Ferguson keeping United focused

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech concedes that the club’s season is
likely to be shaped by events over the next nine days.

The Blues have found the going tough at times in 2012/13, with
an early exit from the UEFA Champions League and a mid-season
change in the dugout doing little for stability and
consistency.

Chelsea are, however, still looking to secure a top-four finish
in the Premier League, defend their FA Cup crown and land another
continental title in the form of the Europa League.

Four games in the space of a hectic week will go a long way to
deciding how they fare in each of those competitions, and Cech
admits the capital outfit have reached a critical stage of their
campaign.

He told The Times: “We need a great week, starting with
Southampton (on Saturday).

“If we have a great week, everyone will have a different view of
our season, the manager and the current situation.

“We play Southampton away and can move away from the teams who
are competing with us for a top-four finish. On Monday we can reach
the semi-finals of the FA Cup, which would be a great win.

“On Thursday there’s the home game against Rubin Kazan, where we
can take a huge leap towards the Europa League semi-finals and
winning the trophy.

“And next weekend we have an important Premier League game
(against Sunderland) and we can make the table much better.

“If we have a great week, everything will look much brighter.
Our confidence will be higher and the fans will have more joy.”

Future

Meanwhile, Cech has also been speaking about his own future and
the emergence of Thibaut Courtois as a serious contender to his
number one spot – with the Belgian having shone during a loan spell
at Atletico Madrid.

Cech said: “I can play another four or five years if I keep my
fitness and level of performance, but if I don’t play well I’m not
going to get picked.

“I’ve never had a guarantee that I will play, and Thibaut will
never have a guarantee. One day, if we end up in the same team at
the same time, the manager will have to pick a number one
goalkeeper.”

The Royals head into Saturday’s game at Arsenal seven points
adrift of safety, and facing an uphill battle to preserve their
top-flight status over the final eight fixtures.

Adkins, who was on Tuesday appointed as successor to Brian
McDermott, gave little away on his likely tactics or indeed team
news at his pre-match media conference, refusing to even confirm
whether goalkeeper Adam Federici had shrugged off his ankle
injury.

However, the former Scunthorpe and Southampton boss believes any
advantage his squad can gain could prove crucial as the fight for
survival heads to the wire.

“Normally, if someone is injured and it is obvious that they are
out, then it is no good turning around and saying they will be fit,
but just at this moment in time we need to somehow come up with
that element of surprise and that is what I have to utilise,” said
Adkins.

“I will use an example I had at Scunthorpe. We had (striker)
Gary Hooper and we went to a team, who I won’t mention, but there
was no way Gary would be fit and we didn’t let anyone know.

“All week that team had worked on stopping Gary Hooper and doing
certain things.

“We then went and played a totally different way with different
personnel, and they were absolutely gutted as they had spent all
week working on it.

“If they knew Gary wasn’t playing, then they might not have been
worried about it so much.

“We are going to the Emirates and it will be a great challenge,
but for now, I will keep my cards close to my chest and that might
just give us something, or it might not.”

Adkins suffered a 6-1 thrashing at the Emirates Stadium with
Southampton in September.

While his return to tackle the Gunners may have come sooner than
expected in the wake of his controversial sacking in January, the
48-year-old intends to make the most of the opportunity.

“It is all about experiences,” he said. “The experiences at
Bangor, Scunthorpe and Southampton have helped me be the Reading
manager.

“You can be placed in a situation once – make new mistakes, do
not make the same mistake twice.

“If you are in that situation again, you know how you reacted
last time and what the outcome was. “It is going to be a challenge
but we won’t complain, we just get on with it.”

Adkins added: “I am not a gambling man, but if people say ‘you
have not beaten them for ages’, then you are due to beat them at
some stage so why can’t we beat them next game?

“This season I have had a loss and a draw against Arsenal, so
maybe I am due a win.”

Benitez said it is “impossible” for players to be at their peak
for two matches inside 48 hours and the demands of back-to-back
fixtures will colour his selection.

