FM

Feb 282014
 

The first legs of all the last 16 matches in the Champions League have now been played and we are starting to get a clearer idea of which teams might well be heading for glory in Lisbon in May. It proved to be a surprisingly fruitful round of games for the away teams with six of the eight first leg matches won by the travelling team, in convincing fashion.  Those six teams are now firmly in the driving seat to qualify for the quarter-finals while there was just the one home victory and the one draw in the latest round of matches.

There is no doubt that performance of the round came from Real Madrid as they demolished Schalke in Germany to all but secure their place in the last eight with a 6-1 victory. Real put on a startling display of attacking football with Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema all scoring twice as they routinely brushed aside a decent Schalke side at home. It was a breath-taking display from Carlo Ancelotti’s men and with their progress now safe even before the return leg, they have been cut from 5/1 into 4/1 for the Champions League betting outright.

It has been a difficult round of Champions League fixtures for the English teams with only Chelsea avoiding defeat in the first leg as they drew 1-1 away against Galatasary. Arsenal were beaten 2-0 at home by defending Champions, Bayern Munich, after they had their keeper sent off and asking the Gunners to overturn a two deficit in Germany is surely going to be a bridge too far. The same can be said for Man City who also lost 2-0 at home in their match with Barcelona which has left them with a mountain to climb if they are to make the last eight for the first time.

City and Arsenal can perhaps be forgiven for their defeats against top opposition but it was Man United who suffered the most when it came to the Champions League over the past couple of weeks. The United players produced a limp performance as they lost 2-0 in Greece to Olympiakos and are now faced with a tough ask to qualify, despite initially appearing to have a very favourable draw on paper. It was the latest in a string of poor performances from United who are in danger of slipping out of the Champions League for the first time given their current league position. United will now have to come back from a 2-0 deficit in Europe for the first time in 30 years and while it is not out of the question, there is no doubt they will need to play a whole lot better at Old Trafford.

Real Madrid, Bayern and Barcelona may have stolen most of the headlines during the first legs of the last 16 but one team that continues to make stealthy progress is Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side came away from the San Siro with a 1-0 win against AC Milan and they are now hot favourites to progress given that away goal. Diego Simeone has been working wonders in the Spanish capital this season and Atletico are likely to attract plenty of backers over the next few days, with a price of 12/1 likely to appeal to each-way punters in the current Champions League winners market.

The other two teams to have taken the upper hand in the first legs of their last 16 matches are PSG and Dortmund who both managed to score four goals away from home. PSG were perhaps the most impressive as they beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 in Germany with Zlatan Ibrahimovich once again causing havoc for the Ligue 1 side. PSG have been a popular alternative to the market leaders in the Champions League outright betting all season and are now as short as 10/1 to win the trophy which looks a fair price. Dortmund have not been quite the same force this season as they were last, but nevertheless they are set for the quarter-finals after beating Zenit 4-2 in Russia in their first leg match.

Much of the interest in the second legs of the last 16 will focus on Man United looking to overhaul Olympiakos, while Chelsea are expected to overcome Galatasary at Stamford Bridge in the other finely poised tie. There is no doubt whatsoever though that it is Real Madrid who have taken the eye in this latest round of matches with many now starting to believe that Los Blancos can finally claim their 10th European Cup victory. They have a coach in Carlo Ancelotti that has tasted success in the competition as both a player and a coach, while their front three of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema is bang in-form as we head into the business end of the campaign.

Sep 302013
 

After losing his home debut against Atletico Madrid, Gareth Bale vows to keep on improving after his move to Real Madrid, and is keen to pay back the fans for their warm welcome.

“What I have to do is play a good game and continue improving,” he said. “I will prepare in the right way and try to help the team get the three points. I have to play better every day to pay back the affection the fans showed me on my debut.”

Aug 232013
 

German newspaper, Bild, has reported that Manchester United are set to make a bid of £38m+ to sign Mesut Özil from Real Madrid.

Josep Pedrerol, who is a presenter on Spanish football TV programme Punto Pelota, claims that the deal is dependent on Gareth Bale’s transfer from Tottenham Hotspur.

“We have already reported that Real Madrid in the next ten days will receive a range of 45 to 50 million for a major player,” he said. “The offer is now coming Thursday or Friday. It is a top player who wants to be there at the World Cup. He thinks that his position is in danger due to the transfer of Bale and that he secures his World Cup participation with his move.”

Ozil is concerned that with the recent purchase of Isco, he will struggle to get a regular starting place ahead of the World Cup next summer. He was also criticised by manager Carlo Ancelotti after Real Madrid’s opening game of the season against Real Betis.

“Between defense and midfield we have a big hole,” he said. “If we want to play good football, players like Isco and Ozil must also do defensive work.”

Jul 092013
 

It’s no secret that the lads in the top flight of football are earning an absolute fortune, but once they have finished buying women, houses with swimming pools, pedicures for their wives’ Chihuahuas and more women, believe it or not, but they often still have enough left over for some pretty fancy cars. British used car company Autoweb thought it would be fun to look at ten of the most interesting cars owned by footballers. It turns out that Ashley Cole can’t handle more than one woman at the time, hence the two-seater, Messi is saving up for something special, Rooney is as subtle as a brick, Henry isn’t quite mixing with the highflyers and Cristiano Ronaldo is just as flashy off the pitch as he is on it.

Jul 052013
 

Isco was unveiled to the press this week after making the £23m move to Real Madrid. Manchester City looked like favourites to sign him at one stage but the Spanish giants swooped in with an offer the young star couldn’t refuse.

During Isco’s first press conference, one of the questions asked was about the name of his dog. It turns out that he named him “Messi”.

“I also had another dog called Figo,” he said. “It’s just an anecdote. I’m not going to change my dog’s name from Messi now because if I did, he would ignore me.”

Jun 102013
 

Lewandowski to Manchester United

12/12/12: Hans-Joachim Watzke, club executive: “As often as I am talking to Robert, I do not have the impression he wants to leave us. We will have to make decisions in this case at the end of the season. We may decide on economical factors. Would it be best to cash in a big fee? Or would it be even better to keep Lewandowski to ensure we are more likely to qualify for the Champions League with him in our side, as this would guarantee us big income? It’s a decision we will have to take. It’s our decision. It’s not something to be decided by others.”

28/2/13 – Michael Zorc, Borussia Dortmund sporting director: “Robert Lewandowski is not going to sign a new contract. We will have to see if he is going to be on the move in the summer. His contract runs until 2014. There are two options. Either he goes in June or he stays for another year.”

21/4/13 – Sir Alex Ferguson, then Manchester United manager: “Big signings? You are normally talking about forwards but it’s complicated enough as it is with the forwards I’ve got.” On his interest in Lewandowski: “Yeah, but Bayern Munich are strong with that too. We just have to wait and see where we are in terms of if we win the league. Then it may be different.”

25/4/13 – Maik Barthel, Lewandowski’s agent: “We are in agreement with a club and have the right to change this summer. All the claims of Dortmund are met.”

9/6/13 – Michael Zorc: “We have communicated to the player and his advisers that we will not agree to a transfer to FC Bayern this summer.”

10/6/13 – Reports emerge linking Manchester United with renewed interest in Lewandowski after the relationship has soured between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund following the sale of Gotze.

Higuain to Juventus

27/5/12 – Higuain: “I am excited by what is to come at Madrid and with the Argentina national team. I am going through a great moment. I have won La Liga with Madrid and I am with the national team again. I want to enjoy this. Madrid’s last match really touched me. The fact that all the fans asked me to stay, that my team-mates even thought about asking me that, or even Sergio Ramos’ comments before the game. This was one of the best moments, if not the best moment that I have experienced at this club, in these five years. These are the memories that will stay with you forever.”

4/6/13 – Higuain: “There have already been offers and I hope that Madrid do the best for me and themselves. Arsenal? They would suit me, I’m still young and I have goals.”

7/6/13 – Reports claim that Arsene Wenger has met with Higuain and his father Jorge in Paris.

10/6/13: Beppe Marotta, Juventus general manger: “Higuain is a great player but Real Madrid are looking to appoint their new coach and therefore they have not yet defined their market strategies. Consequently, Higuain is not on the market for the moment but when a new coach is appointed we will talk again with Real Madrid.”

