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.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Capello casts shadow over Owen

Fabio Capello has dropped his strongest hint yet that Michael Owen's England career is at an end.

The notoriously unsympathetic Italian underlined the widespread theory that he does not possess one nostalgic bone in his considerable frame when he promoted Darren Bent in place of the injured Emile Heskey ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine.

The move marks a significant death knell in the international career of England's fourth highest goalscorer.

Owen's career has been beset by a string of demoralising injury lay-offs and he only returned recently from ankle ligament trouble to start Newcastle's draw with Hull - only to be dropped for the subsequent game against Arsenal.

The luckless 29-year-old has 40 goals from 89 caps and is just nine short of Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time record of 49.

Capello's preference towards a more physical lone presence and Owen’s time on the treatment table has made for an uneasy relationship. Capello has given Owen just one cap during his reign so far, as a substitute in the friendly defeat to France in Paris 12 months ago, and has also overlooked the former Liverpool and Real Madrid goal-getter when match-fit.

However, given that Carlton Cole has also pulled out of England's vital World Cup qualifier against Ukraine because of a groin strain, this latest snub smacks of a blatant disregard for Owen as an international force.

"I have to choose players to play against the Ukraine, not against history," Capello warned. He added: "I have chosen the best players who are in good form at the moment.

"It is impossible to choose someone who has only played for 20 minutes. Why didn't he play the last game?"

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Capello concerned by England discipline problems

England manager, Fabio Capello, seems to be growing increasingly concerned about the discipline problems creeping into the national side ahead of the match against Slovakia this weekend. The England boss has made it clear since his arrival on the national scene that he will not tolerate any kind of bad behaviour from his current crop of players, many of whom seem to encounter trouble around every corner.

Indeed, Wayne Rooney ran into trouble last weekend when he expressed his anger at encountering an innocent corner flag at Fulham. The 23-year-old striker punched the flag as mounting frustration became too much for the Manchester United star to handle.

Rooney was sent off after throwing the ball in an aggressive manner towards match referee, Phil Dowd, and Fabio Capello has made it explicitly clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

Capello has branded the England striker a "crazy man" for acting in such a manner and was quick to question what the player thought he was doing by "punching the corner flag". Rooney's temper has long been a point of debate among football pundits, with some individuals believing it is a vital element of his game.

However, prior to the match against Fulham, the striker had been booked just six times in the Premier League since the start of the campaign and his game has not seemed to suffer.

The decision by Capello to speak out about disciplinary issues such as this one is positive for the national team. Whilst it may be embarassing for Rooney in the short-term, it is far better that problems are confronted head-on.

It is difficult to imagine Steve McClaren adopting such a firm approach and Fabio Capello has worked hard to distance himself from the lax and laddish culture of banter which the ex-England boss seemed to encourage.

Capello, unlike McClaren, does not care about being friends with his players. England have many talented players at their disposal but many of them also have disciplinary issues. Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard have both hit the headlines recently after reported incidents off the pitch and the new England boss has made it clear that this will not be tolerated on any level.

Wayne Rooney will no doubt be angry at himself for his actions, which have cost him a place in the Manchester United squad facing Aston Villa in what could now be a key clash for the Champions. However, it is vital that he puts this disappointment firmly behind him as England prepare to assert their dominance at the top of their World Cup qualifying group next Wednesday when they come up against Ukraine.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Fulham collapse has Ferguson in a fluster

Sir Alex Ferguson won few new friends with his misguided attack on referee Phil Dowd on the back of a disastrous afternoon for Manchester United on the banks of the Thames on Saturday.

The experienced Scot is the master at finding diversions in the face of adversity but his assertion that Wayne Rooney should not have been sent for an early bath for throwing the ball in a show of petulance is papering over the cracks.

Ferguson told the official club station MUTV: "Did he (Rooney) throw the ball at the referee? The ball was thrown direct to where the free-kick was being taken - did it hit the referee? No.

"He threw it because he wanted to get the game going. What can you say about that?"

Dowd had no option but to show the luckless Paul Scholes a straight red in the 17th minute when he prevented a certain goal with his hand, but to focus on the match official would be hiding from the truth that the wheels are in danger of coming off for the Premier League leaders.