But Chelsea’s interim manager admitted he does not have the same
luxury as Sir Alex Ferguson, who could name two entirely different
sides for Manchester United’s fixtures over the Easter weekend.

“We can’t do that. The difference between them and us is that
they are 15 points ahead (at the top of the Premier League),”
Benitez said.

“It is not an excuse. The reality is that their position in the
table gives them an advantage and they are out of the Champions
League. Their priority will be the FA Cup.

“We have to pick a very competitive team for Southampton. If we
can beat Southampton we will be keeping an eye on (trying to catch)
Manchester City.”

Chelsea are entering what Benitez described as the defining
period of their season, with five matches in the next 13 days
including quarter-finals in both the FA Cup and Europa League.

John Terry’s improving fitness is a boost for Benitez, who also
expects to have Gary Cahill and Ramires fit to face United on
Monday lunchtime.

The squad will come into training on Sunday, with those who play
against Southampton put through a light recovery session while the
rest focus on practice and tactics for the United game.

Benitez must be tempted to start with Demba Ba at the St Mary’s
Stadium because the Senegal striker has scored three times against
Southampton this season since his move to Chelsea.

Ba marked his debut with a double in the FA Cup and then scored
in the league at Stamford Bridge before Southampton came from 2-0
down to claim a draw.

“It is not easy to make a decision (on selection) because it is
impossible to be fully fit for the second game,” Benitez said.

“The day after a game you feel tired, two days after you feel
even more tired. That is the reality. The second day will be really
tough for everyone.

“All of them they can play (two games in 48 hours) but at what
level?

“Sometimes you can do it if you are not 100% but it depends on
each position and each player.”

If Ba plays against Southampton then Benitez may have to turn to
Fernando Torres to face United, which would be a bold call given
how the Spaniard has struggled for goals this season.

Benitez said: “Strikers want to score goals but for me it is not
just that, it is what they can do for their team.”

The Welshman was signed for City by compatriot Mark Hughes for a
reported ?14million in 2009 but fell out of favour after Roberto
Mancini’s arrival and left in 2011 after 51 appearances for the
club.

“I don’t understand why he managed me the way he did,” Bellamy
said of Mancini in an interview with the Daily Mail.

“I worked with people like Bobby Robson at Newcastle who taught
me how to be a footballer and a man. He did that even though I was
a selfish kid back then, a kid who let a great man down with some
things I did.

“He wanted us to come in and cherish what we were doing.

“Mancini was different but there was stuff I could have done
differently, too.

“I could have been more open but when Sparky (Hughes) went, I
shut down. I just wanted stuff to stay the same for me but I got a
change of manager and routine.

“I just clammed up, didn’t want to know. Typical.

“Mancini didn’t have to persevere with me because he could just
go and get someone else and that’s what happened.

“But I regret that. I could have made that work. That’s one I
messed up.”

The Canaries striker emerged as a dark horse for a call-up to
the national team ahead of Euro 2012 after netting 15 league goals
in the Canaries’ first season back in the top flight, but was
ultimately overlooked by England boss Roy Hodgson.

Holt claims the snub was down to Norwich not being viewed as
“fashionable”, and believes Southampton’s Rickie Lambert is the
victim of similar prejudice this season.

The 31-year-old Holt concedes his form this season is not worthy
of and England call-up – he has just five goals in all competitions
– but nevertheless frustration remains.

“It bugs me,” Holt told the Daily Telegraph. “I should have been
there in the summer; if not the Euros, I should definitely have had
the chance in the two friendlies before.

“It bugs me when a squad is called and I don’t hear Rickie
Lambert’s name mentioned once, not one breath, and he’s on form,
scoring, similar to what I did last year.

“Is it the ‘fashionable club’ thing? Are we so stuck in our ways
that you have to be at Manchester United, Arsenal or Tottenham?

“If I’d been at Arsenal as a kid, and done what I’d done last
year for Arsenal, would I have got in the squad? Yes. So what
difference does it make if I’m doing it for a so-called ‘lesser
team’ Norwich, banging 18 goals in?

