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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The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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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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