Manchester United’s wingers must show they are up to the job

This was going to be a piece about the worrying decline of Antonio Valencia, whose abject display against Chelsea on Sunday was that of a man who has forgotten what he is good at. But the truth is none of Manchester United’s first-team wingers have had a season to write home about. In fact you would be hard-pressed to recall the last great performance from any of Valencia, Nani or Ashley Young.

When Valencia moved to Old Trafford in 2009, he was talked of as one of the league’s best wide-men, and as he began beating fullbacks and supplying inch-perfect crosses, it was clear why Sir Alex Ferguson parted with £12million for his services. The Ecuadorian made wing-play look easy.  He broke it down to its simplest form – knock it and run. And his speed meant he won the race more often than not.

Antonio Valencia

When Wayne Rooney enjoyed arguably his best season to date, when everyone started referring to his head as a goal-scoring threat as deadly as his feet – that was down to Valencia. There were no tricks in his armoury, no step-overs or showboating. He ran. He crossed. And United invariably scored.
So who was the player wearing number 7 on Sunday? The player who beat himself more often than his opponent? It certainly wasn’t the man who was voted both fans’ and players’ Player of the Year last season, nor the man who came back from a horrific ankle break to become one of his team’s most consistent performers.

It would be easy to say the pressure of the number on his back has got the better of him. But do players really notice what is behind them when they are so focused on what is ahead? Can a number so significantly alter a mind-set?

With the impending arrival of Wilfried Zaha, many expected Nani to make way. But in United’s last two games it was the Portuguese player’s departure (for two very different reasons) that had a detrimental effect on the team. So perhaps Zaha will be taking the place of Valencia next season, a man who has forgotten that in football, if you can win the race, the goal is all but scored.

Nani

And yet two brief cameos and being championed in his absence should not disguise the fact that Nani has been equally erratic this season. Unquestionably talented, there came a time – back in 2010 – when it all made sense. Outstanding displays against Manchester City and Arsenal showed a winger of terrifying ability, clinical, incisive, a man very much in tune with his talent.

It seemed that finally the penny had dropped. But three years later, it is clear that Nani is a man for whom the penny drops often, only to be forgotten again shortly after. Both United fans and the wider football world must sometimes wonder what he could achieve with consistency. But perhaps that is a trait to be born with or learnt as much as any other in football.

The last of United’s three wide-men, Ashley Young, is the least so in the traditional sense. A right-footed player on the left, it is his natural and often effective inclination to cut inside and cross. He doesn’t beat a man, he stands up to them and relies on his foot to find the box regardless. It was a skill that led his former manager at Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill, to call him “world class”. And it was a skill that has resulted in some truly outstanding goals for his current club, most notably an unstoppable double in the 8-2 win over Arsenal in 2011.

Ashley Young

And yet the truth is United lack pace; which is something of an indictment on the three men employed to supply it. It is no coincidence that Ferguson did all he could to secure Lucas Moura in the summer. In his short time at PSG he has shown just what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps on his arrival, Zaha will share the fearlessness of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, adding directness to his new team and shaking up the old guard.

But whatever happens, if United’s current wingers wish to remain, they need to find the form that some have displayed for seasons and others only for games.

Team GB: What are their chances at the Olympics?

With the current campaign over, all eyes are turning to the summer’s international tournaments to fill the off-season void. Euro 2012 comes first in June, before the exciting prospect of Team GB competing for gold at the Olympics. With some of the traditionally bigger nations not present at the competition in London, the home representation will be one of the favourites to claim gold medals, but who will be playing and can they go all the way?

Firstly it should be stated that Team GB manager Stuart Pearce has been in contact with potential players about their interest in competing at the games, with a shortlist of a whopping 80 players being compiled. The squad must be completely 23 years old or under, with leeway for three overage players. Team GB will be comprised of athletes from England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and any player who represents England at Euro 2012 will not be considered.

With such a wide span of players to pick from, predicting the Team GB squad is difficult, but there are a number of players who have been mentioned and are seemingly eager to compete. David Beckham has been a high-profile name mentioned as a possible captain, however Pearce recently admitted that the LA Galaxy midfielder’s inclusion will be decided on form and fitness. Welsh midfielders Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have both been raised as possible candidates for inclusion, and the north London duo would add much-needed quality to the side. From Northern Ireland, Manchester United defender Jonny Evans had been touted to be included but this has been ruled out by the Red Devils, whilst the likes of Barry Bannan and Grant Hanley are potential Scottish inclusions.

