordable trip: budget flights; back-street hostel accommodation, and face-value tickets courtesy of ITV mover-shaker Will Unwin. We were all set for a bit of football tourism.
Photo: James Johnson

Istanbul is an incredible city.

Grand Bazaar. Photo: James Johnson
A vast landscape - boasting ancient Islamic architecture and industrial skyscrapers - is complemented by delightful blink-and-you'll-miss-'em intricacies. In the shadows cast by mosques and bridges, fishermen sell sandwiches while stray cats lick their lips. In the Grand Bazaar, buckets of rainbow-flavoured spices sit next to obligatory cheap market plastic tat. In the bars and cafes, some smoke from decorative sheesha pipes while the rest smoke filthy filter tips and pick their teeth. Istanbul is a construct of the rough and the smooth. The city would be our home for three days, so we decided to spend our time perusing its grandeur one minute and drinking from its gutter the next.

Me and Marcus. Photo: James Johnson
We drank pints of local lager under the fishermen's bridge, mindful of mackerel-less hooks being yanked back upwards a nostril or an eyelid's width from our faces.
We ate piles upon piles of sinewy meat drowned in grease, and other meals that raised questions to which we didn't want answers.
We merrily chatted with a waiter who had once lived in England, but stopped talking to him once he revealed he hated his time in Wigan 'because there were too many blacks'.

'The Blue Mosque'. Photo: James Johnson
For some reason, fortune was not our friend throughout the entire trip; if we were superstitious we wouldn't have even bothered to turn up to the stadium.

From the airport, our 'coach shuttle' dropped us off a couple of miles from our hostel. There were five of us, and we didn't want to split up, so we stuffed ourselves into a four-seater taxi. For a number of reasons benefiting all involved, the 6'7" Marcus was given the passenger seat while four slightly smaller adult males cosied up in the back. Many crushed bones, honked horns and narrowly-avoided accidents later, we found our pokey hostel.

During our first evening's ablutions and Efes-drinking in our room, one of the lightbulbs caught fire out of nowhere. Our 'getting ready' montage was interrupted by ribbons of black smoke and the stench of melted plastic.

In one mediocre Taksim restaurant we were charged £30 for underwhelming meze that we never asked for, on top of a £15 dollop of bullshit tax. We Britishly bitched and neglected to tip.

We tried to visit two museums on the only days they were closed; we discovered that Turkish pastrami is the worst legally-available foodstuff; we were refused entry to the grooviest, most happening nightspots.

L-R: Dickens, James, me, Chippo. Photo: Will Unwin
One slice of good fortune came in the form of our newfound ability to haggle. Deciding a knock-off Galatasaray replica shirt was essential for our trip to the Turk Telekom Arena, we opened negotiations. "How much are these?" we nonchalantly enquired; we didn't want to look too interested. "40 lira my friend," came the young man's opening gambit. 40 Turkish Lira? That's 13 English pounds, we can do better than that. "15 lira!"... "No, 30 lira, best price for you"... "We'll do 20 or nothing"... "OK my friend, 20 lira". "Do we get a discount for buying four(Will was too cool for replica shirts - ever the football hipster, he would later buy a Trabzonspor scarf and a Besiktas keyring from the airport)?", "No, sorry". "70 lira for four mate, come on?"... "OK".

The nuisance weather at the Turk Telekom Arena
With a spring in our step, a beer in our hand and 'Drogba 11' on our back, we alighted the Istanbul underground train at Seyrantepe and bought a Galatasaray scarf to put around our neck #FullKitWankers.

The gentle flecks of snow that greeted us on our walk up to the stadium amused us. Who knew it even snowed in Turkey? This was going to be hilarious.

I'm not usually a fan of new stadia, for all the clichéd reasons: poor acoustics, corporate facilities, sickening cleanliness, lack of 'charm' - but I am a fan of the The Turk Telekom Arena. 

It is an uncomplicated stadium, with short distances between entrance and gate, and between fan and pitch. With stands deep and steep like those at the Santiago Bernabeu, the arena traps the atmosphere like a localised storm.

Although, in fairness, they could put the Galatasaray fans at the bottom of the Bosphorus and they'd still make an impressive noise.

