Saturday, 15 December 2018

Preview: Liverpool v Man Utd

The 201st competitive meeting between the Reds of Manchester and Merseyside needs no introduction: it's the biggest game in the land and the one that we simply cannot lose. All logic - the form book, the table, the football landscape and just about everything else - points to only one outcome. You only have to look at the Premier League table to see that.
United have a fine record at Anfield and haven't lost there in the league since 2013 - even in these turbulent and troubled times, we've proved more than a match for the men from the East Lancs Road.

Jurgen Klopp hasn't beaten Jose Mourinho snce the latter arrived at Old Trafford and Liverpool haven't beaten us in the last eight league meetings, but if ever there's a time for the German to break that duck then it's now.
Liverpool come into this one in the finest of fettles - unbeaten and neck and neck with champions Manchester City in a battle for supremacy that unpalatably looks set to go to the wire. It's a nightmare situation for any United fan. Liverpool will move back to the summit with a win here, the Reds are carrying a long injury list and sit 16 points behind Klopp's side. This is the best Liverpool side I've seen and they're sacrificed their all-action, swashbuckling style for a more disciplined and durable approach, having conceded just six goals all season. Their front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane was arguably the best in Europe last term and, with the addition of summer signing Xherdan Shaqiri, will test United's make-do-and-mend backline to its limits.

Both sides are facing something of a defensive crisis, with Joel Matip (fractured collarbone) out for six weeks. Joe Gomez is also out after breaking his leg against Burnley, and Trent Alexander - Arnold is also a major doubt with a foot injury. Nathaniel Clyne is in contention to feature for the first time since May.
For United, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot are all doubtful while Victor Lindelof (knee), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring) and Scott McTominay are also definitely on an ever lengthening list of absentees. Anthony Martial has missed the last two games with a knee problem, and United's top scorer will be assessed.

Jose Mourinho admitted that his side have a 'lot of uncertainties' heading into the titanic tussle between English football's two most successful and widely supported sides.

We know that we are going to play against the leader, against a team on a high. But we have our qualities, we have our potential, even with the problems we have and the doubts in terms of team choice, of tactics, approach, philosophy.
"We have doubts about everything because we don't know who's available but we are going to arrive on Sunday and, with the players we have available, we are going to have a team capable of going there and fight for the victory."

United's defence surely hasn't been solid enough to sit back and set up for a third 0-0 draw at Anfield in a row - but if Mourinho challenges his biggest stars to step up and match the league leaders, the risk could override the chance of reward. Come on United!!

Chris Smalling's deal shows Man Utd are accepting mediocrity

Look at the state of us. We all know Manchester United are a mess - you don't have to work for NASA to figure that out - and our already embarrasing season plunged to new depths on the eve of United's trip to Anfield.
The news that Chris Smalling - a man literally stealing a living as a player that gives us all hope of becoming a professional - has signed a new deal at the club until 2022, with the option of a further year.
Impossible as it may seem, Smalling has somehow survived nine seasons here already and this contract would take him to a testimonial year and beyond. Even more improbably, it would see Smalling outlast the Man Utd careers of four of this club's greatest ever centre-backs - Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. All were totemic and titanic defenders in two of our greatest ever sides, yet all have had shorter Old Trafford careers than a man who is merely a mid-table Championship player at best. Bruce and Pallister both plied their trade at Old Trafford for nine years, Vidic for eight and Rio for ten. Smalling will have reached 12 seasons in Red by the time his next contract is up. Let that sink in. 12 seasons for a man who I have to watch through my fingers for fear of calamity. A player who I find impossible to fathom how he's still here - but then he's far from the only one when it comes to that.

Does this really come as a surprise given the board's penny pinching and the cloud cuckoo-land admission of Ed Woodward that the likes of Smalling are better defenders than Jose Mourinho's vetoed summer targets of Toby Alderweireld and Harry Maguire to name but two. His new deal merely confirms what we've all known for a while - that we are a club that is either unwilling or unable to clear out the dead wood (there's as much dead wood in this squad as there was at the original Viagra trial) and rewards bang average players who simply aren't good enough with ridiculously long contracts. A club happy to settle for mediocrity. You can't blame Smalling - he plays every week, he's stealing a living on a wage so massive that he's unwilling to take a pay cut to ever be sold or moved on.

