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Manchester United and Thiago Alcantara – a good match?

Reports in Spain are linking new Manchester United manager David Moyes to Barcelona midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas as he looks to add some craft and creativity to his midfield. We all know what Fabregas can do, but how about his younger team mate? Could he be a cut-price, high-quality answer to a question that even Sir Alex Ferguson could never wholly answer?

One of the reasons that 22-year-old Thiago is being linked so heavily to Manchester United this summer is that a release clause in his contract has been activated. This is by virtue of him not playing at least 30 minutes in 60 per cent of Barcelona’s games this season. All player contracts in Spain have a release clause, a result of a previous agreement between the union and the clubs. However, most of these are designed to make the player unattainable. For example, Lionel Messi’s is £205 million and Cristiano Ronaldo’s over £500 million.

Before this season, Thiago’s release clause was €90million, about £80m. Obviously no one would have paid that. Now, it is just €18million, about £14m. £14m is exactly the type of price range that clubs such as Manchester United can easily afford. It is, for example, less than they paid for Anderson.

Thiago Alcantara

For Barcelona to have allowed this to happen is pretty incredible, verging on negligent. Considering that they had the league comfortably won by March, had an easy group in the Champions League and on top of that, plenty of Copa Del Rey matches in which to field him, it is ridiculous that they couldn’t find him 30 minutes in 60 per cent of games. The amount of games that they were three or four nil up by half time, surely he could have come on? But, he is now near enough unprotected.

The question Manchester United fans could ask at this juncture is ‘if he can’t even get that amount of playing time, why would he be a good signing for us? For the answer, it is best to defer to no less a judge than his Barcelona team mate Xavi, who describes Thiago as ‘the future of Barcelona’. Xavi knows first hand about being the Emperor in waiting as he spent the early years of his career, even in to his early 20’s, as Thiago is, waiting to succeed Pep Guardiola. Xavi is now 33 and there is some feeling that if he wins another World Cup next season he might call it a career; surely Thiago can wait another year? Well, maybe not.

Thiago has the talent to start for any club in Europe; it is literally only the presence of Xavi keeping him out of the starting eleven at Barcelona. He has a wider range of passing than any Manchester United player, he is an excellent runner from deep, he is fleet footed and he covers the ground easily. He is an athlete who also boasts the technical skill you would expect of a Barcelona youth graduate.

Manchester United don’t have anything like him. He’s more dynamic and multidimensional than Michael Carrick and would make for an ideal partner for him. He has the action-packed, athletic game of a young Paul Scholes, complimented by the field awareness and deep-lying vision of an older version of Scholes.

If Manchester United are to have any chance of overhauling the big Spanish and German clubs they need someone who can grab hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and dominate possession. Thiago Alcantara is at a stage of his career where he is ready to be given the keys, and signing him at such an affordable price would immediately give United what they need to take the next step in Europe.

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Manchester United without Sir Alex or Wayne Rooney, Chelsea with Jose Mourinho – next season is set to be a cracker

As the 2012/13 Premier League season lurches towards its underwhelming end, the realisation for many a fan is that it left us with precious little memories, compared to other seasons – notably the most sensational ending in the competition’s 21-year history last term.

As Sergio Aguero slammed home the winner that gave Manchester City the Premier League over fierce local rivals Manchester United with the last kick of the game against Queen Park Rangers last season, Martin Tyler screamed: “I swear you will never see anything like this again.”

Tyler’s now iconic sound bite may have had some truth to it, certainly this season at least, he was right.

Sergio Aguero

As the season sleepwalks into its final day, there is only the tedious race for fourth place that is still to play for amongst London trio Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. The champions United won the division as far back at April 22. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side took advantage of a lacklustre competition and they marched to their 13th Premier League title in an efficient, if unspectacular, manner.

Two of the three relegated teams’ fate were sealed a week later when Queens Park Rangers played out a dour 0-0 with Reading before Wigan Athletic joined them on Tuesday following a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal.

Indeed the most exciting events to happen in the league this season were announcements and decisions that will not come into focus until next season.

Happily next season is already shaping up to be mouth-watering, with a whole of changes sweeping throughout the league, giving it a fresh feel for the summer of 2013.

