Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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It was only last year that I was championing Fabio Capello as an intelligent and adaptable manager capable of improving considerably on England’s tournament record. Then disastrous preparation for the World Cup in South Africa and the handling of the captaincy fiasco transformed him from hero to zero for the whole nation. Yesterday’s draw with Switzerland, in a game England should have won at Wembley, was further evidence that Capello should have gone after the failure of the World Cup.
Capello’s main failing at the moment, above his poor communication skills and shoddy organisation, is his refusal to move on from ageing stars. Frank Lampard started as part of a three man midfield yesterday but England improved dramatically after the break when Capello brought on Young in his place, who should have started the game. Young scored a smart goal.
England have real pace and youthful pentration available on the flanks. The likes of Young, Downing, Johnson, Lennon and Walcott ought to be utilised more often. It’s taken Capello too long to give them international playing experience. The best teams at the big tournaments are units of quality players that have played together for a number of years, since the promise of their youth. Look at the German and Spanish sides.
In the centre of midfield, Jack Wilshere is the future. Capello has finally decided to give him a key role. But he continually plays alongside Parker and Lampard. Lampard is past his best and should be a squad member, not an integral part of the team for the long term. Parker was exposed yesterday; he is not the solution to England’s midfield woes. Capello needs to look to younger options for a holding midfield partner for Wilshere. Tom Huddlestone perhaps?
On the other hand, Capello consistently neglects experienced international players that could still play a vital role in his squad. His new found fetish for Darren Bent as a lone striker has alienated Peter Crouch, with rumours swirling today that he’s ruled himself out of international duty whilst Capello remains in charge. Michael Owen would have scored the chance Bent had to win the game, undeservedly, for England against Switzerland. Michael Carrick has been superb for Manchester United and would compliment Wilshere well. His passing ability is well suited to internationals.
A year ago I thought one of Capello’s key attributes was decisiveness. He dealt excellently with the John Terry crisis at first, only to divide the dressing room with his terribly handled reinstatement. However the defining aspect of his tenure looks set to be indecision. Extraordinarily Capello didn’t know his best eleven before the 2010 World Cup. He still won’t know his best eleven before Euro 2012, if England get there. He appears torn between entrusting the team’s hopes to youth or tried and tested experience. And when he tries to balance the two, he picks the wrong ingredients.
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Manchester United were always going to be the underdogs at Wembley. Beating the Catalan giants required the best from every one of the eleven Red Devils. Rooney delivered to give the fans hope, only to fade away amongst chain after chain of world class Spanish passing sequences. United just weren’t in Barcelona’s league.
But no one in the world is right now. United were right to believe in themselves and in the opening ten minutes their positive tempo took the game to their intimidating opponents. Their unity and players like Rooney, Giggs and Hernandez, meant they could hurt even the likes of Messi and co. It was an upbeat pace impossible to maintain however and as soon as Guardiola’s side got a grip on possession, England’s representatives in the clash between Premiership and La Liga were always going to be chasing the game.
Now though, with the battle lost, hardened veteran Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to launch a new war. As crushing as the defeat at Wembley was for United fans, they might be able to take some comfort in the fact that their seemingly immortal manager is to carry on for at least three more years. And not just carrying on with his job as well as he always has done but tackling a challenge so big that it can ignite and excite even the 69 year old Scott: wrestling Champions League dominance from Barcelona.
I’m not saying that Fergie had lost the hunger. He is the type of man who will never lose the desire to keep on winning and this ferocious and clinical lust for triumph is a key ingredient of his monumental success over the years. But there’s no doubt his Achilles heel has always been Europe. He knows this is where the strength of his legacy crumbles, even after a second trophy in 2008. This year he proved that he has mastered the tactics of Europe to reach the end without conceding an away goal. His team proved to him that they were a unit capable of following his instructions to the final. But not to the trophy and not past Barcelona.
The signs of an even greater determination for glory and greatness are already there. The manager knows that the effective blend of youth and immense experience his team has benefited from this campaign, is about to become imbalanced. Even before the Champions League final defeat, Fergie was aware that he’d be losing Edwin Van Der Sar and Gary Neville, and in all likelihood Paul Scholes, to retirement. He knew Ferdinand’s fitness was an increasing concern and that Ryan Giggs will have to be rested more often. These pillars of experience will need replacing.
