The first domestic final of the season and the first chance Manchester United have to pick up some silverware and open their account for the season. Standing in Sir Alex Ferguson’s way are Aston Villa – a side who have taken four points off United this season and a very real threat.
I had hoped Rio Ferdinand would be fit for this one but he has a back problem and has been ruled out for a couple of weeks. However, Nemanja Vidic came through Tuesday’s victory over West Ham unscathed and should take his place in the defence. Both Vidic and Ferdinand were missing last weekend as United suffered defeat at Everton, personally I think if either had been involved the game could have turned out differently and it is a massive bonus the Serb is back, even without Rio. Midfielder Anderson has now been ruled out for the season with a cruciate ligament injury but in terms of the side this is less important, his form this season has been fairly indifferent and I doubt he would have started against Villa anyway. United’s other injury worries include long term absentees Owen Hargreaves and John O’Shea, while Ryan Giggs remains sidelined for another month with a broken wrist.
Defeat at Everton was hard to take but they are a team on the up, while I would argue Villa’s form has started to slip a bit. Martin O’Neill’s men have dropped off a bit in the race for fourth spot and they were made to work hard in their FA Cup tie with Championship side Crystal Palace. However, the Villa boss has the luxury of a pretty much fully-fit squad with no major injury concerns and having already taken four points off United they will be confident.
Ferguson is no stranger to League Cup finals but neither is O’Neill. The Villa boss is yet to pick up any silverware with his current employers but he did lead Leicester City to victory in 1997 and 2000. I doubt that will have any major bearing on the contest in all honesty, but O’Neill is a manager with a winning pedigree having picked up trophies nearly everywhere he has been and he will surely be eager to open his account at Villa Park.
It seems obvious to say but both the Villa and United attack are crucial for their respective sides at the moment. Villa conceded two against Burnley last weekend and the defence that was once the meanest in the league is looking a little suspect at the moment. United conceded goals they perhaps could have avoided against Everton and I’m not sure either defence can be counted on to keep a total shut-out. I expect some goals in this game, so making the most of the chances that come along is vital. Wayne Rooney has been in blistering form but both Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen have found the net recently and Ferguson has plenty of options in terms of his forward line. Villa striker John Carew has now fully recovered from injury and he’ll be confident after netting a brace against Palace, even if both goals were from the spot.
I don’t want to hesitate a guess on which way this one will go but United head into this as deserved favourites and will be confident, despite Villa’s record against Ferguson’s men. A victory is just what United need having slipped up in the league and hopefully Sunday will provide Ferguson with his first trophy of the campaign.
Manchester Utd 3-0 West Ham: Observations
Wayne Rooney is a shoo-in, or Roo-in, for Player of the Year. He is quite simply on top of the world right now, a roo-thless striker in front of goal who has scored 15 goals in his 15 league appearances. Devastating is the word to describe his current form but some may view that as an understatement. He is the best player in the country by a, er, country mile. Two headed goals in a comprehensive 3-0 victory over West Ham supports this claim.
Right now, everything he touches turns to gold. Or goal. His career so far spanning eight wonderful years has been Roo-markable, but has changed as a player since his Everton days. He has transformed into a goalscorer, but not without the help of some of his team-mates. Yesterday, Antonio Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov providing great assistance and combined twice to create Rooney’s two goals. Both were finely crafted, and this performance suggests that United are still big candidates for the title race, despite their 3-1 loss to Everton on the weekend.
His newly developed aerial threat undone a so-far stubborn West Ham side who, for 37 minutes kept the score goalless. However, the Hammers could do little to prevent an expertly crafted goal, the kind you’d only associate with Manchester United. Berbatov whipped a great ball to Valencia, who instead of controlling it, decided to volley the ball. The cross was hit hard, but accurately, and Rooney was lurking in the box and his diving header was unstoppable. Nothing England hopeful Rob Green could have done about it. At the other end, Ben Foster had a rare outing in goal but was solid between the posts.
The goal before half time was more than United had deserved but an effort by Park set the tone for a second half totally dominated by the Red Devils. He struck the post and relentless pressure from the hosts was to follow. The second goal was again a Berbatov – Valencia – Rooney move. This one, however, slick as Valencia had swung an inviting ball after collecting a pass from Berbatov into the path of Rooney which he once again headed past the keeper and it was 2-0 and probably game over for the visitors. Their evening was all but Roo-ined thanks to a chap named Wayne.
Rooney was replaced with twelve minutes remaining on the clock, denied a hat-trick but it suggests that he will play in the Carling Cup final at Wembley. His replacement was Michael Owen who ended up being the perfect like-for-like sub with a goal just two minutes after coming on. It was a lovely finish by the striker, picking up a pass from Paul Scholes before slotting the ball past Green. This result a perfect response to the horror which happened at the Goodison some three days earlier.
