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Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Man United feeling heat after surprise loss to Burnley


LONDON — One defeat hardly constitutes a crisis but when English champion Manchester United loses 1-0 to newly promoted Burnley, it inevitably dominates the back pages and phone-ins.

Christopher Davies

Suddenly United's game at Wigan Athletic is a must-win match and that, incredibly, is not an overreaction. There are 114 points available to each team in the Premier League and in recent years the champion has amassed around 90 to lift the title.

Already United and Liverpool, which lost at Tottenham on the opening weekend, have lost one-eighth of their "allowed" total. To drop six points after three games would give little room for error in the remaining 35 matches.

Chelsea and Arsenal are off to solid starts. The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80 million inevitably left a huge gap for United to fill both in terms of goals and the magic the Portuguese provided.

On the evidence so far, United needs more than Antonio Valencia (£17 million from Wigan) and Michael Owen, a free transfer from Newcastle to plug the Ronaldo void.

Sir Alex Ferguson is reluctant to pay over the odds for players, but he didn't mind selling Ronaldo for a world record fee. The United midfield lacks sparkle and charisma without Ronaldo — a quartet of Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick and Park is more tenacious than technical, more power than poise.

It might take £45 million to persuade Bayern Munich to part with Franck Ribery, but United needs someone to provide the unexpected.

It was United's first loss to a newly promoted team in 18 attempts, and in front of the watching England manager Fabio Capello, Owen probably confirmed all the Italian's preconceptions.

Injuries have robbed United of key players but it will hardly get the sympathy vote, not least as its team at Burnley (whose population is less than the capacity of Old Trafford) still cost £120 million compared with the £10 million Clarets manager Owen Coyle spent putting his side together.

The result was seen as a United defeat rather than a Burnley victory, but credit to the home team for its passing game which impressed Ferguson.

Robbie Blake, whose 15-meter screamer decided the outcome, will never score a better goal.

And so on to Wigan which was beaten at home by Wolves on Wednesday. To the delight of the rest of the nation, United is unusually under pressure.

* * * * *

NEMANJA VIDIC would like to play for Barcelona, we were told this week.

The Manchester United defender's agent Paolo Fabbri did an interview with Radio Catalunya and said: "It would be a dream for Vidic to play for Barcelona as he wants to play in La Liga."

I am not giving away any trade secrets, but you can bet Fabbri was asked whether Vidic would like to play for Barcelona.

What else could he say?

"No he would not play for the European champions, the best supported club in Europe, play for a Dream Team, which has made total football an art form?

"Why on earth would he want to do that?"

So Fabbri gave the interviewer what he wanted.

I can recall Diego Maradona being asked in Malta if he would one day like to play there.

What was he expected to say?

He could hardly insult his hosts.

It was a slightly different situation when I interviewed Ukraine's greatest footballer at the time, Oleg Blokhin, who played for Dynamo Kiev and the USSR national team during the 1970s and 1980s.

Well, I say interviewed "him" — Soviet players spoke no English in those days, so the visiting media effectively interviewed the official state translator.

I asked Blokhin, a former European Footballer of the Year, if he would like to play in the West — Soviet footballers were banned from moving abroad then.

You can imagine him thinking, if not saying: "Would I like to move to the West and earn more money in a month than I will in my entire career here and give my family a lifestyle beyond their wildest dreams?

"Live in a house that has more than one bedroom?

"Are you sure?"

Blokhin's actual answer via the translator was: "No, I am happy here, I have everything I want here."

No more questions, comrade.

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


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