To begin with, four of the top six teams this season will be starting the 2013/14 campaign with new managers at the helm.

Manchester United will be without Alex Ferguson for the first time in 26 years, with his replacement David Moyes leaving Everton, where he served for over a decade himself.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Ferguson’s absence from English football is a concept millions of fans around the country have never known and Moyes’ adaptation to the country’s biggest club will be the most fascinating plot next season.

Everton chairman Bill Kenwright admitted that he will not be hasty in appointing Moyes’ successor, with the most reliable reports linking the Blues with Wigan’s Roberto Martinez, Porto coach Vitor Pereira and Swansea City boss Michael Laudrup.

Rafael Benitez will depart Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho seemingly set for a second stint at Stamford Bridge. The return of the ‘Special One’ is enough to excite every Chelsea fan and most neutrals. Love him or loathe him, Mourinho is pure box office and his return to England is sure to stir up feuds, drama and entertainment.

Man City are looking for a new manager with Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini touted as the favourite to take over from the axed Roberto Mancini. Incidentally, the Italian was given his P45 just 366 days after he ended his side’s 44-year wait for a league title in the top division.

Pellegrini’s presence in English football would provide another interesting sub-plot to next season’s 38 act drama. The Chilean has won widespread plaudits for his work with the Andalusians this season, after guiding them to a Champions League quarter-final in their first season in the competition, despite working against a backdrop of financial meltdown at the club.

Away from the dug-out, the division will be without two players who will have played 1456 top-flight games between them by Sunday evening. Jamie Carragher will retire from Liverpool after 16 years of sterling service for the Reds, while Paul Scholes looks set to make the last of 718 appearances for United when they play West Bromwich Albion.

Between them they have won five FA Cups, three Champions Leagues, five League Cups, a UEFA Cup, a Super Cup and two World Club Championships. Scholes leaves United with 11 Premier Leagues and both players say goodbye to the game as archetypal one-club legends for their respective teams.

Wayne Rooney’s future is also subject to speculation with Ferguson admitting that the England international had asked for a transfer request a few weeks back. Rooney has been linked with moves abroad to Paris Saint-Germain amongst others, but there have also been reports suggesting that the former Everton forward could move to Chelsea.

Wayne Rooney

A move to Stamford Bridge would be another incredible development in United’s recent evolution, and perhaps it may seem incomprehensible that Rooney could turn out for the Blues next season. However, stranger things have happened in football, and Man Utd’s decision-makers have never been shy of selling a star player when they think his talent may be on the wane.

Next season will also have the fixture that pits Cardiff City against Swansea City, a game which will only add more spice to a division that already boasts the Merseyside, Manchester, north London and Tyne-Wear derbies.

Equate in all this with the fact that the transfer window is not yet even open and you get the feeling that next season could be one of the most intriguing all of time.

Juan Sebastian Veron at Manchester United: Why it didn’t work.

Juan Sebastian Veron is considered to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s one truly expensive flop purchase in the transfer market. He always makes his way on to lists of United’s and even the Premier League’s worst ever signings and so it is easy to forget that he arrived as a bona fide world-class player, much desired around Europe, who was expected to be a key man in Manchester United’s domestic dominance as well as getting them back to another Champions League final. So why didn’t he?

Veron joined a United side in 2001 which had just won the three previous Premier League titles and the 1999 Champions League as part of the famous treble. Veron cost a then British record £28m from Lazio, who had themselves completed a domestic treble in 2000. He was their key player, the driving force in their central midfield in a team managed by Sven Goran Eriksson who’s own achievements at the club won him the England job.

Juan Sebastian Veron

Veron was a technically sublime player. He scored and made goals but his primary strength was his full range of passing. At Lazio he would dictate the tempo of the team’s moves. When receiving the ball he always had his head up looking for the next pass, which kept Lazio ticking along at a pace that their opponents could rarely cope with. He wasn’t blessed with pace but he was a hard worker. He was a pure playmaker, wanting everything to come through him, and if it did then things were invariably good for Lazio. He was, in every way, the fulcrum of their team. An absolutely complete package of a central midfielder.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why Ferguson was tempted. Since winning the Champions League in 1999, Manchester United had suffered consecutive quarter-finals defeats against teams that had this kind of midfield centrepiece. In 2000 they lost to a Real Madrid side that had the obscenely talented Fernando Redondo at it’s heart. Indeed, the most dramatic piece of skill in the famous tie saw him do this to set up the winning goal. For all the talk of Ronaldo it was Redondo who Ferguson was purring about after the game. In 2001 they were put out by a Bayern Munich team that buzzed around the talent of Stefan Effenberg. Effenberg played ‘arrogantly’ with his head up, making everything happen that was good. On both occasions the side that put United out went on to win the Champions League in the very same season.