I could continue to gush about the famous Galatasaray atmosphere, and I could make an attempt to describe the football we saw, but instead here are some photographs:

Blissfully unaware of the disappointment ahead.
We officially saw some football
Awful shovelling
Tools down
My lasting memory of a ridiculous night
Their faces tell it all - each in their own way

The Group B Matchday 6 fixture was called off after 31 minutes due to an unexpected blizzard. We were booked on the first flight home the following day, and the rescheduled match was played while we were in the air.

We travelled 100 miles per minute of football witnessed.

But we had a good trip.

We dealt with the agony in different ways

*'Hell Froze Over' is courtesy of the wit of Will Unwin. I couldn't not use it.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Jelly and ice cream

It matters not who set the ginger-bearded ball rolling down the evidently-steep slope that is Twitter. It matters not that many mourned the "death of journalism" as thousands of giddy internet heroes confidently boasted fiction as hard fact in order to appear 'in the know'. It matters not that it all turned out to be a bowlful of unfounded cyberbollocks with a side of bullshit bruschetta. Those things don't matter because they're all part of the Twitter package; we all signed up to share it with attention seekers.

What matters is that we got a glimpse into a world without Malcolm Irving Glazer.

For a few moments, Manchester United fans tweeted just as giddily as the Fisher Price journalists from whom they had heard the falsified reports of Uncle Malc's death. And an overwhelming majority were reaching for the jelly and ice cream they promised to eat when the Florida-based goblin kicked the bucket. Before the Champagne was put back on ice, the reaction was revealing if altogether unsurprising.

Reds yearned for confirmation of the death of the man that bought Manchester United with hundreds and millions of someone else's dollars with the business plan of paying it back - over the course of the next few millenniums - by lifting fans up by their ankles and shaking them until their dinner money fell from their pockets. Frantic with a hatred usually reserved for dictators and paedophiles, we heard soundbites like "If confirmed we should get to the forecourt and have a knees-up", "No one's thinking this will topple the ownership. It's just good to know the greedy evil bastard is no longer with us (if true)", "Best news of the year if true" and "Please let this be true. Please please please...".

Fans recognise that Malcolm Glazer's death would do nothing to exterminate the cancer that his family are to Manchester United Football Club. The club's on-field success over the last seven years has done nothing to quell the vitriol that the majority of fans feel towards the leprechaun-looking toe rag, and his death would go some way to cheering them up. Yesterday confirmed that the hatred really is *that* undiluted.

The rumours were so potent, and spread so quickly, that Manchester United themselves felt the need to issue a statement to put the rumours to bed. This begged the question, "how will the club deal with his death when he actually does die?"

I for one hope they don't expect us to observe a minute's silence.

Now I'm not one for disrespecting the dead, and when it's all said and done an old man with a family will have died, but the club would have to have some cheek to ask Old Trafford to mark the occasion with a minute of dignity that is a minute longer than that which we have seen from Malcolm Glazer.

On a personal level, it would be an irrelevant gesture.

On a footballing level it would be absolutely gouge-your-own-eyes-out ridiculous. The man has as much of a connection to our football and history as Jade Goody did, and we didn't have a minute's silence for her.

I would treat any minute's silence with the same content with which I treat the singing of the (reluctantly capped up) National Anthem. I don't sing the National Anthem because I don't believe in it. I'm not on some sort of anarchic crusade, I'd just be a hypocrite if I sang along. I don't make an effort to spoil it for anyone else or stop anyone else from choosing to sing along - it would be unfair to force such a sentiment down their throats.

Speaking of being forced down our throats - and I'm not just talking about a £3.50 half-time hot dog - I would similarly hope that Manchester United would not expect the fans to keep quiet out of respect for a man that most of them grape-crushingly despise.

Personally, I would act as if a minute's silence wasn't happening. A rendition of "how we'll kill him I don't know" would be over the top, yes, but I'd happily carry on a conversation with my dad in the seat next to me or join in with a chorus of "Keep the red flag flying high, 'cause Man United will never die".

Collectively, a minute's silence for Malcolm Glazer, the man who took out his gold-plated circumcised cock and pissed all over the fans and history of a great football club to make a few bucks, would be met with hearty shanties, a conga line and trifle.

