Rafa: Blues must be ready to go

Falkirk’s chairman is afraid the Scottish Premier League’s ‘no’

vote on reform means Scottish football will never get the change it

needs.

Opposition from St Mirren and Ross County at Monday’s Hampden

Park meeting left the SPL without the 11-1 majority required to

pass proposals including a merger with the Scottish Football League

and a new 12-12-18 league structure.

The result means SFL clubs, including First Division Falkirk,

will not even get to vote on the plans.

Chairman Martin Ritchie said: “I am now concerned that there

will never be a proposal that can gain approval of 11 SPL clubs and

23 SFL clubs.

“It looks like a stalemate where the game will stagnate in its

current form until someone breaks the deadlock.

“Perhaps it is already time for the Scottish Football

Association, as the governing body for football in Scotland, to

step in and take control.”

An official club statement read: “The board at Falkirk FC is

very disappointed at the outcome of the SPL meeting on Monday.

“We had hoped that the package of proposals would have started a

process of change in Scottish football.

“The First Division clubs now need to take stock of the

situation and wait to see what emerges from the SPL and the SFL

over the next few days.”

SK Brann starlet Finne is regarded as one of the best young

prospects to emerge from Scandinavia in recent years.

The 18-year-old burst onto the scene last season with Brann,

scoring four goals in nine appearances for the Norwegian side.

Finne is also a regular in the Norway youth sides and is tipped

for a call-up to the senior squad in the near future.

The exciting forward’s performances have not gone unnoticed,

with clubs across Europe keeping tabs on his progress.

All the Premier League’s top guns, including Manchester United,

Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all thought to

have watched Finne in action over the last year.

Clubs from Germany, Italy and France are also thought to be

keeping a watching brief on Finne as Brann face a fight to keep

hold of their prize asset.

Finne’s current contract expires in December, but Brann are

bracing themselves for bids for the player this summer when his

suitors would only have to pay a minimal compensation fee for his

services.

City are all but out of contention to win the Barclays Premier

League but have a firm grip on second place and could be tempted to

ease up before facing Wigan at Wembley next month.

But aside from the fact the runners-up spot is not guaranteed,

City feel they have standards to maintain and having finally hit

top form, they do not want to let up.

City are back in Premier League action three days after their

energy-sapping cup semi-final win over Chelsea as they host

relegation-threatened Wigan in a final dress rehearsal at the

Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.

Platt said: “Rather than dramatising the situation, it is about

finishing the season as strongly as we can do.

“You would probably put money on us finishing second now and

hopefully we will win the FA Cup.

“But we still have to play a good team and anything can happen

in the final.

“We have our own expectations and our own expectations are very

high.”

City went into their semi-final on the back of an impressive and

psychologically important derby win over Premier League leaders

Manchester United at Old Trafford. Prior to that they demolished

Newcastle 4-0.

There is a feeling that since conceding defeat to United in the

title race – they currently trail by 15 points – they have started

playing without pressure.

But Platt said: “I don’t think it is a case of that, the

pressure is still on to win football games.”

City were certainly at their best for the first hour of their

semi-final win, dominating in all departments to claim a 2-0

lead.

Chelsea responded and forced Roberto Mancini’s men to defend

resolutely in the closing third but City came through 2-1.

Platt said: “It is a big result.

“You set off every season playing for the trophies you are

involved in. You want to win them all.

“There is nothing like an FA Cup final in England. It stands the

test of time despite all the euphoria around the Champions League

and Premier League, which are the big prizes, let’s not be silly

about it.

“The FA Cup final has got its own status in this country. We

would like to be in it.”

Mancini continued with his cup policy of playing back-up

goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon in place of Joe Hart in the

semi-final.

The Romanian had not conceded a goal in any of the previous

rounds but his selection ahead of England first choice Hart was

still a minor surprise.

However, after Pantilimon justified his place in the second

half, it may not raise eyebrows if the 26-year-old plays again in

the final.

Platt said: “Your goalkeeper that backs up the number one has a

thankless task. He is always away in the hotels, he sits on the

bench – when does he ever get on? When does he ever get a game?