The majority of the squad will be comprised of English players, with youngsters on the verge of the senior squad for Euro 2012 potentially taking part. Jack Wilshere has not been ruled out by Pearce in playing, despite the Arsenal man’s long-term injury concerns. The likes of Daniel Sturridge, Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tom Cleverley will wait to see if they are needed in Ukraine and Poland, and if not could feature. Finally, Jack Rodwell has been ruled out of Euro 2012 through injury, but could well play in the games as part of his rehabilitation and recovery. With Pearce as manager, former or current England under-21 players could make up a bulk of the 18-man squad.

But can they lift the gold? One of he factors working against the side will be lack of preparation time, and the fact that most of the players will never have played together. However, along with Spain and Brazil, Team GB will be one of the frontrunners for victory, as the rest of the 16 teams seem beatable on paper. Team GB have been drawn in Group A alongside Senegal, Uruguay and the United Arab Emirates, with their first game against the African nation on July 26th.

All-in-all, glory for Team GB at the Olympics would be a real milestone for the game in the United Kingdom, and an excellent collective and personal achievement for the players. With a raft of Premier League talent likely to make up the squad, there is no reason why the hosts will not celebrate glory in the final on August 11th.

Published – 2012 Olympics Blog

England vs France: The key battles in this Euro 2012 grudge-match

England have been drawn against old enemies France in Group D of Euro 2012, and the clash on June 11th will have a major bearing on each side’s chances of progression in the tournament. With a month to go before the nations do battle the Three Lions are slight favourites, but it should be a close encounter. With Sweden and Ukraine in the pool also, both teams will look to get an early advantage in the competition.

With the domestic campaigns drawing to a close in the Premier League and Ligue 1, Laurent Blanc and Roy Hodgson will have their squads for the tournament all but decided, with a few decisions potentially still to be made. Les Bleus coach has named a strong looking provisional squad, with a raft of English-based players included, whilst the West Brom man has revealed that he will name his contingent on Wednesday.

Despite the full tournament squads yet to be announced, the main players for both sides are known and will play a key role in deciding the outcome of the encounter. France have a good blend of young talent and experienced heads, and their strength lies in central midfield and in a couple of talented individual attackers. The battle for possession in the centre of the park will be a key element to deciding the outcome, with Blanc able to choose from Yohan Cabaye, Yann M’Vila, Alou Diarra and Morgan Amalfitano in the heart of his midfield. Scott Parker will have a role to play in breaking up the French passing game, whilst the likes of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard will look to mix it with their opponents.

French matchwinners include skilful wingers Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, whilst the goalt-hreat will be provided by Karim Benzema. England’s full-backs must monitor the widemen carefully, with a big responsibility falling on Kyle Walker, Micah Richards or Glen Johnson’s shoulders to shackle Bayern Munich superstar Ribery. The centre of the English defence will also be wary of giving Benzema space, as the Real Madrid man is one of Europe’s form strikers currently.

Going the other way, new boss Hodgson will be without his talismanic forward Wayne Rooney due to suspension, and has key decisions to make in attack. With Darren Bent still on the sidelines with injury and on the borderline of missing out, no other centre forwards shout out as sure things. Hodgson will consider the likes of Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Jermain Defoe, Andy Carroll and maybe even Peter Crouch to lead his line, but the English attack will be limited due to Rooney’s absence.

The eventual England squad should have pace to burn however, with widemen Ashley Young, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon all with the necessary speed to harry the French defenders. There is also a case for Paul Scholes’ inclusion to add a bit of creativity to the side, but Hodgson will look to his wingers to provide the necessary penetration.

The game is sure to full of natural pride and passion, but England must compete with the technical abilities of the France side to get a result. The odd goal may well decide this game, but it should be an exciting and enthralling match.