Without being too harsh on Smalling, he isn't - and never has been - a good enough player for this club. It's beyond comprehension how four Man Utd managers from Sir Alex Ferguson to Jose Mourinho via David Moyes and Louis van Gaal - have failed to realise that. Ferguson can be excused to a degree as Smalling came from Fulham with potential, and with Messrs Rio and Nemanja at the peak of their considerable powers - he was only ever a squad player in his first few seasons. He had one solid season in 2016 under LVG, but he's too error prone and has continually flattered to deceive.

Smalling may have volleyed the winner at the Etihad and repeated the feat at Vicarage Road this season but that should not mask his failings. He's slow, has no positional sense, can't pass, is clumsy and a liability. Granted, he's a marginal upgrade on the hapless Phil Jones and rubbish Marcos Rojo but that's hardly an achievement. Certainly not one befitting of a new deal - a new deal that he has done nothing to deserve.

He's a player that should have been sold with the squad's evolution but instead his current situation has come to eptomise the shambles that is the modern day Manchester United.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Match report: Man Utd 4-1 Fulham

United hit four for the first time this season to sweep aside rock bottom Fulham and move into the Premier League's top six.
Claudio Ranieri's lowly but improving Cottagers had picked up four points from three games but never looked likely to get anything from their trip to Old Trafford. From the moment Ashley Young put Jose Mourinho's United ahead early on, the result was never in doubt.

It came after 13 minutes when the winger-turned-full-back - on his return after a one match suspension - ran through and fizzed home an effort into the corner.
Marcus Rashford teed up Juan Mata for 2-0 and Romelu Lukaku finished from close range after the ever-impressive Mata had picked him out.
Substitute Aboubakar Kamara pulled one back from the penalty spot, but Andre - Frank Zambo Anguissa was then sent off for a second booking.
Rashford capped his eye-catching individual performance with a deserved goal as the ten men of struggling Fulham were well beaten in style.
United finally enjoyed themselves and belatedly put on a goal fest for a patient and long suffering Old Trafford crowd. The Cottagers had gone 19 matches without keeping a clean sheet but United had only scored once in the opening 15 minutes of games all season. So the hosts' start against the beleaguered capital club was exactly what was called for. It was decisive and ruthless.

With United’s first attack of the match, captain Young opened the scoring. He took on his marker Denis Odoi and, with a mix of footwork and muscle, forced his way in before curling a right-foot shot into the far top corner. It was his first goal of the season and it set the tone for pretty much one-way traffic in the opening 45 minutes.
After promotion to the Premier League last term, Fulham have had a torrid time on their return to the top level, forcing them to dispense with Slavisa Jokanovic and bring in Ranieri four games ago.
The Reds moved 2-0 ahead on the half hour mark through Mata's fourth of the season. Lukaku fed Rashford and the Mancunian in turn cut the ball back for the onrushing Spaniard who applied the finish from ten yards.
Sergio Rico saved well from Rashford who also went close from distance but the Reds were rampant and extended our advantage further three minutes before the break.
Once more, it was a crisp passing move that cut through Fulham, with Jesse Lingard sliding a ball into Mata’s run down the left and his cross was met by Lukaku’s left boot to steer the ball in from close range. It was the Belgian's first goal in these parts since March, 997 minutes after his last.

 Ranieri sent on Kamara and Luciano Vietto in place of Aleksandr Mitrovic and Tom Cairney at the interval, but United continued to dominate and rediscovered the first half swagger through Ander Herrera, whom forced a smart stop from the lunging Rico.
Andre Schurrle's rising drive encouraged the rallying visitors, before substitute Kamara was scythed down by Herrera and dusted himself down to score from 12 yards and deny United their clean sheet.