Cristiano Ronaldo might also have joined his two team-mates on the coach early had Dowd not spared the off-colour Portugal international in the face of a sustained show of histrionics.

A 2-0 defeat against an inspired Fulham, on the back of last week's 4-1 home reverse against Liverpool, means the world club champions suffered back-to-back league defeats for the first time in 147 games.

Liverpool's 5-0 mauling of Aston Villa on Sunday has also seen Rafa Benitez's rejuvenated side trim United's lead to just one point, although the Old Trafford club does still have a game in hand.

Ferguson also talked about his team, a few weeks back trumpeted as his best ever, "meeting the challenge" of a tight title race, although the impending break for internationals will hardly improve his efforts to galvanise a squad in danger of an end-of-season collapse.

Hodgson wins war of words over master of mind games

It's official: Liverpool are well and truly back in the Premier League title race. They produced a magnificent performance yesterday to thrash Aston Villa at Anfield, in a match which severely dented the visiting team's fading hopes of securing a Champions League position.

Benitez was understandably keen for his team to send out a message of intent after Manchester United slipped up at the hands of Fulham on Saturday and the team did just that, running rampant for 90 minutes.

Liverpool certainly have their own players to thank for their unexpected return to the title race. They also have their manager to thank, who has shown his value to Liverpool during the last two weeks. However, Liverpool fans, who are once again becoming excited about the prospect of ending Manchester United's dreams of securing yet another Premier League title, also have another man to thank: Roy Hodgson.

Before the clash between Fulham and Manchester United on Saturday, the Fulham boss had some interesting words to say. The manager mirrored the opinion of most people, even those who wanted nothing more than to see United slip up in London, when he stated that "we'll work very hard, but the Liverpools and the Chelseas who are chasing Manchester United can't really expect that much of Fulham and think we'll beat Manchester United for them."

These words brought the usual criticism from many football pundits, who criticised the Fulham manager for being pessimistic and forcing a losing mentality into the minds of his players before they even entered the field of play. However, after seeing his team beat the champions of England, Europe, and indeed the world, Roy Hodgson may be laughing at those who thought he was admitting defeat before the match had been played.

It is actually possible that Hodgson deliberately picked his words to have an impact upon the psychology of the United team. Sir Alex Ferguson is a master at this art and loves nothing better than indulging in a war of words. By playing down his team's chances of picking up even a point against Manchester United, Hodgson encouraged complacency and arrogance to creep into the play of the opposite team's players.

The statement also gave his players a defiant mentality. The Fulham players evidently felt that they had a point to prove, whilst also playing with the weight of expectation firmly lifted from their shoulders. Nobody expected them to draw against United, let alone win, and the few optimistic fans who did harbour hopes let them slip after the Fulham manager apparently made it clear that the team was doomed to fail.

The players were therefore free to play the game they love without needing to worry that defeat would let people down (or indeed, lead to involvement in the relegation battle which has consumed so many sides this season and for this, the Fulham boss must also be praised).

It's a risky tactic to employ, and one which backfired on Hodgson earlier in the season when they came up against United. However, it is also a brave one and the Fulham boss deserves all the recognition and plaudits he gets after Saturday's victory.

Road to Rome looks rosy

Sir Alex Ferguson was understandably delighted with Friday's draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

The road to Rome sees the current holders face 2004 winners Porto in the last eight of Europe's elite club competition ahead of a last-four meeting against the winners of the Arsenal-Villarreal clash.

It means Ferguson's side have avoided English opposition and the giant banana skin that is Barcelona, while dark horses Bayern Munich have also been given an almighty swerve.

Jesualdo Ferreira's men won't cause Ferguson too many sleepless nights – the Portuguese giants have not reached the quarter-finals of the competition since they won the trophy five years ago under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho.

The experienced Scot was quick to dismiss any suggestion of an easy ride, but United should have the resources to prevent the embarrassment of an early exit.

United will also have to shackle Argentina forward and principal threat Lisandro López, who has scored six goals in eight appearances this season.

"This is a good draw for us," Ferguson told the official club website.

"You sometimes wonder if being at home first is a good or a bad thing but I think in this modern-day competition there's no indication of what is better.

