BBC BLOGS - Phil McNulty

Archives for January 2010

United triumph but City take heart

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Phil McNulty | 00:45 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

At Old Trafford

Sir Alex Ferguson paid Manchester City the biggest of back-handed compliments by claiming the Carling Cup semi-final derby could be one of the great Old Trafford occasions, fit to rank alongside meetings with giants such as Inter Milan, Barcelona and Juventus.

It was the clearest indication of the extent to which the so-called "noisy neighbours" have got up Manchester United and Ferguson's nose that he afforded such status and importance to a competition he never regards as a top priority.

The evidence was everywhere, from the combative call-to-arms in the match programme, the powerful United line-up and the obvious willingness to risk an extended ban for Rio Ferdinand on his Football Association charge to ensure his availablity to face City.

Ferguson got his glory night all right as Wayne Rooney inflicted fresh stoppage-time suffering on City at the conclusion of a thunderous encounter to send United to Wembley - putting the Eastlands upstarts in their place in the process. And it meant so much, something that should flatter City amid their heartbreak.

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From Moses to Monty Python

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Phil McNulty | 08:30 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

At The Reebok Stadium

Owen Coyle travelled from Moses to Monty Python on his journey of justification after a night when emotions were as raw and bitter as the Lancashire weather.

Coyle, a deeply religious man, waxed biblical as he responded to banners and verbal abuse labelling him "Judas", insisting he is more akin to football's Moses after leading Burnley from the wilderness of the Championship to the Premier League's promised land.

He was at least able to detect humour amid the bile coming from 5,000 Burnley fans via a banner lifting from the finest line in Python's "Life of Brian" that told Coyle: "He's Not The Messiah. He's A Very Naughty Boy."

The famous Burnley declaration "Owen Coyle Is God" seemed an age away after his move to Bolton and his words of explanation were, to continue the Bible's theme, always going to fall on stony ground. At least he was able to seek comfort in a victory that allowed his new charges to move out of the bottom three as his old club dropped in.

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Anelka a genuine class act

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Phil McNulty | 19:53 UK time, Saturday, 23 January 2010

At Deepdale

Nicolas Anelka has been judged by plenty who do not know him - so now is the time to trust the judgement of those who do.

Let's start with Jamie Carragher. Not a man to suffer fools, especially if they are team-mates, he recently reflected on Gerard Houllier's decision not to sign Anelka after a six-month loan spell at Liverpool eight years ago.

"I think it's a bit strong to say it was one of the worst decisions ever, but it's fair to say it was a mistake," he said. Especially when the mistake is compounded to the extent of ditching the notion of signing Anelka and shipping in El-Hadji Diouf instead. Now that is a mistake.

And then there is Chelsea assistant coach Ray Wilkins. He works on a daily basis with the striker endlessly stereotyped as "Le Sulk" and was perfectly placed to deliver his verdict after Anelka's Rolls Royce display in Saturday's FA Cup fourth round win at Preston.

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Have Spurs got nerve for top four?

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Phil McNulty | 09:32 UK time, Thursday, 21 January 2010

When Sebastian Bassong prepared to make his grand Anfield entrance only to discover he had forgotten to put his shorts on, Harry Redknapp may just have suspected it was not Tottenham's night.

And so it proved. Quite how Bassong overlooked this crucial item of clothing - think standing at the bar for two hours with a pair of polka-dotted underpants on full display - is as inexplicable as Spurs' performance.

Bassong's team-mates were almost as absent-minded as the startled and shortless defender as they forgot a visit to an under-strength and fragile Liverpool represented the perfect platform to make a powerful statement about their top-four aspirations.

Instead, Spurs froze when presented with the opportunity to exert authority at the expense of one of their closest rivals - allowing doubters to revisit old questions about whether they have the nerve to see the job through.

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Has Tevez proved Ferguson wrong?

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Phil McNulty | 00:29 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

At Eastlands

Carlos Tevez's English may not be fluent, but you could not fail to understand the message he sent Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson on Tuesday.

As Tevez inflicted the blows that gave Manchester City a slight advantage amid the domestic warfare of this Carling Cup semi-final, he went through his tick-list of targets as he remembered those who dared to doubt him.

Tevez reacted to equalising from the spot by gesturing in the general direction of Gary Neville, who backed Ferguson's assertion that financial demands made the Argentine too expensive to keep at Old Trafford.

And when Tevez headed the winner, he was off again. The cupped ear gesture towards the directors' box mirrored his celebration towards the Old Trafford hierarchy after scoring against City last season as negotiations on a permanent deal started to sour. He was determined no-one should feel left out.

Whether Ferguson will make the final gesture of this little squabble will be decided after next week's second leg, but Tevez is proving an inspired arrival at City and a loss for United, at least for now.

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Fellaini shows up sorry Robinho

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Phil McNulty | 21:31 UK time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

At Goodison Park

David Moyes demonstrated a sure grasp on football's fickle fates when he was asked if he was worried about whether Everton could hang on to Marouane Fellaini.

"You lot make me laugh," said Moyes. "A few weeks ago you were talking about when I was going to get rid of him."

Moyes had plenty to laugh about after Everton mauled Manchester City - whom he accused having "no class" and breaking transfer rules in last summer's pursuit of Joleon Lescott as he reopened old wounds via some incendiary programme notes.

If revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, then Moyes could barely disguise his pleasure at pulling something right from the bottom of the deep freeze and forcing Manchester City to choke on it.

