Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Time for Dimitar Berbatov to seize the moment for Manchester United

From the hyperactive Wayne Rooney they turn to the languid Dimitar Berbatov to see off Chelsea and Bayern Munich inside five days. The good news is that Berbatov has already scored three times against Germany's grandest club. Less encouraging is that Rooney's replacement as Manchester United's chief striker posted all three while at Bayer Leverkusen from 2001 to 2006.

A £30.75m centre-forward comes off the bench to hunt the two wins United need to disprove the accusation that they are a one-man band.

Berbatov is an international who has played in two Champions League finals and scored 32 times in European competition. Hardly the bare bones of United's squad. Yet the success of his elevation will depend on his response to the urgency of this five-day test and the team's ability to survive the psychological jolt of seeing their best player on crutches.

The expectation back in August was that Sir Alex Ferguson would deploy Rooney and Berbatov together but the United manager has favoured a five-man midfield with Rooney in a luxury Alan Shearer role. Tactical considerations aside, the implication is that Ferguson's faith in Berbatov has dimmed to the point where Bulgaria's six-times footballer of the year exists to give Rooney a rest or supply an extra weapon when United are in desperate need of a goal.

Like Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was lethal around the penalty area and so could justify his comparatively low work-rate, Berbatov is the antithesis of the super-busy United striker who seeslosing the ball as a dishonourable act which he has a moral duty to correct. Berbatov must know that most Old Trafford diehards are intolerant of his dreamy style.

In a long and compelling answer to a question about Van Nistelrooy's successor Sir Bobby Charlton, the embodiment of United's energetic forward play, said in the Observer last year: "I watched him at Tottenham [his previous Premier League club] and I thought he was in charge of his own destiny, that he made the right decisions. But playing for Man United is a bit more demanding. You're expected not just to do all the great things you're good at but also your share of the dirty work – which is chasing back to regain possession, helping your defenders if you're close enough to help.

"First of all I was very critical of him, to myself, thinking: 'Look at that. As soon as he loses the ball he stops running and starts walking, as if to say – somebody else will do it'. And I thought: 'He must be a good player if he can afford to do that.'"

Charlton said he had come to understand Berbatov's "really great skill, his awareness and his physical strength at holding people off. Not only that, when he passes he always makes it easy for you. He always gives it perfectly. Everything is so, so precise. Add to that, he's got his control and when he gets round the goal he wants to score.

"He's frustrating sometimes. Instinctively I think that, if I've lost the ball, I want to chase after it. I want to make up for the mistake I've made. Maybe like George Best you've got to accept him for what he is. Cantona had that arrogance. But he did his fair share of the work. I'd never complain about Cantona in that respect. He was sensational and he had an influence. Given that bit of time and space that Berbatov seems to be finding now, he'll get better and better."

Since Charlton offered that analysis, mid-way through the striker's first season in Manchester, stagnation has become the theme. Twelve goals from 27 league appearances this term is not a glittering statistic. Rooney had scored 18 times in 13 outings before a typically conscientious urge to stop an attacking run inside his own half led to his ankle injury. Berbatov has yet to score in this season's Champions League but did seize two in the weekend's 4-0 win at Bolton.

Of the alternatives Michael Owen is out with hamstring damage, Mame Biram Diouf has appeared only five times for United and Federico Macheda is an 18-year-old on the road back from injury (Danny Welbeck is out injured).

"I'd have enjoyed playing with him but I'd have been arguing with him. A lot," Charlton said. "If you've got people running backward and forward and you're responsible, it's not right. But he's learned. You're not allowed many mistakes and you can't be casual. You can't be casual."

As a child Berbatov modelled himself first on Marco van Basten, then on Shearer. From the outset on Saturday and again on Wednesday night the United cognoscenti will look for evidence that his self-esteem has not been damaged by his slide in the hierarchy and hope he learned from Shearer the meaning of 'carpe diem'.

Source: Guardian

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Maradona: Lionel Messi 'maturing in giant strides'

The Argentina coach, Diego Maradona, has hailed Lionel Messi's recent performances after his return from a fact-finding tour around Europe, saying Barcelona's 22-year-old forward was "maturing in giant strides".

