De Rossi warns Inter and praises Ranieri

(GSM) - Daniele De Rossi still believes Roma can mount a title challenge despite an eight-point gap with league leaders Internazionale.

Roma are back on track after a struggling start of the season and are unbeaten in seventeen games.

"It's an incredible thing," Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Many factors have tied in together: a maturation of character, serenity, results. It's credit to the group.

"Other teams would have beaten someone up in the dressing room. Instead we always remained united. We are healthy. Sure, Inter are too, but the Champions League could bother them later on.

"The table says that, together with Milan, we are the anti-Inter. Let six or seven games pass and then we'll see. Also because there is still a match to play against them at home."

Asked to explain the difference Claudio Ranieri made since he took over from Luciano Spalletti De Rossi said: "He is an expert. He never gives up the charge.

"Claudio has given us the compactness that we needed. And it's not true that he doesn't love good football. Look at the games against Fiorentina and Genoa.”

Finally, De Rossi outlined his ambitions this season: "I would like to win the Europa League, but our objective now is to finish third and return to the Champions League without the preliminaries.

"It's too important for us as a window and for the club on an economic level."

Hargreaves looks set for United return

(GSM) - Finally, there's light at the end of the tunnel for Owen Hargreaves. The Manchester United midfielder has been recovering from various knee injuries for almost one and a half year now and should've been fit for a while.

At last, his return looks to be in sight: the Mancunian aims for a comeback against Milan, later this month.

Sir Alex Ferguson hopes Hargreaves will be available to him for the first time in seventeen months.

"But we won't rush him," insisted Ferguson. "We are being patient with the rehabilitation following his knee operations and he is alternating his training with the reserve and first-team squads, working for two days and then resting a day.

"It's a matter of him regaining his confidence and, when he is able to train every day, that will be the moment for him to return to match play."

Hargreaves has gone through a hard time the last months. The former Bayern Munchen man played his last league match on September 21, 2008 against Chelsea. After that he was troubled by various knee problems and he received surgery on both knees in December 2008 and January 2009.

Several setbacks have lengthened the recovery time.

Ancelotti backs Terry as Chelsea held by Hull

HULL (AFP) - Carlo Ancelotti has backed John Terry to come through his personal crisis and lead Chelsea to the title despite his side's disappointing failure to overcome Hull City in a 1-1 draw at the KC Stadium.

Terry's week of woe showed no signs of improving as he was subjected to abuse on Humberside on Tuesday evening.

And just to make matters worse he was booked before having to watch his side drop two crucial points against Phil Brown's struggling team, blowing their chance to open up a four-point lead over Manchester United at the top of the table.

Terry had to run a gauntlet of hate from the home supporters that promises to become a regular event for the defender, but Ancelotti insists his captain can handle the flak and will carry on playing.

Terry will meet England manager Fabio Capello later this week to discuss his future as his country's captain following reports of his affair with the former girlfriend of international team-mate Wayne Bridge.

But he has the backing of Ancelotti, even if the Italian admits he might give the centreback a family holiday later this month when Chelsea face Cardiff City in the FA Cup fifth round at Stamford Bridge.

Ancelotti said: "Nothing can distract our concentration in this competition. In every game the Chelsea team has good focus and we can play good football.

"Concentration is always on top. This is an issue for me and John Terry. I think it's not a problem. You can see the line-up against Cardiff.

"If he needs a holiday he will have one and if not, he will play against Cardiff.

"I don't like to speak about this. It's not a question I want to speak about.

"For him (Terry) nothing has changed. He continues to play a very good game and every game he's living a good moment.

"He's doing his best. The atmosphere in the team is the same. There has been no change.

"We are in a good position now. We are top. We know Manchester United are very good and it will be a long race until the end of the season.

"We are happy to have a two-point lead. This was an opportunity, but it's impossible to win every game."

Chelsea had to rely on Didier Drogba's clinical free kick to salvage a point for the league leaders. It was his 20th goal of the season and cancelled out Stephen Mouyokolo's opening goal for Hull, his first for the club.

Ancelotti praised the impact Drogba had on his return to the side following international duty at the African Cup of Nations and believes his form and fitness will be key as the season enters its final third.

Ancelotti added: "It's an important moment for us, but we need to have all the players in good condition between now and the end of the season."

Hull rode their luck at times with goalkeeper Boaz Myhill once again impressive but Brown is convinced this result can provide his side with the belief that they have what it takes to go on and avoid relegation for the second season in succession.

"Against the quality of the opposition, that performance is right up there. I'm just disappointed we can't perform like this on a more regular basis," said Brown.

Ferguson wary of Beckham 'media circus'

(GSM) - David Beckham's return to Old Trafford will add some spice to the confrontation between Milan and Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson will warn his players not to get caught up in the 'David Beckham media circus'.

"Our job is to concentrate on the football match and let the David Beckham media circus carry on," Ferguson told United's club magazine. "He's such a high-profile celebrity - not just a high-profile footballer - and we haven't really seen anybody else return to the club in that situation."