“It is important he plays big games so that he is ready for

that.

“That is what Robbie has done over the years. He has allocated

domestic cup competitions to that goalkeeper.

“I think it would have been unfair to Costel to change the

goalkeeper.

“If he keeps his place the final will be a different game, a

different choice, but I don’t think he has done anything wrong to

warrant not playing in that final.”

City are unlikely to risk playmaker David Silva against Wigan as

he continues his recovery from a hamstring injury. Micah Richards,

Maicon and Jack Rodwell are all back in contention after lengthy

lay-offs as Mancini considers changes.

Sergio Aguero has been at the centre of controversy since the

semi-final following a two-footed challenge on David Luiz in the

closing stages, but he will not face retrospective action.

With referee Chris Foy having awarded a free-kick, the Football

Association feels there is no scope to review the matter.

Platt said: “It is a situation that has gone. I am not surprised

he has got off. They are the rules, the officials saw it.”

Platt is not expecting to get many cup final clues from Wigan

this week.

He said: “Each team has four or five games before then.

“It is not a case of because we are playing them tomorrow we

will know how to play them in the cup final. I don’t think it has

any correlation whatsoever.”

The Spaniard has discovered a successful formula in the last

month and ever since their FA Cup quarter-final victory at Everton

he has kept faith in the same players.

In the last five matches he has made just one change – replacing

goalkeeper Joel Robles for previous first-choice Ali Al Habsi for

last weekend’s Wembley win over Milwall.

He has been rewarded with four wins – two in the cup – and a

draw, which has crucially contributed seven points to their

relegation battle.

And while it has meant the likes of club captain Gary Caldwell

and Al Habsi have been sidelined, Martinez insists the players

understand it is for the greater good.

“Competition for places has stepped up a percentage, the level

of training has increased and we have been unbeaten in the league

since then,” said the Spaniard.

“Players are desperate to help the team. There are no individual

cases, from now until the end of the season it is about what we can

do as a football club.

“There is a bigger role than playing or not playing. Everyone is

aware the achievement as a team is more important than

individuals.

“We have players who are fully aware of what they need to bring

to the team and everyone is expecting to be used from now until the

end of the season.

“If you have a player who is happy not to play he needs to move

on, he’s in the wrong business.

“Every player should be desperate to play and be disappointed

for one second but after that there is a real sense of the group

and what the team needs.

“People are very committed, they are desperate to help the team,

but when they are on or off the pitch they know how to behave

themselves.

“I think that is what we have showed in the last few weeks – a

big club mentality in terms of facing every single game and

forgetting about the individuals.”

The Latics boss admits he may have to freshen up his side after

the physically and emotionally-draining experience of a Wembley

semi-final as they head to Manchester City on Wednesday.

City have been a bogey side in recent seasons, with Wigan

failing to score and losing their last six meetings.

Martinez admits picking an unchanged side has made things more

difficult for him in terms of deciding how fit his players are and

who needs a rest.

“I think it is more difficult because you need to make sure

those players are fresh enough to keep playing and I think it is

important to make sure we don’t overload certain players,” he said

of his selection dilemma.

“What is important as well is to give a sense of continuity but

I know we could make three changes and that wouldn’t affect our

performance and that is a very important feeling to have as a

manager.

“When you can make changes from one game to another and not have

a problem from a tactical point of view shows the work which has

been put in over the last 10 months or so.”

However, Martinez is confident, as he has been since the

progressed from the quarter-final, that another Wembley appearance

next month will not be a distraction for his players.

“For us being involved in two competitions at this time of the

season is exactly what we needed as a football club if we want to

step up to the next level,” he added.

“I think we showed a really natural way of switching on to the

league.

“We have such an important game (against City) I don’t think you

are allowed to celebrate too much.

“Once we have the FA Cup final in front of us then we will be

able to get into the cup mode again.

“It becomes a really exciting target to have at the end of the

season but it was exactly the same position after the

quarter-final.

“The only way to be part of it is how you are going to perform

and contribute in between.”

