Javier Zanetti :IL CAPITANO

With Samson, the power lay in the hair. With Javier Zanetti, the strength was in the hairstyle.It’s usually advisable not to extend a metaphor beyond its reasonable limits, but not here. It is an unusual thing to say about anyone, but Zanetti’s hair defined him as a player: Simple, efficient, enduring and resilient. Rather than an affectation or fashion statement, Zanetti’s side parting was an extension of his personality. It became iconic in its own right.

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To the untrained eye, the tidy and sturdy figure emerging in possession looks almost top heavy. Momentarily awkward with the ball at his feet, he very briefly lends the illusion of losing balance.  In the pristine stripes of Italy’s Internazionale, he’s just dispossessed an attacker, controlled the ball, beat the same attacker, held off four strong challenges, and set-up another wave of attack.

The sight is blissfully familiar to millions of football fans. It is the artistry and prowess of Javier Zanetti.

Zanetti told OK Salute magazine in 2009 that

“If I had a lock of hair out of place then I would not feel ok, I am a precise person in everything I do. Feeling my hair in place gives me confidence. It’s a question of image but also of character.”

Most players forge a reputation through the brilliance of their football, but Il Capitano was different. Zanetti’s stature was not formed by the things he did, but how he did them and how long he did them for. By the time he retired from football, Zanetti had broken the record for the most appearances by an outfield player in football history, with 1123 matches played. Between 1995 and 2014, Zanetti played 858 matches for Internazionale. He is the club’s record appearance-maker, captaining the Nerazzurri for 15 years. The club retired his No. 4 shirt and named him as Vice President of the club after his final match. It was the least they could do.

Javier Zanetti : The Bricklayer

Rather than me writing who he was or what he was, this is what the man said about his family in his retirement speech :

“My Mom Violeta, did housework for people while my father, Rodolfo Ignacio, was a bricklayer. Both left the house at 6 AM in the morning, and I would see them during the night. During this period, I was in school, I worked with my father, at my cousin’s grocery store, delivered milk and played football at the same time. Back when we didn’t have the money to buy football shoes, my father sewed me one.”

 

 

Inter vs LivornoAdding on to that he said :

“At Independiente, I got discarded because I was too young. I was 13 years old and it was a disappointment that was hard to swallow. I was a fan of that team.”

“We had just won the Italian Cup against Palermo and we were on our way back to Milan to celebrate. Then I got a telephone message: ‘Son, congratulations. I am so happy for you… I really love you.’ The party ended late and so I thought I could return the call the next day. I never had that opportunity. She passed away in her sleep.”

As Javier Zanetti recounted tales of immense hardships with a soft spoken demeanor so often criticized on the football pitch, one almost instinctively knew that the Argentinean legend was exponentially tougher than what met the eye.

The Prestige

Javier Adelmar Zanetti was born on the 10th of August 1973, in Dock Sud, Buenos Aires amongst humble beginnings. Rejected by Independiente’s youth division at the delicate age of 13, Zanetti signed for second division Talleres de Remedios de Escalada. One season later, he signed with Banfield in the first division. It was here that Zanetti’s outstanding displays came to the fore, eventually leading to his call-up to the national team. Despite strong interest from Argentinian heavyweight clubs like Boca Juniors and River plate, Zanetti stayed on for another year. Undeterred and with a defining maturity, he knuckled down and completed his education. Upon leaving school, Zanetti took great pleasure in securing a job delivering milk with a cousin. Upon completion of a shift which started at 4am, he then took great pleasure assisting Rodolfo, his father, as an assistant bricklayer.

Zanetti’s captaincy coincided with one of the most successful periods in Inter’s history. The Argentinean led the club to 15 trophies: Five Scudetti (2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09 and 2009–10), four Coppa Italia (2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011), four Supercoppa Italia (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010), the UEFA Cup in 1998 and the 2010 Champions League. That 2010 triumph, when Diego Milito’s double gave Inter a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich, was Zanetti’s 700th match for Inter. He marked the occasion by becoming the first captain to win the treble with an Italian team.

The tendency is to marvel at Zanetti’s longevity, but that is only the effect. The cause is far more impressive. Such durability does not happen by accident; Zanetti was arguably the greatest professional of the modern game.‘Football training according to Zanetti’ is the imaginary textbook for every child to follow. Every decision was made with a view to extending and improving his career, every action a step closer towards the greater good. As Italian journalist Luigi Garlando wrote:

“Javier Zanetti is the figurine of a saint which every father would put in the hand of his son. Train like this, behave like this, play like this.”

