Sir Alex Ferguson must pick up his battered troops for the weekend’s fixture with Swansea City at Old Trafford knowing that two victories in the next week may still not be enough to secure the Premier League title this season. Defeat to Manchester City at Eastlands last Monday means that the title race is no longer in United’s hands, with City’s superior goal difference a distinct advantage for the Blues with just two games remaining this season.
City play Newcastle United earlier in the day, meaning United’s players may well know the game is afoot before kicking off against Brendan Rodgers’ impressive Swans at Old Trafford. Either that or Ferguson’s side will be unexpectedly back in the race should Newcastle take points off City Sunday lunchtime.
United will only have one eye on St. James’ Park though, with the Reds surely needing to beat both Swansea and Sunderland to stand any chance of securing a 20th league title in just over a week’s time. Yet, there can be no conceit about United emerging victorious from those two matches, despite City manager Roberto Mancini branding the fixtures “easy”.
Indeed, United won a tight match 1-0 against Swansea in Wales last November, and Rodgers’ side has garnered significant acclaim over the season for the short passing style and attacking philosophy in a 3-4-3 formation. But away from the often patronising media coverage, Swansea has also comfortably retained its Premier League status despite the comparatively small budget.
Swansea can finish as high as eighth this season, although a fall-off in form over the past two months means that hopes of top-half conclusion of the season are now unlikely. Yet, there is enough talent in the Welsh side to believe the campaign is no one-off. In Gylfi Sigurdsson, Michel Vorm, and Joe Allen, Rodgers possesses three players that are likely to attract large bids from rivals this summer.
“The way Swansea have played this season has been admirable,” told MUTV Ferguson on Thursday.
“I went to see them last weekend. They want to play football. The manager has stuck by his principles and they’ve had a fantastic season. They look as if they are enjoying their game. They all want the ball and want to play.
“When you talk about how you pick manager of the year, there always has to be a consideration about the resources. Brendan Rodgers came out of the Championship and only brought two players in, Danny Graham from Watford and Gylfi Sigurdsson from Germany, and even that was not for a big financial outlay. He stuck by the players who got them into the Premier League and they have rewarded him.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson spent Friday complaining about City’s financial clout – once again raising the spectre of ‘value’ ahead of the transfer window. Claiming that United is after “two or three” new players this summer, the United coach admitted that City’s financial muscle is out of reach.
However, critics of the Glazer regime will point to Ferguson’s staunch support for a family that has sucked £525 million out of United in debt related payments over the past six years. It leaves Untied set to sign Shinji Kagawa the Japanese contract rebel from Borussia Dortmund, and out-of-contract Crystal Palace defender Nathaniel Clyne this summer. Whether Ferguson is given the funds to reach the top of the transfer market is highly debatable.
But the transfer market is for later this summer. In the short-term Ferguson will be without defender Jonny Evans and striker Danny Welbeck, in addition to long-term absentees, for the Swans’ visit. A rumoured dispute between the manager and Tom Cleverley, who was left out of United’s matchday squad for the loss at Eastlands, and Wayne Rooney’s apparent consternation with an apparent last-minute change of tactics for the derby, will also make for intrigue in the build-up to Sunday’s game.
Yet, there has been no admission from the United manager that he got both team selection and tactics incomprehensibly wrong against City on Monday. Instead, Ferguson this week blamed the players for United’s draw with Everton a fortnight ago, and the non-performance against City at Eastlands.
“It’s been quite muted and a quiet place to be,” admitted Ferguson of United’s training at Carrington this week.
“It’s to be expected when we lose a game like that. Our job is to get the players up for the game on Sunday because it’s such a big game for us. We have to analyse it [the derby] as it’s part of the game. Even when we win, it’s to see good and bad points and we’ve done all that.
“It’s over with. It’s not something we address with the players, it’s for the staff’s knowledge – myself, Mike [Phelan] and Rene [Meuelensteen]. It’s for our knowledge in terms of could we have done something different? At the end of the day, there were some fantastic footballers on that pitch and we didn’t do well enough.”
