Out of his depth: A season of despair for United

Seventh in the Premier League, 12 points adrift of 4th place, knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round and on the verge of an embarrassing Champions League exit.
Not the first season in charge of Manchester United that David Moyes envisaged.
It’s hard to think of a manager who would have plummeted the reigning Premier League champions to such depths of despair so rapidly.
The first season without Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be tough, but eight defeats in 27 league games is simply unacceptable.
It leaves fans asking the question ‘would we be 7th had Jose Mourinho succeeded Ferguson?’ The simple answer is no.
Under Mike Phelan, United wouldn’t be 7th.
Speaking to a United fan at work, he proposed the thought: ‘Had Ferguson not selected his successor and the job had just been open to applications, would Moyes have even gone for the job?’
Take some time and think about that.

Moyes has struggled to deal with a number of aspects of the job, but the biggest has been handling a bigger squad of players than he ever had at Everton.
Under Moyes, United have not named the same starting eleven more than once, highlighting that he simply does not know what his best side is.
Much has been said and written about the quality of United’s squad, but what Ferguson was so great at was getting the best out of everyone in his squad.
Moyes has not been able to do this.
It’s fair to think that the likes of Nani, Anderson and Shinji Kagawa are not good enough to wear the red shirt, but Ferguson still got good performances out of them when he needed to.
Kagawa is the prime example.
During his first season in the Premier League, it was obvious he needed time to adjust to the physical aspect of the English game. He didn’t exactly set the world alight. Nevertheless he still contributed six goals and numerous assists.
This season under Moyes – Kagawa is yet to score or provide an assist.
I am a fan of Kagawa and would like to see him given more opportunities, especially when you consider the endless number of chances Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have had to impress.

United have really struggled against the other top teams in the Premier League.
Moyes’ side has lost at Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool as well as at home to Tottenham and Everton.
Worryingly, it’s stat that’s likely to get even worse before the season is over with City and Liverpool still to visit Old Trafford, and a trip to Goodison Park also on the agenda.
It should be pointed out though that United have taken four points off Arsenal which, during any season, is a good return.
United have an important run of games coming up, none more so than the Champions League last 16 second leg with Olympiakos. Should they be able to recover from their two nil first leg deficit and perform well in their home matches with Manchester City and Liverpool, United could at least end the season with some momentum ahead of a vital summer.
Despite recent reports, Moyes will be in charge of the rebuilding process which is sure to involve players leaving as well as arriving.
The signing of Juan Mata, as well as Wayne Rooney’s new contract, will undoubtedly help United attract the players they need in the summer even without the lure of Champions League football. Meanwhile, Ashley Young, Anderson and Antonio Valencia are just three players that have had their chance and should be sold permanently.

It promises to be a huge six months for United, who have lost six of their last 12 matches.
Should that form continue until the end of the season, even the United board may lose patience with Moyes.
To avoid that he has to show why he was Ferguson’s ‘chosen one’ and finally gain the trust of both players and fans because up until now he looks like a man well and truly out of his depth.

The Open - Three to Watch


Rickie Fowler – Impressive performance at Merion last month culminated in a Top 10 finish and highlighted that the 24-year-old has the temperament to handle the toughest of challenges. Fowler has also had success at The Open before with a 5th place finish in 2011 at Royal St George’s showing that he has the game for links golf. A good putting week should see him in the mix on Sunday, so at 50/1 looks a solid bet.

Richard Sterne – Currently 4th in the Race to Dubai standings on the European Tour, having already won this season at the Joburg Open. The South African pushed Graeme McDowell all the way at the Open De France earlier this month suggesting that another win is not too far away. Top 25 finishes in 9 of his 12 events on tour this season shows that, at 90/1, he looks very good value for an each way bet.

Ernie Els – The defending champion and also the man that last won The Open at Muirfield in 2002. Those two experiences should see Els in contention once more. The South African has a staggering 13 Top 10 finishes in this tournament which makes him one of the most consistent players in Open history. Despite a missed cut in Scotland last week, the four-time major champion has been in impressive form with a win at the BMW International Open as well as finishing in a tie for 4th at the US Open. Don’t be surprised to see him defend his title this week. Great bet at 25/1.