Ferguson wanted his own one of these and identified Veron as the man to fulfil the role. The strange thing is though, he already seemed to have one in the form of Paul Scholes. Scholes’ partnership with Roy Keane was in full bloom in the middle of United’s 4-4-2 with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs either side, the epitome of United’s Premier League achievement. So why did Ferguson need Veron? Well, he didn’t. He didn’t need him, but he wanted him. This was a time when pretty much all that United were playing for was the Champions League seemingly, having coasted to three titles in a row. The thing to remember with 2001 Paul Scholes is that he was, although a fabulous player, still developing his tactical understanding. He wasn’t the playmaker that he became in later years and at this point was more of the goal getting bustling all action version of himself. Veron seemed to be the ideal candidate to plug in next to the ferocious Roy Keane in Europe. He would also have given Ferguson the tactical flexibility to play all three of them at the same time and dominate possession.

Roy Keane

But Veron never became the United fulcrum. So, why? The oft forgotten thing is that in Europe he was excellent for United, particularly in the 2002/03 campaign where he was the absolute main man. As we’ve seen though, in the league with Scholes and Keane also options, Veron wasn’t the main man. He wasn’t the centre of things like he had been at Lazio and because of this, found it difficult to impose himself. Veron had never been a complimentary player in Italy and was never able to come to terms with that role at United.

It’s often said that his main problem was adapting to the pace of the Premier League and although this was true to an extent, this was made much harder for him because it wasn’t him setting the tempo. Ideally, Veron would have played at a slower tempo than the hectic one often set by Keane and Scholes, who both had a much more direct style. Perhaps this was Veron’s failing but it is important to remember that he joined with Keane not only at the peak of his on-pitch powers but his off-field influence. He was the highest paid player in the land and had been at United for nearly a decade. It was almost impossible for Veron to come in to a club like United and change the way they played with Keane’s dominant presence to overcome. As it was, Veron tried to fit in to the quicker style he was having to play and couldn’t thrive. He was second fiddle and it completely neutralised his style.

In the end Veron was never going to be successful at United. He joined the team to play the specific role as the fulcrum in Ferguson’s team that would win the Champions League. However, he couldn’t ever become that when stepping in to such an established team with as imposing a man as Roy Keane to have to overthrow for leadership of the team. Veron had spent his career being the main man but he could never be that at United and so was never in a position to recapture his Serie A form. He flopped at Chelsea for the same reason but has achieved great success in Argentina back in his role as the focus of the team.

You can read more original, research based content daily by Max at thefootballspace.com

Change of Face, Change of Pace. The shift in Strategy of Manchester United’s attack

Change of face, change of pace; the shift in strategy of Manchester United’s attack

When Manchester United sold Dimitar Berbatov last summer it was no surprise given the arrival of Robin Van Persie and the lack of playing time afforded to the former Spurs man over the previous season. It has become a bit apparent recently though that the move signalled more than just a change in terms of bringing in one gifted front man for another. One of the reasons the Bulgarian cited had been given to him by Sir Alex Ferguson was a shift in the Old Trafford side’s attacking ethos. Berbatov had been told that he did not fit in with a move toward a faster and more direct attacking style.

In the derby on Monday night, United’s new methods were particularly apparent and interestingly a slight weakness in the plan was also on display. Many of the Reds’ wide players in particular regularly seem to overrun the ball when sprinting and on several occasions when the home side were surging at the City backline a heavy touch saw the move break down. Rafael was the main offender on Monday, but an out of sorts Antonio Valencia has been doing this for months. Danny Welbeck displays a good first touch at times but at top speed often resembles a cart horse attempting to dribble a beach ball. Ashley Young is not immune, nor is Nani or reserve left back Alexander Buttner.