But who knows how the club will mark his passing?

The truth is that the inevitable interruption of any ill-advised club-sanctioned minute's silence would cause uproar from the nation's press. We would be publicly lynched in black-and-white print. They'd label us deplorably insensitive, heartless thugs. They'd ridiculously point to Munich and ask 'have you learnt nothing?' They'd call for our heads.

We'd be public enemy number one, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

"All we know is Glazer's gonna die".

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Borussia Dortmund v Arsenal

Dortmund first team coach Jürgen Klopp this week became the latest manager to display praise and support for wounded deer Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side has made an abysmal domestic start to the term.

"Arsene Wenger is one of the most impressive coaches", gushed Klopp, who saw his Dortmund team suffer a 2-1 home defeat to Hertha Berlin on Saturday. "His Arsenal team has been playing very well for years and he has done a great job".

"They have a very good team who can beat anyone".

Klopp expects Arsenal to approach tonight's match at the BVB Stadion without fear, despite their poor start to the Premier League season.

"They play very attacking football but it does not matter who plays for them, we have to focus on us. The problem is that they have so much quality that we have to be very careful. But we are prepared. We are capable of defending against this kind of team and have to work to make space and impose our own game"

Arsenal's first league win of the season came on Saturday against a Swansea side that made them work hard for the three points. Andrey Arshavin's opportunistic strike just before half time could have quite easily been cancelled out in the second half were it not for The Swans' failings in front of goal.

Wenger knows that Saturday's win was a step in the right direction. "We are trying to get better with every match. We must get consistency", he said.

However, the Frenchman is also aware of the dangers that the German champions pose, and singled out 19-year-old wonderkid Mario Götze as the player to watch. "Götze is maybe the best young German player", said Wenger. "We have to control him and take good care of him"

Speaking candidly about how Group F shapes up, Wenger admits it could have been easier for the North London club. " They play a little bit like Arsenal they play offensive and fast. I did not want Dortmund in the draw, there were a lot of weaker category 4 teams and so I was a little bit disappointed about drawing Dortmund".

Gotze will return to Dortmund's starting line-up after missing the defeat to Hertha Berlin at the weekend, while Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker are likely to make their European debuts for Arsenal.

Despite the 76-times-capped German Mertesacker being included, Arsenal's defence lacks stability. Injury woes and lack of squad depth saw Wenger forced into naming a back four for the game at Old Trafford that had never before played together. Awful communication and farcical attempts to play the offside trap meant they leaked eight goals.

With both managers cautious of their opponents' attacking threat, and the home side likely to be prepared to settle for a point, 'The German Arsenal' versus 'The English Dortmund' could be a disappointing, cagey affair.

I can see a 0-0 draw tonight, but not without incident. Maybe a second penalty fluffed in a row for Robin Van Persie, or a late red card.

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Dark Horse Becomes a Black Cat

After 13 years at Manchester United, John Francis O'Shea this week completed his move to Sunderland.

The Waterford-born 30-year-old enjoyed plenty of memorable moments in his 256 senior games for Manchester United.

A reliable utility player, the Irishman played for Manchester United in every single midfield and defence role. He even played in goal.

This is a compilation of some of those great footballing moments that we have O'Shea to thank for.

When Johnny Goes Marching Down the Wing

Johnny's debut came in 1999 when United suffered a 3-0 League Cup defeat to Aston Villa, but he first raised eyebrows in 2003 at St. James's Park.

After a strong run from left-back, O'Shea - valuing efficiency over majesty - dragged the ball back to leave Nolberto Solano for dead on the edge of the area, and fired a powerful shot against the bar. Giggsy was there to net the rebound, but O'Shea's industrious involvement elevated Pete Boyle's terrace favourite, 'When Johnny Goes Marching Down the Wing', from pub sing-a-long and away day ditty to full-on Old Trafford anthem.

When all around you are losing theirs...

After the infamous tunnel spat between Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Gary Neville, Arsenal and Manchester United were left to do their talking 'out there', on the Highbury soil.

After twice trailing, United found themselves 3-2 up thanks to goals from Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the match was not yet won.

