Six and the City

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After Manchester United’s heaviest defeat in the Premier League era and their worst at home for almost sixty years, Sir Alex Ferguson called it the ‘worst result in his history’ and it is difficult to disagree. It was quite a statement of intent from Manchester City at Old Trafford. Some were quick to proclaim it as a ‘shift in the balance of power’ but Roberto Mancini quickly responded after the game with: “It will only be a great day if we win the Barclays Premier League.”

And he was right. In fact, the Manchester City manager got an awful lot right on the day. Mancini’s team selection and tactics were spot on. There may have only been three points at stake, but the result was a firm indicator that the blue half of Manchester are headed in the right direction. Bookmakers have already installed them as favourites to maintain their position at the top of the league and win their maiden Premier League title.

Oddly enough, it was the home side that started the game as the brighter of the two teams. Wayne Rooney threatened to orchestrate proceedings as he so often does, with a magnificent swept fifty yard pass to Ashley Young, demonstrating once again, his extraordinary range of passing.

Not many clear chances were fashioned however and United were duly punished by Balotelli’s precise finish into the corner of the net. His subsequent t-shirt celebration was humorous, yet still harshly punished by a booking. The Italian striker remains as volatile and unpredictable as ever, yet on current form he increasingly looks like he will be an important player for the club.

Mancini’s decision to play James Milner ahead of Samir Nasri for his work rate was fully vindicated by the former Aston Villa man’s industrious performance in both attack and defence. He worked tirelessly to nullify the threat Ashley Young posed and he set up Balotelli’s second goal with a cross from the right after being played in with a clever ball by the outstanding David Silva.

The diminutive Spaniard exposed the deficiencies in the Manchester United midfield and back four time and time again, as he ruthlessly picked off passes at will. Drifting into pockets of space between the back four and midfield, the ineffective duo of Anderson and Fletcher found it impossible to track his movement as the playmaker had a hand in almost every goal. How United could do with a player like him.

In particular his flicked and half volleyed pass to Edin Dzeko for City’s sixth goal was evocative of Diego Maradona’s pass to Claudio Caniggia at Italia 90. Eye of a needle accuracy combined with outrageous skill. Silva must surely be front runner for the Player of the Season award already.

Man of the match Micah Richards had a tremendous game at full back, as his power and pace coupled with Milner’s tracking back caused United endless problems down their left hand side. It certainly wasn’t a game Patrice Evra will want to remember for very long, as he was continually exposed. The ease in which City scored their second and third goals from crosses from the right hand side are testimony to this.

Jonny Evans’ red card certainly changed the game, yet it was deserved as he committed the defender’s cardinal sin by finding himself the wrong side of the striker. Mark Clattenburg was left with little choice. City’s numerical advantage merely served to increase their stronghold on the midfield, as they passed their way to creating chances at will in the last five minutes.

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In truth, by the end it was a humiliation and the home fans were almost begging for the final whistle. Completely unchartered territory for supporters that had previously seen their side win nineteen games in a row at home and had not suffered a reverse since the defeat to Chelsea eighteen months ago.

However, it would obviously be foolish to write Manchester United off after a single game. There is famously no greater side in adversity than a Ferguson-managed one, and previous heavy home defeats such as Liverpool’s 4-1 triumph at Old Trafford still saw United go on to claim the title that season. Similarly, they lost 5-0 at St James Park to Newcastle in 1996, and 5-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 1999. However in both seasons, just like in 2009, they ended up as champions.

Curiously, after the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle United, United trailed Kevin Keegan’s table topping side by five points, just as they do to Mancini’s side at present. There is undoubtedly still a long way to go in what promises to be an explosive title race, but the noisy neighbours are certainly heading in the right direction.

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Why Fabregas Should Be Remembered and Not Reviled

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‘Good riddance’ and ‘thanks for nothing’. Just some of the comments on a day where the sight of their former captain kissing the Barcelona badge during his presentation in front of adoring fans at Camp Nou ensured that emotions from Arsenal supporters would run high. There has been a feeling of bad will which has festered during two summers of verbal jostling between the clubs and now fans have been quick to paint Fabregas as a poor captain who never lifted a trophy during his short time as skipper. Who was it that said a week is a long time in football?

The past two seasons have tainted the affections fans had for him somewhat but the fact is that Arsenal fans loved Fabregas and he loved the club. The truth is, they really wanted to adore him as a legend. To include him in the upper echelons of the Arsenal hall of fame alongside Drake, Bastin, Henry, Adams, Bergkamp. They would not have been upset about his departure if he was not a player of considerable quality and considered by the fans as ‘one of their own’. An analogy which sums up it aptly: ‘The pain parents feel when their adopted child leaves to be with their real parents.’ Inevitable and justifiable, yet painful all the same.

And in many ways, Cesc Fabregas’ departure from Arsenal is a sad indictment about the current state of affairs at the club, rather than the player and his disputed disloyalty to the club. For so long a symbol of the vaunted Wenger youth project, Fabregas was a shining representation of everything the manager has tried to build at Arsenal in the last six years. Signed as a precocious teenager and nurtured into a world class performer for both club and country before given the armband, the Spaniard showed that the system could produce the players. At the end of the day, the simple truth is that there simply weren’t enough like him.

