Wednesday, 30 September 2020

A fit and healthy Eric Bailly is exactly what United need

For all the talk of Manchester United's need for a new top class centre back, the answer may be staring us in the face.
Maybe the man we need is already at the club, and waiting patiently with second string game time whilst Victor Lindelof somehow gets picked ahead of him for the full strength team every week. A man who is better than a back-up, in fact it's almost an insult to call him such. Step forward Eric 'Bertrand' Bailly. 

The Ivorian has had rotten ill-fortune during four injured ravaged seasons at United,  and has only played 77 games in that time, but there is no doubt that he is United's most capable centre-back. He is everything  Lindelof isn't. Strong, alert to the danger, he reads the game superbly, he's brave, puts his body on the line and has the pace to recover if he or his defensive partner should make an error. If he can stay fit and healthy, he should absolutely be United's first choice. Forget the notion that a partner for Harry Maguire is the issue. Perhaps we, in fact, need a partner for Bailly. 

I like Bailly, I always have done. I like the way he makes defending exciting, I like his heart-on-his-sleeve approach and the fact you have to watch him through your hands. You love to see it. His style may not be suitable for anyone of a nervous disposition, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: he is the best defender we have at Old Trafford.

Having come on for the last 12 minutes of the league game down in Sussex, Bailly was handed his second start of the season as United travelled to Brighton for the second time in four days. Bailly, having started and impressed at Luton last week, was one of United's two most impressive performers at the Amex. Juan Mata stole the show and ran the game with a goal and an assist, deservedly earning Man of the Match, but Bailly wasn't far behind. He must start alongside  Maguire at the heart of the defence against Tottenham on Sunday. It's possible Solskjaer could go with a back three as he often does against the other top six sides, but either way, Bailly has shown he deserves the chance to play.  

I can see why Solskjaer prefers Lindelof, given Bailly's chronic list of ailments and the fact he cannot be relied upon to stay fit. The manager feels the Swede is a better fit for how he wants us to play in terms of his passing and distribution, and he's stayed largely injury free. But Lindelof has a chronic weakness under the high ball, he's too slow and - whilst they may be decent individually - his pairing with Maguire isn't a compatible one. It's like putting diesel in a Ferrari. Lindelof has become a liability and no longer justifies selection. Bailly has done more than most to show he deserves a prolonged run in the first team.

He had become something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford, but it was so typical of Bailly to come back Lazarus style in February, with a domineering defensive display at Stamford Bridge shortly before lockdown. Not many players could perform like that so soon after sustaining a potentially career-threatening injury. 

 Maguire brings the class, the composure, the leadership and has proved to be the ball-playing centre-back United have sorely lacked since the departure of Rio Ferdinand. Bailly complements this superbly with his pace, tenacity, positioning and technical qualities. Not only is he strong in the challenge, he is just as good in the air as Maguire, brilliant in the recovery as already touched upon and even throws in the odd party piece - a stepover here, a Cruyff turn there, just to add to the unpredictable excitement. Madcap, enigmatic but also a damn good player. Welcome to the world of Eric Bailly. 

Lindelof and Bailly were supposed to be Jose Mourinho's first choice centre-backs, having both been signed by the Portuguese (combined fee 61m) as he looked to upgrade a previously porous defence with the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo masquerading as United players. But after several serious injuries and a lack of game time, Bailly faded to the fringes and struggled to cement his spot in the team. Mourinho never seemed convinced by Bailly and preferred to use Lindelof alongside Smalling. Ironically, it was a horror show against Brighton - the very same side that Bailly was so impressive against - that seemed to make up his former manager's mind. 

Of course, these injury problems have been the main concern for him. Not only has he undergone several major surgeries but there's been a myriad of often trivial problems and a list of ailments as long as both my arms. The link between these issues and Bailly's overzealous style cannot be merely a co-incidence, as a number of his injuries have been self inflicted, like jumping for the ball and landing awkwardly or lunging in needlessly. 

Bailly is too good a talent to waste, too good to merely sit on the treatment table. Much like United over the last few years, its been stop start as the Ivorian searches for consistency. Perhaps this season is the one when Bailly finally has respect put on his name. 

Match report: Brighton 0-3 Man United

A Juan Mata inspired Manchester United side saw off the Seagulls for the second time in four days to advance to the Carabao Cup quarter finals.

