BBC BLOGS - Phil McNulty

Archives for January 2012

'Tormented' De Gea a great concern for Ferguson

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Phil McNulty | 21:40 UK time, Saturday, 28 January 2012

Patrice Evra's ordeal concluded with his Manchester United captain's armband tossed away in the despair of defeat on the Anfield turf. For David de Gea, the torment shows no sign of ending.

Evra, as the script inevitably dictated, played a pivotal role in events with the eyes of the football world trained on Anfield amid the fall-out from the Premier League meeting between Liverpool and United in October.

Liverpool's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez watched from the stands with his family, suspended for eight games after being found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Evra, who took his place as a central character in the drama of this fourth round FA Cup tie.

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Bellamy haunts old club as Reds book Wembley ticket

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Phil McNulty | 09:11 UK time, Thursday, 26 January 2012

Craig Bellamy never had a price tag to justify when he returned to Liverpool from Manchester City in August - only a score to settle with himself after one previously unfulfilling season at Anfield.

When Bellamy left for West Ham United in 2007, his departure was largely met with the indifference reserved for a player who had given it his best shot at the club he loved but came up short.

In fact Bellamy's best shot is often remembered as the one he took at then team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club on a team-bonding trip before a Champions League game in Barcelona, though differences were spectacularly settled as both scored in Liverpool's subsequent win at the Nou Camp.

So when Kenny Dalglish took advantage of Bellamy's broken relationship with Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini and offered the 32-year-old the opportunity to finish old business in the final hours before the transfer window closed, it was a deal without a downside.

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Bruising Balotelli adds insult to Parker's injury

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Phil McNulty | 19:47 UK time, Sunday, 22 January 2012

At Etihad Stadium

"Why Always Me?" was the question posed on the T-shirt revealed by the human headline generator that is Mario Balotelli after he silenced Old Trafford's Stretford End in October's Manchester derby.

The 21-year-old Italian had scored City's first goal in the 6-1 rout of their neighbours and Premier League champions on their own turf just days after igniting part of his house with an ill-judged attempt to set off fireworks from the bathroom.

Balotelli was demonstrating an endearing ability to laugh at his own misfortune and turbulent personality. Pretty much everyone - United fans apart - laughed with him.

Sadly, for those who embrace the arrival of this wonderfully gifted young maverick to the Premier League there will be days when Balotelli is no laughing matter. And smiles were impossible to find among the Tottenham contingent at The Etihad on Sunday.

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Coleman faces tough balancing act

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Phil McNulty | 15:02 UK time, Thursday, 19 January 2012

The raw emotion still lingering following the death of Gary Speed was a constant presence through what his successor as Wales manager Chris Coleman called "the most difficult press conference I'm ever likely to do".

Coleman took over from his former international team-mate, who died in November, knowing he faces key tasks even before he can get his feet comfortably under the table at the Football Association of Wales headquarters in Cardiff.

And during an inquisition he handled with great dignity and with the right degree of respect to predecessor Speed amid his own personal pride, Coleman was fully aware of the juggling act he must now perform.

The former Fulham manager must live with, as well as build on, the expectations lifted by the final few months of Speed's tenure when he took the first steps towards leading Wales out of the darkness with a young and rapidly maturing team.

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Gerrard makes point on and off the pitch

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Phil McNulty | 10:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 January 2012

At Etihad Stadium

Roberto Mancini was probably heartily sick of the sight of Steven Gerrard even before the Liverpool captain took the fight to Manchester City's manager in the tunnel following the first leg of this Carling Cup semi-final.

Gerrard, returning to full fitness after 10 months of injury strife, led from the front during and after the 1-0 win that saw Kenny Dalglish's side seize an important advantage in their attempt to reach Wembley for the first time since 1996.

Fuelled by a sense of injustice about the tackle that resulted in a red card for Vincent Kompany in the FA Cup defeat by Manchester United on Sunday, Mancini complained bitterly about a similar offence committed by Liverpool's Glen Johnson on Joleon Lescott towards the end of this match in Manchester.

Johnson escaped any punishment, much to Mancini's annoyance. But the Italian, who even hurled away a packet of his beloved fruit pastilles during the second half to demonstrate his frustration, received no sympathy from Gerrard.

