With City’s victory over United, is the tide turning in Manchester?

22 04 2011

Based on comments made in forums and chat rooms after Manchester City’s FA Cup semi final win over United, was the result as monumental for the fans as the press would have you believe?

With Edwin van der Sar’s poor clearance, Michael Carrick’s slack pass and Yaya Toure’s opportunistic finish Manchester City clinched a 1-0 victory over their fierce rivals United and marched onto their first FA Cup final in 30 years.

The facts will read thus: Roberto Mancini’s team will face Stoke City in the final of the FA Cup. It will be their best opportunity in recent years to end a trophy-less era stretching back 35 years since winning the League Cup of 1976. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will have to wait another year to challenge for the famous domestic cup, which they last won in 2004 having been beaten in two final appearances since.

In the league the Citizens are competing with Tottenham Hotspur for the lucrative 4th place and Champions League qualification. In contrast the Red Devils now have their sights firmly set on a well-positioned assault on the Barclays Premier League and Champions League crown.

These are the facts, yes, but for the red and blue sides of Manchester the 16 April 2011 has had and will continue to have dramatic ramifications for years to come.

City – A watershed moment

The overwhelming reaction from City fans has been one of unbridled joy and optimism.

“Today the team got a monkey off their back. This will instil the confidence in the players that they can beat the best in the land on a regular basis. The celebrations at the end showed that. This result could be the turning point for the team.” Burtonblue on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk

Several City fans see Saturday’s result as a momentous, watershed moment for the blue side of Manchester – with a playing squad and budget to match the top teams in England – marking the start of better things to come for Roberto Mancini’s team.

“We may lose the final to Stoke – we know that would be kind of typical City – but Saturday 16th April for me is now the start of Year 1.” The Blue Panther on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk

United – Bitter pill to swallow

For United supporters, the enduring memory from the Wembley defeat was one of indignation. That, and disappointment that these City upstarts dare upstage the team in red and dash their prospects of repeating the treble triumph of 1999.

Unsurprisingly the United fans were also playing down the significance of the result, highlighting how much the team have yet to play for this season.

“If anybody said we had to lose out on one, of course it’d be FA Cup. Yes, to be 90 mins away from a final and not get there is disappointing, even more so when it’s against your city rivals, but I’m sure we’ll forget about this if we win the title or the CL.” MUFCgal on redcafe.net

Some were even feigning relief the treble was no longer on the cards, yet fellow members quickly quashed this suggestion. Clearly the fans are despondent an opportunity to relive the magic of ‘99 has been denied.

“Lets not win the treble because it’s special being a one-off? What a load of nonsense. Good thing our Manager doesn’t have that mentality.” BG on rednews.co.uk

Furthermore, this result has served as a wakeup call for United fans with member comments alluding to a realisation City are now more than mere noisy neighbours – and it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“We all know Saturday’s loss will need a long time before it is erased from the memory. Now they have finally beaten us in a meaningful way they will want to use it to the max especially with all the moolah they have. No 19 [top flight league wins] would go some way to softening the blow but the taste it has left will be bitter for a good while.” daviephi on rednews.co.uk

Manchester thanks Sheikh Mansour

While the United fans were licking their wounds the City fans were quick to pay tribute to two individuals in particular: their owner Sheikh Mansour, who they feel has more than shown his commitment to the club, and their often-maligned manager Mancini.

“Just can’t believe what has happened to us so quickly and cant thank Sheikh Mansour enough! I look at our squad now and if we get Champions League…it blows my mind! We will be legends for years to come but will never forget our history!” richards30 on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk

While the optimism is clear to see some are just thankful for the memories the result provided, presumably none more so than Mancini who looks to have finally endeared himself to the fans.

“I know if we were to finish 5th and lose the final my attitude will change again but I have been saying that even if we finish top 4 I would still like [Mancini] to be removed of his duties…now I am not so sure. Whatever the future holds thank you Roberto for that moment yesterday, something I will remember for a long time!” OriganiNinja on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk

A Manchester in transition

So in the longer term, what does the result mean for each team’s future prospects? In brief: a brighter outlook for City, a bleaker outlook for United.

