Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vidic the beating heart; Van der Sar the face

Manchester United defeated Everton 1-0 Saturday further en route on their bar-thumping, record-setting 12-match scoreless streak.

Edwin Van der Sar broke the English Football League record for consecutive shutout minutes as the Reds downed the Blues in a well-referred, good-natured affair at Old Trafford.

However, Van der Sar is not the most influential in United's recent defensive re-branding.

The rearguard's strength traces back to both Vidic and Patty Evra's arrival in January 2006.

All five members of the United backline, including Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, made the 2007 PFA Team of the Year with United claiming nine members of the starting 11 (10 if you include Dimitar Berbatov, who made the team with Tottenham) as they won the Premier League for the first time in three years.

In 2007-2008, all four of United's defenders—with Wesley Brown instead of Neville at right-back—had great campaigns, as well, with each member of the back line starting over 40 games for United and allowing just 15 goals in the top flight. This earned both Vidic and Ferdinand places in the 2007-2008 PFA Team of the Year, Evra somehow second-fiddle to Arsenal's Gael Clichy.

United also allowed merely six goals in 13 games en route to their 1-1 victory over Chelsea in the UEFA Champion's League final.

Van der Sar, while undoubtedly providing stability much pined-after in goal for Manchester United during the swan song of his career, is featured for his performance during the penalty shoot-out last season. He saved one in six penalties. John Terry had more impact than did Van der Sar, infamously shooting his off-target, the crucial turning-point.

And yet, the Dutchman, revered for an inevitably penalty save against Nicholas Anelka in that final, receives similar acclaim this season as United's defense again is the foundation for their assault on European football.

Without Ronaldo carrying the team as often as he did during his Balloon d'Or campaign last term, the strength of United's defense is made more prominent without the winger's dominance claiming the headlines.

But, in an era where defensive players, whether goalkeepers or defenders, receive much less credit for their class than those with more flare, perhaps goalkeepers rank slightly above defenders on the totem pole.

Van der Sar has only had to make 19 saves during the scoreless run. He was untested completely against Stoke City, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, while Chelsea only found a shot on goal once. Out of 50 shots on target this season, the two-time European Cup winner has made just 41 saves and conceded nine.

In all of last year he made 130 saves and conceded 11.

But, despite being largely untested since United's defeat at Arsenal Nov. 8, Van der Sar is again claiming headlines while the stoic eastern-European Nemanja Vidic is the true hero for United this season.

Vidic is the only member of the back-line, other than Van der Sar, to start and finish every game during the record-breaking streak since United's loss at Arsenal. Rio Ferdinand missed five games with an injury and Patty Evra was partially suspended and now injured during the streak.

Vidic is perhaps the ultimate defender. His uniform is made of dirt. He flies in wherever he is needed, head-first if necessary, and simply has no peers physically. No forward in Europe, among United's travels during the last three years with Vidic, can claim to have come out ahead with the monster at 90 minutes.

Vidic has a great leap, is very flexible, and can clear with both feet. He is wiry, strong, and very intelligence. He may not be fast, but he is not slow. His touch is not heavy. Rio Ferdinand can claim to be the silkier of the two, but Vidic doesn't want completely. Especially this season, Vidic has shown undeniable improvement with his footwork, passing, and turning with the ball.

He is also powering forward to score vital goals, netting against Chelsea this season and scoring in the 90th minute against Sunderland during a tenuous period just prior to the FIFA Club World Cup.

Though being short-listed for the 2008 Ballon d'Or was an accomplishment, surely greater ones await.

Fabio Cannovaro won FIFA World Player of the Year in 2006 based almost solely on his achievements during the World Cup. According to reports, he was not imperious with Juventus during the second half of their 2005-2006 campaign, and started slowly at Real Madrid next season when Juventus were relegated to Serie B.

Though, his victory was a rare coup for defenders against a media and viewing society that gives more natural weight to players with the most attractive, attacking flare.

Awards and accolades are easy to associate with statistics: 42 goals is warranting, as is one World Cup.

With tangible team success Vidic enjoyed last season, coupled with the record-breaking scoreless run for United, with more silverware on the horizon, the big Serbian monster is announcing his presence, with authority, to all, not just the nuanced, as the world's best defender on modern form.

Yes, there is a reason Van der Sar is so untroubled these days; his name is Nemanja Vidic.

Take notice.

Berba Maligned for Spurs Woes

Former Tottenham director of football Damien Comolli has blamed the protracted transfer of Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United for Spurs' current woes.

Berbatov moved clubs at the eleventh hour of the summer transfer window for 32 million in a move that had been quite overdue.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had made no secret about his love for the classy Bulgarian over the years, and made comments to that effect during the transfer period.

