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Monday, November 12, 2007

Ronaldo fills the Rooney void

If there was a sharp intake of breath around Manchester United’s training ground on Friday, when Wayne Rooney twisted his right ankle during a game of head tennis, it cannot have taken long for a sense of calm to be restored. A quick look around the United dressing-room would indicate that it will take more than a twisted ankle to throw their title challenge off course and, by the time Cristiano Ronaldo had scored twice in as many minutes at Old Trafford yesterday, they were coasting back to the top of the Premier League. This was not a vintage performance from United or their No 7, but it was another of those afternoons on which their credentials were underscored in bold. In beating an obdurate and talented Blackburn Rovers side, they succeeded where Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool had failed, but there is nothing more impressive about United than the outstanding individual ability that abounds in their ranks and the devastating football that they can produce. For all the recent eulogies to Arsenal, there remain few more thrilling sights in English football than United in full flow, even without Rooney.
Oliver Kay, The Times

Simply the best

In Sir Alex's programme notes for the Reds' match against Blackburn Rovers, he lavished praise upon the current squad, labelling them the "strongest side I have ever had".

It's a boast the UK press have latched onto, with countless column inches devoted to the story. But the manager didn't just speak of the team's charms; he also singled out individuals, most notably summer signing Anderson.

Here's an extended excerpt from Sir Alex's United Review column:

"[Against Arsenal] I thought Anderson was our key man in his duel with Cesc Fabregas. I have not seen the young Spaniard kept as quiet as that in a match for a long time. Anderson struck up a great partnership with Owen Hargreaves; you wouldn’t have thought they had played together as the central midfield pair only once before.

"Still only 19, he is emerging fast now and I rate him a fantastic signing. It’s a very encouraging sign, especially with Paul Scholes out until the New Year. The fact that I was also able to bring on Michael Carrick and Louis Saha as substitutes was also an indication of our strength in depth as our injury blitz eases. In fact, without tempting fate, this is the strongest we have been all season. When you go back to the Wigan game, we had 12 senior players out of action.

"The situation is a lot healthier now, though of course it does give me a few selection problems as well as providing me with a wide range of options. The competition for places is immense. Take the luckless Darren Fletcher for instance. He took over from Scholes against Kyiv in the away leg and put in a wonderful performance only to find himself out of the team for the next game against Middlesbrough.

"He took the disappointment well, hopefully because he realised that I have a responsibility to look at the broader picture and that, at the end of the day, I will be fair to all the players. I always let them know my thinking and that everyone will get a fair crack of the whip. A big squad, strong in quality, is the only way to success these days and the players know it, so provided I am fair – and I always try to be – then they accept that they are part of a set-up that is going places.

"I believe this is the strongest squad I have ever had, so much so that I think I would be pushed to name my overall best team. It will vary, dependent on fitness, form, opposition and the way the fixtures fall - especially on the last lap as the various competitions reach a climax.

"This is what I have been working towards. I don’t like the short-term fix. I prefer to see a pool of players emerge and develop into something special, which, believe me, is what's happening at Old Trafford this season. We have the young players led by Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and now joined by the likes of Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. In fact it is difficult to know where to stop when I am talking about our important players with Hargreaves, Carrick and Saha in the ranks along with our home-produced players like Fletcher, Wes Brown and John O’Shea.

"I am not becoming youth-obsessed either, with experience represented by Scholes and Ryan Giggs, both now into their 30s but who in my view will play until they are 36, such has been their lifestyles. There is many a pitfall for celebrity players but those two have avoided all the traps and set fine examples for those coming up behind them.

"Incidentally, the operation that Paul has had on his knee has been 100 per cent successful with the surgeon reporting that the condition generally of his knee was excellent, with no concerns. He will be back refreshed and eager in January, like signing a new player in the transfer window for the second half of the season. The only problem is the wee beggar is getting older.

"A bit like me I suppose, though I am still finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that this week saw me celebrating 21 years as manager of Manchester United.
I honestly don’t know where the years have gone!" Read more...

Saha buoyed by start

Louis Saha was delighted to come through his first league start of the season against Blackburn Rovers unscathed after a long battle with a knee complaint.

Sir Alex Ferguson had planned to continue using the French striker in a bit-part role from the bench so as not to risk any further injury niggles.

But Wayne Rooney's enforced absence through an ankle injury saw Sir Alex include Saha in his starting XI for only the second time of the campaign, as the Reds ran out 2-0 winners over Mark Hughes' side.

"It has been such a long time since I was in the starting line-up and it felt good to be in there," Saha told L'Equipe. "I was in the starting XI against Roma, but that day I was not at my best.

"I took advantage of the Wayne Rooney injury, but that is why a whole squad is useful.

"It went smoothly against Blackburn. I won't complain about failing to score because the most important thing is the team won." Read more...

Reds impress Brown

Wes Brown has echoed his boss's comments about the current United side, claiming it's "right up there" among the best he's played in.

On the day United beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0 on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson told United Review the side he'd assembled could be as good as any he's been in charge of during his 21-year Old Trafford reign.

Manchester-born Wes Brown, who made his United debut in 1998, wholeheartedly agrees.

"This side is right up there with the best," Brown told MUTV. "The lads are all enjoying themselves and we have a good mix. We have young lads, senior players and new signings who are really standing out. That's what the gaffer wanted them to do and they're producing good form."

With so much top talent at the club, it's inevitable some players will be disappointed come matchday. Youngsters like Danny Simpson and Gerard Pique have been performing admirably when called upon, but there was no room for either defender in Sir Alex's squad that faced Blackburn on Sunday.

"The manager has some difficult decisions to make but I think those who missed out on Sunday will be delighted to have played in recent games. I'm sure they understand that they're just coming into the team and they'll have a bigger role to play in the future." Read more...

No fireworks from Sparky's men

Mark Hughes feels referee Chris Foy robbed Blackburn of the chance to take the game to United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Foy sent off Rovers midfielder David Dunn in the 53rd minute for what he deemed a second bookable offence, although many observers felt the decision was harsh. The visitors, who had showed plenty of attacking ambition in the first half and even hit the post through Christopher Samba, then resorted to stifling tactics and getting men behind the ball.

"It was a mistimed challenge on Louis Saha," Rovers boss Mark Hughes conceded. "But it wasn't a really poor tackle or a violent challenge. I felt Dunn was also unlucky to get booked in the first half. We feel a little bit harshly done by because we weren't able to show just what a good team we are. Unfortunately the game was taken away from us."

Even United boss Sir Alex Ferguson had some sympathy for Dunn, telling MUTV he felt "the lad was a bit unlucky".

"That killed the game off as a competition," Ferguson admitted. Read more...