Friday 30 December 2016

Match preview: United v Middlesbrough

Hot on the heels of our Boxing Day victory over Sunderland, United wrap up 2016 at home to another North East side.

The Reds host a Middlesbrough outfit who have made a decent fist of life back in the top flight since their promotion last season, led by Jose Mourinho's former protege Aitor Karanka.

The pair worked together during their time at Real Madrid where Karanka was Jose's assistant and the United boss said it will 'seem weird' to face his friend in the opposite dugout tomorrow.

"He's a real friend, I want him to win and he wants me to win so it will feel very strange that we are against each other.
"It's the first time I have been in direct competition with him but that's football, sometimes brother against brother or father against son happens so that is even more difficult.
"So for 90 minutes he wants to win against me and I want to win against him.
"I'm in the race to win the match tomorrow and I think we have a good chance of that - it is our objective and I don't go further than that.
"I'm not interested in other teams, only us." 

Wayne Rooney is still sidelined having missed the Sunderland match with a groin injury and Luke Shaw is also doubtful but there are no new injury concerns. 
Former Reds Fabio Da Silva and Victor Valdes, plus ex City striker Alvaro Negredo, are among the visitors alumni and are set to feature. 

Boro sit in 15th place, four points above the bottom three and have proved to be a tough nut to crack having held both Arsenal and City and only losing narrowly to Chelsea.
Despite those notable results, they've only won once on the road so far this term (at Sunderland back in August), scoring 16 and conceding 20.
They hit a bit of a stumbling block but important wins against relegation rivals Swansea and Hull earlier this month mean the Teesside team will go into 2017 in good shape. 

This is the second in a mammoth run of five games in ten days as we travel to West Ham on Monday before cup ties with Reading and Hull in the first home games of 2017.

Form guide: United D W W W W W Middlesbrough D W L L W L 
Match odds: United 1/4 Draw 9/2 Middlesbrough 16/1
Referee: Lee Mason 

Opinion: United's top five 2016 moments

There's never a dull moment at the biggest club in the world and 2016 was no different: a year of managerial change, world record signings and trophy-lifting triumphs. 
Here, we look at the top five moments at our club in 2016. Happy New Year! 

New faces, new United...

The first home match of any new season is always exciting, but there was added intrigue ahead of the Southampton fixture this time around.
It was the first time we had laid eyes on Paul Pogba, following the former Academy star's world record £89 million move from Juventus.
He started alongside fellow summer recruits Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Henrik Mkhitaryan later coming off the bench under the Friday night floodlights. 
There was a buzz in the stands, with Jose Mourinho's first competitive match as our new manager heralding a brave new era. 

Wayne's Anfield winner....

United's 1-0 success at Anfield in January was far from a classic: in fact it was one the least memorable meetings between the two fierce rivals in many a year.
Not that we cared much, mind, when Wayne Rooney stole a classic smash-and-grab win with his first Anfield goal since 2005 in front of 2,763 visiting fans (and a couple of injured players). 
It was certainly a moment to savour, as Louis van Gaal secured a fourth successive league win over the men from Merseyside, with this being the first match against United for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. 

A star is born: The Wynthenshawe wonder 

Marcus Rashford first hit the headlines with a brace on his debut against Midtjylland in the Europa League.
Three days later, his follow-up double against title-chasing Arsenal catapulted the precocious 18-year-old to overnight stardom. 
The previously unknown Academy starlet from Wynthenshawe had ripped it up on the biggest stage and performed like a playground hero. 
It was the stuff us fans can only dream of and, while his subsequent rise (including the Manchester derby winner) has been nothing short of remarkable, that outing against the Gunners will live long in the memory.
In a dark season, it was heart-warming and reassuring, a reminder of the United DNA and what makes our club unique.

Semi-final scenes... an emotional connection

If you meet anyone with no interest in United, or football as a whole, just take a look at Anthony Martial's late, late winner in the FA Cup semi-final.
Take a look at the players celebrating joyously with the euphoric United fans. 
Those scenes represent an emotional connection between the squad and supporters that is too rarely seen in the commercial world of the modern game. 
The team had secured a place in an FA Cup final for the first time since 2007 - and a chance to end a 12-year drought for the trophy - so it meant an awful lot to everyone at the club, particularly when the league campaign had been so disappointing. 

Lifting the FA Cup....

Nothing beats winning a trophy. No-one remembers the plucky underdogs or gallant runners-up. Don't let anyone tell you any differently. No 2016 review would be complete without mention of the FA Cup win, our first silverware since the retirement of SAF in 2013.
It was an exceptional day in a difficult season, and its winning was so typical of United, too.
We fell behind, we made it hard for ourselves and went down to ten men, it almost slipped away but we fought back to take the trophy. 
Valencia's cross, Delaney's scuffed clearance, home-grown talent Jesse Lingard's first-time volley into the top bins. Boom! 
Not even that dodgy dance from then-Palace boss Alan Pardew could ruin the day.
United will never settle for a cup win over league success but that day at Wembley was one to enjoy, relish and re-live. 

Bring on 2017.... 

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Mourinho's man-management key to Mkhitaryan rise

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the fulcrum of United's attack and his rise is down not just to his hard work but also Jose Mourinho's instinct.

Banished into obscurity after an inauspicious Manchester derby debut in September, it was only 33 days ago since Mkhitaryan started in that defining fixture at home to Feyenoord.

Since then, he has since collected four man of the match awards, assisted two goals, scored three - two of them winners - and is destined to collect the Goal of the Month - or possibly even the Goal of the Season - award.

At Hull in August, Mkhitaryan underlined his ability as an impact substitute in a game-changing supporting role and his effect was more profound against a spirited Sunderland side. 

He started on the left, switched to the right and scored from a central position.

Few players on the planet are as adept as operating across a front three as Mkhitaryan and United might not have had a player of such versatility and pedigree since Cristiano Ronaldo.

The variety of Mikki Ryan's recent strikes epitomises his skills set: elegance at Zorya, poise against Spurs and innovation on Boxing Day.

He arrived back into the fray after 62 minutes as Jose reaffirmed that his £26.3 million summer signing is now an undisputed first-team regular. 

Credit to Mourinho for handling his best creative player the way he knows best and not being bothered by the criticism that came his way for doing so. 

After an inauspicious showing on his first United start in the derby back in September, Mkhitaryan was removed from the limelight and did not appear again for six weeks. 

An injury suffered on international duty stalled his progress and the player later admitted that he initially struggled to adapt to life at the top level in England. 

It is testament to both the player and his manager that he regained his fluidity and rhythm so swiftly, just 15 days after he suffered that ankle injury against Spurs.

He didn't train with the team on Wednesday which explained Jose's decision to ease him back in off the bench. 

Mkhitaryan's pace and creativity nipped Sunderland's growing momentum in the bud and, even before his stunning match-sealing strike, he oozed class and picked up where he had left off before his two-match lay off. 

Mourinho's side are showing real progress with our best run of the season and Mkhitaryan's magic is at the heart of everything. 

Monday 26 December 2016

Match report: United 3-1 Sunderland

Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored a goal of the season contender as United beat David Moyes struggling Sunderland for a fifth successive win.

The Reds were dominant throughout but only a Daley Blind strike - his first of the season - separated the sides at the interval.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic continued his rich vein of scoring form and Mkhitaryan's acrobatic finish made sure of the win despite Fabio Borini's late consolation.