Comolli also oversaw the departure of Robbie Keane, Bermatov's striking partner in what was arguably the most effective and dynamic attacking partnership of the 2007-2008 Premier League campaign.

How the Bulgarian is to blame for the club's demise is clear to Comolli: "I think the fact that Berbatov stayed so long, until the last day, made life for the coaching staff difficult."

However, United had been in for the player for years before the final day of the 2008 summer window when an inflated bid from Manchester City—which Berbatov denounced—made United increase their offer from 30m to 32m which Spurs accepted.

Then coach Juande Ramos admitted as early as May 2008 that he realized the striker wanted to move on to a bigger club to play Champions League football, adding "I'm sure the club would prefer to have the money because with the money they would be able to sign the players necessary."

Ferguson was coy initially about his pursuit of the striker, refusing to name which player he was after. Berbatov himself pleaded with Spurs for what he called his "dream move".

However, the transfer dragged on and became a saga. Berbatov made it clear he wanted to play for United after giving Spurs two fantastic years. Spurs, however, were holding out for more money without finding an apt replacement for the player.

On Sep. 1, 2008, Spurs sold Berbatov for 32m and bought Roman Pavyulchenko for 20m. Having sold Jermain Defoe the previous January, Spurs ultimately sold their three best strikers in 2008 for over 50m.

If Comolli and chairman Daniel Levy had accepted United's bid of 28m in July, instead of holding a month for 4m, the presence of Berbatov at the club, which Comolli blames for their current demise, would have been mitigated.

Of course, Spurs wanted as much money as possible for their star striker. If his presence was truely a nuisance surely they should have sacrificed a couple million pounds for the sake of their season?

When a player asks for a transfer to a specific club, which, in-turn, makes an exorbitant offer, the blame falls on people like Comolli and Levy, not Berbatov, for the future of their club.

In the current economic climate, as American President Obama heavily scrutinizes the bonuses of Wall Street executives, both Comolli and Levy might be thankful to be out of his jurisdiction.

Their own personal coffers were surely bolstered in direct proportion to Spurs' as they unloaded their players for the highest prices, in protracted transfer sagas founded in avarice, at the expense of the club's future, of which each are no longer a part.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Manchester United Own World Football

The world is restored to its foundations; the stars resume their ordered march.

Manchester United, recently named by Forbes magazine as the world's richest sporting team at $1.8 billion, are top of the English Premier League, coiled for a famous second-half run to Premiership and European glory.

The Liverpool faithful have been led astray by their Shepard, Rafael Benitez, who naively crippled his own club with outlandish and ill-timed statements in an attempt to cover up his captain's legal woes.

Arsenal are in another valley of their trademarked eternal cycle of growth and decline, while Chelsea's lack of true width leaves their attacks predictable with their own captain aging.

United, however, after a famous campaign in 2007-2008, which saw them crowned champions home and abroad, predicated by stout and youthful defense, and led forward by Fifa World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, are sitting pretty yet again.

Evoking the only cliche of the article, the season isn't won at the half-way point. And despite being through to the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League, into the fourth round of the the FA Cup, finalists in the Carling Cup, and top of the Premier League, it is conceivable that it may go wrong.

That argument is ageless, and founded mainly on the rationalizing hopes of rivals, as no other club, really, would prefer to be in any other position than where Manchester United are right now.

Though, Manchester United supporters are often maligned for being shallow, assumedly for supporting the most dominant club in world football in the last 20 years because it is fashionable or easy.

It can be difficult to separate the bandwagoners from the bleeding Reds, and the latter are never immune to the stigma introduced by the former group.

However, there is surely great peace of mind in placing convictions in a club and supporting them with all your heart, to have that love reciprocated, in full, with competition, class, and glory, year after year.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

World Player of the Year: Cristiano Ronaldo

Manchester United prodigy Cristiano Ronaldo was named FIFA World Player of the Year for 2008 Monday in Zurich.

Despite suffering through a rather torrid beginning to the recent 2008/2009 campaign, Ronaldo trumped Barcelona forward Lionel Messi for world football's most prestigious individual award.

The first half of 2008 clearly belonged to Ronaldo, as he continued his unconscious form, often single-handedly obliterating the opposition en route to a gaudy 42 goals in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Defense was the foundation, and Ronaldo was the impetus which drove Manchester United to win the historic double, claiming success domestically and throughout all of Europe with Premier League and Champions League titles.

The most dominant season by any footballer this generation clearly took its toll on the young winger, as his form in the second half of the calendar year dipped dramatically.

Coming off serious ankle surgery after Euro 2008, Ronaldo, after attempting to hold United hostage for a move to Real Madrid, has struggled to regain any of the form that punctuated his displays during the memorable last season.

Mentally and physically drained, it was not until this weekend's performance against Chelsea that Ronaldo showed signs of emulating last season's sheer dominance.

