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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Man United's flaws on display in loss


LONDON — Wayne Rooney looked like someone who had not been training properly during a shocking cameo display in Manchester United's 3-0 defeat at Newcastle three days ago.

Christopher Davies

Perhaps that isn't too surprising. Last weekend Rooney was dropped by Sir Alex Ferguson after a dinner he and Coleen had with teammates Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson and their wives. It is alleged the trio did not train very well the following morning and apart from being dropped against Blackburn, the players were also fined a week's wages, in Rooney's case £180,000. Expensive dinner.

He returned against Newcastle and was substituted after 75 minutes of near anonymity. Rooney's body language, demeanor and the poverty of his all-round performance made his display probably his worst in a United shirt. Unusually, he even looked unhappy.

Having lost 3-2 at home to Blackburn, a reaction was expected at Newcastle. In fact the champions were even worse than they were against the relegation battlers, though nothing should be taken away from Newcastle, which was terrific, showing many of the qualities its opponents have been missing.

In Chiek Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, Newcastle have the type of midfielders the visitors lack and so obviously need, Tiote a ball-winning warrior, and Cabaye an intelligent, industrious player who cost what is looking a bargain £4.8 million from Lille last summer.

The new idol of Newcastle, however, is Demba Ba, who has scored 16 goals in his last 17 games. Available on a free transfer from West Ham at the end of last season, he failed a medical at Stoke, whose manager Tony Pulis said Ba's troublesome knee was "a ticking time-bomb that could go at any time." Having sold Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35 million, Alan Pardew replaced the England international with a player who cost nothing and has been far more prolific. Good business.

The Ivorian scored a sensational opening goal as United was run ragged by the muscular but mobile Ba and Shola Ameobi. Ferguson dropped David de Gea but his replacement Anders Lindegaard, like all his teammates, had a night to forget.

United's form this season has been the subject of more criticism than usual, with its unexpected early exit from the Champions League. The Red Devils have 45 points after 19 games despite dropping eight points at home already compared with only two in all of last season. Though it has been grinding out results rather than gaining victories by exciting, attacking football on only three occasions at this stage has United had more points.

Its impressive half-season haul is all the more surprising given the problems United has faced. Neither de Gea nor Lindegaard has proved to be an adequate replacement for Edwin van der Sar. Rio Ferdinand has made 11 starts, Nemanja Vidic six before his season-ending knee injury. The central defenders are the cornerstone of any side and United's injury list has meant midfielder Michael Carrick filling in at the back.

Manchester City, which United meets in the F.A. Cup third round Sunday, is probably not the opposition United would choose to play after two defeats but Ferguson's side has shown many times how it can bounce back from setbacks.

* * *

HOW COULD Liverpool have got it so wrong, handled it so badly and alienated all but the most deluded, pig-headed of their supporters?

Luis Suarez, Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool do not seem to think there is anything wrong with the striker calling Manchester United's Patrice Evra "negro" because in Uruguay "black" or "blackie" is, he claims "a friendly form of address to a black-skinned person." Really?

It is stretching credibility to the breaking point to believe Suarez was using a so-called friendly word on so many occasions in a hot-tempered situation between opponents. There is no context in which any reference to the color of a person's skin during a heated argument can be deemed anything other than racist.

Dalglish, the public voice of Liverpool, embarked on a misguided, ill-advised public relations campaign that has damaged a great club's credibility. The Scot has shown sensitivity and understanding in the wake of the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters but his attempts to defend the indefensible had all the subtlety of an over-the-top tackle.

What should have happened is that Liverpool had immediately put out a statement to the effect that Suarez regrets what he was said, while in Uruguay it may have a different emphasis or meaning but he accepts that what he said was wrong and apologizes for causing any distress to Evra.

Instead Dalglish and Liverpool attacked the F.A. process, claiming a witch hunt "against one of the best players in the Premier League" as if skill is relevant in racism. In Liverpool's eyes, Suarez somehow became the victim.

Belatedly on Wednesday, in the wake of widespread criticism, Suarez issued an apology but without saying sorry to Evra. Any apology only has any true meaning if it is offered without pressure, otherwise they are empty words. Suarez's apology of an apology was: "I admitted to the commission that I said a word in Spanish once and once only. I never used this word in a derogatory way, and if it offends anyone, then I want to apologize for that."

Their stance is likely to have a knock-on effect in terms of worldwide marketing.

They'll be popular in Uruguay, though.

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


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