Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Ferguson won't dwell on Tevez

Never one to dwell on past glories, Sir Alex Ferguson today gave short shrift when asked for his reaction to Carlos Tevez turning his back on a five-year contract offer at Manchester United.

The spiky Argentina international is this week expected to move across town to join local rivals Manchester City despite strong interest from clubs across Europe. The South American proved popular with the Old Trafford faithful in a successful two-year stay, but his criticism of Ferguson over a perceived lack of first-team English football and club officials for delaying contract talks have cast a shadow.

There was more evidence of this when Ferguson intimated the former West Ham favourite had made up his mind to leave United as far back as January. The Scot added his attempts to make contact with Tevez since had fallen on deaf ears, so confirmation of his decision to leave the champions did not come as a surprise.

"I half expected Carlos Tevez would be going a long time back," said the United boss.

"I think he maybe did a deal around January because I spoke to him and gave him an offer on the night we played Inter Milan and he never came back to me.

"I phoned him on holiday and he never got back to me and I texted him twice and he never got back to me then either, so obviously he had made his mind up a long time ago.

"He was a good player and did well for us. But he obviously assessed the situation and wanted to go somewhere else."

City are hopeful of clinching the signature of Tevez before they head off for a three-match tour of South Africa on Wednesday.

Nick Walsh writes features and football betting previews for Betfair.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ferguson not fazed by Benzema snub

Sir Alex Ferguson has shut the door on any more incomings this summer and declared champions Manchester United closed for business.

The Scot made his admission after confirming he did enquire about signing Karim Benzema but lost faith as soon as big-spending Spanish football giants Real Madrid entered the running for the France forward's signature.

It means the Old Trafford boss will choose from Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen and youngsters Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck when United begin the defence of their Premier League title.

The signing of Owen gives Ferguson the impact goal-getter he craved since Carlos Tevez decided it was wise to turn his back on a five-year contract offer. And fellow new recruits Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan will be charged with the task of supplying the ammunition in a top-heavy midfield.

Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Sergio Aguero and Klaas Jan Huntelaar have been touted as close-season targets but Ferguson is adamant that he will not pay inflated prices just because he has £80m from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo burning a hole in his pocket.

"There are some amazing numbers being talked about, not all of them realistic," he said.

"It is very difficult to get value now. In a way we benefited through the sale of Cristiano, although that figure was non-negotiable.

"But I feel we have a good squad, which meant there was no need for knee-jerk reactions.

"We asked about Benzema and we had a value for him. Lyon have done well because they got 42million Euros but I think we took a sensible view."

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Tevez antics leave nasty after-taste

Carlos Tevez, who asked to leave Manchester United, refuses to go quietly and his latest accusation that he was "thrown out of the club" risks alienating him from the same set of supporters who once worshiped him.

Let us not forget Tevez, for all his "pain" and "sadness", suffered the hardship of winning successive Premier League titles and the Champions League during his loan arrangement at Old Trafford.

His work-rate won him many admirers but his recent trick of trying to turn fans against manager Sir Alex Ferguson over his decision to turn his back on a five-year contract offer is unlikely to win him many new friends.

"If I play for Manchester City I don't think the United fans will feel I am a traitor," reasoned Tevez.

"They have to remember that at least as far as I know I have been thrown out of the club and I have to study the best offers available."

Tevez, also a target for Chelsea, should remember he gave good service during a productive stint at one of the world's biggest clubs instead of blaming anyone in earshot over a decision he made.

The 25-year-old Argentina striker continued his sniping at the weekend when he blamed Ferguson for blanking him in response to the 4-1 drubbing by fiercest rivals Liverpool – a game in which he started - at Old Trafford in March.

The apparent cold shoulder left former West Ham favourite Tevez with no option but to move on – a decision backed up by his advisor, Kia Joorabchian.

"It has come about because I could not stand my sporting situation at Manchester United any longer," he continued. "My first year was good in all senses. I played in the games and felt respected by the coach but in my second year some strange things happened that I still do not understand.

"After the game at Old Trafford where Liverpool beat us, Ferguson ignored me almost as if I was to blame for the defeat when really Liverpool dominated us all over the pitch. After that the fans called for me to be in the team but he never took the advice on board because he always knows best.

"I gave everything for Manchester United and people know that," Tevez told the People. "For that reason I don't deserve the way things have ended up."

Monday, 29 June 2009

Tevez takes aim at Berbatov

Carlos Tevez could not resist one last parting shot at Manchester United when he rounded on former strike partner Dimitar Berbatov for forcing his exit this summer from Old Trafford.

The Argentina international raised eyebrows last week when he announced he had asked to leave after rejecting the offer of a five-year contract to stay with the Premier League champions. Manchester City and Chelsea now lead the race for his signature, although the former loan forward has insisted he has not decided on his plans for the future.

Tevez struck a chord with match-going United supporters because of his willingness to chase lost causes and the former West Ham favourite felt he was not rewarded in the big games by manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

"I am not sure where I am going to play, but I know for sure that it will not be at Manchester [United]," Tevez told the Argentina TyC Sports television network. "When I arrived I had to fight for a place like any other player. My first season was good. I was a starter or a substitute, but I respected that.

"But in my second year, after the match against Liverpool, the coach started to overlook me. The fans supported me a lot so I thought that something was going on as my performances were also good. I was a professional.

"The signing of Berbatov from Tottenham on transfer deadline day last summer also convinced Tevez he was not rated by Ferguson. Curiously, Tevez revealed he was never urged by the Old Trafford boss to sign a new contract.

"I did not feel supported after they signed Berbatov, because I was the man for the job he was bought to do. Last year I was the second top scorer after Cristiano [Ronaldo]. We won two titles [the Premier League and the Carling Cup] and being shut out like this was something that I could not understand.

"They did not ask me to sign the contract. Ferguson told me not to be worried about Berbatov's arrival, but I did not like it when he started to put me on the bench often. I gave my life for the Manchester United shirt."

Nick Walsh writes features and football betting previews for Betfair.

Friday, 19 June 2009

No hard feelings, insists Charlton

Club director Sir Bobby Charlton has assured Manchester United fans that manager Sir Alex Ferguson can be trusted to spend the cash generated from the impending world-record transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid wisely.

The Portugal international is expected to complete his dream move to the Santiago Bernabeu by the end of June and he will leave Old Trafford "with our blessing", according to Charlton, who also described the fee as "vulgar".

Ferguson fought long, hard and, sometimes, publicly, on his mission to defy Real's overtures so it curious that he has kept a diplomatic counsel on the loss of his most prized asset.

The sale of Ronaldo has been greeted with open arms by rival Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal supporters. Charlton, however, who has witnessed the departures of former favourites such as Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and David Beckham, has insisted it would be folly to write Ferguson off just yet.

The wily Scot has been given the Glazer family stamp of approval to strengthen his attacking options and Charlton would not be surprised if he had one last trick up his sleeve.

"He is a great judge of player. Alex Ferguson is very brave, he's very brave with his decisions, he's very decisive with his decisions, and that is why he's been a major success," Charlton said.

Ferguson has been linked with close-season swoops for Franck Ribéry of Bayern Munich and Antonio Valencia of Wigan.

Nick Walsh writes about football betting for Betfair

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Ribéry riddle to rumble on

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has set aside a large proportion of the world-record £80m fee to be received for the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid by making an offer for France playmaker Franck Ribéry, according to Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

Real have also enquired about the 26-year-old's availability, but, Rummenigge claims, Chelsea and Barcelona have stolen a march by joining the Premier League title-winners in making offers for the in-demand forward.

The former Germany international, speaking in an interview with Bild newspaper, said: "Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and his advisor Pedro Jiménez asked if we were willing to speak with them over a transfer but we rejected the chance and we have no intention of selling Ribéry."

Asked if Spain's big-spending capital club made an offer, he replied: "No but other clubs have done. Chelsea have lodged a bid, as have Manchester United and Barcelona. We are completely relaxed about it. The power lies with Bayern Munich."