Whether that performance results in a change of personnel is open to question. Certainly Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are in contention for a recall, while Javier Hernandez is likely to replace Welbeck in attack. Ferguson must also decided whether to stick with the much criticised Chris Smalling as Rio Ferdinand’s defensive partner, and whether to recall Rafael da Silva at right-back for the ineffectual Phil Jones.
Meanwhile, Swansea manager Rodgers will be make a last-minute call on former United youth player Alan Tate who may return from a calf injury, with right-back Angel Rangel the only other injury concern. The 39-year-old Swans manager says that a strong season has given Swansea the confidence to play at Old Trafford, especially that other teams have already won at the self-styled ‘Theatre of Dreams’ this season.
“Probably over the years teams have gone to Old Trafford not believing they can win, and that’s part of the reason Manchester United’s home record is so good,” said the Swansea manager.
“They have won so many games there, and won many of them so well, that they have built that feeling up. But what’s important for us is that we play the game tomorrow. The surface will suit us — we will be able to pass the ball and open the game up. We have shown no fear at any stage of the season and I don’t expect that to change now. We have to look at teams like Blackburn and Athletic Bilbao who have won at United this season.”
Meanwhile, all eyes will turn to City versus Newcastle at St. James’ Park Sunday lunchtime – surely United’s last hope of retaining the Premier League title this season.
“Newcastle will be a hard game for City all right, but City have had six days to recover from the derby,” added Ferguson.
“Newcastle played on Wednesday night, then had to travel back from London. Losing the title on goal difference would be a nightmare, when you think of the game we lost 6-1 to City, with three goals conceded in the last three minutes. When you consider all the opportunities we get in games there’s no doubt we are frivolous at times.
“Then there was that crazy game against Everton, when we were absolutely stupid. Giving goals away like that is hard to take when you think of how long the season is and how much work we have put in over the months, but that’s what could cost us.”
‘Ifs and buts,’ critics might add of a United squad that is patently less talented than Ferguson’s greats of 1994, 1999 and 2008. Yet, with a lengthy injury record this season, and talent slowly sucked out of squad by United’s tight-fisted owners, Ferguson has done well to keep the Reds in contention at all.
By 6pm Sunday it will either be over, or the Reds will have one final chance this season.
Manchester United versus Swansea City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 6 May 2012, 4pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Lindegaard, Rafael, Fabio, Nani, Cleverley, Pogba, Giggs, Berbatov, Owen.
Swansea: (3-4-3): Vorm; Williams, Caulker, Monk; Allen, Britton, Sigurdsson, Orlandi; Dyer, Graham, Sinclair. Subs from: Tremmel, Taylor, Tate, Rangel, Routledge, McEachran, Gower, Lita, Moore.
- Swansea has won only once in the last six fixtures, and will be looking to deprive United the points the Reds need to remain in contention with City for the Premier League title;
- Jones has been the toughest United defender to beat this season. Jones has won 92 per cent of all tackles he attempted, more than any other United player (discounting any players to have made fewer than 40 tackles this season);
- Striker, Hernández, who is likely to start against Swansea, is United’s second highest goal scorer this season behind Rooney – 56 per cent of Hernández’s total shots have been on target this season, and he’s picked
up ten goals in the process. Hernandez has scored with 43 per cent of shots on target this season;
- Nani is currently top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for crosses completed this season – the winger has completed 133 cross this season in 28 appearances for United this season at five per game;
- Swansea’s Ashley Williams has won 77 per cent of all tackles he’s attempted this season – the highest tackles won percentage of any Swansea player (who has attempted 50 tackles or more);
- Sigurdsson has scored seven goals this season, and the young midfielder has some impressive stats in front of goal – Sigurdsson’s shots on target percentage of 68.4 per cent is higher than top goalscorer Danny Graham (58.4 per cent);
- Scott Sinclair has completed 111 dribbles this season and is second behind Gareth Bale in the Index for dribbling;
- Joe Allen has been crucial to Swansea’s success, having completed the most passes for Swansea this season at 813 – he’s 13th overall for passes completed this season.
Referee: Chris Foy (St. Helens)
Assistants: D Cann, R West
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg