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Michael Owen Signing Indicates Ferguson is Looking For Solskjaer’s Heir

Few predicted it (although Catch Seventy7 weren’t far off), but bearing the giant hurdle of a thorough medical, it looks likely Michael Owen will sign for Manchester United. Is Fergie hoping Owen will become Solskjaer Mk II?

Michael Owen: Made it through the rain...

Michael Owen: Made it through the rain...

It has not been a particularly happy few months for Michael Owen.
First he saw his then-employers, Newcastle United, suffer a heart-breaking relegation from the Premier League while he was forced to watch much of the run-in from the treatment table.
Then, as his contract expired, he had to sit back as newspapers and fans alike almost unanimously wrote him off—with one national paper even suggesting he should retire.
Commendably, Owen remained upbeat, and kept his dignity intact.
“When I scored a goal in the World Cup as an 18-year-old, people six months later were writing me off saying, ‘It’s a one-off’,” Owen said in a rare interview during his difficult period. “There will be something, there always is—this country is renowned for it. Someone will always criticise you, no matter what.”
On the back of his ill-fated 32-page brochure intended to create interest—which became another stick with which to beat him—Owen had to endure the relative ignominy of seeing only Hull City and Stoke City publicly declaring their interest in him. 
Even Sam Allardyce stated he would not look to sign Owen, even though realistically neither Blackburn nor the two clubs that did enter the “race” could have entertained realistic ambitions of luring the England international.
But with Manchester United’s surprise approach, it looks like all that strife will soon be forgotten.
Owen will get the last laugh.
After a frantic day of rumour and counter-rumour, it looks likely the 29-year-old will agree a move to Old Trafford this week, subject to a medical undertaken later today. The contract, rather sensibly, is expected to be incentive-based, with a low basic wage but sizable bonuses based on appearances and goals.
With Owen (who has a moderately successful horse-training venture) hardly needing the money but intent on playing at the highest level possible, and Manchester United in need of attacking players after the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, it looks like a deal that will suit all sides.
Once Owen signs, the topic of discussion will inevitably move onto how Sir Alex Ferguson intends to use the England striker.
Depending on fitness, it is probable that Ferguson sees Owen as the long-awaited heir to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s former role at the club.
The Norwegian striker made himself a cult figure at Old Trafford with his ability to join games late and make an impact almost immediately. Solskjaer is the top scorer from the substitutes bench in Premier League history, helping himself to an impressive 26 goals in the latter stages of important matches.
It should not be forgotten that Ferguson has long been admirer of Owen’s—and even tried to sign the England schoolboy before Liverpool eventually agreed a deal. That interest was piqued as much through Owen’s attitude and finishing as his raw pace—attributes he still possesses.
Sir Alex has seen first hand that, even without the pace that sparkled during their early career, players can still contribute at the highest level. If Ryan Giggs can do it, why can’t Michael Owen?
With Solskjaer still on the United staff as a youth coach, Ferguson will be hoping that with Owen’s inherent quality and a little direction from the former Norwegian striker, the England man too will be able to make regular game-changing contributions for United from the bench.
In recent times, Owen’s goals have come as a result not of his quickness of movement, but instead due to his quickness of thought—a quality that, far from diminishing with age, should actually improve.
In his fleeting performances with Newcastle this term, Owen demonstrated that he still possesses a lightning fast footballing brain. What he lacked, perhaps understandably, was match sharpness.
If the world-class United physios can keep Owen upright, then that match sharpness should return. And with the quickness of thought and opportunities he will be regularly presented with in the box, he could prove a vital weapon for United in what is currently a slightly barren attacking armoury.
But even if injuries continue to dog him, Ferguson might well see another role for a man with 89 international caps and 40 goals.
Reassured by Owen’s conduct during a trying time, Ferguson might well have given thought to the mentoring role Owen could bring to the club. While many believe Owen has been half the player he was since injuries decimated his turn of pace, a close analysis of his game indicates that his speed of thought and movement within the box has got even better with age.
With Ferguson having high hopes for both Danny Welbeck (“Danny’s a certainty to make it to the highest level,” he said last season. “I’ve told Fabio Capello he will be at the World Cup”) and Italian Federico Macheda, the Scot would be justified in thinking that even if the 29-year-old continues to suffer horrendously from injuries, the advice and technique he could pass on to the two young strikers might later prove invaluable to the club.
He can help them technically, but also mentally—on and off the pitch. Like Owen, both Welbeck and Macheda are set to become worldwide superstars at a very young age. Having experienced the pressures and influences such stardom brings, Owen will be able to advise the players on how to keep grounded and ensure that football remains their top priority.
That is something that will attract Sir Alex Ferguson.
A week ago, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Owen was upbeat about his career prospects.
“I will come back, I will play well and score goals and do all these things once more,” he said.
Perhaps such a statement was what Ferguson needed to hear, to convince him that a player he once highly coveted still has the desire to play at the highest echelons of the game.
Now he will get that chance.