Beckham is in his second loan spell at Milan. The 34-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy player hopes his performances will persuade England boss Fabio Capello to include him in the squad for this summer's World Cup.

"I think I told him myself last year when I saw him before our game against Inter that he should be thinking about getting back to Europe if he wanted to go to the World Cup," said Ferguson.

"It looks like he might just get his wish now. He had a good spell with Milan last time, so it made sense to me to see him back there again."

Manchester United and Milan will face each other on February 16 and March 10. United starts with an away match. "The European Cup is always special to us and we've had some marvellous nights at Old Trafford. I just hope we have another one.

"We're away from home in the first leg, which won't be easy, but I'm certain the tie will be decided back at Old Trafford."

Gago and Real blast Manchester City


(GSM) - Fernando Gago is very disappointed that his move to Manchester City was cancelled right at the end.

The Real Madrid midfielder hoped to boost his World Cup chances by leaving Real this winter but his move to City was stalled at the last moment. "They used us," said Gago's agent Marcello Lombilla.

Manchester City launched their first bid on Gago last week and the Argentine midfielder felt the deal would be settled. However, City manager Roberto Mancini opted to move for McDonald Mariga, the Kenyan midfielder who signed for Internazionale at the last day of the transfer window.

The Citizens then returned to Real Madrid for Gago but it was already to late. They could not complete the deal until they had an official agreement from club chairman Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who they could not reach in time.

"They had nothing prepared, not even one document signed," Real's sporting director Jorge Valdano told El Pais. "They had not reached an agreement with the player and they would have had to have done everything in 40 minutes."

Lombilla is very angry at City, considering his client might miss the World Cup.

"This has never happened to me before," the agent told radio station Onda Cero. ""I don't want to talk about the figures that City were offering because they approached Madrid without even knowing there wasn't physically enough time to put something together."

Lombilla insists that Gago will now concentrate on getting his Real career back on track.

"Despite the fact he went from being 'untransferable' to suddenly 'for sale', he will always continue to work hard," he stated.

Injury heartache goes on for Fulham's Johnson

LONDON (AFP) - Andy Johnson, Fulham's former England striker, will be out of action for at least three weeks with a knee injury that is threatening to rule him out for the rest of the season.

Johnson, who has made only 13 appearances in the current campaign as a result of a dislocated collarbone and a groin strain, is to have exploratory surgery to determine the gravity of the injury.

"If they find that the problem is as major as it could possibly be, then he would need an operation that would keep him out for the rest of the season," Fulham boss Roy Hodgson said, adding that the 28-year-old had been "shattered" by the latest setback.

"If we're lucky and the major operation is not needed, and it's something wrong with the cartilage, then he might be back earlier.

"At the moment we're talking three to four weeks, and the worst-case scenario is the rest of the season and him being fit to join us in pre-season."

Hodgson is already without Clint Dempsey and Zoltan Gera because of their knee injuries and he admitted he would not have let Diomansy Kamara go to Celtic on loan earlier this week if he had been aware of Johnson's latest problem.

"One of the reasons why we let Diomansy go was because we didn't think the problem with Andy was anywhere near as grave," Hodgson said.

"I was concerned that I would not be able to give Diomansy regular games, so when a club of Celtic's stature comes in for him, it is very difficult for me to say 'you have to stay'."

Hodgson added: "Andy is shattered. He's devastated. If it's as serious as it could turn out to be, it needs to be put right for the start of next season."

Fulham were due to face the Premier League's bottom side, Portsmouth, on Wednesday with the west London club aiming to end a run of five straight defeats.

"At the moment I can divorce performances from results, but if you keep losing you will get dragged down there and get into a relegation battle," Hodgson warned.

"I'm hoping that won't happen and in the not-too-distant future we will have a squad of players together who are more competitive than we currently are."

Birmingham owner's funds boast backfired: director

BIRMINGHAM, England (AFP) - Carson Yeung's pledge to give Birmingham manager Alex McLeish up to 40 million pounds to spend in the transfer market backfired as rival clubs racked up asking prices for players, a club director has reportedly admitted.

Yeung, the Birmingham owner, made his pledge shortly after taking over the club in October and Birmingham's vice-chairman Peter Pannu believes the Hong Kong businessman would have been wise to be more discreet about his spending plans.

"It was not particularly helpful that our chairman indicated a desire to buy players in January and spend some money," Pannu was quoted as saying by The Guardian. "I think that raised expectations among the clubs that we approached."

McLeish had made a new striker his priority during the transfer window but Birmingham's moves for Germany forward Kevin Kuranyi, Liverpool winger Ryan Babel, Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones and Tottenham's Russian international Roman Pavlyuchenko all came to nothing.

Pannu said the asking price for Pavlyuchenko had gone from 10 million pounds to 15 million plus during the course of negotiations with Spurs while Kuranyi's wage demands doubled.

