Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who Should Manchester United Buy This Summer?

Expectations are still running high as I write. Having just beaten Spurs on penalties to win the League Cup, Manchester United own a four point lead atop the Premiership with a game in hand, are into the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup, and have just won a second leg at home to the Italian powerhouse Internatzionale Milano in the European Champions Cup round of sixteen. Already winners of the World Club Cup, United have a chance to win five trophies: aka ‘The Quintuplet.’ Thus, the fanatically vicious British press, with its unconditional love for successful London teams--which these days means Arsenal and Chelsea--is collectively sharpening its macheté, waiting, hoping and praying for the red devils to fail. This weekend's 4-1 loss at home to our arch-rivals Liverpool got the journos delirious with joy, but will, hopefully, be the collective bite of reality the team needs to keep it from going into the climax of the season in a state of complacency.

Failure, of course, is a relative concept. With ten games left to play in Premier League competition, the only minor stutter I can see happening is a loss or draw at home to Arsenal. Liverpool have beaten us home and away this season, but I'm confident we'll prevail in any upcoming competition. I can only see one team, Barcelona, being able to beat United. With their fixtures all jammed together during the last three weeks of the season, however, the club will touch wood and hope that there are relatively few injuries. I would be delirious just to clinch our third Premiership championship in a row. Repeating as European Champions Cup winners will not be easy. Winning a twelfth F.A. Cup would be nice, but is not even slightly imperative.

Rumours are always buzzing around United. The most serious one involves Cristiano Ronado and Real Madrid and has been going on for almost four years. United partisans point the finger at Real, the obese, greedy Billy Bunter of football, but it takes two to tango and three to make a bargain! Ronaldo and his agent seem to be constantly stirring the pot up, causing friction between both clubs. United have repeatedly rejected the chance to sell the tricky winger for around 75M pounds. The bad thing about this situation is that this season, and lately in particular, Ronaldo pouts a lot and plays like someone whose head is elsewhere. One thing is for sure, the rest of the team have performed well, whether the diva-like, moody Cristiano has made an effort, or not. If Real Madrid increase their bid to 100M, or throw in Sergio Ramos and/or Wesley Sneijder plus, say, 60M in cash, I would say that United would be making a good deal.

I'm going to go through the squad by position and see where help and changes might well be necessary. The old cliché, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, holds true; but, these days, the challenge for a man like Alex Ferguson, 67-years-young, after 22 seasons at Old Trafford, is to keep winning and leave a good squad for his chosen successor. Whether fans like it, or not, the Gaffer will tinker with the squad.

Goalkeepers: Edwin Van Der Sar, Thomas Kucszak, Ben Foster.
There's no rush to find a replacement here. Van Der Sar has signed for one last season and Foster just played an absolute blinder in the League Cup Final. Two out of three is good. Kucszak is big, but has many weaknesses including difficulties dealing with corners and taking charge of his area. I would happily sell him to a club who could use him like Zenith St. Petersburg, Tottenham Hotspur or Newcastle United. If the price is right, United should replace him with Sergio Asenjo from Real Vallodidad or Guillermo Ochoa of Club America.

Right Back: Rafael DaSilva, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, John O'Shea.
We're all set here. Rafa has been sensational in his rookie year. Wes Brown, when he's not injured, gives very good coverage at RB or CB. Gaz Neville, being the natural nurturer, will be an excellent coach for the other two.

Centre Back: Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown, John O'Shea.
United have an embarrassment of riches at C.B. Jonny Evans has proven himself to be a fine replacement for the two oft-injured hard men, Rio and Nemanja. The newspaper rumor mills have A.C. Milan buying Vidic for 20M in the summer. This would be crazy. Vidic is absolutely the best centre back in the world at the moment. No other defender even comes close. He was favourite with the bookies for both English and European Footballer of the Year awards until Fernando Torres gave him fits this weekend. If A.C.Milan or Inter really want to bring some youth to their geriatric defense, they need to offer the club at least 50M!!! I still wouldn't sell him.