Published – Ghana Soccernet

Arsenal’s ideal 2012-13 line up: The men Arsene Wenger wants for his starting XI next term

Arsenal have been through something of a rollercoaster season, starting very slowly before a revival has the north London side 90 minutes away from a respectable third place. Ensuring that the Gunners qualify for next term’s Champions League, Arsene Wenger should be able to bring in a number of new faces this summer, which could see the Emirates outfit challenge for the Premier League title in 2012-13. But what is Wenger’s ideal starting XI for next season?

GK – Wojciech Szczesny

The Polish goalkeeper has stepped up to the plate this term, and finally the Emirates faithful have a man between the sticks that they can trust. Wenger will look for Szczesny to continue his development in 2012-13 and become one of the most consistent stoppers in the division. Rumours have linked Swansea’s Michel Vorm with a move to Arsenal, and the north London club will need a backup with Manuel Almunia on his way out of the club.

LB – Thomas Vermaelen

The Belgium international is an important member of the Arsenal set-up, and Wenger will hope to have the vice-captain fit and available for the bulk of next season. With a raft of central defenders, Vermaelen may well end up at left-back, with Andre Santos a solid backup.

RB – Bacary Sagna

Despite the prominence and potential of Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna is the first choice at right-back and is an excellent defender. The France international has recently broken his leg for a second time, and Wenger will be keen to have the 28-year-old back in his starting line-up for the start of next term.

CB – Jan Vertonghen

The Ajax captain is in the last year of his contract with the Eredivisie giants, and is reportedly being chased by Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. Wenger will hope his side can win the race, as the centre-back would be an excellent addition to any of the leading Premier League sides.

CB – Laurent Koscielny

The French centre half has shown maturity and doggedness this season, and will most likely get the nod over Per Mertesacker if everyone is fit and available.

CM – Jack Wilshere

The Gunners have missed their home-grown hero Wilshere this term, with the England international not kicking a ball in anger all campaign. The Emirates faithful will hope to have their favourite back available for the start of next season, which will be as good as a new signing.

CM – Alex Song

The Cameroon international has been one of the standout performers for the Londoners this season, and is now a majorly important member of the team. Song’s combative nature in the centre of the park is complemented by a surprisingly excellent range of passing and boundless energy.

CM – Yann M’Vila

Wenger’s number one transfer target this summer, M’Vila has been imperious for Rennes this season and forced his way into the France international set-up. A £17 million deal has been touted, but Arsenal must fight off interest from Inter to get their man. If the battler does arrive in England it may limit opportunities for the likes of Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey.

AT – Lukas Podolski

The vastly-experienced Germany international has ended a long-running transfer saga by agreeing a move to north London this summer. Podolski will take some of the goalscoring responsibility away from Robin van Persie, and is a feisty and passionate forward.

AT – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

The young starlet has shown glimpses of brilliance in his debut Premier League season, and will be in line for a regular first-team place next term. Fast, skilful and with an eye for goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain is a star in the making. Wenger will also have Theo Walcott, Gervinho and potentially Clint Dempsey to choice from.

ST – Robin van Persie

The PFA Player of the Year has been unplayable at times this season, and has on occasion single-handedly dragged the side to results. With one year left on his contract, the Netherlands international’s future will have a major bearing on the club’s fortunes next season.

Published – Soccerlens

Five top Premier League prospects looking to shoot into super stardom in 2012/2013

There is nothing better than watching a young talent develop into a world-class superstar and in the Premier League there are an abundance of youngsters waiting to grab a spot in their team’s starting XI and reach their full potential. These are the ones to watch:

A summer signing from Southampton, 18-year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has made a big impact on Arsene Wenger’s side, making 21 appearances for Arsenal and becoming the youngest English player to score in UEFA Champions League history. Chamberlain has found it hard to secure a regular first team spot, but when he plays he looks sharp, fast and confident on the ball. Alongside a blossoming career in the Premier League, “The Ox” has made eight appearances for the England under-21 team and bagged four goals. Chamberlain stands a good chance of gaining a place in England’s Euro 2012 squad alongside team-mates Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott.

 

Another of Arsene Wenger’s wonder teens who has recently impressed on loan at Bolton is Ryo Miyaichi. The 19-year old winger has clocked a 100m time of 10.6 seconds and pairs his speed with fantastic dribbling skills. After joining the club, the Japanese youngster went on loan to Dutch side Feyenoord and impressed on his debut, playing the full 90 minutes and being named Man of the Match. The Dutch media nicknamed him “Ryodinho” (in comparison to Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho).

