Manchester United and City seek derby delight

Manchester United’s Fred and Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Winks during their English Premier Leage match on Wednesday. United beat Tottenham 2-1. (Reuters)
Updated 06 December 2019

Manchester United and City seek derby delight

  • Liverpool travel to Bournemouth aiming to surge further clear at the top of the points chart

LONDON: Both sides of the Manchester divide will be hoping some derby delight can add impetus to disappointing seasons when City host United on Saturday, while Liverpool travel to Bournemouth aiming to surge further clear at the top of the Premier League.

Manchester United got a badly needed win for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday, inflicting a first defeat on Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho as the Portuguese returned to Old Trafford.

The Red Devils were again reliant on Marcus Rashford goals as the England forward struck twice to take his tally to 12 in 13 games for club and country.

“He was strong, direct, taking people on, inside and outside with no fear,” said Solskjaer. “That’s what we want — we want to see boys enjoying themselves.”

There has been precious little for United fans to enjoy this season, but just a fifth Premier League victory in 15 games was enough to lift them up to sixth.

That is still 11 points adrift of third-placed City, despite their own struggles at times.

Pep Guardiola’s men looked more like their old selves in thrashing Burnley 4-1 on Tuesday with Gabriel Jesus stepping up in the absence of the injured Sergio Aguero to score twice.

City have lost just one of six league meetings with United since Guardiola took charge three years ago and cannot afford to slip up if they are to maintain any aspirations of catching Liverpool in the title race. The English champions could kick off at the Etihad 14 points behind the leaders, should Jurgen Klopp’s men continue their scintillating form at Bournemouth earlier on Saturday.

“For the distance we are behind Liverpool it would be crazy to think about the title, we have to think about the derby,” said Guardiola.

Klopp could even afford the luxury of leaving Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah on the bench for a 5-2 thrashing of Everton in the Merseyside derby in midweek.

Both are expected to return for the visit to the south coast, but Klopp may rest some of his stars who did start against Everton ahead of a huge week for the European champions.

Liverpool travel to Salzburg in the Champions League on Tuesday needing to avoid defeat if their defense of the title is not to embarrassingly end in the group stages.

Divock Origi scored twice against Everton and Xherdan Shaqiri struck on his first start of the season to prove Klopp does have the strength in depth to successfully shuffle his pack.

“It’s easy for me to tell them often, very often, how good they are but if they then don’t play it’s not too easy for them to always understand what I say,” said Klopp.

“But if they play and deliver like they did, it’s a very, very important sign for the whole squad.”

Leicester remain Liverpool’s closest challengers, eight points back in second, thanks to a run of eight straight wins in all competitions.

“The team is developing and are proving they have a winning mentality and mindset,” said Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers, who has dismissed speculation linking him with the vacant managerial role at Arsenal.

Next up for the in-form Foxes is a trip to Aston Villa on Sunday.

Villa are one of a host of teams hauled back into the battle to avoid relegation by Southampton’s resurgence with Dean Smith’s men just one point above the drop zone.


Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

Updated 13 August 2020

Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

  • While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League next year

DUBAI: The faded film star was taken aback by the suggestion she was past her best, that she “used” to be big.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson, famously responded in Billy Wilder’s 1950s Hollywood classic “Sunset Boulevard.”

There’s no suggestion that Lionel Messi is in any way not still a big, indeed the biggest, star in the world of football. But it is tempting to imagine a similar thought must occasionally drift through his mind: I’m still big, it’s the Barcelona team that just got small.

Where he once played the leading role in a superlative cast that included Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Luis Suarez and one of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa and Neymar, he is now very much a one-man show.

Barcelona’s football, not long ago the envy of the football world, isn’t what it used to be, their tactics often little more than an echo of Argentina’s over the last decade or so: Give the ball to Messi and hope for the best.

It’s been a bad season for Barcelona Football Club.

In a campaign that saw coach Ernesto Valverde replaced by Quique Setien in January, and then disrupted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Barca’s La Liga title was eventually lost with a whimper to an equally dysfunctional Real Madrid side.

Barcelona’s saving grace as ever, and increasingly in the last few years, has been the Argentine genius. And this Champions League run, for now.

Last week, Messi scored a quite stunning goal as Barcelona beat Napoli 3-0 at the Not Camp, and 4-1 on aggregate, in the round of 16. It had all the hallmarks of his greatness, a reminder that at 33 he remains a peerless footballer. Positioning, control, skill, speed, refusal to be taken down, and a stunning finish. A microcosm of Messi’s career.

The win earned Barcelona a quarter-final against Bayern Munich on Friday night, a one-off tie in Lisbon that not many people seem to think the Catalan giants will negotiate successfully. But where there is Messi, there is hope.

One of Cristiano Ronaldo’s last genuine shots at winning the Champions League may have disappeared with Juventus’s exit last week, but Messi could yet pull a rabbit out of hat in this most narrative-bending season. If he does lead Barcelona to a sixth Champions League title, it could go down as his greatest trick yet. And possibly his last great act.

While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League in around nine months from now.

For Messi, time is running out. It’s a case of now or never.

Barcelona fans quite rightly rage that, over the last nine years, the greatest footballer of all time between the ages of 24 and 33 has managed only one Champions League win, to add to the two collected as part of Pep Guardiola’s incomparable team in 2009 and 2011. And they are not wrong.

Messi, and the fans, deserve better. The club, however, has been a case study of bad management and recruitment. It’s not that there have been no good players at the club or that money has not been spent. It’s that the money has been spent mindlessly, and the players have not been integrated into a coherent system under the managers that have followed Luis Enrique, who left the club two years after achieving the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in 2014-15.

That season, with the dream frontline of Messi, Neymar and Suarez conquering all before them, goes down as the club’s last truly great campaign.

Enrique's final season, 2016-17, saw the club’s greatest-ever European comeback, the scarcely believable 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, which overturned a 4-0 first-leg loss in the round of 16. But the fabled “remontada” proved a mirage, Barcelona losing to Juventus in the quarter-final 3-0 on aggregate.

Valverde did manage two La Liga titles, but it was the Champions League that Barcelona fans, and above all Messi, really craved, and watching Real Madrid claim three titles since their own last win has been excruciating.

The Champions League collapses against Roma, in 2017-18, and Liverpool the following season, will stand out as Barcelona’s greatest failures on the pitch, but the decline and mismanagement had already set in off it after Luis Enrique’s departure.

The big money signings of Ousmane Dembele at €105 ($124) and Philippe Coutinho at €120 have been, respectively, disappointing and disastrous. Other incoming players, like Paulinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Arturo Vidal and Yerry Mina, have not been of the required standard. And those who have, like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, joined the party just as the drinks had run out.

Barcelona will certainly need some sort of overhaul in the brief close season before the start of the 2020-21 La Liga season, in terms of playing staff and, in all likelihood, on the management side too.

But long-term planning will have to wait. 

For now, it’s all about Friday’s shootout against an excellent Bayern Munich side and the desperate attempt to salvage this season.

Should Barcelona overcome the German champions, they will most likely face club legend Guardiola’s formidable Manchester City team in the semi-final, and after that potentially Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar in the final.

This story could yet have an unexpected happy ending. But it’s going to need an Oscar-winning performance from you know who.