BBC BLOGS - Phil McNulty

Archives for May 2011

Paul Scholes the master will be sadly missed

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Phil McNulty | 09:43 UK time, Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The cause was a losing one, but it was fitting that Paul Scholes played his final 14 minutes for Manchester United in opposition to the planet's finest footballer and the world's best club side.

Scholes has been operating on diminishing returns this season, both in appearances and influence, but Lionel Messi and Barcelona represented the sort of elite company he deserved to keep at the conclusion of a wonderful career.

Xavi, almost as brilliant as Messi as Barcelona outclassed United in Saturday's Champions League final at Wembley, interrupted his elation to seek out Scholes at the final whistle and it was no surprise.

He once described Scholes as "a reference" - an indication of the respect in which the 36-year-old was held around the world, a reverence that arguably outstripped appreciation in his own country.

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Can Ferguson ever climb Barca barrier?

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Phil McNulty | 01:11 UK time, Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wembley

Sir Alex Ferguson hoped Manchester United's history would repeat itself when they faced Barcelona in the Champions League Final at Wembley. It did - but got the dates horribly wrong.

Instead of evoking memories of United's emotional first European Cup win against Benfica here in 1968, this was the misery of Rome 2009 revisited as Ferguson sat and suffered a re-run of the horrors of the Stadio Olimpico.

Barcelona do not do destiny. At least not the sort of destiny that forces one of the finest club sides in the game's history to stick to a sentimental script casting them as victims of the latest chapter in Ferguson and United's success story.

As in Rome, Barcelona spent 10 minutes getting the dust off their boots before inflicting a 3-1 defeat that was even more emphatic, even more brilliant, than the masterclass that descended on United two years ago.

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Ferguson hears call of history

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Phil McNulty | 20:52 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

Wembley

If Sir Alex Ferguson was searching for omens to back the belief that Manchester United are supported by the weight of history when they meet Barcelona in the Champions League final, a sign arrived as he sat down to speak at Wembley.

Ferguson was at the scene - "a symbol of English football" as he described it - of United's first European Cup win against Benfica in 1968, the night Sir Matt Busby's rebuilding of a club shattered by the Munich Air Disaster was rewarded with the trophy he treasured as a pioneer prepared to go outside England to seek success.

And as Ferguson navigated his way through the historical context shaping United's third final in four years, a familiar sound filled the air in Wembley's media room, a sound that will have given heart to the superstitious among the Old Trafford entourage.

It was commentary of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer's winning goal in the dramatic 1999 final win against Bayern Munich in Barcelona's own Nou Camp, the ringtone on the phone belonging to Pat Crerand, one of Busby's boys and a hero of 1968.

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What makes Ferguson great?

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Phil McNulty | 07:05 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

The fires burning inside Sir Alex Ferguson still rage intensely into his 70th year and the emotions stirred by a Champions League final against Barcelona at the scene of Manchester United's first European Cup triumph only serves to fan the flames.

Ferguson will not just want to set a record straight on Saturday by avenging Barcelona's comprehensive victory in Rome two years ago, he will want to fulfil what he sees as United's destiny by repeating Sir Matt Busby's landmark triumph at Wembley in 1968.

Ferguson shows no sign of losing an insatiable appetite for success that saw United eclipse Liverpool's domestic record by winning a 19th league title and now sees him taking a tilt at claming a third Champions League crown in his 25 years at the club.

A character of contrasts, capable of considerable acts of kindness but also ruthless in protecting his and United's turf and reputation, the Scot has expertly navigated football's ever-changing landscape while maintaining an unprecedented level of success.

So what has made Ferguson the man many regard as the greatest manager in the history of the game?

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Vidic calls for calm & courage

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Phil McNulty | 20:36 UK time, Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Nemanja Vidic's gladiatorial status among Manchester United's followers will be elevated to new heights if Barcelona are beaten and he lifts the Champions League trophy at Wembley on Saturday.

The Serbian has established himself as a cult figure at Old Trafford for his no-frills approach to the defensive arts and inspirational leadership that persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to hand him the captain's armband earlier this season.

And as hundreds of the world's media flocked to United's secluded Carrington training headquarters ahead of Saturday's showpiece, Vidic set the tone for the task of avoiding a repeat of Barcelona's victory in the 2009 final in Rome.

Vidic belied his abrasive image by delivering a measured message focusing on four key components. Calm. Courage. Concentration. Commitment.