"The only thing you hope is that you don't lose a goal in the home tie."

The first leg will take place at Old Trafford on Tuesday April 7, with the second leg in Portugal on Wednesday April 15.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Middlesbrough hope Stoke home form will falter

The majority of the football previews doing the rounds on the web have been concerned with those teams at the top of the Premier League battling it out in what still, despite Manchester United's humbling at the hands of Liverpool last weekend, seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Manchester United will be hoping to recapture their form when they come up against a Fulham team which has emerged as resolute and defiant during several key matches this season, whilst Chelsea will no doubt be worrying about meeting a Spurs team which has managed to shed its old fear of playing the Blues.

However, one of the real clashes of the weekend, which may not provide neutral spectators with much to be excited about but which will no doubt provide ardent fans with more than enough nail-biting moments during the course of 90 minutes, will be played out at Stoke.

Tony Pulis' side will be up against a Middlesbrough team competing without Matthew Bates after the midfielder was sent off against Portsmouth, whilst Pogatetz and Aliadiere are sweating on fitness problems, causing Gareth Southgate unneeded anxiety.

Stoke are currently sitting two points above Middlesbrough in the relegation zone and both sides have a similar goal difference. The fact remains that even if Middlesbrough manage to record a win against Stoke, they still face a tough test in escaping the drop into the Championship.

Gareth Southgate, who has been questioned by many football pundits this season, has been quick to thank the club's chief executive, Keith Lamb, for remaining resolute in his support. The Middlesbrough board has displayed a patience and loyalty that some believe will prove detrimental to the long-term success of the club but the manager disagrees with this opinion.

The young manager revealed that having "internal backing" is essential and having such a strong support system allows him to perform his job adequately. Southgate believes that his job is to keep the team in the Premier League and the manager is "not thinking about the scenario of falling".

Stoke will do their best this weekend to make sure that the pressure on Gareth Southgate's shoulders remains. Unfortunately for Middlesbrough, Stoke's home form has been impressive and the players are relying upon their winning home habit to keep them up.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Fulham fear wounded animal

If silence speaks volumes then the noise from Old Trafford since Saturday's humiliation by fiercest rivals Liverpool has been deafening.

All eyes will be on Craven Cottage this weekend when Manchester United attempt to respond to their 4-1 drubbing by Rafa Benitez's rejuvenated side against Fulham and prove they have the mental strength to defy those who have predicted an end-of-season wobble.

Sir Alex Ferguson provided some insight into the psyche of his shell-shocked players when he demanded that they deliver on the club ethos of triumphing in the face of adversity and Roy Hodgson will be wary of a wounded animal when the Premier League leaders arrive in west London.

Ferguson himself has never thrown the towel in and the battle-hardened Scot has said he expects his players to fight their corner and meet the challenge of a race to the winning post head on.

"You only relish it if you end up winning," he told Inside United. "You're prepared to go through the agony as long as you end up on top."

"It can be edgy, but you have to accept the challenge. Being there is the greatest thing and that is what we are all striving for."

United have been embarrassed before, of course, but the manner of their humbling against their biggest domestic rivals on home soil will have hurt Ferguson.

The experienced Old Trafford boss knows the chasing pack are ready to pounce, although historically he has usually had the last laugh.

With 10 games to go in the Premier League, including awkward home games against Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal, United remain in the box seat because of their four-point advantage and fixture in hand.

The smiles could disappear, however, if the world club champions have not finished licking their wounds come Saturday.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Villa fans should hang their heads in shame

There's no denying that Aston Villa fans have reason to complain at the moment. After looking like they were perfectly at home occupying a Champions League spot several weeks ago, Martin O'Neill's team has allowed an Arsenal side growing in confidence to steal fourth position.

However, no matter how angry Villa fans are at the situation, there is no excuse which can even begin to justify the behaviour which was on show at the weekend. Sections of the Aston Villa crowd vocally criticised Gabriel Agbonlahor, the young star who has flourished under the leadership of O'Neill this season.

The player was substituted in the second half of the match against Tottenham, which Villa eventually lost 2-1, and this tactical move from the manager was greeted with cheers and ironic chants. Agbonlahor has since insisted that this does not bother him, revealing that he has become accustomed to such treatment and stating that he cares little for what others think about his game.

