Manchester United in Pole Position to Claim Premier League Title

Five points clear with eight games remaining. That is the enviable position Manchester United find themselves in as the Premier League gears up for action this weekend following the recent International break.  Granted second place Arsenal do have a game in hand but Manchester United must be clear favourites at this point to capture the 2010–2011 Premier League title.
The crucial ties for Alex Ferguson’s side will be the May 1st visit to London to play Arsenal followed by Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford seven days later. Before United can contemplate those heavyweight clashes they must first visit Upton Park to play West Ham United this Saturday. West Ham themselves are in desperate need of points as they only have their noses just out the relegation zone by virtue of a superior goal difference to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
West Ham are in fine form and have lost only one of their last seven Premier League matches. They are hoping to welcome back striker Frederic Piquionne from injury to bolster their attack. One forward they will certainly have available for selection after a spell on the physio’s  bench is Robbie Keane, who is on-loan from Tottenham Hotspur. Keane’s confidence should be high as he found the net last Saturday for the Republic of Ireland in their 2-1 Euro 2012 qualifier win against Macedonia in Dublin.
The return of Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic from injury will come as a welcome boost to Alex Ferguson as he knows Upton Park can be a tricky place to visit. United’s last visit there resulted in an embarrassing 4-0 reverse last November in the Carling Cup quarter final. This though is the business end of the Premier League and is a very different setting to the Carling Cup on a Winter’s evening. Anything other than an away win really is unthinkable.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal can welcome back from injury key man Cesc Fabregas for Saturdays game against Blackburn Rovers at The Emirates Stadium. Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Abu Diaby also return. Wenger must have sweated a little as he waited to hear the full extent of Robin Van Persie’s injury he picked up playing for The Netherlands during mid week. Van Persie opened the scoring for The Netherlands in that tie but had to be withdrawn on 46 minutes with an injury. This now appears to be a minor knock and he should fit for selection.
Despite Blackburn being five spots above the relegation zone in thirteenth place they are very worryingly for them only one point above safety. Given their perilous position Blackburn would crave anything form this weekend’s tie. Arsenal though are hot on the heels of Manchester United for the big prize and will surely pick up all three points.
Third place Chelsea, four points behind Arsenal, are now almost certainly out of the race for the title. They face a very tricky visit to Stoke on Saturday. Stoke are in high spirits and will be looking forward to their FA Cup semi final against Bolton Wanderers on 17th April. That distraction aside Stoke will fancy their chances against their visitors this weekend and should expect at least a point from the game.
At the other end of the table the clubs currently in the relegation zone Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham City and bottom club Wigan Athletic face Newcastle, Bolton and Tottenham respectively. Of the clubs in trouble Wolves are probably best placed to pick up something from these games. However the recent international break was very costly for Wolves as star forward Kevin Doyle picked up and injury playing for the Republic of Ireland. Doyle could be out of action for eight weeks.  With just three points separating Wigan in bottom spot and Blackburn in 13th the race to avoid the drop is even closer than the race for glory at the opposite end of the table.    

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Ireland fail to get the best out of McCarthy

After 65 minutes of Tuesdays international friendly against World Cup semi –finalists Uruguay at the Aviva Stadium James McCarthy was withdrawn from the action. It had been a frustrating night for McCarthy who was deployed as an advanced midfielder playing behind front man Shane Long.
All too often McCarthy dropped into space showing for the ball, palms open and pointing to his feet. McCarthy wasn’t in the mood to hide, he wanted to get on the ball. Unfortunately his showing for the ball was usually in vain, as more often than not the ball was launched long towards Long. McCarthy had to spin without the ball and play the lottery of trying to guess where the knock down would drop, that’s if the defender didn’t win the challenge with the Reading front man. Instead of linking the defence with attack or wide men with the distribution that he is well capable of, McCarthy had to chase lost causes or hope for the scraps that may drop from Long’s tussles with the Uruguayan defence.
