Laudrup heaps praise on Messi

Midfielder Fraser Aird could return for Rangers in the Irn-Bru

Third Division clash with Montrose after time out with a fractured

thumb.

Ross Perry returned to training on Friday after hernia surgery

but is not ready, while Kane Hemmings is still building up his

fitness after a knee injury.

Defenders Emilson Cribari (calf) and Sebastien Faure (both

hernia) remain on the sidelines and manager Ally McCoist will have

to decide whether to risk David Templeton on the artificial pitch

at Links Park weeks after the player returned from an ankle injury

sustained on a similar surface at Annan.

Deadman was accused by Shrimpers fans of raising two fingers in

their direction while appearing to rub the back of his head during

the goalless draw at Fleetwood in League Two last Saturday.

The alleged incident at the Highbury Stadium came midway through

the first half while the match official was standing over striker

Britt Assombalonga as he received treatment from the club’s

physio.

But an FA statement read: “Following an allegation that referee

Darren Deadman made an offensive gesture at supporters during the

League Two match between Fleetwood Town and Southend United on

December 8 2012, The FA reviewed video footage and was satisfied

that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim.

“Therefore, The FA can confirm that no action is required.”

Caulker will miss the England Under-21 team’s Euro 2013 games

against Italy and Norway after UEFA found him guilty of improper

conduct for his actions during a post-match brawl against Serbia in

October.

European football’s governing body have been criticised for

banning Caulker and his team-mate Thomas Ince, and for fining the

Serbian FA ?65,000 – some ?15,000 less than was handed out to

Nicklas Bendtner for revealing a sponsor’s logo on his underpants

during Euro 2012.

The Tottenham manager concedes that his defender is extremely

unhappy with UEFA’s action against him.

“I spoke to the player and he is obviously very disappointed,”

Villas-Boas told a press conference.

“It is difficult to take after (what) I heard from my players –

from Danny [Rose], from Steven, from Adam Smith – from the

situation they went through to see that the outcome is this

one.

“I imagine the FA will appeal. I think they are entitled to do

it. They have shown disappointment with the decision and I think

they are going to take it forward in various different ways which I

think should include trying to put right what is wrong in Steven’s

sanction.”

Villas-Boas has included Caulker in his squad for Sunday’s home

game against Swansea.

The Spurs boss revealed good news from the treatment room today,

declaring that Gareth Bale, Michael Dawson, Scott Parker and Benoit

Assou-Ekotto all have a chance of playing against the Welshman.

Bale has been absent since suffering a hamstring injury against

Fulham two weeks ago.

In that match the winger earned his fourth yellow card of the

calendar year for simulation.

Villas-Boas reckons the Welshman’s tag as a diver is unfair, and

he said as much to referee Andre Marriner when he visited the

club’s training ground last Tuesday in a pre-planned visit.

“We received the visit of the referee this past week,”

Villas-Boas said.

“Gareth and I spoke with the referee about this situation.

“Gareth has gone through a difficult time in his career. He has

had potentially-career threatening injuries and sometimes for the

pace that he goes at it looks like a dive from the player when he

is actually protecting himself.

“It’s a tag that if he has gained it is unfair. But it doesn’t

bother him in any way shape or form.”

Villas-Boas may decide to start Bale on the bench given the busy

festive period is around the corner, while Assou-Ekotto and Parker

also look set to be named as substitutes.

Parker, last term’s Tottenham player of the season, has not

played for Spurs in this campaign due to an Achilles injury he

suffered at Euro 2012 and Assou-Ekotto has been sidelined since

September with a knee injury.

“Both of them are making good progress with the team,”

Villas-Boas said.

“Scott I think is slightly ahead of Benoit at the moment, but

both of them could be involved, or not.

“You have to bear in mind that their absence was long so they

are picking up on their fitness levels.”

Villas-Boas admits Parker’s leadership skills will come in

useful, particularly as Tottenham have been prone to conceding

crucial late goals throughout the season.

It is hard to see where Villas-Boas will fit Parker into his

team given the excellent form of Sandro and Mousa Dembele, but the

Portuguese is happy to have the England midfielder back.

“He’s been out for so long and he’s such an important player for

us,” the 35-year-old said.

“He was amazing last season, so we’ve been really patient with

the situation.

“We’re glad to have him back, it was wonderful to see him out

there on the (training) pitch.

“He offers other possibilities. It’s good to have him on our

side and good to finally count on him.”

Clarke has tried to downplay the significance of Albion losing

three games in succession after climbing to third in the table last

month.