Cavani to Chelsea

5/2/13 – Cavani: “I know nothing about Arsenal’s interest,” Cavani told Radio Onda Cero. “I have only heard about it now. My future? I have a contract for four years but in football you never know what to expect. Barcelona and Real Madrid are teams which stimulate the imagination. But I only think about the present.”

30/5/13 – Cavani: “It’s all a mystery and no-one knows what will happen. Eventually it will all be sorted. There is nothing concrete at the moment. Only when you sign a contract are you part of a team. It is not a distraction for me. I’m comfortable with what I do.”

7/6/13 – Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli president: “The budget for the transfer market will be based in relation to the Financial Fair Play rules. If Cavani is sold then I’ll reinvest all of the €63million (£53.5m) of his release clause. There is interest from Chelsea in Cavani, they’ll call me in the next few hours. I’ll be delighted if he stays, but if he leaves then he will be adequately replaced.”

10/6/13 – Reports emerge that Rafa Benitez is keen to bring Fernando Torres to Napoli in a part-exchange deal for Cavani.

Jun 052013
 

When Jose Mourinho was manager of Chelsea the first time around he blamed his side’s failure to keep up with Manchester United in 2006-2007 on the referees, particularly in light to a penalty Cristiano Ronaldo won against Middlesbrough.

“The whole world knows how Mourinho is,” Ronaldo responded, when asked about Mourinho’s comments. “He always has something to say to gain attention, especially when he’s not happy with the work of his players. He never recognises he is wrong.”

Chelsea had started the season as overwhelming favourites, after adding Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko, amongst others, to their title winning squad. In contrast, United had sold their top scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and bought no replacement. Their only new signing was Michael Carrick. With Mourinho a few weeks away from losing the title, he reacted angrily to Ronaldo’s assessment.

“A player who wants to be the best in the world needs to behave well, to keep quiet and have sufficient honesty and maturity to verify that, against the facts that I have shown, there is no argument on his part,” Mourinho said. “If he says that it is false that Manchester United have conceded penalties that were not given, it’s lies. And if he is a liar he will never reach the highest level that he desires in football.”

These were hypocritical comments for Mourinho to make, given how regularly Didier Drogba dived, but the point about lying was an odd one, particularly in light of his own recent history.

Mourinho had claimed that he saw Barcelona manager Frank Rikjaard enter referee Anders Frisk’s office at half time in a Champions League game in 2005.

“When I saw Rijkaard entering the referee’s dressing room I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When Didier Drogba was sent off (after half-time) I wasn’t surprised.”

Frisk received death threats from Chelsea fans and was forced in to early retirement as a result. Mourinho later confessed he had lied when he said he saw Frisk meeting with Rijkaard.

“I saw nothing,” Mourinho revealed. “I wasn’t involved. I am always the first man to leave the pitch at halftime.”

Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to protect his young superstar and highlighted Mourinho’s hypocritical behaviour.

“Jose seems to be on some sort of personal crusade about regulations and honesty, suspicions in the game,” he said. “Everyone has an opinion on things. Ronaldo has an opinion, Carlos Queiroz has an opinion, but that doesn’t mean to say they are liars. He has accused Barcelona in the past, he’s accused the Swedish referee (Anders Frisk), he put the German referee (Markus Merk) under pressure the other night. He suggested their players were going to hunt down Drogba. Jesus Christ, he’s gone on and on and on. It’s a rant all the time now.”

Still, Mourinho wasn’t finished with Ronaldo yet, and after Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Bolton on the day United came back from 2-0 down to beat Everton 4-2, Mourinho ripped in to Ronaldo again.

“It’s a game where a kid had some statements not very… not showing maturity and respect, maybe difficult childhood, no education, maybe the consequence of that.”

Mourinho was raised in relative middle-class comfort in the city of Setubal, whilst Ronaldo spent his childhood in the working-class district of Funchal in the Madeira Islands.

Ferguson was again quick to defend his player, hinting that whilst Mourinho might be university educated, he was lacking in principles.

“It is really below the belt to bring class into it,” Ferguson said. “I don’t know why he has done this. Maybe he is trying to unsettle the boy. Just because you come from a poor, working-class background does not mean to say you are not educated. What Ronaldo has are principles – that is why he has not responded to it. Other people are educated but have no principles.”

The player and manager had to bury the hatchet when Mourinho became the manager of Real Madrid, the club Ronaldo left United for a year earlier.

Mourinho has since left Madrid but Ronaldo was not involved in the final match day squad because of a supposed back injury, yet he was seen out clubbing until 7am a few days later.

Speaking with Spanish TV show Punto Pelota, Mourinho has revealed some of the friction he still had with the player, with him seemingly not a fan of Ronaldo’s attitude.

“I had only one problem with him, very simple, very basic,” Mourinho said. “Which was when a coach criticises a player from a tactical viewpoint trying to improve what in my view could have been improved. And at that moment he didn’t take it very well because maybe he thinks he knows everything and the coach cannot help him to develop more. Cristiano has had three fantastic seasons with me, I don’t know if they were the best of his career because he had some fantastic moments with Manchester United.”

Ronaldo has reportedly sold his house in Madrid and is looking to move clubs. Can we rule out a reunion with Mourinho at Chelsea?

Apr 032013
 

August 3rd 2000: “I have still got three years left on my current contract and I am as happy as I have ever been at Liverpool. If Liverpool want me for even longer, I would be delighted to discuss it. I am very proud of playing for Liverpool and have no intention of leaving.”

September 18th 2000: “It’s very rare for one player to stay at the same club for 15 years or more. So perhaps it is unrealistic to think I will spend the whole of my career at Anfield. All the best players in the world seemed to be there and some of England’s top performers, such as Paul Gascoigne and David Platt, were being tempted over by big money contracts. I thought how glamorous it would all be.”

September 19th 2000: “When I was an England fan you would want to rely on certain people. You knew with Alan if he had half a chance he would score. I do not know what it is but Alan Shearer scored in a lot of big games. When you used to watch England sometimes you felt it needed Alan to do something. It was almost as if the team relied on him. It was the same with Gary Lineker. When I was 10 I watched the 1990 World Cup and I was there saying ‘Come on Lineker’. I want people to feel the same way about me. You want people to believe in you. It’s nice to be the one who is relied upon by everybody else. I want to be regarded as a big game player. I believe I am good enough.”

February 28th 2001: “Injuries have crippled me in a way. What can you do when you get injured? You’re sitting there, twiddling your thumbs and just waiting for yourself to get better so you can prove something. I had a flying start to the season and then got a freak bang on the head and was out for five games. After that it’s been stop-start all season. But the last thing I want is to be labelled injury-prone. It’s the worst thing you could be known as.”

May 6th 2001: “Liverpool have asked me to negotiate a new contract and we’ll wait until the end of the season before talks. I’ve got two years of my current deal left and if all goes well I’ll be happy to continue as a Liverpool player. I’m only 21, I’m learning and progressing here and I know by the time I’m 25 or 26 I’ll be a more all round player.”

May 12th 2001: “The long-term future of the club is looking good and I am going to be a part of it. Liverpool have told me they want me to stay and I am pleased about that. I have been at the club 10 years and the future has never looked as good. I am excited about what is to come. There is so much optimism here because we are a club going forward.”

September 26th 2001: “I am delighted to sign this new contract – there has never been a thought in my mind about any other club than Liverpool. I am only 21 and yet this is the fourth professional contract I have signed with the club – they have always been incredibly fair by reviewing contracts early and I think that this is one of the many reasons there is such loyalty at Liverpool.”

April 17th 2002 on missing out on PFA shortlist: “I don’t want to sound bitter about it but if it was picked at the start of this year, I think I would have been in it, with the start to the season that I’d had, and the goals in Germany and against Albania. When it’s picked, you often think to the moment and van Nistelrooy, Henry and Pires were then on fire. I’m not doubting that they’ve had a great season as they deserve it. But we won the Charity Shield and Super Cup at the start of the season when I scored a lot of goals. If you stopped there, I might have got into the team.”

April 29th 2002: “Everyone would love to win the title, and it’s a major goal of mine. I am sure we are going to do it in the next year or two. We have shown a lot of improvement in the last three or four years, and I hope we can keep that going. Every year we have made a giant step forward. You just have to look at the points total.”