"We have every support possible from Carson," Pannu stressed. "There is no problem there. The problem we have is the way some of these clubs have behaved. We have been messed around."

Birmingham winger James McFadden meanwhile has backed team-mate Barry Ferguson to make a successful return to the Scotland squad following Craig Levein's appointment as manager.

Ferguson was banished from the international set-up last season following an all-night drinking session between two World Cup qualifiers and a subsequent furore over obscene gestures he made to photographers.

Levein has promised a fresh start however and McFadden believes Ferguson, 32, has earned a recall on the strength of his outstanding form for Birmingham this season.

"Everybody that watches Birmingham can see what a good player Barry is," McFadden said. "In his last year up in Scotland, he was maybe starting to doubt himself a little bit but he has come here and shown everybody exactly how good he is.

"He has been brilliant for Birmingham and a big part of the reason that we've had such a great run.

"I think he's still got a big contribution to make in the international scene. I think it would be great for the country if Barry did come back in."

Van Nistelrooy needs time: Hamburg coach

BERLIN (AFP) - Hamburg's new star signing Ruud van Nistelrooy needs more time to get fit before making his Bundesliga debut, his coach Bruno Labbadia said on Wednesday.

Having spent most of the season on the bench at Real Madrid before signing for Hamburg 10 days ago, the 33-year-old Dutch hot-shot striker is only 60 percent fit, according to Labbadia.

And it looks as though the striker will sit out Hamburg's Bundesliga game at Cologne on Saturday and needs plenty of fitness work after knee surgery in November 2008 and having played just 127 minutes of football for Real this season.

"We would never put someone under a pressure of time to say when they will be fit," Labbadia told SID, a subsidiary of AFP, with his side fifth in the German league table.

"Ruud is still working his way back to fitness and it is only 60 percent.

"Whether or not he is in the squad, we will decide at the end of the week."

Labbadia says the Dutchman needs "a few more weeks" to return to top fitness.

"We don't want to rush him back too early and risk him getting injured," said Labbadia.

A calf injury meant van Nistelrooy only trained with the squad for the first time on Tuesday.

"He has not played for the best part of a year, it is a different story if a player has just been out for a few weeks."

Van Nistelrooy has signed a contract until June 2011 and Hamburg are reported to have spent four million euros on him.

He has already been crowned the best striker in Holland, having scored 62 goals for Eindhoven between 1998 and 2001, England, having scored 95 goals for Manchester United between 2001-06 and Spain, having netted 46 goals for Real between 2006 and 2010.

Having retired after Holland were knocked out of Euro 2008 by Russia in the quarter-finals, van Nistelrooy has said he would like to play for the Netherlands again at this summer's World Cup.

Barca VP Godall confident of Fabregas return

(GSM) - Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas is continuously involved in speculations regarding a possible transfer to Spain. Real Madrid and Barcelona are both linked with the Arsenal captain.

Now, speculation about Fabregas' future has been stirred up yet again by British tabloid The Sun publishing quotes from Barcelona vice-president Alfons Godall.

Godall is convinced Fabregas will return to the Camp Nou at some point in the future.

The Spain international progressed through the youth ranks at Barcelona before moving to London in 2003.

Arsenal's frustrations in the Premier League, going from top of the league to six points adrift in the space of a fortnight, together with Barcelona's ambitions, have been cited as the catalysts that could ensure a £40 million deal is struck in the summer.

Godall, who hopes to succeed Joan Laporta as president, believes that even if Fabregas does not make the move at the end of this season he will one day return to Barcelona.

"Sooner or later Cesc will end up coming back," Godall said. "We are a club that can sign players because we are respected and solvent."

Ribery set to decide Bayern future: agent

BERLIN (AFP) - Bayern Munich star Franck Ribery will decide in the next eight weeks whether or not to stay with the German giants, his agent said Wednesday.

Ribery, 26, has a contract at Bayern until June 2011 but after a series of top class displays for Munich he has been linked to some of Europe's top sides, including Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Although Ribery has struggled with a knee injury since October, he is working his way back to fitness and is widely regarded, alongside Bayern team-mate Arjen Robben, as one of the most creative players in the Bundesliga.

"Franck has a contract until 2011 and so Bayern hold all the cards in their hands," Ribery's agent Alain Migliaccio told German daily newspaper Bild on Wednesday.

"Before we meet with (Bayern's chief executive Karl-Heinz) Rummenigge, (president Uli) Hoeness and (director of sport Christian) Nerlinger, nothing will happen."

Migliaccio also confirmed Nerlinger's rejection of reports that Ribery had been given an ultimatum by Bayern to prolong his contract before the end of March.

"The story about the ultimatum is absolute nonsense, nobody has given Franck an ultimatum," he said.

"We are waiting to see what the club wants to do."

Ribery has won 41 caps and scored seven goals for France and looks set to be a star of the 2010 World Cup which takes place in South Africa from June 11-July 11.