There are an infinite number of anecdotes regarding Zanetti’s commitment, but by far the best comes via his wife Paula, who he married in 1999. Paula, Zanetti’s childhood sweetheart and wife of 17 years, shares a telling tale of their wedding day. She says 

“If I got angry every time Javier went training, Then I would have had a sour face on every day since I was 14 years old.”

Paula was referring to her husband changing into his tracksuit in between their wedding ceremony and reception in order to go for a run.

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Zanetti recalls telling his wife Paula in his autobiography

“There’s some time to spare, Amore, The church ceremony is over. We’ve exchanged rings. The guests are yet to arrive for the reception. I’m going to go for a jog. I’ve brought my running shoes because in 3 weeks time I have to face England for World cup qualifiers.”

Zanetti and Inter continuously reaped the rewards of his astounding professionalism, but never more so than in 2013 when he ruptured his Achilles tendon at the age of 39.

Zanetti during his recovery broke down as doctors said he cant play football anymore since he is 39 and would take sometime to recover but Zanetti had other ideas and he said to club that he doesn’t care if he has to lose his leg but he wants to play in front of Inter Milan fans one last time.  The president later recalled this conversation as Zanetti always said never to share this but president was coaxed to tell and he said

“I just want to play at least once more in front of the Inter fans, and I would hope it might be more than once,”

He returned to the pitch just six months later, three months before his 40th birthday. What Zanetti wanted, Zanetti made happen.

In his autobiography, the Argentinean remembers comments from international teammates Fernando Gago and Sergio Romero regarding the sacrifices he was making just to return to the game for a short time. His response pricks up the hairs on the back of your back.

‘I’d like to say to them: “Lads, it’s no sacrifice,” Zanetti wrote. ‘I love this hard work. I love this sport. I love this life. Every training session, in the cold and under the snow or sweating in the heat has given me joy, has made me smile. I am a lucky man.’ 

Merely focusing on Zanetti’s longevity would undermine his quality. There were no flashes of brilliance or mesmeric skills to his play, but consistency was the signifier of his greatness. Nicknamed El Tractor in reference to his stamina and strength, that moniker fails to represent Zanetti’s poise, range of passing, vision and anticipation.

Zanetti’s was an unassuming, total and technical expertise. His application as a full-back or defensive midfielder was sublimely simple. With purposeful longevity and breathtaking consistency, he made the ordinary beautiful and laced it with moments of sheer brilliance.

Serving testament to Zanetti’s longevity and rectitude, along with Rambert and countless team-mates, he has out-lived an incredible 17 managers during his 19-year Inter playing career. From Roy Hodgson to José Mourinho, Marcello Lippi to Héctor Cúper, Rafa Benítez to Roberto Mancini, and everyone in between, each manager made Zanetti a mainstay. Post-1999 and the retirement of legendary Inter defender Giuseppe Bergomi, they all made Zanetti their captain.

The list of qualities which made Zanetti an ideal leader are plentiful. Though for a defender and defensive midfielder who played all his football in Argentina and Italy, Zanetti’s discipline record is both exemplary and astonishing. Having been red-carded for the first time in February 1999, Zanetti would go a remarkable 12 years before receiving the second and final marching orders of his career.

The Man, The Myth and The Legend

For all the plaudits for Zanetti the footballer, they are insignificant in comparison to Zanetti the man. He is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, and has founded three separate charities to help children affected by poverty and problem with social integration. The first was started shortly after he arrived in Milan.

Zanetti along with his wife Paula have created Fundacion PUPI to help malnourished children by taking care of their food needs; providing educational opportunities and along with his team mate Esteban Cambiasso has started a charity called Leoni di Potrero, to assist young children with mental disabilities and social isolation problems.   Mark of a person who is giving back to the society from which he has gotten so much love and adulation.This is the player you would most want your daughter to date.

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Loyalty is a dying trait in football. Zanetti is not necessarily a reminder of a better age, but certainly a markedly different one. He was an antiquity, the antithesis of modern celebrity culture. Simply a man completing his craft to the highest limits of his potential ability.

The duplicitous world of modern football appears home to fewer and fewer bonafide gentlemen, fewer selfless professionals, and showcases many an example of a questionable role model. Javier Zanetti, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a gentleman, a selfless professional, and a peerless role model.

Inter legend Giacinto Facchetti once said

He is extraordinary at being ordinary

He was right, too. When Javier Zanetti retired, we lost the last gentleman of the game.

For anyone wondering what happened to that match where he went on a run? Well Argentina faced England at the knockout stage and a certain young David Beckham was creating havoc with his free-kicks and was the poster boy of the WC but when England faced Argentina he was subbed off in 51 mins because in 51 mins Beckham was allowed to touch the ball 7 times and if you are wondering why ? The answer is Javier Zanetti

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Passing the “MENSAH” Test

FourFourTwo recently published a list of the 10 best right backs in the world last week. Top 10 lists are always subjective, but nonetheless this one is a good indicator of the players who are currently excelling at right-back. Come the summer transfer window it wouldn’t be a surprise if José Mourinho looked to strengthen his options at full-back, but if he looks for a target from that list he’ll find that his options are limited.