Changing his long favoured 4-4-2 formation to 4-2-3-1 to suit Fabregas’ strengths was perhaps Wenger’s way of moulding the side around ‘El Capitan’, but it is clear that this was not enough. It is an injustice to Fabregas’ talent that he was not surrounded with players of requisite quality to mount a serious assault on the title and the Champions League. They perhaps came closest in 2008, with a midfield quartet of Rosicky, Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini but the latter two left for bigger bucks and Fabregas was left to play with Denilson and Diaby week in, week out which would surely test anyone’s patience. However no one can seriously doubt Fabregas’ will to win and his love for Arsenal. He desperately wanted to lift a trophy with the club, but injury cruelly robbed him of the chance to lead the side out at Wembley for the Carling Cup final against Birmingham. Had he played, the chances of Arsenal ending their trophy drought would surely have been greater. Getting in the face of John Terry and putting Frank Lampard in a headlock during a feisty Carling Cup final in 2007 is certainly another way of showing your commitment to the cause. Another example such as playing on despite a broken leg after scoring the goal to level the tie against Barcelona two seasons ago, is also not the usual feat you see on a weekly basis from disloyal foreign mercenaries.

The reported £35m transfer fee of course dwarfs the nominal compensation paid to Barcelona when Fabregas was poached from La Masia, and as usual Wenger should be congratulated for the extraordinary profit on another young player but Arsenal fans should definitely feel slightly aggrieved. For a World Cup and European Championship winner, who is undoubtedly one of the best in the world in his position, one could surely expect to receive a more sizeable fee than the one Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll. Still only 24 years of age, there is scope to believe he is not yet at his peak either, making the deal even better from Barcelona’s perspective.

After his debut against Rotherham in the Carling Cup, Fabregas remains not only the youngest ever player to wear the red and white shirt, but also the club’s youngest ever goal scorer. He leaves behind some wonderful nostalgic moments in his Arsenal career. His wonderful weaving solo goal against Tottenham at the Emirates two seasons ago was special, as was his goal and assist against Juventus on a famous night in front of a raucous Highbury. He came up against his former mentor in the shape of Patrick Vieira and there was no doubt the apprentice became the master, out battling and out witting his ageing ex-colleague. It was the night he truly came of age. His long range goal and commanding performance against AC Milan was also special, as he helped Arsenal to become the first British side to win at the Giuseppe Meazza.

Cesc Fabregas may have finally gained his dream move ‘home’ but as a club, Arsenal will move on. As the motto to celebrate Arsenal’s 125th anniversary states: Forward. They have survived the departures of Vieira, Henry etc and will do so again but Wenger will need to move fast and spend the transfer money on a suitable replacement and defensive reinforcements to appease the fans. Fabregas may not have left his mark as a trophy winning captain, but his incredible talent and love for the club should never be forgotten and dismissed as a mere footnote in Arsenal’s illustrious history. He was so much better than that.

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Unfinished Business

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Steve McClaren’s recent return to English football was preceded in similar fashion to how he left it. Angry Aston Villa fans bombarded message boards and phone ins to voice their displeasure at the mere thought of the ex-England manager taking over, and in the end, the job went elsewhere. It is clear that McClaren’s redemption in English football is not yet fully complete.

After Billy Davies’ failure to win promotion with Nottingham Forest after several seasons of play off misery, a fresh change was sought and McClaren was appointed on a three year deal. “Getting Nottingham Forest into the Premier League is a big and difficult challenge, but I don’t fear it. English football is the best league, the best football, the most passionate, everyone from abroad wants to play here. It’s where you want to coach, manage or play.”

Looking around Nottingham Forest’s trophy room would be a daunting experience for any new manager, as the scale of the expectation starts to kick in. At the club where the greatest manager never to manage England won European Cups and League titles, paradoxically, in steps a manager considered one of the worst to ever manage England.

Forgetting his failure with the national side, on the face of it McClaren’s arrival certainly appears to be a sensible one for all parties concerned. In comes a manager with managerial experience at all levels of the game, at home and abroad, and a CV boasting trophies.

He won Middlesbrough’s first ever major honour in the form of the League Cup in 2004 and reached the UEFA Cup final in 2006. His successful stints as assistant manager at Manchester United and Derby should also not be forgotten, as United won the title every season McClaren was there, including the treble in 1999.

In his own admission, the England job came too soon in his career, but the quiet and dignified fashion in which he has rebuilt his career since that wet night at Wembley should be admired.

Dutch accent jokes aside, his title success in Eredivisie with FC Twente was astonishing considering the size of the club and the competition from the established powerhouses of Dutch football such as Ajax, PSV and AZ Alkmaar. He steered the small side from Enschede to their first ever title in 2010 and consequently qualification for the Champions League group stages. The season before, he had already guided Twente to second in the league and the cup final.

His spell at Wolfsburg was largely a failure, but his reputation remained largely untarnished in Europe. It is at home where he still has the most to prove to English fans. If he wins promotion with Nottingham Forest at the first attempt, his long journey to redemption will finally be complete.

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Simply the Best

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Football is famously a ‘game of opinions’. Statistics and numbers can only tell you so much, but there are some arguments which will never be settled on facts alone. After yet another Barcelona master class against Manchester United at Wembley, we have to ask ourselves, should Pep Guardiola’s side be considered the greatest we have ever seen?

