Rooney will break records but can he follow Giggs?

Originally published for Can They Score? on February 19 2013.

Wayne Rooney is closing-in on goal scoring records for Manchester United and England and, at 27 years of age, needs just another 56 goals to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton to top the Old Trafford all-time striking charts. Judging by his scoring rate over the past few seasons, it’s a target he should be able to hit, but what does the future hold for Rooney beyond these milestones?

As his first touch becomes evermore precarious and unreliable when off-form, we’re told he’s not a young man anymore, and received wisdom tells us that football is a young man’s game.

It’s as though on the stroke of a player’s 30th birthday, everything changes, like a werewolf caught out under a full moon. Decline snaps into action, talk of  retirement soon follows and suddenly, all reports and chatter are coloured by the filter of thirty-something footballer. A biological killswitch has been pulled, ushering in nature’s inescapable laws of decay, forced on by the intensity and pace of the modern game. Continue reading

Real Madrid preview: Ronaldo isn’t the only threat for United

Originally published online for Can They Score? on February 13 2013.

In the build-up to their first leg encounter with Madrid, much has been made of Phil Jones as United’s key tactical agent in the battle to muzzle Cristiano Ronaldo. Secondary concerns have also been raised around Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil, with suggested solutions ranging from a dropping Wayne Rooney  in deep to unsettle the Spaniard and unleashing Danny Welbeck or Ashely Young on the left to harry the German playmaker.

Negating Alonso’s influence is key – cutting off Real’s supply line will isolate and wither their starving forwards who can often rely on the midfielder’s quick, sharp distribution from deep – but with his fitness in doubt, it’s possible that Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley may instead find themselves facing Luka Modric, Madrid’s almost forgotten man.

With Sami Khedira paired alongside him in a midfield pivot, Modric’s will be a different proposition to the slow-moving, long-pass artillery piece that usually feeds the attack. An effective dribbler and lithe space creator, the Croatian has the ability to beat a man or two in order to unshackle himself of his markers – cutting out opposition players and giving himself room to pick a more penetrative passing option. Continue reading

Mourinho Not the Man to Replace Fergie

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 13 2013.

The Bernabeu exit looms large over Jose Mourinho. Wherever the Portuguese ends up in the summer, the inevitable intrigue surrounding the Special One’s relocation will guarantee that his flirting courtship with Europe’s richest clubs will be the transfer story of the off-season.

With Mancini’s place at City looking precarious, Roman running out of other top-end options at Chelsea, and both Paris and Anzhi rich enough to potentially woo Mou’s services, Jose won’t be lacking in options. For United fans hoping to see Mourinho take up the challenge of succeeding Sir Alex, these are worrying times.

At 71 years of age, the moment will come (sooner than many of us would like to admit to ourselves) for Fergie to retire, but as rivals circle above, Mou may not be prepared to wait. Can United afford to miss up on one of the world’s most prolific and effective coaches, especially if he ends up at Eastlands? Continue reading

With wingers like these, who needs midfielders?

Originally published online for Can They Score? on February 11 2013.

As the final whistle blew at St Mary’s on Saturday evening, two-hundred odd miles North West it’s likely that the sound of ripping paper could be heard tearing through the front room of the Ferguson household.

With City beaten 3-1 by Southampton, all bets were off (in some cases quite literally) and any ideas of squad rotation were quickly abandoned; the advantage would be pressed home with a full-strength side to secure 12-point lead at the top.

Based on present form, the core of United’s strongest starting eleven picks itself at present: De Gea in goal; Evra and Rafael out wide; Evans guards the centre alongside one of Vidic and Rio; Carrick and Cleverley take the middle; and Rooney and van Persie line up at the front.

It’s out on the wings where selection decisions are less obvious, and yesterday it was Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs who got the nod – the latter of whom defied his ageist critics by scoring the team’s opener, continuing his streak of netting a league goal in all 23 seasons of his United career so far. Continue reading

Madrid tie ideal honour for Busby’s Babes

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 8 2013.

It was 55 years ago on Wednesday that the passenger plane carrying Manchester United’s Busby Babes back from their Belgrade crashed after failing to take off from a treacherous, slushy runway at Munich-Rien airport.

The Munich air disaster would eventually claim the lives of 23 people, including eight of the fabled Busby Babes and eleven of the team’s travelling party made up of Manchester United club staff and football journalists. It remains one of the bleakest periods in United’s history, and a terrible tragedy that stretched well beyond the confines of football.

Next week Manchester United will play Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie; a fixture that could just as easily have been an intentional tribute to those who never returned to Manchester in 1958, coming as it does so soon after the anniversary of Munich and the shared European heritage of the two clubs.

Long before the idea of winning anything with kids was dismissed by an unfortunate sound-bite, United were placing their faith in an extraordinary crop of home-grown youngsters: The Busby Babes. Continue reading

Chicharito: the way of the drunken poacher master

Often cast as a narrow and limited footballer, Javier Hernandez’s uncanny ability to score goals is reminiscent of the improbably effective Pippo Inzaghi; a poacher somewhat fondly remembered for being able to do little else but find the back of the net.

With Manchester United’s troubled defence leaking early goals this year, the Mexican has reasserted himself as the team’s modern day super sub, delivering the goods on demand when called upon. A few more pots and titles for Chicharito at Old Trafford and he could one day challenge Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as the club’s most legendary last minute hero.

Compared to his fellow strikers however, Hernandez does look technically deficient. His link up play is relatively poor in comparison to Rooney, Van Persie and Welbeck, who are all about to create, pass and contribute to the approach play with clever touches and feints. Last year the gleeful striker appeared to have become all too self-aware of his short comings, especially as he vied for game time with the technically immaculate Dimitar Berbatov. As he lost the grinning enthusiasm of his breakthrough first year, Chich struggled through a difficult second season with his knack for scoring goals blunted by dwindling appearances and over-thinking the basics of his game. Continue reading

LFC: Brendan Rodgers vs Kenny Dalglish – who is the true King of the Kop?

Brendan Rodgers: can he do what the King could not?

It’s fair to say that Brendan Rodgers hasn’t enjoyed the best of starts as Liverpool’s new manager.

First there was the unpopular abdication of King Kenny (pushed to jump before he was thrown?), followed by an opening day defeat to West Brom – a club that many Kopites will, in the short-term at least, associate with Roy “forever walks alone” Hodgson, and whose novice manager and ex Reds defence coach, Steve Clarke, was mocked and dismissed by some online fans pre-match. The quizzical loaning of Andy Carroll to West Ham with no replacement and the at-times embarrassing and literal TV soap opera that is Fox Sports and Channel 5’s Being Liverpool has hardly helped.

It hasn’t quite been all doom and gloom however, with Rodgers’ approach often producing good displays and performances if not points. Many fans can quite rightly point to growing pains with the new system as one of the major causes of their stuttering start this year rather than a major dearth in quality. Continue reading