Anguissa was then dismissed for a wild lunge on Rashford to end any lingering hopes - however faint - the visitors may have had of a comeback.

It had taken some time but United finally got our mojo back, led superbly by Rashford, who firstly danced his way into the box but had his shot saved, then he coolly slid in a pass for Lukaku who, again, was thwarted by keeper Rico.
Having been denied at close range Rashford decided to have a go from further out and how it paid off. From an unlikely position, he struck a venomous shot that beat Rico at his near post for a spectacular fourth in the 82nd minute.
It was an eye-catching finale to send the Old Trafford crowd home happy in the last game here before Christmas.

Overall team performance: 8/10. Cohesive and fluid even against a poor Fulham side
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford. Honourable mentions to Diogo Dalot and Juan Mata.

Match preview: Man Utd v Fulham

Despite the fact that we welcome bottom-of-the-table Fulham, there are more questions being asked about United.
Jose Mourinho's side finished 19 points behind City last season - barely halfway through this campaign and we're already 18 off Pep Guardiola's sky blue juggernaut at the top.

Despite a much improved performance against Arsenal in midweek, United - on a run of four games without a win and with a trip to Anfield looming large next week - are some way behind silencing their many critics.

Considering Fulham's appalling away record and equally depressing recent run of results at Old Trafford, anything other than a United win this weekend seems improbable. However, with four points in three games since Claudio Ranieri's arrival, the Cottagers won't have written off their chances. 
With low expectations and pivotal games against West Ham, Newcastle, Wolves and Huddersfield to end December, the promoted Cottagers will be viewing this game as a free hit.

United will assess the fitness of Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, who are all carrying injuries.
 Ashley Young is available again after suspension, but Victor Lindelof and Alexis Sanchez remain sidelined.
Fulham duo Kevin McDonald (hamstring) and Floyd Ayite (groin) are expected to return from injuries. Defender Timothy Fosu - Mensah is on loan in west London from United so is ineligible to face his parent club.

United manager Mourinho said: ""I sat here a few weeks ago speaking about December month and no defeats.
"That's a reality: good fights, good spirit, but just one victory against Young Boys and three draws and we need points. But Fulham is the same, they need points.
"We have to give respect to Fulham, it is not 11 against zero, it is 11 against 11, they have nothing to lose but plenty of fight so a difficult match."
On injuries, Jose added:  “I don’t know,” Mourinho told the press. “Training session, 11 o’clock will give us some answers – Smalling, Jones, Martial, Bailly. Of course Lindelof and Alexis, we don’t even speak about them but we need answers and for sure we are going to play with players not in the maximum of their potential.”

In Smalling and Young, the Reds have two survivors from the last time Fulham came to Old Trafford - the infamous 2-2  in March 2014, the game of 75% possession, 31 shots and 81 (81!) crosses.

The men from SW6 remain rooted to the foot of the table with two wins and nine points, but Ranieri has overseen steady improvement since he replaced Slavisa Jokanovic - who took them up via the play-offs - last month. Ranieri has taken four points from three games since his appointment at the Cottage. Even so, United must be firm favourites for the win despite our indifferent form and a disappointing season.

United are desperate to avoid dropping more points after going winless in their past four games. The midweek draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford means Mourinho’s men are currently eight points adrift of the top four, a truly unacceptable stat for any United team.

 Form guide: Man Utd W L D W D D Fulham L L L W L D
Match odds: Man Utd 4/11 Draw 4/1 Fulham 17/2
Referee: Lee Probert (Wiltshire)

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Lack of quality but can't fault United's energy and endeavour

Jose Mourinho dropped high-profile duo Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku - and left a combined transfer fee of £173m on the bench - after recent disappointing performances which have brought only three points from the past 12 available - and, while quality was lacking, no-one could doubt his side's endeavour, energy and character.

In the end, it was probably our best performance of the season (although admittedly that's not saying much) - but one that also simultaneously showed how far we are behind the Premier League pacesetters.
 United may not, as Mourinho complained, have any "mad dogs" in their side, but there was at least some bite about this display after recent tame efforts against Crystal Palace here, and at Southampton. The spirit, fight, endeavour and effort cannot be faulted but there was simply a lack of quality.