Three reasons why the Lions will give the Wallabies a beating

For many, the advent of professionalism in rugby during the mid-90's signalled the
beginning of the end for the British and Irish Lions. A touring party comprised of individuals from the four home nations travelling to the Southern Hemisphere every four years for a collection of bruising rugby encounters and similarly bruising social endeavours lended itself perfectly to rugby in the amateur age. Many did not see a place for such an organisation in the professional game. However, 16 years on from the first professional tour, the Lions couldn't be any further from dying a death. For me, a lover of virtually all sport, there is nothing more special in world sport than a Lions tour and I am as excited about this one as any other. Despite selection furore surrounding Robbie Deans' Australian squad, particularly regarding the mercurial Quade Cooper, as well as injury problems (the inspirational David Pocock being the most notable absentee) and chequered recent form, there is no doubting that when it comes to Brisbane and the first Test match, the Aussies will be anything but a pushover. Thankfully, the 2013 British and Irish Lions have the potential, in my eyes, to become the greatest touring side of all time.

Although that may sound like a audacious claim, I do not make it lightly or without justification. No Lions squad in history has won every single match on a tour- the much venerated class of '74 came the closest, their win record blemished only by a controversial draw right at the death in the final test against South Africa. If Sam Warburton's Lions can make it through to Sydney on 6th July having won every game, which I believe they can, they are capable of writing their name firmly into the history books. In case you don't believe me, I will give you three reasons why taking the 7/2 on offer for a 3-0 series whitewash is a gamble that may well pay off.

1) Strength in Depth:

The Lions don't have a brilliant team- they have two. The strength in depth the current squad possesses is frightening and nowhere is this more evident than in the pivotal positions within both the forward pack and the back line. The back row and the centre partnerships in the Lions' second-team could arguably win them a test against Australia, such is the strength of the squad in these crucial positions.

The back row could quite conceivably be made up of any combination of the seven that have made the tour; Chris Robshaw's omission may have been lamented by many English fans, but one look at the talent that Gatland could deploy at either 6 or 7 and no one can have any justified complaints. One striking example of the strength in depth in this crucial area is that the bookies and many journalists' favoured back row contains none of my own preferences. If I was picking the Test team tomorrow, none of the Welsh foursome would make my first choice back row- Lydiate, Tipuric and Faletau, despite their undoubted class, would all be taking their place on the bench. As would the man who paradoxically sat out most of the Six Nations, only to be awarded one of rugby's greatest honours when Warren Gatland named him as Tour Captain a mere two months later. As unlikely as it may be, I would personally leave Sam Warburton out and start the first test with Sean O'Brien and Tom Croft, on their day two of the most awe-inspiring flankers in world rugby. O'Brien's Ireland teammate Jamie Heaslip has already convinced me in the early stages of the Tour that he should narrowly edge out Faletau at the back of the scrum.

In Croft, Gatland has one of the greatest athletes in world rugby, an absolute beast of a man possessing a frightening combination of strength, skill and speed. The fact that Croft was supposedly the third quickest player on the 2009 tour tells you all you need to know. Since then, he has added a significant amount of muscle to his already bulky 6'6" frame and lost none of his pace. Add to that his power in the line out and you have a combination of attributes that very few players, if any, in world rugby possess.

If my back row selection would be contested by every Welshman in the land, few would argue with a glorious reunion in the centre of two of the stars of the 2009 tour, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts. Going into this tour, there was a lot of talk of two players who have undoubtedly excelled for their national sides over the past 12 months, Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi, potentially usurping their more experienced counterparts at 12 and 13. Although their is no doubting either Tuilagi's or Davies' ability, the first two games against the Barbarians and Western Force underlined why the Irish magician and Welsh battering ram should resume the partnership that caused so much destruction in South Africa four years ago. However, to have Davies and Tuilagi in reserve highlights the strength in depth the Lions have in key positions- both of them would walk into an Australian starting XV. What is more, to have Tuilagi restlessly prowling the sidelines waiting for his chance will strike fear into the hearts of Australians. Should the Lions need some inspiration at any point in the 3 Tests, as they undoubtedly will, there can be no better 'impact sub' than Tuilagi.