After Saturday's harum scarum, at the death victoy, the rotated Reds made much easier work of an understrength Brighton to set up a fourth last eight tie in five seasons. Mata may lack pace but his vision, link play and wonderful passing can still unpick a defence and the veteran Spaniard was at his brilliant best, setting up Scott McTominay for the first and scoring the second himself. 

Paul Pogba's deflected free-kick added the third for United late on to send us into the draw along with the likes of Spurs, Everton, Manchester City and Liverpool or Arsenal.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shuffled his pack and made ten changes to the team that won on the same ground four days prior with Odion Ighalo, Dan James, Mata, Eric Bailly, Donny van de Beek and Fred amongst those to get a run out.

The Reds started brightly and went close inside 15 minutes when Mata linked up with Brandon Williams down the left. The Academy graduate picked out our captain for the night in the box and he in turn moved the ball on to Ighalo. The Nigerian pulled the ball down and skipped around the onrushing Jason Steele, only to steer wide from a tight angle. 

Alireza Jahanbakhsh flashed a shot wide from distance for Brighton before Fred - never shy to have a go from range - did likewise at the other end.
Alexis Mac Allister and Jahanbakhsh both went close in quick succession, only for Dean Henderson to be left untroubled.

With the interval looming, United were ahead. Dan Burn scythed down Mata whom swung in the resultant set piece straight on the head of McTominay to nod beyond Steele and in.

Steele saved well from Fred before the Seagulls threw on Leandro Trossard, the man who rattled the woodwork on three occasions at the weekend. The lively if erratic Frenchman was straight into the action here. 
Jayson Molumby found Pascal Gross and his cross picked out Trossard, only for Henderson to leap to United's rescue with a stunning one handed save.

That proved to be the last of Brighton's resistance when a lovely move put the result beyond any lingering doubt. 
Fred started the move, finding van de Beek who wonderfully back-heeled into the path of Mata, to fire the ball through the legs of Lewis Dunk, beyond Steele and into the corner - his 50th goal for United.

Marcus Rashford and Pogba came off the bench and the latter completed the job with aplomb with a deflected free-kick ten minutes from time. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Juan Mata 

Monday, 28 September 2020

How on earth did Manchester United pull that one out?

 48 hours on from the incredible drama at The Amex, how on earth Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United won this incredible match I will simply never know.

Not even Sir Alex Ferguson and his iconic Fergie time did anything like this - a high wire act that matched even Harry Houdini's greatest feats of escapology. 

It was a match in which United were distinctly second best for long periods, yet by staying in the game, showing resilience, digging in and with a huge slice of luck on the way, the Reds secured a first victory of the season. 

A penalty awarded in added time in added time - with Brighton cruel victims of the very harsh new handball laws - after the hosts had struck late on to seemingly earn a share of the spoils and leave Solskjaer's side with one point from two games. 

Even by Manchester United's standards, a club that thrives on late drama and redefining logic, this was astonishing. Brighton can count themselves extremely unlucky not to come away with even a point. A draw was the very least Graham Potter's lively and energetic Seagulls deserved for their effort and enterprise.

Brighton rattled the woodwork five times - Leandro Trossard on three occasions, Lewis Dunk and Solly March - and looked to have pilfered a precious point when the latter steered home a cross from substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh in the fifth added minute.

But the Reds won a late corner from which Harry Maguire headed onto Neil Maupay's arm seconds before the final whistle. VAR brought the play back and Bruno Fernandes does what he did best to slam the ball high into Mat Ryan's net and win the match in the 100th minute. Under the new handball rule, one that's already dividing opinion, the referee Chris Kavanagh had to give it. Brighton will feel the corner should never have been awarded and the whistle should have come as soon as the game restarted after March's goal. United therefore technically became the first team ever to win a match AFTER the final whistle. 

From the despair of surrendering two points to grabbing them back at the death - not quite victory from the jaws of defeat but not too dissimilar. Did I celebrate? You bet I did. If you didn't then football isn't the sport for you. No it wasn't pretty, no United didn't deserve the win but we got it in a manner that boiled the piss of opposition fans everywhere in vintage United style. Pure shithousery of the highest order. You love to see it. 

We had two goals ruled out, Brighton were awarded two penalties - one of which was overturned - and there were so many incidents we could be here all night. It's not often I'm speechless - especially when United are the main topic - but on this occasion, words alone do not this extraordinary thriller justice. 