The victory moved United level on points with fifth-placed Tottenham ahead of the North London side's trip to Southampton on Wednesday. 

Despite the Reds domination throughout, the third-from-bottom Black Cats almost found themselves against the run of play ahead after 18 minutes.

Jermain Defoe latched on to Jordan Pickford's long clearance and lashed a shot wide before Patrick van Aanholt forced an excellent save from David de Gea with a 20 yarder.

Paul Pogba went close shortly before the half hour when a slick one-two with Jesse Lingard on the edge of the box saw his strike from distance rebound off a post.

Juan Mata was barged to the ground by Lamine Kone and De Gea was then called into action twice in quick succession at the other end.

The stopped saved well from Victor Anichebe before he beat away Borini's effort as the visitors grew in confidence and belief.

United found the vital breakthrough six minutes shy of the interval when recalled left-back Blind latched on to Ibrahimovic's through ball and finished well from an acute angle. 

Man of the match Pogba, so impressive in his all-round play, almost doubled the lead before Ibrahimovic fired over the bar having been released by Mata.

Mkhitaryan fizzed an effort narrowly wide shortly after his return to the fray following injury and Pickford saved from Ibra as United pressed for that elusive second goal.

It duly arrived eight minutes from the end when Pogba picked out the Swede and he finished coolly for his eleventh goal in ten games.

Ibrahimovic then turned provider when he found Mkhitaryan who capped a brilliant Boxing Day performance with a stunning back-heeled finish that will surely be one of the front runners for the club's goal of the season award. 

Former Liverpool man Borini volleyed in a late consolation for the relegation-threatened visitors but David Moyes was well beaten on his first return to Old Trafford. 

Five in a row!

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba. 

David Moyes a good man who was on a hiding to nothing

When David Moyes makes his first return to Old Trafford with Sunderland today, it is unlikely that there will be any hard feelings.

I'm sure that Moyes is a good, decent man but management is not a popularity contest and giving him the job was madness.

He was never going to replicate was Sir Alex did and was on a hiding to nothing in a job that just didn't work out. 

Moyes had not won anything in his eleven seasons at Everton,  in contrast Fergie beat Real Madrid in a European final and turned Aberdeen from also-rans to an all-conquering outfit before he arrived in Manchester.

Any manager would have struggled coming in at that point and stepping into the great man's shoes. 

Moyes had been trusted with the job in part due to being his own man at Everton, but at United he seemed unsure of himself and did it neither his way nor Fergie's. 

The squad altered too often and was in desperate need of surgery, but it was a script set in motion against a backdrop of wrong decisions from day one. 
The players were confused and lost faith, us fans were perplexed and getting rid of Ferguson's loyal and knowledgeable backroom staff was the biggest mistake of all. 

It wasn't Moyes' fault that Marouane Fellaini was his only signing.

He had identified the players that he wanted and it surely would have made a huge difference had he got them. 
Moyes suffered from David Gill's departure at the same time as Fergie and he was left to oversee a monumental transition more or less on his own without the full support of the club's owners and board. 

That one season of desperate underachievement in 2013/14 under Moyes set us back four and that's still evident today, given the spending we've seen since and, thus far, we're still some way off a title challenge.

Moyes has often lamented that he didn't get the time he felt he should've and, given more, would he made a success of the United job?
I don't know but he has been vindicated in some areas as changes were clearly needed.

It is now widely accepted that Moyes inherited an ageing United side in urgent need of reconstruction.
He said from the start that the United job was one of massive rebuilding that would possibly take the full six years of his contract to get into shape. 

Louis van Gaal faced the same issues and Jose has said that he still needs two or three transfer windows to get the squad he wants so that proved that Moyes was right. 

The club finally has a manager befitting of the job but the question remains: why didn't we have that when Fergie called it a day?

Friday 23 December 2016

Schneiderlin to be sold and looks set for West Brom

Jose Mourinho has told Morgan Schneiderlin that he can leave United in January.

Schneiderlin was signed by Mourinho's predecessor Louis van Gaal for £25 million from Southampton last summer.

The Frenchman joined United as part of a double swoop with Bastian Schweinsteiger in a revamped engine-room partnership that was dubbed 'Schmidfield'. 

However, he has played only eleven league minutes this season and West Brom have made a bid of £15 million for the Frenchman in January.

Baggies manager Tony Pulis confirmed his club's interest in the player - who has 15 caps for France - while Mourinho said he would not "stop him leaving" - despite the prospect of a £10 million loss -  if the club's board agreed the deal. 

Schneiderlin was an instrumental figure in the Saints rise from the third tier to qualification for Europe, and shone under Ronald Koeman, but was never able to replicate that form at Old Trafford. 
Everton are also thought to be interested and Schneiderlin's future now seems certain to lie away from Old Trafford.

He played 40 times for United last season during a dire campaign under LVG - scoring once - but, despite Jose's rotational policy, has slipped down the pecking order under the new boss. 

It's difficult to know exactly what went wrong for the player at United: was it a case of him being another LVG flop, was he just not good enough or was he a victim of Jose's desire to make this United side his own?

Schneiderlin can also claim to have fallen victim to his own team mates success with United's midfield looking the strongest it has for years. 

Michael Carrick continues to defy his age with a series of impeccable performances, Ander Herrera has been impressively consistent and Paul Pogba's world record fee makes him undroppable.

Marouane Fellaini has often been preferred ahead of him, Schneiderlin has barely even made the bench and was never going to become a first-team regular at the club.
West Brom will offer him that and a move to the West Midlands side looks the best outcome for him, United and the Hawthorns outfit, 

Memphis Depay is another United player who has fallen out of favour and has also been linked with a move away.

Everton are again said to be interested in securing the winger's services but Koeman has remain tight-lipped on any potential deal and the Dutchman's future remains in the balance. 

Mourinho continues to show ruthlessness as he makes this squad his, with Schneiderlin - and possibly Memphis - victims of the previously failed managerial regime. 

Match preview: United v Sunderland

Jose Mourinho welcomes his predecessor-but-one as United chase a fifth successive win with the visit of Sunderland on Boxing Day.

David Moyes is sure to receive a warm reception from his former side when he brings his struggling but improving Black Cats to Old Trafford.

The former United manager was appointed as the man to immediately succeed SAF - an impossible task in hindsight - and was on a hiding to nothing when he was sacked ten months into a six year tenure.
Moyes remains a popular and well-respected figure in the game and returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his departure, following a year in Spain with Real Sociedad. 

The North-East side again find themselves embroiled at the wrong end of the table, but recent home wins over Hull, champions Leicester and Watford have kept them in touch with the teams around them. 

Reds loanee Adnan Januzaj is ineligible, while ex-United man Paddy McNair, Duncan Watmore, Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff and Lynden Gooch are all long term absentees.

Billy Jones has picked up a knock but John O'Shea and Donald Love are expected to feature against their old club. 

Chris Smalling made a late comeback at West Brom and, with Eric Bailly doubtful, could return.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was pencilled in to feature in this game and Luke Shaw is still out but there are no fresh injury concerns for the Reds.

United boss Jose admitted team spirit has been key to recent form, and said: 

"Expectations are high, results have been up and down and we are in a position where we don't want to be. 
"I have passion for my work and this job, I'm feeling really happy here.
"It's a difficult job but I felt good immediately, I've had half a season here now and have always felt at home so for me it was easy to acclimatise.
"I have a very good squad, a big squad, and there is always frustration because a football player wants to play and not be on the bench.
"Boxing Day is always a great football day - Sunderland had a bad start but they have had some good wins recently and we have to give everything in every game we play." 
"But everyone is friends, they all have a good relationship and you can see that with the team spirit we have here."