September 5th 2002: Owen confirmed as vice-captain of England

March 2nd 2003: “My immediate ambitions are to help Liverpool turn the corner and end the season on a high note. I still have this season and two more left on my contract so I won’t be going anywhere in a hurry. In an ideal world, and in the long term, I want to help Liverpool become the most successful club in the world again.”

April 24th 2003: “In the previous years, we had been getting closer and closer. When we started off great this season, I think everyone thought this was our year. We never said it in the press, but I think that was the general feeling around the ground, among the supporters and among the players. Then it went downhill and you lose a bit of confidence in yourself, in the team, in everything really. Hence we had a lot of bad results. If we can restore that confidence, have everyone believe in each other again and get on a good run – maybe we need one or two more players – I think we can win the League in the next year or the next couple of years.”

June 11th 2003: “Will I play abroad? It is impossible to say,” said Owen. “If Liverpool win the league every year, there is not any decision to make. I am moving into a new house soon and I am not just going to jump up and go. If we are a successful team, then I will always be happy. I am very happy at Liverpool. In an ideal situation, Liverpool are going to be challenging for the league next year. That’s what I need to do, challenge for the league and to play in the Champions League.”

September 2nd 2003: “I’m a Liverpool player and that is how I see myself in the future. Of course, being in the Champions League is important. I belong there and so do Liverpool. But I am sure there will be talks over a new contract soon and I am just as sure I will sign.”

November 16th 2003: “I believe my ambitions can be fulfilled at Liverpool. I find it a little insulting that, after 12 years’ service, my loyalty is being questioned. I have signed five contracts with Liverpool and on each occasion they have been sorted out very quickly and satisfactorily. The comments which have been made about me this week have come from people who don’t know the truth. I wouldn’t normally comment on gossip and speculation but I felt I should put the record straight for all Liverpool fans. I am certain 99 percent of them understand the situation anyway. But, as usual, these stories have been fuelled by people that simply don’t know the facts. The stories which followed resulted from some comments which I gave to a magazine several months ago. Some of the words I never even said and the rest were taken completely out of context. They have led to a lot of false claims that I will walk out on Liverpool if we don’t get into the Champions League. It has all got completely out of hand. I want every supporter to know that I am as committed to Liverpool as any player at the club. I have been the same ever since I first came to Anfield as an 11-year-old.”

May 10th 2004: “We will sort something out amicably next summer. I won’t just up and leave on a Bosman. I have the rest of this season and all next still left on my existing contract but talks have already started on a new one. Inevitably, they are complex though and don’t get done in just a week. But I certainly see myself at Liverpool next year. Why not? I’m not in football for the money. And that is largely what it means when players sit out their contracts and go for free. I’ve got a reasonable collection of trophies already, but I want more and that’s the main thing in my mind.”

June 5th 2004: “I still have one year remaining on my contract. So it is not the good moment to talk about my departure. It was important we got Champions League qualification. The most important thing for me is to continue to win as many trophies as possible, in a great club, and Liverpool can be this one. In a perfect world, it would be the greatest team in the world, and I would stay my entire career. I am dreaming about that. Now we have to see if Liverpool will quickly become a great club again. A footballer’s career is short and it is important to be at the right place at the right time.”

August 14th 2004 on signing for Real Madrid: “I am so proud to be wearing the number 11 shirt and I’d like to thank everyone for making me so welcome here. I’m going back for a few days, but will be back on Thursday. It has been a nice couple of days here. I would like to say a special thank you for being given the opportunity to play for the best team in the world.”

August 15th 2004: “I came here because it will make me a better player and a better person. Raul, Ronaldo and Morientes are three of the best strikers in the world and I am conscious of how hard I will have to work to get an opportunity here. Real Madrid is the club of champions. It’s a fantastic challenge. I am impatient and I can’t wait to pull on the famous shirt of Real Madrid.”

August 23rd 2004: “Money never came into it, just pure ambition. I never had any problems with Rafael Benitez and, if the transfer had broken down, I was ready to resume my career at Anfield. I said to the club that I wanted them to get a fee. If I was disloyal, I’d have gone on a Bosman next summer. As for being a Galactico, I blush when I hear the word. I am not going to call myself one, but I wouldn’t mind if other people start calling me that in a month or two because of my performances on the field. I expect I’ll have to sit on the bench once or twice, but so will everyone. It is a challenge but that is why I came here.”

October 5th 2004: “I am aware of what is being said about me in this country and it is upsetting that people are not more supportive. I thought we were meant to be encouraging our top players to take on the challenge of proving themselves abroad. I heard there was talk over the weekend about me coming back to Liverpool. Give me a chance. I have only been in Spain for six league matches. And I have never been the quitting type.”

October 20th 2004 on his first goal for Real Madrid: “This was a massive game, so to score the winner in front of your home fans in a Champions League match was a great feeling. I have put in some good performances, and some okay performances since I arrived here, so it was important for me to score a goal because that is an important part of my game. It is just a relief to get off the mark. Things are slowly getting better and better for me now. It is not easy living in a hotel room all the time, but I think everything is starting to come together.”

March 28th 2005 on Newcastle link: “I have utmost respect for Graeme Souness but I’m happy at Real Madrid. Obviously with me not playing as much as I would like there’s speculation – but that’s all it is, speculation. I don’t have to make any points out there now, I’ve been successful at Madrid, scored goals and the fans are pleased with me. The players respect me, and I think I’ve already proved myself.”

April 8th 2005: “Would I return to Liverpool? I would have nothing against it if I had to move for one reason or another. I left Liverpool on good terms, they are still the first result I look out for and I have a lot of friends there. I have no bitterness at all to Liverpool and they are still a club very close to my heart. It’s well documented I don’t like sitting on the bench, so let’s hope things improve.”

May 27th 2005 on Liverpool winning the Champions League: “Who knows if they would have got to the final if I was leading the attack or if I would have done things differently from Milan Baros. People will say my timing for leaving Anfield was suspect but how was I, or anyone else, to know that Liverpool were about to go on the most incredible run to the final? A few months ago when they had been knocked out of the FA Cup at Burnley and were struggling outside the Champions League places, people were speculating that it might be a disastrous season for Liverpool. There are so many turning points but now that they have come good I am thrilled for some of my old colleagues such as Stevie Gerrard, Didi Hamann and Jamie Carragher. I hope it does kick-start a great new era for Liverpool.”

Mar 182013
 

Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro. The ‘second’ greatest player in the world and of his generation. Lionel Messi must haunt him on a daily basis as he goes about his business being the best player Real Madrid currently have past, present and future. Comparison after comparison, record after broken record. If you were to feel sorry for one player, Fabrice Muamba aside, Cristiano Ronaldo has to be one unlucky fellow.

He was never to know that during his rise at Sporting Lisbon as an 18 year old that the apparent greatest player of our generation was lighting up Barcelona B in the country next door.

Here is a guy who has ‘invented’, for want of a better word, his own free kick technique. To the point where players such as Gareth Bale has cottoned on, and himself a talented player, even uses the same posture before the referee has even blown his whistle to take the set piece. This free kick is pretty much unstoppable and shows the measure of a man’s willingness to train himself.

The first time that Cristiano was seen on the world stage was when he made a mockery of Rio Ferdinand in a match to inaugurate Sporting’s new stadium. Not that this is that hard to do nowadays but when you’re that good, to the point where Ferdinand pleaded with Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him, you knew there was a great talent here.

Any fan of English football could see the raw talent that Ronaldo possessed but he brought with him the frailness and a willingness to go to ground at any attempt. This, knee-jerkingly caused the media to get on his back because: 1. He plays for Manchester United and 2. Nobody liked a diving foreigner. Diving is now commonplace in the game and it is no different to claiming a corner kick that never was or the way in which a player will claim he has not fouled a player when he knows he has. The art of misleading the referee has been around for decades. The point here, is that now Cristiano has filled the large boots he created for himself with his extreme ego, now what would you say if he dived during Real Madrid’s next game? Probably not much right.

Quite often he is compared to Lionel Messi and that is what humans do unfortunately. To claim something to be better you have to compare it to its nearest rival.  However in this case it is difficult to compare. Ronaldo is older yes and of late hasn’t scored as much as Messi however that doesn’t make him any less spectacular. Something that sticks out is that Ronaldo played for the U18’s all the way to the senior squad for Sporting in one season. Ronaldo was breaking records from the youngest of ages, just like his counterpart. There is no point picking out each record as there are so many but a few are highlighted below:

Beating George Best’s tally for a winger in a single season with 33 goals.