 

Currently on loan at Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City, 19-year old Josh McEachran, Chelsea’s creative midfielder, shows great passing skills and confidence on the ball. Although not getting much playing time at the Liberty Stadium due to the fantastic midfield trio of Sigurdsson, Britton and Allen, the Welsh outfit’s boss has defended his loan saying, “Every player wants game-time but that can’t happen for everyone.” Growing up McEachran idolized French midfielder Zinedine Zidane describing him as “the complete all-round midfielder.”

 

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba is on nearly every big club’s shortlist, impressing scouts with great all-round skills in defence and attack, not to mention a deadly long-shot. The French 19-year old has represented his nation at every level and captained France U16 to victories in the Aegean Cup and the Tournoi du Val-de-Marne. Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been desperately trying to get Pogba to sign a new contract after interest from many top-flight clubs, in particular Italian side Juventus.

 

Baby of the bunch, 17-year old Souleymane Coulibaly was first noticed after winning the golden boot at the FIFA U17 World Cup – scoring nine goals in four games for Côte d’Ivoire including a hat-trick against Brazil and four goals against Denmark. ‘Soli’ signed for Tottenham from Italian Club Siena and has been a hit not only in the youth team, but scored on his debut against Brighton & Hove Albion for the senior team. Redknapp hopes the young Ivorian will revive their recently unsuccessful youth squad and a lack of a consistently prolific striker for Tottenham means ‘Soli’ could come into favour sooner than expected.

By Jacob Tucker

London 2012: Should the Olympics be higher on a footballer’s priority list?

With an exciting end to the Premier League campaign, the Champions League last four and the upcoming Euro 2012 championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer, football fans can be forgiven for forgetting about the Olympic Games and football’s involvement at the London event.

Attitudes in football to the Olympics are in stark contrast to how modern sports in general perceive the Olympics; they are the moment for professional sportmen and athletes to compete and prove yourself at the highest level possible. For many sports the Olympics are a defining showcase moment, and for many sportspeople they are the ultimate test.

Football, however, is different. Club football has changed the dynamic to the extent that international football seems like an unnecessary luxury, reserved only for countries who lack a strong domestic league. You can even argue that the best football club could easily beat the best football team in the world.

For track and field athletes the Olympics, held every four years, are of a similar importance as the football World Cup or Champions League (or indeed, Premier League survival). Football however is spoilt with one important game after the next, challenges spread out throughout the season and with more opportunities to succeed. As such, the Olympics has been tagged as just another tournament and from a club football perspective, lacking any benefits in an already- packed football calendar.

There is no doubt that the sheer amount of football played by the professional footballer in the modern day is startling, with their domestic leagues, cup competitions, European football, international friendlies and competitive national fixtures all taking their toll physically and mentally. More than the quantity of football is the intensity – playing at full tilt for 90 minutes 50 times a season will take it’s toll on you (just ask David Silva).

For most other sports the Olympics, held every four years, is the pinnacle and the culmination of countless hours on the training ground and gym. Modern-day players are as professional as the game has ever seen, and therefore should want to play at the highest level possible, strive for victory and be the best that they can be. This attitude will be adopted by other sports represented at the Games, and should be treated as such by football.

The age limit on participants in Olympic football ensures that young players – whose footballing output needs to be managed far better than the case of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere – get an early chance to appear in a major tournament and hone their skills against competitors of the same age group, if not always the same technical level.

A raft of leading Premier League players such as Jack Rodwell and Gareth Bale have been rumoured to be keen to represent Team GB this summer with clubs fuming over the possibility of losing star players in pre-season. The FA has had to assure Premier League clubs that players who take part in the Euros will not take part in the Olympics, there will undoubtedly be athletes who prioritise Euro 2012 and the upcoming 2012/13 Premier League season over involvement at the Olympics.

Despite this, Pearce has issued the rallying cry for all interested parties to come forward, and the modern day competitor should jump at the chance. Admittedly the Olympics will not carry the same following in football as Euro 2012, but the unique chance to play in the Great Britain team, at the sporting summit of the Olympics, on home soil, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The fact that the majority of competitors need to be 23 or under (there are three overage players allowed in each squad), should mean that up-and-coming superstars like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Daniel Sturridge to name but a few should be clambering over themselves to be involved at the Olympics. With some of the higher-profile and older players not eligible or interested, a young prospect could shoot themselves to super-stardom with strong performances, and join a very small group of players to have an Olympic medal in their trophy cabinet.