Sir Alex Ferguson must rue the fact that his United side have peaked in the same era as the Catalans. There is no doubt Ferguson has mastered Europe and overcome the tactical difficulties his side once faced during the 90s and early in the decade- the semi final defeats against Dortmund in 97 and Leverkusen in 2002 is testament to that. Yet despite 3 final appearances in the last 4 seasons, they only have one European cup to show for it- won on the occasion they did not have to play Barcelona in the final.

Barca’s quality is hard to judge on statistics alone, especially in comparison to other legendary sides from different generations. but their third European Cup in six seasons means they should now rightly be considered as a dynasty in the modern era. Those at the Bernabeu should certainly be worried as their fierce rivals threaten to overhaul their total of 9 European Cups in the not-too-distant future.

The much lauded quality of their football has always been breathtaking but astonishingly, they certainly seem to have played even better this season. If embarrassing the most expensively assembled football team in history in the first El Clasico of the season wasn’t enough for the Spanish Champions, they followed it up by knocking Real out of the Champions League Semi Final, outclassing their opponents home and away.

The theatrics and foul play from both teams in the first leg left a bitter taste in the mouth and threatened to tarnish the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, but there can be no doubting that the better team went through over two legs. Messi’s mesmerising solo goal at the Bernabeu, reminiscent of Thierry Henry in 2006, will certainly live long in the memory.

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The historical myth of Barcelona being fantastic going forward, but susceptible at the back is exactly that: a myth. It is no secret that Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world going forward. Nearly every single player from the defence to the attackers possesses unrivalled vision, superb touch, telepathic passing and movement. But an underrated part of their game is the way in which Guardiola demands his team to win back the ball once they have lost it. They hunt in packs and nearly always immediately regain possession before continuing to attack.

There is a unwritten rule ingrained into the philosophy which requires the players to win the ball back within 5 seconds. Passing and probing of the highest order, forcing their opponents into total submission. Just ask Ferguson, Rooney and co. They simply work harder than people give them credit for and have a unique system which is so easy on the eye, yet devastatingly effective. Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol form a formidable partnership at the heart of defence- a partnership which is renewed at international level and helped to win the World Cup at South Africa, conceding no goals in the knock out stages. Leaky defence? Not particularly.

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If we are judging how good a team is based on the recent trophies they have won, then Barcelona’s CV is untouchable. The season before last, they had to ‘just’ settle for the La Liga title and the Spanish Super Cup after the blockade of Mourinho’s Inter in the Champions League. However three seasons ago, with the exception of the newly signed David Villa, virtually the same Barcelona squad won everything there was to win. A domestic treble and the Champions League were quickly followed by the FIFA World Club Championship and the European Super Cup. A Manchester United side which had just won the Premier League and contained a strikeforce of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov were memorably dominated from start til finish in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. It highlighted an embarrassing gulf in class between the two top teams of the so-called two best domestic leagues in the World.

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The peerless Andres Iniesta and Xavi were majestic throughout in monopolising possession and they produced a midfield masterclass to prevent Utd from creating any chances. The 2-0 scoreline flattered United, as a certain Argentinean ran riot and had the freedom of the pitch, eventually scoring the decisive second. To rightly assume the mantle of the greatest team of all time, it is only right that the team contains a few half decent players and Lionel Messi certainly isn’t too bad right now.

The reigning World Player of the year continues to score goals at an alarming rate, 53 goals in 55 appearances this term and 47 in 53 last season. That works out at an incredible goal every 75 minutes and 23 seconds for Barcelona since the turn of the year. The little magician is undoubtedly the best player on the planet at the present time. Indeed, this year’s final shortlist for the newly merged FIFA Ballon d’Or award was none other than the irrepressible triumvirate of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. All three have been at the club since the age of thirteen, and according to coaches and football journalists around the World; they are the three best players in the World. It is a personal coup for the fantastic youth system Barcelona has in place at La Masia and it is certainly an ominous sign for the rest when Barca have home-produced the 3 best players in the world.

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Adding another feather to their brimming cap, Barcelona can also claim that they made a massive contribution to Spain winning their first ever World Cup last summer. Out of the starting eleven in the World Cup final, 7 were Barca players and every single one of Spain’s goals throughout the knock out stages including the final were scored by a Barcelona player. West Ham United fans occasionally take glee in reminding opposition fans that they won the Jules Rimet trophy singlehandedly in 66, but you could forgive Barca fans if they ever decided to make a similiar point.

Is this Barcelona team the best ever? Early pioneers of passing football such the Hungarian national team in the fifties, Real Madrid in the sixties, Ajax in the seventies and Brazil 1970 might all have something to say about that. But pound for pound, this Barca team are certainly up there. Add the current best player in the World (by some distance) to a team of players which has just conquered the World at club and international level, and you’re looking at FC. Barcelona.

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A Season Review

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As we approach the end of another Premier League season, it is perhaps the right time to take a look back at another extraordinary campaign.

The hunt for the coveted fourth Champions League spot was settled when Manchester City beat Tottenham earlier this month. Over the course of the season, City have clearly deserved to finish in the top four, with a beguiling mixture of youth, experience and expensive flair pushing them over the line. They owe a lot to stand out performers such as Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and of course the outstanding Carlos Tevez.

For Roberto Mancini, it was job done as he delivered what was expected of him from the Abu Dhabi owners at the start of the campaign: Champions League qualification. The FA Cup win against Stoke City was simply the icing on the cake. It was a reward for the long suffering City fans, as they finally got their hands on some silverware. Always unwavering in their excellent support, the win was as much a triumph for the fans as much as it was for the club.