When the Wigan midfielder did get on the ball he had a positive impact on proceedings. Epitomised with winning a penalty on 48 minutes. This followed some great work by Shane Long to get to the by line and feed the ball across the area to the on rushing McCarthy. Fahey dispatched the penalty beyond the Uruguayan goal keeper Muslera. This pulled one back for the hosts to make it 3-2 to Uruguay and would prove to be the last goal of the game. Although how Andy Keogh missed with a header from two yards with the goal at his mercy on 80 minutes is anyone’s guess. This would have given Ireland a draw that they would have probably been fortunate to get.
The scoring was opened on 12 minutes when Lugano slotted the ball home from close range for the South Americans. Westwood would have expected his defence to be sharper to clear the ball on this occasion when they all appeared to stand waiting for an invitation to clear their lines. Three minutes later Ireland responded when the superb Long finished with his head from a fine cross by Liam Lawrence. Twice more before half time the Irish defence would be culpable of failing to protect Westwood, the beneficiaries were Cavani on 22 minutes and Hernandez on 44 minutes. Giovanni Trapattoni and Westwood can’t have been pleased with the Irish defending over the 90 minutes tonight. The Coventry keeper could hardly have been blamed when he vented his spleen at any one in a green shirt within ear shot after Hernandez found the net. Despite conceding four goals in two games Westwood surely has enhanced his reputation tonight and against the Macedonians on Saturday. His fine double save on 69 minutes from Cavani and Hernandez illustrating Westwood’s pedigree.
McCarthy’s withdrawal on 65 minutes for Keith Treacy was coupled with Fahey been withdrawn for Darron Gibson. These withdrawals produced a few groans of frustration from the meagre crowd in the Aviva. McCarthy may not have set the world alight while he was on the pitch but in this player there is always the potential to open a defence and any good passing movements the hosts produced were usually strung together by Fahey. This left Paul Green was the surviving starter left in the middle of midfield. Green again did not have his finest match for Ireland. He battled manfully to cover ground and close down opponents. This was rarely effective and his mistakes left his team mates on the wrong foot on more than one occasion. Green’s distribution again looked short of the standard required at this level.
Aside from his part in Cavani’s goal Fahey was impressive on the night and he will have hoped that he did enough to edge himself closer to a starting berth for the trip to Skopje in June.
Before then Ireland have two Carling Nations Cup games against Northern Ireland on the 24th May and Scotland five days later. Hopefully James McCarthy will get an opportunity in these two games to prove what he can offer to Trapattoni. Playing behind a front may not have worked as hoped tonight, but the project should not be abandoned altogether. There would appear to be little point in playing a link man between midfield and attack if he is ignored when showing for the pass. McCarthy has proved at club level he can also play in a midfield two, but given Trapattoni’s strict pecking order for positions it appears unlikely he will dislodge others given the nod in this position to date. The upcoming Nations Cup games seem ideally scheduled to see McCarthy perform in either of these positions. If he is given this opportunity it will offer a better picture of what this undoubtedly talented player can offer Giovanni Trapattoni in his quest to get Ireland over the line in the battle for qualification for Euro 2012.

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Midfield Central to Trapattoni’s Task

If the Republic of Ireland are to progress from Group B and qualify for 2012 European Championship the future composition of the middle of midfield will be central.
This may appear obvious but five games into the qualifying campaign the Irish central midfield is still the most erratic and inconsistent area of the team. Central midfield appears to have become the soft underbelly of the Irish side.
On a night when the Republic of Ireland can feel quite lucky to take three points from the visit of Macedonia to the Aviva Stadium, central midfield again was the big disappointment of the night. The ever present Glen Whelan was accompanied by Darron Gibson for tonights game. Neither can be fully satisfied with their performance. Gibson had a shaky start giving the ball away cheaply on far too many occasions. For a player who would cite his delivery of the ball rather than his defensive qualities as a strength, this produced many groans of frustration from the punters who paid into the Aviva tonight. Glen Whelan who is mainly picked for the cover he gives the back four didn’t exactly shine in his aspect, and like Gibson wasn’t shy about picking out a Macedonia with the odd pass or two.