Current players will be expected to step up with the departure of such Old Trafford greats, with greater importance falling upon the likes of Rooney, Vidic and Fletcher than ever before. Young players from the FA Youth Cup winning side, such as the promising Ravel Morrison, will be encouraged swiftly, but carefully, through the ranks. But after the “hiding” his team received at Wembley, Sir Alex knows quality and efficiency are also issues he must tackle.
I say efficiency because the likes of Nani and Berbatov, despite being pivotal at points, have not been trusted at others because of their inconsistency. Berbatov is undoubtedly a great talent, a genius with the ball, and you feel for his undeserved fall from Premiership top scorer to Champions League final exile. But his future is in real doubt at the club, with serious offers likely to be accepted. His manager prefers the partnership of Hernandez and Rooney and will be even more ruthless in his quest to catch the Spaniards that have humiliated him twice. Nani too, could be tempted by a move. Fergie needs to be able to rely on everyone for every occasion to better the Catalans.
All of this means that this summer will be the busiest in a long while for the red side of Manchester. Sir Alex, by failing to accumulate replacements for his ageing stars in previous years, has left himself with a mammoth shopping list. But he is supposedly backed by funds from the Glazers and he’s given himself three years to catch the world leaders. He’ll need all the time and money he can get.
Who does he want this summer though? Well De Gea looks pretty certain to replace Van Der Sar in goal and Fergie will hope that the Spanish Under-21 keeper is a steady long term replacement, after the trouble he had replacing a certain red nosed Dane between the sticks. Also reportedly in the club’s sights is Villa winger Ashley Young, Everton rising star Jack Rodwell and Lens defender Raphael Varane. Fergie would love Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder to fill the boots of Paul Scholes but a move looks unlikely. With the likes of Obertan, Gibson, Kuszczak, and Brown also all likely to leave, along with possibly Nani and Berbatov as well, the task could yet grow harder still.
With fierce rivals City having plenty of oil money to burn and Arsenal looking to be busier again too, in many ways Sir Alex Ferguson has picked the worst summer to begin a major rebuild in pursuit of an almost impossible goal. But if one name continually defies expectations in football and gets what he sets out to achieve, it’s his.
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My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.
United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.
Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.
Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.
Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.
It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.
As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.
Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.
It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.
Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.
I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.
The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.
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If you’re not fed up with the circus yet, you soon will be. Every clowning performer, every newsreader, commentator and gushing crowd member, will be salt rubbed into your severely wounded mood. Gossiping and gawping at two rich strangers is irritating for half an hour, annoying for an evening and soul destroying after days and weeks. Wedding talk is a stressful and pointless nuisance. At the end of this week the womenfolk will be in an unstoppably riotous mood. It will be terrifying.
Your masculinity will be torturously chipped away. The usual refuge, the pub, will be hideously transformed into a paradise of bunting and delicate decoration. When the confetti and the cupcakes and the tiaras get too much, new escape routes will be needed. After the horrors of the day itself, you’ll need to rediscover your true self and chill out as a bloke again.
For the alternatives to the madness, the cures to wedding fever and feral femininity, keep it glued to Flickering Myth. We’ll remind you that there’s good honest entertainment worth living for after a monstrous marriage marathon.
Your first anti-wedding tip then is Kenneth Branagh’s (that’s right the thespian and national treasure, directing a comic book adaptation) eagerly anticipated Marvel epic Thor, in three dimensions courtesy of the now standard issue Elton John specs. After all what could be more manly than a hero with impossibly mahoosive muscles and a badass cape, whose principal superpower is a giant hammer for bashing stuff to bits? He’s a God-like handyman irresistible to women and the envy of lesser men.
I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to atrocious puns to describe the merits and failures of Branagh’s creation, as other reviews have done. But then I thorght, by Odin’s beard there’s no harm in saying that whilst this isn’t quite a thor star film, its plot hammers along with such thunderous gusto that it at least cracks the norse code of decent superhero movies for the most part. The critics are right to muck about with words and have fun with their reviews though; because Thor, whatever its faults, is a fun watch.