“Why am I not getting a sniff? There was no contact.

“This year, there’s no way in the world I’m going to get called
up. My goal tally is not good enough, but that was disappointing
last year. I was scoring against the top teams, United, Arsenal,
Chelsea, and I don’t get the nod. It just disheartens me.

“When I then watched the Euros and saw England go out with a
whimper, it made it tougher to take. If they’d gone to the
semi-finals, it would have been easier to say I should never have
been near it.

“I watched that and thought, would I have made that
difference?”

The Potters – starting the weekend 11th in the Premier League on
34 points, seven clear of 18th-placed Wigan, who have a game in
hand – play seven more times this season after today’s trip to
Everton.

They follow the Goodison Park contest with a home double-header
against Aston Villa and Manchester United, and also host Norwich
and Tottenham, with their away fixtures taking them to QPR,
Sunderland and Southampton.

Stoke have lost five successive top-flight away matches and
managed only one win in their last 24, a sequence stretching back
to January 2012 – statistics that are in stark contrast to their
record at home, where they have been beaten just twice in 22 league
games.

And presumably with that in mind, Pulis has placed particular
emphasis on the importance of the fixtures the side have left at
the Britannia Stadium.

“We have got four big games at home and they are the ones in
which we are really looking to pick the points up and do well,”
Pulis said.

“We will go to Everton and be as positive as we can, but it is
the four games at home that are massive for us.

“We want to get to 40 points as quickly as we can and get
everyone settled down again.”

Although Stoke are on a poor run, having taken just five points
from the last 30 on offer, there are reasons for encouragement as
they go into the Everton game, which kicks off at 5.30pm.

With Robert Huth back available after completing a three-match
ban, Pulis looks set to have a full squad to select from, while
opposite number David Moyes has two influential players suspended
in Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar.

Another potential boost for the Potters is the knowledge they
have only lost once in their past seven meeting with the
Toffees.

But Pulis has no doubt sixth-placed Everton will provide a stern
test, even without Fellaini and Pienaar.

“The Everton game will be one of our toughest games, without a
question of a doubt,” Pulis said.

“Everybody will talk about Fellaini and Pienaar not playing, but
they have got some (other) outstanding players.

“They have got (Victor) Anichebe, (Nikica) Jelavic, (Kevin)
Mirallas, (Leon) Osman, (Leighton) Baines, (Sylvain) Distin – it
looks as if (Phil) Jagielka might have a chance of being fit as
well.

“They have a very, very good squad there.”

The much-maligned Nigeria international has won over many
doubters this season and his all-action performance in the stunning
defeat of Manchester City a fortnight ago won widespread
praise.

The 24-year-old has had his differences with Moyes, the club’s
hierarchy and fans in the past, while his career has also been
punctuated by injuries.

But Moyes has kept faith and feels his patience is being
rewarded with Anichebe, some seven years after his debut, starting
to command a place.

Moyes said: “He is someone I have always thought has all the
attributes, that if he could knuckle down and stick at it has
definitely got a lot going for him.

“He has done. He has kept at it, kept going and I thought he
played really well last time.

“His effort was noticeable. Victor, as much as anyone, helped us
get the result against Manchester City.

“He was very close to being the man of the match, if he was not
the man of the match.”

Moyes feels Anichebe, an Academy product who has lived on
Merseyside since infancy, has learned from his past difficulties
and now realises how much potential he has.

The Scot said: “Maybe age, a bit of maturity – sometimes it does
take players time for the penny to drop.

“He is a powerful lad and has an awful lot of attributes which
he hasn’t used at times.

“He lacks a little bit of self-confidence but the crowd can help
him and it certainly helped him with the ovation he got against
Manchester City.

“He is someone we have stuck with. There have been many times
when he has been questioned.”

Moyes wants more of the commitment and decisiveness the Toffees
displayed against City to finish the season strongly.

