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Rio Ferdinand’s withdrawal highlights the power of Sir Alex Ferguson

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‘Sir Alex knows what’s best for me. Sir Alex knows what’s best for me. Sir Alex knows what’s best for me’.

This has to be Rio Ferdinand’s sanity-maintaining mantra following his decision to pull out of England’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro.

It wasn’t but one month ago that the United defender admitted that he would “pack my bag and go” if recalled by Roy Hodgson to play for England. So when that call finally came last Thursday, Ferdinand went for it despite the fact that it raised the possibility of the center-back playing four games in 11 days for England and Manchester United.

Cue Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Scot cast doubt on the call up on Friday when he mentioned Ferdinand’s training and medical program that the United training staff had implemented for the player’s reoccurring back injury. “The issue is not that [the amount of games], the issue is his whole preparation for football today,” the manager said.

“Because he hasn’t been playing international football when the international breaks have come along we have detailed all the things he has to do: when he trains, when his treatments come along. Therefore it is a disruption to his normal preparation.”

Ferguson’s words prompted Hodgson to contact the United manager – which the Three Lions’ manager should have done before announcing his squad – to discuss how to adhere to the center-back’s treatment program. Hodgson suggested that Ferdinand could be rested for the laugher against San Marino and inserted for the vital clash with Montenegro. But such a plan didn’t fly with the almighty Ferguson who wanted Ferdinand to play in the league game at Sunderland on Saturday and the FA Cup replay with Chelsea the following Monday.

One would think Hodgson would have questioned why Ferguson would require Ferdinand against Martin O’Neill’s struggling squad when United is 15 points clear in the title race, but such a move would have taken at least a bit of backbone, which the England manager simply didn’t have. Instead, Hodgson remained coy and deeply respectful of his meeting with The Knighted-One, saying: “Sir Alex is an important person for me to keep in touch with. But I’m not prepared ever to discuss the content of our conversation. That will remain private between us.”

And so, with the private nature of that conversation buried deep in the vaults of St. George’s Park, Ferdinand’s status remained up in the air. By Sunday, Ferdinand was recovering from his man-of-the-match performance in the 1-0 win against Reading (and his Saturday night out at the One Direction concert, obviously a key component to the treatment program) and decided to call Hodgson for a face to face chat. From all accounts the discussion went swimmingly, with Ferdinand saying, “I told Roy that I want to continue to be available for England and I look forward to working with him in the future.”

The idea that Ferdinand was comfortable withdrawing after having been left off Hodgson’s roster for Euro 2012 and each of the ensuing friendlies is a bit perplexing – until you factor in Ferguson’s heavy-handed influence and the fact that the center-back’s contract at United expires this summer. Gulp. If the 34 year old is to get a new deal at Old Trafford – even if it is a Ryan Giggs single season special – then no matter how badly Ferdinand wanted to return to England, he knew he had to choose club over country.

Such is the power of Alex Ferguson and the weight of finances in a footballer’s life.

The next round of international fixtures arrives in May. Whether Ferdinand will be afforded, or, more accurately, allowed the opportunity to play for his country at that time is unclear. But we could probably just ask Ferguson.

Mourinho set to join Manchester United within 48 hours

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 22:  Jose Mourinho leaves his home on May 22, 2016 in London, England. Mourinho is rumoured to be in line to replace Louis van Gaal as manager of Manchester United. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho could be formally installed as Manchester United manager within the next 36 hours, according to Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol.

[ MORE: LVG issues statement ]

Mourinho has reportedly been in talks with the club since Louis Van Gaal was fired earlier this week, though talk of his communication with the Old Trafford club has been whispered seemingly from the opened Chelsea fired him.

[ VIDEO: Most bizarre moments of LVG’s reign ]

As competitive as the Premier League has been, it’s hard to imagine Mourinho won’t take United to the next level. He has won the league within two seasons at every stop between Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.

In Chelsea’s case, he’s done it twice.

Klinsmann eyes Copa America “final four”; What are the USMNT’s chances?

EAST HARTFORD, CT- OCTOBER 10:  Enner Valencia #13 of Ecuador works the ball by DeAndre Yedlin #2 of the United States in the second half during an international friendly at Rentschler Field on October 10, 2014 in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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“We want to get to the final four,” screams a Tweet from US Soccer on Jurgen Klinsmann’s goal for the United States national team in this summer’s Copa America Centenario.

That aim is, of course, nothing new, but how big of an accomplishment would it be for the Yanks to go marching into the semifinals?

[ MORE: Eyeing the USMNT’s friendlies ]

It’s not quite the challenge of making the penultimate round of a longer tournament, but it is a sizable challenge nevertheless: advance from the group stage and win a game.

From USSoccer.com:

“We have to learn how to get in a tournament really to the next level. And the next level is – and at Copa America now – is to win your quarterfinal. Win your quarterfinal against whoever that will be in order to make the final four. This is our goal, so we want to be in that tournament very long. We want to play six games in this tournament, and we believe that this roster is very, very hungry, very determined and very aggressive going into these games.”