Left Back: Patrice Evra, Fabio DaSilva, John O'Shea.
Did I say an 'embarrassment of riches?' Well, Evra and DaSilva are so good; I have to say it twice. Evra is the best left back in the world, but Rafa's twin, Sergio, may well make Pat feel his hot breath on his neck. Sensational Sergio: Last week the kid hit a hat-trick playing left back for the reserves.

Right Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lee Martin, Park Ji-Sung.
Well, will he or won't he? As I've said: I believe that Cristiano, after a disappointing season, has reached his optimum sell-by date. Sell him for 100m! Or, 60M and Sergio Ramos and Wesley Sneijder.* Parky is a great water-carrier, an energy machine. Lee Martin hasn't played much, and despite his having lots of potential, I expect him to be sold. Look for the club to buy at least one winger.

Midfield: Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson, Jonathan Possebon.
There is no other club in Europe with so many talented midfielders. Scholes will be good for one last season and Giggs possibly two now that he's been moved inside from the left wing. The main chink in United's armour, however, shows itself when Anderson and Fletcher are hurt. Both have been converted from attacking midfielders to defenders, yet neither one is defense-oriented. A hard-core, rugged defensive midfielder is a genuine need.* Should Ramos come as part of a Ronaldo deal, the problem will be solved because he can play as a fullback, centre back or post-to-post midfielder. Alternatives in the rumour mix are Javier Martínez of Atletico Bilbao or Axel Witsel of Standard Liége. Don't forget that 17-year-old, baby-faced Adam Ljajic, the so-called 'Baby Ronaldinho,' bought from Partizan Belgade, will arrive in January 2010. The injury-prone Owen Hargreaves has had both wonky knees operated on. So much for what the Gaffer insisted was 'tendonitis.' We look forward to his successful return(touch wood!)

Left Wing: Nani, Park ji-Sung, Zoran Tosic, Ryan Giggs.
Two things are certain. Ryan Giggs can no longer play a whole match on the wing. Nani has scored a few brilliant goals and made a few nice crosses. The problem is his maddening inconsistency. Too many aimless dribbles. Too many bad passes. Worse, he is very easily wound up by the opposition and seems to pick up quite pointless yellow cards, again and again.

Strikers: Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Alberto Manucho, Dmitar Berbatov, Frazier Campbell.
Again, here we have an embarrassment of riches. Manucho and Campbell are both out on loan, although neither seems to be setting the division on fire at Stoke City or Spurs. Welbeck is very poised, but skinny and easily jostled off the ball by determined defenders. Carlos Tevez is a delight. A real grafter! The last player I want to leave. There are, however, too many complications and difficulties involving finances and club rights when it comes to dealing with Carlitos' owner/agent, Kia Joorabchian. Come Summer, although I say my prayers every night before I go to bed, I'm certain he will be gone. This leaves Wazza Rooney and the iconic, albeit brilliant Dimitar Berbatov to handle all the pressure. New names in the mix are Ezequiel Lavezzi, Karim Benzema, David Villa, Takayuki Morimoto and Mario Gomez.

Here's a list of names in the rumor mill with a short analysis of their skills, attributes and negatives. Get back to me about what you think :

Sergio Asenjo: 6'2", Age: 22, Club: Real Vallodidad.
Asenjo had his best game ever against Real Madrid on November 3. He made 47 saves as Vallodidad held on to a 0-1 lead at the Bernabeu. He has kept goals for Spain in the Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 teams. Tall and powerful in the air, always aggressively in charge of his area, and able to make long kicks, Asenjo will soon be challenging Liverpool's Pepe Reina for the #2 job in the national team. Barcelona have dithered about paying 6M for him. At that price he would be a bargain for United.
Ivor rating *****

Guillermo Ochoa: 6'0", Age: 23. Club: Club America.
I watch nearly as much Mexican football as I do Premiership matches. The general quality of the players is not great. As such, Ochoa is absolutely an athletic, cat-like standout. He is brave and aggressive with very safe hands. He has looked very good in internationals also. Of course, it is impossible to know how good Ochoa is until he plays in Europe. Unfortunately, his team are asking for around 10M for him, which is a little too expensive.
Ivor rating ***