The City result restored confidence at Goodison Park after the
soul-destroying FA Cup quarter-final loss to Wigan and kept hopes
of European qualification alive.

Their next challenge, at home, comes from Stoke on Saturday
evening. The Potters have won just one of their last 11 league
games but Moyes, without a win against Stoke since October 2010,
takes nothing for granted against notoriously tough opposition.

He said: “It is the sort of game where you can get dragged into
something somewhere.

“We have got to make sure we get the ball down and play, make
passes and try to get through.

“Over the years we have done that against them, knocked at the
door and still not got there.

“You have to be clinical and one (goal) is never enough. You
have to make sure you get that other goal.

“We have had great form all year, so we have got to make sure we
stay up there and finish in as high a position as we possibly
can.”

The Reds boss has regularly praised the leadership qualities of
his 35-year-old vice-captain, who will bring his 16-year
professional career to an end in May.

Carragher had been a peripheral figure for the first half of the
season but Rodgers brought him back into the starting line-up in
January as he felt the side required more steel.

Since then the veteran centre-back has been a virtual
ever-present, although his absence through injury for defeat at
Southampton a fortnight ago gave Rodgers more food for thought on a
suitable replacement.

“We missed his leadership qualities at Southampton and he will
come back into the squad for the weekend,” said Rodgers of
Carragher’s likely return to face Aston Villa on Sunday.

“He is a real role model for all the players – the young and the
senior ones – but he has eight games left, let’s not write him off
yet.”

Carragher will leave a considerable gap when he quits but even
with Denmark captain Daniel Agger, Slovakia international Martin
Skrtel and Uruguay centre-back Sebastian Coates at his disposal
Rodgers admits he may have to look elsewhere.

“It is something we will have a look at but there is no doubt he
will be a miss,” said the Reds boss, who has been heavily linked
with a move for Wales captain Ashley Williams of his former club
Swansea as well as Feyenoord’s Stefan de Vrij.

“I will miss him because he is a good man, a lover of football
and he puts everything into training every day.

“We are going to be light in that area so between now and the
end of the season we have to assess it as that is the one area of
the field where we haven’t brought anyone in.

“Naturally we are going to lose Jamie. There is no player who is
ever irreplaceable but he is a big loss because you can see his
experience and how he leads the line.

“You need someone in there who is vocal and organises the line
and he does that remarkably well.

“I also have really good players here – Daniel Agger and Martin
Skrtel – and between now and the end of the season we know we need
to strengthen the group and that is what we will look to do.

“If it is not something we have in the group then we may need
that type of character in there who can organise and lead.”

The Gunners host relegation-battlers Reading aiming to stay
within striking distance of the Champions League places, having
closed up to just four points behind rivals Tottenham and with a
match in hand.

Wenger is set to have a bumper war chest with which to improve
the squad when the transfer window re-opens – and the Arsenal boss
wants his players to show him there is no need to bring in
reinforcements for their position by finishing what has been a
testing campaign in style.

“We have to analyse. What will decide our attitude, my attitude,
is how we do now until the end of the season,” said Wenger, who
must do without both England internationals Jack Wilshere and Theo
Walcott, while France midfielder Abou Diaby is set for up to nine
months on the sidelines with knee ligament damage.

“We have had some blips that were not expected, Blackburn and
Bradford (in the cup competitions), but overall I must say the
attitude of the team has been great and when everyone is here
(fit), then we have a strong team.

“What is important is to analyse where we can improve at the end
of the season.”

Despite his warnings that each man is effectively playing for
his place – with even captain Thomas Vermaelen and goalkeeper
Wojciech Szczesny no longer guaranteed a start – Wenger feels the
current squad do deserve a great deal of credit for the way they
have hauled themselves back into contention with a run of five wins
in the last seven league games.

“They have gone through difficult times and have responded
well,” he said,

“They have shown mental strength as we lost against Blackburn
(at home in the FA Cup), Bayern (in the Champions League at home)
and then Tottenham, so as well they could be scared that the group
implodes.