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Blackpool gone but not forgotten

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Phil McNulty | 08:30 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

The strains of "Glory Glory Man Utd" provided an ironic backing track to Blackpool's broken dreams as manager Ian Holloway claimed: "You're famous for two seconds in football then you're gone."

Blackpool's stay in the sun lasted a year from the moment they won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley to the day their ambitions died bravely at the home of the newly-crowned champions. Gone they may be, but they will not be forgotten.

Holloway sat in Old Trafford's media theatre, with sounds of title celebrations in the distance, and was defiant to the last as he railed against what he perceived as Premier League injustices while bursting with pride at the part Blackpool have played in this remarkable season.

Blackpool died as they lived in the top tier. They attacked until the last moments of their top-flight existence and went out on their shields with an Old Trafford standing ovation to accompany them.

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Ancelotti suffers harsh fate

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Phil McNulty | 21:09 UK time, Sunday, 22 May 2011

Carlo Ancelotti's dismissal as Chelsea manager immediately after the season's final game is ruthless even by Roman Abramovich's standards - coming barely a year after guiding the club to their first domestic double.

Chelsea's rivals revel in taunts claiming they are a club without history. Ancelotti created it by winning the Premier League and the FA Cup in his first season, but it counted for nothing when his second ended in empty-handed disappointment.

The Italian has brought decency and a tinder dry sense of humour to accompany a rich pedigree forged with two Champions League wins at AC Milan to the Premier League. There will be genuine sympathy inside and outside Stamford Bridge for Ancelotti, who was informed of his sacking shortly after defeat at Everton.

In the past fortnight he has also brought a sense of resignation as he gave every indication of realising his fate was sealed once, and possibly even before, defeat at Manchester United snuffed out hopes of retaining the title.

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Can Blackpool 'shock troops' win last battle?

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Phil McNulty | 06:35 UK time, Friday, 20 May 2011

Jimmy Armfield's mind will flash back almost 40 years when he takes his seat at Old Trafford on Sunday to watch Blackpool fight the odds for one final time in a bid to secure Premier League survival.

Armfield played the last of his 627 games for Blackpool against United at Bloomfield Road in May 1971 - the day they dropped out of English football's top tier and into the lower divisions, where they stayed until they returned under Ian Holloway's colourful leadership this season.

Now Blackpool's immediate future will be shaped in another last-day meeting with United, newly-crowned champions for a record 19th time and possessing a proud record of dropping only two points at home this season.

Blackpool, in all likelihood, will require victory at Old Trafford to survive unless Wigan Athletic lose at Stoke City and Tottenham beat Birmingham by a margin that pushes them below The Seasiders on goal difference.

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West Ham pay for Grant indecision

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Phil McNulty | 07:15 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

The DW Stadium

Avram Grant was shown no mercy in the air or on the ground as his reign as West Ham United manager ended moments after their relegation from the Premier League.

As the Hammers were in the process of losing a two-goal lead at Wigan en route to a defeat that concluded a six-year stay in English football's top tier, a light aircraft circled above the DW Stadium trailing a banner that read: "Avram Grant - Millwall Legend".

The fly-past was a brutal touch in Grant's last game in charge as his 11-month tenure was brought to a close shortly after 90 minutes of pure footballing theatre.

His sacking puts him in the dock for a season of managerial folly at Upton Park but he will not stand alone when the inquest gets under way and West Ham survey the wreckage that always surrounds the drop into the Championship.

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Man City's Blue Moon rises

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Phil McNulty | 20:42 UK time, Saturday, 14 May 2011

Wembley

Roberto Mancini slumped heavily in his seat and puffed out his cheeks in relief before finally breaking into a smile. And he has only been trying to bring a trophy to Manchester City for 17 months.

Those who have lived every moment of the 35 years since Newcastle United were beaten in the 1976 League Cup Final were flying even higher on emotions all the money in Abu Dhabi would find it hard to buy.

Wembley was awash with symbolism as Carlos Tevez lifted the FA Cup after a deserved victory against Stoke City. The long and painful wait was over, the Blue Moon was rising over Wembley and a small corner of Old Trafford could no longer be draped in the infamous banner mocking Manchester City's barren years.

Mancini put the significance of Manchester City's win in context as he announced it was about "changing the history of the club" while the outstanding defender Vincent Kompany said: "We have laid down the first brick. Now we can build a house on it."

It will, no doubt, be the most expensive accommodation around but it is highly unlikely it will be another 35 years before the next piece of silverware goes on show.