“Fergie has a huge job to do to get us over the line for 19, (I do not think we have the ammunition to win the CL) and an even huger task to recruit/rebuild and shed dead wood this summer. It’s not going to be easy. If the berties [slang for City fans] qualify for the CL, this guy at the Arse puts his hand in his pocket and Dogleash [sic] starts spending we will need to do some very astute wheeling and dealing, starting NOW!” Everred on rednews.co.uk

The red fans have been aware of a transition taking place in the northwest and are wary of the challenge City will bring to their recent dominance. The fraught second Manchester derby last season was billed as such – as this author wrote ahead of that lunchtime contest at Eastlands.

That match was dramatically settled with a last gasp Paul Scholes header, which the United midfielder recently described as “one of the best things I have ever done”. Those memories are set in stark contrast with his actions in the teatime clash at Wembley where Scholes and his teammates cut forlorn figures desperately trying to cling onto a superiority that has been rapidly eroding over the past two seasons.

The Treble and the Auto Windscreens Shield

Despite the immediate implications of Saturday’s result and another reminder of the shift in momentum in Manchester, some fans offered a sense of nostalgic perspective.

“It’s hard to believe the position we are now in. I remember us getting beaten by Bury around 12 years ago and wondered if we would ever get back near to the top. We have and it is all down to one man…” kismet on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk [on post headed “Manchester thanks Sheikh Mansour”]

These memories hark back to the 1998-99 season, when City were battling in the old Third Division (and United were building to a famous treble), chronicled in Mark Hodkinson’s Blue Moon:

“Sensibly, staff at Maine Road seldom mention Manchester’s other team these days,” wrote Hodkinson. “United are success, money, glamour and a 1-1 draw with Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League, while City are failure, debt, calamity and a 2-1 home defeat to Mansfield Town in the Auto Windscreens Shield.”

It is a testament to how far City have come to be competing, once again, for the most coveted prize of English cup football yet highlights one of the greatest strengths this United can boast under Ferguson – that of a remarkable consistency and staying power at the top.

City have won four FA Cups in their history. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s 24-year tenure at United he has held the trophy aloft on five occasions, with the club amassing 11 wins in the competition overall.

“While they cared on the day, and I’m sure it still hurts a bit, it would have pained us a hell of a lot more. Celebrating is great and we deserve it after beating them but it brings us back around to this small club mentality. We should enjoy this now, enjoy the small victories, because we’ll have them singing non stop when they win the Premiership at the end of the season and God help us if they get to the CL final and Barca have an off day.” Rahart on bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk

Stoke and silverware is just the start

For now, objectives such as to knock United “off their perch” will have to wait but in the short-term City have all the weapons in their armoury, with gifted players an astute management team and an ambitious oil-rich backer, to challenge their cross-town rivals.

“Even if they don’t win it they’ll bang on about it for ages like the Leeds lot still do. 1-0 blah blah blah. It’s horrible. We better get used to it because they’ll be there or thereabouts as long as they have the money and with SAF set to retire one day it will be tough.” Claymore on redcafe.net

The Citizens won’t be happy until parity is unequivocally confirmed in the League and in the Champions League but ending 35 years of hurt – something that puts Arsenal’s current woes in perspective – will go a long way to restoring the balance of Manchester.

Then of course, if United secure the Barclays Premiership, the blue and red armies will be locking horns again at the home of English football in the curtain-raiser to the 2011-12 season for the FA Community Shield.

Whether United fans like it or not, it appears City have joined the top table of English football and the Red Devils will have a fight on their hands to hold onto the silverware.

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Red devils decline, blue moon ascent. A Manchester in transition

16 04 2010

The most decisive Manchester derby since Dennis Law’s back-heel in 1974 will highlight where success and failure lies in a footballing city marked by a season of transition.

Forget the War of the Roses. Forget the north/south divide. Saturday’s clash between the red and blue armies of Manchester promises to be an epic, with meteoric implications for both clubs and both sets of supporters.