During his trip Maradona saw Messi score a hat-trick, one of two in successive league games. Although he failed to match his brilliant recent form in last night's 2-0 home win against Osasuna, he has been good enough of late to prompt comparisons with Maradona himself. "To me, Messi is better than Maradona," his Barcelona team-mate Pedro Rodríguez said this week. "I play with him, I see him every day and to me he is the best. Maradona has been the best player in history and for me, Messi is even greater than he is."

With Messi in such fine form, Gonzalo Higuaín scoring regularly for Real Madrid, Diego Milito impressing with Internazionale and Carlos Tevez having an excellent first season at Manchester City, Argentina would appear to have an embarrassment of attacking riches with the World Cup now less than three months away.

"I'm happy, we have all the Argentinian goalscorers scoring goals in all the leagues in Europe and they're all showing they want to be [at the World Cup]," Maradona told reporters. "It will be a good, very open fight and it will be difficult for me to leave some out because they're scoring incredible goals ... but I have to take 23 players."

Maradona, who has been Argentina's head coach since November 2008, has called up a hundred players during his tenure as he searched for a winning formula, with the nation's performance in World Cup qualification so poor that they were in danger of failing to reach the finals for the first time since 1970. He could not find a formula in which Messi could replicate his brilliant Barcelona form and only picked Higuaín in the last two games against Peru and Uruguay, that Argentina needed to win.

"Messi looked fantastic, full of energy, happy ... He's maturing in giant strides," said Maradona. "Messi is another I'm certainly taking [to the finals] as a first-choice player alongside [midfielder and captain Javier] Mascherano," he said.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Rhone Group head list of 'six or seven' potential Liverpool investors

Liverpool have moved a step closer to resolving their financial future with "six or seven" potential investors vying to take a majority stake in the club.

The first to declare its hand is the Rhone Group, a US fund management firm, run by billionaires Robert Agostinelli and Steven Langman, which has expressed an interest in buying a stake of at least 34 per cent for around £100 million.

That would substantially dilute the holdings of owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett and break the boardroom stalemate which has hamstrung the club for more than two years.
However, Liverpool remain hopeful of receiving a number of competing offers before the Easter deadline set by the club's managing director, Christian Purslow.

Six other interested parties are believed to be considering proposals entailing either partial investment or a wholesale buyout of Hicks and Gillett. Those offers would be put to the club's board by Purslow, with sources at Liverpool hopeful of securing new investment "in good time" for the start of next season.

Regardless of which offer is accepted, any cash infusion raised by a share issue would be used to pay down the £237 million debt laden on to the club by Hicks and Gillett, a condition laid down by the Royal Bank of Scotland if the two Americans are to refinance loans held by the Government-controlled bank in July.

But an end to the search for investment started last year by Purslow would free up the working capital to enable work to start on the club's long-awaited new stadium on Stanley Park this year, as well as, crucially, allowing Liverpool to strengthen their playing staff.

The club's manager, Rafael Benítez, has been forced to spend only what he raises in the transfer market for the past two years and the prospect of the funds being available to provide the "four or five" front-line signings Fernando Torres suggested on Saturday are key to his and Liverpool's future without fresh investment are distant.

The Spain international is known to harbour concerns over Liverpool's ability to compete for the major honours he so craves, and made the first public expression of his doubts when he called on the club to "make an effort" this summer to bring in the players needed to compete not for fourth place, but for the league title.

"His main motivation is winning trophies," said Benítez. "He wants to be playing in the Champions League, but it is not just him. We all want that."

But while the arrival of Rhone's offer may signal the beginning of the end for Hicks and Gillett, doubts remain as to whether any investor would be willing to inject so much cash without taking at least a 51 per cent stake, thereby guaranteeing overall control.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

O'Neill dismisses talk of him becoming the next Man United manager

Like David Moyes at Everton there is an added dimension to the work of Martin O'Neill. They are both engaged in the service of their clubs while, like it or not, simultaneously taking part in an unspoken audition for the role of Manchester United manager.

