Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Manchester United 2 Benfica 1

It's European Champions League action tonight as Manchester United try to set all the problems, arguments and bitter disappointment of recent events behind them and focus on this crucial group stage match against Benfica of Portugal.

Longterm fans of The Red Devils will be acutely aware that Benfica were the team Manchester United defeated to win the European Cup for the first time back in the distant past of the 1968 version of the late Sir Matt Busby's Babes, winning 4-1 after extra time.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Tonight's result is all that matters now and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson sticks to his tactical guns with another, albeit of necessity different, 4-5-1 lineup of Edwin Van Der Sar in goal, Phil Bardsley, Rio Ferdinand, John O'Shea and Kieron Richardson as this week's back four and the welcome return of Ryan Giggs on the left of a midfield completed by Darren Fletcher, Alan Smith, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo playing behind lone frontman Ruud van Nistelrooy. The unlikely looking subs bench is filled by Tim Howard, Ji-Sung Park, Liam Miller, Gerard Pique, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, Guiseppe Rossi and Lee Martin.

Benfica Manager Ronald Koeman

Benfica are now managed by Dutch legend Ronald Koeman and playing 4-4-2 with a lineup that I entirely don't know but that looks like this:- Moreira, Nelson-Luisao-Rocha-Leo, Beto-Manuel-Petit-Simao, and Miccoli-Gomes up front.

Given all the recent difficulties, United start the match really positively, determined to set the record straight where it matters, out on the pitch. Everyone is looking sharp and up for it, as indeed they should be!

Benfica have clearly come to the Theatre of Dreams to play counter-attack against a United side that has little choice but to go for the win after the disappointing draw two weeks ago in Spain. It's great to see Ryan Giggs, captaining the team tonight, involved so positively right from the start as the Reds look to control midfield.

There's a lot of back and forth right through the first half with the home team naturally being more positive and looking for an early advantage. Apart from a brilliant van Nistelrooy shot after 15 minutes that strikes the bar, there's little to report until, in the fortieth minute, Ronaldo is fouled and the subsequent free kick, whipped in right footed by Captain Giggs, strikes the Benfica wall and deflects right into the net. It's GOOOOOOAAAAAALLLL and 1-0 to United! That's about it for the first half and the referee blows his whistle to end the half with United playing with a lot more self belief than of late.

Ryan Giggs

Fifteen minutes later Benfica get the second half underway and coach Koeman has clearly told them to get after United's inexperienced defence. The Reds back four are having to play out of their skins but are looking up for the job and the makeshift midfield are getting back to help. So far things are looking hopeful for the Manchester men.

On the hour mark Alan Smith brings down Miccoli on the edge of the penalty area and Benfica captain Simao fires in a vicious shot that leaves Van Der Sar no chance and it's GOOOALLL to Benfica 1-1.

To their credit, United take this hammer blow in their stride and keep pressing hard for another goal. It's pretty much one way traffic but Benfica have switched to a more defensive 4-5-1, obviously happy to settle for the draw, and the way through the Portuguese defence proves elusive.

Fabrizio Miccoli

Our own little Portuguese man of war, Cristiano Ronaldo, has a clear shooting chance from close range in the 65th minute but goalie Moreira somehow manages to tip the ball onto the bar; the next moment Van Der Sar is leaping to block a fierce shot from Benfica's Italian striker Miccoli.

It all gets bogged down in midfield for a while and you can sense the nagging doubt creeping in. Another draw, especially at home, would be very discouraging at this stage of an already challenging season.

Phil Bardsley

With a little more than five minutes left to go, United's latest right back, local lad Phillip Bardsley, 20, races down the right wing and wins a corner. Giggs takes it, right-footed again, and the tall braided figure of Rio Ferdinand rises and flicks it on to Ruud van Nistelrooy who makes no mistake from perhaps 2 metres out and it's GOOOOOAAAALLL 2-1 to United!

Benfica fight back and use attacking tactical substitutions in desperate search of a late equalizer but there's too little time and after a miss at each end and two minutes of extra time it's all over. Victory for Manchester United and vindication for Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics with the added pluses of the welcome return of Ryan Giggs, my choice as Man of the Match, and the impressive debut of Phillip Bardsley at right back.

This review is cross-posted here at the mighty BlogCritics website.

Saturday, 24 September 2005

Manchester United 1 Blackburn Rovers 2

Another week, another Lancashire derby, as the mighty Manchester United entertain one of only three other teams to win the Premiership, the once mighty Blackburn Rovers, now re-building under the fierce Welsh manager and former much-loved United striker, Mark Hughes.

Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes

United get things underway lined up in what looks like a cautious 4-5-1 of Edwin Van der Sar in goal, the current back four of John O'Shea, Rio Ferdinand, Mikael Silvestre and Kieron Richardson,and then a 5 man midfield of Cristiano Ronaldo, Darren Fletcher, Alan Smith, Paul Scholes captaining the team and Ji-sung Park with Ruud van Nistelrooy as lone striker. Both Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs are left on the bench along with Tim Howard, Liam Miller and Phil Bardsley. Let's hope they feel positive and actually play a slightly more positive though still cautious 4-3-3 with Ronaldo and Park getting forward to support the lone wolf!

It's a pretty one-sided first half with United making all the running and Blackburn defending deeply and looking for the quick break forward. It's a pretty open game with both sides making chances although they're coming roughly two to one in United's favour.

Suddenly, with just over half an hour gone, Blackburn win a fairly harmless looking free kick out on the United right. Blackburn's Norwegian midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen whips in what looks like a fast cross but somehow nobody connects with it and it goes straight in at the United far post and it's GOOALLL to Blackburn Rovers 0-1.

After this shock, the sellout crowd is stunned but United keep pushing forward in search of an equalizer, alas to no avail and it's half time with United losing at home.

The second half gets underway with Blackburn already looking happy to settle for the current score and just defend deeply but the Red Devils look determined to strike back.

After 10 minutes Sir Alex Ferguson underlines this by bringing on Wayne Rooney for the strangely preferred Darren Fletcher, Sir Alex's token Scot, and United immediately look even more threatening.

Within another ten minutes this tactical substitution pays off bigtime for Manchester United. Kieron Richardson, looking very cool in the unfamiliar Left Back role, takes a throw in which reaches Rooney in the Blackburn penalty area and he shoots fiercely. Blackburn's impressive American goalkeeper manages to parry the ball but it drops straight to Ruud van Nistelrooy who slots it into the corner of the away net and it's GOOOOOAAALLLL to United 1-1.

Sir Alex immediately brings on Ryan Giggs for Park as United look for the crucial winner. Tragically, in the 82nd minute it all goes terribly wrong for United as the usually reliable Paul Scholes, captain for the day, is caught in possession of the ball on the edge of the United penalty area by Blackburn's Michael Gray, who slips the ball through to Pedersen who slams the ball into the net and it's GOOALL to Blackburn Rovers and United are losing 1-2. Can the season be over for Manchester United and the Old Trafford faithful after only six games?

The home team have four minutes of extra time to try and save the match - and possibly their season. It's all United as the lads pour forwards trying to avert defeat but it's all to no avail and the boys in red sink to their first home defeat of the season.

This review also cross-posted here at the mighty BlogCritics site.

Sunday, 18 September 2005

Liverpool 0 Manchester United 0

The great Lancashire challenge continues with Liverpool, who have won more League/Premiership titles than any other club and are current reigning UEFA European Champions versus a hopefully resurgent Manchester United, presumably looking to do rather better than their solid but uninspired performance against Villarreal in mid-week.

Sir Alex has picked another initially odd-looking team with Edwin Van Der Sar in goal, a back four of O'Shea-Ferdinand-Silvestre-Richardson, and one of his it's-not-quite 4-5-1 but-also-not 4-3-3 formations, let's call it 4-3-2-1 or Christmas Tree (though it seems a little early for that), featuring Scholes-Keane-Smith in midfield and Rooney and Ronaldo wide and deep off frontman Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy

Liverpool kick off this English Premiership lunchtime fixture and within thirty seconds both keepers have had the ball; it's obviously going to be that kind of game!

Steve Gerrard and Wayne Rooney

A hard but fair struggle for control of midfield sets in as both sides renew the ancient battle to be the best in the North West. Liverpool, playing at home, are being a little more direct and placing some very threatening passes through United's midfield and defence. The Red Devils are playing counter-attack at speed and really stretching the Liverpool defence, which concedes a lot of dead ball chances for the Reds (actually playing in blue today, of course) but little more.

Kieron Richardson

Half an hour gone and the tension is visibly rising as both teams look for the first goal. Liverpool are mostly attacking down their right wing, where United's emergency left back and England midfielder Kieron Richardson is doing a great job standing in for long-term injury victim Argentine international Gabriel Heinze. This could prove to be critical for the boys from Manchester, both for the rest of the season and right now, right here in this vital match.

Best moment of the first half for United was a sudden break forward in the 44th minute with Ruud Van Nistelrooy receiving the ball in the Liverpool area and lobbing advancing keeper Reina. The ball just wouldn't come down fast enough and lands on the roof of the net. Liverpool's best moments were probably any one of a number of free kicks outside the United box, all of which came to nothing and it's 0-0 at half time.

Manchester United get the second half under way but it's Liverpool that have picked up the pace and the United defence is under siege. Breaking down both left and right, Liverpool are passing much more crisply than their scrappy first half performance as they switch the play back and forth across the pitch in search of that final pass but United's defence is resolute.

Steven Gerrard

Not until over the hour mark do we see United's first real attack. There's no goal but it signals a change in momentum as the Red Devils start to exert themselves in search of that precious first goal. Both sides know that one goal could be enough to win a match as tight as this.

