Off Premier League pace, Champions League now more important for Manchester United

16 points behind rivals Manchester City, United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 February 2018
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Off Premier League pace, Champions League now more important for Manchester United

LONDON: It is easy to forget that Manchester United lie second in the Premier League table. They are averaging more than two points per game which, in any normal season, would have them in the thick of a title race.
But this is not a normal season and the fact that Manchester City stand 16 points clear means that the pressures are different. Clubs can accept that one other team has a freakishly good campaign, but it does mean they have to perform in other competitions and that means that United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be.
There is no reason to panic for United, but there are plenty of reasons for doubt. United’s performances against other members of the big six have been disappointing — a home defeat to City, away defeats at Chelsea and Tottenham, a stalemate at Liverpool and a fortuitous win at Arsenal.
Neither of the two biggest signings United have made under Mourinho, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, have entirely convinced, and neither Henrikh Mkhitaryan nor Victor Lindelof made much of an impact. Claims that Pep Guardiola and City are buying their way to success might be looked on more sympathetically if United had not seemingly wasted so
much money.
The signing of Alexis Sanchez in a swap deal initially looked like good business, and all the more so given it took the Chilean out of the hands of City, who clearly wanted him, but already there are questions about how he fits in the side and whether his arrival may have destabilized the promising link-up of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Increasingly, the squad looks a mishmash put together with little thought to a cohesive product.
That, in turn, has prompted the sort of background grumble of discontent that often characterises the later periods of Mourinho’s spells at clubs.
His relationship with Pogba, who missed Saturday’s FA Cup win at Huddersfield with illness, appears strained, while there has been talk of a furious row after the league defeat at Newcastle.
In a sense, the detail is less important than the fact the stories are appearing at all: Happy dressing-rooms tend not to leak.
With Chelsea to come for United at the weekend, this is a crunch period, not merely in terms of this season but also the future. It is unlikely (it would require a Chelsea win by three goals) but it is not inconceivable that United could be down to fourth by Sunday evening.
But this season already feels as though it is not about the league — a failure to finish in the top four would be catastrophic for United.
It’s the Champions League that might offer salvation. They do not need to win it — although were Mourinho to become the first manager to lift the trophy with three different sides, it would silence a lot of his critics — but they do need some big performances and big results. And that is why Sevilla are so dangerous.
United are expected to win against the side fifth in La Liga, who are undergoing a period of turmoil after the departures in the summer of both their sporting director Monchi, for Roma, and their coach Jorge Sampaoli, for Argentina. They have since sacked another coach, Eduardo Berizzo. But they remain an awkward side. United cannot save their season tonight, but they could ensure it ends in failure.
 
STEVEN N’ZONZI VS PAUL POGBA
It is not entirely clear yet whether Paul Pogba will have recovered from illness in time to face Sevilla but if he does start, he will be the center of attention. He reportedly wants to play on the left side of a midfield three and is frustrated by the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Mourinho. It was clear for France during Euro 2016 that he chafes at the restrictions of being one of the two holding players, but perhaps lacks the tight technical skill with his back to goal to be the advanced central midfielder. Sevilla, both under Berizzo and his replacement Vincenzo Montella, have a flexibility in midfield, but essentially have a similar triangle with Ever Banega (or Guido Pizarro, who has stepped in since Banega suffered a thigh injury) as a deep-lying playmaker and Nolito or Franco Vazquez as the Number 10, with Steven N’zonzi playing the restrained shuttling role in a far more responsible manner than Pogba has of late.


Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

Updated 22 September 2018
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Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

  • Mohamed Salah's record-breaking season has focused attention on the Premier League's Muslim players and fans.
  • Past three players to win Player of the Year have all been Muslim.