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It leaves few options for José to chase next summer. Thomas Meunier could come in for consideration should PSG look to balance the books, while Djibril Sidibe from Monaco would presumably be available at the right price. Šime Vrsaljko impressed at Sassuolo and is establishing himself at Atlético Madrid, so he may be difficult to prise away from the Spanish club, while Ricardo Pereira would have to negotiate the step up in quality from the Primeira Liga to the Premier League.

It’s conceivable that Mourinho could dip into the transfer market for a rough diamond, but as a general rule of thumb he prefers a player who is as close to the final product as possible.

Yet, the United manager has scarce options at his disposal beyond Valencia. Matteo Darmian has disappointed at right-back, while Victor Lindelöf doesn’t look particularly comfortable in the role. Axel Tuanzebe has been largely ignored and Ashley Young is at best a stop gap, though a capable one.

There is, however, another player capable of slotting in at right-back when he returns from his loan in the summer: Timothy Fosu-Mensah.

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Fosu-Mensah’s time at Crystal Palace this season has been full of drama. Initially, the Dutchman was meant to develop his game under the watchful gaze of countryman Frank de Boer. The de Boer experiment was an unmitigated disaster at Palace and he was sacked after losing his first four Premier League games without his side scoring. In came former England manager Roy Hodgson and Fosu-Mensah initially had a tough time re-establishing himself in the team after missing the game against his parent club Manchester United in September.

Indeed, Fosu-Mensah’s lack of playing time meant that United considered recalling the Dutchman only for the defender to complete the full 90 against Manchester City, Southampton, Burnley and Arsenal as well as Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup.

Despite making just 13 starts in the league this season, Fosu-Mensah’s work off the pitch could still prove to be beneficial when he returns home. Hodgson is once again proving his ability to organise mediocre teams, with Palace recovering from that disastrous start.

The key takeaway is Hodgson’s insistence that players know what they have to do with and without the ball. Fosu-Mensah seems to be taking on board the requirement to develop a sense of tactical discipline, while allying it to his undoubted natural talent.

It is an experience that could prove invaluable when the young defender returns to Old Trafford in the summer. Coupled with Fosu-Mensah’s time at right-back, where he has featured most often, the youngster could well fit into Mourinho’s footballing outlook more seamlessly than in the past.

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After all, Fosu-Mensah has all the tools. There’s his natural pace, for one. In a team filled with zippy players Fosu-Mensah’s teammates at Palace have marveled at the defender’s pure speed. “Timi’s quick,” noted Ruben Loftus-Cheek when asked to name Palace’s fastest player. Meanwhile, former United player Wilfried Zaha added that “someone will be through one on one with the goalkeeper and he’ll come steaming in from nowhere and just tackle him. His pace is ridiculous!”

Fosu-Mensah’s ability to bounce back from adversity has also been overlooked. He has fought for a first team spot at Palace during a difficult time for the club. It demonstrates a battle-hardened mentality that should find favour with Mourinho next season.

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The key for Fosu-Mensah now is to earn a sustained run in the Palace first team during the second half of the season. He needs to gain some much needed match experience to go with the lessons being picked up on the training ground.

If Fosu-Mensah makes the most of his loan at Selhurst Park then he’ll return to Old Trafford a more Mourinho-style player than when he left. He’ll be a defender with a greater appreciation of positional play and one who can quickly respond to transitions in play, to supplement the attack or get back and defend.

Fosu-Mensah has youth on his side, potential to realise and an opportunity to establish himself as the natural heir to Valencia, if not take the right-back slot outright. The Dutchman has the tools to be a defender in the Mourinho mold, but the onus for the remainder of this season is for Mensah to pass his latest test.

Succeed and the rewards for both player and club could be immense.

 

Rio Ferdinand : Tribute to Rolls Royce of Manchester United

mu-manchester-united-red-4794“Excellence,” wrote Greek philosopher Aristotle, “is an art won by training.” Indeed, this is a doctrine held true by many in the game for whom hard work and a little talent has brought ample reward. Rio Ferdinand trained hard too; a professional to the last. Yet, he also boasted such a natural elegance on the pitch that it was often hard to hard to tell where the work finished and the talent began.

There have been times over the past decade when Rio Ferdinand seemed destined for anything but a lengthy stay at Old Trafford. It has been a journey from a £30 million transfer in July 2002, through a controversial ban and subsequent contract re-negotiation, to genuine – well almost – respect on the terraces. After all, while the Londoner’s way  has not always found favour among the faithful, he has absolutely been Manchester United’s finest defender for 10 years or more.