Staying on top is hard for any club in any sport, even more so for an individual still so young and already with so much success, fame, and fortune.

The Ballon d'Or winner said in Zurich: ''This is the climax of a fantastic era for me. I'm happy and proud about what has been done by my team and what we have won. I am lucky to to be part of the history of a club like Manchester United.''

Messi, meanwhile, has been rioting up and down the Spanish coast this season for Barcelona and looks the early favorite for the 2009 title if each player's form continues.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tottenham and Portsmouth: A Tale of Two Clubs

Jermain Defoe is happily returning to North London after Tottenham signed their former striker for £15 million less than a year after selling him to Portsmouth.

Eyebrows surely will raise at the news—not so much at Defoe or even Portsmouth—but regarding Tottenham's schizophrenia in transfer dealings there is sure to be questions.

The North London side sold Defoe last January for £7.5 million, seeming to settle on the pairing of Keane and Berbatov whom were arguably the best strike-force in England for two years running.

Of course, Tottenham had overpaid for Darren Bent just prior to last season, and as Defoe struggled to cement playing time, his sale made perfect financial and footballing sense then.

Cue Summer 2008, when Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, who is surely the harbinger of this chaos, sold both Keane and Berbatov in excess of $80 million, cashing in at the expense of the club's immediate future. Supplanting his strike-force, Levy okayed the purchase of Roman Pavlyuchenko, the touted Russian striker who only knew one English word: "What?"

To be fair, the summer arrivals of David Bentley and Luka Modric appear good footballing moves, despite at least one questionable price tag.

Yet, Tottenham started this term with an unproven (and unlikely to prove) Darren Bent paired with the foreigner, while Defoe continued his renaissance at Portsmouth. Spurs manager Juande Ramos was inevitably the scapegoat for the most horrible start to a season in Tottenham's history, as both Bent and Pavlyuchenko admitted they didn't know how to play together.

Then Harry Redknapp entered the unfolding plot. Leaving Portsmouth for Spurs, citing something about "bigger clubs", the aging English manager left behind his FA Cup winning squad on the South Coast for glory in London. Redknapp left behind the team he molded, one of the form sides throughout the second half of last season.

The clubs traded fortunes and results, Spurs climbing the table immediately as Portsmouth plummeted with untried yet arrogant manager, former Arsenal legend Tony Adams.

Similar to Blackburn, when Mark Hughes left in favor of Paul Ince ("in favor" being used quite liberally), Redknapp left behind a squad that existed and succeeded mainly because of his leadership. And similarly, the team left to consume the exhaust of their manager's departure was divided, unmotivated, and unfocused.

To say that Portsmouth have plummeted since Adam's arrival would be an insult to all things plummeting. The pompous former defender immediately began plotting his club's demise; Portsmouth have only won once in the Premier League since the his appointment, that victory back in November at home to Blackburn, a run which includes huge home losses to Newcastle and West Ham United.

The players at Portsmouth don't seem to want to play for Adams, which was the same situation which plagued Paul Ince when Mark Hughes left Blackburn for Manchester City. A team well-crafted by the manager, vacated, discarded, and left to toil under inexperienced, overconfident former players.

Having sold Defoe and Diarra, Portsmouth, under great financial constraints, will likely be engaged in a relegation battle this season.

Back to Defoe, and Tottenham's questionable activity in the transfer market. Berbatov is often begrudged for his behavior at White Hart Lane, despite capturing the imaginations of the Spurs faithful like no other since David Ginola.

While the Bulgarian is derided, like former manager Ramos, the real culprit must be Levy. In one year the chairman sold his top three strikers, leaving the squad depleted up front, without addressing glaring concerns in central defense.

Somehow Levy subsists under the shadow of suspicion and antipathy. Simple arithmetic, factoring in television deals and Premier League earnings, levied against incoming and outgoing transfers, shows that Spurs owners are profiting greatly while the club suffers on the pitch.

Spurs status as perennial outsiders to the Champions League and Premier League contention is unlikely to change this year, but Defoe's arrival at least offers a compliment to either Pavlyuchenko or Bent, more likely the former.

Spurs essentially spent £7.5 million to loan the striker to Portsmouth for a year—who wasted no time utilizing his pace and adept finishing—only for Tottenham to realize how much they need him.

On the bright side, for once Spurs are on the right side of a recent transfer. They receive a player who has always been forthright about his love for the club and had performed very well for them in his four-year tenure—despite never really featuring consistently.

Again with a promising and cohesive striking partnership, and an intelligent, sensible manager, Spurs fans can look forward to positive summer transfers, unless Levy undermines the whole operation yet again.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Southampton-United: Sleep-walking to victory

The magic of the FA cup proved more legend than reality as the spell was unbound on 35 minutes when Southampton, already down 1-0, were reduced to 10 men.