Dimitar Berbatov

This may seem harsh given how potent United have looked in attack this season with the addition of Van Persie to an already well-stocked squad of strikers and wingers, but it is something that needs to been fine-tuned before Sir Alex Ferguson’s new design is the finished article. Perhaps Wilfried Zaha’s dribbling ability will improve the situation next term.

United sides of old held an ability to patiently probe for an opening. Slow build-up followed by a devastatingly quick interchange would often see defences unlocked after 30 or more passes had gradually pulled them out of position. Perhaps the demise of Paul Scholes has something to do with the death of this style in Ferguson’s plans. Neither Scholes nor Berbatov would have ever made the local sprint relay team, but their styles complimented an ability to attack while controlling possession for long periods.

The Premier League is faster and quicker than ever and even the top European ties are not the games of chess they were 10 years ago. Intensity, if it isn’t king, was certainly eyeing the throne amid the ferocious pace of Monday’s derby. Ferguson is a master of transition and building new sides, but it would be a shame if his current charges could not revert to a more patient approach if need be. In Michael Carrick they have a player who can take on the Scholes mantle in terms of dictating tempo at least. Wayne Rooney and Van Persie seem currently focused on attempting to spin their man or lay the ball off once before making a run in behind.

Perhaps on Monday this was due to specific instructions from the boss but both front men have the quality to get involved in build-up while waiting for the right time to strike. Regardless of how direct United’s game plan is, expect them to continue to challenge, as their ability to adapt has always been one of their greatest strengths.

Have Manchester United found their next Paul Scholes?

Much has been made of the lack of creativity in the centre of midfield for Manchester United since the ageing and initial retirement of Paul Scholes. An attempt to sign Wesley Sneijder was thought to have been made last summer, while countless deep-lying playmakers have been linked with a switch to Old Trafford since. However, could Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Gotze be the answer

The Germany international playmaker has been on the radar of top European clubs for a number of seasons now, but it appears that the wonderkid will be a major target for many this summer. Despite being tied down to a long-term contract to the Bundesliga champions currently, Gotze has recently admitted that a switch to a top European club, such as United, would be hard to resist.

“Clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United are attractive, other top leagues would dominate you and you could develop.”

United are by no means desperate for a central midfield maestro, given the passing ability of Michael Carrick and the clever footwork and industry of Tom Cleverley. That said, with Anderson ineffectual and seemingly on his way out of the club and continued doubts over Darren Fletcher’s fitness, Sir Alex Ferguson would be well advised to invest in someone to give the side a shot in the arm from the centre of the park.

Mario Gotze

Someone like Gotze would obviously provide that spark. At 20 years old the Memmingen-born player has the world at his feet, and is set to be an immense talent over the next decade, or longer. With 20 international caps in a top Germany team already under his belt it would be no surprise to see him make 100 appearances for his homeland before he finally hangs up his boots.

The fee to persuade Dortmund to sell would be considerable, plus the player has made no great shakes about leaving Signal Iduna Park. However, as good a side as Dortmund are, it is only natural that Gotze will want to play for one of Europe’s top historical sides if he progresses at his current rate, and the opportunity to move to Old Trafford would certainly appeal to him.

Manchester United don’t need a new playmaker – this is Tom Cleverley’s year

Manchester United have been active in the transfer market this summer, but despite bolstering the squad with a number of top attacking players, a new central midfield playmaker has not been purchased. With Paul Scholes ageing and surely in his last year in the game, a new creative talent in the engine room has reportedly been on Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishlist for quite some time. However, with Tom Cleverley fit and playing well, United may well have Scholes’ replacement in their ranks already.

After impressing on loan at Wigan in 2010-11, Cleverley returned to Old Trafford the following summer, and came out of the blocks at the start of last term, surprisingly starting the vast majority of games for the Red Devils early on. International recognition was set to follow after a good first month of the campaign for the box-to-box man, but injuries meant that the remainder of 2011-12 was a cause of frustration for the Basingstoke-born man.