Time flies and Ferdinand’s run at United ended with a transfer to QPR. It has been a career not without controversy, conflict or, on occasion, the unfair hand of the Football Association. He has been the subject of partizan vitriol, media scepticism and, latterly, terrace racism. And the third estate, so keen to lap up Steven Gerrard’s long walk to Los Angeles, has let Ferdinand slip into retirement with little fanfare. Yet, he is also a player that should be remembered, at his zenith, as the best central defender on the planet. Made better for the partnership with Nemanja Vidic, United’s other outstanding centre-half. Critics be dammed.

Ferdinand joined Ferguson’s squad from Leeds United in 2002, with the Whites on the precipice of financial meltdown. The fee included a basic sum of £20 million, with add-ons and agent fees taking the cost to more than £30 million. The defender made his debut alongside Laurent Blanc in United’s 5-0 demolition of Zalaegerszeg in the Champions League Second Qualifying Round and earned a Premier League winners medal the following May. The first of many trophies at United.

Always classy with the ball at his feet, Ferdinand had gained a reputation for switching off during 158 matches at West Ham United and 73 more at Leeds. More than 450 games for United later and that penchant for errors was almost entirely eradicated from his game.

Ferdinand’s transfer to United was five years in the making. Ferguson first spotted 17-year-old Ferdinand playing for a Bournemouth team managed by friend Mel Machin in 1997. The defender spent 10 games on the south coast, with the Hammers subsequently rejecting two United bids for the player.

Ferdinand left Old Trafford in the summer of 2014 boasting six Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, six Community Shields and the FIFA Club World Cup. Potential fulfilled over an outstanding career.

The 2007-08 season saw Ferdinand and Vidić become the most frequent names on the United team sheet. Amassing 41 starts together across all competitions, their statistics were more miserly than ever. Ferdinand also had the opportunity to take the captain’s armband due to Gary Neville’s injury problems, which forced him to make just one substitute appearance all season.

Having retained the Premier League title in emphatic fashion, conceding just 22 goals and having a goal difference of +58 – the second highest in Premier League history, behind Chelsea’s +71 two years later – the pair also retained their spot on the PFA’s Team of the Season and had greater success on the grandest platform.

Ferdinand has not always enjoyed the good times at United. Little more than a year after his arrival the player failed to attend a routine drug test. Despite being familiar with the routines of drug testing, Ferdinand left United’s training ground at Carrington for a shopping session in town, missing his slot and only later attempting to correct the mistake. The FA Disciplinary Committee imposed an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine, with the player missing much of the 2003/4 season and Euro 2004.

It is an episode that still reflects poorly on the player, for failing to attend, the club, for not keeping closer tabs on a £30 million asset, and the FA’s drug-testers for dogmatically refusing to allow Ferdinand to take his test later that day. Indeed, the player took and passed a test the following day, with an offer for a hair follicle exam turned down by the FA. The triumph of process over common sense.

Years later Ferguson wrote that his “indignation endures to this day” after the testers failed to “do their job” and the FA handed down a “brutal punishment” to the defender. Not least because the FA committee failed to accept any mitigation, including the case of Manchester City’s Christian Negouai who was fined just £2,000 for missing a test the season previously.

The politicisation of the case did not help, with both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and World Anti-Doping Agency seeking a longer punishment despite the seemingly innocent nature of Ferdinand’s error.

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Meanwhile, on the international stage, Rio’s love for England was never quite as firmly reciprocated, despite the player’s 81 caps. In all he missed four tournaments: Euro 2000, Euro 2004, Euro 2008 – when England failed to qualify – and Euro 2012. The FA’s handling of the 2004 ban and, later, Fabio Capello’s controversial decision to sack Ferdinand as captain in favour of the racist John Terry still rankles with the player and supporters.

Great partnerships, whether in attack or defence, are hard to come by in football. It’s either one of the two failing to adapt to conditions around them – through either a lack of talent or a lack of adaptability – or a failed experiment by the man at the helm. But some work out perfectly and shape the long-term future and success of a side. One such duo, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, came to be in England with Manchester United and were the backbone of their success for eight years.

They were the silk and steel of the side, with Ferdinand the former and Vidić the latter. Ferdinand was a calm figure, a smart ball-playing central defender who had the elegance to make him one of the best of his generation, while Vidić was the enforcer, the man who would take no nonsense and whose aggression, timing, tackling and aerial skills were in a league of their own. The two complemented each other and together they were the perfect pairing when fit.