This is the third Boxing Day match with the Wearsiders in nine years (4-0 in 2007 and 2-0 at home in 2010) with the Reds looking to continue recent momentum with a fifth consecutive victory. 

Form guide: United W D W W W W Sunderland W L W L L W 
Match odds: United 1/4 Draw 9/2 Sunderland 14/1
Referee: Martin Atkinson 

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Jose set to bolster defensive options with Lindelof signing

Benfica's Swedish international Victor Lindelof has become Jose's top January transfer target.

United are believed to have made contact with the Portuguese champions about the 22-year-old centre-back ahead of a proposed £38 million move.

Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have done a magnificent job at the back for Jose's patched up defence in recent weeks, but Jones has a history of lengthy injuries and that cannot be ignored.

Chris Smalling came on late at West Brom and is working his way back to full fitness but Eric Bailly will be unavailable in January. 

The Ivorian will be away with his country - the defending champions - at the African Cup of Nations, and should they reach the final again - as expected - he could be in Gabon for up to five weeks. 

With a dearth of defenders at his disposal, Jose wants to strengthen his options at the back and has touted Lindelof as the man to do so. 

Despite the fact Benfica are still in the Champions League and could be unwilling to sell, their president Filipe Vieira has met United officials in an attempt to thrash out a deal to bring the centre-back to Manchester. 

Mourinho has watched Lindelof on several occasions and is known to have been impressed by the Swede's physical, bruising and no-nonsense style.

Lindelof has made eleven senior appearances for Sweden and started all three of their group games at last summer's European Championships. 
Sweden exited at the group stage but a first goal for his country soon followed for Lindelof when he netted against Bulgaria in a 3-0 World Cup Qualifying win. 

He started his career with his hometown team, SK Vasteras, in Sweden, but moved to Benfica in 2012.

Lindelof made 97 appearances for their B side and then made a senior bow the following year, going on to play more than 50 times for the Estadio da Luz outfit. 

He was part of the victorious Sweden squad at the 2015 Under-21 European Championship and scored the winning penalty in the shootout against Portugal in the final. 

Mourinho is also set to clear out some of his squad's dead wood in January.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay all look likely to leave, with Everton heavily linked to the latter two.
Much-maligned midfielder Marouane Fellaini has also emerged as an unlikely transfer target for both Milan clubs. 

United must plan ahead to find Carrick's replacement

United's recent resurgence has coincided with the consistent presence of Michael Carrick in the team.

He had to wait until November for his first league start as Jose shuffled his pack to find the winning formula, but he has proved undroppable since. 

He has arguably proved to be more of defining influence that United's A-listers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. 
In fact, he's the man who has provided the safety platform for the Reds star duo to live up to their billing but yet so much of his work continues to go under the radar. 

Carrick may not have the physical dynamism of his midfield partners Pogba and Ander Herrera, but his vision and intelligence has lifted the tempo of their play.

He may not be the authoritative and combative presence in the style of Steven Gerrard or a goalscorer in the image of Frank Lampard.

Carrick has not had the recognition he deserves because his greatest ability is to get the best out of others. 

It is his control and composure on the ball, his discipline to maintain his position, the vision to read the game and to make that crucial interception or killer pass that makes him such an indispensable asset.

But he is 35 now and we're not going to be blessed with his talents too much longer: Carrick will need replacing and United should think about that now. 
Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger aren't up to the task and Marouane Fellaini has been linked with a move away.

We may not need to look far: in Daley Blind - who has spent of his career in Carrick's position, we could have a ready made replacement.
Tim Fosu-Mensah is another who could be promoted from within to fill the void: he shone during his breakthrough season last term and is versatile enough to play in many different positions.

He has made only sporadic appearances so far this season and played in defence under Louis van Gaal, but spent much of his early career - at Ajax and then United - in midfield. 
Unfortunately, there is no stand-out young midfielder in the Reds Academy who is knocking on the door to demand an immediate step up. 

United have the financial clout and pulling power to attract any player of our choosing and a player in the ilk of Real Madrid's Luka Modric or PSG's Blaise Matuidi would fit the bill.

It is a travesty that Carrick only has 34 England appearances, particularly when you think of some of those midfielders that have been preferred ahead of him (Fabian Delph, Scott Parker and Owen Hargreaves to name but three). 

United have signed enough new players to field three teams since Sir Alex stepped down in 2013.
The correlation between our upturn in form and Carrick's re-introduction back into the side might speak more about the flawed transfer policy since then, but should at least finally settle the old issue of his importance to the team.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Evergreen Ibra has a superstar aura in the Cantona mould

Zlatan Ibrahimovic he is a Swedish hero, on a free from PSG..

When we signed the big Swede in the summer, the critics were queueing up to chastise United's latest piece of transfer business.
Too old, too slow, he won't be able to adapt, he'll be a flop like Radamel Falcao they said.

Those critics only ratcheted up a notch when he suffered the longest goal drought of his career but he instead looks to be exactly what we've needed and the missing piece of the jigsaw. 

Ibrahimovic has described himself as being like a fine wine: he just gets better with age and he's shown no sings of slowing down.

He brings a presence and a superstar aura to United that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy provided. 

He went ten matches without scoring - from the City game in September until the Swansea game in November - but has not stopped finding the net since.

He has scored ten goals in as many games and his brace at West Brom were his 15th and 16th of the campaign - no United striker since 2002 has reached that figure in a campaign by Christmas. 

A predatory finisher, his positioning and poise for the opener at West Brom was perfect and his angled finish on the run at Palace was reminiscent of Van Nistelrooy in his prime. 

He carries an edge to his game, too as he wound up Yohan Cabaye on Wednesday and then clattered into Garath McAuley with a crunching challenge at the Hawthorns.
There was the little tug on Craig Dawson to create the space in which he manoeuvred to nod in Jesse Lingard's superb cross.

Like Cantona, Ibrahimovic is not an all-action player: for much of the game he is static but when a chance comes his movement is perfect and he can produce magic moments from nowhere. 

It is not just his striking record that sets the Swede apart: it is his swagger, his strut, his sense of superiority. 

We've had plenty of good strikers but very few in recent years have come with the enigma and fear factor that Zlatan has. 

Despite his apparent self-centredness, the other players clearly look up to him: Jose has instilled an evident sense of spirit and togetherness in the team and he is at the heart of it.

There is an awe and an admiration of his age-defying fitness, his unstinting ability to play every game and a deep respect for what he's achieve in a stellar footballing career. 

Many United fans are coming to the same conclusion: whilst there will never be another Cantona, Zlatan has all the assets the King came with and is the closest we're going to get. 

Jose building a United side in his own identikit

There was a sense of inevitability that, at some point, United would click into gear and results would follow performances.

We had been playing so well that it was impossible to see how we could keep dropping points and, on Saturday, it all came together.

If we had won the fixtures against Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal. West Ham and Everton we'd be right in the mix for the title.
We're now converting those draws into important wins and if you'd offered us sitting four points off second at Christmas we'd have taken that. 

Chelsea are the best team in the country at the moment by far and deserve to be where they are, but United are not far behind in terms of performances. 