However, it now appears that Cleverley has shaken off the niggles that blighted his chances last term, and is set to play a key role for United this term. The 23-year-old has started all three of United’s Premier League fixtures this season, and looks to have cemented his place in the team straight away with industrious performances.

Scholes came off the bench against Southampton to inspire the side to victory, but it feels that now is the time that Cleverley is ready to step into the club legend’s sizeable shoes. If he can stay injury-free and maintain the promise that he has shown to date this season, Cleverley may prove himself as an important fixture for both club and country in 2012-13.

Manchester United and Tottenham take note: Joao Moutinho is the man to transform your midfields

As with any international tournament, a raft of players impressed at Euro 2012 and are now subject to transfer attention. One such man is Portugal’s Joao Moutinho, who starred in the Iberian nation’s progression to the semi-finals in Ukraine and Poland. Both Manchester United and Tottenham have been credited with an interest, with a wrangle for the playmaker’s signature looking likely this summer.

Why United need Moutinho

Sir Alex Ferguson has been in the market for a new innovative midfield general for a number of years now as a potential long-term replacement for the evergreen Paul Scholes. Despite the veteran agreeing to play for another year, surely now must be the time to sign his successor whilst Scholes is still present.

With Luka Modric too expensive, Lucas Moura too raw and interest in Wesley Sneijder cooled off, Moutinho looks like an excellent option. The Porto man will have been on most big European clubs’ radars for some time, but his quality was certainly evident and reconfirmed this summer. The ex-Sporting Lisbon man showed a tenacity and work-rate for his country that will have appealed to Red Devils fans, whilst also more often than not being the creator for Cristiano Ronaldo’s chances and goals.

At 25-years-old Moutinho is ready for the step up, and a gradual introduction to the United first-team with Scholes in attendance to guide him seems sensible.

Why Tottenham need Moutinho

It will certainly be a busy summer for Tottenham, with new faces and player sales expected. The exit of Harry Redknapp has led to Andre Villas Boas’ appointment, and Icelandic attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson has been added to the squad already also.

However, this summer may finally be the time that Spurs fans have to say goodbye to main man Luka Modric. With the north London outfit missing out on Champions League football for a second consecutive season the Croatian star looks likely to leave, with Real Madrid ready to pounce.

Modric’s exit would leave a sizeable creative hole in the centre of the park, with Moutinho the perfect player to fill it. The Portuguese midfielder’s qualities and stature are similar to that of the man he would be replacing, even if Modric does have a slight creative edge. However, if Villas Boas can convince his former Porto charge to swap the Estadio do Dragao for White Hart Lane, the blow of Modric’s departure would certainly be lessened.

At a more affordable price than equivalent players on the market, Sir Alex taking an interest and the Villas Boas link, the battle for Moutinho’s signature this summer could be an interesting one.

Manchester City, Newcastle and the biggest Premier League winners of 2011-12

A fantastic last day of the season capped off one of the most memorable Premier League seasons in the recent memory. 2011/12 has had it all; a topsy-turvy title race that literally went down to the wire, a bitter battle for the top four, heroics in the Champions League and a breathtaking relegation battle. Now that the dust has settled, here are Ninety Minutes Online’s top five winners of 2011/12.

Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City mindgames

An incredible title race has been consisted of champions and perennial favourites Manchester United being confronted by cross-town rivals Manchester City, with the noisy neighbours claiming victory on a captivating last day. The Etihad Stadium outfit looks almost unstoppable at the start of the season, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men struggling to keep up at times, before the Red Devils recaptured the advantage and found themselves eight points clear at the summit. After a derby victory for City, the battle went down to the last day, with two goals in stoppage time by Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero against QPR unbelievably giving the Citizens their first top-flight title since 1968.

Ferguson is usually the king of managerial mindgames, but on this occasion the imperious Italian has seemingly got into the United players’ thoughts, and City provide worthy winners of the 2011/12 Premier League.

Alan Pardew and his Newcastle team

Despite missing out on the top four with a last-day defeat by Everton, Newcastle have been exceptional under Alan Pardew this season, and have defied the odds to be in the race for Champions League qualification. The likes of Cheik Tiote, Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye have proved to be astute signings, whilst the January acquisition of Papiss Cisse has resulted in a new number nine hero for the Tyneside club.

