United’s European heartbreak still provides bright spots

Manchester United’s loss to Real Madrid is without doubt one of their most painful in their recent history. In terms of feeling an injustice after a result, it’ll rank up there with the Champions League exit to Porto in 2004 and the Premier League title decider loss to Chelsea in 2010. Amongst all the doom, gloom and incompetent ref-bashing though, there are things to look at from a positive light.

For the first six months of the season, United were damned with faint praise, sometimes less. Phrases such as “average team dominating an average league” and “worst United side in years” were constantly bandied about.

This was unfair, because in all honesty, people are comparing a developing, transitional United team to the fully developed teams of 1999 and 2008. Surely a more accurate measure is to compare them to another transitional side, for example the United team of 2004-2006? That team was barely competing for the title let alone winning it, yet they ended up becoming one of the greatest sides in club history – so how good could this crop potentially be in a couple of years?

The performances against Real Madrid show that there’s certainly a lot to be positive about.

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Injustice: Sir Alex Ferguson will still be raging but has a lot to be proud of. All rights to this image belong to Tom Jenkins and The Guardian.

For a start, Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics over the 2 legs were absolutely spot on. In fact, his tactics, so often criticised last season, have been excellent over the last few months (this is borne out by United’s terrific record in the big domestic games so far this season.)

Bar a shaky opening 45 minutes at the Bernabeu, his side looked cool and intelligent. They smothered Real Madrid, defended with a plan and were dangerous on the break. Even with 10 men, they had Real on the ropes for the final 15 minutes. Jose Mourinho’s claim that the best side lost was quite clearly an attempt to curry favour with the United hierarchy – but it was also very true.

If this tie had been 12 months ago, Madrid would probably have romped to victory. As it was, they edged through, aided by a pretty ridiculous refereeing decision. If these two sides were to meet in another 12 months, you’d think a United side with an extra year’s experience under their belt would be even more of a threat.

Bear in mind that David De Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck had never played a Champions League knockout tie before last month. Jonny Evans had only played a handful. Yet all of these players sparkled at some point over the two legs. Welbeck in particular was magnificent, while Rafael played Ronaldo in the second leg as well as anyone could. Clearly there is a lot of potential for the years to come.

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Coming of age: Danny Welbeck has won rave reviews for his displays in both matches.

In the immediate future, a first domestic double since 1996 is still a possibility, as well as the opportunity to gain a record points total in the Premier League era. The players will need lifting but motivation has always been one of Sir Alex’s strong points.

United used the heartbreak of last season’s title loss to spur themselves on this year. As Gary Neville has recently said, they have their “title heads on” and seem like they are determined to wrestle their crown back from Manchester City. Something similar could be on the cards from a European perspective. The rage and hurt they are currently feeling is exactly what Sir Alex will be telling them to remember next season.

Potential PR disaster brewing for Manchester United

There are times when people marvel at Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to keep up with modern football. His managerial career spans almost four decades, during which time the game has undergone radical changes both on and off the pitch.

At Manchester United’s end of season awards ceremony in May, he described himself as “a dinosaur”. This hasn’t stopped him from racking up countless trophies over the years, nor has it stopped him from dealing with many tricky off pitch situations.

Yet there are times – not too many it must be said – where it becomes obvious he is a man from a different era. His criticism of defender Rio Ferdinand over his refusal to wear the Kick It Out T-shirt before the game against Stoke City provides one such example. Ferguson, renowned for very rarely criticising his own players, said Ferdinand had let the club down and would be “dealt with” (a phrase which can sound menacing enough from most managers, let alone from the game’s biggest disciplinarian). He also stated that he had been left embarrassed by Ferdinand’s actions, having told journalists on Friday that everybody should and would be wearing the T-shirts prior to the game.

With all due respect to Sir Alex, this really isn’t about him. Rio’s brother Anton was the victim of racial abuse in one of football’s highest profile sagas. The family suffered an immense strain, including Anton being sent bullets and death threats. Rio’s international career effectively came to an end over the situation (despite Roy Hodgson’s claims to the contrary), while the perpetrator John Terry received a mere four match ban, with a £220,000 fine on top.

Making a stand: Ferdinand’s decision to not wear an anti-racism T-shirt angered his manager. All rights to this photo are reserved by Getty Images.

If Ferdinand feels that Kick it Out are not doing enough to stamp out racism, he is under no obligation to wear a T-shirt with their message on it (incidentally, as Gary Lineker pointed out on Match Of The Day, not wearing it actually creates more awareness of the issue). As much as Sir Alex likes to have the final word over what his players do, his attempt to punish Ferdinand will be seen as crass and damaging. His comments about Reading striker Jason Roberts, who led the calls for the boycott, were greeted with much dismay. In particular, his opinion that “there shouldn’t be sheep wandering off” smacked of someone who may have meant well but went about things in the wrong way. Does he think that players should be like sheep and blindly follow the crowd? Should they not be allowed to have their own opinions, particularly if they are in the group of players who are most affected by the issue of racism?