That was appreciated by United's fans as a starting base, but there was little to suggest this was a team whose season was about to burst belatedly into life. And while this was a performance that contained many admirable qualities when measured in grit and character, it showed no signs of being the early stage of development into a team that could claim the big prizes.
United's attack was more fluid and mobile with Martial and Marcus Rashford selected ahead of Lukaku but there was still a lack of creativity, and while the effort was there, the real spark was missing.
Mourinho will be pleased at the manner in which United responded to Arsenal's goals, helped by the Gunners' sloppiness, and these were players who were undoubtedly putting in the work for their manager. This is a stodgy United side producing stodgy performances - a pale shadow of a side that will chase the big prizes.
Arsenal remain a team in transition under Emery but do, at least, appear to be headed on an upward trajectory.

What was not in doubt was the commitment of United's players. They were, despite all the noises surrounding Mourinho playing for their manager.
No-one can doubt the honesty and character. Those who forged a draw against a team unbeaten in 20 matches gave their all.
The problem in the wider context is this United squad is nowhere near good enough when measured against the best.

The fact this was regarded as a reasonable improvement on recent offerings, despite another draw, is a commentary on United's season so far.

At no point did you ever feel that the Reds would go on and win. Even with a thrilling tie finely poised on a knife-edge, Arsenal created the better chances with United indebted to David de Gea despite his untimely error in the first half that led to Shkodran Mustafi's opener. The visitors - without a win at Old Trafford in the league for 12 years - looked more likely to win it.

Mourinho shuffled his pack again with something of a "shop window" XI, his hand slightly forced by a raft of injuries with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw all sidelined along with the suspended Ashley Young, Diogo Dalot impressed as one of seven changes and several of Mourinho's fringe players may have forced him to reconsider. Eric Bailly has not been seen since the Newcastle tie but was commanding and strong. Nemanja Matic inexplicably got the official Man of the Match award, but I'm giving it to the Ivorian. To his credit, this was a marginally improved performance from Matic but still nowhere near his best.
Marcos Rojo is the biggest s***house in the game but did well alongside Bailly in a 3-4-3. Matteo Darmian, in an unfamiliar role at left wing-back was also impressive even though he looks likely to leave in January.

A much improved performance and one that left us feeling positive despite a fourth game without a win.

Match report: Man Utd 2-2 Arsenal

United twice came from behind but had to settle for a point despite a much improved performance against Unai Emery's high flying Arsenal.
A rare David de Gea clanger gifted the Gunners an unlikely lead, only for Anthony Martial to bring the Reds level by half-time. Substitute Alexandre Lacazette restored his side's narrow advantage only for Jesse Lingard to equalise again 13 seconds later. A draw was ultimately a fair result from a thrilling, slipshod encounter in which both sides defensive capabilities came into question.

Arsenal hadn't won at Old Trafford for 12 years but with this United side at their lowest ebb for years, you felt they would never have a better chance to do so this time.
The Reds uncharacteristically started brightly without really troubling Bernd Leno in the Arsenal goal. But early momentum gave way to a numbing familiarity as the away side drew first blood just shy of the half hour mark.
Shkodran Mustafi almost stumbled into a corner but his header was fumbled by De Gea, who should have easily held on.
The Spanish goalkeeper spun around in horror at his error to see his compatriot Ander Herrera lash the ball away off the line. For a moment, it seemed United had escaped but referee Andre Marriner received a quick update from goal-line technology and confirmed the Gunners were 1-0 up.

The Reds refused to buckle and within five minutes had restored parity through Martial,  who marked his 23rd birthday with a well-take goal from close range as he swept home Herrera's cut back after a Marcos Rojo free-kick.
This was high octane, robust stuff reminiscent of some of the classic fiery blockbusters we witnessed when these two were at the peak of their considerable powers.
Arsenal lost Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsey through injury before Martial unfortunately followed when he limped off to be replaced by Romelu Lukaku on 63 minutes.
Then came a tactical switch by Emery as Lacazette replaced Iwobi in a move that immediately reaped dividends.