Pardew and his side must be given credit for finishing above the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool this season and providing some exceptional football at times.

Newly-promoted sides

Norwich, Swansea and QPR faced an uphill battle to stay in the Premier League this season, and many prophesised a speedy return to the Championship for the trio. However, all three sides have proved that they are good enough to cut it in the top-tier, and will look to push on next term. Swansea have been one of the teams of the season, and an 11th place finish, with a stylish brand of football to boot, is an exceptional achievement. Norwich, led by talisman Grant Holt, were not far behind in 12th and also claimed some scalps this term.

Meanwhile, although QPR escaped the drop on the last day, the Loftus Road club have beaten Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool to show their worth. All three will provide motivation to Southampton, Reading and either West Ham or Blackpool for next season.

Roy Hodgson

With Fabio Capello’s decision to walk away from the England manager’s post, a media frenzy has brewed over who the man to lead the Three Lions to Euro 2012 would be. With Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp the frontrunner and favourite, the press had us believing that it would be a matter of when and not if the White Hart Lane supremo took charge.

However, Roy Hodgson’s excellent achievement of lifting West Brom to 10th in the table has been recognised, and the Hawthorns man will now lead England to Ukraine and Poland.

Football

Football has been a massive winner this term, as the 2011/12 Premier League season has been the most competitive, spell-bounding and enthralling campaign for many a year. Whether it was the race for the title, five teams slugging it out to stay in the division, the heroics of the new boys or the quality of the sides in the top six, 2011/12 will take some beating next season.

Honourable Mentions

  • Roberto Di Matteo – The Italian has completely rejuvenated Chelsea since taking over from Andre Villas Boas, and after winning the FA Cup is 90 minutes away from lifting the Champions League crown.
  • Paul Scholes – The ageing veteran came out of retirement to show that he still has what it takes to compete at the top level despite his age. Rumours are circulating that Roy Hodgson will take Scholes to Euro 2012.
  • Arsene Wenger – Many had lost faith in the French manager at the start of the campaign when the Gunners lost four of their first seven games, but Wenger has led the club to a third-placed finish despite the criticism.
  • The FA Cup – With the emergence of the Champions League, over recent seasons the FA Cup has had to take a back seat, but some enthralling games between the nation’s best teams have been a joy to watch this season.
  • David Moyes – The Scottish coach continues to overachieve despite a shoestring transfer budget at Goodison Park, and leading the Toffees to seventh place is an excellent return.

Published – Soccerlens

In For Eden? Hazard potentially the man to reinvigorate Manchester United’s midfield

Belgian star on United radar as Ferguson’s midfield comes under further scrutiny in wake of derby defeat

Monday night saw Manchester United lose the Premiership title initiative to big-spending noisy neighbours City and consequently opened fresh debate on the need for investment at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.

The Old Trafford supremo stuck to his guns last summer, opting not to sign a midfielder as he waited for the right player to become available. Fergie entrusted his current charges and the decision seemed to be vindicated as United clawed their way to the league summit with the evergreen Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick on good form in the early part of 2012. Due to Darren Fletcher’s continued absence, Paul Scholes even made a shock return from retirement and has boosted the champions with a series of assured performances.

The narrow derby loss however, saw the trio along with Park Ji-Sung, overrun by the power in the engine room of rivals City, with Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry particularly impressive. Even though the title race is far from over, the manner of the defeat has left Sir Alex under fresh pressure to bolster the champions’ options in the middle of the park.

Across the channel meanwhile Lille star Eden Hazard continues to impress. The Belgian, regarded as one of the hottest properties in Europe, now has 17 goals and 19 assists in Ligue 1 this term.

The Red Devils manager went to watch the 21-year-old when Lille met Lyon back in March and clearly was impressed.

“He is a very good player who has many qualities.” – Sir Alex Ferguson after travelling to France to watch Eden Hazard.

Despite his impressive statistics this season, the fact that Hazard is playing in the French league rather than the Premiership or La Liga could indicate a need to prove himself at a higher level. Ferguson is sure to have noticed though, that unlike his United side in recent weeks, the Belgian playmaker is displaying consistency. He was instrumental in keeping the Lille title challenge alive, netting a penalty away to rivals Paris Saint-Germain and also playing a key role in the winning goal with a superb rabona style cross. Hazard also notched another assist as Rudy Garcia’s men won 1-0 at Nice in their most recent fixture.