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Milner can be World Cup wild card

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Phil McNulty | 08:15 UK time, Friday, 15 January 2010

Martin O'Neill raised a few eyebrows when he claimed James Milner's defining moment in Aston Villa's Carling Cup semi-final win at Blackburn Rovers was "a great goal by a great player."

Great goal? O'Neill had a point. A classic Villa counter that swept the length of Ewood Park and was led and finished by Milner, with an honourable mention to Stewart Downing.

Great player? No. Let's bracket that alongside O'Neill flair for hyperbole that allowed him to charitably label Ashley Young "world-class" and "a genius" after a match-winning performance at Everton last season.

O'Neill's claim provided a good-natured sideshow in semantics after a deserved Villa win, and he had the last word when he told an inquisitor: "I take your point that playing great doesn't make you a great player, but he's a great player."

Milner is not yet a great player, but he is unquestionably an outstanding one and must get the chance to back O'Neill's boast with England in South Africa this summer.

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Clock is ticking for Benitez

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Phil McNulty | 23:31 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Tom Hicks Jr offended Liverpool's fans with an obscene e-mail - but the public insult delivered by manager Rafael Benitez's team as they deservedly departed the FA Cup against Reading may have deeper and more significant consequences at Anfield.

If Liverpool have become more adept at anything in this desperate season, it is in their uncanny ability to discover new depths to plumb. And the manner of their exit against Reading, whose measure of success this season will be Championship survival, represented a new low.

Liverpool are out of the Champions League, off the pace in the Premier League, out of the Carling Cup and now deprived of their last hope of domestic honours. Benitez still has his "guarantee" of a top four finish to fall back on - but he must now hope he is still around to fulfil his promise.

He has received emphatic backing from Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow and there is not a single reason to doubt those words, but if there is not grave concern inside Anfield at the dramatic decline under Benitez this season, then there should be.

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Campbell deal makes perfect sense

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Phil McNulty | 10:53 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

When Sol Campbell departed the outpost of Morecambe's Christie Park after a single game for Notts County, it looked like the curtain had come down on his career at elite level.

The one-time England defender immediately cut his losses on a lucrative contract - while Notts County put the embarrassing collapse of a deal signed amid great fanfare in context by claims Campbell "could not adjust to the long-term nature of the project under way."

This was easy-to-decipher code for Campbell realising he had dropped a massive clanger and hardly the scene-setter for a return to the Premier League, least of all at The Emirates.

Campbell, for such a low-key figure, has a flair for the unpredictable, but his return to Arsenal would not have been on anyone's radar when he quit Notts County in September.

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Vieira - a risk Man City can afford to take

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Phil McNulty | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 7 January 2010

When asked to name a Premier League "Team of the Noughties" I had no hesitation in planting Patrick Vieira right at its heart - ahead of Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane - and making the Frenchman a prime contender to captain this imaginary eleven.

My selection was not based on my last two in-the-flesh glimpses of Vieira - namely an embarrassing appearance as a substitute when Liverpool beat Inter Milan in the Champions League in 2008 and a desperate 45 minutes at Manchester United in the same tournament a year later when Jose Mourinho mercifully put him out of his misery at half-time.

It was based on Vieira as leader of Arsenal's "Invincibles" of 2004, a player in at the start of Arsene Wenger's magical Highbury renewal and the captain whose final kick for the club - the winning penalty against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final - gave the Gunners their last trophy.

Vieira was both enforcer and creator supreme, an iconic Arsenal figure and symbol of Wenger's transfer market genius. He had plucked the athletic and gifted midfield man from AC Milan's reserves for £3.5m in 1996.

Manchester City will be hoping for more of the Arsenal vintage than the Inter one as they prepare to sign Vieira on a short-term deal. It is a gamble by new manager Roberto Mancini, but the Eastlands riches make it one he can afford.

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Coyle's high-risk Bolton move

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Phil McNulty | 09:19 UK time, Monday, 4 January 2010

Owen Coyle came to worldwide attention when the razzamatazz of Wrestlemania XXV in Houston last April was punctured by a Burnley fan brandishing a banner in front of millions of American television viewers.

It read "Owen Coyle Is God". There is now a Facebook group with nearly 800 members paying similar homage while a Burnley butcher gratefully created a sausage in the 43-year-old Scot's honour after he guided The Clarets back to English football's top tier after 33 years. There was even a suggestion local crime rates had dropped in line with improved results.

Now Coyle appears to be considering risking this elevated status, not to mention the butcher's sausages, by pondering the 31-mile trip from Burnley's Turf Moor home to Bolton Wanderers and the Reebok Stadium.

Coyle has a sentimental attachment to The Trotters after making 78 appearances for the club in the mid-1990s - but is this actually a wise move for a manager whose reputation has been growing steadily since he left St Johnstone for Burnley in November 2007?

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Hart deserves England chance

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Phil McNulty | 20:58 UK time, Saturday, 2 January 2010

Joe Hart left behind Manchester City's Abu Dhabi billions to seek first-team football and a change of fortune at Birmingham City. He is now on course to land the jackpot of a place in England's World Cup squad.

Hart started the season as a rank outsider to make coach Fabio Capello's final list for South Africa - but World Cup squads have a habit of throwing up surprises and the 22-year-old is making an impressive case.

He headed for St Andrew's after being ousted by Shay Given's expensive arrival at Eastlands, and his cause is being helped by a convenient co-incidence. Hart is maturing before our very eyes as holes appear in England's goalkeeping resources with alarming regularity.

Hart is not likely to be England's first-choice in South Africa - answers on a postcard for who that might be though - but he showed in a faultless FA Cup third-round display at Nottingham Forest that he now deserves a place in the squad on merit.

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