The Carling Cup contest was a classic cup tie with each side going for broke from the first kick. The early season 4-3 victory over City was special for its drama. The 2-1 humbling of United in 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich disaster will not be forgotten quickly.

But with unrest and uncertainty in the air for the reds, contrasting with the optimism and financial clout wielded by the blues, this Premier League derby could prove as decisive and divisive a match as there has been at Old Trafford since former red, Denis Law’s back-heeled goal for City relegated United to the old second division in 1974.

Both sets of supporters have had fun with the renewed rivalry in Manchester Victory for United in the powder-keg atmosphere of Eastlands would reinvigorate their flagging aspirations for a fourth consecutive championship. While defeat or success for City would have dramatic implications for their assault on the top four, the immediate future for their manager and offer a fitting barometer to gauge the potential of this revamped, resurgent City of Manchester club.

For both Lancashire outfits this season has been one etched with transition. United are just facing up to a potentially bleaker future of consolidation and austerity on the pitch and in the transfer market. City, by contrast, have been burgeoned by Sheikh Mansour’s billions generating a firm belief in this club that they can recapture the glory days gone by of the 1960s and 70s.

The prospects for this period of transition in Manchester will be clearer when the final whistle goes tomorrow lunchtime. In previous years United have been almost untouchable in the league, setting the standards of domestic football while City were establishing themselves in a relatively new stadium and trying to shrug off doubts over the legitimacy of their ownership by Thaksin Shinawatra.

Since Gary Neville held the Premier League trophy aloft in May the gap between the clubs seen in performances on the pitch and in the transfer market has narrowed considerably. Perhaps this fixture in the coming years could represent a title decider – the likes of which not seen since Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison led City to League Championship success in 1967/68, when United were beaten into second place – as the two clubs continue on this path toward a level playing field.

Uncertainty and unrest at United came with the emergence of the tremendous debt the club is facing Returning to the story of 1974, two years after Law’s goal against his former club, the blue side of Manchester was celebrating victory in the League Cup. It has been 34 years since that day and they have not picked up anymore silverware since – a fact the Old Trafford faithful propagate with increasing relish. The second-leg Carling Cup semi-final tie in January, regardless of what Ferguson would say about the importance of reaching finals, was ultimately about extending this barren spell, delaying Mancini’s men an outing at Wembley that their attacking displays this campaign have arguably deserved.

A befitting consolation for their passionate support would be a top four finish and an opportunity to represent what they believe to be the true team of Manchester on Europe’s centre stage – in the Champions League – confirming their ascent to club football’s elite that their billions of pounds would vindicate and their thousands of fans would demand.

Both times at Old Trafford a last-gasp goal has been the only thing maintaining United’s superiority this season. At the City of Manchester Stadium, the former United striker, Carlos Tevez was the difference for the Blues taking a 2-1 lead in the cup. It could well be, just like Dennis Law in ‘74, a former red devil that will have the final say on a season dominated by transition that will ultimately end in despair for one half of Manchester and celebration for the other.

Dennis Law’s back-heel that consigned his former club, United to relegation




Bitter legacies or best of friends – the top 10 greatest sporting rivalries

20 03 2010

Kauto Star v Denman didn’t live up to the hype – here are 10 great sporting rivalries that did

Here are my top 10, limited to only one in each sport (one managerial and one team clash in football), compiled during a placement with the Mirror.co.uk Somehow I could not find any enduring feuds in rugby and a special mention has to be made for Borg-McEnroe, Benn-Eubank and El Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate. If you want to slate my list or have a few ideas of your own, leave a comment and make me eat my words.

Kauto Star v Denman and the top 10 greatest sporting rivalries – starring Mohammad Ali, Seb Coe, Ian Botham and Alex Higgins

By Sam Rider 17/03/2010

Ahead of this week’s highly anticipated Cheltenham Gold Cup clash between Kauto Star and Denman at the annual National Hunt Festival, we look back at 10 other fierce sporting rivalries.