They can never admit it, of course. That does not stop the rest of football weighing the possibility. Last week, Moyes had the catwalk to himself with victory over United at Goodison. Today the beauty contest repairs to Wembley, where it is O'Neill's turn to show Ferguson a fine pair of heels.

At 57, O'Neill probably has one more big posting in him. The fans of Aston Villa, who have not always been kind to him, are increasingly accepting of the idea that he might find career fulfilment at Villa Park. This is the stated aim. Villa's last trophy came 14 years ago. A decade has passed since they last contested a final, the FA Cup in 2000. Two League Cups is the sum of their labours in the 28 years since Peter Withe bundled the ball off a post in Rotterdam to win the European Cup.

O'Neill tells you that this is his focus, that the biggest job in domestic football is not a matter for him. "I have never thought about that at all, not for one second, not even when I was up at Celtic. Sir Alex Ferguson will decide, I would reckon probably in the year 2033, when he feels the Champions League has passed him by one last time. I will have departed this earth long before him."

O'Neill distances himself from the pageant with characteristic charm. The glow of FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace the night before is still on him. The Pullman that will take the team to London is parked at the door. A sense of anticipation is building. O'Neill is at the centre of the narrative. You sense he would be happy to talk all day. On another afternoon the question of the Ferguson succession might send him spinning out of Bodymoor Heath in a haze of expletives. On this day, he is happy to play keepie uppie with the theme.

"Following Ferguson is the impossible job, absolutely. How many times as he won the championship? Ten times, something like that? It has never really bothered me. There is always somebody coming up, somebody whose name is relevant at the time. I never pay any attention to it. I really enjoy my job here. For us to win a couple of competitions in the next couple of seasons is what it is all about, to qualify for the Champions League, that sort of stuff."

O'Neill takes questions like Socrates at the Acropolis, stroking his chin in contemplation, as if teasing the words from his mouth in precise order. "The fact that I'm facing Sir Alex Ferguson does not make the difference. The fact that we are in a final at Wembley is enough for you to want to do your very best, to show off your ability. When you are up against Manchester United and Sir Alex in the final it is not so much that you want to raise your game, you have to if you are to win."

Oh come now Martin, you have taken four points off him already this season, three of those at Old Trafford. What's to fear? Surely you have his measure. The thought prompts another caress of the jaw, and a smile that suggests the Priory is the place for any who believe that. "I don't think that for one second. People have been trying for a lot of years to get the measure of him. He has done an amazing job even to be at Old Trafford as long as he has, at a club that is demanding success. He has delivered and continues to deliver."

OK, that's enough about Ferguson. O'Neill is unique in the upper echelon of English football in his adherence to a domestic template. This is not about believing absolutely in English virtues but in following a line of thinking that respects the league in which he works. Were he in Italy the core would be Italian, German in Germany and so on. That his captain today, Stiliyan Petrov, is Bulgarian, does not contradict the broad sweep of O'Neill's rationale. Neither does the inclusion of John Carew or Carlos Cuéllar. The thrust of the Villa proposition is carried by James Milner, Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing, Emile Heskey, Stephen Warnock, Luke Young and so on.

"I do feel that the heartbeat of the football club should be (the nationality of) the league that you are playing in, the core of this team is fundamentally English. That does not mean that I hold everything by it. At Celtic I had a group of Swedes that loved it to death."

O'Neill is half way through his fourth year at Villa Park. According to some his reliance on a traditional English structure does not stop at birth certificates. After their recent meeting Arsenal aesthete Arsène Wenger reached for the long ball stick with which to beat O'Neill. Wenger rarely sees virtues in the opposition when they get the better of his team. His stylistic hauteur gets right up O'Neill's nose. Perceptions, one might say, have yet to catch up with the evolving brand of adventure O'Neill is orchestrating.

"The stats showed that we played three more long balls than they (Arsenal) did in the game. I had a wee smile when Bacari Sagna hoofed it 80 yards up the pitch in the first few minutes against Sunderland. I get irritated. I should have remembered that he said Manchester United were anti-football."