Vidić announced his departure to Inter Milan in February 2014 while Ferdinand completed the 2013-14 campaign before being let go by new boss Louis van Gaal to join his former manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. They played their final game together under interim coach Ryan Giggs away at Southampton and received rapturous applause from the United faithful who made the trip to the south coast that afternoon.

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After a combined 20 seasons, 755 appearances and 10 major honours, Manchester United said goodbye to a partnership that can be ranked alongside the very best in the game’s history. Classy and powerful at the peak of their powers between 2006 and 2009, they join an illustrious club that contains great duos like AC Milan’s Baresi and Maldini of the 1990s, the Picchi-Burgnich of the Grande Inter era in the 1960s, Piqué and Puyol at Barcelona and a select few others.

 

Nemanja “Monster” Matic : Already looks like steal of the summer

‘Whoever made the decision at Chelsea to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United needs sacking,’ -Phil Neville.

Matic made a £40m move north during the transfer window, and has settled in quickly at United to bring a much more balanced approach to their midfield when sat alongside Paul Pogba, who is able to venture forward much more as his Serbian teammate protects the back four.

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Excitement was never the point. In Matić, Mourinho bought control, sensible but active passing, and sound defensive instincts that serve to bolster both United’s back four and the team’s attack. Matic was not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing. Compared to summer alternatives, such as Monaco’s Fabinho, few Reds were actively excited about Matić’s imminent arrival.

After all, there was always the sense that Mourinho needed to feel secure at the back to “let the horses run freely” up front. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have been the major beneficiaries, with the Frenchman liberated to play from box-to-box and the Armenian enjoying his new role as the team’s dynamic number 10.

 

Mourinho on the pitch

“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores.”

Jose Mourinho would go on to describe Costinha as “a vital player”, one who “would convey my ideas on the pitch” as he stood on the touchline. “Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’.”

They say you never forget your first. The Portuguese was speaking in late 2004 at the beginning of his rise to prominence, but success has not changed him; his love for a defensive midfielder remains as strong as ever.

At Porto it was Costinha. At Chelsea it was Claude Makelele, his “tactical leader”. At Inter Milan it was Esteban Cambiasso, “one of the fastest players I have ever coached”, but only “where speed is needed most”. At Real Madrid it was Xabi Alonso, “a coach when he is on the field”. Each were “strong”, each were “stable”, and each were the pivot around which Mourinho built his most dominant sides.

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The Portuguese has afforded space in his little black book for a select few players; only once has he sought to relight the flame of a previously prosperous relationship. Nemanja Matic was the calming influence as Chelsea returned the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge in 2015. Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were a holy trinity of attacking craft, guile and brutality, but Matic was the insurance. No teammate made more than his 3.6 tackles, 2.2 dribbles or two interceptions per game that season.

So it has proved. No United player has made more tackles (14) or interceptions (13), and Matic has attempted at least 97 more passes than any other player.

Matić must also take on greater responsibility now that Pogba is on the sidelines for the next few weeks. While few expect the Serbian to start breaking ahead of play, take on long-range shots, or demonstrate Pogba’s range of attacking skills, Matić may have to offer more than sound defence if Mourinho’s team is to retain its momentum over the next month or so. Herrera is now effectively first-reserve for Matić, and an option should Mourinho choose to deploy a 4-3-3 system as he did at Stoke. The former Athletic Bilbao player will feature in plenty of games this season, and he has been in this situation before. After all, Herrera began last season on the bench before his performances became increasingly pivotal as the season wore on, although there must be some alarm that Pogba’s absence has still not created a route back into the team.

For now the role is with Matić and the 29-year-old has unquestionably improved United’s midfield. True, the player’s age means that Matić will not replicate the decade Carrick has spent at Old Trafford. Not least because the club offered just a three-year contract. It is a quick fix; a short-term measure to solve a problem position.

Nemanja Matic : The CDM, rest all mere details

To characterise the 29-year-old as only a physical or athletic presence is unfair, but understandable. Matic is 6ft 4ins and deceptively quick but, as Mourinho once said of one of his favourite students, faster than the rest “where speed is needed most”. The Portuguese did not build sides around Cambiasso, Makelele, Costinha and Alonso because of their ability to out-muscle an opponent or win gold in a 100m race; they were signed for their speed of mind, to help unleash the talents of Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Deco and Derlei, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil.

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The holding midfielder cupboards were bare when Mourinho first arrived. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were deemed unsavoury, while none of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba were ever a long-term solution. Last season, Herrera made the most tackles (39), Daley Blind the most interceptions (26) and Pogba the most passes (1,043) in the Premier League as Mourinho managed to cobble together random ingredients to create an adequate dish. Matic has made an edible midfield meal delectable.