Getting out of Group A is to be expected despite a difficult group schedule that could see them start behind the 8-ball after opening with Colombia. The Yanks will get one more day of rest than second opponent Costa Rica before closing with Paraguay.

Winning against Paraguay is a must, and the South American nation is no dud. The Paraguayans did not lose in the group stage of the 2015 tournament, finishing about Uruguay and Jamaica before beating Brazil in penalties and getting stomped by Argentina.

The Yanks will have to topple a Group B team to advance to the semis. Brazil will be favored to easily win its group, with Ecuador, Haiti and Peru completing the quartet. If the U.S. finishes first, it will projected to earn a match with Wednesday’s friendly opponent: Ecuador.

The USMNT was battered by Brazil in the last matchup between the two sides, a late Danny Williams goal its only highlight, while it drew Ecuador 1-1 in 2014. The latter was Landon Donovan’s final USMNT game, and more pageantry than competition.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

We’ll get a good taste for the Yanks’ chances in how John Brooks and Geoff Cameron (or Matt Besler) fare in handling the attacks of Ecuador and Bolivia in this week’s friendlies, because attempting to stop Colombia is a lost cause if they can’t handle that duo.

Still, a loss to Colombia could be amended by defeating Costa Rica and Paraguay, matches that will be more about attacking prowess and finding goals (especially if Colombia rolls up digits in the group opener). In that instance, the readiness of Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey to bury chances will be key.

Euro 2016 security concerns grow after French Cup incidents

The European soccer championships trophy is put on display before a press conference to mark the hundred days to go before the start of Euro 2016 soccer tournament, in Paris, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
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PARIS (AP) The French football federation opened disciplinary proceedings against Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille on Monday following incidents during the French Cup final that raised major concerns only a few weeks before the country hosts the European Championship.

Despite a two-meter high security wall surrounding the Stade de France and triple security checks, supporters smuggled flares into the venue in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and ignited fires in the stands on Saturday. Some supporters also tried to invade the pitch.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Fans also complained about severe overcrowding at the security check points. PSG won the game 4-2.

Following a meeting on Monday, the French Interior Ministry said “it has been decided to correct dysfunction without delay in order to guarantee the fluidity of supporters entering sporting venues and to strengthen security checks by private companies and secure stadium exits.”

Seine-Saint-Denis area prefect Philippe Galli admitted there were serious security breaches during a match that was seen as the final test before Euro 2016, which will be held in 10 cities across France from June 10-July 10.

“The system was under pressure, and it gave way on some points,” Galli told Europe 1 radio, adding that police were overwhelmed by fans.

Galli said problems arose due to the limited number of access points to the stadium, reduced from 26 to just four under the new security plan.

He said body searches also need to be improved before the tournament starts.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Trying to ease concerns, both the football federation and Interior Ministry insisted that security measures put in place during the Euros will be different.

The French federation said it did not consider the game a “test event” because it was a club match. Marseille and PSG fans have often clashed in their tense derbies.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead in November last year, France remains in a state of emergency which was recently extended by two months and will cover the ongoing French Open at Roland Garros, Euro 2016 and the Tour de France in July.

It expands police powers to put people under house arrest and allows authorities to forbid the movement of people and vehicles at specific times and places.

Louis van Gaal’s Man United tenure a strangely intriguing wreck

Manchester United v Cambridge United - FA Cup Fourth Round Replay
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Louis Van Gaal has left the building.

The 64-year-old Dutchman is out as Manchester United’s manager after the club confirmed the worst kept secret in sport on Monday with his three-year contract cut short after United’s failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Two years after arriving at Old Trafford, we are all still a little confused as to what actually happened as the allure of LVG had us bamboozled, disgusted and intrigued, while perhaps now even a little sad that it’s over.

Van Gaal divided opinion among United’s fans, former players, pundits and the media for most of his tenure at Old Trafford. Now the end has arrived we’re not really sure if United are better off, worse off or just in a similar spot to before LVG arrived in 2014.

[ MORE: LVG releases statement after exit ] 

Towards the end there’s been an inevitability about his departure but it’s worth noting that when the history books look back at his time in charge of one of the world’s biggest teams, history will likely be kind to him. Right now it seems like a failure but compared to David Moyes‘ time in charge, it’s not. He delivered two top five finishes and an FA Cup trophy even if he couldn’t get them back to the UCL for next season. From that point of view he failed to meet his targets but despite all of the unrest about the tactics, personnel choices and his character, he didn’t miss his targets by much.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Despite the tedious, glacial rate of play he fostered among his team, there were flashes of brilliance throughout his reign which kept you interested, kept you thinking that maybe, just maybe, LVG’s boys would spark into life and deliver the goods. Anthony Martial‘s late goal against Liverpool this season. Marcus Rashford‘s double against Arsenal. The 4-2 home win against Manchester City and the win at City earlier this season. All of those moments gave you a notion that maybe the previous struggles were all part of Van Gaal’s masterplan.

It has been said many times before in sport and I think United’s fans can vouch for this after the past two years: it’s not the losing, it’s the hope that kills you.