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Below City, Tottenham will look back and rue their wretched run of form since knocking AC Milan out of the Champions League. Two league wins out of eleven means that if they hold off Liverpool for 5th place, they will be playing in the Europa League rather than the Champions League next season. During those run of games they failed to beat West Ham, Wolves, Wigan, West Brom and Blackpool.

Without being disrespectful to those sides, a team with top 4 aspirations should have won those games, and Spurs’ failure to do so has cost them. The much maligned trio of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch have rightly come under fire for not scoring the goals expected of them, and it is clear Redknapp desperately needs to strengthen the attack in the summer.

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This shouldn’t take anything away from the excellence of Luka Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale, who have all enjoyed great seasons. The exciting triumvirate have embodied the swashbuckling football played by Spurs on their Champions League debut. Bale’s performances in the two games against European champions Inter Milan were sensational and no doubt played a huge part in his personal glory of winning the PFA Player of the Year award.

At the bottom of the league, there are still two relegation places to be decided, with West Ham already relegated. If it wasn’t for the east Londoners throwing away a 2 goal lead at the DW in the second half, we would have had the unique scenario of no teams already being relegated entering the final weekend.

Truth be told, the malaise at Upton Park had set in long before their relegation at Wigan. Underperforming players and expensive loan flops all contributed to the Hammers’ relegation and it will be a tough ask to bounce back at the first attempt. Ask Middlesbrough, Hull and Burnley etc.

West Ham’s demise, although ultimately deserved, was perhaps surprising given the players at Avram Grant’s disposal. Some will argue that a team with England internationals such as Carlton Cole, Matthew Upson, Rob Green and Football Writers’ player of the year Scott Parker should not get relegated. However, the root of the problem probably lies with the ownership and the management. Although they saved the club from administration, Gold, Sullivan and Brady should take a lot of blame for undermining a manager they chose to hire in the first place.

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Grant was a dead man walking from the moment they attempted to replace him with Martin O’Neill in January. If they wanted to get rid of Grant, they should have done it there and then rather than after the final whistle at Wigan. Dalglish at Liverpool and ironically Roy Hodgson at West Brom have shown that changing the manager mid-season and getting the right man can have a huge impact on changing a team’s fortunes.

At the top of the Premier League, Manchester United won their record 19th league title at a canter, overtaking Liverpool’s 18 with immeasurable glee. Sir Alex undoubtedly took great pleasure from knocking the old enemy ‘off their perch’, whilst the fans showed their elation by unfurling a banner at Anfield in an audacious prank.

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Detractors will argue that Utd have simply been the best of a bad bunch. That their away record (the poorest ever of any title winning side) meant they were not convincing champions.
They could say that the closest title challengers in the shape of Arsenal and then Chelsea, have been mediocre to average at best in their pursuit. Chelsea’s dreadful form during the winter cost them any chance of retaining their title, whilst Arsenal have been predictably shambolic after March.

Chelsea started the season how they finished the last, giving everyone the impression that they would comfortably steamroller their way to a second consecutive crown. An opening day 6-0 win against West Brom was followed by a 0-4 romp at Wigan. However, they rarely repeated that sort of form again, as they spectacularly faltered during the Christmas period.

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An already thin squad, which was noticeably ageing, was stretched to the limit with injuries to Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, whilst Didier Drogba has never quite been the same after his malaria problems. Rather than inspire them to the Champions League trophy Abramovich craves, the £50m signing of Fernando Torres only proved to be problematic for Carlo Ancelotti. Sacrificing the team’s favoured and successful 433 formation in order to partner him with Drogba did not work at all. Their exit in the Champions League to Utd was partly blamed on Ancelotti starting Torres in the first leg, despite the system clearly not suiting the Spaniard at all. Whether it was the manager or the owner’s decision to play Torres however, is another matter.

There isn’t much to say about Arsenal which hasn’t already been written. Another season flirting with the top has ultimately ended in disappointment yet again. Yes, Wenger has steered the club to Champions League qualification for an umpteenth consecutive season, but a sixth consecutive season without a trophy has been hard to swallow for their fans. The 6.5% increase on season ticket prices for next year, has not been well received in North London either.

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In a season of increasing disillusionment with the team and more surprisingly, the manager, it is easy to forget that were some high points for Arsenal. Beating Barcelona, Chelsea and Utd at the Emirates should rank as successes. The emergence of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny should also be considered as major positives. However with Arsenal, it is easy to quickly reel off their failures as well. The League Cup final defeat to Birmingham, the 4 goal collapse against Newcastle and throwing away a 2 goal lead against Tottenham at the Emirates all spring to mind. Furthermore, after City’s midweek victory against Stoke, they look like slumping to a 4th place finish, capping off a truly miserable end to the season.

Nevertheless once the dust has settled, as frustrating as it is for their title rivals, no one can seriously doubt that Manchester United were worthy champions. They have won more games than anyone else, scored the most goals and prior to the last game against Blackpool, have the best home record, winning 17 out of 18 games. Ferguson deserves massive praise for motivating and inspiring a squad labelled ‘average’, to greater heights.