Despite the drawbacks of spending much of the running time in the CGI kingdom of Asgard, I found such a different setting mostly refreshing. Gleaming golden palaces, elaborate armour and impossible landscapes are ingredients unavailable to the likes of Batman and Iron Man, no matter how artificial the environment might sometimes seem. Undeniably at times the 3D CGI is visually dazzling and striking. There are even a number of good, thumping action scenes in the eternal realm. As some reviewers have pointed out, setting much of the film in Asgard ensures the audience becomes attached to it, whether they appreciate its over the top beauty or not.
There’s no doubt that the fun factor only truly kicks in when things literally crash down to earth though. There are a good number of gags, nearly all of which are LOL worthy. Thor amusingly thrashes about at the humans he interacts with, struggling to accept he is at the mercy of the mortals. He only really bonds with one of us human plebs, the beautiful and gorgeous (I do not have a crush!) Natalie Portman. She plays a scientist on the verge of some vague but momentous discovery to do with particles and space or something. Thor sees she is clever. And that she’s a woman too. Portman is by no means mesmerising as she is in Black Swan here, but she does the job asked of her by the story, as do Anthony Hopkins and even Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who looked so wooden in the trailer. No I don’t just think she did a good job because she’s hot.
You might like to know the basic thrust of Thor’s plot: Thor heir to throne, Thor seeks revenge on Frost Giants, Thor banished for breaking peace, Thor seeks to find lost hammer, Thor inadvertently falls for hot human scientist, Thor tries to return to save kingdom. I like to think he may have grunted it out bluntly like that. And yes you read that rightly, the bad guys in this are called Frost Giants. They are perhaps Thor’s weakest ingredient; childishly simple foes that are difficult to take seriously. But again they are at least different to standard superhero fare.
The best bits, besides the laughs, following Thor’s fall to earth are two stunning action scenes. The first sees Thor roaring like King Kong as he bashes a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D agents. He’s trying to get to his beloved magical hammer, which is sealed off by awesome looking white tubes by the guys in suits that will link all Marvel’s superheroes together for the forthcoming Avengers film. The second climatic action scene sees Thor and his warrior friends fleeing from a fire breathing robot despatched by the traitor in Asgard’s camp to kill Thor.
This scene gets the best out of a small and dusty New Mexico town location; by smashing it to pieces with fantastic fiery explosions. The really impressive and surprising thing, especially given all the talk about Thor’s visual style, is the sound the killer robot makes every time it unleashes a fireball; it’s so piercing and deafening that you feel the impact of each blast. My friend violently flinched in surprise at one moment when the thing shaped up to slap something. Then in the aftermath of the destruction the soundtrack and the visuals reach suitably epic proportions for Thor’s big race against time comeback moment.
Thor is of course the God of Thunder, which is fitting given that most superheroes grapple with the stormy consequences of their own God complexes. Needless to say Thor predictably learns his lesson, to put others before yourself is truly heroic blah blah, but in engrossingly epic style. There is just something fun about this film, which makes you reluctant to dwell on its various faults and flaws. Thor ended leaving me wanting more from the character and more from his world, despite the silliness of some of the mythological squabbles. Branagh has not crafted the meaningful art he is accustomed to, but a fun and refreshing thorker of a blockbuster. He may be a prince, but Thor will easily sail your mind away from all things Royal.
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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.
All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.
For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.
Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.
Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.
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Urgghhhh…not England again! Just as we were all getting into the swing of the new Premiership season we’re forced to collectively confront the endless failings of our national side and look to the future again. The next chance of that elusive trophy will come at Euro 2012, a year in which we will at least be able to retreat to the splendour and pride of hosting the Olympic Games, should England fail to perform at the tournament proper, or as last time under Steve McClaren, fail to qualify for the European Championships at all.
The prospect of Capello leading a depressingly familiar looking side out at Wembley against mundane opponents like Bulgaria tomorrow is by no means a tantalising one. Personally I think the public shall struggle to ever fully get behind an England team under the guidance of Capello again, following his exposure at the World Cup as an underprepared, inexperienced international manager as opposed to the strict messiah he grew to become in the optimistic qualifying campaign. The only way Capello can begin to win back the hearts and minds of the fans is with a youthful overhaul of his squad, and his selections since the World Cup have fallen short in terms of ambition and a fresh approach. He has even sent mixed messages over David Beckham’s future, so that he at first retires him and then leaves the door open for a more than ceremonial return. Since the World Cup many commentators have pounced on Capello’s communication failures, calling for if not an English manager then one with a firm grasp of the language. Players like Paul Robinson backed up these criticisms with evidence, choosing to end their international careers rather than continually endure the confusing limbo of Capello’s squad selections. And then there has been the success of Capello’s omissions from the World Cup squad: Theo Walcott’s pace and promise in the Arsenal side, Paul Scholes’ masterful domination of midfield, and his assertion that Capello simply left it too late and didn’t seem to want his return to the national side enough.