In what is the most important part of the field for any side you would feel that the current midfield partnership puts somewhat of a glass ceiling on any future achievement for the Republic of Ireland. The home side’s failure to keep the ball only served to hand possession to the Macedonians far too often tonight. Ireland in fact appeared content to sit back and let the visitors pass the ball in front of them. Macedonia may not be world beaters but they have enough competent players that were going to do something sooner or later with the amount of possession that they enjoyed. That sooner or later arrived in the 45th minute when Ivan Trickovski sent a classy finish beyond Kieren Westwood, this followed some good work by his captain Goran Pandev. Happily for the hosts though this goal was preceded by two earlier Irish strikes. After only ninety seconds Aiden McGeady cut in from the left and let fly on his preferred right foot. Macedonian goalkeeper Edin Nuredinovski won’t be happy with his part in McGeadys opener. Robbie Keane too sensed the Macedonian keeper was not having a good night as he was on his toes as Gibson struck a 21st minute free kick at the visitors goal. The strike was very central and shouldn’t have proved too troublesome but Nuredinovski spilled it and Keane was on hand to punish the visiting keeper.
It wasn’t until the 77th minute when Giovanni Trapattoni changed things in the Irish midfield. Gibson was withdrawn for Keith Fahey. The Birminham City man seemed to have an immediate effect, passes were sticking, like Gibson he was showing for the option when his team mates needed someone to pass to, unlike Gibson though Ireland were more likely to retain possession if he was used as the option. Fahey only spent 13 minutes plus added time on the field tonight, but it is not too much of a stretch to assert that in that short space of time he provided more stability to the Irish midfield than Gibson did in the 77 minutes he spent roaming around the patchy surface of the Aviva Stadium.
One wonders if the James McCarthy ‘allegiance’ to-do of recent times hadn’t been whether he would have got the nod or not to take to the field in the 87thminute. In the five or so minutes he spent on the field he had a very positive effect on proceedings. It may seem like a basic requirement of a central midfielder but he could take a pass and give a pass, keep things moving and most importantly keep the ball at the feet of an Irish player.
Other results in group B earlier today certainly gave a boost to the qualification hopes of the Republic of Ireland but if that qualification is to be secured surely the middle of midfield has to addressed. After the game Trapattoni defended his system and insisted that it wouldn’t change. That is fair enough but for an allegedly ‘negative’ system Ireland have a nasty habit of conceding goals, six so far in five qualifying games. Systems aside it is players that will secure qualification. The players so far selected in the centre of midfield have done little to instil confidence that they can provide the goods to navigate this Irish side through the challenges remaining in this group. Huge challenges like the visit to Skopje and Moscow await. 
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Barcelona Brilliance Overshadowed by Red Card

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s Champions League last sixteen tie between Arsenal and Barcelona a large proportion of the analysis focussed on the second half dismissal of Robin Van Persie. The incident was replayed on the TV coverage immediately after the game to see if the moment the sound waves of the referees whistle hit the ears of Van Persie, all the while battling for his attention with the jeers and cheers of the 95,000 crowd crammed into the Nou Camp, could be determined. In the 180 minutes of the two legs Barcelona produced some irresistible football, passing moves that weaved patterns around the Arsenal players as if they were rooted to the spot. For large parts of the tie the Catalan outfit showed many why they are considered to the greatest club side currently playing the game. Surely this should have been the overriding memory of this tie.
Reducing one side to ten men surely affects the outcome of any match but this match was decided over 180 minutes, and not by a single blast of Massimo Busacca’s whistle but by the simple fact that Barcelona have superior players to Arsenal.