[ MORE: Cantona wants Guardiola over Mourinho ]

He arrived after success with the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup and a mystique surrounding his name after the decades he spent on the European continent. Under LVG, United were meant to return to a swashbuckling giant, a force to be reckoned with in England and Europe. Yet it became clear quite early in his reign that that wasn’t going to be the case.

From his bizarre player selections to his penchant for slow, possession based play, Van Gaal quickly ate away at any excitement United’s fans had for him. Every now and then he would deliver memorable moments like throwing himself to the ground in the technical area, an impromptu speech on the mic at the end of season awards dinner and blurting out something about sex masochism in the media to keep everyone interested.

[ MORE: Best moments of LVG’s bizarre tenure

He told his players to be “horny” for the win, called out Sam Allardyce‘s long-ball accusations and had a go at journalists most weekends. The LVG sideshow delivered. The play on the pitch didn’t and that’s what ultimately cost him his job as his three-year project to return United to greatness ground to a halt. There was so much to dislike about Van Gaal’s egotistic comments and brash demeanor but at the same time there were so many reasons to admire him.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Louis van Gaal, manager of Manchester Uniited speaks during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first leg match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Aon Training Complex on March 9, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)

Van Gaal is a man who led the club like Sir Alex Ferguson did, someone who knew what it meant to be at the helm of a global team and treat the fans with the respect they deserve and foster a family environment throughout the club. He put everything into it, even if he didn’t show it as he sat in the dugout writing notes on his clipboard during games. That angered fans and pundits who wanted to see more aggression a la Jurgen Klopp. They wanted more excitement and LVG couldn’t deliver it.

United’s fans were simply bored of seeing their team play. They recorded their lowest ever goals tally in the PL era this season. They went 11 home games in a season without scoring a goal in the first half. They simply didn’t deliver an exciting product on the pitch.

Van Gaal pointed to his philosophy and way of playing and he certainly stamped that on the team, successful or not. They led the PL in average possession this season and in backwards passes and although he managed to get through his ideas clearly to the players, it just didn’t work in the PL.

Manchester United Press Conference

All the time, though, it was interesting to see the situation unfold.

Many times United’s fans didn’t want to look, just like when you pass a car wreck on the road but are guilty of rubber-necking. Everybody, no matter what team you supported, wanted to drive by and have a long glance at United’s issues and then have their say on the matter without being up close at the scene to deal with the injury crisis’, plus having to blood youngsters (somewhat successfully) early, help under-performing players recover and then deal with the pressure which comes with managing such an illustrious club.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United celebrates with winning goalscorer Anthony Martial of Manchester United after victory in The Emirates FA Cup semi final match between Everton and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on April 23, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most damning factor of his tenure was player recruitment. Van Gaal was given over $375 million to rebuild a team demoralized by Moyes and then decimated in the summer the Dutchman arrived. The only money he spent wisely was on Martial and Daley Blind plus helped the likes of Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson break into the team.

Mercurial talents such as Angel di Maria, Memphis and Radamel Falcao just didn’t fit into his system. Until the bitter end he spoke about the club’s failure to get in his transfer targets, the players he wanted and tried to defend his teams lack of cutting edge in the final third. In the end, his excuses fell on deaf ears. He tried to explain himself too much over the two years and his relationship with the media soured over time.

One of the most alluring things about Van Gaal is his personality. He is brash, confident and outspoken because he’s been there, seen it and done it. He’s won trophies in Holland, Spain, Germany and now in England after his FA Cup success. He is an Amsterdammer who believes in himself and his ability as a manager. That provided countless moments in press conferences where awkward silences would be conjured by LVG, all the time glaring at a journalist who dared to question his authority, his team selections or the mentality of his team. He continued that until the end and went at the media time and time again.

His last words to the media as Manchester United’a manager were at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, just as news was breaking from people in that very room that Jose Mourinho was set to take his job from him.

One last time he was bullish, combative and forthright.

Asking questions to Van Gaal over the past few years in crowded press conferences (they were never empty because, well, nobody knew what he would say next) myself and others always felt his eyes latch onto you as he sized you up and decided if you were worthy of an answer. He played the game. He always kept everyone guessing, just like the man he tried to replicate at United, Sir Alex Ferguson, did. His need for control seemed overbearing but he was old school, a former school teacher from Amsterdam who was the heir to Johan Cruyff at Ajax but never got the chance to break through and replace his idol.

If his playing career wasn’t anything special, his career as a coach has been. He built a dynasty at Ajax, won major trophies with huge clubs and led the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals in 2014 with a team that excited the fans. His time with Manchester United will live long in the memory despite two seasons of mediocrity for a club of their size. Fourth-place and fifth-place Premier League finishes will not be celebrated in 10 years to come by United’s fans but they’ll be sat having a pint in a pub saying “do you remember when Van Gaal…”

His legacy won’t be glorious among United’s fans but it will be memorable. Van Gaal’s legend lives on as intrigue and mystique remain as he saunters out of the exit door at Old Trafford.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United salutes the fans after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)