The likes of Lionel Messi have competed in the Olympic Games before (against the wishes of his parent club), and won the gold. If you ask Messi, despite is embarrassment of titles he will still remember the Olympic gold and what it means to him. Most of the players likely to head to London 2012 under Stuart Pearce can only dream of getting close to Messi’s trophy count – and if the world’s best footballer wants to win everything on offer, if a football tournament at home presents your country’s best chance of international success in football for ages – then it’s only right that players and management (FA) make it a high priority.

Football fans in England tend to say that the Olympics don’t matter. They do to the people taking part, and especially to the people who give it their best shot, and win.

Published – Soccerlens

Liverpool v Arsenal: Reds must win or kiss Champions League goodbye

Liverpool fans are on a high after winning the Carling Cup last weekend, with Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard heralding the triumph as the start of a new era of success for the club. Whether this season is a success or not may well depend on the outcome of this Saturday’s fixture against Arsenal however. With the Reds currently in seventh place, seven points behind the Gunners in fourth, anything other than an Anfield victory will leave the Merseysiders too far behind the other challengers to qualify for the Champions League.

Although success in cup competitions is a step in the right direction for Liverpool, whether it is the Carling Cup or the FA Cup, the ability to finish in the top four will be the real litmus test to whether the club are back amongst the country’s elite once more. Winning cup games is one thing; showing the consistency over 38 games to be adjudged as one of the top teams in England takes more doing.

So far this campaign Liverpool have blown hot and cold, with good performances and wins being counter-balanced by dropping points against the so-called lesser teams. This irregularity has blighted the team and frustrated the fans; it is the reason that a team that can beat anyone on their day is not currently in the top four Premier League teams. That said, the Reds have been relatively good against the bigger teams this season, and on the back of their cup success will look to shorten the gap on the top four with a win over Arsenal this weekend.

The Gunners were staring into the abyss this time last week, with FA Cup elimination and Champions League embarrassment threatening to spoil their season. However, Arsene Wenger’s men showed that they are not willing to go quietly into oblivion by outplaying, out-battling and thoroughly beating Spurs 5-2 in the north London derby. The Emirates Stadium outfit will have their tails up after the victory, especially given the fact that they fought back from two goals down, and the away fans will hope that the resolve and determination shown last weekend will be re-enacted this time out.

Arsene Wenger’s backing of under-fire players has been a trait during his 15-year tenure at the club, and the French coach sternly believes in the ability of the players that he has nurtured from a young age. The current case in question is Theo Walcott, who’s potential has not been replicated into performances this term and the winger is at risk of missing out on Euro 2012 after playing at a sub-standard level for the majority of the campaign. Wenger left in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench against Spurs; it will be interesting what role the latest Southampton youth protégé plays on Saturday.

There are a number of key battles that will decide the game. Daniel Agger broke a rib in the win over Cardiff, and will be replaced by dependable but ageing Jamie Carragher. The veteran’s centre defence partnership with Martin Skrtel at the back will be key, especially given the fact that Arsenal scored five in their last outing. Robin van Persie should play despite suffering a slight injury whilst on international duty, and is currently at the pinnacle of his abilities.

In midfield it is time for Steven Gerrard to get back to his best, but Alex Song will be keen to shackle the Anfield talisman come Saturday. Mikel Arteta is no Cesc Fabregas, but he is starting to make his mark on the north London club; the Spaniard will be motivated to win against Liverpool given his time at their rivals Everton.

Arsenal’s defence wasn’t especially tested against Tottenham, but it is likely to be pushed harder at Anfield.  Thomas Vermaelen looked shaky in the loss of two early goals to Harry Redknapp’s men, and the Belgium international and Laurent Koscielny must be better to foil Luis Suarez and the Liverpool attack.

Expect a close game; both sides need the points and are on a high after good results last weekend, but there isn’t room for both of these giants in next year’s Champions League.

Published – Soccerlens

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