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Every big player has stepped up at just the right time throughout the season. Nani and Berbatov fired when others didn’t at the start of the season, whilst Rooney, Giggs, Valencia etc. have been magnificent during the run in. Vidic and Van Der Sar have continued to be consistently brilliant throughout, whilst the fantastic £6m signing of Hernandez almost compensates for the £7.4 paid for Bebe.

A leading pundit said that Sir Alex would have won the title with any of the other top 4 teams this season, and who could disagree? It is hard to imagine any other manager taking Utd to the brink of another historic Premier League and Champions League double with the so-called ‘worst ever United side.’ Some achievement.

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A True Great

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From goofy teenager to mercurial double World Cup winner, his career has been an astonishing journey. For all the undeniable glory, countless trophies (and women/transvestites), there has also been the controversy of 1998, the horrific injury setbacks and personal problems. Ronaldo’s glittering career has finally come to an end.

When the 34-year-old Brazilian finally announced his decision to retire due to injuries at a news conference in Sao Paulo, some felt that his club Corinthians’ shock elimination in the Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) against provincial Colombian side Deportes Tolima merely hastened his departure from the game. Those who have closely followed his career will know that his personal battle against injury was one which he could not keep fighting. Ronaldo himself tearfully admitted that it was a struggle which he could no longer win. His time in football was up, but it will certainly not be forgotten in a hurry.

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Perhaps it was fitting that he ended his career where it began all those years ago. After a move to his boyhood club Flamengo failed to materialise, he signed for newly promoted Corinthians in 2009 with the sole hope of winning the Copa Libertadores before he retired. It was a mark of a player who played the game to win. Money was never a motivation for Ronaldo; he genuinely wanted to continue doing what he enjoyed doing best: scoring goals and playing football. Some will say, at his peak, he simply was the best. He won FIFA World Player of the year (an award voted for by players) a record 3 times which showed the admiration and respect his fellow pros had for him. The only other player to achieve this was Zinedine Zidane.

There is no doubting that Ronaldo will be remembered as one of the most naturally gifted strikers of our generation. His blistering dribbling speed with the ball and powerful runs made him an impossible player to stop once in full flow. Indeed with his first professional club Cruzeiro, he scored a memorable solo effort against Boca Juniors when he dribbled past the entire defence. It was to be the first of many defences to receive similar treatment.

As his career has progressed, he has gradually evolved from the skinny elusive runner which burst onto the scene as a 17 year old into the powerful skilful forward fans grew to love. However, the stress on his body which the physical changes have brought over the years probably explains the amount of injuries he has had to endure.

One thing has always remained despite his weight fluctuations: his scarily precise finishing. His ability to beat a man, keep his head still and calmly pass a ball past the keeper was one of his hallmarks. The Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s of today’s generation have exceptional goals to games ratios but the original Ronaldo’s goal record stands up to any in World football. His tally of 12 goals in 14 appearances for Cruzeiro earned him a move to Europe, where he scored 42 goals in 46 for PSV Eindhoven. A big money move to Barcelona followed, as did the goals, as he plundered a tremendous 34 in 37 and became the youngest ever winner of FIFA’s World Player of the Year, an award he retained the following year. Not bad for a 20 year old.

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A period in his career which perhaps perfectly summed up the contrast between the injury lows and the euphoric highs was the 2002 World Cup. Brazil had struggled during World Cup qualification and had only limped into the tournament. There was already serious doubt about Ronaldo’s fitness and ability to play before the tournament began, as a shattering knee injury suffered with Inter Milan had threatened to rule him out. However defying public opinion, Scolari kept faith with him and he went on to repay the favour finishing top scorer with 8 goals, scoring the two winning goals in the final against Germany. It was Ronaldo’s dramatic act of redemption after the bizarre and mysterious circumstances surrounding the 1998 World Cup final.

It was at the 2006 World Cup in Germany where he finally became the all time top scorer at World Cup finals, an astonishing record considering he did not play at the 1994 World Cup and only considered half fit in 2002 and 2006. Further proof that despite his fitness concerns, Ronaldo always had the ability to influence games at the highest level.

The goal against Ghana which sealed the record was a wonderful moment for Ronaldo as he nonchalantly strolled through, completely fooled the goal keeper with an effortless double stepover, then rolled the ball into an empty net. Class personified.

As with most great players, there is often a stain on their CVs. Despite all his success, Ronaldo never managed to win the Champions League, although fans in England will always remember his stunning hat trick at Old Trafford against Manchester United to knock them out in the quarter final and the standing ovation he received from the home faithful. They knew they were witnessing something special from a special player.

Whether he is remembered as a ‘over weight playboy’ or record breaking World Cup winner, there can be no doubt that Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima’s story is truly one of football’s most fascinating.

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If Carlsberg did forum posts…

This gem of a post was found on the Bluemoon Manchester City forum page and had to be published. All rights reserved to the quite genius author.

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An open letter to Edin Dzeko:

Son, as a Manchester City fan I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m delighted you’ve decided to join the Blue Revolution at this stage of the season. Nevertheless, I believe you should know what you’re getting yourself in for and be fully aware of the true size of the challenge you’re about to face.

I understand you had a difficult time in Bosnian football, where your qualities were not recognized in early days of your career. Back then you were a figure of fun, and picked up the nickname “Kloc” – the local slang term for a lamp-post. When your club picked up a check of €25,000 for you transfer to the Czech Republic five years ago, they blew most of the money on champagne because they couldn’t believe their luck in landing such a handsome fee for a player who they classed as utterly useless. The rest is, of course, history. Your talent prevailed and the good people of Zeljeznicar will today feel like they’ve been dum as, well, Klocs.