The French forward had only been on for a matter of moments before he restored Arsenal's lead. The returning Marcos Rojo - who was otherwise impressive - lost the ball on halfway. The Gunners sprung forward on the counter as Lacazette played a one-two with fellow sub and former United man Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Rojo and Eric Bailly attempted to thwart the striker's run but despite the Argentine's best efforts the ball struck Lacazette, hit Rojo and richocheted in.
Once again, the Reds response was rapid. Arsenal's celebrations had barely died down as long ball found Lingard and he applied a nice finish beyond Leno from close range.

De Gea twice atoned for his first half error to keep out the league's top scorer Pierre - Emerick Aubameyang.
Marcus Rashford flashed a shot wide and Lacazette correctly had a goal ruled out as he kicked the ball out of De Gea's hands.

 De Gea was back in the action as Arsenal turned up the late heat with Mkhitaryan having a 'goal' ruled out for offside and almost setting up a winner for Aubameyang when the striker’s powerful shot was brilliantly saved by the Spaniard.

It was a compelling, value for money finale as both sides had to settle for a draw.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Eric Bailly. Why on earth doesn't he start every week? Immense. Jose take note.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Match preview: Man Utd v Arsenal

Under fire United boss Jose Mourinho is set to shuffle his pack again with the club hit by an injury crisis ahead of the visit of Unai Emery's in-form Gunners.
Emery was only instilled at the Emirates in the summer but, five months into hs debut season in English football, already has Arsenal in fine fettle, unbeaten in 19 ties having not lost since defeat at Chelsea in the second week of the season. They were mightily impressive in a come-from-behind victory in the north London derby on Sunday.
Although Arsenal have a woeful record at Old Trafford - they've not won there since 2006 in the league - they come into this one as favourites for the first time in a long while. Emery has never beaten his Portuguese opposite number in four manageral meetings, but he will never have a better chance to end that record in this one.
 The Reds have gone three league matches without a win and are in the midst of our worst season in recent history.

Mourinho is set to name a banter, makeshift defence with Ashley Young suspended and Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling (foot) and Eric Bailly (back) all out. Victor Lindelof is also sidelined, with Romelu Lukaku and Luke Shaw doubtful. Alexis Sanchez will miss out as well against his former side and Marcus Rashford picked up a knock against the Saints. That could mean that Mourinho deploys the same back three that we saw at Southampton last time out with Phil Jones alongside Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic. They face the unenviable task of shackling the Premier League's top scorer Pierre - Emerick Aubameyang (12) who, in tandem with Alexandre Lacazette (seven goals), have been key for the Gunners this season. Diogo Dalot and Marcos Rojo, an unused sub at St Mary's, may come in.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are assessing the fitness of Mesut Ozil (back), Laurent Koscielny (Achilles) and Nacho Monreal (hamstring). Granit Xhaka is suspended after accumulating five yellow cards, like Young, while former Reds forward Danny Welbeck is a long-term injury victim.

Mourinho said: "We are again going to be in difficulty to build a team.
"We are again going to have to make adaptations and compensations to try to give some balance to the team. But then I believe we are again going to have the spirit to fight and to try to win the match.”

This is the first time in the Premier League that Manchester United v Arsenal will be played without either Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger in the dugouts. The pair shared the Premier League title for nine seasons between 1996 and 2004 and developed a strong rivalry over the years. Last time the Gunners came to Old Trafford, Wenger was presented with an honorary vase by his old adversaries Sir Alex and Jose, to commemorate the Frenchman’s extraordinary 22-year reign as Arsenal boss.
This fixture may lack the fire and spice of a toxic hatred at its peak, but its still a massive game and one that we always look out for on the calendar.

Form guide: United W W L D W D Arsenal D D D W W W
Match odds: United 16/11 Draw 13/5 Arsenal 1/3 (Oddschecker)
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)