Victory at West Brom extended our unbeaten run to ten games and was our fourth win in a row, but it was the manner of it that was the most satisfying aspect of a good night's work.

There was the nervy win over Spurs, the harum-scarum late drama at Selhurst Park but, at the Hawthorns, we dominated the game from start to finish.

West Brom away looked another difficult hurdle for United to clear, with the Baggies on a run of four wins from six and three in a row at home.

Tony Pulis sides are notoriously hard to beat but we despatched his in-form outfit with ease and without breaking sweat. 

It was the most complete and controlling performance witnessed since the retirement of Sir Alex and was our best away display of the season. 

Contrary to what many believed when he was appointed, under Jose we're playing the best brand of football I've seen from a United side in years.

This was a classic Mourinho performance: his tactical plan and in-game management were executed to perfection, every player knew his job and the team were clinical, efficient and organised. 

The team are clicking, everything is coming together and the players are fighting for their manager, the fans and each other. 

The result was never in doubt from the moment Zlatan put us ahead early on.

The collective performance was one to behold, but there were also many superb individual displays from those in a United shirt.

Mourinho is very much a momentum manager: when he finds a winning formula, he very rarely changes it.

We saw that in his last title win at Chelsea when he used only 19 players throughout the whole season and we're seeing the same now with his United side.
It's no co-incidence that our recent consistency and momentum-building run has come with the same core of players.

Jose has kept the line-up pretty much the same and the team are reaping the rewards - a bright 2017 beckons. 

Match report: West Brom 0-2 United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his 15th and 16th goals of the season as United stretched their unbeaten run to ten games with an impressive win at the Hawthorns.

In our best away performance of the season, Zlatan put the Reds ahead inside five minutes and the visitors  then controlled the match from the first minute to the last for a fourth successive win.

United stay sixth, level on points with Spurs, but are now only four points adrift of second-placed Arsenal, with two home matches against Sunderland and Middlesbrough to come over Christmas. 

The Reds started brightly from the off and moved ahead with our first attack of the game.

After superb build-up down the right, Antonio Valencia found Jesse Lingard and he in turn picked out Zlatan with a superb cross and the Swede headed home from close range.

The Baggies threat, predictably, came from their set-pieces and one such moment provided their best chance of the game.
Jonas Olsson met Chris Brunt's flag-kick but his header across goal evaded his onrushing tea-mates and the ball drifted harmlessly wide. 

Wayne Rooney then came with inches of equalling Sir Bobby's record when Ben Foster tipped his piledriver on to the bar after lovely link-up that involved Lingard and the again impressive Paul Pogba.

West Brom slowly worked their way back into the game and went close twice before the interval through Brunt - who fired straight at David De Gea - and Matt Phillips, who lashed narrowly off target.

It was United who should have scored again before the break however as Lingard blazed over the bar from close range when well-placed. 

The Reds started the second half as we had the first and soon deservedly doubled their lead.

Pogba tried to catch out Ben Foster with an impudent lob, but the former United keeper was left with no chance from our next attack.

Ibrahimovic exchanged passes with Rooney, cut inside two defenders and his shot took a deflection of Craig Dawson to wrong-foot Foster for his tenth goal in as many games. 

Marcos Rojo and Salomon Rondon were then both booked after a fiery coming together, with the West Brom man perhaps fortunate not to see red after he hit out at the Argentinian.

Pogba forced a save from Foster from distance and then clubbed an effort over the bar, but there was no further action as United kept Tony Pulis' side at arms length. 

Chris Smalling made his return from injury deep into stoppage time as the Reds cruised to a fourth successive win with the frantic festive fixtures on the horizon.

Overall team performance: 9/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Six foot five. 

Friday 16 December 2016

Match preview: West Brom v United

United begin their festive schedule with another difficult away trip to this season's surprise package West Bromwich Albion. 

The Reds are showing signs of a momentum-building run of victories, and with struggling duo Sunderland and Boro' to come at home, another here would be a fourth in a row (for the first time since August) and set us up nicely for the festive fixtures. 

Tony Pulis' Baggies side were expected to fighting against the drop (the Welshman has never been relegated as a boss) but instead they have exceeded all expectations and are pushing for the European spots. 
Having come through a tough examination of our credentials on Wednesday at Selhurst Park, this will be another challenging outing for the Reds.

Pulls has found a settled formula in recent weeks and has a instilled a typical robust, hard-to-beat approach which has seen the Baggies rise to seventh after four wins from their last six games.

Our most memorable encounter against the in-form West Midlands outfit was the ten goal thriller in Sir Alex's last game in charge and the Baggies won at Old Trafford for two successive seasons (2013/14 and 2014/15).
They recorded a first home win over us in 32 years last time out and are playing with a confidence that will fuel belief that they can repeat that feat this time. 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan will miss out for the visitors, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia return to the squad but Eric Bailly and Luke Shaw are sidelined. 
Albion's former Red Jonny Evans faces a late fitness test and Craig Dawson is available again after suspension for the hosts. 

Jose said:

"We have three matches in December starting with another away match at West Brom, which will be difficult, and what we have to do in these games is to be in a position that gives us a chance in the second half of the season.
"We are playing really well and if we can transform performances into results then we have a chance.
"West Brom are playing very well, I have a lot of respect for them and Tony Pulis, he has had a lot of success in his career and we will have to be on form to beat them.
"We have won three matches in a row with a great spirit and determination and hopefully that will continue on Saturday."

Form guide: West Brom W W D W L W United D W D W W W 
Match odds: West Brom 7/10 Draw 14/5 United 19/4
Referee: Anthony Taylor 

Thursday 15 December 2016

United re-write the season's narrative and get over the line - just

For so long, it looked to be the same old story for Jose and his side in south London.

Having thought to have broken through a psychological barrier in the weekend win over Spurs, all the old flaws and frustrations that have caused so much damage this season reared their head again.

This time, though, the ending was different - a show of resilience, spirit and determination from yesteryear channelled the Reds injustices, after an officiating horror show, and rescued three points that we deserved.... just.

We chalked up successive Premier League wins for the first time since August and could be an invaluable victory snatched from the jaws of what looked to be yet another draw.

Palace might be struggling but, make no mistake, Selhurst Park is never an easy place to go, and in their last seven matches they have shared a total of 33 goals.

But Alan Pardew's side looked anything but an outfit that have been scoring - and conceding - goals for fun.

That suggested that we might have been able to wreak havoc and score more than once in a league game, a feat that has proved rare this season and one that has contributed to so much disappointment.

United dominated the first half but, without the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan, lacked the spark and speed the Armenian has provided in his starring role of late.

He wasn't the team's only impressive performer against Spurs and was ably abetted by the superb Ander Herrera but the Basque was off his game here.

Pogba and Carrick were superb in midfield, Phil Jones impressed again and Zlatan led the line brilliantly. 

Just when we must have been grateful for a change of luck, the standard of officiating hit a new low.
United seemed to have suffered more than most other clubs from refereeing ineptitude - it has happened a staggering amount of times this term.
Regardless of the issues surrounding Marcos Rojo's challenge and then our opening goal, that does not excuse the string of errors that followed. 

Craig Pawson completely ignored Joe Ledley's blatant handball in the box and then also ruled out Juan Mata's perfectly good goal for offside - despite replays showing that he was level.

Officials do a difficult job but there have been so many shockers this season that it's a surprise Jose has not talked about a 'campaign'.