Old Trafford officials have maintained a diplomatic silence on their attempts to recruit Bayern's most saleable asset, but it is safe to suggest Ferguson, who is on holiday in the south of France, is keen to bolster his attacking options.

United want the transfer of Ronaldo to Spain rubber-stamped by June 30 and uncertainty over the future of Carlos Tevez, who is wanted by neighbours City, leaves Ferguson with potentially two large holes to fill.

Bayern have repeatedly insisted Ribéry is not for sale and maintain he will see out his contract, which runs until 2011, so Ferguson may decide Antonio Valencia of Wigan is a more viable option.

DW Stadium chairman Dave Whelan revealed: "They (United) have been in touch with us and we will be starting negotiations very shortly, I would imagine. United have been in touch with us over Antonio for the last two or three months, expressing an interest and actually putting cash offers on the table."

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Berbatov safe, says agent

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has no desire to offload striker Dimitar Berbatov before the start of next season, according to the player's agent.

Speculation has been rife that Ferguson will look to shake up his attacking options during the close-season, with England international Wayne Rooney, at its core, while ongoing speculation about the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez could shape any decision he makes about incomings and outgoings.

Berbatov, a £30.75m transfer deadline-day capture from Premier League rivals Tottenham, has blown hot and cold since making the switch from White Hart Lane and a perceived lack of effort has led to dissenting voices from sections of match-going supporters.

The Bulgaria international managed just nine Premier League goals for the champions last season, despite making 29 league starts, and failed to cement his place as the principal focal point of Ferguson's strikeforce.

Ferguson, when pressed, refuted all talk last season that the former Bayer Leverkusen man doesn't like getting his socks dirty and agent Emil Dantchev has insisted he has no knowledge of the Scot seeking a parting of the ways

"Despite speculation that he may leave, I want to declare that Dimitar will play next season in Manchester United," Dantchev told Dnevnik.

"There is no desire from the management for any separation.

"He will stay and we hope that he will win what he missed out on this year."

Monday, 8 June 2009

Ferguson right on with Valencia offer

Antonio Valencia looks set to follow Steve Bruce out of Wigan in a move which could have significant repercussions for the JJB Stadium outfit – and the Ecuadorian winger's reported suitors.

Manchester United and Real Madrid are understood to have lodged bids in excess of £16million as both clubs look to beef up their attacking options ahead of a summer of transition.

A close-season switch to Old Trafford, however, would fuel more speculation about the future of Cristiano Ronaldo. Valencia could operate on the right, allowing Ferguson to play world player of the year Ronaldo as his principal striker, as seen in the Champions League last season.

Alternatively, his arrival could also give weight to the theory that Ferguson has grown tired of speculation about his star forward and is finally prepared to let him leave for pastures new.

Nani has continued to frustrate match-going United supporters and it would appear Ferguson's patience has finally snapped.

Newly-elected president Florentino Perez has vowed to return Real to the summit of domestic and continental football and, although a confirmed admirer of Ronaldo, is also in the running for Valencia.

The 23-year-old nearly moved to the Bernabeu in the winter transfer window but the Latics managed to keep hold of their most saleable asset.

Now, with Bruce confirmed as the new manager of Sunderland, the goalposts have changed and Dave Whelan may decide now is the time to secure a maximum profit.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Pérez puts Ronaldo back on agenda

Florentino Pérez has risked a complete breakdown in relations between his club Real Madrid and Manchester United by promising "to work" at finally delivering Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabeu faithful.

Pérez, the capital club's new president, has fanned the flames by vowing to go back over a pre-contract agreement made between Real and Ronaldo last season which could see the 24-year-old world player of the year quit the Premier League title-winners for an estimated £75m.

He said: "It would be very good if great players were at Real Madrid this season. Cristiano would be one of them."

And the question facing Sir Alex Ferguson now is how much more conjecture about his star forward can he possibly take before his patience snaps? The Scot infamously declared he would never sell "that mob" a virus, but, at the risk of upsetting a harmonious dressing-room, the thought of cashing in on his most saleable asset is a carrot even Ferguson may not resist.

Ferguson has never shirked a decision and past favorites such as David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy all faced the same inevitable end when the notoriously unsympathetic Old Trafford boss thought they had overstayed their welcome.

A public show of dissent when substituted in the Manchester derby and apparent criticism of his manager's tactics in the wake of United's 2-0 Champions League final defeat by Barcelona has led to suggestions that holes are appearing in Ronaldo's relationship with Ferguson.

The Portugal international affectionately refereed to Ferguson as a "second father" when seemingly nailing his flag to the mast recently. He will do well to hold on to that thought if he should decide to end his near six-year association with the club this summer.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Ferguson ready to join pantheon of greats

There is no more fitting city than Rome and all its historical splendour for Sir Alex Ferguson to cement his status in the top echelon of the game's greatest managers by inspiring Manchester United to victory against Barcelona in the Champions League final on Wednesday.

The Scot has never been one for sentiment although the significance of the epic win against Bayern Munich in 1999 on what would have been Sir Matt Busby's 90th birthday had the hallmarks of a victory sent from heaven.

There was also a whiff of fate last year when United beat Chelsea to provide the most fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the air disaster in Munich – the club's darkest day. This time around and Busby would have been 100 on Monday, but Ferguson is happy to let events take care of themselves in what has all the ingredients of a final fit to stir the Caesars who once kept watch in the Eternal City.

"You had a feeling that night in Barcelona and obviously there was fate attached to last year as well," said the United boss. "That happens. But I think this type of game might be beyond fate."

It has the capability to be a fantastic final. Ferguson famously told his players before the 1999 win they would only be able to walk past the Champions League trophy if they failed to produce on the night and, even at the grand old age of 67, it would seem he still searches for the right words to inspire his players.

He added: "These things usually happen to me about three in the morning when I am trying to get some inspiration from the deep chambers of my tiny little brain. But at the moment nothing is coming out."

Ferguson will know his players will not get a better chance to beat an injury-hit Barcelona and become the first club side in the modern game to successfully defend their European crown. He will also appreciate that the La Liga title-winners are capable of magic on their day and in Lionel Messi possess a player destined for greatness. But Ferguson will put all of his faith in his own match-winners and trust they can deliver on the biggest stage.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Ferguson points to weak defence

Sir Alex Ferguson has bullishly predicted that Manchester United will beat Barcelona when the two giants meet in Rome for the Champions League final next Wednesday. The Scot is insistent that the newly-crowned Spanish champions will be severely handicapped by the absence of their suspended first-choice full-backs, Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal, and centre-half Rafael Márquez.

He is also not convinced Yaya Touré, a holding midfielder deployed as a makeshift centre-back against Chelsea in the semi-finals, is at home in defence. The veteran Sylvinho is also expected to start at left-back but has enough big-game experience to cope with the sleepless nights lesser lights might endure when faced with the prospect of shackling an interchangeable United midfield.

"We are in a stronger position because of that," Ferguson said of the headache facing Barca counterpart Pep Guardiola. "Chelsea showed they can be 'beaten'," he added. "I take some encouragement from that." For all of their problems, on paper at least, the Catalan giants remain a potent force when crossing the half-way line and their recent 6-2 destruction of bitter rivals Real Madrid left Ferguson in a cold sweat.

"I watched the game," Ferguson explained. "It was an absolutely magnificent performance and I said to myself, 'Christ, we have to play them, possibly.'" Question marks remain about the fitness of Thierry Henry and, perhaps more significantly, Andrés Iniesta, but Ferguson has too many grey hairs to even contemplate the thought that United simply have to turn up at the Olympic Stadium on May 27 to become the first team in the modern era to successfully defend their European crown.

For all of United's superstars, it is curious that Ferguson has stuck his neck out for one of his unsung heroes by promising John O'Shea a start in defence. Ferguson's biggest concern centres on whether or not to gamble on key centre-back Rio Ferdinand's lack of match fitness. He has missed United's last three matches since sustaining a calf injury in the Champions League semi-final second leg victory over Arsenal at the Emirates at the start of May.

