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Old heads see off new faces at Old Trafford…just


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.

Number 1 in 2012?


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.