However, Martin O'Neill has been strong in his criticism of the fans who decided to boo the player, stating that "Gabby's been fantastic" for the club and booing such a player is not the right way to act in the slightest.

Agbonlahor may not have been in the goals recently and the team may have been stuttering where before they were running riot, but nobody can doubt the effort put in by the young star. His early to mid-season form was a key factor in propelling the side up the table and Aston Villa fans are displaying an extremely unattractive and fickle side of themselves by behaving in such a manner.

The fact is that Aston Villa could string together a couple of good results from this point, Agbonlahor could bag a couple of goals, Arsenal could slip up in a manner which has become characteristic this season, and Villa could find themselves heading towards elite European competition once again.

If this happens, Agbonlahor will no doubt be worshipped by the fans in the terraces but Villa fans must be careful. Players do not easily forget the way they are treated by their fans, particularly if there is no good reason lying behind their criticism. If the club isn't careful, stars such as Agbonlahor may decide to look for a team with fans which do not boo their precious young talent for no apparent reason.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Ferguson's warning proves prophetic

Sir Alex Ferguson told his players to expect a kick up the backside but not even he could have forecast a 4-1 humiliation and potentially pivotal defeat by fiercest rivals Liverpool on Saturday.

The Merseysiders backed up their hammering of Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday by inflicting United's biggest home reverse since 1992 to breathe new life into their Premier League title challenge.

The wise money remains on Ferguson's side to secure their third successive crown but with tricky home games against Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal still to negotiate, Rafa Benitez's men have ensured a fight to the winning post.

Ferguson did himself no favours when he went against 75,569 people inside Old Trafford to reflect with a vaguely spiteful and blind assertion that United "were the better team" but it is difficult to see any clarity to his argument.

The nature of this shock result was made all the more remarkable given that Cristiano Ronaldo had put the home side ahead from the penalty spot after Pepe Reina had sent Park Ji-Sung tumbling.

Liverpool's riposte, however, was swift and savage.

Yet for all their attacking verve and intent, United had a hand in their own downfall courtesy of some calamitous and uncharacteristically bad defending.

Nemanja Vidic endured his worst day in United colours and inexplicably allowed a routine long ball to bounce for Fernando Torres to pounce for the equaliser, before Patrice Evra brought down Steven Gerrard for the Liverpool skipper to put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot.

Vidic suffered his second red card against Liverpool this season when he hauled down Gerrard and was still making his way down the tunnel when Fabio Aurelio curled home the visitors' third - only for Andrea Dossena to make the scoreline more emphatic with an exquisite lob.

For Liverpool it was the perfect end to a day which could yet come back to haunt Ferguson.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Chelsea's Hiddink revival rolls on

Chelsea's winning run under new manager, Guus Hiddink, came to a dramatic end this week when the team failed to secure victory for the first time since the Dutchman arrived at Stamford Bridge. The end of a winning run is usually cause for sadness and regret but fans of the Blues were left feeling ecstatic after their team drew against Juventus in Turin.

The draw sent Chelsea through to the quarter-final stages of the Champions League. Chelsea have a good record in European competition but the performances of the team under old boss, Scolari, meant that fans could not take Champions League progression for granted.

The Chelsea players have been performing with a new-found confidence and battling attitude since the arrival of Hiddink and the team will be hoping to continue their determined Premier League assault when they take on Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Chelsea will obviously start the match as firm favourites but fans of the club are not taking anything for granted, particularly since the arrival of Manchester City at Stamford Bridge will signal the return of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Bridge. Both players became favourites with the fans during their stay at the club and, although they should receive a warm welcome, Chelsea will be hoping that their efforts can be quashed by a resilient team display.

Meanwhile, several of Chelsea's top stars have spoken out this week about their desire for Guus Hiddink, who is currently only staying at the club until the end of this season, to remain at the club for a longer period of time.

Both Michael Ballack and Petr Cech believe that the new manager has revitalised the club and the recent performances of players including Didier Drogba support these claims. Ballack revealed that he would "love" Hiddink to stay "for three years", whilst the goalkeeper for the Blues spoke of his coaching qualities.

