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Scotland captain Darren Fletcher allays fitness concerns

Darren Fletcher has played just two competitve matches in the past six months

Scotland captain Darren Fletcher insists he is unworried by his lack of playing time this year as he prepares to lead Craig Levein’s side in crucial Euro 2012 qualifiers against Czech Republic and Lithuania.

Fletcher, 27, has not played for his country in 2011 and has only played two competitive games since the beginning of March after being hit by a lingering virus.

The Manchester United midfielder worked with a personal fitness coach while his club team-mates were on their pre-season tour of the USA, and his appearances this season have been restricted to reserve games against Arsenal and Swansea.

But he dismissed claims his inclusion for the Hampden double-header is a risk, saying: “Not at all because of the experience I have at this level. I have 53 caps so I know what to expect at this level.

“I’m the captain – I feel I bring a lot to the team in terms of communication. I feel as fit as I ever have, I feel strong. Players have had one or two more matches than me but I don’t believe that’s a problem.”

Fletcher, who has had to regain weight he lost when the mystery virus struck, is confident about facing both the Czechs on Saturday and Lithuania on Tuesday.

“First and foremost the Czech Republic game is the one but I don’t envisage it being a problem playing both matches,” he said. “I feel as fit as I have done in more than a year. I’ve had a fantastic pre-season, it was more of a personal pre-season. I worked very hard and I’ve come through both reserve games without a problem.”

Scotland manager Levein warned last month that Fletcher would need to make “exceptional” progress to return to his squad but he is confident his skipper is ready.

“I have been assured by him and his club he is 100%,” Levein said. “On the evidence of training this week I can tell you that’s true. He has not played for a while, certainly not at this level.

“But he has the experience at this level. Is he going to be fazed by playing a game at this level? Certainly not. So for me it’s an easy decision. I have absolutely no concerns whatsoever, in fact it’s a huge bonus for us to have Darren fit and available and ready to lead the team.”

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Cristiano Ronaldo not to blame for defeat – Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho

  • News: Casillas bemoans shootout ‘lottery’
  • Match report: Bayern book Champions League final date with Chelsea

Following Champions League elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich, Jose Mourinho was not willing to blame Portuguese talisman Cristiano Ronaldo for his penalty shootout miss.

Mourinho, who watched his club exit the competition after two gruelling ties, believes that Ronaldo has been the best player in Spain this season and therefore should not be blamed for misfiring from 12 yards.

“Cristiano had to fail someday,” Mourinho said. “I don’t want to be radical and say if he or someone else is the best, I do not want to go there. We are talking about Messi and Cristiano, two unique players.

“But this season, Cristiano has been better and a difference-maker. If Barca and us have not made it to the final, it is both our fault. After two hours of working to our limit, going to penalties is not easy. The luck was with them.”

Mourinho was full of praise for his side’s efforts and believes that that the weekend’s fixture with Barcelona ultimately took its toll on his side.

“The boys were fantastic,” Mourinho said. “The mentality was incredible against a great team who have been in a state of holiday for the last week, while we played a match like no other.

“We lacked a bit of freshness and there was a lot of tension. When it is 2-1, whoever made a mistake was going to lose. It was a great game. We lost and we are sad, but football and life is like this.

“It’s normal because we wanted to win. I am saddest for my players. It hurts to see them sad, but we must be strong. Last year we won the cup, so if we win the league it is a step-forward. I am proud of the guys, there is nothing to criticise. I am proud of this group.”

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Cristiano Ronaldo not to blame for defeat – Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho

  • News: Casillas bemoans shootout ‘lottery’
  • Match report: Bayern book Champions League final date with Chelsea

Following Champions League elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich, Jose Mourinho was not willing to blame Portuguese talisman Cristiano Ronaldo for his penalty shootout miss.

Mourinho, who watched his club exit the competition after two gruelling ties, believes that Ronaldo has been the best player in Spain this season and therefore should not be blamed for misfiring from 12 yards.

“Cristiano had to fail someday,” Mourinho said. “I don’t want to be radical and say if he or someone else is the best, I do not want to go there. We are talking about Messi and Cristiano, two unique players.

“But this season, Cristiano has been better and a difference-maker. If Barca and us have not made it to the final, it is both our fault. After two hours of working to our limit, going to penalties is not easy. The luck was with them.”

Mourinho was full of praise for his side’s efforts and believes that that the weekend’s fixture with Barcelona ultimately took its toll on his side.

“The boys were fantastic,” Mourinho said. “The mentality was incredible against a great team who have been in a state of holiday for the last week, while we played a match like no other.

“We lacked a bit of freshness and there was a lot of tension. When it is 2-1, whoever made a mistake was going to lose. It was a great game. We lost and we are sad, but football and life is like this.