First Premier League player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award. The fastest player to get to 100 goals for Real Madrid.

First player in La Liga to score 40 goals two seasons in a row.

First player to score against every La Liga team in one season.

First player to score in every final he has played in.

First player to win the European Golden Shoe in two different countries.

He is now on 188 goals in 186 appearances for Real Madrid and that is remarkable in itself. There is only one other player that can match such a goals to game ratio and that’s the unfortunate part here. In any other century or dimension, Ronaldo would be the best player of his generation. By quite a distance too. He is the finest specimen you could imagine in terms of physique and mental strength. This has all come from dedication to the sport in which he loves. The media like to paint this comparison with Messi as Good vs Evil and not to take anything away from Messi but he’s had his own moments of petulance and cheating throughout his illustrious career. Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s tutelage, Ronaldo became a man first and footballer second. Now he is the the most expensive signing in football history with a €1bn buy-out clause.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Ronaldo having to watch Messi pick up four Ballon d’Ors in a row when he’s done nothing wrong himself. You can say he conducts himself in an inflammatory way however that should not take away from his ability in the confines of a football stadium. There isn’t a player as devastating that can add power, pace, strength, agility all into one package as well as become a brand sensation. Make the comparison to Messi and you know who would be the underwear model here.

Gerard Piqué aptly put it like this: “Ronaldo is the best among humans, but Messi is an alien”

He’s not wrong either.

Mar 122013
 

‘The game that the whole world wanted to see’ was how Manchester United’s recent clash with Real Madrid was built up. Unlike the endless nauseating Skysports promotions for mundane Premiership fixtures this game was a genuine mouth-watering prospect. It may be a forbidden opinion inside the walls of Barcelona but this was the locking of horns of the world’s two biggest clubs.

They both possess the fanbase, appeal and quality that the rest of the footballing world can only envy. The only shame is that one of them had to exit the competition so early. And then there were the subplots: Wayne Rooney’s absence, Mourinho’s self-made job interview and the return to Old Trafford of the supreme Cristiano Ronaldo. Unfortunately, everything has been somewhat overshadowed by a refereeing decision that was questionable at best. But it shouldn’t be that way. Indeed, the significance of the relationship that the clubs have shared over the years has been lost amongst the drama, controversy and outrage.

On the face of it, the two represent two very different ideologies. United have traditionally drawn their support from the mass working class population of Manchester and its surrounding urban sprawl. They also tend to reject nationalistic ideas – priding themselves on their Manchester roots, not their English ones. In contrast, Spain is more splintered into regions and identities than any other European state, yet Real Madrid embodied the ideas of Franco and Spanish nationalism.

Many lazily assume that the relationship between the clubs have been tempestuous and frosty. Sir Alex spoke in 2008 that they were a ‘mob’ to whom he ‘would not sell a virus’. In context, this was when Real Madrid where openly declaring their interest in Cristiano Ronaldo who was developing into one of the finest footballers ever to grace the planet. A year later United reluctantly accepted a ground-breaking fee of £80 million to bring Ronaldo to Madrid, becoming the fourth United player in six seasons to make the switch (Beckham, van Nistelrooy and Heinze were the others).

Relations between the clubs have been more amiable since Mourinho arrived a year later as he continued his strong personal friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a friendship that shares many parallels with that which existed between Sir Matt Busby and Santiago Bernabéu – the legendary former Madrid striker and President whose name was given to the club’s stadium.

The relationship between Busby and Bernabéu is outlined in John Ludden’s book A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester and Madrid 1957-1968 and Ludden noted his surprise that there is some modern animosity between the clubs. “When you look back on the history and you see what Real Madrid did for United after Munich.” he said, “It’s incredible.”

Busby came to Bernabéu’s attention following the 1957 European Cup semi-final, where the ‘Busby Babes’ put in a spirited performance which wasn’t enough to stop Real Madrid, who won the tie 5-3 on aggregate on their way to retaining the trophy. Bernabéu was so impressed with the Scot’s managerial work that he offered him a job at Real, but Busby wanted to lift the trophy with United, and politely declined.

Manchester United’s tragedy and history changed forever the following season, when the Munich air crash wiped out most of the starting eleven and rocked the club at the core. Unsurprisingly, a makeshift young United outfit where defeated by Milan in the semi-finals, who in turn where defeated by Madrid who won the tournament again. The Madrid President Bernabeu dedicated the trophy to United, and even offered the trophy to the club, who refused.

Bernabeu wanted to go further, and offered Madrid’s most prized asset, the most coveted player in the world – the great Alfredo Di Stefano, to United the following year. All parties had agreed to a short-term loan deal being accepted, but astoundingly the Football Association blocked the move in the belief that it would halt the progress of a British player.

Bernabeu, and Madrid, were not perturbed in their efforts to help.  They made a memorial pennant with the names of the Munich dead, called “Champions of Honour”, which was sold in Spain to raise money for United. They offered the use of their lavish facilities to the injured and families of the deceased for free, and then arranged a series of fund-raising friendlies between the clubs

The first two of the friendlies arrived at the tail end of 1959, and Madrid won both – scoring twelve but the six they conceded showed that United were well on the way to rebuilding another fantastic side. In a fund-raising banquet for the families of those rocked by Munich which followed, Bernabeu described Busby as not just the ‘bravest’ but the ‘greatest’ man he had ever met in football. Busby responded that ‘Madrid are now like our family’.

The gap on the field was closing: the following year the then 5-times European champions overcame United in a classic 3-2 encounter, before Busby’s side finally overcame them 3-1 in 1961 and then 2-0 the following year.

These friendlies were an incredible gesture by Madrid, helping their great rivals back on their feet following one of the greatest sporting tragedies ever. Busby’s rebuilding process oversaw triumphs in the FA Cup and then the league. Fittingly, the 1968 European Cup victory was exactly a decade on from Munich, and saw them defeat Madrid in the semi-finals before lifting the trophy. Bernabeu remarked: “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them”.

This puts into perspective the animosity shown by United fans towards Madrid, and perhaps today commercially-driven football leaders should take a few lessons from Bernabeu’s graciousness and generosity. Acts which should never be forgotten.

Mar 062013
 

1) Having been on such an impressive stretch of form of late and after our impressive performance against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu I was fully expecting us to go through to the next round. Although Mourinho’s men had been in fine form themselves recently with back-to-back wins over Barcelona, but the amount of discipline and finesse in which we were playing our football throughout the last month or so gave me enough confidence to believe we could knock out the Spanish giants and progress to the quarterfinals. You’d imagine Barcelona will probably find it too big a task to overthrow AC Milan who hold a two-nil lead over the Catalan, and with Chelsea out, you could look around at the competition and wonder how many teams there are actually better than us. Bayern Munich aside, the rest of the teams you’d imagine will go through to the next round, we could beat. Sir Alex would have made the players aware of the opportunity at stake here.

2) Wayne Rooney set up two goals against Norwich and scored a peach but didn’t have the best of games overall whilst Kagawa rounded off the night with a fantastic hat-rick. Phil Jones and Evans were also massive performers for us in Madrid who I fully expected to start at Old Trafford too, so you can imagine my shock when I read all four had been dropped from the starting line-up. Ryan Giggs, a 39 year old, was asked to help Rafael man-mark the best player on Earth down that right-hand side with Carrick alongside Cleverley, who had barely featured in our recent few games, playing the central role with Welbeck ahead of them to keep track of Xabi Alonso. It was bizarre to say the least but it wasn’t the first time Sir Alex has pulled off something like this, and so I remained confident that we’d get the result we wanted.

3) A lot had been made about the atmosphere for the game with frequent arguments about ‘plastic flags’ and whatnot, but all that mattered was that the fans got behind the team and made themselves heard, and they did just that. The Old Trafford atmosphere can be guilty of lacking at times but none of that was present yesterday and so it was nice to see. It really helped spur the players on and highlighted just how special an occasion this was, or could have been. With the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, it was always going to be interesting to see how our fans were going to react to his presence on the field. Were they going to mockingly boo him? Were they going to sing his name out for 90 minutes?