"I am hoping he will be fit for Sunday [against Hull] – if not he is doubtful for Wednesday that is for sure," warned the United manager. "I think he needs a game going into the Champions League final because him having not played for three weeks is too much."

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Final heartache for Neville

Sir Alex Ferguson faces the unenviable task of telling Manchester United club captain Gary Neville he will not need to get changed for the Champions League final against Barcelona in Rome on May 27.

The Old Trafford boss has admitted he is "dreading" trimming his squad down from 30 to 18 names and Neville, who on Saturday lifted the Premier League trophy, is expected to be a high-profile casualty when the players learn their fate.

Rafael da Silva should get the nod ahead of Neville, whose career in recent years has suffered from a catalogue of injury lay-offs, while youngsters Federico Macheda and Daniel Welbeck are certain to join their experienced team-mate in the stands at the Olympic Stadium. Owen Hargreaves, Wes Brown and Fabio da Silva will miss the final because of injury, while Darren Fletcher's red card against Arsenal in the semi-finals means he too can keep his suit on.

Park Ji-sung was left out completely in Moscow against Chelsea last year and Ferguson revealed the decision "almost broke my heart", but the South Korean is in the squad this time around and could provide the legs in the absence of the industrious Fletcher.

"There are obviously going to be several players left disappointed," said Ferguson. "Hopefully the ones who don't make it will remember we wouldn't have reached the final without their contribution and each and every one who has played in the competition should remember they are as deserving as those selected for the final. The Champions League involved six group games and a further six at the knockout phase to reach the final and we have had 20 players involved. The Champions League will not be won or lost by the players on duty on the final day."

Ferguson is expected to provide some insight into his thinking for the Rome showpiece when United travel to take on relegation-haunted Hull at the weekend and it is safe to assume those not involved at the KC Stadium can pack their boots for the final of Europe's premier club competition.

Possible team (4-3-2-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Giggs, Anderson; Park, Rooney; Ronaldo
Subs: Kuszczak, Evans, R da Silva, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov, Tevez
Injured: Foster, Brown, F da Silva
Suspended: Fletcher
In the stands (possible): Neville, Macheda, Welbeck, Gibson, Possebon, Eckersley, Petrucci, Amos
Not in 30-man squad: Hargreaves

Nick Walsh writes features and betting previews for Betfair.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Agent talks up Ibrahimovic interest

Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be given the keys to Milan if his manager Jose Mourinho had his way, but that is unlikely to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to reach into his coffers this summer to make an approach for the Swedish man mountain.

Mourinho questioned Old Trafford superstar Cristiano Ronaldo's credentials when he was crowned World Player of the Year in January this year, insisting Ibrahimovic was the more worthy winner of the Ballon d’Or. It was difficult to see any reason to Mourinho's argument when his Internazionale were sent packing from the Champions League by Manchester United at the last-16 stage and Ibrahimovic lived up to his reputation of blowing hot and cold on the big stage.

For all his undoubted ability – Ibrahimovic has scored 21 goals so far this season in Serie A – the former Ajax man has forged out a career which has seen him deliver when the mood takes him and was all-but anonymous when he passed up the opportunity to upset the Champions League odds and knock the holders out of Europe's premier club competition.

The 27-year-old is seeking a fresh challenge away from the Nerazzurri and United, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid are ready to meet his reported £160,000-a-week wages. "Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid are in contact with me," Ibrahimovic's agent, Mino Raiola, told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. "They are the only teams capable of taking someone like Zlatan.

"Until proven otherwise, he will go ahead with Inter because he is under contract with the Nerazzurri club. If we do move, it will be to another great team. Otherwise he will stay and try to win the Scudetto and Champions League with Inter next season."

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Drogba sinks Chelsea to new low

Uefa could take action against Didier Drogba for a post-match confrontation with referee Tom Henning Ovrebo and foul-mouthed tirade at television cameras in the aftermath of Chelsea's dramatic Champions League semi-final exit at the hands of Barcelona – and rightly so.

The combustible Ivory Coast striker made a mockery of a supposed knee injury which forced him off in the second half to race towards the under-fire Norwegian match official in his flip-flops and begin a wide-eyed rant.

Drogba was incensed that Ovrebo had rejected four genuine penalty appeals for the home side but no amount of perceived injustice should have brought about the shameful scenes which could yet result in serious repercussions for Drogba and Chelsea.

This is the same player who put his ego before his club in last season's Champions League final when he was sent off for a petulant slap at Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic. Drogba, who was restrained by Chelsea stewards before breaking loose and yelling "It's a f****** disgrace" straight down a live TV camera, was not alone in leading the protests.

Michael Ballack, who has been playing on his reputation for most of the season, chased Ovrebo for 20 yards in a provocative attempt to win a penalty when his shot appeared to strike the arm of Samuel Eto'o.

Captain John Terry, no stranger to unsavoury headlines throughout his career, took on the mantle of playground bully at the final whistle and he too could come under scrutiny by Uefa bosses for branding Ovrebo's performance as "astonishing".

The manner of their elimination from Europe's elite club competition was all the more galling given that Barcelona, for all their possession, had not registered a single shot on target until the 92nd minute when Andres Iniesta cancelled out Michael Essien's wonder strike.

Yet Chelsea, and, specifically, Drogba, must surely rue a hatful of chances passed up over the two legs to kill off the gifted Primera Liga leaders. Guus Hiddink's comment that he would "protect" Drogba from any action by Uefa was as predictable as it was unhelpful and it will be no surprise if the Ivorian follows the temporary manager out of west London at the end of the season.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Capitulation a concern for Wenger

Arsene Wenger found sympathy from an unlikely source on Tuesday in the aftermath of arguably his most harrowing night in 25 years of football management. Old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson said the Arsenal manager should not be judged by his failure so far to win the Champions League, but it could be some while before the Frenchman gets anywhere near celebrating success in Europe's premier club competition based on his side's ruthless dismantling by Manchester United.

The biggest concern for Wenger, by his own admission, was his side's failure to even suggest they had the competitive spirit to prevent United from having the opportunity to upset the Champions League odds and become the first club side to successfully defend their European crown.

He said: "All we can do is look at ourselves. To fight such a long way to get here and then to give the game away like we did– it is very disappointing.

"The most difficult thing for me is that we have the feeling that we never played in the semi-final."

Wenger has talked long and hard about the potential of his young side – but a promise is nothing until it is delivered, as the saying goes. He must address a lack of experience and quality in his defence and add more steel to a lightweight midfield to have any hope of ending a four-year wait for a piece of major silverware.

In mitigation, Wenger must surely feel let down by the failure of star men Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor to wrestle the initiative off United over the two legs but that alone should not gloss over the gaping chasm between the two sides on the big stage.

United simply wanted the victory more and Arsenal had no answer to the hunger shown by Ferguson's charges, inspired by the mesmeric Cristiano Ronaldo. Afterwards the Emirates boss spoke of "taking some distance" to assess the season because "when it mattered we couldn't win".

He may need to do some soul-searching before he can convince the Arsenal supporters who left in their droves before the final whistle that Arsenal can again take on the game's very best.

Nick Walsh writes features and betting previews for Betfair.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Barton's Newcastle career may be over before it has really begun

The fact that Newcastle lost to Liverpool at Anfield yesterday probably didn't come as a shock to anyone, even the fans of the north-east club which is now well and truly embroiled in a relegation dogfight. Sadly, this lack of surprise can also be applied to the ugly scenes which saw Joey Barton leaving the pitch after an immature display of petulance and frustration.

Xabi Alonso, the victim of Barton's lack of discipline, was also forced to leave the field after the Newcastle midfielder's rash lunging tackle left him lucky to escape serious injury. These types of tackles are often blamed on frustration or are simply put down to mistimed, ill-judged attempts to win the ball at all costs.