Kauto Star and stable mate Denman1. Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier (1971-75)

The Greatest versus Smokin’ Joe. With both undefeated the rivalry was hotly anticipated. Dubbed The Fight of the Century they met at Madison Square Garden in 1971 – with Frank Sinatra famously taking photos for Life magazine and actor Burt Lancaster broadcasting the action – and the fight lived up to the hype. Frazier retained the title on a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional defeat. The consequent rematch in 1974 saw Ali winning by unanimous decision in 12 rounds, thus paving the way for the third and final, winner-takes-all Thrilla in Manila. In stirring up media interest Ali uttered the eternal words: “It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila.” The fight lasted 14 draining rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with the advantage swinging between the two greats over the contest. Both were close to death when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round, after his trainer Eddie Futch, refused to let his fighter continue. A bitter legacy remains between the former champs with Frazier unable to forgive Ali for his pre-fight personal, antagonistic remarks and resentment for his trainer ending a fight he felt he would win.

After the fight Ali called Joe’s son Marvis to his dressing room. He told him how sorry he was for humiliating his father and his family with his jibes before the bout. When Marvis told his father, Smokin’ Joe simply responded: “Why didn’t Ali apologise to me?”

The Thrilla in Manila2. Alain Prost v Ayrton Senna (1984-94)
The F1 greats held a captivating rivalry on the track which peaked in 1989 at Suzuka, Japan, when the McLaren pair forced each other off the track. With the Brazilian Senna requiring a finish ahead of Frenchman Prost who was leading the championship, he tried to drive past the Frenchman at a tight chicane only for the McLarens to lock wheels and grind to a halt off the track. Prost went on to win the season but Senna had his revenge the next year, at the same circuit, where Senna ploughed into the rear wheel of the escaping Prost at 170 mph taking both cars out of the race and handing the Brazilian the 1990 Championship. “I didn’t care if we crashed; I went for it,” Senna said later. “I think what happened in 1989 was unforgivable, and I will never forget it. I still struggle to cope with it even now.” Prost responded on the record slamming Senna’s actions as disgusting and seriously considered retiring after that incident.

3. England v Argentina (1986, 1998, 2002)
This politically charged clash first spilled onto the football field at the Mexico World Cup in 1986. There the infamous Hand of God and a mesmerising Maradona dribble knocked England out of the tournament at the quarter finals. Set against a backdrop of the Falklands War four years earlier and a residing animosity, an intense football rivalry developed. Fast forward to the 1998 World Cup where Michael Owen, as a teenage prodigy, grabbed centre stage with a slaloming run through the heart of the Argy midfield and defence. A tempestuous David Beckham was sent off and the Three Lions fell victim to the scourge of penalties. The opportunity for revenge came at the following World Cup in South Korea and Japan as Beckham vanquished his and his nation’s demons with an emphatic penalty drilled down the middle of the enemies goal. Think Thatcher v Galtieri, Shilton v Maradona and Beckham v Simeone. Becks modestly described his World Cup highlight as “extremely special”. Not half.

4. Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova (1975-88)

For all the fervour surrounding the Borg-McEnroe contests, the women’s game holds the greatest on court rivalry. There was the contrast in styles, but this time between two players who dominated for more than a decade – between them the pair won 18 out of the 19 slams between 1982 and 1986. Overall, Americas sweetheart and the Czech challenger played each other an enthralling 80 times. The 1985 French Open final, with Chris winning 6-3 6-7 (4-7) 7-5 arguably stands out as the greatest. Despite the on court competition, the two remained close friends throughout. Navratilova introduced Evert to former Olympic skier Andy Mill, who married Evert in 1988 and the two greats played as doubles partners at the same time as their fierce singles rivalry. “If you tried to make the perfect rivalry, we were it. Most of the time, one of us was number one in the world, the other one was number two,” said Navratilova in 1998.

