Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

Advertisements

Who are the best and worst football commentators?

Football commentators. The people armchair viewers love to hate.

There are plenty of atrocious and infuriating callers of the beautiful game out there, and also a handful of brilliant ones, but who makes my top 10 best and worst?

And before anyone pipes up about Andy Townsend, I’ve included co-commentators in the list too!

Let’s start with the good first:

10. Mike Ingham, BBC 5Live

Ingham is an entertaining commentator for those of you who are avid 5live listeners. Hardly ever culpable of making a mistake, he blends an enthusiastic commentary style with a thorough knowledge of the game. More importantly, he puts his 5live colleagues to shame.

9. Simon Brotherton, BBC

Brotherton is without doubt one of the BBC’s most underrated commentators. Experienced and articulate, he calls some of the biggest games on the Premier League calendar for Match of the Day with great success. Like Ingham, he hardly makes a mistake and is definitely worthy of a place on this countdown.

8. Clive Tyldesley, ITV

I’ve been known to call Tyldesley ‘Alive Clive’ due to his excitable style (he often sounds like a Dalek too), but generally he is a very capable commentator. His greatest work for ITV is probably the 1999 Champions League final, but can be prone to some occasional errors too. He gets bonus points for sitting next to Andy Townsend for two hours.

7. Rob Hawthorne, Sky Sports

Hawthorne is part of Sky’s respected commentary line-up, and has often called some high-profile matches. Not least the memorable Manchester derby where United’s Michael Owen snatched a 96th-minute winner in a 4-3 win. Looking back at Hawthorne’s commentary for that match on YouTube, it’s safe to say he did a fantastic job.

6. Jon Champion, ESPN

Perhaps the most respected commentator in the media, Champion is vastly experienced having worked for the BBC, ITV and most recently ESPN. His commentary of Owen’s wondergoal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup will forever live in the memory of England fans.

5. Peter Drury, ITV & Fox Soccer

Often unfairly dubbed ‘Peter Dreary’, Drury is a well-spoken and entertaining commentator. He has a remarkable knowledge of the game and thrives in the big moments during the biggest games. Arguably his most thrilling work was during last season’s Manchester City 3-2 QPR match for Fox Soccer, where Sergio Aguero scored a late title-clinching winner for City.

4. Steve Wilson, BBC

Wilson has often been overlooked for the biggest games on Match of the Day in favour of the much-maligned Guy Mowbray, but his commentary style is perhaps the clearest of them all. He has the ability to keep up with play using quick, engaging and efficient language, and rarely makes mistakes.

3. Martin Tyler, Sky Sports

Head honcho of Sky’s commentary team, Tyler’s career has spanned across numerous eras of football. Usually understated and reserving his enthusiasm for the biggest Premier League and European games, Tyler’s most famous piece of commentary came in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa in 2009, where 17-year-old Federico “Machedaaaaaa!” scored a last-gasp winner.

2. John Motson, BBC

“Motty” is the godfather of commentary. Having retired from calling the action at international tournaments, Motson typically covers games in London for Match of the Day. He is nudged down from the top spot due to what many critics have correctly said about his increasingly frail and error-laden commentary – but that should not detract from the 67-year-old’s marvellous career.

1. Jonathan Pearce, BBC

Pearce beats his famed BBC colleague to top spot by virtue of some memorable and flawless commentary. Without doubt the BBC’s finest live commentator, some of the most enjoyable work in his career came in 2001 during England’s 5-1 ‘Müllering’ of Germany in Munich, where he worked for Capital Gold Sport. The line “England have gone naff in Germany!” was just one of many gems that night.

And now, the bad (and in Mark Lawrenson’s case, the ugly):

10. Guy Mowbray, BBC

It is baffling to many armchair and pub viewers alike why Guy Mowbray continues to be awarded the biggest gigs in football commentary. He cannot bring himself to make a definitive judgement on many controversial incidents and he is usually off the pace with his languid and dull style. He should be afforded some respite from his many critics for his famous “Agueroooooooo” line in the climax to the 2011-12 Premier League season.

9. Chris Waddle, ESPN

Waddle is not shy of making criticisms of current players, but when you are responsible for one of the most painful moments in English football history, you can hardly hide. Alongside Champion at ESPN, he has a tendency to state the obvious and offers tired, useless analysis of live matches.

8. Alan Green, BBC 5Live

Green is another opinionated commentator who has drawn criticism from far and wide. His style is actually listenable and articulate, but he lets himself down by hovering over his criticisms of players for too long – often to the detriment of his output.

7. Robbie Savage, BBC 5Live

Savage has cultivated a punditry career seemingly out of thin air. He certainly uses up a lot of air too, with his frenzied commentary style for 5Live, and offers little or no original analysis. He has also become the voice of 5Live’s 606, which is the perfect place for his dim comments to be hidden amongst others.

6. Craig Burley, ESPN

One of the more enjoyable co-commentators on the list, Burley gets onto the bad side due to his unprofessional nature. He is often guilty of bullying Champion during live matches and, given Champion’s well-respected and insightful commentary, his obvious misplaced dislike for his colleague makes him appear in a bad light.

5. Steve Bower, BBC

Currently being groomed by the BBC for a commentary place in football’s biggest arenas, Bower is unworthy of such a privilege. He rarely gets enthused by big moments in matches and has a distinctly monotone style which feels out of place on Match of the Day.

4. Martin Keown, BBC

Making the grade for the BBC’s Euro 2012 coverage, Keown should count himself lucky that the Beeb ignore the hundreds of tweets about his commentary every time he picks up a co-commentators mic. Littering his calls with errors, mispronunciation and recycled clichés, Keown’s commentary is every bit as cringeworthy as his punditry.

3. Andy Townsend, ITV

There are few plastic Irishmen in this world, and if they are all like Andy Townsend, I hope none of them get a commentary job in their lives. Constantly stating the obvious, Townsend’s only redeeming feature is that he is not afraid to say if a player is offside, rather than the usual “it’s marginal” sitting-on-the-fence attitude.

2. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

“Lawro”, or rather, ‘LOL-o’ is prone to making awful puns and jokes during live commentary for the BBC. A fond wearer of revolting shirts and a model of the balding mullet, a tirade of abuse was directed his way during the Euro 2012 final for what the Twittersphere correctly perceived to be an abhorrent lesson in commentary. That he was partnered with Mowbray for the same match caused many viewers to switch over to ITV or Flog It on BBC2.

1. Mark Bright, BBC

I have no doubt that ‘Brighty’ is a nice enough bloke, but his commentary is useless. He deflates rather than inspires, confuses rather than enlightens and, more importantly, bores rather than delights. It is perhaps testament to the dearth of co-commentating depth-in-strength possessed by the BBC that Bright continues to journey to World Cups and European Championships. Bright is the strongest reason to ditch ex-player co-commentators, but if we didn’t have them, over half of this list would be null and void and I would not be blogging. So thanks Mark, it appears you do have a use after all.

Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.