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Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

O'Neill expects striker Larsson to give Man Utd a big boost


LONDON -- Apart from death and taxes there may be no other certainties in life but Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill must fear Henrik Larsson scoring on his debut for Manchester United in the F.A. Cup third round Sunday would complete the hat trick.

Christopher Davies

Larsson, on a 10-week loan to United from Helsingborg, is expected to play against Villa and no one knows the Swede's value to a team better than O'Neill who was his manager for four years at Celtic between 2000 and 2004.

The short-term loan of one of European football's most prolific strikers could prove to be one of the shrewdest bits of business during the January transfer window and Sir Alex Ferguson took everyone by surprise when the deal was clinched last month.

Larsson, who scored 242 goals in 315 appearances for Scotland is said to be fitter at 35 than he was when he played for Sweden at USA '94.

With Louis Saha sidelined because of injury for two weeks Larsson is in line to make his first appearance for United tomorrow and O'Neill said: "If he adjusts to English football quickly, which he is capable of doing, then he can score a few goals."

Larsson returned to Sweden last summer after two years with Barcelona saying he was going to finish his career with his hometown club, a gentle wind-down toward retirement.

"We all say things like that," said Celtic manager Gordon Strachan. "But when Manchester United come calling it's a case of, 'What did I say last week? Forget it.'

"Everyone has the right to change their mind. United have made a very good addition to their squad.

"I don't know Henrik that well but he remains a living legend here. Now he has a chance to make a name for himself at United. He deserves it because he's worked so hard at his game. He's been rewarded for that hard work, coming back from bad injuries and having a phenomenal career. This is a fantastic story, football never fails to amaze you."

Larsson's last match against English club opposition was when he came on as a substitute for Barcelona in the Champions League final against Arsenal last May, his presence and impact tipping the balance the Spanish club's way as they went on to win 2-1, the Swede supplying the assist for both goals.

His stature in the game is illustrated by the way his peers talk about him. Arsenal captain Thierry Henry said: "People talk about Ronaldinho (and) Samuel Eto'o but Henrik Larsson came on and changed the game. He killed us. He made the difference."

When Larsson left Barcelona, Ronaldinho said: "The club is losing a great scorer, there's no doubt about that. I am also losing a great friend. Henrik was my idol and it was fantastic to play alongside him."

Gabriel Heinze, United's Argentina international, has no doubt the Premiership leader will benefit from Larsson's brief stay at Old Trafford.

"If you are a bright young player, you can learn from Henrik Larsson," he said. "He is one of my favorite players in the sense of what he has achieved, not just in Spain, but also at Celtic.

"I think he is great signing for us and will do really well here. He has not been a success for no reason. Larsson has been excellent wherever he has gone and done well wherever he has played.

"I saw him a lot for Barcelona. He was remarkable there considering he had come back from a bad injury. Yet when he returned he was the same player as before. He was one of the best forwards in Spain and is going to be a great addition to our squad."

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has finally got his man after failing to sign Larsson during his time with Celtic.

"I've always admired Henrik," he said. "I tried to sign him when was with Celtic but they managed to persuade him to stay. He's a great player and it's a terrific bit of business for us.

"We are bringing in someone who can change a game. When you think back to the Champions League final, he was the one who won it for Barcelona when he came on. He can play wide right, wide left or up front. I'm really happy we've got him."

IT MUST BE wonderful, whatever your job is, to be able to make a decision and it has to be accepted without question or justification.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Football Association's independent disciplinary commissions, who are made up of F.A. councilors but form an independent body. Yes, it IS difficult to understand.

They sit in judgment on players and managers charged by the F.A., make a decision, tell the usually guilty party and that's that. No explanation about how or why they reached their verdict, not to the F.A. or the clubs. They are the last dictatorship left in Europe.

On Thursday high-ranking officials within the F.A. were left frustrated after an independent disciplinary commission rejected an appeal against wrongful dismissal by Charlton's Osei Sankofa for denying Arsenal's Robin van Persie an obvious goal-scoring opportunity at Emirates Stadium two days earlier.

Sankofa can consider himself unfortunate to have made disciplinary history when he became the first Premiership player in two seasons to be given an extra game's suspension for a frivolous appeal.

He impeded Van Persie as the Dutchman was running on to the rebound after Cesc Fabregas' shot had struck the crossbar.

Guidelines to referees for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity include that a player should generally be in clean control of the ball and heading directly toward the opposing goal -- within a second or two he would have had an obvious chance to score.

Yet Van Persie did not have possession at the time he was fouled, which left many within Soho Square confused.

Some leading refereeing sources were also confused because Van Persie was running from a "passive" offside decision -- no offense in itself -- and the moment he touched the ball should have been deemed offside so there would have been no goal-scoring opportunity to be denied.

However, the independent commission does not have to explain the reasons for their decisions to anyone -- not even the F.A. or the clubs.

"Some senior figures within the F.A. would like commissions to be far more accountable for their decisions," said an F.A. source. "They come to their conclusions and don't have to explain the reasons to anyone."

Not for the first time F.A. officials have been left scratching their heads after a commission's decisions. Last month a commission rejected an appeal by Manchester City's Joey Barton for a two-footed challenge on Bolton's Abdoulaye Faye -- a far more obvious red card than Sankofa's -- but the appeal was not considered frivolous.

Yet Sankofa had every right to appeal . . . and it cost him an extra game's ban.

But when you are accountable to no one it doesn't matter that you leave a trail of confusion and frustration.

It would take a change in F.A. regulations for a more transparent disciplinary system with commissions having to make the reasons for their findings public.

Breath should not be held.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.



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