In Mourinho’s land of giants, Matic is more brain than brawn. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are producing and performing at one end, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Eric Bailly the other. In the middle are Matic and Pogba, with the latter relishing more freedom before his untimely injury.

Matic is Mourinho’s comfort blanket, his safety net, the one player who, by his own admission, keeps things “simple”. His comment earlier in the week that “I will be better” felt like a warning to the rest of the Premier League. If the new ‘assistant coach’ can improve on an already impressive start, Mourinho’s second season prophecy will be realised once more.

 

Is he the difference this season?

Answer : YES

Phil Jones : The Tragicom king

“Exclusive! Water is wet! Grass is green! The world is round!” 

Statements of a similar ilk greeted the news that Phil Jones has suffered yet another injury and now making a comeback. This time around the Manchester United defender is out with a Toe injury that will see the Lancastrian making a comeback this saturday.

If 2014/15 was a frustrating season for Jones, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Illness in August, September and October, muscle injury in November and December, ankle injury in January, February, March and April. Forty-six minutes in all competitions so far in 2016. This has been a year of changes for Manchester United.  Jose Mourinho admitted that even he did not expect Romelu Lukaku’s prolific introduction to life at Old Trafford; Anthony Martial looks a different player to the one seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders last term; Ander Herrera has gone from potential captain to fourth-choice central midfielder. But perhaps the most unexpected sub-plot in United’s story so far has been the outstanding contribution of Phil Jones.

No one has played a greater role in United’s rock-solid start to the campaign. Mourinho’s machine has kept five clean sheets in six games, and though both Jones and his partner, Eric Bailly, had an off day during the 2-2 draw at Stoke, Jones in particular made amends with a man-of-the-match performance during the 1-0 win at Southampton.

Mourinho in August said

“If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender,”

The United boss certainly knows what he likes in a centre-back. His greatest successes have been built around solid foundations provided by the likes of  John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, Gary Cahill – all outstanding centre-halves in the traditional sense. The fact they can use the ball is a bonus to Mourinho. Winning it will always remain the priority.

Jones offers the kind of balance Mourinho appreciates. The England international is the most rounded centre-half at his disposal and the statistics back up the eyewitness testimonies that Jones has been one of United’s shining lights.

Mourinho hinted, there is always a caveat with Jones. Fitness, not form, has always been his greatest weakness. Under four different managers, Jones has been injured and unavailable for 25 per cent of his six-plus years at Old Trafford, causing him to miss 101 matches in the process. In terms of Premier League appearances, Juan Mata, who joined United two and a half years after Jones, trails the defender by only 11 games. David de Gea, who arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Jones, has 78 more league matches to his name – more than two full seasons’ worth.

In recent years Jones’ name has been synonymous with the treatment room, a Darren Anderton for modern times. According to transfermarkt.com, the former Blackburn Rovers player has suffered 14 different injuries since he moved to United in 2011. To break it down he’s been out with knee problems, sprained ankles, shoulder injuries, shin splints, malleolar issues, concussion, back troubles and thrombosis for good measure.

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The statistics are quite sobering. The defender has effectively missed over two league campaigns worth of matches and spent well over a year on the sidelines. Unfortunately for Jones he remains a figure who’s all too easy to mock, from the faces he pulls, to the sheer ungainliness of his defending, such as his party piece against Olivier Giroud

Mourinho, though, said in his first press conference as United boss that he “likes specialists, not multi-functional players”. In Jones’ case, the manager has been true to his word. All of his appearances have come at the heart of Mourinho’s defence, aside from one occasion when he was asked to come off the bench at Rostov to do a job in midfield for the closing stages.

Last season, after Jones admitted that Louis van Gaal didn’t seem to trust him, he benefited from consistency of selection to form a formidable partnership alongside Marcos Rojo, playing 10 Premier League games out of 11 through the latter part of 2016 before injury inevitably struck.

Gareth Southgate has been equally impressed. As he said

“He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending – which I like – and I think he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young.”

Many forget that Jones is still just 25 years old, which is testament to the fact he has been around the Premier League for seven-and-a-half years and the England team for six. In that time, he has become more known to many for pulling funny faces and THAT header on the floor, which itself demonstrated the type of desire to defend that many modern centre-halves appear to lack. But with his blend of experience and potential, Jones has to be taken seriously as first choice for club and country. The only worry is whether his body will allow him.

Is Phil Jones stealing a living, or is he a luckless soul who needs fortune to favour him for once? There are many debates to be had about Jones’ value to United, or lack thereof, but one thing is plainly clear, his injury problems is clearly no laughing matter any more.

Maybe this Red Devil deserves more sympathy than he’s used to receiving.