The progressive choices in Capello’s squad appear to be forced upon him as well, so there appears to be no evidence of a genuine effort on his part to rejuvenate the team. Up front there is no place for Newcastle’s hat-trick hero Andy Carroll, despite the media hype and recent good form that Capello previously promised would be rewarded. The strikers are the same bland mixture then of an underachieving Carlton Cole, Darren Bent, an injured Defoe and not scoring Rooney. In midfield too old faces shall probably win out, even with promising performances from young stars like Johnson and Walcott. Might now be the time to shift Walcott back up front alongside Rooney? Such a move probably won’t be followed by Capello and yet he is not seeking the long term target man partner for Rooney in Carroll either. In defence we are about to be offered a glimpse of an uncertain future, with Rio Ferdinand now probably a permanent crock well beyond his prime and Terry too entering his twilight years. The likes of Dawson, Upson and Jagielka do not scream world class defender: none of them ply their trade at a top club and even the promising Gary Cahill would need to improve in leaps and bounds.
Between the sticks though England are looking healthier. Again the retirements of James and Robinson forced the future on Capello rather than him embracing it with a continental kiss, Italian flair and setting it boldly beside the fire to be nurtured. Capello’s indecision when it came to the goalkeeper contributed to Robert Green’s blunder at the World Cup, as the entire nation was left in limbo as to who was number one. Remarkably though circumstances have contrived to purge the position so that by 2012 England shall have hopefully be in the position of having two world class goalkeepers, rather than none.
The fight of course is between Ben Foster and Joe Hart. However this is not to dismiss the other candidates, such as Scott Carson who has rebuilt his career following England failure at West Brom, David Stockdale of Fulham who has impressed stepping in for the mighty Schwarzer in the season openers and young Scott Loach of Watford, who replaces Carson in the squad for Bulgaria’s visit because of a family bereavement. These keepers will all provide beneficial competition but it is Foster or Hart who shall emerge as the next England number one and hopefully both will develop into fine keepers to give the squad depth.
Foster was of course the next Manchester United keeper a year ago. He has in many ways traded fortunes with Hart, who a year ago was going out on loan to Foster’s current club Birmingham. At Birmingham Hart forged a reputation for himself and has returned to Manchester City, despite all the mega money signings, to claim the first team spot ahead of the impressive, reliable and experienced Shay Given, who is wanted by a number of other Premiership teams, including Arsenal, as first choice keeper. This is a remarkable achievement for Hart and he deserves his shot at making the England shirt his own now, along with some patience and time from his manager to do so. Undoubtedly he is in a better position than Foster, playing at a club with the fresh expectation, classy talent and lofty aims of Man City. However there’s a long way to go until 2012 and it would be foolish to rule Foster out. Despite being comprehensively beaten by a cool, well placed Kevin Davies penalty at the weekend he is the sort of goalie you always fancy to stop a spot-kick. Despite some blunders with his feet in big games for Utd last season he is better than most keepers with the ball and is capable of excellent, precise distribution. Despite failing to claim the Utd jersey for himself expectations were placed on him not without reason and I share the view of some that Fergie was premature to get rid of him this summer for the modest sum of £6million, when he still might have proved to be an excellent replacement for Van Der Sar.
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I could not bring myself to write directly about England’s World Cup exit and this is despite the fact I did not expect our national side to progress. The manner of defeat though was so utterly deflating that all previous hopes of progress and improvement over the qualification campaign were dashed. Rightly questions were immediately asked about Capello’s future as manager in the fierce post-mortem examination of England’s World Cup and wrongly in my view the FA have hastily confirmed his continuation as coach.
