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Saturday, April 17, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Stakes high for Manchester derby


LONDON — When Manchester United beat Manchester City to the £30.75 million signing of Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham two years ago, Reds fans were delighted they had pipped their wealthy rivals to the signature of such a talented striker.

Christopher Davies

As Manchester prepares for the most eagerly awaited derby in 40 years City fans are laughing at their neighbors. The Bulgarian striker has been a hugely expensive flop, and to rub salt into United's wounds Carlos Tevez has been sensational for City since switching clubs last summer, scoring 28 goals in 37 matches.

Defeat for United at Eastlands would kill off any lingering hopes it has of retaining its Premier League crown. A win for City would leave it in poll position to finish fourth and secure a Champions League berth for the first time.

It would also harm United's chances of being runnerup to Chelsea — the team finishing third (and fourth) goes into the Champions League qualifying stage.

Eastlands is set for the mother of all derbies with far more than Manchester bragging rights at stake.

Having scored 14 goals in its last three games, City is full of confidence.

United, unusually, has won only one of its last four games and despite beating Bayern Munich 3-2 was knocked out of the Champions League.

These are troubled times for United and medical updates on Wayne Rooney's injured ankle have become so important one almost expects a puff of white smoke from Old Trafford if the striker is declared fit to play against City.

Without Rooney, United is powder puff in attack because Berbatov has none of the strength, focus, leadership or clinical finishing of the England international.

City manager Roberto Mancini is proving an equal to the master of the mind games, Sir Alex Ferguson, and said: "I hope Rooney plays. I think it's best that both teams are at full strength and then the side which takes the points can truly say the best team won. There is no reason why that cannot be us."

Mancini rates Tevez "second with Rooney behind Lionel Messi who is the best player in the world" and the Argentine international is in the form of his life. United was unwilling to pay £25 million to Media Sports Investments, the company which effectively owned Tevez, to keep the striker.

Tevez refuses to confirm his actual "transfer fee" but some sources put it as high as £48 million, which would have meant a profit of around £40 million for Kia Joorabchian who owns MSI and . . . anyone else in on the deal.

Nice work if you can get it.

* * * * *

IT IS UNTHINKABLE that the 2011 Champions League final or the 2018 World Cup could be staged at Wembley Stadium unless the pitch is significantly improved.

The biggest games in world football must have a surface that gives the best players the platform to show their skills. Everyone who plays on the pitch complains about how bad it is.

UEFA must think long and hard about letting Messi, Ronaldo and company loose on a pitch that will make a mockery of European club football's showpiece match. Unless something, somehow can be done to improve the pitch England's hopes of staging the 2018 World Cup will be harmed.

At the moment the most expensive stadium in the world has one of the worst pitches in English football and there is no reason for optimism after 10 failures. Seeing will be believing.

Wembley's turf has been relaid more times in three years — 10 — than Liz Taylor has been married (eight). Statistically, the Hollywood actress is unlikely to overtake the home of English football, which is set for its 11th change of turf after continuing complaints that the surface is like an ice rink.

This is the sort of problem that I suspect could only occur in England.

The original cost of rebuilding the stadium was £200 million. By the time it was completed it has risen to nearly £750 million.

The state of the art stadium's pitch is rock hard and made slippery by pre-match watering in an effort to soften the surface.

Many excuses have been put forward, including the lack of natural light caused by the initial design.

Didn't that occur to anyone when plans were being drawn up?

Premier League rules demand that their clubs' stadiums must have football as the primary use. Wigan and Hull share their grounds with Rugby League clubs and have poor, uneven surfaces.

Yet because of the inflated cost of the new Wembley the Football Association has to maximize its use with up to 25 events this year, including football, rugby, American football and two pop concerts one, ironically, by Green Day in June.

It is the constant use as much as anything that makes the Wembley pitch "an embarrassment to our nation and the turf industry" according to Dave Smallman, the managing director of Pitchcare.

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


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