Ferguson will surely have alternative options in mind and only he knows for sure who his top targets will be, as United continue to be linked with creative players around Europe. One certainty though, is that if the Scot does identify Hazard as his priority he will pursue the transfer with shrewd efficiency. He has an impressive record of getting his man and can be expected to act early in the window, as he did last year.

There will of course be competition for the Belgian’s signature, should Lille be willing to let him go. Due to Arsene Wenger’s preference for young slick players from Ligue 1, Hazard has continually been linked with a switch to the Emirates. Harry Redknapp is known to be another fan of the player. Competition could also come from within France in the form of big-spending PSG, Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, and possibly Manchester City and Chelsea too.

Hazard is rumoured to have indicated a desire to move to the Premier League and after being watched by Ferguson in March is quoted as being ‘flattered by the compliment coming from the top manager in world football.’ If United opt to move for the Lille man, Sir Alex will need the full financial backing of United’s American owners – it is believed the French club have a minimum release fee clause in the 21-year-old’s contract of €40 million.

By Francis Johnston

Manchester City take the Premier League initiative, but did Sir Alex Ferguson get United’s tactics wrong?

In a tight and nervy encounter on Monday night, Manchester City took the initiative in the Premier League title race with a 1-0 win over rivals and current champions Manchester United. The noisy neighbours are now equal on points with the Red Devils, but are top due to their superior goal difference and have destiny in their own hands. United have slipped up in recent weeks, and failed to really test Joe Hart in the derby clash; did Sir Alex Ferguson get his tactics wrong?

Against a City side containing the attacking talent of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Samir Nasri, United opted to pack the midfield in a 4-5-1 formation. Although admittedly this limited the hosts to sparing opportunities on goal, it also shackled United’s attacking ambitions and meant that the champions have given City the advantage without really testing their title rivals in the clash.

Wayne Rooney started by himself in attack and largely cut a forlorn figure, as limited support saw the visitors’ main attacking weapon isolated, frustrated and ineffective. Nani played on the right flank and was the closest player to the England international, but the pair failed to effectively counter-attack, and the Portuguese winger failed to majorly contribute or create chances for the lone striker. One feels that Sir Alex had adopted the blueprint of previous seasons in away Champions League fixtures, where Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were left to try and hit teams on the break; unfortunately Nani does not have the ability or clinical touch in the final third of his countryman, and United’s attack proved toothless at the Etihad Stadium.

In midfield, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park fought to limit City’s creative players, and in fairness the hosts’ usual free-flowing play was not evident as a result. However, in possession the quartet failed to keep the ball for any lengthy periods of the game, and the South Korean in particular was guilty of giving the ball away on a too frequent basis.

Most of City’s joy in attack came down their right flank, as Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta found space against Patrice Evra, with the midfield quartet failing to get out to help their colleague. The selection of either Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia instead of Park would have levelled out the midfield, providing more cover out wide and still allowing United to play three in the centre of the park. Valencia has been one of United’s standout performers this term, whilst one of Young’s strengths is to come off his wing and pop up in central positions, in support of Rooney; although both came off the bench, neither was given sufficient opportunity to influence the game.

Ferguson’s frustrations were evident as he clashed with counterpart Roberto Mancini on the touchline, but the Scot’s annoyance was probably down to the ineffective nature of his team rather than the antics of the Italian. United fans will be hurting after City completed the season double over them, but to be beaten without providing an attacking threat or putting their opponents under any concerted pressure will make the blow doubly hard to take. With Young, Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez all on the United bench, such a defensive team selection suggests that Sir Alex played for a draw, or, unlike any United team of recent years, was wary of going toe-to-toe with an attacking opponent.

City have by no means won the title yet, as a trip to Tyneside to face Champions League qualification candidates Newcastle will test Mancini’s men. However, United’s relinquishing of a seven-point lead at the top of the table at the business end of the season will have the powers that be at Old Trafford scratching their heads, and suggests that the Red Devils’ usual collective superiority over the division is no longer apparent.

Published – Soccerlens

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