It remains to be seen whether or not Hiddink will stay beyond the close of the season but the fans will hope that the team's surge of confidence continues for the foreseeable future, regardless of who is in charge.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Real start war of words prior to Liverpool clash

Fabio Cannavaro has started an intriguing war of words that is likely to continue until he comes up against a determined Liverpool side in the Champions League on Tuesday night. This clash, which sees Liverpool holding the advantage of a vital away goal, didn't really need any building up in order for football fans across the country to look forward to it with excitement, but the Real defender has decided to provide some controversy regardless of this fact.

Cannavaro has stated that Liverpool didn't try to "win the game" at the Bernabeu and, as if that little dig wasn't enough, the defender continued to slate the tactics employed by Benitez, who has been praised throughout his time at the club for masterminding successful European campaigns. The Real Madrid defender belittled Liverpool's long ball tactics and revealed his belief that "they will do the same at Anfield".

Interestingly, Cannavaro's words also revealed one of Real Madrid's downfalls, which could plague them on Tuesday night when the team is sure to face opposition from the passionate Liverpool fans urging their team towards victory. Cannavaro revealed that the team must not "rely on Arjen Robben or Marcelo or Wesley Sneijder". The simple truth remains that Real's defensive vulnerability has proved costly for years and, whilst they may put on a scintillating attacking show, mistakes at the back have proved decisive in far too many key matches.

Furthermore, despite Cannavaro's protestations, the team has been reliant upon individual talent this season. Arjen Robben has been in fantastic form for the club, showing an attacking prowess that has made Chelsea fans regret his untimely departure from the club. The fact is that Benitez will be aware of this and Cannavaro is right: Liverpool "are a very organised and solid team and they know exactly how to play".

Starting a war of words against a manager who has proved himself at European level is dangerous and questioning his tactics is downright foolish. Cannavaro and his Real teammates should be hoping that the defender's comments do not backfire and bring an end to the Spanish team's European dreams.

Ferguson predicts battle of minds

Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his Manchester United players they may have to go the distance against Internazionale when the two sides meet again in the Champions League at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

The great rivals square off in what promises to be an epic and Ferguson has thrown a spanner in the works by predicting that old adversary Jose Mourinho will instruct his Serie A powerhouses to try and take the game to penalties.

The Portuguese coach tried to second guess Ferguson before the first leg at the San Siro by suggesting United would not be willing to meet Inter "eye to eye". His forecast could not have been any more removed from the truth as Mourinho's men spent the first half chasing shadows.

Now, Ferguson has attempted to draw first blood by implying that the Italians will look to stifle the contest.

"Could he really have believed that we wouldn't attack at the San Siro?" Ferguson said in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. "Well, I'll tell you that at Old Trafford Inter will play for penalties. There is always that Italian mentality. Even with Argentinians and other foreigners, that remains the idea."

"They will look to suffocate the game and aim for 120 minutes of goalless football. But I'm not worried about anything. My players have shown they have what it takes when it comes to penalties. I hope it continues like that."

Inter warmed up for the second leg by beating Genoa 2-0 on Saturday to maintain their seven-point lead at the top of Serie A, while United breezed past Fulham 4-0 at Craven Cottage to set up an FA Cup semi-final clash against Everton.

Only a cigarette paper separates these two sides and it is true that football at this level is often decided by fractions.

Fergsuon, however, has fanned the flames by revealing it could come down to which team copes best with the intensity of the occasion.

He said: "We controlled them well in Milan – Inter only had a couple of half-chances in the second half. My players played with an incredible level of concentration. They have to do the same in the return leg."

Inter will be without injured defenders Marco Materazzi and Nicolas Burdisso when hostilities resume.

Rio Ferdinand left west London on Saturday wearing a protective boot on his right foot and is United's only injury concern.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Heroic Foster performance tinged with sadness

There can be little doubt as to who most sports pundits believe the star of the Carling Cup final was this year. As Ben Foster was standing between the sticks staring out at the Wembley pitch whilst the referee was preparing to start the match, he may have been praying for a performance which would see him go largely unnoticed.