Having shown how good we can in the 3-0 win at the same ground three months ago, United fell some way short of that on Saturday, but were better than the shambolic mess we saw against Palace last week. Then again, it would have been difficult to have played any worse. The loss was further fuel to the critics who feel Solskjaer is ill-equipped to get the best out of a talented squad. Despite only being our second game of the season, a defeat on Saturday to another supposedly inferior side would only have increased the volume of negativity. It speaks volumes that this chaotic and very fortunate win is seen as a step forward. 

The response to March's late goal was pleasing, the fact that United managed to mount one last attack and still push for a victory that had been snatched away, promising. The spirit, never say die attitude and sheer bloody mindedness that we saw so often last season is still alive and well. That's the good news. United can at least point to a fighting spirit, depth of resolve and signs of sharpness returning to the legs. 

United's defence still looked shaky, Anthony Martial was on the periphery and the midfield, despite being packed with the quality of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek et al, lacked the cohesion of last season. There remains a huge disparity in quality between our first XI and the bench, a problem that cost us last season and will probably do so again. 

The Reds travel to Brighton again on Wednesday in the League Cup with a side that will be very different from this one. If that game is even half as exciting, then we're in for another thriller. 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Match report: Brighton&HA 2-3 United

Bruno Fernandes struck the winning penalty in the 100th minute of an extraordinary thriller at the Amex Stadium to give United their first league win of the season. 

For so long second best, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had recovered from Neil Maupay's penalty to lead through Harry Maguire and a stunning Marcus Rashford effort. Solly March looked to have pilfered a deserved point for Brighton with a 95th minute equaliser after the hosts had rattled the woodwork on five occasions. 

But there was to be even later drama when Maguire's header from a Fernandes corner was clearly handled by hero-turned-villain Maupay, and the Portuguese did the business from the spot to give United an improbable victory. 

Graham Potter's vibrant Seagulls can feel hard done by, as they were the better side for long periods and proved more than a match for a United side still someway short of full fitness. 

The hosts started strongly and went close twice through Leandro Trossard early on. He struck David de Gea's right hand post in the ninth minute and then, 12 minutes further on, thumped the other upright from distance with De Gea beaten.

Lewis Dunk looped a header over the bar before the Reds suddenly roared into life and thought they had gone ahead through Mason Greenwood. A trademark United counter-attack involved Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Rashford and Greenwood, whom rifled in beyond Mat Ryan. Rashford had strayed marginally offside though and the goal was correctly chalked out. 

Having conceded a penalty last week against Palace, United erred again when the clumsy Bruno Fernandes scythed down the rampaging Tariq Lamptey and Maupay's panenka sent De Gea the wrong way. But the Reds would only trail for 194 seconds when a Fernandes free-kick was flicked on by Nemanja Matic and turned in by Dunk under pressure from Maguire.

Rashford had a goal ruled out and Brighton though they had another penalty when Aaron Connolly went down, only for VAR to rule that contact had been initiated by the Brighton man.
Soon after, United had turned the tie on its head when Rashford spun on to beautiful through pass from Fernandes, twice dummying Ben White, nutmegging Adam Webster to place the ball beyond the advancing Ryan. 

If the Reds through that would clip the wings of the Seagulls, they were to be mistaken. In fact, it only seemed to spur on Potter's side to greater extent. March was denied by a post and the woodwork rescued United for a fourth time when Trossard smashed off the bar at the culmination of a sweeping move.

De Gea saved superbly from Trossard and then March again, before the latter struck in the fifth minute of added time after substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh had picked him out. The goal, the celebrations and the subsequent aftermath meant added time to added time and United took full advantage. Late substitute Donny van de Beek won a corner, and Maguire's header struck the hand of Maupay. The final whistle blew immediately after the incident, but with the ball still in play, referee Chris Kavanagh checked the monitor and had no option but to award the spot-kick. Fernandes fired the penalty high beyond Ryan to give the Reds a nail-biting, harum scarum victory in the most remarkable of finishes. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes 

Friday, 25 September 2020

Deja vu for Reds and the Seagulls

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side travel to the south coast on Saturday for a Premier League lunch time kick off, for our second game - and first away day - of the new season. We also know now that the two combatants will be sparring again in double quick time, with Graham Potter's side setting up a fourth round Carabao Cup clash for next week after their 2-0 win at Preston in midweek. 