“We have shown a strong response against Bayern (in the
Champions League away) and also Swansea, so that shows that this
group is mentally strong.”

Lambert knows keeping hold of the pair and other key players is
vital as part of his long-term project to rebuild Villa – and he
has the backing of club owner Randy Lerner.

It will be a reversal of Villa’s trend in recent seasons of
selling leading performers such as Gareth Barry, James Milner,
Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.

Benteke has scored 17 goals since his ?8million move last summer
from Genk and the Belgium international has been linked with a host
of clubs.

Weimann has netted 11 goals in his first full campaign of
top-flight football and has been offered a new deal by Villa.

Lambert said: “Do I think Weimann and Benteke will be at Villa
next season? Yes, yes. I think they want to be here. I’ve spoken to
the lads as well and they’ve been great with it.

“There is no point in trying to build something if it (players)
keep on going away.

“There is no point in coming in for one year and, after that,
the lads go away again. I don’t think that is building for any sort
of future.

“Do I have the final say on it? Oh yes. I’ve got to – but Randy
(Lerner) has been great with me.

“Everyone knows the situation. If players do well, then teams
speak about them. Everyone knows the situation. Whether it is true
or not or agents fabricate things remains to be seen.

“When I first came in here, we sat down and explained what I
thought. Randy was right behind it, no problem at all.

“He has been excellent with us. There is no point in building
something, if a year later it (a player) goes. I don’t want to go
back to square one.”

Weimann has only 15 months remaining of his current
contract.

Lambert said: “I spoke to Andy’s agent a couple of months
back.

“I know what is happening and Andy knows what is happening.

“His agent knows what is going on. There is no problem at the
minute. Am I confident Andy will sign? Yes.”

Lambert hinted Benteke may also be offered a new deal this
summer after his successful debut season.

He said: “I might give him a fiver more. Being Scottish, that is
generous!

“I think you do that (reward players) with most lads who are
performing well for you.

“You just don’t want people to become comfortable or lose that
hunger. I don’t want a monetary thing to over-rule success.”

Speaking to a US radio station earlier this week, Ferguson
suggested United’s target for the remaining nine games was to match
the Premier League points record of 95 amassed under Jose Mourinho
in 2005.

With a 15-point lead over nearest challengers Manchester City,
it seemed prudent of Ferguson to find additional challenges beyond
merely lifting a record 20th title.

Yet, ahead of Saturday’s trip to Sunderland, the United boss
dismissed his own lofty talk.

In the final analysis, all he cares about is winning the prize
he has almost made his own for the past two decades, but which was
snatched away from him with virtually the very last kick of the
previous campaign.

“I don’t care what I win it by,” said Ferguson.

“It could be a dodgy goal off someone’s backside in the last
minute of the last game of the season.

“It doesn’t bother me one bit. Winning the league is the
issue.”

As they prepare to visit the Stadium of Light for the first time
since they stood by the side on the pitch, their own season over,
to discover Sergio Aguero had sent City into ecstasy, Ferguson can
have no complaints at how his players responded to that
setback.

With just two draws and three defeats, United have been
virtually foot-perfect, far too good for a City side who struggled
to regain their previously high standards.

“These things are hard to take,” said Ferguson.

“For about 20 seconds we thought we had won it and it was
snatched away from us.

“But what we have done well this season is dusted ourselves down
and made a real good challenge of the league.

“The concentration levels, the commitment of the players and the
team spirit have been fantastic.

“In that respect we have answered the only way we can.”

The anger Ferguson felt at the Sunderland fans’ over-the-top
celebrations has evidently subsided, meaning there is no talk of
revenge as United look to claim three of the 13 points from nine
remaining fixtures to clinch title number 20.

“I don’t have any issues with the Sunderland fans,” he said.

“I don’t think Sunderland fans wanted Manchester City to win it
any more than we did.

“It goes back to modern society. You see it from supporters
every week. In a corner, wherever your supporters are, the opposing
fans vent their spleen at each other.

“That is what happens in modern-day football.”