Unfortunately for Barton, those closest to him in the football world are quite obviously becoming sick and tired of searching for excuses for his behaviour. For a player who spent periods in jail last year and has hit the headlines after violent confrontations with team-mates, tackles which initially appear mistimed and badly judged often take on a new prominence in the minds of those observing his on-field activity.

In this respect, it is refreshing to hear Newcastle manager, Alan Shearer, voicing his criticism of the midfielder. The boss stated that he was "bitterly disappointed at the way" the tackle happened and was unapologetic in his assertion that the player "deserved to be sent off". Barton will now miss Newcastle's games against Middlesbrough, Fulham, and Aston Villa.

For all his petulance and aggression, Barton is a player capable of putting in displays of hard graft and natural talent on the pitch and his absence deprives Shearer of an important player in the relegation run-in. The fact that Barton's disappointing attitude is coupled with natural talent makes his situation all the more frustrating. The player has made promise after promise to his team-mates and managers concerning a change in attitude but this transition has entirely failed to materialise.

Unfortunately for Barton, it seems as if his chances, at least at Newcastle, are running out fast. Alan Shearer didn't actually voice his opinion that the midfielder's future at the club was coming to an end...but he may as well have: "it would be wrong to discuss his future now but I'm not very happy".

If Barton is forced out of Newcastle, it is hard to imagine many clubs striving to secure his signature.

Giggs faultless in face of Father Time

Ryan Giggs rolled back with the years with a midfield masterclass to edge Manchester United closer to a third successive Premier League title and push relegation-threatened Middlesbrough closer to the abyss.

Gareth Southgate, Boro's manager, had urged the Teesside faithful to turn the Riverside into a bearpit, but Giggs is too long in the tooth to be rattled by audible dissent and turned in a performance of such panache and poise to silence the critics who dared to suggest crowning him PFA Player of the Year last week was a sympathy vote.

The 35-year-old was simply untouchable in the United engine room and picked holes in the Middlesbrough midfield with consummate ease. Southgate's charges huffed and puffed but lacked the craft and guile to get near to the experienced Welshman and the equally-impressive Paul Scholes in what proved to be a one-sided contest.

It was fitting that Giggs would mark a week in which he passed the 800 appearances barrier with a sublime finish to set the visitors on their way to a 2-0 victory. The skipper sent a low drive past goalkeeper Brad Jones on 25 minutes and the life seemed to drain for Boro. Ji-Sung Park made sure of the points late on when he latched onto a delightful Wayne Rooney through-ball and the rest was a formality.

Sir Alex Ferguson was in no doubt about the architect of United's win and argued Middlesbrough's young players had much to learn from his captain marvel. He said: "What more can I say? He was fantastic. I think that goal sealed the victory. Once we got in front, that was the key to it because Middlesbrough are a young side."

Both sides have bigger battles ahead, albeit for contrasting reasons, and United will have to be more clinical when they travel to north London for Tuesday's Champions League semi-final second-leg against Arsenal when Giggs is expected to take a back seat. Middlesbrough, however, are in freefall and their top-flight destiny could be determined by what happens when they face north-east rivals and fellow strugglers Newcastle next at St James' Park.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Time running out for Shearer's survival bid

The scenes across Newcastle on the day local hero, Alan Shearer, was confirmed as manager, with thousands of fans surrounding St James' Park in excitement and disbelief, epitomised the feeling in the city of anticipation and, ultimately, hope of a much-needed 'great escape' from the threat of relegation to the Championship.

Such was the euphoria reverberating throughout the city amongst the club's passionate fans that few wearing the black and white of Newcastle would have dared contemplate the prospect of Shearer not experiencing some form of instant success.

Some fans remained more realistic than others, revealing their thoughts that whilst long-term problems which have haunted the club for years would find no solution in the form of Shearer, a magnificent player but one still lacking in managerial experience, the lift the players would receive from his arrival would no doubt be enough to record a couple of wins and lift the club to Premier League safety.

Furthermore, Michael Owen would be filled with renewed confidence and under-performing egos such as Obafemi Martins would be snapped into line by the presence of a local legend.

Fast-forward one month and Alan Shearer has been at the helm for four matches. The instant rejuvenation has not been seen. Michael Owen still can't find the back of the net. Obafemi Martins still appears to have problems with his discipline and self-motivation and, most importantly, Newcastle have not recorded a single victory.

This situation has probably come as some surprise to the Geordie faithful, who allowed their hopes and dreams to blindside their concept of reality, but to the Newcastle boss, his first month in charge has brought no shocks whatsoever. Shearer stated: "Is it everything I thought it would be? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes" but was keen to add that the job has not been "more difficult" than he initially imagined.

In light of Newcastle's damaging scoreless draw against Portsmouth earlier this week (a match which Shearer insisted was a must-win prior to kick-off), it is difficult to believe his affirmation that he is "enjoying" the job "despite not winning".

Quite how anyone at the helm of a relegation-threatened club can enjoy their job appears hard to comprehend - just look at Gareth Southgate's face over the past few months and the ever-increasing expression of disbelief, anger, and anxiety that has gradually replaced the smug grin plastered across Hull boss, Phil Brown's face.

Enjoyment aside, Shearer will have to do something radical if he is to steer his beloved Newcastle to Premier League safety this season. A clash against Liverpool at Anfield may not provide Shearer and Newcastle with the points they need to kick-start a belated attempt at survival, although the manager was keen not to admit defeat: "We go there as underdogs, but nothing is impossible in life".

At the moment, survival is certainly not impossible. However, if Shearer continues to delay the start of Newcastle's bid to play in the Premier League for another season, he may well find that the remotely possible soon turns into the mathematically impossible.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Regrets, I've had a few…

Sir Alex Ferguson's football prediction that a 1-0 first-leg win may be enough to secure Manchester United a place in the Champions League final in Rome on May 27 could yet prove prophetic.

But given the profligacy shown by his players in the first half at Old Trafford, when it appeared Arsenal were there for the taking, he may just question whether the door is still ajar for Arsene Wenger's men to reverse the deficit and consider an end-of-season trip to the Eternal City.

Odd-job man John O'Shea finally returned some confidence and authority to his game to become the unlikely hero with an early goal in an opening period in which the visitors seemed content to retreat behind the half-way line.

United sizzled with enterprise and endeavour but passed up countless opportunities to further embarrass the north Londoners. Cristiano Ronaldo saw Manuel Almunia make a potentially-decisive save from his close-range header when it appeared easier to score, while fans' favourite Carlos Tevez was also denied by the inspired goalkeeper.

Tevez, whose future at Old Trafford remains a thorny subject, would later blot his copybook with a show of petulance when he got the hook in favour of Dimitar Berbatov.

Cries of 'Fergie, sign him up' reverberated around the stadium and it will be interesting to see which of the pair the Scot goes with in the return at the Emirates.

Ronaldo went close in the second half with a stunning long-range effort and Ryan Giggs, making his 800th club appearance, was denied a goal to remember when he was controversially adjudged offside.

It could have been a lot worse for the Gunners and Wenger promised we would see "a different Arsenal team" next week, while Ferguson insisted United would not be fazed by their slender lead.

"We played at a good high tempo and maybe we should have scored four goals but before the game I wanted to win without losing a goal," he said.

"We know we can go there and score and that is the big problem Arsenal have."

Man Utd: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand (Evans 87), Vidic, Evra, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Giggs 66), Ronaldo, Tevez (Berbatov 66), Rooney.

Subs Not Used: Foster, Park, Scholes, Rafael Da Silva.

Booked: Tevez.

Goals: O'Shea 18.

Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Silvestre, Gibbs, Song, Diaby, Walcott (Bendtner 70), Fabregas, Nasri, Adebayor (Eduardo 82).

Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Denilson, Ramsey, Djourou, Eboue.

Att: 74,733

Ref: Claus Bo Larsen (Denmark).

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Messi not the only star set to shine in semi-final clash

The intense debate surrounding precisely how a Chelsea side stripped of a natural left-back will cope with Barcelona winger, Lionel Messi, in tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg, is becoming farcical.