This is not to say that I don’t recognise the arguments in favour of Capello or indeed any foreign coach. Personally the most persuasive argument is the lack of high calibre home grown coaches. The English choices touted as potential managers the last time the job was vacant were uninspiring to say the least, with the list headed by Sam Allardyce, a man who missed his big chance with Newcastle and whose primary strengths, for example shrewd transfer dealings, would appear useless away from the everyday grind of club football in the leagues. Harry Redknapp has similar drawbacks, despite admittedly having a more proven track record and others mentioned all had their own fatal flaws, such as Stuart Pearce’s inexperience. With such limited options the FA’s decision to look abroad for greater pedigree to ensure results can be understood, although in both the cases of Eriksson and Capello it has baffled me that they should opt for managers successful primarily in club football, when England’s problems have always been related to the unique performances required at the tournament itself. Both foreign coaches have fallen at this final hurdle thus far, as English coaches before them always did.
Another argument supporting the utilisation of foreign coaching talent in general is the fact that the English game has a problem when it comes to technical quality. The World Cup finalists this year, Holland and Spain, have shown that technical ability can enable teams to achieve the ultimate prize without playing to their full potential. It has been extremely frustrating for me to watch the Dutch, a team I have publicly backed to do well at each recent tournament besides the South African World Cup, march to the final. However it has been equally infuriating to hear pundits continuously talk of below par Dutch performances, when in every match I have seen them their ball retention has been effortless. They also have several players with a creative cutting edge and a steady, experienced defence, shielded by an immovable Van Bommel in the heart of midfield. The men in orange have rarely played poorly at this World Cup, it is merely a sign of their quality that it is evident they could play so much better to many watching them. The Spanish too, perhaps even more so, have underperformed but still find themselves in the final courtesy of complete mastery of possession.
So if foreign coaches can bring with them a vital essence of technique from their country of origin they might be worthwhile. Capello for example was expected to improve England’s passing ability and defensive strength as an Italian. However against Germany England were undone by a lack of professionalism and a neglect of some of the basics of the game, areas Capello had supposedly sorted with his approach to management. Indeed at times England matched the Germans and there was a moment the momentum seemed to have swung our way, but such hope all too easily disintegrated. I believe England’s exit exposed a fundamental truth about the actual ability of our footballers and the futility of quick fix solutions; technical deficiencies in our players can only be eradicated at a grass roots level and if they are to be dealt with at the top then an English manager could do just as good a job.
The key argument for Capello himself carrying on in the role is harder to dismiss than the broader issue of foreign managers though. Prior to the tournament itself and its immediate build-up, Capello had successfully rebuilt national belief in the team and instilled a winning mentality with an effortless qualifying campaign. He also missed opportunities to experiment and therefore go to South Africa with a stronger hand as I have previously pointed out, but nonetheless he achieved qualification, something his English predecessor did not manage. To axe Capello too swiftly following the defeat to Germany would have broken a continuity that had been hard to re-establish. Decision makers at the FA would have wanted to avoid a knee jerk reaction to events resulting in the wrong appointment and another failed Euro qualification campaign.
However those urging to play it safe and stick with the expensive failure may live to regret their caution. The inaction and delay meant that Roy Hodgson, in many ways the perfect blend of culture, proven management in a tournament environment with limited resources and a truly English view of the game, slipped through the net to Liverpool. The argument for continuity is in my view blown apart by both the age of the squad and the failure necessitating something new; fresh legs and ideas. Ultimately employing a foreign coach for our national side can only be justified by success and there is no doubt that the achievements of Eriksson and Capello cannot be rated as such, even if they better the attempts of recent Englishman. Any top flight English manager is capable of achieving the same tournament finish notched by Capello and would do so with pride and passion representing his country, striving for the absolute best. For all Fabio’s touchline gesticulations he could not feel our national anguish. If the FA do continue to employ foreign coaches they may as well pursue those Premier League players that express a desire to play for England and apply for citizenship, despite having no English family link. They may as well surrender control of the national side to the Premier League and concede it is all about profit and that club football really does exceed international ties in terms of importance. They have missed an opportunity to lay the foundations for long term international success that plays to our strengths and can be proudly boasted of as an English accomplishment, not mocked by our opponents as the brainchild of an icy continental tinkerer.
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Tagged 2010, Capello, Cup, England, English, FA, Fabio, failure, football, Hodgson, Holland, Italian, Manager, Robben, Roy, soccer, Tactics, technique, World