Being a Sarajevo child you’re no stranger to hard times, so your days with Zeljeznicar must have been child’s play when you consider the horrors of growing up in a state of war. Life must feel easy to you now, not even 25 yet, having developed a reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe. Trust me son, it’s about to get complicated. If you expect having it easy, you’ll be training in the wrong side of Carrington. It may not be what you’d like to hear, but the least I can do is be totally honest with you. You see, honesty is something that will be in very short supply from the moment you pull a sky blue shirt on.

Don’t get me wrong: the club will welcome you with open arms, as they have other players who took the step of joining the blue revolution. Pay cheques aside, Man City are known for looking after their players and taking certain personal circumstances into account- but unfortunately you won’t be living and playing inside a blue bubble.

You won’t get honesty from the media. Firstly, forget your name. You’re no longer Edin Dzeko. From this day forward, you will be known as £27m Dzeko. The price tag will always be written or spoken before your surname. If you think that’s annoying, think again- you’ll also be referred to as “prima dona”, “underachiever”, “flop”, “pampered millionaire”. What if you’re actually scoring goals, you might ask? Sorry, it won’t make an ounce of difference. Mario Ballotelli has made 11 appearances since joining City, scoring eight goals. If you looked in the papers this week, you’ll have seen yet another piece of , erm, “news” linking him with a move to AC Milan because “he has failed to settle in England” (sic). Robinho (sorry, that’s £32m Robinho), scored 16 goals in his first season with City which you probably will think is a decent return for an attacking midfielder, but didn’t shield him from being constantly slated for scoring mostly in home games. Nothing that is written or spoken about Manchester City has to be true these days… as long as pleases the right parties and has the potential to unsettle the club or its players.

You’d have it easier if you moved across the City. To the outskirts, to be precise. You will have heard of Manchester United, of course- the global brand created and marketed by BskyB, the owners of Sky Television. The club has never known a Manchester ground, but the name stuck.
I digress. Life is somewhat different if you sport a red shirt… for starters, no one goes by the name of “30m Berbatov”, “30m Rooney”, “£30m Ferdinand”, “17m Nani” or “18m Anderson”. You will never have heard of “15m Ronaldo”, £19m Van Nistelrooy” or “29m Veron” (the latter is actually used very often by stand up comedians in the Northwest circuit). Apparently, all Manchester United players come from their academy and successfully make it through the ranks.

If you joined them and flopped for two whole seasons, it wouldn’t be a problem- the pundits would keep saying that they “can see glimpses of genius” with every touch and the papers would defend that “every player needs time to settle”.
If you were unable to score from open play for almost a year, it would be said that “the team get so much more than goals” from you.
You could throw the Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and all Seven Dwarfs into an industrial sized grinder, push the start button and the media would say that they all had it coming.

You won’t get honesty from The Game. Hating Manchester City has become fashionable so there will be plenty of fellow professionals and managers queuing up to have a pop at you and your colleagues. City are ruining the game, they are buying their way to the title (although money won’t buy you success), they unsettle players with massive offers, Lee Harvey Oswald wore a sky blue shirt when he shot JFK.
Again, you’ll notice the difference in treatment if you happen to sport a red badge. There won’t be many managers coming to Old Trafford without heaping praise on the “greatest manager” in the English game and gushing about their “entertaining football”. It may not be the best team talk to motivate your players, but that’s not the point they’re trying to make. Which is probably why teams like Blackburn, one of the meanest and most physical in the EPL, tend to go AWOL during their visits to Old Trafford… or maybe they spend too much time in the club shop buying souvenirs.

You won’t get honesty from the officials. Not all of them, anyway… and City tend to end up with the wrong one when it really matters. You may be used to the physical side of the Bundesliga but this is literally a different ball game. If you think you’ll get a penalty for being manhandled in the penalty box, think again. If you’re tripped, expect to be told to get back up, nothing given. If you protest, you’ll be booked for dissent. If a player fouls you five or six times, you’ve had enough and feel tempted to give him a piece of your mind, there’s a red card with your name on it… and as you will have seen this week, if you’re actually headbutted by an opponent, you’ll also get your marching orders just for being there.

You may have gotten the wrong impression when watching Manchester United games on Sky. Yes, they’re on TV that often that if you’re abroad, you tend to think there’s nothing else in the Premier League…
You’ll probably think it’s illegal to give a penalty against United at Old Trafford. Ironically, you may be closer to the truth than you think.
You will have seen the ball cross United’s goal line by the best part of a yard, yet no goal being given. You’ll have seen Nani picking the ball up mid-play, demanding a non-existent penalty, then scoring from the free kick that should have been the keeper’s to take. You will have seen Ferdinand ripping Sagna’s shirt with a ferocious challenge, or Vidic pulling Zamora to the ground in the six yard box at Craven Cottage- and both getting away with it. You will have thought how lucky Gary Neville was not to be sent off in the first half of the last two starts he’s made for his club.

You will have seen all that and so much more and maybe, just maybe, thought the officials in this country are great chaps and wouldn’t it be fun to join a league where the whistle is not being blown every thirty seconds.