United beat North End's divisional rivals Luton to reach the next stage.  Manchester United and Brighton&Hove Albion will lock horns at the Amex Stadium twice in the space of a few days. There can't have been too many examples of United facing the same side at the same stadium in the same season in back to back away games with no other fixtures in between. 

The last time such an occurrence happened was when Sir Alex Ferguson was still in charge at Old Trafford, back in 2012. United faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge twice in the space of four days, with the two matches again coming in the league and the League Cup. Ferguson - as Solskjaer will probably do - picked two very different line ups for each game, with the Reds winning the first tie 3-2 in the league game on the Sunday. Javier Hernandez hit a late winner after leaders Chelsea had hit back from 2-0 down through a certain Juan Mata and Ramires, after a David Luiz own goal and a Robin van Persie strike had put the Reds in control. Chelsea, in the final throes of Roberto Di Matteo's tenure, ended the game with nine men after red cards for Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres.

Just over 72 hours later, a rotated Reds side took on the Blues again, and Sir Alex made ten changes with only Rafael keeping his place from the league game. Scott Wootton and Michael Keane, now of Everton, played at centre-back. 

In a ridiculously rip roaring and see-sawing contest, United took the lead on three separate occasions, through Ryan Giggs, Hernandez again (so often the scourge of Chelsea) and Nani, only for inexperience to show. Pegged back each time, Luiz, Gary Cahill and a late Eden Hazard penalty meant the Reds had to settle for extra-time. The Blues bench power eventually shone through, with Daniel Sturridge and Ramires again finding the net in the additional 30 minutes. A late Giggs penalty wasn't enough to prevent an extraordinary 4-5 defeat for United. The Reds of United and the Blues of Chelsea met five times that season with Chelsea winning three, one draw and that five-goal thriller in favour of us mentioned above. 

Before that, you have to go all the way back to the triumphant 1967/68 campaign, under another knight of the realm, for another example of back to back away deja vu. 

Sir Matt Busby's United side - they would go on to win the European Cup that season - went down 1-0 to Spurs in midweek at White Hart Lane, hot on the heels of a 2-1 victory on the same ground (Bobby Charlton notched the winner), the previous Saturday.

United faced West Ham United in 2016 twice in the space of three days at Old Trafford. 

The league contest ended 1-1 (a Zlatan goal cancelled out a Diafra Sakho opener) before Jose Mourinho's Reds swept past the same opponents 4-1 in the League Cup, on our way to winning the competition. 

So it has happened but its rare and this will be only the third occasion that United have played the same opponents away from home on the same ground in successive ties. 

Match preview: Brighton&HA vs Manchester United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side make their longest away trip of the season to face in-form Brighton in the first of two fixtures on the south coast this week.
United, looking for their first league win of the season, face Graham Potter's in-form Seagulls on Saturday lunchtime ahead of the Carabao Cup tie - against the same opponents - to be played on Wednesday.

United's campaign began in ignominious fashion,
with a 1-3 defeat at home to a fitter, sharper and stronger Crystal Palace side in our opener last time out. Brighton went down by the same scoreline a week previous, but looked vibrant before eventually being overpowered by big spending Chelsea at the Amex. The Seagulls claimed their first victory with an impressive 3-0 victory at Newcastle whilst two 4-0 and 2-0 League Cup wins - over Portsmouth and Preston respectively - see the Seagulls coming into this one in the finest of the fettles. The Reds have lost on two of their three league visits to Brighton's new (ish) home since the Albion's promotion into the top tier in 2017, but won here in our third post-lockdown tie in June, 3-0 through a Bruno Fernandes brace and a trademark strike from Mason Greenwood. 

Solskjaer will have a fully fit squad to pick from apart from injured centre-backs Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones. The United boss is set to shuffle his pack again having made ten changes in the win over Luton on Tuesday. Eric Bailly impressed in that game and will be in contention to start, with Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood expected to be recalled after decisive substitute cameos at Kenilworth Road. With the sides meeting again on Wednesday, the two bosses will send out vastly different line ups in this one. 