Conversely, he may have been wishing for a few chances to prove himself as a talented young goalkeeper capable of playing regularly at the top level. Ultimately, even if the thoughts that were running through his mind as the players were preparing to start the battle for glory and silverware were ambitious and approaching the level of fantasy, they probably still wouldn't have matched the reality of what followed.

Ben Foster has been hailed as something of a hero since the Carling Cup final, in which an accomplished and professional performance was enhanced by a heroic display in the penalty shoot-out. The young goalkeeper may have been helped by an iPod and the apparent inability of certain Spurs players to take an accurate or powerful penalty but the vital component which should really be credited is Foster's natural talent.

The truth is that certain sports writers have been keen to place such emphasis upon the influence of the iPod to hide the fact that they have never really paid much attention to Foster's talent. As a result, it is easier for them to comprehend such a strong performance resulting from a small gadget than it is for them to comtemplate it arising from natural ability.

The sad news is that this ability will remain largely hidden whilst the player stays at Manchester United. Van der Sar, with the exception of his recent howler against Newcastle, remains the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. It is difficult to see how Foster will be able to break into the first team and establish himself whilst Van der Sar remains injury-free.

This is bad news for England fans because Ben Foster may just be the best goalkeeping prospect we have for the next World Cup. David James puts in some majestic performances in a Portsmouth shirt but he also puts in some performances which make us question whether he has a split personality.

The problem is that we can't fully assess whether or not Ben Foster can adequately master the consistency which David James famously lacks unless he is playing week in, week out in important games.

He could go out on loan but this wouldn't test his talent or ability to cope well under pressure vigorously enough to persuade Fabio Capello to place his trust in him. Foster needs to be experiencing the likes of the San Siro on a regular basis but, unfortunately for fans of English football, this doesn't look like happening anytime soon.

Jose lurks behind Fulham trip

Sir Alex Ferguson has always been one to strictly adhere to the tired old football maxim of taking one game at a time.

But the mouth-watering visit of Internazionale and the return of Jose Mourinho next Wednesday in the Champions League may have some bearing on his team selection for the FA Cup quarter-final clash at Fulham on Saturday.

Darron Gibson is expected to be given another chance to enhance his credentials as a vital future cog in the Old Trafford engine room, while Carling Cup man of the match Ben Foster and Tomasz Kuszczak will again compete for Edwin van der Sar's shirt if the veteran is denied an appearance against his old club.

Cristiano Ronaldo may be taken out of the firing line at the end of a turbulent week in which he was wrongly booked for diving on Sunday against Tottenham before being almost put into Row Z by the over-zealous Steven Taylor at Newcastle on Wednesday.

Ferguson has since complained that his star winger is fair game for referees and there is a suggestion that the Portugal international will be removed from the spotlight at Craven Cottage so that his batteries are recharged for the resumption of Europe's prestigious club competition.

Ferguson has led Manchester United to a record five FA Cup wins and he will not entertain the idea that this is a fixture he would rather do without, but privately he will be yearning to bring a halt to a disappointing head-to-head record with Mourinho which has brought him just one win in 13 meetings - and his starting line-up against Roy Hodgson's men may reflect that.

The wily Scot has already promised his new best friend and, according to reports, potential future successor a bottle of vintage red wine to share at Old Trafford next week.

Ferguson will be hoping there is no sour after-taste if the holders are sent packing.

Monday, 2 March 2009

No high fives from Ferguson

No other manager has arguably mastered the art of bursting a bubble quite as effectively as Sir Alex Ferguson.

So we assume he is well placed to predict it will be a tough ask for Manchester United to win an unprecedented five trophies this season.

The wily Scot made his assertion after United lifted their second major piece of silverware of the season following a dramatic penalty shoot-out to finally overcome Tottenham at Wembley in the Carling Cup final on Sunday.

Ferguson made an educated risk by putting his faith in emerging stars Darron Gibson and Danny Welbeck and the outcome might have different had reserve goalkeeper Ben Foster not saved from inspired winger Aaron Lennon.

But United carry a confidence that comes with winning eight consecutive Premier League games since the turn of the year and their refusal to throw the towel in has to be admired.

United have already been crowned world club champions, are seven points clear of Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League and have reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

On March 11 the holders will attempt to send Jose Mourinho's Internazionale packing from the Champions League to book a last-eight place in Europe's premier club competition.

Suffice to say it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

However, Ferguson rained on giddy United fans' expectations when he insisted talk of a clean sweep was premature.

Mindful of a potential banana skin against Newcastle at St James' Park on Wednesday, he said: "The great advantage I have is I won't get carried away with it."

When pressed about the prospect of a quintuple, he added: "We'll keep our feet on the ground.

"It would be great to think we could do it but my experience says we could go to Fulham next weekend, get a deflected shot off someone's backside and we're out of the FA Cup."

Brown must act quickly to avoid relegation dogfight

A few months ago, Hull City were exceeding all expectations on the pitch, securing fairytale victories against tough opposition including Arsenal and Spurs, scoring wonder goals left, right, and centre, courtesy of stars including the Brazilian playmaker, Geovanni, and ensuring that fans leaving the KC Stadium or travelling back to the city after an away match had wide smiles spread across their faces.

However, since Christmas, the situation has changed dramatically and Hull fans are now, unbelievably given their early season form, contemplating involvement in a relegation dogfight which is also threatening the long-term future of clubs including Blackburn and Middlesbrough.

The club is currently sitting in thirteenth position in the Premier League. If you had approached a Hull fan prior to the start of their first match of the campaign (a game which ended in victory over Fulham) and informed them that they would be sitting in this position at the beginning of March, they would probably have laughed in your face.

Even the most hardcore of Hull City fans could not have expected the run of form which the club experienced during the early months of the season and although Phil Brown's team is several positions away from the dreaded relegation zone, their recent form tells a more worrying story.

Furthermore, tensions and frustrations which must be mounting in the dressing room after each defeat appear to be spilling onto the pitch and this is something which must not be tolerated by the manager. Yesterday, during the team's 2-1 defeat to Blackburn, Phil Brown decided to substitute Geovanni after the Brazilian once again failed to show any sign of the natural talent which proved to be so influential earlier in the season.

No fan wants to see a player happy to be substituted but Geovanni's reaction to Brown's decision was disrespectful, petulant, and ultimately unacceptable. The manager agreed with this assessment, stating that the player "will never do that to me again". Brown continued to argue, quite rightly, that Geovanni is "not bigger than this football club".

The manager will have to act quickly in order to ensure that this kind of situation does not happen again. The frustration evident in the player's reaction is thoroughly understandable but Hull desperately need to pull together if they are to bring an end to their potentially devastating slide down the Premier League table.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Benitez surrenders title deeds

Rafael Benitez waved a white handkerchief when he conceded it was now down to bitter rivals Manchester United to lose the Premier League title race.

Maybe it was a case of after the Lord Mayor's show following their Champions League excursions against Real Madrid but it is safe to assume the biggest cheer was heard in Manchester – not Teesside – when Liverpool crashed to a demoralising 2-0 reverse against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday.

Middlesbrough's first league win since November 9 - coupled by Chelsea's late 2-1 win against Wigan - saw Liverpool slip to third in the table, albeit on the same number of points as the west Londonders, but, significantly, Sir Alex Ferguson's side now have a another game in hand and a seemingly unassailable seven-point lead.

Benitez, as is his way, refused to state the obvious, but did say: "Before the game, it was very difficult - after the game it is more difficult."

He added: "It depends on United, but it will be more difficult, clearly."

Boro, who had not scored a Premier League goal in 526 minutes of competitive action prior to Liverpool's visit, somehow conjured up a second wind following their FA Cup defeat of West Ham on Wednesday, although they were gifted a good slice of fortune for their opener.

The luckless Xabi Alonso contrived to deflect Stewart Downing's corner into his own net and life seemed to ebb away from the visitors when Tuncay swept in Jeremie Aliadiere's low centre to make the points safe.

Not even inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, so often the saviour, could inspire Liverpool on his 300th appearance for the club and without principal threat Fernando Torres there appeared to be no focal point for the Merseysiders when they did manage to cross the half-way line.

Benitez insisted his ongoing contract situation, or the imminent departure of chief executive Rick Parry, had caused his players to take their eye off the ball.

It would not be wholly inaccurate to suggest he is running out of excuses as fast as Liverpool are running out of fixtures.