I have news for you, son: it doesn’t work like that for the Sky Blues. If you came to England for an easy ride, you’ve joined the wrong club I’m afraid. The lines you’ve just read describe only a fraction of the abuse and injustice you will have to face if you’re to see your brand new contract through.

On the other hand, if you came to join one of the most exciting projects in world football and play your part in the awakening of a sleeping giant… if you realise it’s City against the world… if you’re read to understand that City fans will worship the ground you score goals in, regardless of the rubbish that may be written or spoken about you…

…then…..
…Welcome to Manchester

Never a dull place to be

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Same old Arsenal, always bottling it.

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In what has been a very strange season, Manchester United sit top of the league two points clear of the rest with a game in hand. In their own admission, they have not been anywhere near their best, yet they have extended their unbeaten league run to 16 games, the longest in their history. Some say that the standard in the league has been declining in recent seasons, whilst others will simply point to the strengthened challenge in the shape of Manchester City and Tottenham.

Either way, tonight was the same old Arsenal. Big games need big performances from players and Arsenal once again showed that many of their players lack the big game mentality. Contrastingly, Park Ji Sung showed once again why Ferguson continues to select him in the big games, with an industrious performance capped off with a wonderful improvised headed goal. This fixture is fast becoming his favourite, having scored more Premier League goals against Arsenal than any other team. Wenger can now add Park Ji-Sung to his list alongside Didier Drogba as an unlikely chief tormentor.

In truth, Manchester United thoroughly deserved their 1 nil win and the margin of victory could have been even greater had Wayne Rooney not displayed the killer touch in front of goal that we have been getting accustomed to lately. Ahem. Arsenal lacked any passing fluency, rhythm and shape. Tomas Rosicky, Marouane Chamakh and Alexandre Song were hugely disappointing and gave away the ball too cheaply on too many occasions.

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Andrey Arshavin gave Arsenal fans more ammunition for criticism as he once again turned in a hugely frustrating performance devoid of any inspiration. Labelled the modern day Anders Limpar in some quarters, he was meant to be the wildcard in Arsenal’s pack who could turn a big game with a single moment of inspiration. Judging on this season, he is still living off the memory of Anfield. It may be time for Theo Walcott to get an extended run in the team, starting with the game against Stoke on Saturday.

Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas came off the bench in the hope of salvaging a point, yet it was to no avail as United’s back four held firm. In his post match interview, Sir Alex Ferguson labelled Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as “absolutely magnificent” and he was spot on. The centre back pairing were terrific in defence and did not give Arsenal an inch.

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The one bright spark for Arsenal in a night of huge disappointment, came in the shape of the 20 year old debutant in goal. Wojciech Szczesny looked assured and comfortable throughout the game and showed he could handle the big occasion. Fabianski must surely now be nervous of regaining his place once he is fit again.

The title race is far from over and it is foolish to rule out any team at such an early stage. Indeed, the game between United and Chelsea on Sunday is another pivotal contest, with United looking to go 6 points clear of Chelsea with a game in hand if they return victorious from the Bridge.

However, if Arsenal are to have any say in the title race come May, it is obvious they will need to cut out the defensive lapses and start making the Emirates a fortress again. They must also sincerely hope that Thomas Vermaelen returns sooner rather than later.

After this weekend’s games, who is going to go on and win the title?
(polls)

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Outclassed

France's Karim Benzema celebrates after opening the scoring

Both countries endured abysmal campaigns in South Africa during the summer, yet last night served as a stark indication as to which team has the brighter future. Laurent Blanc’s France were masterful; outplaying and outclassing England from the start, handing Fabio Capello his first defeat at Wembley.

The skilful and hugely talented trio of Yoann Gourcuff, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri showed that the rebellious old guard of Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra and Thierry Henry will not be missed. The front three, coupled with the ever impressive Florent Malouda, effortlessly passed and probed their way around the England penalty area. They made England look every bit as clueless and lethargic as they played and some observers even commented it was like watching Barcelona which somewhat makes a mockery of the FIFA rankings.

The Arsenal playmaker was outstanding

Here is a team who is ranked 21st in the World and finished bottom of their group at the World Cup, compared to England who are 6th. You wouldn’t have been able to guess which team was which yesterday.

Like Capello’s young side, France’s starting line up bore little resemblance to the one which suffered humiliation at the World Cup. However, if this was the new French generation, Les Bleus fans have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of England. It is poignant to remember that injuries robbed them of Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Ashley Cole amongst others; however the result of their absences was clear for everyone to see. Are the younger players coming through really good enough to replace the likes of Terry, Ferdinand and Lampard when they retire? Do they possess the core technique and quality on the ball which you need at the very top to win major tournaments? Certainly, England fans are entitled to be very doubtful.

Hoofing the ball from defence to the striker can certainly work against lower standard opposition, however doing it against the Spains and Brazils of this world is surely footballing suicide. It was the same against France, once England lost the ball, the French showed their superior technique to keep possession and make England chase shadows for 15 minutes at a time.

Make no mistake; it was refreshing to see Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson given their chance in a non competitive match. Both have been excellent all season and last night Carroll particularly, enhanced his claim to a regular place as England’s number 9. He led the line with minimal fuss and did what he is good at, winning headers and posing defenders problems with his physicality. Charging runs towards the box and a few quality knock downs, including one to Gerrard which the Liverpool man then blazed over, showed that on his day he can be a handful for any centre back in the world.