It was left to O'Shea to seal the 4-2 victory with a beautifully composed chip over Manu Almunia. The finish, coupled with O'Shea's reaction, was almost a heartwarming mirror-image of Eric Cantona's goal against Sunderland in 1996. But not as cool, obviously.

Mr. Versatile

Although admittedly 'master' of none, during his Manchester United tenure John O'Shea showed himself to be a jack of all trades.

In February 2007, during a Premier League match at White Hart Lane, O'Shea pulled on the gloves and went between the sticks as Edwin Van Der Sar received treatment for a broken nose and United had used all three substitutes.

With less than five minutes to go and United comfortably leading 4-0 there was little pressure on the Irishman, but he still managed to keep a clean sheet with a stellar understudy's performance.


Here, O'Shea shows that he isn't scared of the biggest teams or the best players. This is a little clip of Sheasy nutmegging Luis Figo when he was at Real Madrid.

"Isn't that just The Hallmark of Champions"

"The 90th minute, in front of the Kop. Gary Neville just told that was his dream," said O'Shea during a post-match interview, "and I've just gone and done it!"

Time was running out. We weren't playing well, but we needed to win. A draw could have led to a fourth consecutive year without the title, but a draw would have flattered us that day.

Cristiano Ronaldo aimed a free kick into the crowded Liverpool penalty area, hoping that Louis Saha or Nemanja Vidic would be able to poke the ball goalwards. But it spilled out to John O'Shea who, with one big smack towards the roof of the net, scored the goal that his Manchester United career will be remembered for.

Good luck, Johnny.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Boy of the Rovers

This afternoon, Blackburn Rovers youngster Phil Jones underwent a medical at Carrington ahead of a reported £17M move to Manchester United.

Speculation has understandably already arisen as to where Jones will fit into the Manchester United set-up. Is he a long-term replacement for Nemanja Vidic (who doesn't even turn 30 until October)? An expensive replacement for squad-player Jonny Evans?

Jones' transfer to Manchester United has come as quite a surprise, but he was undoubtedly impressive for Rovers last term.

In last season's Premier League, Blackburn Rovers' win percentage was 35% with Jones in the side, compared to just 24% without him.

Rovers also scored less than the entertaining Blackpool and only two more than bottom club West Ham; Jones was a big part of a vital, relegation-preventing defence that compensated for their mis-firing attacking counterparts.

Wayne Rooney today described him as 'one of the toughest defenders [he] played against last season'.

Although naturally a central defender, last season Jones played three times as many games as a defensive midfielder for Rovers than he did at centre-half (18/6).

Sir Alex Ferguson is a great appreciator of versatile players: O'Shea, Brown, Park, Nani, Fabio and Rafael. With Jones sitting just in front of the back four - deeper than Michael Carrick would in that role - Fergie could get creative with his midfield options.

It is, however, possible that Jones has been targetted a year earlier than Ferguson would have liked. This morning the Preston-born 19-year-old was all but being dubbed a Liverpool player by Twitter. It seems that Jones also spoke with Arsene Wenger about a possible switch to North London. Strong interest from two big rivals may have forced Sir Alex's hand in making a move for the player, who may or may not have been of the manager's 'maybe three' targets for the summer.

The triple-pronged Premier League interest probably upped Jones' price tag, but Manchester United has a habit of nurturing youngsters and treating players exceptionally well, and in a decade or so we could be calling this transfer a bargain.

Clearly an important asset to Blackburn Rovers' season, it remains to be seen what role Jones will play in the next couple of years.

With 21-year-old Chris Smalling coming on leaps and bounds under Ferguson and Manchester United's guidance, it would be fantastic to see Jones make similar progress and ultimately fulfill his obvious potential.

Jones and Smalling will play side-by-side at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship this summer. That will certainly be worth tuning in for as we may well be witnessing the future of Manchester United's defensive heart for years to come.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

United Have a Semi

Manchester United have been involved in some unforgettable Champions League semi-finals in recent years, and that time has come around again.

Despite the vast majority of reds agreeing that 'United > England' rings true, Manchester United and England share a common enemy: German sides.