But the former West Ham number two knows the significance of the

Baggies recapturing the winning habit sooner rather than later

ahead of Sunday’s tough encounter with the Hammers at The

Hawthorns.

Clarke said: “I don’t think it is a massive test. The test for

me as a number one came when I walked into this job in the

summer.

“That was the big test. We started well this season and, if you

took out the defeats we’ve had and spread them over a course of the

season, everyone would be saying we are doing fantastic.

“That’s the line I tend to stick with. If I had been offered the

top six in mid-December, I would have been pleased with the points

tally we’ve got.

“But it is up to us to make sure the bad run stops now and we

start to pick up more points.

“The players this week have been positive, not dwelling on the

three defeats. They are looking forward to the run of games coming

up.

“It would have been nice if we could have kept the good run

going a little longer, but we didn’t, and we have to make sure the

next run starts on Sunday.

“We know we’ve lost the last three because everyone keeps

telling us, but we are not going to forget that anyway. We know we

have to address it this weekend.”

Clarke insists he enjoyed his time as number two to Gianfranco

Zola with the Hammers despite the pair being sacked at the end of

the 2009-10 season.

He is also a big admirer of West Ham boss Sam Allardyce and

believes it is unfair to stereotype the style of football his teams

have produced during his managerial career.

Clarke said: “It is a good club, I enjoyed my experience there

and it’s good to see them doing well in the Premier League.

“They have passionate fans who care about their team, they try

to play football the right way.

“I don’t care what anyone says about Sam and his teams, he

always tries to play football the right way.

“They try to be positive, they try to get balls in the box, they

try to score goals, and for me that is always the right way to play

football.”

Clarke added: “You can become stereotyped if you like and there

is a little bit of that with Sam.

“He has got good football players in that team. I’ve watched a

number of their games this season and they play good football when

they are allowed to play good football.

“If it becomes a scrap then they are a team that can stand up

for a scrap as well. Whatever type of game it is at the weekend,

West Ham will be ready for it.

“But I can assure West Ham we will be ready for it as well.”

Clarke admits he has a lengthy injury list to worry about ahead

of Sunday’s game including keeper Ben Foster (groin), midfielder

Claudio Yacob (hamstring) and Liam Ridgewell (hamstring).

He said: “I’ve got a number of issues. There are a number of

injury doubts for the game this weekend, more than you guys have

got noted down.

“It is a test of the squad strength but it is something I don’t

shy away from because I’ve got a good squad and it will certainly

be tested over the next four or five weeks.”

The former Queen’s Park player set up fellow full-back Keith

Watson for the opening goal in last weekend’s 3-0 derby win at Dens

Park and played a hand in several more during United’s 5-0 William

Hill Scottish Cup win at Stranraer the previous week.

Douglas has not scored since a 3-3 draw with St Johnstone in

August 2011 but he is relishing the freedom to get forward and

supply Jon Daly and Johnny Russell with crosses.

“Hopefully goals will come as well, I have been unlucky with a

few free-kicks,” the 23-year-old said. “But I just need to keep

supplying, as long as someone else is scoring the goals.

“The gaffer preaches me and Keith to get forward and put balls

in. If we don’t put balls in they won’t score.”

Douglas, whose team host Inverness tomorrow, has made the

left-back position his own after previously being kept out by

Scotland international Paul Dixon, who left for Huddersfield in the

summer.

Douglas was a regular in his first season at Tannadice after

moving from Hampden in the summer of 2010, often playing in

midfield, but he only made three more appearances after November

last season.

“I am happy with the way I’m playing,” he said. “I have always

had belief in my ability, I just needed a chance to play and

finally I am reaping the benefits and setting up goals.

“Every game I feel I am getting more confident and long may it

last.

“I missed nearly a full year because Dicko has done so well.

Doubt is going to creep into it, but I just kept believing and kept

patient for my chance, and it was up to me to take it.

“It was hard not playing but you just need to get your head down

and get on with it. It would be easy to spit the dummy out but you

can’t do that in this game.”

Inverness visit Tannadice in second place in the Clydesdale Bank

Premier League having scored in every game this season, including

four against United in September, and Douglas aims to put a stop to

that run.

Douglas said: “It gives us a great challenge, especially being

defenders. We want to keep a clean sheet and we know we’ll get

chances up the other end.”

The 31-year-old made seven league appearances for the Heed

during his seven-week stay.

