Jim White

This was O’Neill’s week

Jim White

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Despite the noise he made, this was not Carlos Tevez's week. That accolade belongs elsewhere.

Sure, if nothing else, the Argentine's latest observation about Gary Neville should have ensured golf ball sales go up in Manchester. That the United stalwart is "a moron and a shoe licker" is perhaps not the most original thing that has been said about him, nor, given the Kop's extensive repertoire of fruity Nev-related insults, the wittiest. But if ever there was a time to lay off the slagging, even of such a rich target as United's shop steward-in-chief, a moment to step back and behave with slightly more decorum, it is now, just as the temperature in Manchester reaches a point where several gallons of cooling Carling need to be applied to the festering sore.

Still, we now get the point: little Carlos feels hard done by. United dissed him. And never mind the fact that - if it involved winning two league titles, a Champions League medal, a Carling Cup winner's medal and a Club World Cup gong, while being paid in excess of £50,000-a-week and having your name chanted by 40,000-plus eager followers - most of us would happily be similarly dissed, the slight is clearly motivating the diminutive forward into some special performances.

And the question those watching from slightly less over-wrought viewpoints, away from the flares and the missiles, have to ask is this: is Gary Neville right? Was his beloved manager behaving in the best interests of the club in letting Tevez cross the city to City? The answer right now appears to be no. Alex Ferguson doesn't make many mistakes, but allowing Tevez to depart at the same time as Ronaldo looks like one. It has unquestionably weakened his squad. At times his team has looked short of spark.

Sure, as they did in the first half at Eastlands on Tuesday, they can still stroke the ball around the park as well as anyone else. But for the final application of a killer thrust they are simply over-reliant on Wayne Rooney. It does not appear to be coming from anywhere else. If Ronaldo were still there, he would supply it, routinely and magnificently. But Tevez's scurrying commitment too would help, it would give the others around him time and space. It would ask questions of opponents. Maybe at £25 million, plus the £9m he had already cost in loan fees, he was over-priced. Though Dimitar Berbatov cost £30m and the manager didn't demur from signing that particular cheque.

Mind, whether it is a weakened United or an upwardly mobile City who make it to Wembley, that they return with a trophy is by no means guaranteed. Particularly as it is now Martin O'Neill who stands in their way. The Irishman was on fine phlegmatic form after the amazing victory his Aston Villa side enjoyed in the other semi final over Blackburn, suggesting that the only moment he enjoyed in a match that had neutrals rocking in their sofas up and down the land, was when Ashley Young made it 6-4 with about 15 seconds to go. "Not even I thought Blackburn could score two in the time left," the perpetual pessimist suggested.

O'Neill has built a fine side at Villa Park, likely to yield as many as five members of England's World Cup squad in June. The mark of a real manager is the ability to improve players, rather as O'Neill's mentor Brian Clough did with him. And in James Milner, O'Neill has the perfect calling card to demonstrate his skill. Having been merely useful at Newcastle, Milner is explosive, as potent right now as any midfielder in the country. If O'Neill can elicit a similar improvement in Stewart Downing over the next four months, turn him too into a potent, goal-scoring, ball-carrying threat, the entire nation would have cause to thank him. And it would leave us reflecting just what O'Neill might have done had he ever been able to work with Carlos Tevez...

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