2) The Wildcard:

Everyone will tell you that a Lions tour needs at least one wildcard selection, or one player whose performances in the provincial games make it impossible for the coach to prefer those perhaps more established in their position for the Test series. John Bentley, Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson are three flair players who stand out as classic wildcard selections. Greenwood had never even represented his country when Ian McGeechan took him on tour in 1997. Although personally I was desperate to see the Premiership's Player and Young Player of the Year Christian Wade (the first person to ever win both awards in the same season, incidentally) travel Down Under, it would seem that a less obvious 'flair player' could stamp his authority on the Tour to such an extent that he plays his way into the Test team. Mako Vunipola does not resemble any of the aforementioned wildcards in his appearance and he could not provide more of a physical contrast to Wade- however, his ball-carrying ability can be as destructive even if it may be infinitely more direct. Vunipola has been questioned before for his scrummaging ability at international level, but this has not been in evidence during his appearances on the first few games of this tour. Adam Jones could prove the perfect partner for Vunipola in the scrum, quietly going about his own destructive business while the Saracens' wrecking ball wreaks havoc in the loose. With Vunipola assisting Croft, Heaslip and O'Brien in punching holes through the Australian defence, Sexton, Roberts and O'Driscoll should be given the perfect platform to capitalise time and time again.

3) The Goalkicker:

Those who watched the last victorious Lions team, way back in 1997, will know that for all the great rugby players on that tour, the difference between glorious success and sickening defeat was one quiet, ginger-haired Welshman. While South Africa missed countless goal-kicking opportunities and failed to convert pressure into points, Neil Jenkins was close to faultless for the Lions with the boot. When you look at the winning margins on that South Africa tour and you then look at the points Jenkins scored, his impact cannot be underestimated. Similarly, on the Lions last tour to South Africa, the boot was just as pivotal in the series outcome, with Morne Steyn nailing a penalty from beyond the half-way line following a Ronan O'Gara mishap. In the second game of this Tour against Western Force, Leigh Halfpenny proved to everyone that the Lions have a Welsh fullback who can be every bit as nerveless and influential as Jenkins in '97. The fact that it was against Western Force, without the pressure of a Test environment, doesn't alter the fact that Halfpenny slotted 11 out of 11 place kicks, many of them from difficult angles on the touchline. As much as the Lions might possess the skill and strength to put the Australians to bed in the loose, I wouldn't bet against Halfpenny needing to make one crucial kick to win the series. From the looks of things, he won't let us down.

As you can probably tell, I am fairly confident that this year's Lions squad possesses enough talent to beat an Australian team that is far from at the height of their powers. Combine the above with the likes of Sexton and North at the top of their game and it's a pretty potent cocktail of rugby dynamism that Lions fans will be desperately hoping will pave the way for the first tour success since the turn of the millennium. Aussies beware- you may be in for a beating in your own back yard. A beating that you won't be able to avenge for another 12 years.

My Lions XV: Vunipola, Youngs T, Jones, Evans, O'Connell, Croft, O'Brien, Heaslip, Phillips, Sexton, North, Roberts, O'Driscoll, Bowe (if not fit, Cuthbert), Halfpenny

Blog via Dom Dalton:  http://lions13.blogspot.co.uk/ 

The Masters – Five to Watch

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are the obvious picks when trying to decide where to place your money this year, but here are five players that are set to challenge:

Keegan Bradley – Already a major winner at the US PGA Championship in 2011 in Georgia and is one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour with top 10 finishes in his last four events. That level of consistency suggests his first win of the season is coming. Also equipped with length off the tee and putting stroke necessary to come out on top at Augusta this year.
22/1 to win with SkyBet.

Dustin Johnson – Ranked 5th in driving distance on the PGA Tour this season (averaging 303.5 yards off the tee) shows he has the length to conquer Augusta. Johnson is also already a winner this season at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. His final round of 65 at the Houston Open a couple of weeks ago is one of the best rounds I’ve seen this year, suggesting Johnson is again hitting top form. Led going into the final round of the US Open in 2010 before carding a disastrous final round of 82. His short game is much improved since then, which should see Johnson contend this week.
28/1 to win with SkyBet.

Brandt Snedeker – Began this season in top form with four top 3 finishes in his first four events, including a win at the AT&T National at Pebble Beach. Missed a month of action with a rip injury and has struggled since returning – missing the cut in his last two events. Neverthless, Snedeker is still ranked 2nd in the FedEx Cup rankings just behind Tiger Woods. The Amercian is also 2nd in greens in regulation and scrambling this season and is widely regarded at the best putter on the PGA Tour. The player wearing the green jacket on Sunday night is inevitably the one that putts the best and that could well be Snedeker.
40/1 to win with SkyBet.