Though - as some of you may remember - United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 on the 26th of May 1999 to regain the European Cup after 31 years, we don't have the best of records against 'the old enemy' on the continental stage.

In 1997, it was in the semi finals that United were eliminated by two Borussia Dortmund defeats. Bayern beat us home and away to end our 2000/01 dreams at the quarter final stage. A promising 2001/02 campaign ended on away goals in the semi finals to a Bayer Leverkusen side that included Oliver Neuville, Michael Ballack, Lucio, and a Bulgarian by the name of Dimitar Berbatov. And of course a superb volley by Arjen Robben knocked us out on Bayern's behalf last season.

Add those to the 2003 group-stage defeat at Stuttgart and it makes for pretty sorry reading going into the Schalke tie - but I thought I'd lighten the mood.

Of course, the reds' nineteenth English Championship is not yet secured - I'm not getting ahead of myself. But with the imminence of Tuesday's trip to Gelsenkirchen I felt it appropriate to look back on some of recent history's most thrilling displays in the penultimate round of Europe's biggest spectacle.

Old Trafford: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 29/04/2008.

We remember Paul Scholes' thunderous response to Gianluca Zambrotta's misplaced clearance; not Ronaldo's penalty miss in the first leg at Camp Nou.

Wesley Brown, Owen Hargreaves and Nani played incredibly that night.

After Scholes' opener we showed the discipline to defend rather than seek to increase the lead over Frank Rijkaard's Catalan giants that night. Young Lionel Messi was resigned to desperate dives in the penalty box while United marched towards their third European Cup final in Moscow.

The crowd were outstanding that night; the atmosphere was the best I have ever witnessed in my 18 years at Old Trafford. Deafening, supportive, uplifting; tense.

The Emirates: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 05/05/2009.

Because United's progression from that semi-final tie was so devastatingly comprehensive, the only drama was Roberto Rosetti's disgusting decision to show the red card to Darren Fletcher for an excellent tackle and deny him a place in the starting line-up in Rome. Fletcher didn't need to track Francesc Fabregas the way he did as the reds were 4-0 up on aggregate with 15 minutes
to go; but he instinctively tracked the Spaniard brilliantly. The Scot didn't let Fabregas out of his sight as he received the ball in the box, yet was sent off for making the tackle of the competition.

Heartbreak for Fletcher aside, the two games against Arsenal in the Champions League that season were awesome.

Three minutes after Ji-Sung Park capitalised on a Kieran Gibbs slip in the eighth minute to add to John O'Shea's goal from the first leg and give United an almost-unassailable lead in the tie, Cristiano Ronaldo arrogantly attempted to send a 35-yard free kick directly past Manuel Almunia - and succeeded.

But United weren't finished. In fact, their next goal was even better. Bacary Sagna saw a 61st minute cross headed away from danger by Nemanja Vidic. Three players, seven touches, and 11 seconds later, the ball was in the back of the Arsenal net.

Stadio delle Alpi: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 21/04/1999.

It's hard to believe that night in Turin was 12 years ago today.

Inzaghi's five-minute brace. Keano's booking. Keano's 'captain's goal' and the three Juventus defenders the 5'10" Irishman had no right to rise above. Stam's goal-line clearance. Yorke's spectacular header. Inzaghi's characteristic offside goal. Irwin's shot off the post.

And Andy Cole's winner - one of my favourite moments supporting United.

Dwight Yorke latched onto a huge Schmeichel punt, charged his way through (if memory serves) Iuliano and Pessotto , and was brought down by goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi as he skipped around him in the penalty area. Cole, not tempted by the sure offer of a penalty, arrived to avenge his tripped strike partner and finish from a dauntingly acute angle. Before being mobbed by his fellow heroes, Cole threw his arm in the air and smiled that toothy grin that every red loved.

Full speed ahead Barcelona.

In Schalke, United face dangerously unknown German opposition. I expect a strict midfield, notoriously opportunist strikers, and solid back four.

I also expect drama.

Friday, 8 April 2011

09/04/11 Fulham (h) - Match Preview

Fulham come to Old Trafford today for a game United should still see as a must-win.