It has not been a particularly happy few months for Michael Owen.

First he saw his then-employers, Newcastle United, suffer a heart-breaking relegation from the Premier League while he was forced to watch much of the run-in from the treatment table.

Then, as his contract expired, he had to sit back as newspapers and fans alike almost unanimously wrote him off — with one national paper even suggesting he should retire.

Commendably, Owen remained upbeat, and kept his dignity intact.

“When I scored a goal in the World Cup as an 18-year-old, people six months later were writing me off saying, ‘It’s a one-off’,” Owen said in a rare interview during his difficult period. “There will be something, there always is—this country is renowned for it. Someone will always criticise you, no matter what.”

On the back of his ill-fated 32-page brochure intended to create interest — which became another stick with which to beat him — Owen had to endure the relative ignominy of seeing only Hull City and Stoke City publicly declaring their interest in him. 

Even Sam Allardyce stated he would not look to sign Owen, even though realistically neither Blackburn nor the two clubs that did enter the “race” could have entertained realistic ambitions of luring the England international.

But with Manchester United’s surprise approach, it looks like all that strife will soon be forgotten.

Owen will get the last laugh.

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July 3, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , , | Leave a comment

The New and Returning Faces of Next Season’s Champions League

With unusual league winners across Europe, the new names in next season’s Champions League may be unfamiliar to many fans. Here’s a rundown of a few of the infrequent or new qualifiers already confirmed for the group stages of next season’s tournament…

Dzeko (c) and Grafite (r) will be crucial as Wolfsburg try and make a good impression on the Champions League...

Dzeko (c) and Grafite (r) will be crucial as Wolfsburg try and make a good impression on the Champions League...

