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.