I refer to Lionel Messi as "Barcelona winger" rather than the laughably over-used descriptions of "genius" and "footballing wizard" because that is precisely what he is. He is a very talented winger, that's for sure, but (and this may surprise you if you've been reading the papers this week) he is actually a real human being. He doesn't have magical powers. I know this is shocking but let's be honest, Messi is a 21-year-old kid who is the star attraction at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

How Chelsea fare in Barcelona tonight does not depend upon their ability to keep the winger quiet. Messi only has such an impact because he is surrounded by a team which sticks religiously to an attacking philosophy (although, if Chelsea do have anything to worry about it's that Pep Guardiola has brought a disciplined defensive edge to a side previously undone by individual egos). Throw Messi in the Bolton starting line-up and the likelihood is that he wouldn't be able to display the kind of performances which have made him superhuman in the eyes of the media.

For Chelsea to succeed against Barcelona, they will need to focus upon the overall philosophy of the Spanish side, rather than concentrating upon the individual cogs that make it work. The entire Chelsea back line will have a job to do tonight, not just Jose Bosingwa, who has been handed the task of keeping Messi quiet. After all, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry can't exactly be ignored. Furthermore, the interplay between midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi will need to be quashed, and the attacking threat of right-back, Dani Alves, must be diminished.

For all Barcelona's talent, and, let's be clear about this, talent is something the side does not lack, Chelsea will provide them with a stern test. Chelsea have players worth boasting about themselves and one player springs to mind instantly in this context: Didier Drogba. The forward has experienced mixed fortunes against Barcelona, with a magnificent equaliser in the 2006/2007 competition a perfect way to exact revenge for his sending off the year before.

Maybe Barcelona fans should be the ones worrying about individual stars in the side their team will face tonight. After all, if Drogba manages to find the back of the net tonight, he will become the only footballer ever to have scored in six consecutive Champions League matches.

Drogba's importance to Chelsea cannot be underestimated. His presence is felt not only on the pitch, where his physical dominance more often than not causes defenders real trouble, but also off the pitch. Drogba has the ability to fire up the Chelsea faithful with a single gesture and this charisma, something which Guus Hiddink recently spoke of, is as important as his goalscoring ability.

Bear in mind that I haven't yet mentioned Frank Lampard, who was unlucky not to have been recognised by the PFA Player of the Year shortlist this season, or Michael Essien, who many Chelsea fans regard as one of the best footballers in the world, and it seems clear that tonight's match is far from a foregone conclusion. Football betting on this one is likely to favour the Spanish side but rule out Chelsea at your peril.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Hiddink on the attack

Guus Hiddink will instruct his Chelsea players to go for the jugular when they travel to Spain for a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final first-leg clash on Tuesday against warm football favourites Barcelona.

The Dutchman does not subscribe to the theory that Pep Guardiola's Primera Liga title-chasers are untouchable and is convinced they are vulnerable when put under pressure.

Hiddink's optimism should be admired given that such a huge emphasis has been placed on how Chelsea can even begin to shackle flying winger Lionel Messi in the absence of suspended first-choice left-back Ashley Cole.

Jose Bosingwa, the club's right-back who has only 58 minutes of first-team football behind him in the past five weeks, will switch flanks to put the brakes on the Argentina superstar, not that Hiddink is getting too wrapped up in delivering a blueprint for success.

The Russia coach says he has already played out Tuesday's showdown in his head and is adamant that Chelsea must not sit back and invite Barcelona on.

"It's not chess," he said. "With that, you have systems to attack or defend. Football is more complicated than that.

"We should not go there and drop back, wait and wait until the storm is coming.

"We must take what is in our team and do some harm as well. That is always our intention in big games. If we wait, we will have problems."

Chelsea have never beaten Barcelona at the Nou Camp in Europe's premier club competition but they have scored five goals on their last four visits and their last two trips there have resulted in draws.

If Hiddink watched Barca eke out a late 2-2 draw against Valencia on Saturday and witnessed how David Villa left Carlos Puyol in knots, then his plan to go on the offensive could reap dividends.

Ferguson driven by European dream

The sun was still piercing through the crowds at Old Trafford long after Manchester United had completed a shock 5-2 comeback win against Tottenham when Sir Alex Ferguson turned his thoughts to the Champions League.

Europe's premier club competition remains the benchmark, according to the game's longest-serving manager, and the chance to lock horns again with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger on Wednesday guarantees extra spice to an already intriguing semi-final two-legged tie. Cordial relations may have resumed between the pair but when Ferguson and Wenger come together there are usually fireworks.

Ferguson also enters into the unknown because United have never faced Premier League opposition in a two-legged match. He is also driven by a disappointment that United have not won the competition more than twice (1999, 2008) since the official inauguration of the tournament in 1992/93.

"It's not easy winning a European Cup. Christ, it took me 13 years to win one, then another nine to win it again," the United manager said. "We've had good teams throughout that time, but it's just not an easy thing to do. What I've always said, though, is that a club like Manchester United should have done better in European competitions."

Real Madrid are the most successful side overall in Europe with nine triumphs, followed by seven for AC Milan, five for bitter rivals Liverpool and four each for Bayern Munich and Ajax. United have triumphed in the competition three times overall but it irks Ferguson that they are not in that top bracket of past winners.

He added: "That's what's driving me at the moment. Winning in Moscow [against Chelsea in 2008] gave me more satisfaction than winning the title last year. I'm not saying we should be up there with Real Madrid – they won a lot of their titles before the rest of Europe was really focused – but there's no reason why a club like this shouldn't be in the next band. We've still got ground to make up on the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich, as well as Milan and Liverpool."

Friday, 24 April 2009

Minnows should qualify for UEFA Cup for the good of English football

It's all too easy to adopt an attitude of arrogance and snobbery when thinking about the prospect of a team such as West Ham or Fulham qualifying for next season's UEFA Cup competition. Traditionally unpredictable sides, both of which have extensive experience of flirting with relegation and the upper echelons of the mini-league that forms under the top four of English football, West Ham and Fulham are entering the final stages of the Premier League campaign optimistic of European qualification.

Perhaps the prospect of Fulham entertaining some of Europe's top football talent is one which embarasses some football pundits. The idea of Andy Johnson taking on some of the top defences in the world is one which many may laugh at. However, is it not more embarassing having to sit through the performances displayed by Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup this season, after manager, Martin O'Neill, decided that the competition was an unwanted distraction for his players who were desperate to qualify for the Champions League next year (a plan which has obviously backfired in hideous fashion for the talented manager and his current crop of youngsters).

There are several teams currently competing for a UEFA Cup spot, including Fulham, West Ham, Tottenham and, to a lesser extent, Manchester City. Wigan are also in with an outside chance but horrendous form would have to be shown by the sides sitting above them for Steve Bruce's men to qualify.

Tottenham fans will be desperate for their side to qualify, particularly since they started the Premier League campaign in such dire form. However, why is this? They surely know that the UEFA Cup won't be high on Harry Redknapp's priority list, something the manager himself was quick to point out earlier this week when he described the competition as a mere "distraction". Redknapp pointed out that "pride wants you to get there" but this admission has done little to detract from the feeling that the sides which are conventionally seen as UEFA Cup contenders don't actually care about the competition.

Compare this attitude to that of Roy Hodgson or Gianfranco Zola. Both managers know what their teams can achieve and recognise that their sides have the ambition to take on even the top sides in Europe. Zola has been a revelation since arriving at Upton Park and European qualification would be nothing short of what the football legend deserves.

Whilst the first team players currently at West Ham and Fulham may not have the wealth of experience that the players lining up week in, week out for Villa and Spurs do, this issue is beside the point, given that the managers of the latter two would probably have no intention of playing these individuals in the competition.

Fulham and West Ham may find competing in Europe a tough task and they may not progress very far. However, this is nothing for English football fans to be embarassed about. Watching an English team show ambition, hunger, and determination, rather than taking what should be regarded as an important European competition for granted, should fill us all with significantly more national pride.