"If you tried to make the perfect rivalry, we were it"5. Sebastian Coe v Steve Ovett (1978-86)
The British pair dominated middle distance running for a decade, exchanging records and captivating the world at the Moscow Olympics. Ovett beat Coe to take gold at in 1980 for the 800m, Coe was victorious in the 1500m and defended the title at the Los Angeles Olympics four years later. In a 10-day period in 1981 they traded the world record for the mile between them three times. Their clash of personalities is underlined in a dispute over a BBC film, documenting their rivalry, based on Pat Butcher’s The Perfect Distance, currently in production. Ovett, now 54, suspects the film will focus on stereotypical differences between the two, portraying a clean-cut Coe, who attended Loughborough University, and making him the villain of the piece as an art school rebel. "I heard about that and gave it the thumbs down from the start for obvious reasons," Ovett told national press agency Sportsbeat. "After Chariots of Fire I can picture the intellectual, clean cut, perfect smile Seb up against the ‘working class boy’. It kinda sucks. I prefer to leave the past exactly where it is," said Ovett.

6. Garry Kasparov v Anatoly Karpov (1984-2009)
The cerebral chess cliff-hanger ending was left teetering for 25 years since the days of the Berlin Wall and their five-month contest in Moscow. That grueling battle in 1984 was called off without a winner over fears for the protagonists waning physical and mental health. With the duel ended at 5-3 to the 33 year old Karpov (it was a first to six wins match) against his junior Kasparov, then 21, the contest was resumed in September 2009 as a 12-game rematch that Kasparov eventually won out 9-3. Kasparov was seen as the southerner, half-Jewish, half-Armenian, young up-start taking on the golden boy of the Soviet Union, Karpov. At a time when the Soviet Union was going through a period of great turmoil this classic encounter encapsulated the tide of change sweeping over the creaking, introspective Eastern Bloc.

7. Sir Alex Ferguson v Arsene Wenger (1996-2010)

Fergie’s Manchester United and Wenger’s Arsenal have dominated the Premier League record books. Since Wenger’s arrival in the 1996-97 season United have plundered 8 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups and 2 Champions Leagues, being runners-up last year. The Gunners have claimed 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups and made the final of the Champions League once. Their most infamous bust up to date came in October 2004, when both teams and managers clashed in the tunnel after United had ended Arsenals 49-game unbeaten run in a match dubbed The Battle of the Buffet. The rivalry will forever be remembered for a mysterious slice of pizza being thrown at the face of the incensed Scot, immortalising the word: Pizzagate.

Le Prof and the Knight. Mutual respect or utter contempt?8. Arnold Palmer v Jack Nicklaus (since 1958)
Nicklaus won 18 majors, Palmer won 7. Jack had 73 PGA wins, Arnie 62; yet Jack desperately desired the adoration of the public that Palmer enjoyed yet was considered the superior golfer. At the 1962 US Open at Oakmont, Palmer said: “Everybody says I’m the favourite, but you’d better watch the fat boy.” Nicklaus went on to win that year, at the age of 22, and made the cover of Time magazine confirming his rivalry with Palmer. In a commentary the famous words depicted the contrast between the two greats: “When God created Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, he turned to Nicklaus and said: You will be the greatest the game has ever seen. Then He turned to Palmer, adding: But they will love you more.”

9. Ian Botham v Ian Chappell (1977)
Beefy proved it only takes a minute to make a lasting impression. Although they never played against each other for their countries their toxic feud remains as strong today as it did 33 years ago in 1977. An uncapped 21 year old Botham, in Melbourne on a scholarship, came head to head with Chappell, 34, in the MCG bar. The pugnacious Aussie was enjoying some vocal Pommie bashing which Botham took offence to. An ensuing melee took place in which the Englishman floored the Australian with a punch and Chappell scampered out of the bar (Botham’s version) or Botham threatened to cut him from ear to ear and then pushed him off his chair, after which the Australian coolly left the bar with the irate, snarling Botham being restrained (Chappell’s version). Subsequent confrontations out in the middle involved homing-missile beamers and bouncers; sticks and stones fly in their respective autobiographies and media appearances are yet to produce an apology. After Botham bowled a particularly vicious bouncer, Chappell spat back the warning that if he did it again he had better hit me because “if it doesn’t I’m going to come down there and whack you with the bat”. Asked whether they would have a drink after filming of a current affairs programme they appeared on together in the 1990s, Chappell said: “No. I can find plenty of decent people to have a drink with. I wont be drinking with him.”