A couple of other things to note. Firstly, Ferdinand was not the only player to boycott the T-shirts. Aside from his brother Anton and Roberts, Manchester City duo Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott took the same option – Lescott has been doing so since 2007, after witnessing Newcastle player Emre allegedly racially abuse his former Everton colleague Joseph Yobo and receive no FA punishment. Another Reading player, Gareth McCleary, Stoke’s Kenwyne Jones, QPR’s Shaun Wright-Phillips and Junior Hoilett, and Everton’s Sylvain Distin and Victor Anichebe were also seen without the T-shirts. The key thing to note is that NONE of these players had to suffer the indignity of their managers publicly rebuking them for it. Stoke manager Tony Pulis stated that players had “the right to say yes or no”, whilst Reading’s Brian McDermott said he respected the views of his players and gave them his “100%” backing.

Secondly, and something that many people seem to have forgotten, is that there are United players past and present with previous for this. Back in 2005, when a Stand Up Speak Out anti-racism campaign had been launched, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Roy Carroll and Roy Keane refused to wear the tracksuits (Neville had earlier spoken about Nike cheapening the campaign by looking for a commercial advantage). For some reason, I can’t recall there being a similar backlash.

Much as Kenny Dalglish received huge criticism for his public behaviour during the Luis Suarez affair, Ferguson will receive the same bad press, and rightly so. While Dalglish was misguidedly trying to defend his own player, Ferguson has done the exact opposite, creating an image of potential disharmony in the camp. Some years ago, he featured in a documentary. One part of it can be seen on the following link . If you fast forward to 4.15, you will see him talking about his first manager at Rangers – Scot Symon, somebody Ferguson had huge respect for. Ferguson then goes on to say that there was one thing he took from him above anything else…..the art of never criticising his players in public.

Wayne Rooney’s Injury: Temporary Pain Relief for Sir Alex’s Headache?

It goes without saying that the loss of one of your star players, a man who scored 35 goals last season and is currently the club’s 4th highest goalscorer of all time, should be a cause rather than a cure for managerial headache. But when Sir Alex Ferguson analyses the situation, he may feel differently.

It was already well documented before Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Fulham on Saturday, that Wayne Rooney’s opening game performance at Everton was disappointing (although the same could be said for many of his team mates). Indeed, his manager’s decision to bench him for the Cottagers’ visit was seen by many as a necessary kick up the backside. For a long time, Rooney seemed to have near undroppable status. Bouts of poor form and even on pitch strops at team mates, which seem to have surfaced in the last 2 years, went without significant punishment. Now, this may not be the case.

Things to ponder? Wayne Rooney is stretchered off against Fulham. All rights to this image are reserved by Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images.

Rooney’s two preferred positions are as the Number 9 or the Number 10. Goalscorer or playmaker. The reason for his undroppable status was that he was by far the best option in either position. Summer acquisitions have changed this. Robin Van Persie, the only player in the Premier League to score more than Rooney last season, is at the very least his equal as a Number 9. Shinji Kagawa, last season’s Bundesliga Player Of The Year, offers a far more fluid and skilful option as a Number 10. Both have had excellent starts to their United careers and this is the reason for Sir Alex’s headache.

It seems folly to change a winning and attractive combination, but so is leaving out a player of Rooney’s calibre and experience. He could of course be moved into a wide forward position (i.e. David Villa), but United have a plethora of wing options already. Increased competition is a good thing, but it depends on how well the resources can be handled (particularly when one of them happens to be an A-lister). The emergence of Javier Hernandez in 2010/11 would surely have motivated Dimitar Berbatov, but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference as the Mexican’s form and ability to increase his team’s cohesion meant he regularly kept his place. Hernandez then went through the same thing himself last year due to the emergence of Danny Welbeck. Generally speaking, there will always be 2 forwards who play the bulk of the games. People like to point out that the Treble winning side of 1999 had 4 forwards who didn’t mind rotation (although there was still a clear first choice of Yorke and Cole) but that was a very different situation. Teddy Sheringham was 33, whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the rare personality of somebody who was happy to play Supersub despite his considerable talent. You wouldn’t say that about Rooney, Van Persie or Kagawa would you?

Flying start for the Dutchman: Van Persie opens his United account.

Some United fans have bemoaned the loss of the raging bull Rooney, who could turn a match in an instant and terrorise opposing defences with pace, power and skill. He seems to have gone from somebody who drew comparisons with Gazza and George Best, to somebody who’s “just” effective. I say that in inverted commas because we shouldn’t devalue what he currently is. He’s become one of the world’s top centre forwards. His goal record over the last 2 years for United stands at an extremely impressive 51 in 86, and the majority of managers in the game would snap him up in an instant if they could. However, there is the nagging sense of regret that he could, and maybe still can be, so much more. Whilst his finishing has improved immensely, his all round game has deteriorated over the last year. How often does somebody score 35 goals and still not get voted as his club’s player of the season? That says as much about him as it does for the actual winner, with all due respect to the brilliant Antonio Valencia.

Rooney’s nasty looking gash is expected to keep him out for around a month, which is undoubtedly robbing both club and country of a world-class option. But had he not suffered the injury, that may have been all he was at Old Trafford for a while – an option. His lay-off temporarily eases the selection dilemna for his manager. Of course, loss of form/injuries to other players are all perfectly likely, which means he could get back in the team and keep himself there with good performances. However, should Van Persie and Kagawa continue to flourish in his absence, his return will bring back this unfamiliar headache for his manager.