With new rules in place for qualification this year, UEFA is hopeful that the 2009-10 Champions League will see a host of new teams compete in the tournament, from a greater variety of countries than seen in previous years.
Ironically, with many previously unheralded teams already having earned automatic qualification for the group stages of the competition by triumphing in their respective leagues, UEFA—and, more accurately, Michel Platini—already seem to have got their wish, before the revamped qualification stages have even begun.
Here is the lowdown on a few of the teams set to take their bow (or, at least, their first appearance in a while) on Europe’s grandest stage.
Wolfsburg (Germany)
Led by the goal-laden duo of Bosnian Edin Dzeko and Brazilian Grafite (54 goals between them—the most prolific partnership in Bundesliga history), Wolfsburg marched to a shock league title last season, beating out perennial challengers Bayern Munich on the last day of the season.
It was a surprise triumph for the Wolves (once managed, in a beautiful twist of fate, by Wolfgang Wolf) earning themselves a first appearance in Europe’s showpiece competition.
The club were steered to triumph by former Bayern coach Felix Magath, who subsequently left the club to join German underachievers Schalke 04 (he had agreed to join the Ruhr Valley side before the title was won).
Without Magath at the helm, the club’s expectations for the upcoming campaign should be tempered somewhat, with new manager Armin Veh given the unenviable task of replicating Magath’s success. Unsurprisingly, Veh has already moved to play down hopes.
“Nobody can seriously demand that we defend our title,” he said. “A title defence would be a Utopian and over-confident aim.”
Nevertheless, the club has so far resisted overtures from the likes of AC Milan for 23-year-old Dzeko—and tied Grafite to a new long-term contract—to give themselves the best squad possible for their first tilt at the Champions League. With the club membership having been boosted by 5,000 (from 9,000) in the wake of their triumph, the atmosphere has never been more buoyant.
With the new qualification rules surrounding the Champions League, Wolfsburg will be hoping their automatic entry into the Champions League, and the strength of squad at their disposal, will see them through to the knockout stages of the competition.
But, like a title defence, progressing further than that might be a Utopian aim.
Standard Liege (Belgium)
Unlucky to be drawn against Liverpool in the final round of Champions League qualifying last season (they eventually lost 1-0 on aggregate), a second consecutive Belgian league triumph and a change in qualification rules means Les Rouches will be in the group stages this time when the tournament kicks off in September.
Liege’s strength comes from their disciplined yet creative midfield, which boasts a bit of flair in the forms of Axel Witsel and Steven Defour—both rumoured to be targets of various Premier League sides—and Brazilian-born forward Igor de Camargo.
At the heart of the defence, American Onguchi Onyewu keeps things tight and makes it hard for the opposition. As their performance against Liverpool last year showed (indeed, they went on to beat Everton over two legs in the UEFA Cup just weeks later), Liege will prove a handful against any team they face.
A lot will depend on whether they can keep all their star players (striker Dieumerci Mbokani has already been heavily linked with German side Vfl Stuttgart, and their midfield stars are coveted by Europe’s big sides), but even if they keep their squad intact it would be a surprise to many if they made it any further than the group stages.
Rubin Kazan (Russia)
First time champions of the Russian league way back in November 2008, Kazan will make their long-awaited Champions League debut when the group stages kick off almost a year after they qualified.
Due to the idiosyncratic scheduling of the Russian league season (which runs from March to the end of November), Kazan will be reaching the climax of their domestic campaign when they make their debut against Europe’s best.
While that might prove an advantage in the early rounds, it did not help Zenit St. Petersburg escape the group stages last season, and fatigue might well hamper Kazan in the last few games of their group.
Unlike Zenit, who could call on the mercurial talent of Andrei Arshavin (now of Arsenal), Kazan seem to lack a real creative threat. Argentinian striker Alejandro Dominguez will be a player opponents legislate for, while Russian international Sergey Semak will attempt to control things from midfield. But overall, the squad is one low on established stars.
Kazan are once again challenging for the top honour in this season’s Russian League (two points off the top with a game in hand after 11 games) and in a competitive league that indicates a certain amount of pedigree.
But the Champions League is more than a step up.
Opponents will be wary of the threat Kazan pose, and certainly won’t fancy an away trip to middle Russia as winter deepens.
Nevertheless, only the most optimistic of fans will expect them to progress beyond the group stages.
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
The second Russian side already in the group stages—UEFA class their league as the equal of those in France and Germany—CSKA Moscow might well prove a more difficult proposition for European opponents than domestic champions Rubin Kazan.