4) The first ten minutes consisted of us pushing high up, getting the ball and passing the ball sloppily and carelessly. Maybe it was the nerves coming from such an enormous occasion but it did take us a while to settle in, but once we did, it was worth the wait. Every time we picked up the ball in their half, we looked capable of scoring and every time they had the ball, we didn’t look like conceding. It was completely different to our away game at Madrid were we looked vulnerable with every attack. Nani and Welbeck in particular posed a real threat with them running onto balls behind Varane and Arbeloa whilst Carrick ran the show from midfield. The second half started off as impressively as we had ended it with Nani and Welbeck again involved in the attack which saw the Portuguese whip a dangerous low ball into the penalty area for Welbeck to flick the ball against Sergio Ramos who conceded an own goal which gave us a much deserved lead.

5) I really don’t know what more to say about the referee that hasn’t already been said. His performance was shambolic to say the least, but more worryingly, a quick look through his Twitter account will see that he also follows Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid and Marca. Surely Uefa would have picked up on this before appointing this moron to referee a game of this magnitude and importance? Surely assigning a referee who will do his job from a neutral perspective is not too much to ask at this level. In fact, it says everything about just how poor a referee he was that, in a game involving millions of pounds worth of quality on the field and arguably two of the greatest managers to ever feature in the game, the one man everyone was talking about afterwards was himself. This was no small error that should be forgiven, it was a huge mistake and it wasn’t just an isolated incident. It wasn’t just the ‘sending-off’; it was the entire game, the non-penalty against Evra, the numerous dirty challenges on our players in the first half which saw him wave ‘play-on’. You could see just how angry Sir Alex was at the decision as he ran out from the dugout and protested to the bewildered fourth-official who himself did not understand the decision to send Nani off. Jose Mournho actually apologising to Sir Alex over the decision should tell you everything. It was a shambles and a disgrace to see, but more than anything, it was a shame. A shame for football.

6) The manager has been in this situation before and will use this to get the team together and carry them past the finish line in the league by creating an ‘us against them’ mentality. Fergie and hopefully the players too will be angry and ruthless in their pursuit of their 20th title. The league has and always will be the priority for me so as long as we finish the season as champions, that’s all that matters. Yes, winning the Champions League is a wonderful achievement but moments like yesterday are a reminder as to just how reliant you can be on luck in these competitions. We have Chelsea next in the FA Cup at Old Trafford which should see Sir Alex field a strong team and go for the kill what with Rafa Benitez making a return to Old Trafford, followed by games against Reading and then Sunderland away. If we can win all three of these games we’ll be in a fantastic position to finish the season with both domestic trophies locked up in the Old Trafford cabinet.

7) Having said that, let’s not let that clueless referee take all the headlines today as we had some massive performances from all the players yesterday night who showed that, despite all that has been said, we’re still up there with the best teams in the world. One final mention has to go to Ryan Giggs who gave a performance which left me speechless at times. I’ve been watching Giggsy play for United my whole life but never have I seen him cover that much distance when tracking back and going into tackles. It was an honour to see him play yesterday and such a disappointment to see his 1000th career game tarnished the way it has been.

8) Arise Sir Ryan Giggs – 1000.

————-

Mar 052013
 

It seems strange to think now but when I heard that Manchester United had sold Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m I was glad. He had stropped his way through that last season, but still amassed an impressive 26 goals, and was a crucial element in us winning that record equalling 18th title. Following the heights we reached in the previous season, 08-09 was fairly anti-climatic, in terms of what we achieved and the football we played. We were essentially an outstanding defence and Ronaldo, but that was enough to make us champions. As our players celebrated on the pitch after winning the league thanks to a draw with Arsenal, Ronaldo had no time for his team mates, didn’t take part in the lap of honour for the fans, and instead celebrated with his mum and pals on the pitch.

Now, to be fair to Ronaldo, we had always known that we were just a stepping stone for him and that the real dream was to play for Real Madrid. I didn’t begrudge him that. Whilst the fans would see playing for United as the pinnacle of any player’s career, that simply isn’t the case for all players and we should be accepting of that. However, the relationship between the Portuguese superstar and the fans began to sour in the summer of 2008, after he had significantly contributed to the second greatest season in our club’s history. He scored 42 goals in 47 games, a record at the time I was sure he would never better, including our only goal in the European Cup final. But then Ronaldo spent the summer cock-teasing Real Madrid and trying to manoeuvre a move away from United.

“Only God knows the future,” was his catchphrase whenever he was quizzed on whether he would be staying at Old Trafford.  “I love to play in white,” he said when interviewed following a Euro 2008 game for Portugal, with a cheeky grin on his face. “The white of the national team,” he added with a smile.

It was one thing wanting to play for Real Madrid, but it was quite another taking the piss out of our club and fans. We were given daily updates in the press, with Ronaldo refusing to confirm one way or another what was going to happen, but making it clear that leaving the club was what he wanted. It was relentless that summer, a summer that should have been spent with everyone talking about what the club had achieved and what they could hope to achieve the following season. It was all about Ronaldo though.

Two weeks before the season kicked off, following a meeting between Ferguson and Ronaldo, he confirmed he was staying put. Sir Alex Ferguson had refused to cut short his holiday to speak to the player but once he returned managed to convince Ronaldo to stay, unknown to us at the time, for one more year.

“It wasn’t disloyalty because I got another year out of him when he wanted to go the previous year,” Ferguson has said since. “He honoured that and was fantastic for us. He went with our blessing.”

Like plenty of other fans though, I’d had enough of him, and was so disappointed with his behaviour over the summer. Still, any frustration felt towards quickly melted away in the opening few weeks of the season whilst he was recovering from an operation. United were struggling without him and whilst people still weren’t impressed with his carry on, we were obviously more keen to retain our title than we were to hold a grudge, and it became apparent that we would need Ronaldo back and playing well if we were to win the league.

His first league appearance came in a 1-1 draw away to Chelsea as a second half substitute towards the end of September and his first start came in the League Cup against Middlesbrough when he put us 1-0 up after 25 minutes. Ahead of his next game, against Bolton, he was welcomed on to the pitch with the “Viva Ronaldo” song from the fans as he received a PFA award for the previous season, and went on to score the opening goal and assist the other. He then scored 7 goals in his next 7 games. It would be inaccurate to suggest the adulation matched that of the season before, when it felt as though we were singing his name every few minutes, but there didn’t appear to be much bad feeling from the home crowd. Opposition fans, on the other hand, did their very best to remind us of his antics in the summer. “That boy Ronaldo, loves Real Madrid,” they would sing.

Still, Ronaldo didn’t seem to care less that we’d “forgiven” him and behaved like a mardy little kid all season. He was going to ground too easily, when he didn’t get a freekick he believed he deserved he would have a strop instead of just getting on with it and when he lost possession was quite happy to let his team mates chase after the ball to try and win it back for him. Whilst there was no denying what a quality player he was, I felt then, rightly or wrongly, that we needed more than that from our players. I’d still argue now that being a great footballer doesn’t mean any behaviour is acceptable, but maybe throwing a strop here and there isn’t the greatest sin one of your players can commit.

Anyway, the game that tipped me over the edge was the 3-2 victory over Aston Villa, which is largely remembered for that incredible injury time winner from a 17-year-old Federico Macheda. I realise I will sound more spoilt then ever when complaining about his contribution in that game because Ronaldo scored two goals to help us leapfrog Liverpool at the top of the table with just eight games left to play. But I was absolutely livid with him that day.

Fifteen minutes after putting us ahead with a brilliant freekick, thanks to Friedel picking up a Milner pass back, Aston Villa levelled the score. With half an hour left to play and United chasing the win, Ronaldo was attacking the right wing but lost the ball. Gary Neville, who was being played in the centre of defence thanks to injuries, was level with him and Nani was further up the pitch. Instinctively, both ran back to defend, whilst Ronaldo stood near the touchline with his hands on his hips, watching the ball disappear in to our half. It felt like the whole of the North Stand and Stretford End got to their feet to give him stick and order him to put a shift in. “Don’t just fucking stand there!” But that’s exactly what he did. Neville got back to attempt to block the cross whilst Nani (5’9”), reached Agbonlahor (5’11”) just in time to see him head Villa in to the lead. Ronaldo (6’1”) could have made the difference but he was still standing in the other half of the pitch. It wasn’t the fact he didn’t stop the goal that angered anyone, nobody could have expected him to do that, but the fact he couldn’t even be bothered to try, particularly when it had been him that lost the ball in the first place, was infuriating. It was unacceptable and something not tolerated by our fans.

