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Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Manchester United looking like a juggernaut


LONDON — It is not so much a question of when Manchester United will lose again in the Premier League, as when it will even concede a goal.

Christopher Davies

Saturday it is Blackburn Rovers' turn to try to beat Edwin van der Sar, who registered his 14th consecutive shutout in Wednesday's 3-0 defeat of Fulham. To say the game was one-sided is like saying it gets a bit warm in Saudi Arabia during the summer.

It is 1,302 minutes — almost 22 hours — since Sami Nasri scored what proved to be the winner for Arsenal on Nov. 8, 3 1/2 months ago.

The joke is opponents do a lap of honor when they win a corner against United these days. Yet to accuse the Premier League champions of being a defensive side is to invite ridicule.

So why are they becoming the Unbreachables?

Despite being 38, Van der Sar is probably playing better than at any time during his career.

If there is a better center-back partnership in world football than Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, I have not seen it.

At right-back Sir Alex Ferguson has the luxury of choosing the experienced Gary Neville or Wes Brown, with the emerging talent of Rafael Da Silva a youthful alternative.

Left-back Patrice Evra, like Vidic and Ferdinand, is surely the best in his position.

Any injuries or suspensions means John O'Shea or Jonny Evans can step in, and former United striker Lou Macari believes the Fergie Fledglings are playing as important a part as the old hands as United leads the Premier League by five points.

Macari said: "Of the chasing pack no one has four goal-scorers like Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I can't see anyone catching United. Are they going to make that many mistakes between now and the end of the season? I don't think so. The manager is a magician. He's done it season after season, not just winning trophies but bringing young players through.

"This season's success is not just because of the back-four or the forwards. The likes of Jonny Evans, the Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio Da Silva, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson . . . people wondered if they can cope with the pressures.

"It's been no problem for them and they are genuine prospects for the long term. Anyone given his chance seems to be taking it. This means there is real competition for places in all departments."

Ferguson can rest the aging but still influential legs of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, playing them every two weeks.

Park Ji Sung, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher provide the engine room behind attacking options other managers can only dream of.

The manager also has the skills to keep a big squad full of megastars happy. The United substitutes and those who don't even make the bench are never happy, yet dissenting voices are not heard at Old Trafford.

United is on target for an unprecedented and seemingly impossible Quintuple, the highest of High Fives.

The Club World Cup is already safely in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, while United is the favorite (as it is most of the time) to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup final a week from this Sunday.

It will meet either Fulham or Swansea in the F.A. Cup quarterfinals, but the biggest hurdle United must climb is in the Champions League.

If it overcomes Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan — and what two titanic battles those games will be (and not just the managers' mind games) — it will no doubt find Barcelona awaiting it in the quarterfinals along with either Juventus or Chelsea, Real Madrid or Liverpool, Arsenal or Roma.

It is not inconceivable that the final of the Champions League on May 27 will feature the same teams as the F.A. Cup final three days later.

No team has ever retained the Champions League, and this column believes Barcelona, playing a type of breathtaking attacking football rarely seen, will be crowned kings of Europe.

* * * * *

THERE WAS no puff of white smoke from Soho Square or fanfare from the Football Association as it announced Ian Watmore would be the new chief executive, succeeding Brian Barwick.

Maybe it was because Watmore will not start until June. Perhaps it was because the F.A. is aware of accusations of Labour cronyism, as Watmore worked under Lord Triesman, the all-powerful independent chairman of the F.A., at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (could any other country have such a department?).

Triesman described Watmore as "the right person to lead" the F.A., a statement no doubt made about all previous chief executives who bit the dust.

Watmore is an Arsenal fan, but that is his only experience of football — he has never been involved in the national sport until now.

The F.A.'s selection process was . . . well, interesting. The 10-man board is made up of five members from the amateur game, three from the Premier League and two from the Football League.

Incredibly, in an era of professionalism the amateur game — or national game as it is officially called — holds the greatest power in English football.

Watmore's candidature was even kept secret from the board as the final interview process began — the two other hopefuls were former Arsenal managing director Keith Edelman and Ale Horne, the F.A.'s chief operating officer.

Edelman, seen as the best candidate by many, never stood a chance as there was blanket opposition from the amateur game.

It is believed Watmore won six votes at most, which some might find at odds with the F.A.'s statement that the new man was "a collective decision."

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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