Manchester struggle to stand united

Manchester struggle to stand united

Amid the gales that blew Manchester United away to back-to-back defeats within four days, manager Alex Ferguson tried to speak calmly. ''This is no time to panic,'' he said. ''We have the experience to cope with it.'' Panic, as Graham Greene has written, is inherent in every human situation. As things stand, Ferguson’s team is second in the English league, and still within three points of its neighbor, Manchester City. So this, indeed, is the time for the manager to assert experience over panic.

Wayne Rooney’s cold vibes with manager Sir Alex Ferguson have made things worse for defending champions Manchester United in this edition of the English Premier League. AFPIt starts with the manager because he has always said during his 37 years and more than 2,000 matches in charge of teams that he expects his players to reflect his own personality. And a huge facet of that in Fergie is to fight, to react, to turn around adversity before it becomes a habit. Newcastle, it must be said, thoroughly deserved to sandbag Manchester.

Its team and its home crowd were more united. The current Newcastle side is an amalgam of cut-rate players thrown together by a manager, Alan Pardew, who was not wanted by the fans when he came up 13 months ago to be hired by an owner whose priority appeared to be to trim the budget and sell the club to anyone who would pay his price. In essence, Pardew is turning the situation around on a shoestring.

Newcastle sold its center forward, Andy Carroll, to Liverpool last January for 35 million pounds, nearly $55 million. It replaced him, five months later, by signing Demba Ba, a French-born Senegalese striker from one of Pardew’s former teams, West Ham United. Ba had a release clause in his contract that made him a free man. Newcastle could sign him for nothing, except of course his wages. But Ba, whose spirit is carefree and whose left knee has been described by specialists as in a degenerative state, has goals in him. The one he struck against United in the 33rd minute was typical of his flair, and of Manchester’s defensive frailty at the moment. As Blackburn had done earlier, Newcastle took the long but direct route to goal. Manchester’s goalie, the Dane Anders Lindegaard, had no chance with that fast, simple, ultimately exquisite strike. Manchester’s defence is weakened by injuries. The pivotal defender and captain, Nemanja Vidic, will not play again this season. The winger Antonio Valencia is trying to adapt as best he can at right back. The goalkeepers are not sure who or what is in front of them. And Ferguson is apparently not sure right now whom to trust. Losing at Newcastle for the first time in a decade, losing two league games in a row for only the third time since 2005, and losing vital players at the turn of the year are not encouraging signs. Neither is the body language between Ferguson and his star player, Wayne Rooney.

The manager dropped Rooney for the Blackburn game for disobeying team rules against going out celebrating over Christmas, when players in English soccer are obliged to live like monks to conserve energy for the congested games that can make or mar a season. Rooney, and two other United players, did nothing outrageous. They dined out with their wives on Boxing Day. But the boss was livid, and also concerned by the sluggishness of Rooney in training. He dropped him, fined him and then restored him for the Newcastle trip. Rooney did not raise his game. He missed an early chance, his running lacked zest and conviction, and he was withdrawn by Ferguson after 74 minutes. The handshake between them as Rooney lurched off, shoulders slumped, was cursory and without eye contact. The reception given to Demba Ba when he, too, was substituted in the closing minutes was the exact opposite. Fifty thousand people stood to applaud a player who has found his latest home in mid-career – though unfortunately for Newcastle, both Ba and the impressive midfield ball winner Cheick Tiote, are due to fly out next week to the African Cup of Nations.

Ba’s 15 goals in 20 games this season, and Tiote’s controlled aggression, will be missed from a group whose spirit has gelled beyond expectation. Manchester United’s problems are that, even with a squad infinitely more expensive to put together, a brooding uncertainty has emerged in midseason.  Not the time to panic, especially with City to come on Sunday.

International Herald Tribune

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