With ten minutes left to play Ronaldo saved our skin, equalising, and making way for Macheda to write his name in to our history books. Looking back, it seems fairly daft that so many of our fans were riled by him that day, when you consider he scored two of our goals in a vital 3-2 win, but that frustration had been building up for months. We had seen him looking half arsed in plenty of games, happy to exhibit his brilliant skill, but not as keen to work hard for the team. He had been in Manchester but his head was in Madrid and I regularly wondered what was the point of getting him to stay on for another season (obviously forgetting how we had started the season without him!).

A week after the Villa game, Ronaldo scored one of his best ever goals for us against Porto to put us in the Champions League semi-final, then scored twice in our 3-1 win at the Emirates to book our place in the final for a second year running. It was a game in between these two that was probably his moment of the season though, when the Ronaldo before us resembled our hero from the season before. United went in 2-0 down at half-time against Spurs and looked as though we were ready to throw away the title, with Liverpool all too keen to take it off our hands and make it 19-17 to them. Just before the hour mark, Michael Carrick won us a (dubious) penalty which Ronaldo calmly dispatched. Ten minutes later Rooney equalised and then a minute later Ronaldo put us 3-2 up. For maybe the first time all season he really looked like he gave a shit, ripping his shirt off and celebrating as wildly as any red that day. Three minutes after putting us ahead, Ronaldo assisted Rooney’s second and United’s fourth. In most seasons during tight title races there is one game where you feel like that the title is won (last season that game was Blackburn away! Fuck sake) and that 5-2 win over Spurs was the day in the 08-09 season.

The season ended with disappointment though as United lost 2-0 to Barcelona in the Champions League final and Ronaldo reacted by criticising the manager’s tactics. “I cannot explain,” he said. “We, the players, were not well, the tactics were not good… everything went wrong.”

Enough was enough. Ronaldo had made all the difference to us winning the league, which is fairly impressive when you consider he wasn’t even at his best, but it was time for him to go. We had been singing “Champions of England, Champions of Europe” all season and just like we had helped Ronaldo become the best player in the world there would obviously be another player to drop off our conveyor belt soon, right? Who needs Ronaldo anyway?

As time has gone by and United have struggled to replicate the European success of 2008, despite another final in his absence in 2011, it quickly became apparent that actually players of Ronaldo’s ability aren’t ten a penny. In fact, one day, we’ll be talking about Ronaldo as one of the best footballers ever. It’s funny to think that back in his early years we used to cheekily chant “there’s only one Ronaldo” about our scrawny little lad who could run quickly and pull off a few stepovers, with the Brazilian Ronaldo being named World Player of the Year. Everyone else was calling him a one trick pony and Arsenal fans used to claim he was inferior to Reyes. But now look at him. I don’t mean to get gooey-eyed, and he’ll obviously never be ours in the way the likes of Giggsy and Scholes are, but we’ve seen him grow from a skinny little kid, supporting him through the dark days in 2006 when he was the target of misplaced hatred by this country, to become one of the football greats.

Time is a healer and whilst I’m fully aware of how irritated I was with Ronaldo in his last season, it’s hard to feel the same way these days, for a combination of reasons. Firstly, it took us three years to sign a true world class player after Ronaldo left, when we brought in Robin van Persie last summer, which has emphasised just how rare people of Ronnie’s abilities are. I’ll be the first to admit I took Ronaldo for granted. When a player is consistently scoring important goals for your team, it probably isn’t unforgiveable if they don’t always track back or go to ground too easily.

Secondly, it’s hard to recall another player who has left a club and still has such positive things to say about his former team whenever he gets the opportunity. Not once has Ronaldo said anything negative about United, but instead is full of praise, repeatedly claiming we are the only English club he’d play for and always giving credit to Ferguson for the player he has become. When you look at Ronaldo, it’s easy to see him as a self-obsessed ponce, someone who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to have strong feelings about anything other than himself, let alone a former club, but his respectful words about United blow apart the stereotype. He is far more generous than he needs to be, which obviously speaks volumes of how highly he still regards the club and how fondly he remembers his time playing for United.

“I have a sentimental attachment; I have spent a quarter of my life here,” he said after the deal with Real Madrid had been confirmed. “I was boy when I arrived at Manchester United and I’m leaving a man. This club and its fans will always have a place in my heart. I have learnt a lot of life lessons here, and I will never forget all the things I have been taught by so many people. I owe them everything that I am today.”

Everything he is today is 185 goals in 184 games for Real Madrid, which is a phenomenal record. However, whilst Ronaldo might be pleased with his goal-scoring, it’s hard to believe that life at Real Madrid has quite met his expectations. This is his fourth season in Spain and Jose Mourinho conceded the title back in December, meaning Ronaldo has just one La Liga medal to his name. This is a far cry from the three consecutive Premier League medals he won at United before leaving. It’s not just domestically that his new club have struggled either. After playing in the 2008 and 2009 Champions League finals for United, Real Madrid have repeatedly fallen at the final hurdle, losing twice in the semi-finals, which isn’t what Ronaldo had become accustomed to at United.

Another disappointment for Ronaldo will have to be his lack of recognition when it comes to the individual awards, with Lionel Messi pipping him to the post every year. The Ballon d’Or is yet another achievement he managed at United but has failed to replicate since moving to Spain, with him being compared too closely with the best player at his rival’s team.

“I have been in touch with him many times,” Evra said a few months ago. “He still loves Manchester United and misses Manchester United. He has done some incredible things for Real Madrid, he broke all the records, but they didn’t show him the respect he deserves. When Ronny was here, he got the love from all the players, the manager and the fans. He is a winner. But he likes people to like him. He misses Manchester United because it was his house. I always say I hope he will come back because this is his home. If he wants to win the Ballon d’Or he has to come back to Manchester United.”

Finally, the fans at Madrid are seemingly even more spoilt than ours, because they haven’t shown anywhere near the amount of appreciation you would expect for someone of Ronaldo’s ability and have booed him repeatedly since he joined them. In his first season he scored 33 goals in 35 games, 53 goals in 54 games in his second season and 60 goals in 55 games last season, yet they’re still not happy. The relationship he has with the fans is nothing like what he had at United.

“We know that we have the duty to put on a show but sometimes it’s not possible,” he said after getting stick from the Real Madrid fans. “We always try but at times the team are not playing well and the fans could give us more support. The Manchester United fans, for example, were very intimidating for Liverpool or Manchester City in those matches. I think that if our supporters tried to do that it would be much better for everyone and would give the players a big boost.”

The grass isn’t always greener, or as Ferguson would say, the cow in someone else’s field isn’t always better than the cow in your own. Ronaldo had to go to Madrid to learn this for himself, and whilst I’m sure he is happy to have fulfilled a lifelong dream, it has helped him appreciate his time at United all the more. Likewise, his time away from United, and the lack of truly world class players in our team, has helped us appreciate Ronaldo all the more too.

He returns to Old Trafford today and there will be plenty of people who are there simply to see him. People have been selling on their tickets for a ridiculous amount and if you’ve been looking online the starting price is £500. I remember seeing the photographers filling the touchline of the South Stand ahead of our Champions League game against Mourinho’s Inter Milan a few years back, so can’t imagine how much more attention Ronaldo and his team will bring for this game. It’s all about Ronaldo for some.

For our fans though, particularly those who grew tired with him in his final season, I would like to see a warm welcome for him. That’s not because we’re making it all about him, or see him as the returning Prodigal Son, but because Ronaldo contributed so much to our success and can’t speak highly enough about our club. Whilst the press might make Ronaldo the focus, for us, the game obviously has to be about getting to the next round. Despite Ronaldo’s equalising goal at the Bernabeu, we hold the slight advantage after a 1-1 draw, and Ronaldo can dazzle us all he likes, as long as we get the job done.

But for me, I do see Ronaldo differently to how I did a few years ago. Whilst I can’t totally ignore some of the flaws in his character, there is no denying what an incredible footballer he is and for a lad who grew up in Portugal, he has a brilliant understanding of our football club and what makes the fans tick. Whilst he was lucky to have the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson in his career, we were lucky to see him develop and blossom in our shirt.

“Manchester was my home and still is in my heart. I love it. Because when people treat you very well you never forget that. And I will never forget United, the people who work there and the supporters. So I am so happy to be going back to Manchester.”

