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.


Monday, 4 April 2011

Profanity Insanity: Think of the Children!

Wayne Rooney scored three goals in quick succession to provide Manchester United with a dramatic comeback victory against West Ham on Saturday - but that's not what Sunday's headlines said.

After an awkward and fruitless hour in front of the baying majority of Upton Park's 35,000 crowd who were enjoying a 2-0 lead, Rooney took the game by the scruff of the bull's horns and almost single-handedly fired United toward an invaluable win that took them one step closer to a record 19th League Championship.

With a total of nine goals to his name before Saturday (compared with 34 at the same stage last season), and his United and England performances coming under undue scrutiny from the press, no one could blame Rooney for feeling the pressure. A dire first half in which his touch eluded him, and led to the breakdown of various United attacks, was enough to get the Merseyside Maradona's back up.

Rooney took charge when two-goal Mark Noble upended Michael Carrick just outside the West Ham penalty area in the 65th minute; his insistence that he should take the resulting free-kick rather than the better positioned left-footer Ryan Giggs paid off as he accurately swerved the ball past a fully-stretched Robert Green.

His celebration? A brief salute followed by a regimented Roy-of-the-Rovers run back to his own half.

Rooney's second goal was exemplary of the baldest 25-year-old in the North West's never-say-die attitude. Picking up Antonio Valencia's pass in the 73rd minute, he aggressively yet sublimely created space for himself just inside the box and struck his shot across Green and into the bottom-left corner to level the score.

When his efforts culminated in the conversion of a 79th-minute penalty to turn the game on its head and give United an ultimately insurmountable lead, The White Pele punched the air in front of United's travelling faithful, embraced the adoration of his grateful team-mates, and let out some of the few words available to him: "F***ing what? What? F***ing what?!"

'So f**ing what?', you might think.

But Rooney has since been charged by the FA and handed a two match ban for his 'offensive' celebrations. He will now miss the visit of Fulham, and the FA Cup semi-final against City at Wembley - the latest in a series of 'biggest derby match ever's.

For anyone that's ever played football at any level whatsoever, swearing is a typical outlet of passion or frustration.

Ok, so Law 12 (Fouls and Misconduct), Item 6, reads: 'A player is sent off and shown the red card if he uses offensive or insulting or abusive language and/or gestures'. This is clearly open to interpretation, depending on whether or not the referee sees the incident or whether or not anyone is actually being abused or offended. Can you honestly say you've never missed a sitter and shouted 'b*****d!' or called a team-mate a 'n**head' because of a mis-placed pass? Rooney wouldn't be the same without that edginess, and neither would many other Premier League stars.

Exhibit A, from Newcastle's 3-1 victory over Liverpool at St James' Park earlier this season (13/12/10). Not only was this personally aimed at an opponent, the content was clearly homophobic. No action taken; Mr Torres is big enough to look after himself.

Exhibit B, from Fulham's 3-0 victory over Blackpool just yesterday (3/4/11). Not directed at anyone in particular; but Sky decided to broadcast James Beattie's reaction to Bobby Zamora's goal(03.12). One would correctly assume that no action will be taken, although the 'T-word' is 'offensive'.

Exhibit C, borne from Chelsea's (admittedly understandable) frustration at being knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona in 2009. Didier Drogba was charged by UEFA for his actions against referee Tom Henning, who he branded 'a thief'. Slightly less relevant, this incident was punished because of the defamation of character by Drogba of the match officials - rather than the profane language used. OK, I just enjoy watching the clip.

Also I distinctly remember, a couple of seasons ago, West Ham's Carlton Cole's overly vociferous and inconveniently televised "F*** off!" - in response to a team-mate asking him to take a throw in - being broadcast pre-watershed without question. I'd have been slightly insulted by such abuse if I'd simply asked my mate to take a throw-in.

Swearing on televised football is rife, but this is not to say that it is condemnable behaviour - of course it isn't.