Everton 3-1 Manchester Utd
Jubilation was the correct word to describe the mood of everyone associated with Manchester United after their 3-2 away victory over AC Milan, but it was anything but jubilation as United slumped to defeat against Everton.
The european hangover strikes again – evident in a game where United were second best. The in-form Wayne Rooney was nullified as not even he could come with the goods for United when they most needed it. Not in front of the fans who taunt him whenever he has the ball, of course Everton being his former club.
Yet, the Red Devils started positively and took the lead thanks to Dimitar Berbatov’s strike on the 16th minute. United had most of the possession and looked particularly dangerous in the final third. Everton created pressure themselves, equalising sooner rather than later. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov’s screamer a few moments later brought the score level. The Toffees were evidently motivated by this, but wasted many chances to go ahead as did United. Going into half time, this was to close to call.
What was impressive about this victory was the fact Everton were badly effected by injuries. Both Fellaini and Cahill were on the sidelines, but Dan Gosling looked a fine replacement. When Jack Rodwell came on as a second half substitute he too looked the part, scoring a cracker late on to seal the game. Rodwell is valued at £30m, and has been linked to United for a long time. Fergie, Fergie sign him up.
The hosts emerged in the second half and put United under pressure and the visitors were on the back foot. Rooney looked anonymous, but you could excuse him for this game considering his blistering form of late. The freedom of playing by himself which brought about many goals was taken away from him as Sir Alex decided to partner him with Berbatov. That partnership effective in the first half or so, when Berbatov himself opening the scoring but it proved frustrating and not even when Fergie reverted back to the 4-3-3 did it make much difference.
“It’s a bad result for us and this is not the time of year to be dropping points,” said Sir Alex. “We were well beaten, simple as that.” It isn’t a good time to be dropping points. Both Chelsea and Arsenal prevailed in their league fixtures so United should be wary and will have to close the four-point gap as soon as possible. As we’ve seen time and time again, that can be done but if United play like they did against Everton, especially as they did in the second half, forget about it.
Manchester United head to Goodison Park on Saturday fresh from their Champions League victory at the San Siro on Tuesday. United may have rode their luck somewhat in the first half in Milan, but they thoroughly deserved their victory in the end. Everton were in European action on Tuesday as well, they saw off Sporting Lison 2-1 at Goodison and by all accounts put in a very impressive display.
United’s trip to Everton will not be an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. David Moyes’ side may not be quite in the fight for European places but serious injury problems cost them at the start of the season. I feel Everton are in a ‘false position’ at the moment and I’m confident they’ll be in the top six or seven by the end of the campaign. Everton have already done United a favour this season by beating Chelsea, in fact they’ve taken four points off Carlo Ancelotti’s side – proof if it were needed of just how dangerous Everton can be.
United managed to come through their trip to Italy relatively unscathed with no new injury concerns. Ryan Giggs has joined John O’Shea and Owen Haregreaves on the sidelines, while Nemanja Vidic may be forced to sit this one out as well and Nani is suspended.
Unlike United Everton have some serious injury problems at the moment and have recently been rocked by the news key man Marouane Fellaini will miss the rest of the season. Fellaini is a quality player and his presence will certainly be missed, there are also question marks over whether Tim Cahill will be able to face United as he has a calf strain. Phil Jagielka has been missing for the entire season and although he is close to fitness it is unlikely Moyes will risk him against United, while Philipe Senderos, Victor Anichebe and Tony Hibbert are all listed as doubtful.
The game against Everton could well be one where former strikers haunt their previous clubs. Wayne Rooney, formerly of Everton, has been in electric form for United of late and he would surely love to score at Goodison. Everton have former United man Louis Saha amongst their ranks and he is looking very good at the moment. I always rated Saha personally but injury cost him at Old Trafford, Everton have been more patient with the Frenchman and are reaping the rewards. Saha grabbed a brace against Chelsea and ‘King Louis’ is more than capable of finding the net against United.
I don’t really want to hazard a guess at the score or even result of this one. Everton should not be taken lightly and this could be a potential banana skin for Sir Alex Ferguson but I’m confident the United boss will have done his homework ahead of the trip to Merseyside. It won’t be an easy task but this is a fixture United really need to win, Chelsea travel to Wolves and Arsenal welcome Sunderland to the Emirates and I just can’t see United’s title rivals losing any points in those fixtures.
AC Milan 2-3 Manchester Utd
This was a funny-old game. Yet, for AC Milan, this was no laughing matter. Not since 1958 did Manchester United score last at the San Siro, but on this cold evening Milan could do little to prevent three goals being scored. One was lucky, the other two, however, finely crafted goals scored by Wayne Rooney. Two important goals which he will treasure on his 50th appearance in Europe.