———
Originally published on The Republik of Mancunia.

Feb 272013
 

Bookmakers are number crunchers 99.99 per cent of the time, setting their football betting odds based on statistics and other forms of important data such as injury and suspension news. But, when it comes to Barcelona, it seems that logic goes out of the window and irrationality takes over.

Apologies to Celtic versus Rangers, Boca Juniors versus River Plate and Everton versus Liverpool and other famous derbies but there is no bigger club game than El Clasico, the name for any match between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Every El Clasico brings the football world to a standstill and the giants will go head to head at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday 2 March 2013 for the 166th time in the Spanish La Liga tournament, with Real Madrid’s El Clasico league home record standing at 50 wins, 15 draws and 17 losses.

Furthermore, Real Madrid is unbeaten in its last 35 home games across all competitions, winning 28 of those matches and heading into Saturday’s El Clasico off an impressive 3-1 Copa del Rey away defeat of Barcelona earlier this week.

Everyone knows that Barcelona is 12 points clear at the top of the Spanish La Liga ladder and well on its way to taking out its 22nd domestic championship. Most people accept that, on their day, Barca are the world’s best club side. But it beggars belief that Tito Vilanova’s team is the favourite for this weekend’s El Clasico in Madrid’s big backyard.

Incredibly, bookmakers are quoting Barcelona at odds of around 11-8 (read up on fractional odds if you’re not used to this odds format), with Real Madrid trading at odds of greater than 2-1 and the draw available at odds of around 13-5.

To say that the odds do not make sense would be a gross understatement. Real Madrid has not lost any of its last four games versus Barcelona and the manner of its 3-1 Camp Nou victory on Tuesday was such that it will go into the Spanish La Liga encounter with more confidence than Jack Nicholson takes into an Academy Awards after party.

Barcelona is going through its roughest spell of the season, losing two of its last three matches and, with the Spanish La Liga title race all over bar the shouting, it is focused on salvaging its UEFA Champions League campaign. Barca trails Milan 0-2 after playing poorly at the San Siro.

What should the betting on Saturday’s El Clasico result look like? Well, the home side is entitled to be the favourite so something like 11-8 Real Madrid, 7-4 Barcelona and 5-2 draw, with the draw out of the gate because there should be goals and the only draw about which any punter can take a strong view is a goalless one. Anyone who backs the draw may as well dutch 1-1 and 2-2 at odds of around 7-1 and 11-1 respectively. The dutched bet works out at nearly 4-1.

If punters pick their spots to oppose Barcelona, there are value bets to be struck and profits to be made. El Clasico is just one example of how bookmakers are overrating Barca currently. Another one is the UEFA Champions League tie between Barcelona and Milan that is at its halfway stage.

Barcelona is 0-2 down going into the Camp Nou second leg yet bookmakers think, give or take a few percentage points, that the outcome of the tie is a coin flip. That is ludicrous.

First, there are the historical arguments against Barcelona and for Milan. The history books show that only 18.6 per cent of teams that lose the first leg of a European tie 2-0 away from home end up winning the clash. Also, Italian Serie A teams are 46-9 in terms of progress and elimination after winning the first leg of a European tie 2-0 at home. The last Italian side to falter from this very strong position was Milan in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals 17 years ago. A bloke by the name of Zinedine Zidane inspired Bordeaux to win the second leg 3-0 in France to knock out the Rossoneri.

And second, there are this term’s goal-scoring statistics for Milan and goal-conceding statistics for Barcelona. The Rossoneri have scored in 15 of their 17 competitive road games this season, including in 10 of its last 11 away matches. Overall, Milan has scored in 28 of its 35 games, including in each of its last seven matches and in 13 of its last 14 games. Massimiliano Allegri’s side scores regularly. Barcelona concedes goals just as regularly as Milan scores them. Barca have kept only five clean sheets in their 20 competitive home matches this term and they have let in a goal in 31 of their 42 games played anywhere. Those are numbers that will surprise the average football punter.

There is a very strong chance that Barcelona will have to score at least four goals in normal time of the Camp Nou second leg to eliminate Milan. Back the Rossoneri at odds of around 8-11 to knock out Barca because the market is wrong.

Feb 252013
 

Here’s a look at few selection and strategy options for Manchester United ahead of their Champions League second leg fixture against Real Madrid on March 5th.

 

Central Defence

If all players remain fit, the dilemma for Sir Alex will be whether to stick with the same central defensive partnership that started at the Bernabeu or bring in Vidic to replace either Ferdinand or Evans. Given that Ferguson is still managing Nemanja Vidic’s return from injury, it won’t be surprising if he is preferred for the Norwich game instead on the Saturday prior to the second leg. Moreover, both Evans and Ferdinand put in a solid shift in the first leg. Vidic might be a better header of the ball and more of a physical presence but against a team like Real Madrid who will be looking to counter attack, the mobility of Evans will be preferred.

 

Rooney’s position

In all likelihood, Sir Alex will require Rooney to put in another ‘defensive’ shift, pressing high up the pitch by marking Alonso, and tracking back down the wings to provide cover. But, unlike the first leg where he was deployed on the right, Rooney needs to be playing on the left. This is a position that he’s played in the past. Although, this isn’t his ideal or favourite position, he can’t do much worse than he was in the first leg.

 

This might seem a tad harsh given that he was asked to do a specific role and curb his attacking instincts. But it was Rooney’s intent to stop Ronaldo despite both Phil Jones and Rafael were doubling up on him that left Fabio Coentrao in lots of space to have an effort on goal (that was pushed onto the post by De Gea). He was at fault for not closing down Angel Di Maria soon enough; hence enabling the winger to pick out a perfect pass for Ronaldo’s equaliser.

 

A move to the left will provide extra cover to deal with Di Maria who found a lot of space and time and ran Patrice Evra ragged in the first leg. As in the game against Spurs where all emphasis was placed on closing down Bale which in turn left Lennon unattended, similarly the mission to thwart Ronaldo using effectively three players (Rafael, Jones and Rooney) meant that Di Maria saw more of the ball and was a constant menace down the left flank. In addition, while attacking, he can drift inwards and switch places with Kagawa (assuming the latter starts) and play in the hole behind Robin Van Persie.

 

And Danny?

Welbeck can play his pressing game on the right too as he did so quite effectively after coming on as a substitute in the win over Manchester City earlier this season. The other option, unthinkable as it might sound on the back of his performance in the first leg, is to drop him in favour of Cleverly or Nani. The latter can be frustrating at times but can still attack better with the ball, is a better finisher, and can put in a decent cross (against Reading in the FA Cup). In a game where chances could be a luxury, it is imperative that United make the possession and opportunities count.

 

Plan B if Phil Jones is injured?

Up until a few weeks ago, not many would associate Phil Jones with Plan A against Real Madrid in a Champions League knockout fixture (mind you, some probably still don’t). The earlier jack of all trades is now being called on to carry out a specialist role of marking (read: chasing and harrying) the oppositions’ ace card. Tom Cleverly, who started all of the team’s ‘big’ Premier League games (Chelsea, City, Liverpool) was sacrificed in the process. But having sustained an ankle injury that saw him on crutches after the FA Cup tie against Reading, Jones’s chances of a repeat performance in the second leg is uncertain. If this were to be the case (extent of injury not known at the time of writing this article), it is likely that Cleverly will start alongside Michael Carrick in midfield. He might not constantly breathe down Ronaldo’s neck but his quick passing, intelligent movement and ball retention capabilities will be important for United.

 

 

Summary

Though fans at Old Trafford would prefer a more attacking approach from their team, one can expect Ferguson to exercise a bit of caution and focus on ball retention, both of which will be quite important in protecting what is essentially a lead in the tie for Manchester United.

Feb 142013
 

1) What a game! After our win against Everton on Sunday I started to feel nervous and anxious just thinking about our game against the Spanish giants which made it all the more bizarre that I felt extremely confident a few hours before kick-off. Normally I’d have been physically shaking at the prospect of us playing Madrid in what is in my eyes the biggest game in world football, even bigger than your El Classico and possibly the defining game of our season. I’m still not sure why but something just felt right about yesterday night, and genuinely I felt that we really could walk away with something. I had predicted a 1-1 end result just before kick-off but after the game had ended I felt slightly disappointed that we were only going away with a draw after having so many chances. Having said that, I am extremely proud of our performance and I’m sure I’d have taken a 2-1 loss if you’d have offered it before the game as long as we had that all important away goal.