Football has been particularly heavily televised for a couple of decades now. We accept that television cameras figuratively and physically intrude on the modern version of our beautiful game, but Wayne Rooney did not invite them; nor is he responsible for what they broadcast, or who audiences consist of. Yes, his wages would be significantly lower were it not for the constant injection of $ky's zillions - but he shouldn't be expected to compromise his passion to accommodate for intrusive lenses.

Should footballers be expected to maintain an almost parental level of decorum and consider the fact that impressionable children may be watching at home just because the sport they play is televised? I don't believe they should. I've heard current Premier League players I dislike swear on camera: Gerrard, Carragher, Terry, Cole, and the like; it doesn't bother me. They're playing football and we choose to watch them.

Sunday's newspapers, however, were calling for Rooney's head.

'A hat-trick in just 15 minutes but then United star's four-letter rant ruins it all... ROONEY'S DISGRACE' - back page of The Mail On Sunday (3/4/11).

'Rooney blows the respect agenda out of the water', the 'newspaper' went on. Respect for who, exactly? Officials? Rooney acted like the teacher's pet in the aftermath of the two penalty decisions; call that uncharacteristic if you must but the England striker was well-behaved despite facing understandable frustration.

Even today(4/4/11), after one would expect the dust to have settled and the necks of reactionary hypocrites be well wound in, The Mail wheeled out Graham Poll to give his (literal) tuppence-worth.

Poll, of whose glaring shortcomings I needn't remind you, delivered an opening gambit of 'The Football Association should ban Wayne Rooney for three games'. Mr Poll goes on to misread Rooney's emotions as anger, and preach that the feisty Evertonian's reaction was confusingly unworthy of someone who had overcome untold pressure to drag his team into the lead from an away-from-home, two-nil-down position with a 14-minute hat trick.

Everyone's least-favourite ex-referee (sorry Jeff Winter) then went on to tell tall tales about a friend(arf)'s six-year-old son asking 'Daddy, why has Wayne Rooney just said 'f***'?'

Admittedly, the vocabulary of the average British six-year-old may be somewhat more colourful than it was when I was that age, but I remember receiving a slapped backside for daring to utter the word 'damn' in 1992. That is not to say kids these days would be unfamiliar with swearing at all, but to suggest that a boy so young would be watching a goal celebration on television, recognise a barely audible utterance of hopefully unfamiliar profanity, deem it questionable behaviour and alert his father of the unsuitability of what he has just seen, is quite implausible.

I hear worse walking past my local junior school in the morning, anyway.

...and Scooby Doo was all about drugs.

Poll even went as far as saying this Rooney episode didn't make 'pleasant viewing on Sky Sports News throughout Mother's Day'. Hear that, mum? Wayne Rooney ruined Mother's Day: put those tulips in the bin and burn those cards- we're not going out for dinner.

Easily the most ridiculous thing said on the matter came from the jowelly 'Sports Journalist of the Year'(arf) Martin Samuel, whose inability to comprehend what might have been going through Wayne's head can only lead me to believe he has always been too fat to be in a position to score such an important goal and understand one hundredth of what the United star felt.

'I'm offended by his total absence of love and joy for the game', said Samuel the Hutt. 'Give it in', he went on. 'Let another kid have the No. 10 shirt at Manchester United... He might actually smile when he scores'.

Questioning this guy's passion? Accusing this man of not loving football? He's not bothered? This lad should jack it in because he doesn't care? You should not question Wayne Rooney's love for football, Marty.

If we have to offer an excuse (and we don't), it's there for all to see that Rooney's celebration was an impromptu eruption of emotion that renders Mr. Samuel's ramblings quite confusing.

But what should we expect from The Mail? After all, this is the same 'newspaper' that decided a full-page splash dedicated to Rooney's recent minor shortcomings in front of goal was the best way to celebrate a Berbatov hat trick-inspired 5-0 defeat of Birmingham earlier this season; a game in which Rooney provided three assists.

One can only imagine the uproar had Rooney said something offensive while playing for England.

To the Football Association and The Mail: fuck you.

Don't like it?

We're Man United, what fucking what.