10. Alex Higgins v Everyone
The Hurricane took on all-comers during his fractious snooker career, punching referees, scrapping with fellow players and being banned from more hotels than we care to mention. Higgins was a genius on the baize, winning the World Snooker Championships in 1972 and 1982, but upset everyone involved in the sport during his years as a pro. He was banned by snooker’s governing body 15 times, had an on-going feud with Dennis Taylor and was even banned from televised snooker show Pot Black.

FIVE RIVALRIES FOR THE FUTURE

Manny Pacquiao vs Floyd Mayweather Jnr
Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel
Manchester United vs Manchester City
Andy Murray vs Juan Martin Del Potro
Tyson Gay vs Asafa Powell to play second fiddle to Usain Bolt

And here’s another valuable piece of reporting I undertook at the Mirror’s headquarters in the Canary Wharf: “The ugliest dog Oscar’s – see all the nominees”.





Famous last words Rafa?

13 01 2009

Are we witnessing the last few unceremonious days of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool managerial career?

Over the past few days I have been patiently watching the fall-out from Rafa Benitez’s Friday press conference unfold. And after seeing Liverpool drop points yet again and seeing Manchester United demolish Chelsea in picking up maximum points over the weekend, I can’t help but think that we are witnessing the unraveling of his career as Liverpool manager and the famous last words of the Spaniard’s reign in the Premiership.

The press who were probing the questions at the conference started off proceedings by bringing up the mysterious issue of the Liverpool hierarchy’s stalling on offering the manager a new contract. If his response to these questions was designed to reaffirm his control over the team and silence any doubters of his ability to guide a team at the top of the table to victory then he unequivocally failed.

Contract fears

“My agent has not yet received any documents, and he is a little disappointed,” started Benitez on Friday. “But Ok, we will see what happens. But I do not want to say too much at the moment.”

Instead he turned his attention to a harmless looking piece of A4 paper in front of him which served as his documented ammunition in a barrage of “facts” not opinions, aimed unerringly in the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson. His reaction and subsequent remarks suggest he is feeling the strain and pressure of the Liverpool board, fans and rivals efforts to overhaul their position in the league more than anyone could have predicted.

To reveal this to the television cameras and reporters at what is still such an early point in the season will surely spell the beginning of the end of his career and what is most bizarre of all is that he has undermined his ability completely by his own doing without so much as a mutter of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘mind games’.

Call it what you may, a “rant,” “tirade” or just speaking of the truth, but much has been made of his comments and their implications for the 2008/09 Premiership season after Manchester United won and Liverpool drew.

The BBC’s Phil McNulty suggested that Fergie has won the first round of battles with Rafa and simultaneously dented the aspirations of Chelsea and European rivals Inter Milan with the same blow.

Perfect team talk

Chris Kamara felt that Rafa’s comments would have worked for Liverpool had the “rant” been performed “tongue-in-cheek” but instead it provided the perfect team talk for the United players to go out and lay down a marker for their title aspirations this season.

Even if another year has rolled around for Sir Alex at the age of 67, any signs of weariness or reluctance to go on the attack were vanquished in this post-match dissection of Benitez’s words. Ferguson issued the perfect tongue-in-cheek demonstration after the game to every interviewer that crossed his path.

“I think he was an angry man and I think he was disturbed for some reason, that’s all I’ve got to say about it.”

Since then Benitez has persisted in attacking Manchester United by questioning the United Chief-Executive David Gill’s position on the Football Association’s board. So what does Rafa’s rant say about the Liverpool manager? Is he losing the plot, or was he making a calculated probe at the ever-eager Ferguson to get the jump on his New Year lobbies of ‘mind games’ which usually accompany Manchester United’s surge to the summit of the table?