CSKA have a squad of demonstrable quality. In Igor Akinfeev they have one of Europe’s premier goalkeepers, and they provided no less than seven players to Russia’s squad for the recent World Cup qualifier with Finland.
It is with their two influential Brazilians, however, that the majority of their threat will lie. Daniel Carvalho is an attacking midfielder with guile and poise, who possesses the ability to unlock defences at will. Back from a loan spell in his homeland with Internacional, he will hope to make a big impact for his side.
Up front in Wagner Love, CSKA have a truly mercurial striker—at times the 25-year-old is simply unplayable. Thanks in part to Love’s quality, CSKA knocked Aston Villa out of the UEFA Cup last season, and his presence will ensure the side go into the Champions League respected by every team they face.
If they can keep the majority of their star players—they have already lost wide-man Yury Zhirkov to Chelsea—then they could pose a threat to the more renowned members of their group, and may well find their way into the knockout phase.
Unirea Urziceni (Romania)
Former Romanian international defender Dan Petrescu led Unirea Urziceni to their first domestic title in June, following a 1-1 draw with traditional domestic powerhouses (and 1992 European Cup winners) Steaua Bucharest on the final day of the season.
It was Urziceni’s first ever league crown and came after just three seasons in the First Division. Quite an achievement for a club with a stadium capacity of just 7,000, and town population of around 14,000. Unsurprisingly, these statistics make Unirea the smallest club to have qualified so far for the Champions League group stages.
Indeed, their stadium is so small that UEFA have ruled that their European matches will have to be played at Steaua Stadium—Bucharest’s home ground, which holds nearly 30,000—because their own doesn’t meet requirements. Even home games might feel like away games for Urziceni.
Consequently, nothing will be expected of the side, with former Chelsea defender Petrescu no doubt expecting nothing more from his side than a good account of themselves.
Few will expect them to finish anything other than last in their group.
Having said that, Urziceni’s predecessor as Romanian champion, CFR Cluj, caused problems for the teams in their group, including holding Chelsea to a draw on home turf.
So while Petrescu and his side will have no expectations, such freedom might well make them dangerous, if only in front of their—admittedly, limited number of—home fans.
Besiktas (Turkey)
With their first title win in six years, Besiktas ensured their place in the group stages of the Champions League after a year’s absence. And the club is intent on using their return to Europe’s top table to attract many new signings to the club.
Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen has been linked with the club, as well as Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko. Italian defender Matteo Ferrari has already signed on, with Turkish international striker Nihat returning home from Spanish side Villarreal to join the Instanbul-based club.
“Intense negotiations are going on right now,” said manager Mustafa Denizli. “We have choices, and we’re trying to make the best of what we have. We are negotiating according to our means and will continue to do so.”
The squad is littered with homegrown players, so perhaps it is understandable Denizli is looking for foreign talent to increase the continental experience at his disposal. It seems this season, the club is not prepared to fall out of the competition at the group stages like they did last time out, in 2007-08 (they finished fourth, and lost 8-0 at home to Liverpool).
“The important thing is that our team exceeds itself in the Champions League,” Denizli said this week. “There are teams that spend more than 150, 200, 250 million euros for transfers. We cannot afford such figures, so we need to enhance the limits of our players to exceed their potential.”
Besiktas are certainly talking a good game at this early stage, but even if they do add many of their rumoured targets to the squad, you feel it will take a kind draw and some fortunate results for them to find their way out of the group stages.
Sevilla (Spain)
Another side with European pedigree, having won the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2007, Sevilla, like Besiktas, are back in the Champions League after a year’s absence, courtesy of finishing third in a hotly contested La Liga race.
Led by former player Manolo Jimenez, Sevilla are blessed with talented players across the pitch. They have two solid goalkeepers in Spanish international Andres Palop and Italian Morgan De Sanctis, along with the highly touted Federico Fazio in defence.
In attack is where their main strength lies, however. Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano showed his quality on the way to becoming top scorer at the recent Confederations Cup, and youth products Jesus Navas and Diego Capel provide a constant threat from the wings. Navas’s acute homesickness, however, might reduce the team’s threat if they are drawn against clubs that ply their trade many miles from the Iberian peninsula.
Sevilla might compete in the shadow of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but—depending on the draw—they will nevertheless be expected to progress beyond the group stages with relative ease. A quarterfinal appearance is a reasonable target for the Rojiblancos, as striker Frederic Kanoute recently stated:
“We have the desire in the Champions League to get as far as we can,” the Mali international said last week. “To get to the quarterfinals will be difficult but we will be trying to get there.”
AC Milan (Italy)
After an embarrassing season spent in the unfamiliar surroundings of the UEFA Cup (expected to challenge for the cup, Milan went out in the first knockout round to eventual finalists Werder Bremen) the 2007 Champions League winners are back on a stage they are more accustomed to.
However, they may find that the competition has got a lot stiffer in their absence.
Much will depend on how the Rossoneri cope with the loss of their talisman Kaka, who joined Real Madrid in the summer. Former world player of the year Ronaldinho might be given the chance to reclaim his form and reputation within the game, although the loss of manager Carlo Ancelotti (to Chelsea) might not have as positive an effect on the majority of the squad.
Ancelotti, while sometimes falling short in Serie A, often seemed to be tactically astute in Europe—leading his side to two finals in three years between 2005 and 2007. New manager Leonardo will not be given long to prove he has a similar ability.
The fans will expect their team to breeze through the group stages, and with the quality of players still at their disposal, they should easily achieve that. But you feel that their new Brazilian manager will have to add some fresh blood to the squad, get the tactics correct, and get his compatriots (Alexandre Pato, Ronaldinho, new signing in defence Thiago Silva) playing to their full potential if they are to progress much further than the quarterfinals of a competition they once used to dominate.
AZ (Holland)
What is with Champions League teams and a change of managers? Dutch side AZ won the Eredivisie for the first time in 25 years last season under the guidance of legendary manager Louis Van Gaal, who then promptly agreed to join German giants Bayern Munich.
Former Dutch international Ronald Koeman is the man charged with maintaining what Van Gaal got started, but with many bigger clubs circling around the team’s man stars (in particular, strikers Mounir El Hamdaoui and Moussa Dembele) most fans will be happy with a solid showing in Europe this season.
Koeman is certainly not prepared to raise expectations:
“It will be a nice season,” he said. “Playing in the UEFA Champions League is something to look forward to for everyone; players, coaches, staff, and fans.”
Back in the early 90s, Dutch teams were among the most feared in Europe. AZ might be the emerging power in domestic football, but even their fans will not be expecting their side to do more than finish third—and so continue their European adventure in the newly-formed Europa League—this year.
That would do nicely.
Glasgow Rangers (Scotland)
For a couple of seasons left in the shadow of cross-city rivals Celtic, the 2008 UEFA Cup finalists took their first SPL title in four years to book their place back in the Champions League.
With Walter Smith at the helm, ably assisted by former striker Ally McCoist, the team have a wealth of coaching experience on which to draw. But the Scottish league is not the strongest, and additions will have to made to the squad if they are to challenge in Europe.
Last season, Celtic struggled valiantly but failed to make it out of the group stages. Rangers may be the equal of their rivals on the paper, but the lack of recent experience in the competition will undoubtedly make their task very difficult.
Few fans of the Gers might admit it, but privately they will be satisfied if their team acquit themselves well against more prestigious opposition, and prolong their European adventure via the Europa League.
The other clubs already qualified for the group stages are: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bordeaux, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Porto, Bayern Munich, and Dynamo Kyiv.
The remaining ten teams will be decided at the conclusion of the qualifying stages.

With new rules in place for qualification this year, UEFA is hopeful that the 2009-10 Champions League will see a host of new teams compete in the tournament, from a greater variety of countries than seen in previous years.

Ironically, with many previously unheralded teams already having earned automatic qualification for the group stages of the competition by triumphing in their respective leagues, UEFA — and, more accurately, Michel Platini — already seem to have got their wish, before the revamped qualification stages have even begun.

Here is the lowdown on a few of the teams set to take their bow (or, at least, their first appearance in a while) on Europe’s grandest stage.


Wolfsburg (Germany)

Led by the goal-laden duo of Bosnian Edin Dzeko and Brazilian Grafite (54 goals between them — the most prolific partnership in Bundesliga history), Wolfsburg marched to a shock league title last season, beating out perennial challengers Bayern Munich on the last day of the season.

It was a surprise triumph for the Wolves (once managed, in a beautiful twist of fate, by Wolfgang Wolf) earning themselves a first appearance in Europe’s showpiece competition.

The club were steered to triumph by former Bayern coach Felix Magath, who subsequently left the club to join German underachievers Schalke 04 (he had agreed to join the Ruhr Valley side before the title was won).

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July 3, 2009 Posted by | Sport, World Football | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment