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Real Madrid vs Manchester United: The game where anything can happen

According to Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, this is ‘the match the world is waiting for’.  When you consider the talent on display, the numerous subplots and their history, it is hard to disagree. In short, when Manchester United face Real Madrid, anything can happen.

Just look at the sides’ eight previous meetings in Europe’s premier competition; 31 goals have been scored between them, 11 of which came in the epic quarter-final of 2003. Many are predicting a similar total this time round, but the tie could just as easily be a tense affair where goals are at a premium.

Much depends on how United cope with their former player Cristiano Ronaldo.  If they manage to shackle him, they will nullify Madrid’s most potent threat. But if they don’t, they may be torn apart by the Spanish side’s incisive counter-attack. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope his instructions are carried out to perfection, whilst being blessed with a little luck on the side.

Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho

Phil Jones has found fitness and form at precisely the right time and he, along with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, will bring the regimented energy the Red Devils need to keep the likes of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo at bay.

In defence, Rafael will hope his man-of-the-match performance against Everton can be replicated in a competition where his rashness has proved most costly. While the rarely-spotted partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will have to be at their very best.

At the other end, the likely attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa will have chances they must take. It is games like this that Kagawa was bought for, and that van Persie has the ability to win with one movement.

Aside from Ronaldo, Madrid’s strike-force is out of form of late, but both Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema possess such natural ability that they can punish the smallest misjudgement. Meanwhile, even Kaka was hailed by Spanish newspaper Marca as being back to his best after a rare start in Saturday’s 4-1 win against Sevilla.

First legs of knockout competitions are too-often cagey affairs.  And don’t bet against the pressure on Madrid to perform – from a home crowd desperate for success in a season that is fast becoming a write-off – to have a bearing on the game. Already 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and with a fight to stay in the Copa del Rey, the Champions League may be Mourinho’s only chance of a trophy this season; a trophy that would go down in history as the fabled Décima – their tenth European title.

Too often, pre-game hype is unjustified; but not this time. It may be the second leg that ultimately proves to be the one the world is waiting for, because it is then that a winner will be decided.  But this week’s match will be both clubs’ biggest challenge so far this season – for United to raise their game in a year when they have hardly needed to, and for Madrid to prevent theirs from ending three months too soon.

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England overlooked XI: How well would this bunch do at Euro 2012?

England put in a gutsy and relatively composed performance against France in their Euro 2012 opening fixture, with Roy Hodgson’s men recording a 1-1 draw against Les Bleus in their first game in Group D. Despite this, some of the new manager’s squad selections have been queried; here is an alternate England XI that was overlooked.

GK – Ben Foster – Opted to retire from international football due to past disappointments, the Birmingham man proved a consistent performer for West Brom last term.
LB – Kieran Gibbs – Potential in spades, Gibbs is one of Arsene Wenger’s youth projects and could well play a role in the national set-up after Ashley Cole’s days are done.

RB – Micah Richards – Despite being an important player at the Etihad Stadium, Richards seems to have done something to annoy the powers that be at the FA.

CB – Rio Ferdinand – Omitted for ‘football reasons’, Ferdinand apparently was too good to call up after Gary Cahill’s injury. Hmmm

CB – Ledley King – In this fantasy team lets pretend King is fully fit and functioning. Rolls Royce of a football player.

LW – Adam Johnson – A victim of Roberto Mancini’s star-studded squad, the former Middlesbrough winger has the ability to deliver if he is in the mood.

RW – Aaron Lennon – One of the surprise omissions, Lennon’s blistering pace and penetration is vital at White Hart Lane, and could have been for the Three Lions too.

CM – Paul Scholes – Mercurial, masterful, magic but getting old, Paul Scholes is one of the best players to play in the Premier League over the last 10 years. Fact.

CM – Michael Carrick – Has been overlooked once more even though he starts most weeks for Manchester United. In England’s little black book alongside Richards.

ST – Grant Holt – The Norwich targetman proved a right handful for Premier League defences in 2011-12, and he netted 15 goals. The Italians or Spanish in the knockout stages wouldn’t have enjoyed encountering him for the first time.

ST – Daniel Sturridge – Was an important player for Chelsea under AVB, but lost his way in the second half of 2011-12; still a talented player and one for the future for England.

Ferdinand’s leadership, Richards’ physicality, Scholes’ guile, Lennon’s pace, Carrick’s passing range and Holt’s bullying tactics; I think this team would have done ok……

After European disappointment, United need to bounce back against West Brom

Sir Alex Ferguson remained upbeat after Manchester United were beaten 3-2 at home by Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night, but the side need to return to form and victory when they face West Brom on Sunday. With Manchester City two points ahead of the Red Devils, a win against the Baggies at Old Trafford is a necessity.

United were second best against Bilbao in the Europa League, with Ferguson admitting that the showing, especially at the back, was not good enough. The club’s European campaign hangs in the balance, and a top performance at San Mames next week will be necessary to salvage the tie against the Spaniards.

However, more importantly, the Premier League campaign is entering a pivotal stage and after wins over Norwich and Tottenham, United need to keep their domestic ball rolling. With eleven games left in the league, the race to be champions is set to go down to the wire. City currently hold the advantage, but this weekend may well shift the balance of power.

City may well have won their last four games in the league, but they face a tough test this weekend. After an unexpected 1-0 defeat at the hands of Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and travel across to Portugal, Roberto Mancini’s men have to face a Swansea side that have exceeded expectations this term. The Welsh team have been especially dangerous at the Liberty Stadium this season, having beat Arsenal and drawn with Chelsea and Tottenham at home; City could drop points in this fixture if they are not at their best.

Regardless of City’s result, United need to get maximum points to keep pressure on their arch enemies. However, with less than convincing performances of late, victory is not assured against a rejuvenated West Brom team. Roy Hodgson has turned the Hawthorns club’s fortunes around over the last month, to the point that he is now being considered in the media as a potential candidate for the vacant England manager post.

West Brom have won their last three games in the league, scoring ten goals in the process. A 1-0 win over Chelsea in their last outing saw the end of Andre Villas Boas, and dealt a blow to the Blues’ season. In particular, Peter Odemwingie has recovered form and fitness and will pose a threat to a under pressure United backline; the Nigeria international has scored five goals in the three-match run and is being linked with a move to Arsenal in the summer.

All things considered, United should pick up three points against the Baggies on Sunday if they play to anywhere near their best. Rio Ferdinand will more than likely be reinstated to the back four, and the veteran needs to step up and command his fellow defenders. If Sir Alex’s men can solve their issues at the back, they may well be top of the league at the end of the weekend.

Does the crop of young centre-backs at Manchester United spell the end for Rio Ferdinand?

Since joining Manchester United from Leeds back in July 2002 for £30 million, Rio Ferdinand has been a mainstay in Sir Alex Ferguson’s backline, a captain, leader and talisman. The centre half has lifted five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown, and has been one of the best defenders in the Premier League throughout his time at Old Trafford. Despite this, at 32-years old, with continued injury concerns and competition from younger squad members, is it the beginning of the end for Rio?

With Nemanja Vidic an ever-present when available, a number of players will contest the remaining spot at the heart of the Premier League champions rearguard in 2011-12, with the Peckham born man no longer a guaranteed no brainer in selection. With the England international suffering from back and calf injuries in 2010-11, the former West Ham youth player may well be starting to feel his age, which will not be helped by the youthful exuberance waiting in the wings.

Whilst Rio was inconsistent last term and struggled to get a real run in the side, Chris Smalling stepped up the plate and showed just what he is made of. A few eyes were raised when the youngster was signed this time last year for a reported fee of £12 million after only 13 first team appearances for Fulham, but the England under-21 international deputised excellently for Ferdinand when called upon. Tall, physical and cool under pressure, Smalling has a lot of the assets that shot his more senior team-mate to fame ten years prior.