Peter Hanson – In the past 12 months the Swede has shown he is a man for the big occasion. Led going into the final round of the Masters after shooting 65 in the third round last year and finished 3rd, which means he will fancy his chances around Augusta again this year. Followed that with a tied 7th finish at the US PGA Championship, making him one of the most consistent players in the Majors last year. Also has a top 10 finish at the WGC Cadillac Championship this season to his name, highlighting again that he raises his game in the biggest tournaments amongst the strongest fields.
60/1 to win with SkyBet.

Henrik Stenson – An outside bet but the Swede goes into the Masters in great form with two top ten finishes in his last two PGA Tour events. Shot a brilliant final round of 66 in his last event at the Houston Open to finish in a tie for 2nd so heads to Augusta full of confidence. Also won the Players Championship in 2009, highlighting he can win against the best. Has two top 20 finishes at Augusta in the past, but could be set for his strongest showing at Augusta this year.
66/1 to win with SkyBet.

Van Persie continuing to set the standard

Robin Van Persie has 19 goals in 25 games for Manchester United.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson may not have anticipated the Dutchman would have made such an immediate impact on his side.
He has scored in 15 of the 25 games in which he has featured, showing an unparalleled influence on games throughout the first half of the season.
When you also factor in goals against Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool it’s fair to say the 29-year-old has been a revelation and integral in United establishing a seven-point lead at the top.
Van Persie finding the back of the net on such a regular basis is a stark contrast to Wayne Rooney's 2012/13 campaign which has been hampered by injury.
Rooney has a respectable 8 goals in 19 games, but those goals have all come in five games. That leaves 14 games in which Rooney has played for United but failed to get his name on the scoresheet. The 27-year-old continues to score goals in bunches – a pattern that has been evident throughout his career.
However, one teammate that has managed to match Van Persie for consistency as of late is Javier Hernandez.
After a difficult second season at Old Trafford, the Mexican looks refreshed and has scored 11 goals in his last 13 appearances.
The main test at a club like United is the constant challenge to your place and Hernandez’s response to the arrival of Van Persie has been exactly what Sir Alex would have hoped for.
Although difficult to ever justify leaving Wayne Rooney out when fit, Hernandez has done everything and more to keep his place.
Rooney will, and should, come straight back into the side when back from injury but Hernandez’s form will have Ferguson again considering adopting the diamond formation, enabling him to play all three of Van Persie, Hernandez and Rooney at a time when his wide players - Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani -  are not exactly setting the world alight.
The player that is suffering most of all from this is Danny Welbeck, who has more goals for England (3) than for United (1) this season.
It’s maybe not a fair reflection of his contribution as he has been predominantly used as a substitute as well as being forced to play wide due to the form of the other three strikers.
But it is difficult to see Welbeck getting a run in the side in the near future.
Van Persie's arrival has seen to that and if he continues to lead United towards their 20th league title, the books can be closed early on Player of the Season.
Only a fool would dismiss Wayne Rooney’s importance though. 
When he returns from injury, he will have a big say on whether United can progress to the latter stages of the Champions League as well as maintaining their lead at the top of the league and wrestle the title off their noisy neighbours.

20th League Title the Number One Priority for Sir Alex

Sir Alex Ferguson will forever remember the 2011/12 season for losing the league title to Manchester City on goal difference. Yes goal difference.
That thought will have consumed his mind for much of the summer.
And it probably resulted in his declaration this week that re-claiming the Premier League is the club’s number one priority for the forthcoming season.
The early summer signings of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, and 18-year-old Nick Powell from Crewe, again highlight Ferguson’s focus on buying young players and developing them within the club. It is a policy that has worked wonders before (Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez to name just two) but there is no indication of a marquee-signing that some supporters may be hoping for.

With Robin Van Persie’s future seemingly lying away from Arsenal, United’s are rumoured to be seriously interested.
How likely the deal is however is another matter. In the past couple of years, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema have both slipped through the net.
In addition, the days of United signing players for £30million may well be a thing of the past whether that is due to Ferguson's stubborness or the debt inflicted on the club by the Glazer Family.
If you believe what you read, Everton’s full-back Leighton Baines is likely to be added to the squad but other than that no other player seems set to put on the famous red shirt.
Ask any Manchester Utd fan about where their side needs improving most and 99 per cent of them will say central midfield. But with Tom Cleverley with Team GB and Anderson being a consistent let down, United are likely to line-up against Everton on the first game of the season with the familiar pairing of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick.
Carrick was, in my opinion, the most consistent player last season and Scholes is the best player of his generation. But beyond those two, there is not much to excite.