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Capturing Hughes is a coup for QPR

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Phil McNulty | 12:49 UK time, Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mark Hughes walked away from Fulham and left behind a message from his trusted representative Kia Joorabchian. Their aspirations and ambitions simply did not match those of his client.

Chelsea was mentioned as the sort of destination that might suit Hughes with Joorabchian saying on departure in June: "He wants to go to a club where he can fight for titles and win championships."

Quite whether Queen's Park Rangers was the club Hughes had in mind when he cleared his desk at Craven Cottage is purely guesswork.

They fought, and won, the battle for the Championship last season but the idea of a title challenge a tier up is, to put it politely, fanciful.

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Return of the King

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Phil McNulty | 08:47 UK time, Tuesday, 10 January 2012

On the night Eric Cantona announced he wants to run for the French presidency, a fellow countryman reclaimed his crown as the King of Arsenal.

Thierry Henry took four touches to get a feel of the old place again and a fifth - stroked effortlessly with his right foot beyond Leeds United goalkeeper Andy Lonergan - to add to his legend as Arsenal's greatest goalscorer.

Arsene Wenger joined those gathered inside Emirates Stadium in sporting a smile that looked like it might need to be surgically removed after Henry took ten minutes from his introduction as a second-half substitute to become an Arsenal match-winner once more.

The idea of Henry revisiting old glories at the club where he is so revered that a statue was recently unveiled in his honour once seemed almost as fanciful as Cantona's notions of high office.

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Scholes return papers over the cracks

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Phil McNulty | 18:47 UK time, Sunday, 8 January 2012

Paul Scholes simply missed football too much to stop playing, and football was swift to show him exactly what he was missing after he reversed his decision to retire.

Scholes has mixed the odd friendly kickaround with his new day job of coaching United's youngsters since calling time on his career after a brief cameo in the Champions League final defeat by Barcelona at Wembley in May.

For one of the most gifted and successful players of his generation, this was no substitute for the raw adrenalin, pace, power and occasionally pain of the real thing and sent him back to Sir Alex Ferguson asking to don his boots once more.

On a rain-lashed afternoon at the Etihad Stadium, Scholes was provided with all of the above - and more besides - in a third-round derby victory for United against Manchester City that will be remembered as a classic.

When the rumoured return of Scholes became fact as United's team-sheet landed, the ration of drama had been used for most normal days. This was no normal day.

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Manchester City steeled for title push

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Phil McNulty | 07:01 UK time, Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Manchester City's absence of Premier League title-winning pedigree means they are getting used to being asked the questions - and they continue to deliver the answers the doubters require.

The old sages say you do not prove you can take the steps towards titles when the waters are calm. The significant moves are made when you are not playing well, when you have to respond to a damaging defeat.

Roberto Mancini's side faced their initial searching examination when they suffered a first league defeat of the season at Chelsea last month. The next home game against Arsenal was the theatre for a forensic examination of their character, nerve and aspirations.

City passed the test with a narrow win, but the questions returned after a goalless draw at West Bromwich Albion and, more pointedly, following the stoppage-time defeat at Sunderland on Sunday.

Even Mancini's post-match appearance was scrutinised at Sunderland. The perfectly normal frustrated body language of a manager who has seen his side create enough chances to win three points and end with none was taken as the usually immaculate Italian looking dishevelled as a result of mounting pressure.

No matter that City could, perhaps should, have beaten Sunderland. How would they respond against Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool only two days later, with limbs still heavy and minds supposedly scarred by their failure to take advantage of closest rivals Manchester United's loss against Blackburn Rovers?

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Gary Ablett - a lovely man who will be sadly missed

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Phil McNulty | 12:04 UK time, Monday, 2 January 2012

Gary Ablett, who has died at the age of 46, had a career to be proud of and will always be guaranteed a unique place in Merseyside football history.

Ablett, who had suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma for 16 months, was the first - and still the only - player to have won the FA Cup with both Liverpool and Everton.

He will also be remembered by anyone who ever had personal dealings with him as one of the game's genuinely nice men, something that can be said too easily at times like this but in Ablett's case so true.

Even as recently as November, when he celebrated his 46th birthday, he was replying personally to Tweets sent to him by well-wishers with good humour and remarkable optimism given the seriousness of his condition.

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