Yves Bissouma is suspended for the in-form hosts following his sending off at SJP, and Dale Stephens has completed his move to Burnley. Jose Izquierdo, Florin Andone and Christian Walton are all still sidelined for the Seagulls, but Potter has no fresh injury concerns. Summer signing Adam Lallana will start and keep an eye out on exciting Brighton wing-back Tariq Lamptey, with the 19-year-old having impressed with his electric pace and swashbuckling trickery. It looks to be a breakthrough season for the former Chelsea youngster, and he is expected to be fit despite limping off at Newcastle. Lamptey created Leandro Trossard's goal against Chelsea and was heavily involved in two of the three strikes up in the North East as Neil Maupay (twice) and Aaron Connolly fired Potter's side to an impressive victory. Since the summer departure of Martin Montoya, Lamptey has fully established himself as Potter's first choice right wing-back in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2/3-4-3 formation. 

Solskjaer said: "I wasn't happy at all with the Palace game, we weren't fit enough or ready to play at the level we needed to be at.
"It was very disappointing, not good enough but I'm still confident we can break teams down. We showed that last season so I have faith in this group's ability.
"I am very confident in my players, in football you can't predict too much, and my focus is solely on the game."
On United's dwindling transfer hopes, the boss added: "We need three points on Saturday, that's all we're thinking about and aiming for, then we can talk again." 
On the future of lower league clubs, Solskjaer said: "I am worried for League One and League Two clubs, of course everyone is, but all the Premier League and Championship clubs are losing money. 
"Hopefully we don't lose any clubs, locally we have seen some struggle so its not a nice situation to be in."

United face Brighton at The Amex on Saturday lunchtime with a 12.30 kick off and the league game is live on BT Sport

Form guide: Brighton&HA L W W W United L W

Match odds: Brighton&HA 7/2 Draw 11/4 United 3/4

Referee: Chris Kavanagh 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Match report: Luton Town 0-3 Manchester United

United's bench power put Championship Luton to the sword as substitutes Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood scored late on to send Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side into the Carabao Cup fourth round.

The Reds will face Preston or divisional rivals Brighton at that stage after a slightly flattering victory over a limited but hard working Luton, indebted in no small part to a superb stop from debutant keeper Dean Henderson late on. With the Reds still only leading 1-0, Henderson, whom had little to do, denied Tom Lockyer with a brilliant point blank save before Greenwood set up fellow sub Rashford to put the result beyond doubt.

The other sub, Bruno Fernandes, then combined with Greenwood for the latter to power in a trademark finish. Juan Mata had earlier put United ahead from the penalty spot on the cusp of the interval. There were ten changes to the side that lost to Palace on Saturday with only captain Harry Maguire keeping his place. Donny van de Beek made his full debut along with Henderson whilst Mata, Jesse Lingard, Odion Ighalo and Eric Bailly were all given chances to impress. 

Luton keeper James Shea saved superbly from Mata, after good link up play between Dutchman van de Beek and the wantaway Lingard. Ex Red Ryan Tunnicliffe set up Danny Hylton but he fired off target whilst Fred went close at the other end. Jordan Clark's dangerous run and shot nicked off Bailly and dropped narrowly wide.

With United still working their way up to full fitness, chances were then at a premium but a moment of magic made the difference and broke the deadlock. van de Beek combined with Mata to find the onrushing Brandon Williams. The left-back was scythed down by George Moncur and Mata stepped up to find the bottom corner, continuing his run of being the only player to score in every post Sir Alex Ferguson season.

Lingard flashed a shot wide, the otherwise quiet Odion Ighalo had an effort blocked and Tunnicliffe cleared under pressure from the former as Solskjaer's side turned the screw. Shea tipped wide from Matic and the increasingly busy Luton keeper was soon called into action again, this time to keep out van de Beek with his legs. Lingard's shop window performance continued as he curled an effort wide.

Although the Reds were firmly in control, a match is never over at 1-0 and Luton's big moment arrived in the closing stages. With no extra-time, an equaliser would have taken the tie straight to penalties and Lockyer must have though he'd done so with a powerful header. Henderson reacted superbly to tip the ball away before the impressive Bailly got his leg in the way of the rebound. 

Instead of finding themselves on level terms, Luton were hit with a classic sucker punch as Rashford latched on to Greenwood's reverse pass to stroke the ball beyond the advancing Shea.

Greenwood then turned from goal maker to goal taker as Fernandes picked out the young striker on the edge of the box. He beat his marker with a step over, dropped the shoulder and slammed the ball home from an acute angle for a trademark finish. 

Rashford had another attempt and Fernandes himself went close as the Reds could have had a fourth but in the end it was a comfortable night at the office for Ole and Reds. 

Overall team performance: 7/10

United Faithful Man of the Match: Eric Bailly. Shout out to Donny vdB though