Diego Lopez: 6'5", Age: 27, Club: Villareal.
Lopez was Iker Casillas' understudy at Real Madrid, through the academy and then for seven years in the first team. Gossip says that the Gaffer is absolutely besotted with the 6'5" Lopez. Perhaps he's reminded of Peter Schmeichel, but if you watch enough Spanish football you'll know that he tends to be very erratic, letting himself get pulled out of position and is none too communicative with his defense. To be fair, I've also seen him be untouchable on good days, but he's just not consistent enough and hard-bargaining Villareal will want 10 to 12M for him.
Ivor rating **

Defensive Midfielders:
Miguel Veloso: 6'2", Age 22, Club: Sporting Lisbon
Veloso is the real deal. Tall and quick. Tough tackling. A superb passer of the ball. He has all the tools to be United's supreme midfield commander and follow in the footsteps of Roy Keane and Bryan Robson. The downside is that the boy likes his food and doesn't enjoy training. The rumour is that he did not get along with the then Portugal national coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, over the training issue. Sporting are asking for a whopping 21M, or else Arsene Wenger would have snapped him up already.
Ivor rating ***

Javier Martínez: 6'5", Age: 22, Club: Atletico Bilbao
I don't usually gush over really tall players, but Martínez is an extraordinary tackler with a fine sense of balance. A fantastic, energetic post-to-post player, masterful at the long pass, equally at home attacking or defending, I believe he's going to be a star for whoever picks him up and, as his buyout clause is set at 6M, think he'd be a great buy for United.
Ivor rating *****

Axel Witsel: 6'0", Age: 20, Club: Standard Liége

My son and I saw him play for Standard in a summer friendly and his class was there for all to see. Great short and long passing, ball control and tackling. He's master of all he sees in midfield. A little too skinny right now, Witsel will grow into stardom.
Ivor rating ***

Douglas Costa: 5'7", Age: 18
I've seen him play twice for Brazil's Under-21 team. He's very poised and has lots of moves, surprise passes and clever flicks going on. The problem is that he's slight and easy to shove off the ball for opponents. Gremio supposedly want 12M, which is a lot for someone who still needs a lot of preparation and seasoning and might turn out to be the second coming of Kleberson!
Ivor rating **

Attacking Midfielders:
Bruno Pereirinha: 5'8", Age: 21, Club: Sporting Lisbon
At a club full of fancy foot workers, Pereirinha sticks out because he's a plain, meat-and-potatoes utility footballer. Equally at home on the right wing or in central midfield, Pereirinha can also fill in at right back. He's got good deft footwork, good balance and speed. He is very slight, however, and would need building up. Expensive at 10M!
Ivor rating ***

Simon Vukcevic: 5'11", Age: 23, Club: Sporting Lisbon
Like Zoran Tosic, Vukcevic is a product of Partizan Belgrade's youth system. He is lightning quick, brave and a far better passer than Nani or Ronaldo. The only problem is that he has a constant, diva-like urge to act out mini on-field dramas, which, although they may be part and parcel of the game in Portugal are considered repellent in the Premier League.
Ivor rating **

Nicólas Bertolo: 5'8", Age: 23, Club: Atletico Banfield
Extremely skilled and brave, Bertolo can play on either wing or inside. He looks fantastic on YouTube, but, then, so did Naní. Argentine players tend to be durable and determined. Well worth a gamble if his club don't want more than 8M.
Ivor rating ***

Luís Antonio Valencia: 5'11", Age: 23, Club: Wigan Athletic
Valencia came to England under a cloud after the Ecuador squad he starred in at the 2006 World Cup was accused of taking a collective dive against England. His play at Wigan Athletic has been tremendous, however. A durable left winger with good crossing skills, Valencia has turned out to be everything Nani promised to be but failed to deliver. Not cheap at 15M, though.
Ivor rating***
Alexis Sanchez: 5'6", Age: 20, Club: Udinese
Small and worryingly slight, this Chilean wonder-kid has all the tools, quick feet like Ronaldo and a willingness to take on defenders. IF Cristiano Ronaldo leaves, Sanchez is seen by the Gaffer as the closest like-for-like replacement. Expensive at app. 20M.
Ivor rating **

