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.