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Saturday, April 16, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Ferguson aging like a fine wine


LONDON — Gareth Barry left the field shaking his head.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

Mario Balotelli, a substitute who was substituted, again gave the impression he would rather be anywhere else.

Edin Dzeko, a £27 million signing from Wolfsburg, continues to look like a striker worth closer to £2.7 million as his Premier League drought was extended by another match

Manchester City's 3-0 defeat at Liverpool last Monday was as poor a display as I have seen from a Premier League side the season. The only positive from a night of negatives is that the Blues surely cannot play as badly against neighbor Manchester United in Saturday's F.A. Cup semifinal at Wembley, where they will be without hamstring victim Carlos Tevez who has scored almost 40 percent of City's goals.

Two days after City's white flag performance at Anfield, a thoroughly professional, solid, organized and clinical United beat Chelsea 2-1 to advance to a fourth Champions League semifinals in five years. The contrast in the way the two Manchester rivals had played could hardly be greater.

With Tevez absent — City has lost four of the eight games its talisman has missed this season — Roberto Mancini will have to rely on Dzeko and Balotelli at Wembley, which is akin to relying on the English weather in April.

While Balotelli has averaged a goal every other game since arriving from Inter Milan last summer, most of his headlines have been about discipline, or to be more precise, indiscipline. He is an unpredictable loose cannon and given the Russian roulette strike force at his disposal Saturday the suspicion is the naturally cautious Mancini will park the bus at Wembley, trying to suffocate United and rely on a breakaway or set-piece. For the Italian, who dares, loses.

City is fourth in the Premier League, but Abu Dhabi-based owners, who have spent more than £300 million on new players in 2? years, will want a more tangible return than a place in the Champions League qualifying round.

Their semifinal opponents may not be a vintage United team. Yet they know how to win games, especially big games. They do not have you on the edge of your seat as previous sides Sir Alex Ferguson has built, but they can dig out results like no one else.

City spends vast sums on inferior players, but Ferguson has made a habit of finding bargains that must make the selling club cry. United paid Guadalajara £6 million for Javier Hernandez, which is an agent's fee rather than a transfer fee, to City. The Mexico international's goal against Chelsea was his 11th in 22 games, and with Wayne Rooney suspended Saturday, Hernandez will lead the line alongside Dimitar Berbatov.

Ferguson has managed and rotated his squad superbly in recent weeks, keeping all the players fresh while time and time again his tactics, which can make experienced observers (including yours truly) who should know better wonder what he's doing, have proved decisive.

Ryan Giggs played central midfield in the two games against Chelsea and laid on all three United goals — at 37 years and 4 months he is United's oldest player to have played in Europe — but his contribution this season has won my vote as the Footballer of the Year.

Rooney calls him Sir Ryan, though Saturday he may be replaced by another ageless phenomenon, Paul Scholes

There are few strong arguments in favor of a City victory. United is playing like a team which knows success is just around the corner, City just hopes it is.

Mancini singled out Balotelli as the player who might take City to the final against Bolton or Stoke. "He could be the hero," said Mancini. "Saturday, if he plays, he has a chance to do well and if he scores a goal that can bring us to the final, he can change his year. He has the big-game mentality to do it."

Trouble is, Ferguson could say that about most of his players.

* * *

ONLY A SELECT few get to know Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and even they can't predict how the Russian billionaire will react to situations. His expression during Chelsea's defeat at Old Trafford was of a man who once again could activate the hair trigger on his managerial gun.

Carlo Ancelotti said he was not worried about his future as he has 12 months left on his contract, perhaps blissfully unaware that Abramovich has paid out around £35 million in compensation to Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luis Felipe Scolari — in fact every manager except Guus Hiddink who was "on loan" from the Russian national team for six months.

Hiddink, whom Abramovich greatly admires, maintains he does not break contracts and is committed to Turkey for another 15 months, but what billionaires want, they usually get.

Abramovich has an obsession about winning the Champions League and splashed out £50 million, on Liverpool's Fernando Torres in January to help Chelsea's cause.

Putting it politely, it has not been money well spent. The Spain international has now gone 693 minutes without a goal for the Blues, and was substituted at halftime in the loss at Old Trafford.

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


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