LONDON: The face of English football has changed unimaginably since the start of the Premier League in 1992 — not least in terms of the number of Muslim footballers plying their trade in the most popular league in the world.
Twenty-six years ago, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nayim was the league’s only practicing Muslim. Fast forward to 2018 and there are now more than 40 Muslim players gracing England’s top flight — many of them global stars such as Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. 
This is a hugely welcome development for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and its education adviser, Riz Rehman, who is himself a Muslim. 
Rehman’s role involves him supporting players of different backgrounds — including Muslims — and aiming to boost their participation in football. Little wonder, then, that he is delighted that the past three winners of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award were all Muslim — Salah, Kante and Riyad Mahrez. 
“It’s great for the Muslim community — young people, players, aspiring players and coaches — that three Muslims have won this award and that two of them (Salah and Mahrez) are Arabs,” Rehman told Arab News. 
“It’s very important because it’s created more awareness about Muslims being good at the game and sport in general. It’s important we highlight this.” 
Leading Muslim footballers’ soaring success and stardom have coincided with rising Islamaphobic attacks in Britain following the Brexit vote in 2016. Regressive attitudes toward race, religion and immigration have raged in some parts of the country, as Rehman acknowledged. 
“The biggest misconceptions are that Muslims are all terrorists or that they are all Asian and have long beards,” he said. “Isolated incidents are giving Muslims a bad name.” 
Mercifully for Rehman and the PFA, the likes of Salah and Kante are portraying Muslims in a far more positive — and realistic — light on and off the pitch. 
During his sublime 2017-18 season, Liverpool star Salah topped the Premier League goal-scoring charts with 32 goals and reached the Champions League final. His unstinting brilliance led to him being serenaded with his own song by Liverpool fans, which includes the line: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too.” 

Mohamed Salah has created a positive image of Muslims during his record-breaking year in the Premier League. 


Many social media posts and videos showing young supporters copying the Egyptian maestro’s overtly religious goal celebration have also been posted many times. This involves him performing sujood, the Islamic art of prostration. 
“Things like that are really helping to bring down barriers in the game,” Rehman said. 
Likewise, he cites the fact that Salah and his Liverpool teammate, Sadio Mane, visit a mosque every week after training for Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer. 
Meanwhile, only last Saturday the humbleness of Chelsea’s irrepressible midfielder Kante — who has two Premier League winners’ medals and one FA Cup success to his name — was widely hailed. 
After missing his Eurostar train to Paris, Kante — who achieved World Cup glory with France in July — was invited home for dinner by Arsenal fan Badlur Rahman Jalil after meeting him while praying at a London mosque. Remarkably, Kante duly obliged and spent the evening watching Match of the Day and playing the FIFA video game with Jalil and his friends. 
“People are more aware that we have Muslim players in the game,” Rehman said. “Players are not afraid to come out and embrace the fact that they are Muslims and showing the world that they’re good people.” 
But are the PFA — and clubs in the Premier League and England in general — doing enough to increase Muslim representation in English football? 
“I think things are better than ever. A lot of clubs are working hard on all-inclusive programs,” replied Rehman, who was a promising youth-team player at Brentford before injury cut short his career at the age of 17 in 2000. 
“We deliver workshops aimed at club staff to educate them about better engaging Muslim communities. We get staff and coaches together and tell them more about Islam, what it involves and discuss Ramadan and how it might affect performance and participation at all levels. 
“On the back of that, hopefully clubs will deliver programs around the needs of the community. There are clubs like Crystal Palace who are looking to deliver Asian-specific programs to get more Asian kids playing football, more Asian coaches and look at the Muslim community as well.” 
Rehman himself helped organized an Iftar event at League One outfit Portsmouth earlier this year, which “went really well.” 
“We also had players come along to support the day. Clubs such as Crystal Palace, Leicester City and a few others are showing an interest in holding similar events next season. 
“Leicester City are a club with a massive Asian community and we are supporting them with trying to set up some programs.” 
Also high on Rehman’s agenda is encouraging more BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) coaches into the game. As well as sitting on the advisory group for the Premier Leagues Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme, one key program he is involved in is “Sidelined-to-Sidelines.”

N'Golo Kante has been one of the best players in England's top-flight since he moved to the Premier League three years ago. 


This was established by the Zesh Rehman Foundation — which was set up by his brother, a former Fulham defender — to address a shortage of qualified South Asian coaches. 
“We are setting up sessions to try and recruit young coaches at clubs like Crystal Palace, QPR and Chelsea,” Rehman revealed. “Coaches wearing those club badges become role models and are able to influence their own communities and encourage more kids (from under-represented ethnicities) to take up the game.” 
Rehman is keen to recruit more Muslim “ambassadors” at clubs “up and down the country” to emulate the likes of the inspirational Salah. 
“We want them to work with the community, local groups, mosques, and get players to actually go into those communities and build links with the clubs. It’s a two-way thing.” 
Progress has also been made in attracting more Muslim supporters to Premier League matches, Rehman added. Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are among the clubs that have multi-faith prayer rooms to cater for their increasingly diverse fanbases, he said. 
“Some clubs sell halal food, too, so there’s something for everyone.
“It’s a worldwide game now. Mo Salah has reached out to a lot of people. I think Muslim communities themselves have to make an effort to go to matches. 
“It’s not an overnight success, but you do see different communities represented on match days, week in and week out.”