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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Without Rooney, pressure on Man United


Special to The Japan Times Online

LONDON — One week into the Premier League season and already the C-word has reared its ugly head.

Christopher Davies

"Crisis" and Manchester United are rarely seen in the same sentence, but two draws in its opening fixtures was not the start last season's champion, complete with £60 million of new recruits, expected.

United plays resurgent Manchester City in the weekend's most intriguing match, and if Sven-Goran Eriksson's team makes it a hat trick of victories and Chelsea wins at Liverpool, then the Reds would be a worrying seven points behind the London club.

More surprisingly, they would also be seven points behind City.

That is not an impossible mountain to climb but one Sir Alex Ferguson knows will test his side to the limit.

To make matters worse, the Reds will be without Wayne Rooney, sidelined for two months with another foot injury, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who was sent off in last Wednesday's 1-1 draw at Portsmouth.

Ronaldo was red-carded for head-butting Richard Hughes and, while Ferguson had no sympathy for the Portuguese winger who he felt "was provoked and fell into the trap, it's his own fault really," his comment that referee Steve Bennett "took great delight in sending him off" should incur the wrath of the Football Association, but, of course, it won't.

Why would Bennett enjoy dismissing Ronaldo?

What pleasure could he possibly get from sending off a hugely talented player?

Would Bennett enjoy sending other players off or just Ronaldo?

The aim of every referee is to keep his red card in his pocket because a sending off virtually guarantees negative headlines for the official, so what enjoyment is there in being the center of unwanted publicity?

Ronaldo was sent packing in the 85th minute at Fratton Park, so it is fair to say his dismissal did not have any effect on the result.

In its opening game United failed to overcome a defensive and organized Reading which played the last half-hour with 10 men.

Of course, referees are easy and regular scapegoats but United has dropped four points against teams it would have been confident of beating.

For that, the finger should be pointed away from the referee.

United takes on City with a depleted strike force — apart from Rooney, Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are where they spend most of their time: the treatment room.

It means Carlos Tevez will lead the line, the Argentine not fully fit but pressed into action earlier than Ferguson would ideally have wanted.

In contrast life could hardly be sweeter in the blue corner of Manchester. An £80 million takeover has enabled Eriksson to spend £40 million on eight new players, the much-ridiculed former England coach in the unusual position of being praised by the English media.

Eriksson has shown great dignity since returning to English football with City, where he has managed to knit together a new multinational team.

Two wins and no goals conceded is the stuff of dreams at a club whose fans hadn't seen a home league goal since New Year's Day.

The Swede was too often portrayed as a turnip during his England career, but media agendas were more often than not personal rather than professional.

Eriksson has bought well, particularly Brazilian striker Elano, Bulgarian Martin Petrov and Italy's Rolando Bianchi.

The suspicion is Ferguson would rather not be playing away to his in-form neighbors as the Reds attempt to get their season up and running.

Whatever the outcome at Eastlands — "the big test," said Eriksson, presumably referring to City — it can be said with absolute confidence the game will not be boring or without incident.

To be at the bottom of the Premier League in the second week of the season would not normally have directors reaching for the worry beads, but having invested £40 million this summer Tottenham was not expected to be the basement team.

Manager Martin Jol has led Spurs to successive fifth-place finishes, so it is preposterous to suggest his job could be at risk.

However, he knows that anything but a win over newly promoted Derby on Saturday will see knives being sharpened, while three points will ensure Jol is getting it right.

Football is like that, black and white with no areas of gray.

Roy Keane is a messiah at Sunderland after beating Spurs and drawing at Birmingham. Yet his team needed a Michael Chopra goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time to secure three points against Spurs, and a last-minute equalizer by Stern John at Birmingham to leave St Andrews with a point.

The difference between being a hero and villain is wafer thin, but with a minimum of £30 million available just to be in the Premier League there are inevitably hair-triggers in board rooms.

IT IS THE pot of gold in the promised land of the Premier League that has made Sheffield United start legal action against West Ham.

United wants compensation, believed to be a minimum of £30 million, following its relegation last season.

The Blades went down after the Premier League's independent panel decided to fine the Hammers £5.5 million rather than dock them points over the signing of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

United is seeking West Ham's agreement to go to arbitration through the Football Association in order to settle its claim.

Sports lawyers say United has a good chance of success, but whoever sits in judgment knows they will be setting a precedent in this litigious age.

Future floodgates could be opened with clubs spending almost as much on legal eagles as lethal strikers.

Some say West Ham was very lucky to have only a financial sanction. Others point out that United had 38 games to secure its place in the Premier League and failed.

United also failed in its High Court bid to force the Premier League to take disciplinary action against West Ham.

United took its case to the High Court after an arbitration panel rejected its claim against the Premier League, which failed to deduct points from the Hammers over the transfers of Tevez and Mascherano.

West Ham was found guilty of entering into an agreement which allowed a third party to influence the club and of deliberately deceiving the league by failing to inform it of the agreement.

The independent commission's verdict in April said West Ham had committed "an obvious and deliberate breach of the rules" and held it "responsible for dishonesty and deceit."

Among the panel's reasons for not docking points from West Ham was the fact that the club had changed ownership since the Tevez and Mascherano deal had been agreed to.

However, Sheffield United claims West Ham failed to disclose vital information at the hearing.

A statement on the club's Web site reads: "West Ham failed to disclose a critically important, additional third-party agreement dated 1 December 2006 [when the new regime was in place]. This particular information has only emerged in the last couple of weeks.

"It seems that West Ham concealed the existence of this document in order to shield its new owners, who have publicly maintained that they were innocent of any involvement in the third-party agreement."

United claims West Ham gained an unfair advantage by signing an illicit player in Tevez, who has since signed with Manchester United. Football victories are no longer won solely on the field.

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


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