It was a moment of quality that broke the deadlock but Palace levelled after the break and the Reds were left seething at a number of dubious refereeing decisions.

Juan Mata had a perfectly good goal ruled out and we had a certain spot-kick waved away when Joe Ledley forearmed a corner away.
Palace could feel aggrieved too, but it only added to the sense that this was a match that would follow so many that had gone before. 

United could have sulked and prepared their hard luck stories again but we kept at it and Palace eventually caved in. 

Man of the match Pogba comes of age and repays his fee

That was why we re-signed him for £89 million. 

There were a number of fine individual performances from United players on Wednesday but Paul Pogba was head and shoulders above everyone else.

He scored the opener on the stroke of half time - albeit in controversial fashion - and then set up Ibra to smash in the winner two minutes from time to cap a superb man of the match performance.

We signed him to produce match winning moments like that and he certainly delivered in what was a 'coming of age' performance. 

He has been quietly and consistently impressive over the last few weeks but he stamped his class at Crystal Palace with a brilliant, string-pulling display.

He is learning to dominate and influence matches and has started to grab tight games by the scruff of the neck. 

There have been accusations that Pogba is lazy but we did not see that here.

He would occasionally drift wide and further forward to link the attack and was also not afraid to track back and do his bit defensively, either. 

It was a supreme display of power, pace, poise and passing and and a performance that went some way to justifying his transfer fee.
As we've mentioned elsewhere, his link-up with Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved crucial as the duo linked up to sink Palace and he also, once again, profited from Michael Carrick's presence alongside him. 

You couldn't have asked for more and it was the Frenchman's best game in a United shirt since he re-joined the club in the summer. 

Carrick was also, once again, the key man in midfield for us and ran Pogba close for the title of best player on the pitch. 

It's no co-incidence that Pogba's best performances for us have come with Carrick alongside him and United remain unbeaten from games in which the 35-year-old has started.

His vital importance to United is obvious. 

Pogba claimed another assist to add to his recent contributions against West Ham, Everton and Zorya and the Stratford End crossbar is probably still shaking after his free-kick hit it against Spurs.

There was more to Pogba's personal performance than his goal and an assist, though.

His link-up play was superb, his strength and alacrity kept Palace's playmaker Yohan Cabaye quiet and he was seemingly at the heart of everything his side did.

In the absence of the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Frenchman provided the spark United needed. 
He was everywhere at Selhurst Park and was the dominant, driving force behind a crucial victory for the Reds. 

The critics couldn't wait to jump on Pogba's back for the slightest error and he was made an unfair scapegoat for United's indifferent early season form.

It speaks volumes that those naysayers have quietened down and Pogba is now proving them wrong. 

Dynamic duo are clicking and showing their class

United won back-to-back league games for the first time since August with summer signings Zlatan and Paul Pogba again proving key.

The Swede continued his recent prolific form with another crucial, match-winning moment and Pogba enjoyed his best game in a United shirt with a magnificent string-pulling performance behind Ibra. 

The pair are providing what you'd expect from big-name signings: crucial, match-winning moments when the team need it most. 

Pogba and Zlatan were Jose's two showpiece signings in the summer and they are starting to deliver as they seem to be clicking on the same wavelength. 

There was a touch of controversy about the creation and finish of the opener as Zlatan seemingly handled the ball and Pogba appeared to be marginally offside.

United's dynamic duo combined again for the winner with, this time, roles reversed.

Ibra made the perfect run to control and finish after the Frenchman - who capped an outstanding display with an assist and a goal - had picked out Zlatan with a scintillating pin-point pass.

Their collaboration is happening more and more and United are reaping the rewards. 

Pogba set up Zlatan to score at West Ham and again at Zorya when the Frenchman's superb slide-rule pass found Ibra to knock in our second. 

Both players had their critics when they joined United but both are now proving their worth.

Ibra scored 50 goals in as many games last season, an outstanding return at any level, but there were fears that he was too old and slow to cope with the physical demands of England's top flight.

Those doubts were only heightened during his 12-game, two-month goal drought but have been well and truly banished after his 14th of the season and eighth in as many matches. 

Pogba struggled for consistency and confidence in his first few matches since his return but the pair's improvement has co-incided with United's collective upturn in form. 

Zlatan reminds me of a certain Frenchman by the name of Eric - his work rate is sometimes questionable and he can be frustrating but he's got that feisty edge to his game to match his mercurial talent.

Two high-class players are in tune with each other and this can only be good news for them, Jose and United as a unit. 

With fixtures coming thick and fast, long may this continue. 

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Match report: Crystal Palace 1-2 United

A late Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike earned United a third successive victory and kept up the pressure on the teams above them.

On a night of tension, controversy and drama - and a string of shocking refereeing decisions - James McArthur's strike cancelled out Paul Pogba's controversial opener.

That looked to have cruelly denied the Reds a deserved victory until our two showpiece summer signings, Pogba and Zlatan, linked up as the former found the latter to lash home a superb strike two minutes from time. 

Palace were left raging at referee Craig Pawson's decision to reprieve Marcos Rojo after the defender's late, two-footed lunge on Wilfried Zaha.

United's opener also looked to have a hint of controversy about it, too, as Zlatan looked to have handled the ball into the path of a suspiciously offside looking Pogba who knocked in from close range.

The Reds were also left angered by the official, too.

Juan Mata's perfectly good goal was chalked out for offside, Joe Ledley's handball in the penalty area went unpunished and Yohan Cabaye did not receive a second yellow for a late challenge on Michael Carrick. 

United started brightly against a strangely passive Palace side and went close twice early on.
Wayne Rooney headed narrowly wide and Pogba went close from distance.

Wayne Hennessy saved well from the outstanding Pogba and then also kept out Juan Mata before the visitors moved ahead in first half stoppage time.

Maya's free-kick was flicked on by Zlatan - with a hint of handball and Pogba, who looked offside, bundled in from six yards.

Despite that setback, Palace started the second half on the front foot and immediately upped the ante. 
Half-time substitute Joe Ledley flashed an effort wide and David De Gea had to be at his best to deny McArthur from distance. 

Palace were knocking on the door and pushed in open on 66 minutes when Damien Delaney's sublime flick played in McArthur who, this time, got the better of De Gea. 

Undeterred, United responded well and almost restored their advantage instantly. 

Chasing Sir Bobby's record, Rooney forced a superb save from Hennessey before another moment of controversy.

Mata thought he had scored when he tapped in Rojo's header across goal only to be denied by the linesman, and then Ander Herrera's header looked to have been blocked by Ledley's hand inside the area.

Substitute Jesse Lingard was denied by the increasingly impressive Hennessey, but then came the late sting in the tail.

Zlatan latched on to Pogba's superb clipped pass, took the ball on his chest and lashed home on the angle with two minutes left to spark wild celebrations in the away end. 

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba. 

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Match preview: Crystal Palace v United

The fixtures continue to come thick and fast as United travel to Selhurst Park looking to secure a third consecutive win.

The trip to south London marks the start of a season-defining schedule of five fixtures in 17 days four of which are against sides at the bottom end of the table - with a run of victories key to build momentum and keep up the pressure on the teams around us. 

It would be the first time since September we've enjoyed such a run but the task will not be made any easier by the absence of two key men.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was stretchered off against Spurs and is ruled out of our next two matches, with a return pencilled in for a return against Sunderland on Boxing Day.

That could mean a recall for Juan Mata, but Antonio Valencia is suspended having collected a fifth booking of the season on Sunday. 

Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw remain sidelined but, other than Mkhitaryan, there are no other injury concerns.

The Eagles hold the unwanted record of the team with the lowest points total in 2016, a statistic hardly helped by a recent run of six consecutive defeats.

That torrid run included a remarkable 5-4 defeat at fellow strugglers Swansea, but the pressure has eased on Palace boss Alan Pardew after their 3-0 win over Southampton in their last home game.

A late equaliser rescued a draw at relegation-threatened Hull last time out, a result that leaves the hosts three places and three points above the drop zone. 

Despite their indifferent form, Palace are free-scoring and will pose a threat in the shape of talented trio Wilf Zaha, Christian Benteke and string-puller in chief Yohan Cabaye. 

Jose is anticipating another tough battle for his side, and said:

"The league position of them (Palace) perhaps does not show what a good team they are - they score a lot of goals and are always attacking, so for that reason it is a difficult game.
'They have good players and their supporters are fantastic, an incredible atmosphere, so it is not an easy place to get a result. 
"Valencia has been playing phenomenally and having a great season, he likes to attack and is happy with the way the team plays.
"But he's suspended and that's football, a feature of that, so we have to cope without him and we have to trust other players."

We picked up four points from the two leagues games with the Eagles last term, plus that memorable FA Cup final meeting at Wembley in May.

Form guide: Crystal Palace L L L L W D United W D W D W W 
Match odds: Crystal Palace 4/1 Draw 3/1 United 7/5
Referee: Craig Pawson 

Monday 12 December 2016

United looking strong ahead of frantic festive schedule

Nearly halfway through the season and United are looking strong ahead of five matches in 18 days.

Sunday's win over Spurs is swiftly followed by a trip to Selhurst Park to face Alan Pardew's improving Palace.

We then travel to surprise package West Brom next Saturday, for a tea time kick-off, before struggling North East duo Sunderland and Middlesbrough are the final two Old Trafford visitors of 2016.

Then it's West Ham away to usher in the New Year before two difficult January league matches with Stoke and Liverpool, flanked by the FA Cup tie with Reading and Hull City in the two-legged EFL Cup semis. 

Two successive wins do not constitute a turned corner - we need to win these four matches before we can say that but there are signs that momentum is building.

United's run of draws, as ever whenever we fail to win, were greatly exaggerated and made out to be a crisis.

There are so many games at this time of year that all we need is a few results on the bounce and we're back in the mix of the teams around us. 

Jose has found his best team and is reaping the rewards for this consistency. 

We look strong at the back with a settled four of Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian (with Daley Blind and Luke Shaw providing the strength in depth).

We've got a fantastic balance in midfield with players that can win the ball and use it superbly.

No one, apart from possibly Rojo, has benefited more from having Jose as his manager than Ander Herrera.

A fringe player who never convicted LVG of his worth or quality, he has been absolutely outstanding in a change of role under Jose.

Herrera doesn't score many goals, or make many killer passes (although he did set up Mkhitaryan against Spurs), but he covers so much ground and is always in the right place at the right time to break up play and get the ball moving. 
His Basque background means he is not afraid of getting stuck in, and not only is he a tough player but a clever one, too. 

He does not have the flair of Paul Pogba or the class of Michael Carrick but both benefit from having him next to them in the middle. 

That midfield trio provides United with a perfect balance in midfield: Carrick's composure, guile and intelligence, Pogba's creativity and range of passing and Herrera's temerity, industry and work rate. 

They may be not the players who grab the glory every week, but Jose has got the trio clicking superbly as a unit and they are crucial for us.

Phil Jones finally showing his undoubted potential

Phil Jones has been at United for six seasons but is finally showing the qualities that persuaded Sir Alex to sign him in 2011.

It is not so long ago that he was our forgotten man but he showed again on Sunday that he can be our defensive lynchpin with a towering performance in the win over Spurs. 

It was difficult to see where he fit into Jose's plans, as injuries meant he did not play until 2 November, with Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo ahead of him the centre-back pecking order. 

Often plagued by injury and error prone, Jones is at the stage of his career where he has to not only play, but deliver.

So far, he is doing both.

His ability and potential have never been questioned, but his problem has been the same as since he joined: a lack of consistency - either in staying fit or nailing down a fixed position in the team for a sustained length of time. 

In the past there were always accusations that Jones was a little bit rash - that he would dive into stupid tackles unnecessarily and get himself injured.

But I have not seen that from him since he came back into the team, and there seems to be a bit more maturity in his game.

Mourinho - as he has done so often throughout his managerial career - has found a defensive partnership that works, with Jones and his much-maligned partner Rojo. 

Being part of a consistent and settled back four has also benefited Jones. 

Matteo Darmian is Jose's equivalent of Cesar Azpilcueta at Chelsea - a right-footed left-back, and Antonio Valencia is the best right-back in the league at the minute. 

Rojo and Jones rendered Harry Kane almost anonymous on Sunday, the same as they handled Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, stopping three of the league's best strikers from having any effect on recent matches against United.

The fact that Bailly was available again against Spurs but only started on the bench was testament to the strength of our backline.
With the classy Ivorian set to play for his country in January's AFCON, United's defence looks in good hands with Jones and Rojo. 

That tournament starts on 14 January and Bailly will find it difficult to get back into the team. 

Momentum building after breakthrough win over Spurs

Sunday's narrow victory proved to be Jose's most significant win since he took charge of United.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan's solitary strike ensured a first home league win since September and moved us to within six points of fourth place.

More importantly for Jose, it was the perfect tonic for United's big-game blues.

There have been echoes of his final months at Chelsea, but there is reason to believe we're heading in the right direction. 

Tottenham came to Old Trafford having won only three of their past 12 games - a record virtually identical to ourselves - but Spurs are always a tough proposition and United were deserving winners. 

The early years of Mourinho's career were built on results such as this, but we came into the game having picked up only two points from meetings with Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. 

We're sixth in the league, in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup and have progressed to the last 32 of the Europa League: a decent position to be in with almost half the season gone. 

Last week's performance at Everton was one of our poorest of the season but I think we are making progress. 
Mourinho's system seems to work, we attack, create chances, move the ball quickly and can score goals from anywhere and, as a fan of nearly 20 years now, it's these qualities that you associate with our club. 

This was only the third time all season that Jose had picked an unchanged side from the previous league game, and while there are still questions over some areas of the team, it seems as though the boss is finally learning his best line-up. 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was again man of the match but there were impressive performances all over the pitch. 
The Armenian was a constant threat and was at the heart of everything good going forward and Ander Herrera was his usual busy and bustling self.

He set up the goal for Mkhitaryan but, more than that, he quietly and effectively pulled the strings in midfield.

Herrera has now become one of this side's most important players and has flourished under Mourinho's tutelage. 

This was far from an emphatic, gauntlet-throwing win, but it was a victory in Jose's image against a team who will be there or thereabouts come May.
Jose's start to life hasn't been the seamless transition he perhaps had hoped for, but this was exactly what he, and the team, needed.

After four frustrating months, finally there is something to build on and, with the busy festive fixtures just around the corner,  it's vital we keep it going. 

Match report: United 1-0 Tottenham

Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored and was then carried off injured as United won a home league game for the first time since September.