England players look on disconsolately

Henderson on the other hand, may have been overawed slightly and was overrun by France’s rampant midfield. He showed some nice touches and has proved that he can play against top class opposition, as he did at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. However holding midfield is certainly not his role and Capello should be to blame for stationing him there. It should also be pointed out that the Sunderland youngster was given little or notable help from the ever-declining Gareth Barry. Barry’s time in the England team is fast running out and Lampard’s return, as well as Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell’s emergence, should soon put paid to the once-reliable Barry if he continues to show his lack of speed and sluggishness.

Another question which can be asked in the aftermath of last night’s somewhat flattering 1-2 defeat is where were the other England players who deserved a call up? Nedum Onuoha has showed in recent weeks for Sunderland that he is as good at defending as he is at Messi-like dribbling. His superb shackling of Gareth Bale at White Hart Lane was followed up by the outstanding performance at Chelsea and he has looked good all season. It was certainly a mistake by Manchester City to loan him out.

Matt Jarvis is another who has played with increased intensity in recent weeks, showing pace, dribbling and a quality final ball. Excellent performances against the big four have seen calls for an international call up, yet these have fallen on deaf ears. England insiders may deny it, but playing for a so-called ‘unfashionable’ club struggling at the bottom of the league may have had a lot to do with that.

Scott Parker and Kevin Davies can also feel hard done by, especially the Bolton Skipper. The decision to call up Carlton Cole ahead of Davies was a joke by Capello. A few days after his debut against Montenegro at Wembley, he scored a brace against Tottenham in a man of the match performance at the Reebok. What more does he have to prove?

On last night’s evidence, it is clear that England will be extremely pleased that their experienced players will be back for the friendly against Argentina in February. It is also evident that Capello needs them and they will all slot straight back into the team. Cynics have put forward the notion that Capello doesn’t care much about youth as his contract only runs until the end of Euro 2012. If he doesn’t help blood more youngsters and keeps playing the likes of Gareth Barry, the future could be a bleak one. The call up for Jay Bothroyd has shown that the cupboards are looking bare.

 

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England left Green faced

Green defiant after his blunder

England had to settle for a disappointing point on their opening game of the World Cup as Robert Green’s inexplicable mistake gifted USA a well-earned point.

Steven Gerrard had given England the perfect start as he shot past Tim Howard following good work by Emile Heskey. The England captain collected a cute lay off from the Aston Villa striker and turned the ball into the corner of the goal with the outside of his boot with only four minutes on the clock.

England however, failed to seize the initiative and struggled to fashion many clear cut chances. They were relatively comfortable and their lack of urgency was punished when USA equalised before half time. Clint Dempsey’s tame effort from outside the area was allowed to squirm past Green’s gloves and into the net. It was a horrible moment for the West Ham goal keeper, but there was no doubt he was solely to blame.

Green did however partially make amends when he saved well from Jozy Altidore in the second half. The ex Hull City man’s rasping strike at the near post was well tipped onto the cross bar as Green attempted to atone for his mistake.

Fabio Capello made some big decisions before the game, but at the final whistle they had arguably all backfired. His decision to start James Milner on the left side of midfield was strange considering the Aston Villa winger hadn’t fully trained all week because of illness, and the position in which he has enjoyed the most success this season has been in the centre of midfield. It was even more baffling given Joe Cole’s availability, and the fact that Capello chose to replace Milner with Shaun Wright-Philips on the half hour mark once it was clear Milner was struggling with injury. The Man City winger was largely anonymous and missed his chance to impress.

England’s injury worries were further worsened when Ledley King was forced off at half time with a groin abductor injury and replaced by Jamie Carragher. Carragher had only recently come out of international retirement after being asked by Capello and his rustiness at this level was evident. The Liverpool centre back’s lack of speed was exposed time and time again as Altidore ran him ragged. It is in defence where England should have plenty of concern, with King effectively ruled out for the rest of the tournament. Terry and Carragher look to be a pairing devoid of any pace, and will surely struggle against the top teams.

Upfront, Emile Heskey got the nod to start alongside Wayne Rooney and he partially justified his inclusion with a typically busy display early on. He won numerous flick ons and assisted Gerrard’s goal with an intelligent pass. However, he continued to provide his critics with ammunition as he missed a guilt-edged chance on 52 minues. Aaron Lennon played a wonderful through-ball, but Heskey shot tamely straight at Howard. There is no doubt that Heskey is an important part of Capello’s tactical set up, with the way his hustle and bustle style helps to take the burden off Wayne Rooney. However, it remains to be seen whether his place in the team can be justified if he continues to display such a lack of confidence in front of goal. Some will now press for Peter Crouch’s inclusion for Friday, with the Spurs striker having an enviable strike rate for England.

Capello has a lot of thinking to do before England’s crucial must-win game on Friday. Rob Green will almost certainly be axed after his mistake and there will be those who want the talented but inexperienced Joe Hart to start in goal. Questions marks about who should partner Rooney up front, and the left midfield problem will continue to surface.

England’s World Cup adventure has begun, albeit in a tame and anti-climactic fashion. However people needn’t worry; England drew their first game against Uruguay in 1966 whilst Italy drew against USA 1-1 in the group stages in 2006 and everyone knows how well they ended up doing that tournament. It bodes well.

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