So, this weekend, don't be surprised if West Ham show the grit and determination needed to overcome a tough Chelsea side revitalised under Guus Hiddink, and don't waste your next football bet backing Harry Redknapp's men to get something from Old Trafford. After all, there's really nothing for Spurs to play for, is there?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Lee intervenes in touchline saga

It was curious that Rafael Benitez decided to shun the limelight just when the world was waiting for his latest retort in response to a stinging rebuke from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson last Friday.

The feeding frenzy that has enveloped the warring managers has become as fascinating as the spat itself, so it came as something of a let down when assistant manager Sammy Lee stepped in to diffuse the situation ahead of Liverpool's Premier League game against Arsenal at Anfield on Tuesday.

Ferguson chose his FA Cup semi-final press conference to let fly with a withering attack on his Anfield counterpart, branding him arrogant, lacking in humility and showing "absolute contempt" for Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce over a 'game over' touchline gesture the Spaniard made immediately after Fernando Torres' second goal during Liverpool's 4-0 drubbing of the Ewood Park club 10 days ago.

The Scot was unrepentant when he appeared before the press on Tuesday, adding "they [Liverpool] are hurt by it [Benitez's gesture]".

Lee attempted to draw a line under the matter when he argued: "It's not for us to talk about other football clubs. We very rarely do. We try to concentrate on what's going on here and let the game take its course."

Curiously, Lee, Allardyce's former assistant at Bolton, said his former Reebok Stadium colleague had not even raised the subject when the pair enjoyed a post-match drink on Merseyside.

Then, in a staunch defence of Benitez, added: "This is not Britain's Got Talent; you don't win anything for being popular, but our manager is not arrogant. He is astute, learned, educated and his attention to detail is fantastic. We are all a bit sensitive to criticism but he knows what he is doing, why he is doing it and who he is gesticulating at!"

It is safe to assume Benitez will return to face the cameras if he, and Liverpool, have the last laugh in a compelling Premier League title race.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Chelsea set for FA Cup Final clash with Everton

This weekend's FA Cup semi-final action was criticised by football pundits for being largely uneventful and something of a let-down. However, Chelsea and Everton fans haven't been complaining after their sides knocked out Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.

The managers in charge of the losing teams have, somewhat predictably, been quick to place the blame on the poor quality of the Wembley pitch, with Sir Alex Ferguson in particular blasting the on-field conditions.

However, for the two managers who will be proudly leading their sides out on to the Wembley pitch at the end of May, the quality of the surface was not a huge concern. Guus Hiddink managed to mastermind yet another important Chelsea victory and the Blues' fans were once again left ecstatic after their team fought back from a goal down to overcome the challenge posed by an Arsenal side left crippled by some questionable decisions from Arsene Wenger.

Wenger, for reasons best known to himself, decided to leave midfield ace Arshavin on the bench for the large part of the match. When the talented Russian star was introduced, he barely had time to adjust to the pace and tempo of the game.

Taking off Adebayor and Robin van Persie, both of whom had performed below the high standard expected of top Premier League players but still displayed touches of class the side needed to turn the game on its head, are decisions which the Arsenal boss may now regret. Quite why Wenger decided to bring on Bendtner, a player who consistently disappoints, is a mystery.

However, Arsene Wenger cannot take all the blame for a Chelsea victory which was ultimately well-deserved. Didier Drogba was a handful throughout the game and Mikael Silvestre simply couldn't cope with his physical presence and technical ability.

Lukasz Fabianski proved to be a poor replacement for Manuel Almunia in goal and Abou Diaby once again showed why most football fans (including ardent Arsenal followers) laugh in disbelief when the midfielder is compared to legend of the game, Patrick Vieira.

Combine this lack of quality from Arsenal with combative midfield displays from Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, who both made up for the relatively poor performance displayed by Michael Ballack, and the result was a Chelsea win that will fill them with confidence ahead of a clash against Everton in the FA Cup final.

David Moyes should be congratulated for the role he had to play in his team's victory over United. Moyes started the mind games early by making comments about the choice of match referee and it is likely that his comments were ringing in the ears of Mike Riley when he decided to turn down a relatively strong penalty claim for United during the match on Sunday.

Either way, Everton deserved to win and Manchester United, and in particular Ferguson, deserved to lose. Ferguson's team selection smacked of arrogance and contempt, two characteristics the United boss slammed Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, for apparently possessing just last week.

Manchester United may be champions of England, Europe, and even the world, but taking the FA Cup for granted in the manner suggested by Sunday's team sheet is quite frankly unforgivable. To blame the team selection on the physical condition of the Wembley pitch, as Ferguson did after the match, is also laughable in the extreme.

So, Everton and Chelsea will meet at the end of May to battle it out in the quest to achieve glory in this famous cup competition. Chelsea are sure to be football favourites to win this one, but with David Moyes in charge of the opposition, Guus Hiddink will need to warn his men not to take anything for granted.

Ferguson and Allardyce round on Benitez

Some might call it mischief-making, others a gamble, but few would argue Sir Alex Ferguson's tirade at Rafa Benitez on Friday has added extra spice to an-already fascinating Premier League title race and simmering tension between the two managers.

What was more intriguing was that Ferguson was not alone in expressing his indignation for the Liverpool manager. Sam Allardyce, whose Blackburn side were on the receiving end of a 4-0 hammering by Benitez's Liverpool last weekend, also waded in with accusations of "disrespectful" and "quite humiliating" behaviour by the Spaniard in front of a rival manager.

The pair were pointing to an open-arm gesture made by Benitez in reaction ­to Fernando Torres' 33rd-minute header, as if to suggest "that's it, game over, job done".

Allardyce was visibly upset at his press conference having studied the footage again – and Ferguson could not hold back when pressed on the subject, accusing Benitez of "arrogance" and showing "contempt".

First, he let rip at Benitez for his ill-advised barb that Everton, United's FA Cup semi-final opponents at Wembley on Sunday, are a "small club".

Ferguson said: "Everton are a big club, not a small one which Benitez arrogantly said. But arrogance is one thing."

Then, he added: "You cannot forgive contempt, which is what he showed Sam Allardyce last weekend.

"In my experience no Liverpool manager has ever done that. It was beyond the pale."

Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have both tried, but few managers have quite managed to rattle Ferguson like Benitez has recently.

Their strained relationship dates back to Benitez's extraordinary presentation of "facts" about the United manager, who he has also described as "nervous", and the Spaniard has refused to back down while his team have maintained their impressive assault on the title race.

Ferguson has never needed a second invitation to defend his club and players, so it's a safe football bet that this latest outburst should ensure a compelling end to the season.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Who should win the PFA Player of the Year award?

This week, the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year was revealed and, in all honesty, it contained very few surprises. Manchester United dominate the list with defenders, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, keeping midfield legend Ryan Giggs company in a line-up which also boasts Cristiano Ronaldo, Edwin van der Sar, and Steven Gerrard (the only non-United player to merit inclusion).

The shortlist may have provided shocking reading had the voting not occurred prior to the beginning of United's alarming dip in form, which saw Vidic turn from hero to zero within the space of one match and Edwin van der Sar put in some uncharactertistic performances that really made him look his age.

So, who deserves to win this award? Well, firstly, let's rule out Cristiano Ronaldo. It's fair to say that he has scored some important, and spectacular, goals this season (last night's screamer against FC Porto is a fine example) but his effort levels have been questioned this season and he has gone missing on the pitch far too often during United's Premier League campaign. It seems that his mind is elsewhere and the young star should perhaps spend more time pondering his team play than he seems to spend thinking about what hair gel to use.

Ryan Giggs hasn't suffered from such problems. As ever, the dedicated professional's work ethic has been exceptional. However, handing him the award at this stage in his career would smack of nostalgia (he has never won before) and this is something that football should avoid at all costs.