His words were reminiscent of Kevin Keegen’s concession of his Newcastle team’s title credentials live on Sky Sports in 1996. “I will luv it if we beat them…luv it!” Shortly after Ferguson got under Keegen’s skin at the back end of the 1995/96 season the Magpies form went to tatters and with it went the last truly dignified moments of the Geordie’s managerial era with that infamous outburst.

Are you watching Jose?

If anything, Rafa’s comments on Friday were influential in adding even more publicity to one of the most eagerly observed fixtures of the season by fans and more importantly rivals across the globe. I wonder if half the big name managers that took their seats in the stand prior to kick-off had made such a plan to be there for the game had it not been for the Liverpool manager stoking the fire and amplifying the spotlight on United’s season that had been faltering to a certain extent up to that point.

As soon as news of his conference went to the press, private planes and chauffeur’s driven escorts across the country and continent would have suddenly been called into high demand to cater for the arrival of the football scenes biggest names. Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho and Diego Maradona, to name but a few who attracted the majority of the camera coverage. Sky Sports practically had a camera focused on the Special One for the duration of the 90 minutes and probably had spies camped all around the ground noting his every move from the Chelsea dressing room after the match to the South stand concourse for his half-time pie (I wouldn’t be surprised – he misses the English Premiership that much).

As football correspondent, Oliver Kay of The Times noted in The Game, the victory for the Premiership champions marked a double edged blow to Mourinho. As he says “United strike chord of fear” in underlining the disparity between Manchester United and his beloved Chelsea since his departure in 2007 and underlining the challenge his new team Inter Milan will have when they take on the European champions in the Champions League this February.

He recently commented that he would have guided Chelsea to take the European prize last season had it been him on the touchline and not the beleaguered Avram Grant. Yet, now that he has the chance to prove his managerial abilities in Europe with the Italian league champions, after this illustration of attacking and defensive force, even the ever enigmatic and confidence oozing Mourinho may be having serious doubts and sleepless nights.

Questions answered

So, as for now at least, Fergie won’t rise to Rafa’s challenge for mind games, I will attempt to respond to the “facts” that the Spaniard attributed to the Scotsman and his team:

Would United rather have 4 games at home in the second half of the season – I don’t think so. Ask any team at the foot of the table, being in pole position whether facing a relegation or championship battle at Christmas can be an enormous psychological advantage if utilised effectively. If it were not for Liverpool and Chelsea’s faltering Christmas period of drawing the majority of their very winnable games, they would have stretched at least 10 points clear of United before they had a chance to catch up on their games in hand. Liverpool could have used their lead so much more effectively were they not to be so obviously glancing over their shoulders in the press at every turn.

United had an advantage playing on the 29th rather than the 28th when all the other Premiership teams did in December. This was only to cater for the mammoth travelling effort and draining effects of their trip to Yokohama for the FIFA World Club Cup in Japan for games on the 18th and 21st followed by an away game at Stoke on the 26th. Yet despite the added challenge this tournament presented for the Manchester team and their Premiership program, you don’t hear Fergie complaining 24/7. Perhaps he has learned past lessons as in 2000 when he withdrew United from the FA cup to ease the strain on his team competing in the equivalent global tournament but when you are successful Rafa, you will know the pressures that come hand in hand.

And then there is the response to perceived swipes made at Rafa’s title credentials this season made by Ferguson by suggesting that Liverpool don’t have the experience that is vital to maintain the number one position at the top of the table for the duration of the season. Well Rafa, your performance in the press room last week spoke volumes. It appears that not only are you unable to personally maintain a level of composure and assurance under the stresses that the city of Liverpool is mounting on you to bring them a Premiership trophy; but the pressure has filtered down to the players with their recent stumbling at Stoke another portent example. And finally, with United playing one of their games in hand on Wednesday and playing again on Saturday ahead of Liverpool’s Merseyside derby with Everton on Monday, Liverpool may find themselves having handed over the lead and the initiative to Ferguson’s charges without even kicking a ball.

I would love it!

But don’t expect these responses to emanate from Sir Alex’s quarters anytime soon. He will let his team and their performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford on March 14th do the talking. But personally, I would love it if we beat them…love it!!