Rafael Van Der Vaart: 5'9", Age: 26, Club: Real Madrid
If Real really are going to have a fire sale to raise money to buy the overpriced galactico stars their hearts desire like Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, David Villa and Carlos Tevez, the adaptable Van Der Vaart might be worth picking up. Injury-prone, he is nevertheless comfortably able to play both on the wing or inside when he is fit. His long-distance shooting abilities and corner-taking could also prove to be useful. He is, however, similar to Michael Carrick, and, even at 'fire sale' prices will still be relatively expensive at around 10M.
Ivor rating **

Ezequiel Lavezzi: 5'8", Age: 23, Club: Napoli

This kid is really good. Great balance and a very good ball handler. He can play as a second striker or on the wing. Unfortunately, perhaps because he plays at Napoli and is so popular there, the press unfairly refer to the young Argentine as 'the next Maradona!' Don't believe the hype. If Napoli really are asking for 20M, I don't think he's for us. He's good, but not that good, so far.
Ivor rating**

Takayaki Morimoto: 5'11", Age: 20, Club: Catania
He's Japanese, good-looking, big, durable and energetic according to a Korean friend of mine. Doubtless, he also offers up endless opportunity for United's marketing people. A free-scoring, old-fashioned center-forward in Serie A, he may well be a bargain if priced less than 9M.
Ivor rating***

Mario Gomez: 6'3", Age: 23, Club: VhB Stuttgart
This big bruiser has been hyped as the next big thing for two Bundesliga seasons now. He's a big scorer with all the tools an old-school centre forward could want and is particularly comfortable, like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, with his back to the goal. VhB supposedly want 35M for him and that sounds outrageous for a player who has thus far choked for both the German national team at the ENC and for his club in the ECC.
Ivor rating **

Walter: 5'10", Age 19, Club: Internacional de Alegre
Big and bulky, yet quick, according to the journos, Walter was recently the surprise star for the Brazilian national youth team at the South American Under-19 tournament. Although most of the European scouts had come to watch Douglas Costa, it was Walter who drew the raves. The major down side for him seems to be an Adriano-like predilection for overdoing it at the buffet table and with the ladies. Who knows with Brazilian kids? United's previous bit of business netted them the sensational Silva twins. It's a crap-shoot.
Ivor rating: **

Karim Benzema: 6'0", Age 21, Club: Olympique Lyonnais
Here's a striker everybody wants because he's got all the tools: Height, bulk, ball-handling skills, courage and a surfeit of confidence. Still, dealing with O.L.'s chair/owner Jean-Pierre Aulas seems to be traumatic for clubs and agents alike. Supposedly Aulas wants a young striker plus 45M in a preferred swap deal. He is very good, but he does not exactly carry Olympique on his back. I believe he's slightly overrated and absolutely overpriced.
Ivor rating **

Luis Suarez: 5'10", Age 23, Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Ajax don't seem to have missed Jan Klaas Huntelaar even a bit since they sold him. This Uruguayan striker has the verve, physical presence, skill and goal poaching acumen that breaks down defenses. Nay sayers, considering the likes of Huntelaar and Alfonso Alves who have failed after leaving the Netherlands, may be right. I'm very impressed by him, however. His aggressive style and combative nature get the lad lots of yellow cards. I see a fighter, a rooster ready to go to war like RVN. I think he's the kind of player our Gaffer adores. He'd be 12M well spent.
Ivor rating ****

David Villa: 5'7", Age 27, Club: Valencia
Villa is pure class. Absolutely the best. Recklessly brave, with a fantastic ability to hold on to the ball, he is a perfect partner for Fernando Torres in the Spain national team. He's worth the 45M Valencia want for him. Problem is: He's not leaving Spain, So forgeddaboudit!
Ivor rating ****

Let me know what you think!

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