Edwin van der Sar has, on the whole, been magnificent between the sticks for the Red Devils but United's impressive run of clean sheets seen in the league earlier this season had a lot to do with the resilience of the back four. Rewarding van der Sar for this run of form may therefore be detracting from what was a fine spell for the defensive unit as a whole.

So, that leaves Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard. Ferdinand has had his moments of brilliance this season and he has truly led from the back. However, in my opinion, Steven Gerrard deserves the award. He has single-handedly dragged Liverpool through matches at times, as he has in many other seasons, and the club's rise to the pinnacle of the league has been largely thanks to his talent, work ethic, and leadership on the pitch.

He is one of those players who defenders really can't afford to lose track of at any point during a game. It took a monumental effort from Chelsea midfield star, Michael Essien, to keep him quiet during the Champions League match at Anfield and the fact that tactical genius, Guus Hiddink, believed the Liverpool captain was worth man-marking proves how valuable Gerrard is as a midfield force.

If Gerrard does win the award, it is likely that Ferguson will have some complaints to make but this shouldn't detract from the fact that Liverpool's influential captain deserves recognition for his talent.

Whilst we're discussing awards, my football prediction for the winner of the PFA young player of the year award is Manchester City's talented youngster, Stephen Ireland.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Carroll confident of Magpies safety

For the large majority of Newcastle's clash against Stoke on Saturday, it seemed like the unbelievable was becoming more and more likely. Newcastle have been flirting with the relegation zone for most of the season but few have dared to believe until fairly recently that the club could start the next footballing year in the Championship.

The old 'too good to go down' saying is a dangerous one but most people took it for granted that the Magpies have enough class, history, and talent to compete with the best in the Premier League. However, the club's rapid decline has led some to believe that there is no hope left for Alan Shearer's men and a result against Stoke was desperately needed.

Newcastle didn't manage to grab the three points they needed to start to ease the fears of the anxious fans but one player, Andy Carroll, believes that the manner in which the team earned a draw late in the game could be just the thing to kick-start a much-needed revival.

The club has been criticised this season by fans and pundits alike for failing to keep faith with youngsters. The importance of young players cannot be underestimated in the Premier League. Everton and West Ham have relied heavily upon young blood this season and Manchester United would be languishing in third position in the Premier League if they didn't have the skills of a certain 17-year-old at their disposal.

Alan Shearer was keen to change this approach and so decided to put his faith in Carroll, a player who will be regarded as a hero alongside his manager if Newcastle do stay up this season.

The young player scored the equaliser for Newcastle and revealed after the match that the team "needed a break" and this break came in the form of his late goal. Carroll continued to state that the team is now confident that they can "get out of trouble" but the 20-year-old also recognises that the upcoming game against Spurs will be extremely tough.

The Premier League has been revitalised this season, with shocks and surprises coming at both ends of the table. Whilst Manchester United look to have sealed their position at the top of the league, nothing has yet been decided and football betting remains split as to who will be crowned champions and who will spend next season in the Championship.

Rare rebuke hits Ronaldo hard

Public criticism of his own players is rare, so the warning from Sir Alex Ferguson to Cristiano Ronaldo that he should cut out the histrionics should be adhered to.

The Portugal international has played the victim's card too many times for his manager's liking this season and Ferguson has ordered his star winger to stop the regular shows of petulance and play-acting.

The former Sporting Lisbon star scored a remarkable 42 goals in all competitions last season as United collected the Premier League and Champions League double, but a perceived lack of commitment and tiresome speculation about his future with the world club champions has cast a long shadow over Ronaldo this campaign.

There was audible dissent from the Old Trafford faithful against Aston Villa and FC Porto when Ronaldo was at fault for giving the ball away in the lead-up to goals and made no effort to retrieve the situations.

Ferguson protects his players like Tuesday follows Monday, so this rare public rebuke would suggest Ronaldo is no longer untouchable.

"I don't accept that he will give goals away because of the player he is," said Ferguson. "I speak to him about it. I don't accept that from anyone. In European football, if you give the ball away it takes a long time to get it back."

Ronaldo's argument that he does not get enough protection from referees also does not wash when you consider it was only recently that he admitted he would expect the same rough-house treatment from defenders in another league.Link

The 24-year-old will return to his homeland on Wednesday when United look to become the first English side to win at the Estadio do Dragao and keep alive their hopes of retaining their European crown. Football betting is currently split as to whether United will achieve their goal.

Ferguson does not subscribe to Ronaldo's theory that he gets kicked more than most and has warned the World Player of the Year he must stop challenging match officials.

"It's just a frustration that he feels he doesn't get the decision and he gets upset about it," added Ferguson. "I think, obviously, he doesn't enjoy that and he knows he's letting himself down more than anything. He holds his hands up. I have had to remind him about that but I'm not getting into what has been said."

Friday, 10 April 2009

Chelsea seal shock win at Anfield

Liverpool's recent run of form, which has seen them overcome opponents including Real Madrid and Manchester United with ease, gave Chelsea fans reason to worry before kick-off at Anfield this week in what was a crucial match for the London side hoping to banish the Champions League disappointment of last year by progressing to the semi-finals of the competition. 

Only a few minutes into the match, it seemed that Chelsea's worst nightmares were going to come true, when Liverpool went ahead. However, far from any kind of nightmarish situation becoming a reality, the wildest dreams of even the most hardcore Chelsea fan could not have come close to matching the 3-1 score line which was recorded after ninety minutes. 

Liverpool now have it all to do when the two teams meet at Stamford Bridge next week and, despite the team's fans doing all they can to conjure up memories of Istanbul and the miracle comeback that saw them clinch the Champions League after most people had written off their chances, Chelsea fans must be feeling quietly confident that they can progress to the semi-final without exerting too much effort. 

The boys in blue were tremendous on Wednesday night and their performance was one of their best for many months. The team performance was a far cry from the lacklustre displays shown under previous boss, Scolari. Hiddink has revitalised the team and individual displays of brilliance were accompanied by a fine tactical overview from the boss. 

Michael Essien in particular did a fine job keeping Steven Gerrard quiet. Prior to kick-off, many pundits had billed the match as a clash between midfield stars, Gerrard and Frank Lampard. However, Lampard's play was full of uncharacteristic mistakes and the Liverpool captain was strangely subdued. 

For Chelsea, it was Essien and new star, Ivanovic, who ran the show, whilst Drogba was a constant threat in attack. If Drogba had been wearing his shooting boots, he could have hit the back of the net three or four times. 

It seems likely that Barcelona will await Chelsea in the next round after their humiliation of Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarter-final tie. The Spanish side is on fire at the moment, with Lionel Messi in particular in scintillating form. 

For this reason, Chelsea's hopes of claiming a much-desired Champions League title have been all but written off by many sectors of the sports media. However, with Hiddink in charge and the team willing to put in the hard graft needed to succeed, don't be too quick to place your football bet going against them. 

Monday, 6 April 2009

Midfield stars could decide Champions League clash

On Wednesday night, Chelsea will travel to Anfield to meet Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie. The two teams have had significant impacts upon each other's fate in this competition over recent seasons and this year is set to be no different.

Clashes over recent years have been tight and, although Chelsea emerged victorious last year, football betting on this tie is likely to be split.

Two players who could prove decisive are England stars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Both players have been instrumental to the success of their sides this season and the individual who manages to emerge victorious in this midfield battle could subsequently lead his side to glory.

John Terry has increased the hype surrounding the Liverpool captain this week, revealing his sense of dread at coming up against the in-form midfielder. Terry, who has recently been reminded of Gerrard's talent after meeting up with him on international duty, stated that he is "one of the best players in the world" and is in frightening form for his club.

The Chelsea captain did not stop there in his praise for Liverpool. He spoke of the quality that is running throughout the side and was particularly keen to praise the "spine" of the team, which Terry believes is composed of Jose Reina, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, and Fernando Torres.

However, as always, the Chelsea defender was quick to point out the quality inherent within his own side. By comparing Steven Gerrard to Frank Lampard, Terry gave the Chelsea midfielder a public backing which will boost his confidence ahead of the vital Anfield tie.