The former Bradford man returns to Bootham Crescent in time for

the Minstermen’s home game against Bristol Rovers on Saturday.

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has on Friday repeated

his belief that the Blues are the better team despite last Sunday’s

3-2 win for United at the Etihad Stadium which took them six points

clear.

Not surprisingly, Fletcher has a different take on the

situation.

“We always feel we have the strongest squad around,” he

said.

“In terms of starting XI and strength in depth we have a quality

squad.

“There is so much competition for places. Some of the matches on

the training ground are really intense because everyone wants to

play and be involved.

“That is great for the manager, especially when you get the

number of injuries we have had.”

Not that Fletcher is taking anything for granted.

Having blown an eight-point lead in the space of four matches at

the end of last term, no-one at United will be celebrating until

the trophy has been returned to Old Trafford.

“It feels good to be six points clear,” said Fletcher ahead of

tomorrow’s trip to Sunderland.

“It was good to win the derby, especially after what happened

last year but it is important that we kick on and think just

because we beat Manchester City and are six points clear we take it

for granted.

“We have to keep pushing on and putting pressure on City.”

After last weekend’s visit to the Etihad Stadium, another

reminder of the crushing manner of last season’s failure comes with

the arrival of Sunderland, whose fans extracted such glee from

United’s demise on the final day.

“That feeling never goes away because you remember losing

moments more than you remember the winning ones because of the

sheer disappointment,” he said.

“The manager always tells you to remember how it feels because

you don’t want to feel like that again.

“It is good to have bad moments because they fuel you and drive

you on.”

And he now setting his sights on second-placed Manchester

City.

After the club’s worst start to a campaign for more than a

century, the Reds now sit just four points behind fourth-placed

Everton, with their record over the last 11 matches bettered only

by the top two of Manchester United and City.

But having seen his players criticised early in his Anfield

reign, Rodgers now believes they should now not be restricting

themselves to thinking purely about securing Champions League

qualification.

“They have been hammered left right and centre by numbers of

people,” said the Northern Irishman. “When you are a club that is

the size of Liverpool then that criticism comes.

“It is well documented, which is incredible really, but when you

have won the titles and championships you have before that will

come your way.

“But I was quite calm because their focus and concentration has

been first class, our mentality was very much relaxed as we can

only worry about ourselves.

“The cause we created here was to continue to fight.

“We know what will come our way when you don’t win games and we

are trying to still improve so the feeling was fine.

“You can see in their performances it hasn’t affected them and,

if anything, we have grown from that and it has been the lever for

us to continue to work well.

“Everyone has their opinion on Liverpool and I understand that

because of the standards set by this club in the 1970s and

1980s.

“But for a club that has been very poor and disastrous by all

accounts from other people we lie four points off top four.

“For me the ambition is to grow higher. We are 11 points off

second and that can all turn around very quickly so you need to get

consistency – and that is what we have at the minute.”

Many of the players criticised – Stewart Downing, Jordan

Henderson, Jose Enrique and in particular Joe Cole – were signed by

Rodgers’ predecessors Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson.

Liverpool’s former director of football Damien Comolli, who

helped bring most of those players to the club, has said they have

all been judged too early.

“I don’t know what Damien said and it’s none of my business,”

added the Reds boss, who was pleased to see Cole score in Sunday’s

3-2 win at West Ham.

“It was important for Joe to contribute. This season has been

very difficult for him because he has been injured for the majority

of it.

“The responsibility has always been with the players and if Joe

continues to work how he has been when he gets the opportunity he

has to take it.

“He works very hard at his game and when the chances come I know

in his own mind he wants to take them and be effective for the

team.

“That is the challenge for all the players. It is a challenge

for us all to improve and we want to keep rising up the table.”

The Canaries saw their 10-match unbeaten run in all competitions

come to an abrupt halt with a 4-1 home defeat by Aston Villa and

former boss Paul Lambert in the quarter-finals of the Capital One

Cup on Tuesday night..

However, Norwich remain one of the form sides in the Premier

League – second only to leaders United, with their last defeat at

Chelsea back on October 6 and having recorded four successive

victories at Carrow Road, including 1-0 wins against Arsenal and

Sir Alex Ferguson’s pacesetters.

Despite the Latics currently labouring in 18th place following

four defeats in six outings, Hughton insists his men will be fully

focused on delivering the required performance.

“Wigan are a very good side and sometimes the circumstances are

that you find yourself in a place in the league which you might

feel is a false position. It certainly surprises me a bit where

they are at the moment,” Hughton told a press conference.