United travelled to St. Marys on the south coast today hoping to quench a relative goal draught. Sir Alex Ferguson named a typically second-string yet competitive side, seizing the opportunity to rest an overworked Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung as well as a still recovering Paul Scholes.

Carlos Tevez was absent on the team-sheet while young English striker Danny Welbeck got a rare starting chance to further impress with partner Dimitar Berbatov as Wayne Rooney occupied the bench.

Anderson partnered Michael Carrick in the center for the Mancunians, but the Brazillian has found his form this year sagging noticeably despite featuring prominently in his rookie campaign, the double-winning season at United last year.

Ronaldo benefited most perhaps from a mental and physical break. The best player in the world for the 2007-2008 season enters this new year doubtfully in the top three wingers in Manchester. Teammate Park and Manchester City's Robinho and Shaun Wright-Phillips have all played at a higher level this term as Ronaldo struggles to deal with the pressure his brilliance last season inevitably yielded.

Southampton started more spritely, with the Championship side forraying forward without too much result throughout the first quarter hour.

Giggs' first corner kick from the right side invariably swung out beyond the eight-yard box. However, Nani's attempt on 19 minutes swung naturally onto an open O'shea, who's header was saved point blank only for Wellbeck to nod in the rebound as United went ahead 1-0.

A reckless challenge from 19-year-old Scottish striker Matt Paterson ended all hopes for Southampton and neutral fans alike as he was shown straight red from referee Mike Reilly after 35 minutes.

Directly after the restart, an otherwise innocuous free-kick from Nani turned into a United penalty as a member of the wall raised an arm intentionally. Nani himself slotted home the resulting spot-kick as the game grew more and more predictable.

Giggs and Carrick came off 10 minutes into the second half in favor of Gibson and Possebon as the outcome grew closer to being foregone. Rooney joined the fray gratuitously after 65 minutes as United played in a testimonial to their own dominance, really.

The youthful South Coast outfit, bereft of capital and mostly devoid of any experience, was beset as the Red Devils casually besieged their side of the pitch. Darren Gibson finished from eight yards after an easy run from Rooney down the left side to score the final goal, making it 3-0 at full-time.

55 minutes of playing a man down did no favors for the small Championship club, but with an average age of around 21 in the starting line-up such mental lapses are likely to be quite commonplace.

United advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup to host Tottenham for the second straight year. Their next match is away to Pride Park in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Derby County.

Little more could be said or extrapolated from an easy victory for the Reds. With another simpler match midweek, most key United players should be well-rested for United's next Premier League fixture, a prize-bout at home to Chelsea at the weekend.

Van der Sar: [7] He didn't have much to do. How cliche.

Neville: [8] Another very solid match from the veteran; should be rewarded with a new contract shortly, according to his Scottish boss.

Vidic: [8] Composed. He is playing more with the ball at the back with Ferdinand absent; it's the one part of the Serbian's game which could use improving.

Evans: [7] Also quite composed, although he did have one mental lapse which resulted in a good Southampton chance.

O'Shea: [7.5] The Irishman enjoyed himself today. Filling in temporarily is no foreign concept to the squad player who has earned his paycheck this holiday season.

Nani: [7] Against inferior opposition, he had some joy. But, largely he is still as raw as when he joined the team two years ago May. He dribbles too much and makes poor decisions. Great athlete, though. How far will that get him?

Carrick: [6.5] Didn't do much. Rarely played the ball forward, virtually always preferring the safest route ultimately. A bit boring, really.

Anderson: [6.5] Glimmered into and out of the match throughout, alternating between lively and idle.

Giggs: [6.5] Some very strange finishing marked his day, and generally, as with most of his teammates, Giggs did just enough to keep this match comfortable.

Wellbeck: [7] Played well enough; there were hints of offside on the goal, but a tie should go to the attacker. Otherwise didn't look out of place playing against other teenagers, as you'd expect.

Berbatov: [7] Languid. Lazy. Serene. Call it what you will, but Berbatov has uber-class, as they say in Leverkusen. His unwillingness to shoot from any sort of range is a little alarming. He likes to play like a midfielder, as if United don't have enough strikers like that already (Rooney, Tevez). Berba held off Southampton defenders with the utmost ease today, but should have demanded being on the score-sheet against an overawed side.

Subs: Rooney [7] Energetic and goal-hungry.

Possebon [6] Anonymous and/or rusty.

Gibson [7] Swung in some crosses. Scored a goal. Should enjoy a few pints.

The only magic involved today was in the marketing and advertising as we all geared up for upsets; any chance of one here dissipated with the sending-off. United were careful not to over-exert themselves; I will be careful to do the same next time I find myself looking forward to a FA Cup third round match.