A further boost to Lampard's ego will undoubtedly arrive after he hears about Guus Hiddink's latest comments. The Chelsea boss stated after the Newcastle match that Lampard, who is apparently a "terrific character", has the talent to stop Liverpool in their tracks. The midfielder is a "box to box player and times his runs so well".

Hiddink revealed that he knew about Lampard before he arrived at Stamford Bridge but, since his arrival, his "respect has grown even more". The midfielder was instrumental in helping Chelsea to banish the woes of their recent Spurs defeat by winning at St James' Park and the manager was keen to point out how "incredible" his recent performances have been.

With Manchester United still firm favourites to retain their Premier League crown, fans of both Liverpool and Chelsea will be hoping that their respective midfield stars can provide them with the boost they need to progress to the semi-final stage of the Champions League.

Late show seals day of drama

"Never feel sorry for an opponent until you are shaking his hand," said one Manchester United supporter in the aftermath of Sunday's five-goal thriller which saw Sir Alex Ferguson's side retain pole position from Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.

Old Trafford and drama make for easy bedfellows but not even 17-year-old substitute and debutant Federico Macheda could have imagined in his wildest dreams ending a week in which he scored a hat-trick for the reserves by coming off the bench to grab a potentially decisive late winner against Aston Villa in what proved to be a see-saw encounter.

United looked on their way when Cristiano Ronaldo smashed in an early free-kick following an unfortunate James Milner backpass which Brad Friedel handled, but the manner in which Villa responded, courtesy of a John Carew equaliser and Gabriel Agbonlahor follow-up, suggested the jitters had come back to haunt the world club champions.

Ronaldo came to the rescue with a low drive in the 80th minute to bring the home side on level terms – only for Ferguson's gamble to pay dividends when Macheda sent a sublime curling effort past the helpless Friedel in the second minute of stoppage time.

Villa were crestfallen and on another day they could have inflicted a third successive defeat on United, who were missing Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand, but Ferguson's sides down the years have proved time and again they usually go to the wire.

"Winning is the name of the game at this club," said Ferguson. "Risks are part of football and this club has been that way for a long time."

Liverpool supporters' chants of "We're going to win the league" in response to their side's late win at Fulham on Saturday could prove a tad premature.

Wayne's world requires reality check

Haunting memories of a het-up, almost psychotic, Paul Gascoigne launching into a suicidal and illogical challenge at the midriff of Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final between Tottenham and Nottingham Forest resurfaced on Wednesday when England met Ukraine in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.

Wayne Rooney, England's best player on the night, mirrored Gazza's career-defining moment of madness with an equally late and cynical tackle on Oleksandr Aliyev.

How and why the Manchester United firebrand was spared an early bath would make for a good episode of 'The X Files'.

Part of the problem is that Rooney, no longer a boy at 23, is publicly wrapped in cotton wool by his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose argument that his aggression is arguably his best attribute is as predictable as it is nonsensical.

What Ferguson says to Rooney in private is of course a different matter, although eight yellow cards and one red – against Fulham for a show of playground petulance – in all competitions already this season would suggest it goes in one ear and out of the other.

He was lucky to escape unpunished against Aalborg in the Champions League for two poor challenges and backed up his assertion that he "hates" Liverpool with arguably his worst game in United colours in the 4-1 drubbing by Rafa Benitez's men recently.

Paul Parker, who played for United for six years and won 19 England caps, playing in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany, hit the nail on the head when he said: "It frustrates me to hear his team-mates and even his manager say that that is the way he is and that you cannot take away his passion or try to change him. If you've got a wayward child, you shouldn't just accept it. You have to try to get them to control themselves and relax."

The fact that even Fabio Capello sought to justify Rooney's challenge was even more surprising when the harsh truth is that if he does not learn to tame the red mist he risks becoming an accident waiting to happen in tournament football.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Rangers right to take strong action against disgraced players

Rangers have moved quickly and decisively to strip Barry Ferguson of his captaincy and drop goalkeeper Allan McGregor after the pair's dismal behaviour whilst on international duty this week. The manager of Rangers, Walter Smith, revealed that such firm action had been taken not solely as a result of the players' initial breach of conduct (which saw them indulge in a late night drinking session) but as a result of their actions during Wednesday night's clash against Iceland.

The controversy began when it became clear that the Scottish pair had stayed up late drinking after the defeat at the hands of the Netherlands last weekend. The manager of the national team, George Burley, quite rightly decided to drop the pair to the bench for the subsequent match against Iceland.

However, rather than appearing ashamed or sorry for their behaviour, the players brought more trouble upon themselves by sitting on the bench making V-signs with their fingers. They have both been suspended for two weeks after being sent home from training earlier today and this latest controversy has put their long-term futures at the club into doubt.

This latest story is the last thing that football, as a sport, needs at the moment. High-profile footballers seem to be doing all they can to sour the reputation of the game, often appearing like pampered, spoilt little kids who think they can take the ridiculous amount of money being paid to them for granted.

Rangers are right to have taken action against the players for events which occurred whilst on international duty. Not many people in the UK, especially at the moment, believe that footballers are worthy of the wages they receive and we expect professional players to at least try to justify such financial excess by staying away from the booze and late night frolics whilst playing for their country.

Furthermore, we expect them to know that they are not above the law. If the manager drops them, they need to do all they can to prove themselves again, both on and off the pitch. The last thing they should be doing is sitting on the bench behaving like 5-year-olds.

The president of the SFA may decide to launch an investigation into the events and further Scotland players may yet become involved in this unfortunate saga. For now, Rangers must hope that new captain, David Weir, will be able to guide the club successfully for the remainder of the season but don't waste your next football bet by predicting that this kind of situation won't happen again in the near future.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Lampard still believes Shevchenko to be a footballing threat

This week, England fans have been listening to lengthy comments made by Chelsea midfielder, Frank Lampard, about footballing issues surrounding the national team at the moment. His comments focused upon two strikers who, in the not too distant past, were stars for their respective clubs and countries.

The prospect of each player's national side competing in a must-win game without their involvement was once simply unthinkable. However, over the last few years, both strikers have faded into the background and now face uphill battles to recover the kind of form that made them fan favourites in the first place.

Lampard was quick to defend both players, namely Michael Owen and Andriy Shevchenko. His defence of Michael Owen may be backed by some football pundits. After all, he has been plagued by injuries for some time now but has still managed to put in some good performances for Newcastle, a team which has been performing well below-par since the striker joined them.

Hopes remain that Fabio Capello will give Owen another chance, as long as he stays injury-free and starts banging in the goals on a regular basis for Newcastle. However, Lampard's defence of his ex-team mate, Shevchenko, appears misled and wildly optimistic.

England's defenders will come up against the striker on Wednesday as the national team meets Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley.

The likelihood is that John Terry and co. will not be suffering any sleepless nights from thinking about this prospect. However, Lampard disagrees with this, stating that he is "obviously a fantastic player", who is going to be a "huge threat" during the game. Lampard was also keen to discuss the striker's ability to "produce something out of the blue".

His belief that Shevchenko will want to prove himself during the match on Wednesday is the only part of his speech that is in any way believable. Of course a striker who has suffered such a miserable few years as Shevchenko will be desperate to prove his doubters (of which there are many) wrong.

In football, statistics do not always tell the whole truth but, in Shevchenko's case, they really do. He has scored just ten club goals during the last three years and became a figure of ridicule during his stay at Chelsea.

It was thought that his move back to AC Milan could signal the start of the player's return to form but Shevchenko now spends most of his time warming the bench, making cameo appearances in domestic cup matches.

Indeed, since he returned to the club where he was once a true hero, he has scored just one goal. The fans have been left feeling confused and let down by a player who once embodied the spirit of their club.

Lampard may be trying to support an old friend but his comments simply do not ring true with reality. The likelihood is that Wednesday will present further evidence of the rapid decline of a player who was handed the Ballon D'Or just five years ago.