This night was all about David Beckham. Not exactly a night to remember, having been subbed in the second half although ‘GoldenBalls’ played a part in the first goal, which came in the 3rd minute. His free-kick had found its way to Ronaldinho, whose deflected effort beat Van der Sar and United were stunned. It took a while for the Red Devils to get into the game and Milan could have doubled their lead as numerous chances fell to Huntelaar and Ronaldinho. If they had scored, the story would have been somewhat different. But, they paid the price and Paul Scholes equalised, fortuitously it must be said but it calmed the nerves.
The first half was all about Ronaldinho. Some fancy footwork here and there had made life hell for young Rafael, who sported a trim, and we saw shades of the ‘old’ Ronaldinho who terrorised defences week in week out. The second was all about Wayne Rooney, imperious and majestic. And in Darren Fletcher, United have a world-class central midfielder who is also versatile.
Sir Alex also comes in for some praise. Two pieces of tactical masterclass from the Scot had won United the tie. He displayed ruthlessness, berating Jonny Evans in front of TV cameras before half time giving him the famous hairdryer. But, when he had decided to change things around, he succeeded. He decided to play Fletcher on the left hand side where he had kept the dangerous Pato quiet but most importantly he assisted two goals. The other piece of tactical genius was when, with the score at 1-1, he replaced Nani for Valencia, who immediately set up the second which Rooney expertly headed past Dida. Valencia was superb in this game, evoking memories of the great Brazilian Garrincha.
Then, for a period of time it was easy. Rooney and the midfield had knocked around the ball like they would at Carrington. Milan’s back line was so high, at times it was up to the half way line – and beyond. Fletcher exploited this line and delivered a sumptuous cross which Rooney had easily headed home to make it three. United’s third away goal.
It wasn’t over. Man Utd looked complacent and they were. Rafael decided to bomb forward, but lost the ball in possession and Ronaldinho had exploited the gap left by the right back and found Clarence Seedorf who wonderfully back-heeled the ball into the net. Another downside for United was that Michael Carrick was sent off, his second bookable offence, for kicking the ball away deep in injury time.
The tie isn’t over, but Milan now they require two goals at Old Trafford. That won’t be easy, but United have to avoid being complacent. United will be happy with this result, and without doubt you’d think they’ve done enough. Thank you Fergie. Thank you Fletcher. Thank you Wayne. Thanks for an absolute classic.
“In fairness, we never looked like we were going to score.”– Sir Alex Ferguson after the 3-0 defeat two years ago.
When Manchester United last faced AC Milan at the San Siro back in 2007, they failed to turn up. 3-0 was the final result of that semi-final second leg tie, but it well and truly could have been a cricket score. On that wet and miserable night in Milan, we witnessed a United side lacking confidence. You feel, however, this time around United are far better prepared.
AC Milan are not the same team as they were three years ago. No longer are they the force in Serie A, or viewed as favorites in the Champions League, Milan have had an unhappy last few years. They won’t win the league title this year, they sit in 3rd place, eight points behind leader Internazionale. Nor will they win the Champions League. I’m confident United will be too strong for them – over both legs – and prevail.
Despite Manchester United’s terrible record against Milan in Europe, you feel now the balance has really shifted. It’s time to put things right. And the Red Devils are the better side going into this game although playing at the San Siro will not be easy. When Man Utd faced Milan three years back, it was the majestic and inspirational Kaka who led from the front but since his big money move to Madrid in the summer, the Italian outfit have found it difficult to replace him.
Why else should United be confident? They have Wayne Rooney, of course. His role has changed since the start of the season, becoming more of a goalscorer and most importantly United have found a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo without forking out the £70m on a overrated winger such as Frank Ribery. Plus, Man Utd look like they’re back to their best, their recent results suggesting this.
However, I should single out some players to watch out for, but I’d think you’d want to hear an expert’s view instead, am I right? When I interviewed journalist Gabriele Marcotti last month, I asked him to single out the players to look out for. This is what he said:
“Well, there are plenty of familiar faces in the Milan side: Andrea Pirlo, Ronaldinho, Rino Gattuso and that chap David Beckham too…I’ll point out some guys who have been playing well and may not be as familiar. Pato has not had the best season up front, but he is an outstanding striker. He’s still just twenty years old, but he’s fast, tricky and is actually very good in the air. He’ll be superstar, no doubt about it, but, as I said, he’s not having a great year.”
“Borriello is a busy, workhorse striker who can be a handful as a centerforward. Not much in terms of ability, but he holds the ball up well and does a lot of the grunt work for the old guys around him. In defence, Thiago Silva is an outstanding central defender and he forms a very good partnership with Alessandro Nesta, who’s back after missing nearly all of last year through injury.”
I still think United should be confident. It won’t be easy, of course it won’t, playing in the fortress that is the San Siro but the balance of power has shifted somewhat in the last few years and it will be Milan who will be wary of last year’s finalists Man United.