The Red Devils could stretch their lead at the top of the table

to 18 points with victory at Upton Park on Wednesday, which would

leave them within touching distance of the title once again.

Allardyce believes the way Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have gone

about wrestling back superiority from rivals Manchester City,

spearheaded by the goals of ?24million striker Robin van Persie,

has been awe inspiring.

“I think you have to say the (United) team is as good as it has

ever been because nobody normally wins the title so easily and by

so big a margin, or has this much of a margin at this stage of the

season,” said Allardyce.

“It is pretty scary what total they might actually finish

with.

“Manchester United have been outstanding and it is been about

how their squad rotation has been Sir Alex’s masterpiece as usual,

about playing the right team at the right time.

“I suppose you could say that because they got knocked out of

the Champions League a little sooner than usual and because they

got knocked out of the FA Cup and Capital One Cup, it has given

them the strength and energy to be what they are in the Barclays

Premier League this year.

“They have not had the normal focus on three or four

competitions almost to the end, the focus has come on the Premier

League and they have just breezed it.

“They have just gone ‘bang’ and everyone else can’t get near

them.”

Despite the difference in class between the two sides, West Ham

have pushed United in all of their meetings this season – coming

within moments of knocking the Red Devils out of the FA Cup third

round at home in January before Van Persie dispatched a brilliant

equaliser deep into stoppage time.

“We will need to be on our best form, as always, if we are to

get anything,” said Allardyce, who has defensive problems tomorrow

with injury to James Tomkins.

“We have run them close three times this season, so we can give

as good a performance as we gave in the last three (games).”

While West Ham may well not get anything out of Wednesday’s

match, with 38 points they should just about avoid being dragged

into the scrap for survival over their final half-dozen games.

However, Allardyce said: “With all the bottom sides seeming to

be picking up more points now than they have done for the rest of

the season, I would say we are still another couple of points off

being absolutely safe.”

The Irons, though, also remain within striking distance of the

top half, which would represent a remarkable achievement from

Allardyce’s squad on a first season back in the top flight.

“We have got four home games and two away, so we have an

opportunity (to get into the top 10), but I think we are going to

have to win three and draw two out of the last six,” he said.

“Manchester City away and Everton away are tough, tough games as

well as Manchester United at home.

“In fact they will all be tough, even Wigan who are now in a

position, because of being in the FA Cup final, that they have

games to catch up and points to gain on others.

“That puts the pressure on them, so they will all be really

tough matches but hopefully we can win a couple and see where we

go.”

Van Persie’s instinctive reaction to ending a 10-game goal

drought at Stoke on Sunday was to race to the away dugout and jump

into the arms of the man who paid Arsenal ?24million to bring him

to Old Trafford in the summer.

A clearly delighted Ferguson was left spluttering: “He nearly

killed me, he forgets that I’m 71.”

The Dutchman’s reaction has created a great deal of hilarity in

the United dressing room too, where it has been one of the chief

topics of conversation.

Not that Evra dare a repeat.

“No chance. Never,” said the France defender.

“Maybe I will do it with my team-mates. But not with the gaffer.

He is older.

“Imagine I go in too strong against him. He could fall, then he

might sack me. I will never do that.”

Evra could barely keep a straight face as he delivered his

assessment of Van Persie’s reaction.

“Robin has had a lot of stick from us,” said Evra.

“It was nice. I could see a lot of love and emotion.

“It is the first time we saw that. Robin can tell you, for two

or three days we have been getting at him. It is good to see love

like that on the pitch sometimes.”

The banter, even at the expense of such a high-profile

personality, underlines the spirit within the United squad

presently driving them towards a record 20th league title.

“I always say the atmosphere at this club is great,” said

Evra.

“That is a big strength for Manchester United. To be fair, Robin

told us he was really emotional. He had not scored for 10

games.

“He just showed the passion and the way he wanted to win. He

just said ‘hands up guys, it was an emotional game. I did it, it is

OK, we can move on now’.”