 

 

The season of redemption begins for Jose

Addressing members of the press after Manchester United’s impressive 4-0 win against West Ham United, José Mourinho chose to be more Daedalus than Icarus when responding to questions about his side’s thumping win. If anyone knows about flying too close to the sun it is Mourinho after experiencing a rough departure at Real Madrid and, more painfully, a ruthless sacking during his second tenure at Chelsea.

“For me, years and years of experience and experience in the Premier League, my feet are on the ground and I am calm, Last season we were also top of the league in the first match and we finished sixth so this means nothing. It just means we played well and confidence levels will be high and now our challenge is to keep this confidence level.”

All the talk centers on José and his second season record; from Porto onwards the 54-year old has won the domestic title in his sophomore campaign. It’s a remarkable statistic.  That said, it feels a bit different this time around as Mourinho still needs to attend a somewhat dented reputation.

The scars from his second stint at Chelsea still linger. After all, It was his first real spectacular failure. While Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid may have come to a difficult end, he was allowed to see the season out before departing the Bernabéu.

Mourinho ahead of United’s Premier League opener said

“I want to play West Ham a difficult match, then go to Swansea for another difficult match.  I want the Champions League to start. I want, I want, I’m on fire. But I will behave on the touchline, even if the goals are offside,”

The water bottles were the main beneficiaries of Mourinho’s Zen as he gently repositioned them on the sideline, but that competitive fire won’t be far from the surface and for good reason too.  If the stars align this season could be the one that helps rehabilitate his reputation.

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“Rehabilitation” may seem like an odd description to use given Mourinho’s trophy-laden CV – and that his first season at Old Trafford saw him bring back two pieces of major silverware – but every achievement does seem to come with a caveat.  For example, winning the League Cup and Europa League was all well and good, but celebrations were kept to the bare minimum.

Indeed, prior to the Europa League final United refused to contemplate holding an open-top bus parade in the event of victory. Completing the European collection was nice, but the club is in the business of competing for the top domestic and continental prizes not those of a lesser stature.  That’s not to mention United’s sixth place finish in the Premier League last season, playing some frustrating football in the process.

There were also whispers about whether Mourinho is passing his sell-by-date, that somehow his methods, though not quite outdated, were being slowly confined to the past, while more progressive coaches emerged.  This kind of talk doesn’t sit well with Mourinho, who is far more comfortable setting the agenda for himself. If he has his way at Old Trafford he’ll enjoy a 15-year tenure at the club.

Sunday’s match against West Ham was the first of what he hopes are many ripostes. United swept aside the Hammers with ease.  Last season Mourinho may have chosen to protect his side’s one-goal lead, but this time around the intent was there to kill the game off and not to hold what he had.  It was a display of speed, verve and skill of which the Old Trafford crowd has craved.

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It would not have escaped Jose’s attention that Arsenal displayed familiar frailties despite beating Leicester City on Friday. Nor that Liverpool once again looks vulnerable at the back, not to mention experiencing frustrations in the market, and perhaps most pertinently that Chelsea looks threadbare after a curious summer window.

The Champions opening day defeat to Burnley at Stamford Bridge was a shock, but arguably one of the club’s doing. If Antonio Conte feels constrained by the sporting structure at Chelsea, he probably won’t receive any sympathy from his Portuguese counterpart.

If one were to extrapolate the results of the opening weekend, a dangerous exercise at the best of times, then the main challenges to Mourinho will come from Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

This isn’t just a season for the United boss to reunite the Premier League title with the Old Trafford trophy cabinet though. It’s an opportunity to re-write the narrative.  Mourinho can still prove his way is effective, while instilling a sense of adventure that United’s traditions demand. There’s the chance to show that at the very least he’s the equal of Pep Guardiola, from a purely coaching sense, Mauricio Pochettino. If, and it is a big IF, Chelsea disappoints, leading to the departure of Antonio Conte, the United boss can point to the sporting structure at Stamford Bridge and claim that there’s a systemic problem at his old club.

In a sense this season is tailor-made for Mourinho as it provides a platform to prove his doubters wrong.  It’s a scenario he’ll relish and if there’s a trait the Portuguese shares with Sir Alex Ferguson it’s the desire to stick two fingers up at his detractors.

United’s aim this season is to challenge for the league. The result against West Ham was a statement of intent and should José maintain his second season record then the title will be back at Old Trafford for the first time since the Sir Alex’ halcyon days.

If the stars do align for the United boss then come the middle of May he’ll be lifting the Premier League trophy in front of Old Trafford, winning it for the club he always wanted to manage while restoring his reputation in no uncertain terms.

He could well view the title as his most satisfying in his coaching career. This could be José’s season of redemption.