2) Many people questioned why I had Kagawa, Jones, Welbeck and Evans all in my predicted line up but I strongly believed that this was going to be the team Sir Alex was going to field, and he didn’t disappoint. It made complete sense after all as Danny is really strong defensively and was going to sweat blood if need be when tracking back. Jones was given his usual defensive-midfield role which meant he would get stuck in and stop the Real midfield from passing the ball too freely, with Kagawa using his creativity on the wing to make do with whatever little he saw of the ball. The big talking point was why I predicted Sir Alex would play Evans ahead of Vidic, and the answer is quite obvious in that Evans is faster and more agile. If we’d have been caught on the break with Vidic and Rio trying to keep up with Cristiano and co, we’d have been massacred. In the end, it was the logical team to play and I remain chuffed that I predicted 10 out of the 11 starters, with Rio being the exception!

3) With the footballing world watching us play yesterday, it was quite fitting that young Danny Welbeck would be the one to score our vital away goal and put us one up after a disappointing start from our team. You’d imagine it would do wonders for the life-long Manchester United fan and he would really start to push on and grab a few more now that he’s bagged a goal after such a long run. His story is a wonderful one though, and there will now be players in the United academy looking at Danny and thinking “If I work as hard as he did, that will be me in a few years”. Welbeck is living the dream and is an inspiration to many.

4) As great as Danny Welbeck was yesterday evening, the real hero was David De Gea. After pulling off one of the greatest saves I’ve ever seen early on to keep the score level after he pushed a curling effort off against the post, he went on to make one fantastic save after another. Nobody has ever questioned his shot-stopping ability but he elevated himself to another level yesterday with him quite literally catching nearly every shot thrown at him. A personal highlight was his unorthodox save where he managed to pull off a goal-line clearance with his foot. Importantly however, he also dealt with any aerial threats with minimal ease. I strongly believe that, in five years’ time, he will be the one of the best goalkeeper in football. Let’s just hope he’s still wearing our colours when he is.

5) It had to be him, didn’t it? It seems like so long ago when people would question Cristiano by saying he would disappear in the big games but today was almost certainly one of the biggest games of his career, and he still managed to score with a bullet-header. After a wicked ball was whipped in by Di Maria, Ronaldo somehow flew and thundered the ball in past a hapless De Gea. The fact that Ronaldo’s knee was above Evra’s head who still hadn’t even started his jump says everything about the goal. He really is the best player on Earth and I would take him back to United in a heartbeat.

6) Maybe I’m being a bit stingy but I really think we could have won the game yesterday. Although we saw very little of the ball, we had quite a few really good chances. Robin van Perise, who was magnificent, could have scored a hatrick on another day. First he smashed the ball against the bar, then he saw his shot cleared off the line by Alonso and finally he had a beautiful shot saved well late on by the ‘keeper. Welbeck also had a great chance with his shot saved well by the goalkeeper after a dangerous cross from RvP. Ryan Giggs too had a chance which went begging late on after the ball come out to him in the box but for some reason he decided to take a touch rather than shoot it first time. Having said that, we played great and at least we have something to show for it thanks to a Danny Welbeck away goal.

7) Now I’m not one to nitpick but the referee really did have a shocker. I think his performance can best be explained by his final contribution to the game by ending the match as United were throwing players forward to attack a corner. What did the referee do? He ended the game before he’d even given us the chance to take it. Abysmal. Oh, and there was also that ‘little issue’ of him not sending off Varane after Patrice Evra was through on goal and was brought down by their last man. Clear sending off and yet not even a foul was given.

8) It was a wonderful touch to a spectacular game to see the Real Madrid fans giving Ryan Giggs a standing ovation as he was being subbed on. I’ve always liked Real Madrid and it was a nice gesture to see them acknowledge a truly exceptional footballer. I am certain that the crowd at Old Trafford will do the same for their sweetheart Ronaldo once his name is called out. Having said that, it was truly devastating to hear about the brutality the Spanish police carried out towards our fans in Madrid.

9) So what to expect for the second leg? Hopefully more of the same! Obviously a lot will depend on our form and injury list but I think we will approach the game in a similar manner to today with the key being us not giving Madrid a chance to catch us on the break. Hopefully Wayne Rooney and Kagawa will have a better game at Old Trafford than they did yesterday night, although I do expect Ashley Young to start ahead of Kagawa on the left hand side. Having said that, our second leg is a good three weeks from now and we really should be concentrating on the league and taking every game as they come. Next up are Reading on Monday night at 8pm.

10) Anyone else notice how all our players were wearing yellow shoes? Yeah, that was strange.

Feb 132013
 

Ahead of tonight’s Champions League round of 16 game between Real Madrid and Manchester United, Phil Kitromilides, presenter and commentator at Real Madrid TV, squares up to  Scott from The Republik of Mancunia.

What’s your form like ahead of the big game?
Phil: Madrid’s form is relative. Overall it has not been great, but we are still unbeaten at home in any competition, for over a year, the longest unbeaten home run in any major European league. So while this hasn’t been the best season overall in terms of form, the Bernabeu has remained an absolute fortress.

Scott: Whilst the Everton game wasn’t one of our best performances, it was one of the few occasions this season when the team seemed to play with real purpose and control. The City result at Southampton appeared to spur them on and I’m hoping we’ll see the same determination against Real Madrid.

We’ve won 7 of our last 8 in the league, drawing the other, and you have to go back to the first week of December for the last time we lost a game, and that was in a meaningless Champions League group stage game after we’d already qualified top of the group.

And how do you rate the opposition at the moment?

P: The thing that gives Madrid real hope is United’s tendency to concede goals. If West Ham, Stoke, Southampton, Villa, Reading, and Newcastle can all score two goals or more against United then Real Madrid should have no problem in putting a few past David de Gea, a keeper who conceded three times on his last trip to Bernabeu.

S: They seem pretty hit and miss at the moment. They lose to a team close to the relegation zone in the midst of scoring 13 goals in 3 games in the league.

Consistency and knowing what to expect were always trademarks of Mourinho teams but Real Madrid seem all over the place. Still, they just held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw so it’d be ridiculous to underestimate them.

What do you think of the opposition manager?
P: I think he needs a new watch.

S: I don’t like him at all. Gouging Tito Vilanova’s eye, claiming he saw Rikjaard entering a referee’s office (leading to death threats from Chelsea fans) only to later admit he didn’t, having a pop at Ronaldo when he was just a lad at United for being poor and from a working class background, and so on, lead me to believe the guy is a prat.

That said, he is a great manager who has done brilliantly well with every team he’s managed. We shouldn’t forget that in his last full season at Chelsea he was well beaten by United though, and his Inter side were an easy match for us in the Champions League a few years back, but he’s a quality manager and will be keen to do well against us. You imagine he will see this game as part of his job interview for replacing Ferguson this summer or next.

What’s your all-time favourite game between the two teams?

P: April 2000, Manchester 2-3 Real Madrid – Fernando Redondo with the best assist in the history of football for the third. A sublime team.

S: It has to be the 4-3 at Old Trafford in 2003. We went out of the Champions League that night but it was one of the best games I’ve ever seen, with Ronaldo (the Brazilian one, obviously) scoring a hattrick and receiving a standing ovation from our fans.

When Beckham came off the bench to score two in quick succession I was sure we were going to pull it off and knock them out. We were gutted at full-time but it was a thoroughly entertaining game of football.

Have you got any special chants lined up for the game?

P: When I am commentating a match I tend to try and keep chanting to a minimum!

S: “Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo, get him on a plane, bring him back from Spain, viva Ronaldo.”

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Read this discussion in full at The Mirror.

Feb 132013
 

Gary Neville, who captained Manchester United during Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at the club, has spoken in an interview with bwin about how his former club can hope to stop the Portuguese star tonight.

“The only way you can stop Cristiano Ronaldo is to get players around him, more than one,” said Neville. “Someone’s got to get to him quickly. When the first challenge goes in, you’ve got to make sure the second challenge, third challenge is there behind. One on one, with him running at that pace at you in to the box, you really are in the lap of the gods. He’s the type of player that requires more than one player around him. If he drifts to the left, goes to the right, whoever is up against him, they have to make sure that somebody else is covering from behind as well, and try and deny him space.”