The Armenian's second goal in as many games, following his Europa League goal on Thursday, moved us to within three point of fifth-placed Tottenham and six behind Pep Guardiola's faltering City side. 

With upcoming away games at Crystal Palace and in-form West Brom on the horizon ahead of the festive fixtures, United will now look to put together the winning run that we have long threatened. 

The Reds started brightly and could have gone ahead in the second minute.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic burst clear down the left and cut the ball back for Paul Pogba but the Frenchman was denied by a good low save from compatriot Hugo Lloris.

Son Heung-Min went close from distance at the other end before David de Gea did well to repel Christian Eriksen's 25-yard free-kick. 

Mkhitaryan - on his fourth successive start for the Reds - saw his fierce strike deflected behind by Jan Vertonghen and Ander Herrera's cushioned volley from range brought a comfortable save from Lloris. 

Carrick lashed over the top from distance but United moved ahead with their next attack shortly before the half-hour mark.
Mkhitaryan raced on to Herrera's perfectly weighted pass and rifled home a superb finish into the roof of the net. 

United were dominant now and almost doubled their advantage within moments of taking the lead, only for Lloris to save well again, this time to keep out top scorer Ibrahimovic. 

However, opposite number De Gea was called into action again and preserved his side's slender lead when he tipped over Son's dipping 20 yarder shortly before the break. 

Victor Wanyama headed wide and Dave denied Eriksen as Spurs began to threaten an equaliser and leave Old Trafford on tenterhooks. 

The Reds continued to look a threat on the counter-attack as Pogba twice went close to doubling our lead.
He rattled the crossbar with a superb free-kick from distance and then, after he linked up with Herrera, lashed another effort at goal that Lloris did well to tip wide. 

United, once again, had failed to kill the game off and that led to a tense and nervous finish as Spurs threatened a late leveller.
De Gea was called into action again - this time to keep out Eriksen - and Mkhitaryan was then stretchered off after he was caught late by Danny Rose. 

That proved to be the last incident of note as United closed out a precious and important victory and secure a second successive win. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful man of the match:  Henrikh Mkhitaryan. A number of good performances by those in Red, but it was the Armenian who again made the vital difference. 

Saturday 10 December 2016

Match preview: United v Tottenham

United have alternated between wins and draws in the last six games but boast an excellent recent record against Tottenham. 

We've lost only three of the last 15 matches and with only six points separating the sides, who are adjacent in the table, attentions turn to domestic duty after both sides secured Europa League progress in midweek.
Spurs dropped out of their Champions League group after finishing third but, after successive defeats, Mauricio Pochettino's side arrive at Old Trafford buoyed after back-to-back wins. 

Jose left several key players at home for the trip to Ukraine - including Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian - who look set for returns.
Eric Bailly impressed on his comeback and could again feature, and captain Wayne Rooney is available again after a one-match domestic ban. 
Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling remain unavailable as they recover from injuries. 

Toby Alderweireld will be involved for Spurs who are boosted by the recent return of Harry Kane, but Erik Lamela and Vincent Janssen remain sidelined for the visitorsIt through injury. 

Draws have been the common result for us at home and Spurs away this season, but a similar result here will not be much good for either side in the battle to make up ground on the chasing Premier League pack. 
We had mixed fortunes against the north London side last season - we edged them out through a Kyle Walker own goal on the opening day of the season before a disappointing 3-0 defeat in the White Hart Lane return.

Jose said: 
"It will be another very difficult match, they are a very good team with a very good manager and very good players.
"They will be the first team we've played in a few weeks that will try to divide control of the match with us - they cannot accept our dominance because that is not Tottenham's style.
"I think they played a fantastic first half against Chelsea and that is the only time they lost in the league so this is Tottenham - they are a very strong and powerful team. 
"They are ahead of us in the league and that shows their quality so it is a good opportunity for us to move closer to them but it will be difficult for us."

The visit of Spurs is the first of three games in six days for the team, with trips to Crystal Palace and West Brom ahead of the festive fixtures with North-East duo Sunderland and Middlesbrough. 

Form guide: United D W D W D W Tottenham D W L L W W 
Match odds: United 6/5 Draw 12/5 Tottenham 13/5
Referee: Bobby Madley 

Friday 9 December 2016

Europa League last 32: the lowdown

United's 2-0 win over Zorya on Thursday put us through to the last 32 of the competition as the second placed team in Group A.

That means we are unseeded in Monday's draw and will play the first leg of the next round at Old Trafford on February 17. 

The second leg away from home will take place on February 23, ahead of a clash with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. The derby has been pencilled in for Saturday, February 25 but will now be moved.

The competition has gained added importance and prestige since the announcement, in 2013, that UEFA awards a Champions League place for the winners of the Europa League. 
The group stage finished on Thursday and United achieved their first aim of reaching the knockout stages from a tough qualifying section.

Jose has made no secret of his desire to take United all the way in the tournament - he won what was then the UEFA Cup while at Porto and, for us, Europe's secondary competition remains the only major trophy we have never won. 

But who the team can face in the next round? Let's take a look...

We cannot face Fenerbahce by virtue of them being in our group but could play any of the other 11 group winners (APOEL, Zenit, Saint-Etienne, Roma, Athletic Club, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke 04, Fiorentina, Sparta Prague and Osmanlispor).

Those sides are joined by the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League, four of which are seeded (Lyon, Tottenham, Copenhagen, Besiktas).

Mauricio Pochettino's side join us as the only other Premier League representative after Southampton went out on Thursday but teams from the same country are kept apart until the round of 16, which means we cannot play Spurs at this stage. 

That also applies to any remaining unseeded sides, meaning we cannot play Ludogorets, Borussia Monchengladbach, Rostov and Legia Warsaw, who also join the competition having finished third in the Champions League. 

The Group F match between Sassuolo and Genk was postponed due to fog and will be replayed today, with the Belgian side topping that group with a win - Serie A side Sassuolo are already out. 

Roma look the strongest side from those we can face, but Ajax, Athletic Bilbao, Shakhtar Donetsk and Schalke have also been dangerous opponents for United in the past.

Mourinho will want travel to be kept to a minimum so a tie with Ajax, Saint-Etienne or Schalke would be the most convenient option - he won't want a return trip to Ukraine (Shakhtar) or a visit to Russia (Zenit). 

United's possible opponents in the last 32 are: APOEL, Saint-Etienne, Zenit, Roma, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke, Fiorentina, Sparta Prague, Osmanlispor, Athletic Bilbao/Genk, Copenhagen, Besiktas, Lyon. 

Match report: Zorya 0-2 United

United secured their place in the last 32 of the Europa League after a dominant victory in freezing conditions in Odessa. 

The visitors only needed a point against already eliminated Zorya but a wonderful goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan - his first for the club - set us on our way and the win was sealed late on through Zlatan's 13th of the season.

Fenerbahce won 1-0 at Feyenoord in the other game to ensure their place in Monday's draw as group winners, one point ahead of the Reds.
United will be unseeded in the last 32 and will play the first leg of the tie at home as a result, but four wins from six games represents a fruitful return from what was one of the tougher groups. 

Despite the fact they were already out, the hosts started well and went close twice early on.
Sergio Romero saved well to repel Ihor Kharatin's 25-yarder and then Ivan Petriak fired his follow-up into the side netting on the angle.

Paul Pogba flashed a shot over the bar and then headed narrowly wide, before a flurry of United chances shortly before the break.