 

Roy Keane : The man behind those red misty eyes

The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

Roaring tyrant or inspiring leader? Aggressive hothead or driven talisman? Dramatic is not a word that Keane would enjoy using to describe himself, but it would fit the path of his career. For many, the images of Roy Maurice Keane that endure are of the sinew-busting approaches to referees or him towering menacingly over fallen opponents. They fit the character that has been built up over time so easily – he’s an angry man, right? The pantomime villain that others hate but his followers love, if only because they are not facing him.

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Everyone and their grandma knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.

Therein lies the paradox of his success. A born winner, ruthlessly determined and free from the distractions of celebrity and an almost religiously private family man, but needing the grandest stage of all to feed his thriving potential. His infamous comment about the corporate atmosphere of fans eating prawn sandwiches showed a disdain for the glitz and glamour of the theatre in which he found himself, but without the very essence he was against he could never have achieved everything he had in the game.

Titanic battles between the Irishman and his arch-enemy Patrick Vieira – and by proxy between Manchester United and Arsenal – characterised the late 1990s. In a face to face encounter broadcast by ITV three years ago, Keane stared deep into the Senegal-born giant’s eyes as the reminisced over their era on the pitch.

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“It was almost my job to keep you down there,” Keane said to Vieira.

“It was an important role for me that I didn’t feel you were going to get the edge on me. I needed to dominate even the players at Man Utd; I think if I’d let you beat me in these rivalries in the middle of the park it don’t would have cost me long term.”

Their last ever league clash in 2005 epitomised the depths to which the battle was as much a mental struggle as a physical or tactical one. On his way back from the dressing room to collect his forgotten captain’s armband, Keane overheard Vieira threaten Gary Neville with a direct confrontation if he went near Robert Pires, and his switch flipped.

“We’ll see you out there,”

Psychology has always been central to his style, but whereas others in the game would use modern theories to direct and inspire them, Keane’s version was much simpler: never, ever, accept anything other than your best.

While playing for Nottingham Forest, a sloppy back pass from Keane led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in a 1991 FA Cup tie, which infuriated Brian Clough so much he punched the young midfielder in the face. Nearly two decades later, Keane reflected on his former manager’s attack:

 “Cloughie was dead right, absolutely. It was the best thing he ever did for me. It’s good to get angry. It’s an emotion and it’s part of the game. If people upset you and you don’t get angry, I’d say you’re in the wrong game.”

If emotion is part of football – and few could argue with that statement – one would assume that elation and pride would rank pretty highly on Keane’s mind when reflecting on his career as a player, given the sheer volume of trophies and adulation he earned. That would be too simplistic a view, though; there were much darker sides to the mental aspect of the game that Keane battled with.

 “A lot of my preparation would be fear; fear of losing, a fear of letting people down, a fear of letting my neighborhood down, a fear of letting my family down. Fear played a big part of my sporting career. The enjoyment was very, very brief I’m afraid. Too brief.”

The attitude towards overcoming negative emotions, as opposed to exalting in the positive ones, was infinitely more central to his way of thinking, however. When he was brought in as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, he was told that the squad had a policy of not dwelling on bad results for more than a day.

“Obviously Villa were used to it but I wasn’t,” he was reported as saying. “At United we had a culture where, if you were beaten on a Saturday – people talk about bouncing back and moving on quickly – but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, the lads would be fuming, and I loved that.”

In one of his most iconic matches in the red of Manchester, Keane faced what could have been one of the most crushing moments of a player’s career, but showed his character in turning it into his most memorable and inspiring moments through sheer brute force of will. The sublime Juventus side of Edgar DavidsZinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero had raced into a 3-1 aggregate lead in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final when Keane rose to head hhi-res-e2a1afb8f2156f8ea47b7d81003d34a8_crop_exactis side back into contention. Eight minutes later, however, he was booked for a late stretch to tackle Zidane, which would prevent him from playing in the final if his side got there.

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When he wasn’t captain of Manchester United stretching every sinew to the cause, when he was just another man walking his dog through the leafy suburbs, he was anything but the growling pit bull that many choose to remember him as. That petrified young boy standing nervously on his doorstep believed every powerfully terrifying image of the man, but what few people know about, or care to recall, is the softly spoken man who would stop for a cup of tea with the octogenarian dog walkers who shared his peaceful strolls across the hidden parks of Cheshire.

One such route would take him past a low house surrounded by trees with a large garden overlooking the fifth tee at Hale Golf Club, a few hundred metres from his old front door where the media camped out to catch a shot of him with his beloved Triggs after Saipan.

A red mist of rage? Not a bit of it. In the world of Roy Keane, everything was measured – but by his standards and not anybody else’s.

But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.

Fergie said after:

“I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

PS: tft and image credits :gettyandunitedwebsite