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Time to finally credit Pulis

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Phil McNulty | 00:00 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

Graham Taylor recognises a familiar tone when he listens to criticism of Stoke City's style and the methods employed by manager Tony Pulis.

Pulis performed the considerable feat of taking the Potters into English football's top tier and establishing them in the Premier League - before embellishing his fine work with an FA Cup final appearance against Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday.

The 53-year-old Welshman has pulled it off against a background of claims that it has been achieved by the simple employment of the long-ball game and freakishly long throws of Rory Delap.

BBC Radio 5 live pundit Taylor has heard it all before during his own time at Watford, when he led the Hornets into the old First Division and the FA Cup final against Everton in 1984 and supports Pulis' approach as passionately as he did his own.

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Man City join Europe's top table

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Phil McNulty | 02:05 UK time, Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Eastlands

Manchester City's ticket to a seat at Europe's top table has not come cheap at more than £350m - but entry into the Champions League may provide the missing link in their plan for global domination.

City rarely provide pleasure without pain for their followers and the 1-0 win against Tottenham that sealed their place in the Premier League's top four only arrived after spells of torture for their fans and Roberto Mancini.

The coach was elated at the final whistle, having, in all likelihood, secured his job for next season after spending £127m last summer and keeping a promise made in adversity at Liverpool on 11 April that he would deliver Champions League football and a place in the FA Cup final.

And Mancini and City's landmark moment may prove to be the start of a shift in European football's landscape as they exert their financial authority on its biggest club tournament.

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Ferguson revels as history beckons

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Phil McNulty | 20:59 UK time, Sunday, 8 May 2011

Old Trafford

Sir Alex Ferguson walked towards the welcoming arms of the Stretford End and into another warm embrace with history when he stopped and bowed flamboyantly twice in front of his followers.

Old Trafford was a wall of sound and celebration after a Manchester United victory of such importance over Chelsea that Ferguson allowed himself the rare grand gesture even before the formalities are complete.

United only need to avoid defeat in one of their last two matches at Blackburn Rovers and at home to Blackpool - assuming Chelsea win both of theirs - to seal a record 19th title and confirm their status as the domestic game's most successful club.

The statistic is heavily weighted with significance. United's inevitable Premier League triumph edges them ahead of Liverpool and brings the day The Kop thought they would never see when they celebrated their last title win on 28 April 1990.

And Ferguson was entitled to let his guard down at his moment of personal elation because when United put the finishing touches to this triumph, it will arguably belong to him even more than his players.

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Can Manchester United beat Barcelona?

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Phil McNulty | 01:39 UK time, Thursday, 5 May 2011

Old Trafford

Sir Alex Ferguson expressed a preference for facing Brechin City as opposed to Barcelona in the Champions League final - instead realism and romance dictates Manchester United will jump aboard the Catalan carousel at Wembley.

It was Ferguson who coined the term "carousel" to describe Barcelona's passing, movement and mastery in possession, and United's last ride resulted in head-spinning humiliation as they were outclassed in the 2009 final in Rome.

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola's presence at Old Trafford on Wednesday was almost as academic as Schalke's as United completed a trouble-free passage into their third Champions League final in four years with a 4-1 win that sealed a 6-1 aggregate victory.

The question that hung over Old Trafford's celebrations was not could United beat Schalke - this was answered by an atmosphere devoid of tension and Ferguson's selection of his second string - but could they beat Barcelona?

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Arsenal win sets up final twist

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Phil McNulty | 19:49 UK time, Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Emirates

The Premier League season that refuses to go quietly is offering up the enticing possibility of the most dramatic twist of all after Arsenal deservedly beat Manchester United at the Emirates.

If the unseemly scramble and bunching at the bottom is not enough to ensure nerves will be tested fully in the final three games of a less than vintage season, United and Chelsea now meet at Old Trafford next Sunday with the title on the line.

Arsenal's role in the plot that unfolded with Sunday's fine victory will have been a source of delight, optimism, frustration and disappointment for manager Arsene Wenger, his players and their supporters - all in the space of 90 minutes.

Delight and optimism at a performance that proved Arsenal, as they have done against the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona at the Emirates, can get it right against the toughest opponents. Frustration and disappointment because they know carelessness and faultlines running through the side have cost them so dearly.

For United, there is still the not inconsiderable comfort of knowing their fate is in their own hands and it will be played out at their Old Trafford fortress, but also suddenly the knowledge that Carlo Ancelotti's side present a shadow on their shoulders.

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