“Everything I have seen about them has been good, they can score

goals and have plenty of offensive options. They are a very well

drilled football team.

“Wigan have suffered in recent weeks with injuries, which might

have affected them, but our approach has to be exactly the same as

it would be for any other game because it will be very tough.”

Hughton continued: “We know every match is going to be difficult

for us, and also we know what we need to put in to get a

result.

“At the moment, confidence is high, but it is also about

bouncing back and trying to get on track again.

“As with any defeat, it is about a reaction – and I expect a

very good reaction on Saturday.”

Much of Norwich’s success has been based around a settled

side.

Midfielder Bradley Johnson has struck up a good partnership with

Norwegian enforcer Alex Tettey, who could be back in contention

following a thigh problem.

The 25-year-old former Leeds man is relishing his

opportunity.

“I am playing my best football, am enjoying my football, and

getting picked every week, but I know it can change in an instant,

so I am not getting too complacent and not getting ahead of

myself,” he said.

“I just want to get picked every Saturday and that comes down to

training hard and being fit and available.”

Johnson added: “I have learned a lot more from last season. It

was my first year in the Premier League and this season I am more

disciplined in the job I do.

“I am a holding midfielder and more of a defensive player, but I

am learning every game I go into.

“This is a great league to be in and I want to be in here for as

long as I can and learn more.”

Hughton hopes having plenty of options will stand Norwich in

good stead as they look to stay clear of any trouble at the wrong

end of the table.

“We have real good competition for places and that showed in

midweek,” the Norwich boss said.

“Even though when you have been on a good run, you still want to

be tested with your team selection game after game, that the

players put pressure on you with the way they train.

“It is all about getting that right balance on the day.”

Messi recently broke German striker Gerd Muller’s record of 85

goals in a calendar year that had stood for 40 years.

And Laudrup, who enjoyed a glittering playing career with

Barcelona, winning four successive Primera Division titles,

believes Messi deserves all the accolades currently being showered

on him.

“He is out of this world, a class for himself,” said Laudrup.

“He is already, for me, one of the top players of all-time, and

let’s see if he will be maybe number one. He is up there with the

greatest – Maradona, Pele and all those.

“What is so great about Messi and Barcelona is the mix they

have. They can play the possession game, they are the best in the

world at that.

“And they can play 10 against 11 while Messi is walking around,

and then they give him the ball and he plays one against three,

four or five, then he rests again.

“When you have a team that has the ball 70 or 80% of the time

like Barcelona, he can rest, and then when you give him the ball he

is just out of this world, scoring goals and making passes for

goals.”

Laudrup’s team could come up against a rumoured transfer target

for Barcelona, Welshman Gareth Bale, when the Swans tackle

Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

Bale is currently battling a hamstring injury and might not

start the Premier League clash, but Laudrup has no doubt about his

ability.

“I always prefer to see the best players on the pitch. For

football, it is always good to see the best players play,” he

added. “What he (Bale) has is that he’s a fantastic physical

player. His runs with the ball are incredible because he doesn’t

lose pace over a distance. He starts and he maintains it.

“With space, he is one of the best. It is not the same when

there is no space, because you can’t run with the ball, but even

then, he is a good player.”

Asked how Bale could fare at the likes of Barcelona or Real

Madrid, Laudrup said: “It is very difficult to say. It is a

completely different type of football.

“If you play in Barcelona or Real Madrid, you don’t play on a

pitch 105m x 68m, you play in the last 20-25 metres of the

pitch.

“If you have seen some Barcelona games, they play 19 players in

nothing, so you don’t have space. You can’t run.

“If he does go to Spain and play for one of the top two teams

there, then that part of his play would be very difficult. It will

be a different way of football, but if you have quality I think you

will always adapt.”

Swansea will face a side this weekend who Laudrup believes will

challenge strongly for fourth spot in the Premier League, and

therefore Champions League qualification.

But he is also backing his team to give a strong account of

themselves after reaching the Capital One Cup semi-finals earlier

this week with a 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough.

“At this moment, they (Spurs) are my favourites for the fourth

position, which would be the last Champions League spot,” Laudrup

added.

“They have a very good squad, a really good team.

“I just hope going into the semi-final would compensate for the

tiredness from Wednesday, and I hope we overcome that and the

players can give another good away performance.

“We will go for it. We have confidence, and that is one of the

main things in football.

“We have to be 100% focussed the whole time, otherwise we will

struggle. The team will be focussed, and I am confident we will

have another good performance.”