“It’s normal because we wanted to win. I am saddest for my players. It hurts to see them sad, but we must be strong. Last year we won the cup, so if we win the league it is a step-forward. I am proud of the guys, there is nothing to criticise. I am proud of this group.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic demands respect from English critics

  • News: Hodgson not concerned by Hart form
  • Preview: Gerrard declines Zlatan’s offer of advice
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes he has forever silenced his critics after scoring four goals – including an outrageous overhead strike in injury time – to hand Sweden a 4-2 triumph over England.

Ibrahimovic’s performance was lauded by his Three Lions counterpart Steven Gerrard following the match in Stockholm. However, the Paris Saint-Germain striker says his talents have not always been appreciated in England, until now.

“That’s the way it is with the English,” Ibrahimovic said. “If you score against them you’re a good player, if you don’t score against them you’re not a good player.

“I remember Lionel Messi before the 2009 Champions League final for Barcelona … then he scored against Manchester United and suddenly he was the best player in the world. Maybe now they’ll say something like that about me.”

The 31-year-old’s remarkable fourth goal came when he anticipated England goalkeeper Joe Hart’s clearing header and reacted with an acrobatic overhead kick from 30 yards. The strike took his international tally to 39 goals in 85 appearances, and Ibrahimovic rejoiced by ripping off his shirt and celebrating with the fans.

“Hart was a long way out and I was just trying to get it into the goal. I was on the ground when it was on the way in. I saw a defender sliding in to try to get rid of it and I wanted to scream ‘No’ but the ball went in.

“Even if it was a friendly I had to show my happiness and give it back to the crowd. What went through me then it’s hard to describe. I enjoyed it very much,” he explained.

Sweden boss Erik Hamren described the feat as like “watching a video game”, but insists it is not unusual for Ibrahimovic to create the unexpected.

“I don’t know if you’re going to see another one like that in your life,” said Hamren. “Sometimes, when he’s doing these things, in training or in matches, you don’t think it’s possible. Because it’s not possible to do that – the fourth goal, for example.”

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Newcastle United striker Papiss Demba Cisse revelling in No. 9 pressure

Scoring sensation Papiss Demba Cisse has admitted he is thriving on the pressure of trying to live up to the demands of wearing Newcastle’s famous number nine shirt.

Cisse, 26, has plundered 11 goals in just 10 appearances for the club since he joined from Freiburg in a near £10 million switch in January.

His contribution has proved key in a run of six successive victories which have propelled the Magpies into fourth place in the Premier League table and to within touching distance of Champions League qualification.

Cisse is well aware of the history of the shirt he has inherited, and in particular, the heroics performed in it by one of his predecessors, Alan Shearer.

He told Sky Sports: “When I came, it was a big surprise that they had reserved the shirt for me. I just said, ‘Wow!’. That’s more pressure on me, but pressure in a good way, pressure which motivates me.

“He [Shearer] is a footballing legend here at Newcastle, and I come from nowhere and get to wear it… At the moment, I am growing into it and I hope, God willing, to continue wearing it.”

Cisse’s exploits to date have won him a rapturous welcome from the Toon Army, and the rapidly developing love affair is mutual.

The striker said: “I can tell you that scoring a goal in that stadium is something amazing. Even yesterday, I was remembering a goal that I scored in front of them. My eyes met with those in the crowd and I told myself, ‘Wow, this is something really extraordinary’.”

Cisse is one of several of Alan Pardew’s players to have excelled in recent months, with France international Hatem Ben Arfa particularly impressive after recovering from his double leg fracture.

His efforts too have been appreciated as much in the dressing room as they have from the terraces.

Cisse said: “The first time I saw him here, I thought, ‘There is something Messi-like about this guy’. The ball sticks to his feet. He can run with it – he can do anything with it. It’s extraordinary. It’s a pleasure to watch him play.”

The Magpies head for Wigan on Saturday knowing their hopes of a top-four finish remain in their own hands, although with tough games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton to come.

But as they have done all season, they will tackle each hurdle as it arrives and see where they end up at the end of the campaign.

Cisse said: “We are going to take each match as it comes and take the points as we can, hoping to win every game and that other teams slip up. Hopefully, we can take the points.”

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West Ham captain Kevin Nolan Ive deserved an England call-up

  • News: Sturridge backs Zaha to shine for England
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West Ham captain Kevin Nolan believes his performances at club level should have led to international recognition by now and that being regularly overlooked by England managers has left him “hurt”.

Nolan, 30, has enjoyed a long Premier League career with Bolton, Newcastle United and West Ham but despite being one of the top-flight’s most consistent midfielders over the past decade, he has failed to win an England cap.

Leon Osman and Wilfried Zaha were surprise call-ups to Roy Hodgson’s squad for this week’s friendly against Sweden but Nolan was again omitted.