Sandwiched between two Champions League quarter-final legs, only 76 hours before Chelsea aim to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg at Stamford Bridge, this match won't be a formality.

No match at this stage of the season is a formality; it's squeaky bum time, remember?

The league is far from won. Arsenal will be expected to pick up all three points from Bloomfield Road on Sunday. The reds still have Chelsea to play and The Emirates to visit so slip up against Fulham and United's position at the top of the Premier League looks precarious again.

So what team should Sir Alex Ferguson pick?

I would confidently assume that Sir Alex will field a weakened side against the Cottagers, with perhaps more than just one eye on Tuesday's crucial Champions League encounter. I just hope that it's a 'weakened side' with the ability to comfortably beat Fulham, who are not to be taken lightly.

This is a team who have the ability to punish weakened United sides. Only last season the reds suffered a 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage with a back three of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, and young full-back Ritchie De Laet - and Michael Owen up front.

Fulham may come to Old Trafford today hoping for a draw at best, but they have they have players of opportunist breed capable of creating something out of nothing.

Bobby Zamora's opener against Blackpool on Sunday was evidence of this - the 30-year-old instinctively latched onto James Beattie's misplaced pass in midfield and carried the ball thirty yards before smashing an unstoppable right foot shot past Richard Kingson. The once-capped England striker looks to have hit the ground running after five months out injured, albeit against sluggish Blackpool.

Ever since his Liverpool days Danny Murphy has loved scoring against United - and had a canny knack of doing it. Clint Dempsey has been one of the league's best midfielders - the American is creative and is always a goalscoring threat. Damien Duff, like Murphy, has enjoyed the better of United on more than one occasion. Chris Baird may have only scored twice for his club but isn't afraid to shoot well from distance.

And then there's the manager.

Mark Hughes, who has beaten Fergie twice before as a manager, would love to banish the demons of Owen's last minute winner in United's 4-3 league victory over his Manchester City side last season - a game in which Hughes was left bitterly and unduly seething.

Hear me out, but here's something to consider(again): how long left do we have with Sir Alex watching over us?

He could go on managing United until there isn't a breath left in his body, and many suggest he will. Others suggest that he has one or two seasons left in him.

But what if his goal is to retire on a high? What are his motivations going into the business end of the 2010/11 season? Fergie has never kept quiet his desire to win three European Cups and equal Liverpool's Bob Paisley record as the only manager in history to do so. What if Fergie sees this season's competition as the best opportunity to do that, throw all his eggs in an Old Big Ears-shaped basket, and as a result allow our league run-in to suffer?

We have been far from our best at a consistent level in the league but our progression in Europe this season has been comprehensive; expert.

Then again, how does the cliche go? Playing badly but still winning is 'the hallmark of champions'.

Hopefully (and in all likelihood) I'm being paranoid, but if I see Darron Gibson's name in the starting XI later today I'll be worried.

So my team for the visit of Fulham, keeping in mind I am hopeful United can win league championship number 19 and to reach the Champions League final at Wembley, would be:


Kuszczak (played well against West Ham, Van Der Sar may need to rest his groin)

Evra (needs confidence after rickety display at Chelsea)
Smalling (with Rio sure to start against Chelsea, Smalling is ideal today)
Vidic (can handle the workload but should be replaced if we are cruising)
Fabio (his brother mustn't be rushed back and I would like to see Rafael start against Chelsea)

Scholes (to anchor midfield and give Carrick a rest to reproduce his display against Chelsea)
Anderson (to be given a creative role in a midfield looked-after by Scholes)
Park (Valencia shouldn't be given too much to deal with so soon after returning from a horrific long-term injury and should start against Chelsea)
Nani (has had a great season and although has looked off-pace on occasion, has never really looked tired)

Berbatov (I love Berbatov - he's had a great season in the league and long may it continue - but I would like to see Rooney/Hernandez against Chelsea)
Hernandez (because I expect him to score today and on Tuesday)

I would also like to note that no Michael Jackson or Grand National references were made in the making of this blog. I could have easily used the terms 'home stretch' or 'final furlong' in relation to the league run-in; and theorising about a Fergie swansong was screaming out for a mention of 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough'.

But I'm better than that.