Eric Bailly was superb on his return after six weeks out and went close with an acrobatic effort, Igor Levchenko saved well from Wayne Rooney and, from the resultant corner, Marcos Rojo blasted off target from close range. 

United continued to press and the breakthrough arrived three minutes after the interval as Mkhitaryan opened his Reds account in supreme style.

He collected the ball on halfway and waltzed through the Zorya defence, shimmying away from one player, nutmegging another before he calmly slotted the ball beyond the advancing keeper. 

Zorya, to their credit, continued to try and get themselves back in the tie but United's defence, and Bailly in particular, stood firm and the hosts rarely threatened.

Romero saved smartly from a Mikhail Sivakov header from close range but that was as good as it got. 

Substitute Marouane Fellaini, who this time caused problems in the opposition box, went close and Ibra fired an effort over the bar from distance as the Reds looked to kill the game off.

We did so in the dying seconds when Pogba's superb clipped pass picked out the Swede, who raced clear and slotted home beyond Levchenko for his seventh goal in as many games. 

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Eric Bailly was excellent on his return, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan gets MOTM again this week for another superb showing. Oozed class and quality. 

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Match preview: Zorya v United

United need a point to progress to the last 32 and have named a strong travelling squad for the trip to Odessa.

Wayne Rooney is back in the squad after missing Everton through suspension, with Eric Bailly also included as he steps up his recovery from injury.
Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw remain sidelined while Michael Carrick is rested, with Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin also left at home with one eye on Sunday's home league match with Spurs. 

Tim Fosu-Mensah looks set to come in at right-back with United on the brink of a place in the knockout stages. 

Yuriy Vernydub's out of form Zorya are already out and the Reds - looking to end a run of eight consecutive European away losses - can still win the group should we better the result of Group A leaders Fenerbahce, who travel to third-placed Feyenoord. 

We've won all three of our home games, including a 1-0 win in this reverse fixture courtesy of Zlatan back in September, but have endured two disappointing losses on the road in Europe so far. 

The hosts were forced to leave their war-torn region in 2014 and have since been plying their trade 300 miles away in Zaporizhia but that stadium doesn't meet UEFA requirements.
All home European ties are played even further afield in Odessa, a round trip of just short of 1,300 miles. 

Jose re-iterated his desire in going all the way in Europa, and said: 
"If we lose then we can be out, and I have said from the start that this is very important competition for us, the first step for us is to qualify from a very difficult group.
"We want to try to win it and all time time we are in it we will try and do that, we want to go as far as possible. 
"Zorya are out but they have a big match to play and I believe they will try to win so this is a crucial match and we have to play with a good mentality. "

Should we progress, we will discover our fate when the draw for the last 32 is made on Monday.

Travelling squad: De Gea, Romero, Johnstone, Fosu-Mensah, Jones, Bailly, Rojo, Blind, Young, Fellaini, Herrera, Pogba, Lingard, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Martial, Rooney, Rashford, Ibrahimovic. 

Form guide: Zorya D D L L D L United W D W D W D 
Match odds: Zorya 8/1 Draw 4/1 United 1/3
Referee: Tamas Bognar (Hungary) 

Player of the Month Valencia's impressive positional evolution

Antonio Valencia was named our November Player of the Month and he has completed his positional evolution is style. 

He missed only three matches after suffering the nasty blow of a broken arm in the League Cup win over City and his rapid return from an injury that should have kept him out for months was testament to his athleticism, bravery and unstinting determination. 

He has been arguably our Player of the Season so far, and the brilliance of his personal campaign was encapsulated at Anfield. 
Roberto Firmino found himself clean through but Valencia read the danger superbly and threw himself in the way of the Brazilian with a sublime last ditch challenge. 

Eyebrows were raised when the Ecuadorian was first picked at right-back but he is now among the best in the league in the position, right up there with the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Kyle Walker and Hector Bellerin. 

Five years on from his first defensive outing (under Sir Alex in a League Cup tie at Leeds), there is a compelling case to be made that our number 25 is no longer "makeshift" and that he's a bona-fide right-back, with Tim Fosu-Mensah and Matteo Darmian both behind him in Jose's positional pecking order.

His pace and power down the right gives United width and he has claimed six assists so far this season, making a mockery of the claim that he lacks end product.
He set up Jesse Lingard against Feyenoord and also created Anthony Martial's second goal against West Ham in the ELF Cup.
Despite a broken foot that ruled him out from October to March,  and the exciting emergence of Fosu-Mensah, he came back strongly and Lingard's winner in the Cup final stemmed from Valencia's burst from deep. 

Valencia was used at right-back on the odd occasion in an emergency under Sir Alex and his subsequent predecessors David Moyes and Giggsy but it was LVG who had the biggest influence on his change of role. 
Van Gaal quickly dispensed with the services of the rash and sometimes reckless Rafael Da Silva and converted the Ecuadorian from a traditional winger to a reliable and steady full-back.

In contrast to his sporadic defensive outings under Ferguson, Moyes and Giggs, he never started as a winger under Van Gaal and only once played in a relatively attack-minded role under the Dutchman, on the right of a midfield diamond against Everton in 2014. 

The situation is curious: he is touted as one of the game's eminent full-backs without publicly acknowledging himself as one. 
His positional switch has been one of the smoother transitions of the turbulent post-Ferguson era and it's clear that Jose sees Valencia as the right man to be right-back.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

United remain without a win against top class opposition

Looking at the list of teams we've beaten under Jose so far this season, they are no mugs but certainly not top class. 

In the weekend in which Antonio Conte delivered the most powerful of statement wins, Mourinho awaits his first at Old Trafford. 

United are safely in sixth place - albeit nine points outside the top four, and are still alive on both the EFL and Europa Cups: six months and 22 matches into his tenure, Jose's United have not been a disaster

But we haven't beaten anyone we would not expect to have beaten. 

Arguably our most significant win so far came against City in the Cup, but they went into that game without many of their key players and blooded youngsters Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia.
Leicester, of course, are Premier League champions but have represented a shadow of that side this season and are instead sliding towards a relegation scrap. 

We were blown away by the attacking intensity and quality of Guardiola's City (in the league) and Conte's rampant Chelsea side. 
Against Liverpool, we ground out a creditable 0-0 and against Arsenal we missed chances and, not for the first time this season, were punished. 

When we've played one of the top sides, it's been a case of us not doing quite enough to win: the chances are coming but we're still impotent in front of goal and there are still question marks above the defence, even with Eric Bailly coming back. 

Mourinho had forged his managerial reputation on being the ultimate "big game manager": raising himself and his troops to perform, sometimes above themselves, to beat major rivals in cup finals and league deciders.

We've not seen any of that in evidence so far - in fact, we've seen the polar opposite: we haven't been able to raise out game to the required level when it matters. 

Perhaps that should not come as a surprise as even in his half-season in his second spell at Chelsea, which saw his sacked just over a year ago, his side had the same problem as we do now.
They lacked incision, a clinical edge and a mentality sufficient to see off top sides.
Performances on the whole have been good but we can't see games out and that boils down to the mental attitude of the side. 

The last genuine 'statement win' by a Mourinho side came back in 2015 and that 2-0 win over Tottenham in the League Cup final. 

That was almost two years ago now, and with Spurs due at Old Trafford on Sunday and with our season yet to kick into gear, you wonder if Jose will ever rediscover that edge.