The season to come . . .

Written this week for The Pundits

4Manchester United 2013 3

As a United fan, I find myself in a very unfamiliar position at the start of this season. For as long as I’ve watched United, about 20 odd years, I have always felt safe in the knowledge that any preseason trading, games or tours only needed my bar room debate. I had no need for concern because Fergie had it all in hand. He was merely tweaking, testing and perfecting a formula he had been evolving over decades. But all of a sudden everything seems a little uncertain.

I’m not going to debate the merits of David Moyes(DM) as a selection because I believe he is probably the best choice for United. He could, given some luck, some support and some time, build a legacy that could follow Fergie, and I don’t dare say any one could eclipse him, but even just being comparable would be enough for most managers’ careers.

Manchester United 2013 5

So let’s get into it then. At the time of writing, United have played a number of preseason games without hitting anything that resembles premier league form. Combinations seem to be slow in coming back, or being made anew. Except for maybe Kagawa and Zaha, fresh from Crystal Palace, who may yet become one of United’s greats, as well as Lingard who really showed off by top scoring on tour, there has been little to show that there is improvement in this squad. Then again they did walk the league last season so massive improvement may not be needed or in fact, possible, without serious spending.

Manchester United 2013 2

Manchester United 2013 3

So far, United have done nothing exciting to date in the transfer market except make a massive deal out of Wayne Rooney’s tantrums and currently trying to pry Cesc Fabregas away from Barcelona’s bench! If this falls through, United may push hard for Lewandowski from Dortmund but he has made it clear he wants to go play with Pep and the new wunderkinds at Bayern. This leaves United potentially with nothing except the child prodigy from Palace to show for a summer worth of transfers. The potential of getting a quick cheap replacement for Patrice Evra in the form of Everton’s Leighton Baines seems unlikely and unreasonably expensive, and the prospect of Mario Fellaini heading to Old Trafford, hair and all, seems even further away than when the manager first joined.

Manchester United 2013 6

How does the team line up? Well, De Gea has all but cemented himself in goal, even with the fans. The back four – Rafael,who despite one or two hiccups has recently come of age really well; the aging Patrice Evra; at fullback, the aged Rio; and lastly NemanjaVidic – it could be a strong and attacking back four for United. But given the length of the campaign relying on them to all stay fit, it seems a bit of a pipe dream and with Johnny Evans, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones as cover,it doesn’t fill me with massive confidence, except for maybe the latter. Then there’s young Buttner who could potentially turn into something useful in the event of a wing back injury forcing him into the first side more often. I, unfortunately, have a feeling we will battle to keep our first choice, and some of the second healthy, and the switching combined with lack of real depth, will cause us major problems in defense leading to a very small count of clean sheets.

7Manchester United 2013 6

In midfield, Anderson has failed to prove himself for too long now, sadly, because he really had potential or the possibility of it. Tom Cleverly is developing into a fine young player and I believe he has a magical career ahead barring injury, he and Michael Carrick will again be pivotal in the stabilization of the United midfield this season. Antonio Valencia is due another great season and with his ability he will be difficult to stop, while Nani, unlike Christiano Ronaldo, never developed the ability to finish or deliver the final ball. He, like Anderson, must either find a new club or be used exclusively as a silent mannequin on the website. Ashley Young, who showed so much promise when he arrived at United, has battled with injury and accidentally tripping on the field but I still believe he may yet add some serious lift to the United flank this season. Kagawa has slotted sensationally into midfield but the formation of playing him together with Carrick and Cleverly has yet to be perfected, if it is this season it may be magical to watch. Giggsy will be there for stability, calm and confidence in the biggest of games and just when we need it, a touch of magic he no doubt will deliver as he has done for almost 20 years. His new role as player manager, I think, is a genius move from DM keeping all of the experience; culture and presence that you never want to lose in legendary players.

Lastly, I have to mention that not being able to watch Paul Scholes hammer a perfect cross-field-torpedo pass half the length of the field directly into the striker’s full-paced path leaves me almost teary. Hopefully he will join the rest of his peers as part of the ‘United old boys coaching society’ soon. The sobering fact is that without Michael Carrick anchoring midfield we are completely rudderless let alone nearing classy, and unless we sign a really strong midfielder who can deliver defense cutting passes and a bit of stability, we will have the same uphill battle as the last few seasons.

4Manchester United 2013 4

Manchester United 2013 8

Up-front remains to be decided. I mean after RVP that is. So much again will rest on the Dutchman’s aging shoulders and if he keeps fit, he may just have the season of a lifetime! Danny Welbeck started to show just a slither of what he may turn into at the start of last season but since then I still class him as a non-finisher. And The Little Pea, Javier Hernandez, also doesn’t seem to be reaching the same levels he did coming off the bench or starting a few seasons ago. Then there’s Wayne Rooney who I believe, if he is happy and settled is one of the hardest working footballers with the heart of a United player, but sadly those days seem to be gone. His body, not in peak shape last season and his ego, beaten by RVPs glorious arrival, he looks likely never to wear a United shirt again. If there’s maybe just a slither of a silver lining, young Jesse Lingard, has shown on tour he could be a talent, although without some serious injury I doubt he will get much game time – perhaps a loan spell?

Manchester United 2013 1

Manchester United 2013 10

Then there is of course the introduction of an entire new coaching squad. David Moyes has of course brought a whole host of back room technicians that he trusts to master their trade at United and while they all work well together, the defining thing will be how fast they can gel with the players. I am happy to see Phil Neville rejoin the club in some capacity and again the aforementioned Giggs will continue to do officially probably what he has been doing ‘unofficially’ for a few years. All of these changes, I really believe are positive and in the coming years will create a new era of United players BUT I just cannot imagine it’s possible to reshuffle the entire club and expect to pick up where we left off 11 points ahead of everyone last season.

If we look around at the rest of the preseason contenders, Chelsea look like they could win anything at this point. They are firing, they have taken to their new / old manager like a pair of worn in boxers and they have settled Super Frank back in for another season…plus they may just pinch Wayne Rooney to spearhead their attack. But as we all know from previous seasons,Chelsea coming out firing may well be a good thing because it often causes them to peak far too early. Arsenal look like their usual self and may just be doing some big business this off season but so far nothing of great substance, on the field or off. I fear there shall be another season of ‘what could have been possible’.  Spurs are in the middle of a Modric-like saga AGAIN with Real Madrid and could be selling Gareth Bale for cash, players, hookers, cars and whatever else Levy dreams up – but his influence, not only in goals, but in morale for Spurs may be too big a loss for them to compete at the top properly this season. Then there’s City. They have a new coach in the form of Manual Pellegrini and have done good, big business early to strengthen what was already a great squad. They got rid of the Tevez’s bad influence and they have a point to prove (as well as probably the coolest away kit of the year) and I fear if they keep a fit squad, Vincent Kompany who is majorly pivotal in it, they may well be the favourites for title revenge.

4Manchester City 2013 3

Gold-Chelsea-Kit-2013

Finally I think we will see very quickly what United are made of having to play Chelsea (H), Liverpool (A) and City (A) within the first six weeks of Moyes’ new tenure. All this, in-between a few champions league games. Not exactly what DM wanted to see to ease him into one of the toughest jobs in the footballing world.

Predictions, I would love to say United will repeat but I think there are just too many variable changes that will keep them off the top. I think Mourinho and Chelsea will be all kinds of class this year followed by Pellegrini’s City, who will then get the boot for not winning the Champions league, the FA Cup, the world cup, Wimbledon and any other trophy Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan knows the name of. United will come in third and reasonably close but then I think there will be a bit of a gap to, hopefully, Spurs then Arsenal.

Whatever happens it will be a phenomenal season of heart stopping moments, emotional outbursts, screaming, swearing, ref hating and player snubbing – I CAN.NOT.WAIT!

Manchester United 2013 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cruising the ancient Yangzi . . .

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while now, well that’s actually a lie if I’m honest. I’ve been thinking about writing it for so long but I’m not sure exactly what to write about this trip.

I guess there are a few disclaimers.

First I haven’t been on a cruise since I was thirteen and my family was part of a global organization that basically organized an entire ocean liner through the Baltics, so not exactly a fair point of reference.

Second, cruises are for old people and the more luxury you go the older they get – this one was like a scene from Cocoon!

Three, I had no idea what to expect cruising down the Yangzi river for a few days other than rural ancient magic.

So all I can really say outside of the pictures is that somehow when you are sailing down an ancient river through some of the most breath taking scenery in the world you gain a sense of perspective, a sense of calm and a renewed energy that I don’t think any pool villa suite can bring, not that I’m going to give that up but I think the combination of experiences is important.

This trip was sensational and the Zen like sense of power I felt when I stepped off the boat seems so far away now I can barely recall it. Even when I look at the pictures now  I get a small feeling of what I remembered it to be like but alas, work, stress and 40 deg heat daily have squished the Zen master right back out of me!

Enjoy the sights of the Yangzi river . . .

IMG_0405

Cities in the middle of no where rising out of the banks of the river – the only thing i can think of that i can compare it to is QARTH from Game of Thrones!

IMG_0447

IMG_0453

IMG_0461

Some of the maybe 100 massive bridges I saw during the trip – all built quickly and designed superbly to increase efficiency (sounds like China’s motto) DSC00912

DSC00928

DSC00932

DSC00975

DSC00977

DSC00985

DSC00993

DSC01007

DSC01019

DSC01024

An ancient fishing village probably thousands of years old, living off the land, incredibly beautiful!

DSC01051

The Three Gorges Dam, the largest power station in the world. Responsible for the government forcibly moving 1 500 000 people to other parts of the country during its construction. Words cannot express the size and power of this thing!

DSC01057

 

DSC01073

Just going through the locks of this amazing man made thing was an incredible experience. The efficiency of rising 100s of meters in mere minutes just sensational engineering (again could be China’s motto) !

DSC01149

DSC01151

DSC01177

DSC01189

 

Just some of the ancient sights, blue skies (in the autumn all the water is apparently aqua – I can only imagine) green hills towering over each side of the boat – just sensational!

DSC01220

DSC01221

DSC01230

DSC01253

Off the big boat into small row boats, the gorges get far too narrow for even a medium sized boat – only these tiny row boats with poor modern day ‘slaves’ paddling along with stupid Laowai tourists screaming Jaiyou at them to encourage the racing!

DSC01268

DSC01319

DSC01383

DSC01388

DSC01408

DSC01413

DSC01418

DSC01487

DSC01515

DSC01516

DSC01521

Some of the most amazing sunsets of my life on this boat –  perfect calm, serene, oranges and reds reflected in the water. Pictures cannot capture what your eyes experience here!

DSC01530

DSC01567

DSC01585_1

It wouldn’t be China if you didn’t see some very random stuff on the river, a giant head on the side of a mountain (above) and a transport ship of all men standing half naked outside (below)

DSC01633

Finally I do have to say that if you are going to cruise, like an old person, then do it in style and these dudes certainly do it well on the Yangzi explorer. The boat is relatively small compared to the other monster ‘pack-em-in types, the suites are stunningly beautiful. The food is exceptional and the service is phenomenal. Just go have a look at this boat!

Certain things you do stick with you for a long time and what I saw on this trip, as with so many trips in China, will stay imprinted both visually and emotionally for a long time!