Let’s set one point straight, Van Persie was not sent off for kicking the ball away after he was whistled for being offside. For this offence he received a yellow card, then due to his earlier yellow – which was a monument to stupidity – the referee has no choice but to shown the Dutch man the red card. It is fair to say that Van Persie’s second yellow was harsh, some referees would have given it, others wouldn’t. It certainly was a fifty -fifty call. Van Persie argued that the noise in the Nou Camp made it impossible for him to hear the referee’s whistle, a fair point perhaps. Although Van Persie does play every other week in The Emirates Stadium, which has a capacity of 60,355. Last I checked he does not regularly incur the referee’s wrath and get awarded yellow cards for constantly kicking the ball away post whistle while playing at home. However maybe his ears have become so finely tuned to the acoustics in that London venue or perhaps 60,356 is his tipping point in the battle for the attention of his ears between the roar of the crowd and the shrill blast of a referee’s whistle. Only Van Persie will ever know if he heard the whistle, it is worth noting though that the Barcelona defender tracking his run on his left shoulder had pulled up well before the Arsenal forward shot the ball wide.
Even if that yellow card had been a total injustice it was only half the reason Van Persie had to depart proceedings prematurely. His first yellow card was for a petulant push on Dani Alves, when he clearly hadn’t calmed down following his set to with some Barcelona players moments earlier. In receiving this yellow card Van Persie displayed the temperament of a ten year old boy who had his toys taken away. Surely Arsenal who pays him his generous salary should expect more. Van Persie was quoted earlier today as branding his second yellow card ‘a joke’, surely then his first yellow card was the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.
After the match Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was reported to have had an angry exchange with the Swiss referee. One would be forgiven to despair when someone charged with managing a football club cannot even manage themselves when the chips are down. Soccer, as with most other field sports, involves a referee. In these and other sports the referee is always an unknown variable, sometimes they make good decisions, sometimes they make bad decisions and sometimes they make god awful decisions. In the fullness of a season or a competition these decisions usually balance themselves out. Please see Lionel Messi’s goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the first leg of this very tie as an example. Sometimes though when trying to scapegoat a referee a short memory helps.
It has to be said though that it helps Wenger’s cause to focus on the performance of Massimo Busacca rather than his own charges. Wenger was quoted after the game as saying that the sending off was ‘an embarrassment’, one wonders how embarrassed he was at his captain attempting a back heel outside his own penalty area in first half stoppage time, a back heel that went horribly wrong and led to Manuel Almunia picking the ball out of his net seconds later. Surely Wenger blushed a little. Another matter that should be of concern to Wenger over the performance of Busacca was Niklas Bendtner’s composure, or lack thereof, when put clean through on goal in the dying moments of the match. Had Bendtner found the net Arsenal would have been through on the away goals rule and Barcelona dumped out. Bendtner’s touch was awful, and it betrayed his standing as a Premier League striker with some 36 senior international caps, the young Dane showed that is not yet good enough to overcome the hurdle Arsenal faced in Barcelona on Tuesday night.
Wenger is not alone in this regard. Following Manchester United’s recent defeat to Chelsea in the Premier League Alex Ferguson said he ‘feared the worst' when Martin Aktinson was appointed to referee the match. Maybe then Ferguson hoped for the best when Mark Clattenburg was appointed to referee the game preceding the Chelsea match as Untied travelled to Wigan. In this match Clattenburg inexplicably spared Wayne Rooney a red card when he cracked his forearm of the side of James McCarthy’s face.  
Arsene Wenger may never encounter Massimo Busacca again but he will work with his squad tomorrow and for a few years to come. It is madness to worry about things that you cannot change. Things Wenger can change though are the decision making of Cesc Fabregas, the touch of Niklas Bendtner, Robin Van Persie's temper and the ball retention of his entire squad among other things.
Managers may always try to take the focus off things that may lay blame at their own door. Third party analysis of matches should resist the temptation though to follow this charge into the irrelevant, and certainly it should not lead the charge.
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