Smalling’s international age-grade defensive partner Phil Jones has joined the club in the summer from Blackburn, and again, despite a lack of substantial top flight experience has shown glimpses of real assurance and all the raw abilities to be a top player. Under the tutelage of the coaching staff at Carrington, the 19-year-old will be given time to mature and develop, but will be chomping at the bit to get first team action as early as possible.

Add to this an almost forgotten man at the club, Jonny Evans, who despite a frustrating 2010-11 through injury, on his day is a top drawer defender. The Northern Ireland international has seemingly been around for a lengthy period of time, but at 23-years old has the guts of his career ahead of him. An able deputy, given an extended chance in the starting XI the Belfast born stopper has the ability to overtake his more senior colleague in Sir Alex’s preferences.

United’s manager has recently stated that the club have the best young centre backs in the country. It may well be a case that the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans have a large part to play in the defence of the Premier League title, whilst Rio Ferdinand, as noble a patron of the side as he has been, may find opportunities not as forthcoming as in previous seasons.

Published – http://www.footbo.com/Blogs/89726-crop_young_centre_backs_United_spell_end_Rio

Is the cost of English players forcing Premier League clubs to look abroad?

With the much publicised transfers of Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson being completed by Manchester United and Liverpool respectively in the last week for a combined total of £36.5 million, most Premier League managers will be looking to the continent and beyond for their summer signings. Both England under 21 players have quality and potential in abundance, with that there is no argument, but such extortionate transfer fees will leave the majority of top flight sides financially out of the equation when looking to sign British players, and bring more foreigners to English shores.

The grievance is not with Sunderland or Blackburn, as neither wanted to lose their prodigious talents, both of which have been cultivated and nurtured through the clubs’ youth ranks. It was obvious that both players wanted to go, so why not get as high a fee as possible? The staggering thing is the amount of money it takes, and the big clubs are willing to pay, to buy young English talent. With FIFA eager to bring quotas into the game surrounding the number of home-grown players, and the Premier League being acknowledged as having a style and pace of play that takes time to adjust to, young British players will continue to cost an arm and a leg.

This piece is not a slight against either of the players personally; as a Spurs fan I would have liked to see them at White Hart Lane, especially Jones. But for £16.5 million? The 19 year old has only made 35 appearances in senior football. Henderson’s £20 million buys you a midfielder who has found the net a mere four times in over 70 games. My argument is not that he should score more goals, it is that for £20 million you would expect a player with a more rounded game.

In Europe there are much cheaper alternatives. Newcastle United have just signed Yohan Cabaye from Lille for a fee believed to be around £5million, a player not dissimilar to Henderson. The 25 year old French midfielder is fresh from helping Lille to a league and cup double, playing the majority of the side’s games. He has featured in almost 200 first class matches, and has represented his country on four occasions; the key point however is that he cost a quarter of what Liverpool just splurged on Henderson.

Personally I believe Jones to be the better prospect of the two, but again the transfer fee seems excessive. £16.5million? If Gary Cahill is to leave Bolton in the next months the fee will be similar, whilst Arsenal target and Jones’ centre-half partner at Ewood Park Christopher Samba is reportedly available for £12 million. Lets put this in perspective, as it is not a new pricing trend. Sir Alex Ferguson paid £7 million for the best defender in the league in the form of Nemanja Vidic, but £30 million for Rio Ferdinand. Manchester rivals City signed bench-warmer Joleon Lescott for £22million but paid only £6 million for the first name on their teamsheet, Vincent Kompany. The cost of going home-grown is there for all to see.

I wish both Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson the very best of luck at their new clubs. I believe that both will excel in their new environments, and have the necessary ability to make the step up.  However the fees paid for their services are detrimental to the English game, and it will be to the cost of the national side and Fabio Capello, who will not have as many players to select for international duty due to the continued influx of cheaper foreign alternatives joining Premier League clubs this summer.

Published – http://afootballreport.com/post/6580583976/is-the-cost-of-english-players-forcing-premier-league

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