United have now moved on from Stoke to West Ham, where they play

tomorrow searching for the first three of the seven points still

needed to grab the Premier League trophy back from Manchester

City.

Outside their Carrington training complex, most assume the task

has already been completed. Even up the road at City the towel has

been hurled in.

Ferguson refuses to think like that until the job is finished,

though, and evidently none of his players are thinking that way

either after their manager urged them to realign their sights after

three big defeats to Real Madrid, Chelsea and City in the space of

a month.

“The boss is a winner,” he said.

“He said before the Stoke game that the season starts now. He

has just told us to win the seven games that are left. That shows

you the way he wants to win this 20th title. He told us not to

think about the title, just think about winning these seven

games.

“We can still break the (points) record so the challenge for us

is to win the seven games we have left.

“It won’t be easy but that is the way the boss wants us to

play.”

Ferguson has confirmed there are no fresh injury concerns for

the West Ham trip, with Ashley Young and Paul Scholes still ruled

out by ankle and knee problems respectively.

Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley will both hope for a recall to the

midfield berth occupied by Wayne Rooney at Stoke, whilst Rafael,

Danny Welbeck and Nani are amongst those eager to play some

part.

“We have a good, strong squad,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“We took 20 players with us to Stoke and those 20 players will

go with us again tomorrow.”

The Northern Ireland youth international, who has spent the last

two campaigns with Rovers, has established himself as the Pirates’

first choice right-back under manager John Ward and has been one of

their star performers this season.

“I’ve been really pleased with Michael’s attitude and approach

to the game since I’ve worked with him,” Ward told the club’s

official website.

“He wants to try to improve as a player with Bristol Rovers,

which is good news for everyone.

“He has been an absolute diamond in terms of our back five and

has played a very big part in us getting ourselves into a safe

position.”

Smith said: “It’s a relief to get a new contract signed with two

games of this season still to go.

“I’ve enjoyed two years here already and I’m really enjoying my

football at the moment and I hope that, as a team, we can continue

the progress we have made this season.”

Eleven-goal striker Steven Fletcher’s season was prematurely

over long before the Italian was handed the reins at the Stadium of

Light as predecessor Martin O’Neill packed his bags.

However, far from bemoaning the loss of O’Neill’s ?12million

summer signing, Di Canio has simply ordered the men he has left

behind to do what they do further up the pitch to provide his team

with a greater goal threat.

That was a familiar theme too during the latter days of the

Ulsterman’s reign, but it paid swift and glorious dividends on

Sunday when the Black Cats struck three times without reply to

clinch a famous derby win at Newcastle.

Di Canio said: “It will help to create more chances.

“People like [Adam] Johnson, who in the past used to run 70

yards with the ball and then arrive at the edge of the box and be

empty in the legs without the chance to strike – maybe now there

will be a chance that sometimes he can get the ball near the box

and use his talent and maybe strike on goal.

“It’s exactly the same on the other side with James [McClean] or

Sebastian [Larsson].

“From the middle, one midfield player always has to attack the

edge of the box so with a rebound, we are not 60 yards or 40 yards

from the goal, we are close.

“The mechanism and the system will help this team to cancel out

the fact that we don’t have a top scorer who can turn the game on

his own.

“In any instance near the box, we are going to find a way to

score, I am sure.

“The fitness has grown a bit and the belief is higher that we

are going to score enough goals to stay up.”

O’Neill was acutely aware of his side’s attacking problems –

they scored only six goals in his last eight games at the helm and

even Fletcher, who played in seven of them, could manage just a

single strike, and that in a 3-1 defeat at QPR.

But in just two outings since his arrival at the Stadium of

Light, Di Canio has witnessed four, the first of them admittedly an

own goal by Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta.

However, it will be the manner in which the players responded to

his orders at St James’ Park which will have pleased the

44-year-old most.

Stephane Sessegnon’s opener came courtesy of an enterprising

surge in-field from a wide position and a sweet strike from

distance, and Johnson’s second arrived in similar style.

