Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Real Madrid’s relentlessly optimistic financial results beg closer scrutiny

Despite all the newly arrived clubs whose deep pockets are changing European football’s landscape, it is still Real Madrid whose actions and largesse provoke stronger criticism. Younger and older fans alike may struggle to reconcile the club’s habit for preening itself as an institution of history and tradition with its routine practices of amputating managers’ careers, accumulating trophies through spending near-grotesque levels of cash on players and capitalising on close ties with government institutions in Spain that border on incestuous. This is a club that wiped nearly 206 million euros of debt off at a single stroke by somehow convincing Madrid’s city council to spend such a lavish sum on purchasing their training ground, and that once again called on Spanish banks to secure £157 million of public money at unusually low interest rates in a time of recession to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009.  It would not be too far-fetched to claim that, given the amount of public money that Madrid have pilfered with the assistance of Spanish banks in a fifteen-year period, they are directly responsible for a significant part of the economic woes of the people who pledge them their support.

However, while the Glazers’ reliance on English banks to bankroll their takeover of Manchester United has seen the club fall into a logical, cause-and-effect based spiral of debt and struggles to refinance the debt, Madrid’s comparable levels of borrowing have not brought them the same problems. Rather, a club who reportedly took out 300 million Euros’ worth of bank loans at the start of Florentino Perez’s second spell as president have gone from strength to strength, proudly announcing a record turnover of 514 million Euros for last year and that their debt has been cut to 124.7 million Euros. Indeed, despite assembling a team that cost roughly 300 million Euros and having to deal with interest payments, there has not been a single financial year in which Madrid have failed to either increase their revenue or announce impressive profits. The latest revenue sums are, as the club’s website boastfully states, “the biggest of any sporting institution in the world” while Madrid have managed to continue reaping in more money than Manchester United and Barcelona even during a period that has seen them fail to claim the Champions League for ten years. We are constantly told that they have an enormous fan base spanning the world (and, in the eyes of Perez, probably any alien worlds as well), but anyone living in South and Southeast Asia will confirm that there are far more Barcelona shirts with Messi on them than Madrid ones with Ronaldo going around. In the Middle East, where Spanish football is more popular than the Premier League, their fan base is pretty much equally split with Barcelona. So too is their TV rights deal with Mediapro, which earns each club roughly 160 million euros a season.

So, if the allure of their players, their on-pitch successes and commercial draw has not been stronger than Manchester United’s or Barcelona’s at any point over the last six seasons, how is it that they are constantly in a position to declare themselves the most lucrative football club and best-performing sporting institution in the world? One suspects that the continued affiliation of Real Madrid with the Spanish government has seen them secure advantageous terms on everything from sponsorship deals, to loan arrangements, interest rates, and payment deadlines. If this did not have such a draining effect on the Spanish economy and its unemployed masses, it would not appear to so much resemble corruption. Yet as it stands, Madrid’s reliance on money to stay competitive is far more damning than that of clubs owned by sugar daddies whose extravagant expenditure was not sourced directly from a public who couldn’t afford it.

As they begin to implement Financial Fair Play rules in full force, it would be an oversight on UEFA’s part not to examine the sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements Real Madrid have secured, and adjudge whether the money accrued is the result of their apparently Midas-like business touch or more dubious special relationships with public institutions that have been in place since the dictator Franco anointed them his club and began lavishing them with his patronage. It is these murky foundations on which the “history” of Real Madrid, and its first five Champions League titles was built, and it is this same culture that has continued to prop up the club’s status today despite a relative lack of on-pitch success.

Ronaldo’s want of more money is an indictment of football’s cash culture

The problem is that, if it turns out to have been a question of money, he will lose the respect of a significant portion of football fans around the world – and he was not exactly ahead of Messi anyway – because at the end of the day, if Ronaldo feels undervalued at Real, he may have a reason to be ‘sad’ but, if he is only after more money, then his comments are an insult to those who have a proper reason to be upset.

The above quote formed the main thrust of a football article in the Guardian newspaper recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/sep/04/cristiano-ronaldo-sad-money-affection?commentpage=last#end-of-comments), which sought to condemn Cristiano Ronaldo’s apparent greediness in asking for more money at a time when the rest of Spain and Europe are locked in financial crisis.

I think people from the football community who are sanctimoniously deploring Ronaldo’s request for more money don’t realise just how two-faced and small-minded they sound. Every Madrid fan currently lambasting him for wanting a pay raise must have been punching the air in delight when their club lavished 80 million pounds of public money to buy him from Manchester United to start the fightback against Barcelona. Along with him as the flagship signing, Madrid’s squad is one of the most gratuitously constructed – financially speaking – in football, and it is the short-term demands of the fans that partly drives this vicious culture of spend-to-win. If you were looking for sporting culprits responsible for exacerbating the woes of the Spanish people, you would point the finger at Madrid first rather than Ronaldo. Football’s disregard for money is a cultural disease of which Ronaldo merely forms a symptom rather than an underlying cause. He has likely cast an envious eye at what Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero – players whose worth arguably does not outstrip his – are earning at clubs with similarly wanton financial cultures as Madrid’s and feels he is in line with a pay raise according to today’s market rates. It should be the clubs and, by association, condoning trophy-hungry fans who take the blame for inflating today’s market price to such worrying proportions rather than Cristano Ronaldo.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.

Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.

While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.

Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.

However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.

There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.