With eighty minutes gone now it's all been sound and fury so far with neither team having anything to show for all their hard work. Liverpool have used two substitutions but United none, which is odd when players of the calibre of Ryan Giggs and Park sitting on the bench.

Suddenly, with 86 minutes gone it's Giggs on for team captain Roy Keane! Followed immediately by Fletcher replacing Rooney!! It's rarely boring watching Manchester United but is it too late? The changes don't look like match-winning solutions more like settling for the draw.

In the 93rd minute Sir Alex replaces Ronaldo with the South Korean Park, presumably to run down the clock a little, and one minute later it's all over.

Manchester United have had the better of these fixtures in recent seasons, so let's hope the draw signals Liverpool progress rather than a sign of a United decline; either way, with Chelsea having won again, their 6th straight win this season, it's more lost ground for both United and Liverpool in the increasingly important early season going. The late breaking news that United captain Roy Keane has a broken foot and will be out injured for about 2 months is the awful postscript to this somewhat dismal affair.

This review is cross-posted here at the mighty BlogCritics site.

Wednesday, 14 September 2005

Villarreal 0 Manchester United 0

I wasn't able to focus on this match because today Wednesday 14th September 2005 is my birthday but I did want to record the result to keep this 2005-2006 football season blog complete.

Sunday, 11 September 2005

Manchester United 1 Manchester City 1

After a long season break for the World Cup qualifiers, the serious business of Premiership football resumes and this weekend it is the even more serious business of the Manchester Derby, Red versus Blue, with pride, points and league standings all at stake.

Despite the importance of the match, manager Sir Alex Ferguson decides to rest some of the senior players before the Champions League game away to Villarreal on September 14th and the following weekend's massive match against local rivals and current European Champions Liverpool. There's no place for club captain Roy Keane nor Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, Ronaldo is missing due to the sad loss of his father and Gary Neville and Wes Brown are both still injured.

Despite the weird 4-3-3 lineup, featuring the odd sounding midfield of Fletcher-Smith-Park, Manchester United quickly settle into their game and steadily begin to put Manchester City's defence under pressure. The Sky Blues have little to offer apart from the occasional counterattack down United's left wing but the Red defence mops up easily.

The new look midfield is working surprisingly well so far, with South Korean newbie Jung_Il Park, in for Giggs, taking a free role down both wings and Alan Smith, playing a little deep, in place of iconic team captain Roy Keane.

Wayne Rooney, a player who I believe could be better than Diego Maradona if he's allowed to develop properly, is having a relatively quiet game, possibly a little stale after England's won one, lost one World Cup matches.

Paul Scholes

The match becomes a slightly dull midfield struggle for control with neither side looking particularly sharp until, right at the end of the first half, Paul Scholes drives forward a free kick which Ruud van Nistelrooy meets firmly on the volley. City Keeper David James, disappointing for England, pulls off an impressive one-handed instinctive diving save but his skill goes unrewarded as the ball rebounds straight to Ruud who makes no mistake and it's GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLL! 1-0 to United!

City are visibly deflated by the late first half goal but still full of resistance, this IS the Manchester derby after all, as the second half gets underway. Not much has changed from the first half, a lot of midfield toiling away with United being more assertive and looking for a second goal and City defending for all they're worth.

Alan Smith is looking solid in his new central midfield role and, in the absence of Ronaldo and Giggs, Rooney and Scholes are handling all the dead ball situations.

Over an hour gone now and the Sky Blues' need for a goal grows urgent but, despite the presence of former Red Andy Cole upfront, they can't find a way through United's defence. With under twenty minutes left, City's impressive manager Stuart Pearce makes a double substitution in midfield. They are obviously desperate to get something out of the game as even a draw will keep them ahead of the Red Devils.

Joey Barton

Suddenly, in the 75th minute, it all changes for Manchester City. A cross into the United box from City's right wing is missed by everybody and ends up on the left. After a couple of ricochets the ball ends up at the feet of City's new striker Darius Vassell. He shoots and the ball hits City midfielder Joey Barton and it's an unlikely GOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL for The Blues.
It's 1-1 and the first goal United have conceded all season.

Almost immediately, Sir Alex brings on both Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, followed a few moments later by Kieron Richardson. Can they save the day for United or is there simply too little time left for a comeback?

Unfortunately it's the latter, in fact United almost lost the match in the last minute of extra time. City break down United's left (again) and a fast low cross is met by ex-Red Andy Cole but his quick shot is blocked by Edwin Van Der Sar and that's it.

A fantastic result for City, who remain ahead of United in the Premiership table, albeit having played a game more.

A disappointing result for Manchester United, points dropped, a goal conceded and drawing at home to City feels almost as bad as defeat.

This review is cross-posted here at BlogCritics.