“It does hurt I haven’t got one [England cap] I must admit, and it does hurt a bit, but it is something I have got to live with and I’m a big boy,” Nolan said.

“I don’t know what more I can do to be quite honest. I’ve scored goals consistently for a number of years, I dropped down a division but consistently scored goals down there.”

Nolan’s former Newcastle team-mate Joey Barton took to Twitter to lend his support to the Hammers skipper’s claim, posting: “Osman good player in the last few years. But he’s 32 [31] and isnt gonna improve an average side.

“If there [sic] giving out charity caps, all am saying is, Nolan should of [sic] had a call up years ago. As for me, well thats something entirely different. Lets not go there.”

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Manchester United share price 40 below Glazer target

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Manchester United’s share price has dropped to $12 – its lowest price yet and giving the club a valuation 40% less than the Glazers had hoped.

Ten per cent of United’s shares were put up for sale on the New York Stock Exchange last month with their American owners hoping to achieve a price of $20 each, which would have valued the club at $3.3 billion.

But they only received $14 a share at first, and even that was down to the financial institutions who had underwritten the Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Since then, prices have slipped further and reached the $12 barrier at midday on Thursday in New York – giving United a value of $2 billion (just over £1.2 billion).

The Glazers paid around £800 million to complete their takeover in 2005 and, had shares sold at $20 apiece, stood to make a huge profit if the remaining 90% of shares were made available to investors.

However, financial analysts have long warned that United’s shares were overpriced and in August, PrivCo, the Private Financial Company Data Authority, said the right value for them was just $4.97 each.

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Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert denies Darren Bent rift

  • News: Bent sidelined by ankle injury
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  • News: Villa not planning to offload Bent
  • Profile: Darren Bent

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert has once again denied there is a problem between himself and Darren Bent, despite the striker’s latest omission from the starting line-up.

Bent, 28, has found life tough at Villa Park this season, having been dropped to the bench in four of the club’s last five encounters, as well as losing the club captaincy.

Tuesday night’s 3-2 Capital One Cup win at Swindon was the latest match in which Villa’s record signing has found himself as a substitute, with Lambert preferring Andreas Weimann, Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor ahead of him.

However, the Villa boss insists the England international’s exclusion was down to tactics and when asked if there is a rift problem between the two, Lambert told the Daily Mirror: “No, nothing. Not a thing – I speak to him.

“All I try and do is pick a team which will win a game. Everybody is involved in it and that is all I do. The system at Swindon dictated I played Andi [Weimann] out wide. To be fair to Andi, I think he has been playing really well and been unfortunate not to start.

“It [where Weimann played] is a different position from the way Darren plays.”

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Arsenal will make top-four finish – Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry made a dream return for Arsenal

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Thierry Henry insists Arsenal “have what it takes” to reach the top four this season as he eyes an extension of his loan deal in order to take on third-placed rivals Tottenham.

Henry made a match-winning return for the Gunners on Monday night as he scored the winner in a 1-0 FA Cup triumph over Leeds. Now, the club’s record goalscorer has his sights set on helping Arsenal move back into the top four on the Premier League table and into another Champions League campaign.

“We obviously don’t want to drop out of [Champions League] positions,” said Henry. “There’s going to be a hell of a competition this year to be in them. But I do think this team does have what it takes to finish in the top four, particularly if you think about the way the team has come back from the beginning of the season.

“I know that people want more, and I can assure you that the players want more. [Targeting a place in the top four is] not what you want to see as an Arsenal fan and, trust me, as an Arsenal player also. But the team is slowly getting into form. The season is still long, anything can happen.”

The 34-year-old is currently on loan with Arsenal from his Major League Soccer club New York Red Bulls. The deal expires on February 16, but Henry suggested he is keen to take up the option of staying on for another 10 days so that he can take on north London rivals – and fellow Champions League aspirants – Spurs, as well as the first leg of the Champions League tie against AC Milan.

“Remember I am a Red Bulls player, and all this depends upon what the boss decides to do, and how long I am going to stay,” said Henry. “But it would be a dream to be part of a team playing in the Champions League or playing against Tottenham.

“But that would be the same for any game, even if I never came on [from the bench]. I’m just trying to take all this in. That’s something I didn’t do enough when I was playing here before.

“When you’re at the ground every three days, you don’t enjoy it as you should. I know it’s not going to last long. I guess it was always going to be surreal. I just hope I don’t wake up tomorrow to be told by someone that this has all been a dream.”

Henry also stated his dream to be reunited in attack with in-form Gunners front-man Robin van Persie, saying: “Ask any player right now if they’d want to play with Robin and they will tell you ‘yes’. I’ve said it so many times.

“But I’m not here to be a hero. I’m just here to help the team and do my best for the club. I want to go with the flow, be an extra player for the boss and try and do a job if I get the chance to come on.”