And maybe it’s that word ‘excite’ that is the biggest issue with this current United squad. When trying to name ‘match-winners’, only Wayne Rooney and Nani immediately spring to mind
That is simply not good enough for club of United’s stature.
But with Ferguson at the helm you can never write them off.
The 2012/13 season should see the likes of Welbeck and Hernandez really make their mark. Welbeck was impressive at times last season, but with only nine league goals, it’s clear where he must improve.
Only Hernandez and Rooney reached double figures in league goals in the last campaign, so Ferguson must be looking to others to contribute more.
Hernandez struggled with injuries last season, but his first summer off for a couple of years should benefit him and I expect the little Mexican to exceed the goalscoring exploits of his debut season.
When you mix that with the return of Nemanja Vidic, as well as improvement in David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Phil Jones & Rafael, plus the anticipated class of Kagawa, United fans should look ahead to the new season with confidence.
After all, they came second to City on goal difference. Roberto Mancini’s side deservedly won the title, but it’s important to remember that City won both Manchester derbies and therefore United actually picked up more points against the other 18 teams than they did.
You have to expect that City will improve and so must United. Ferguson’s side owe their rivals a beating.
The first derby is at the Etihad on Decemeber 8th.
Let the fun begin.

Roy Hodgson - the conservative choice that may pay-off

Harry Redknapp. The new England manager.
Or so everyone thought.
But yesterday the FA’s announced that they were in talks with West Brom manager Roy Hodgson over the manager’s position.
Surprising news, particularly as FA Chairman David Bernstein confirmed that the former Fulham and Liverpool manager is the only man they have approached.
As a result, it is widely expected that Hodgson will be announced as the man to lead England at the European Championships this summer later in the week.
Should that happen, the 64-year-old will immediately be faced with the unenviable task of taking charge of a group of players who almost unanimously expressed their wish for Harry Redknapp to be the next manager.
The widespread support via twitter for Redknapp from the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney after Fabio Capello’s resignation seemed to represent the views of the whole squad, and the nation!
However, when considering Hodgson’s credentials, he is a worthy candidate. 
Unlike Redknapp, he has experienced international football before as well as managing at a major tournament.
When in charge of Switzerland in the early 1990s, Hodgson led the Swiss to the 1994 World Cup in the USA. They progressed through the group stage, but lost 3-0 to Spain in the last 16.
It was the first major tournament Switzerland had qualified for in 26 years.
Hodgson then ensured they successfully qualified for Euro ’96 before leaving to take charge of Inter Milan. Not a bad couple of bullet points on his CV to discuss when sitting down with the powers that be at the FA.
He’s also led Fulham to the Europa League final on little resources, as well as turning a ‘yoyo club’ like West Brom into a mid-table Premier League side.
Despite his impressive track record, potentially the key reason that the FA have turned to Hodgson is money.
His contract with West Brom runs out next summer and therefore not much compensation would have to be paid to the Midlands side to relieve him of his duties.
Plus he will probably demand a smaller annual salary, and possibly a shorter contract, than the likes of Harry Redknapp and Pep Guardiola.

In Redknapp’s case, the amount of compensation Tottenham would demand to release him from his contract is a potential stumbling block for the FA. 
Judging by previous transfer dealings that Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy has been involved in (notably the Luka Modric transfer saga last summer and Dimitar Berbatov’s move to Manchester United) he would squeeze every penny the FA had out of them in order to appoint Redknapp.
That is not an especially attractive proposition for the FA considering Redknapp has never managed a national team before. Plus, his Tottenham side have gone from supposed title challengers to probable Europa League qualifiers in just three months thanks to just five wins in 15 games.
Looking ahead to the European Championship, it would be no great surprise if England fail to make it out of the group stages with Wayne Rooney missing for the first two group games against France and Sweden.
That’s the worst case scenario for the FA. That and the fans singing Harry Redknapp’s name and demanding that Hodgson is sacked before he’s even put a family picture up in his Wembley office.
Compared to what the FA have paid out to fire someone before, it would not be a major issue.
Hodgson therefore is the conservative choice that has the ability to prove the doubters wrong.
Good luck to him.

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