The third, a beautifully precise curling finish by substitute

David Vaughan, summed up a fresh attitude, players prepared to

accept the responsibility to advance into attacking positions and

take a chance, something which happened with decreasing regularity

and dwindling confidence as O’Neill’s exit approached.

Di Canio said: “Before this game, there were people who are real

warriors thinking, ‘If we lose against Newcastle, we stay down

there. What’s going on? We are maybe going to lose some

places’.

“I said, ‘Calm. We are going to win, we are going to relax,

recover energy and maybe we can go out [of trouble] earlier than we

thought’.

“But once again, it’s a little step, it’s a very, very important

little step forward.”

Chelsea relinquished their hold on the FA Cup with a 2-1

semi-final loss to City on Sunday, but came close to forcing

extra-time with a revival in the final 25 minutes.

The Blues have little time to dwell on the defeat ahead of

Wednesday’s west London derby at Craven Cottage, where victory and

a consolidation of a top-four place and Champions League football

next term is the main agenda.

“It was a surprise because I thought we were ready physically

and mentally,” Benitez said of the FA Cup defeat.

“We had to adapt things at half-time. We conceded an early goal

(in the second half), but after you could see the reaction of the

team.

“That means we were ready, but you have to start from the

beginning, not just the second half.”

The Fulham fixture is Chelsea’s 60th of a congested season, but

Benitez believes the second-half revival proved fatigue is not an

issue as he continues to manage his squad.

Captain John Terry and midfielder Frank Lampard were unused

substitutes at Wembley, but are expected to return as Benitez

rotates his options on Wednesday.

“If you analyse our reaction in the second half, we showed

quality, character and energy,” Benitez said.

“To manage the squad is part of our job and still we have some

legs and some determination to win games.

“We have had a lot of games and we still have nine or 10 games

to play. All the squad, all the players will be important. “They

(Terry and Lampard) have been important and it has to be the same

until the end.

“A lot of players have done a great job and they have to do a

great job until the end, all of them.”

Fernando Torres made an impact as a substitute against City and

is also anticipated to start, which could mean a return to the

bench for Sunday’s trip to his former club Liverpool.

Torres has scored four times in three Europa League matches

since suffering a broken nose against Steaua Bucharest, an injury

which has seen him don a protective face mask.

The Spaniard is still awaiting a first Premier League goal since

December, though, as he is regularly switched with Demba Ba.

Torres may continue in the mask until the end of the season.

Benitez said: “He’s training well. He has confidence now and if

he needs to keep the mask on, he will.

“He has to be comfortable. If he’s okay with the mask and has to

wear it, he will go maybe until the end of the season.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know. It depends on him and he’s

comfortable now playing with the mask.”

Benitez was celebrating his 53rd birthday on Tuesday, with one

hope.

“My wish is to win every game until the end of the season,” he

said.

Should the Blues achieve that, they will qualify for the

Champions League and win the Europa League.

The defeat to City may have sharpened focus, with two targets,

rather than three, with the consequences of missing out on the

Champions League next term unthinkable.

And victory on Wednesday would take Chelsea three points clear

of fifth-placed Tottenham, whom they play in the penultimate week

of the season, on May 8.

“We wanted to go to the final, like in the Europa League, but at

the same time you have to keep an eye on the Premier League,”

Benitez said.

“Every game is important until the end of the season. Obviously

this one, if we win we will be in the top three again.

“We know that we have to concentrate, get three points and be

ready for the next challenge on Sunday (at Liverpool).”

City can do Chelsea a favour this weekend, when they play Spurs,

with Sergio Aguero available despite his two-footed stomp on David

Luiz.

Benitez would not be drawn into commenting on whether or not the

Argentinian should have been banned.

“It’s the FA who has to decide,” he said.

“We cannot have any influence, so we have to move on.”

Chelsea have one point from the last four away matches in the

Premier League – at Reading in January.

Benitez hopes to end that run and continue a record of one

defeat in 23 in the Premier League against the Cottagers.

“We have to improve our form away,” Benitez said.

“A derby’s a derby, everything can happen. Hopefully we can do

well and we can keep the history with us.”