Sunday 31 December 2017

Match preview: Everton v United

Depleted United welcome in 2018 with a difficult New Year's Day trip to in-form and rejuvenated Everton, looking to get back on track after three successive and frustrating draws over Christmas. The fixtures continue to come thick and fast as the Premier League season continues apace. This match on Merseyside kicks off at 5.30pm, only 48 hours after the full-time whistle against Southampton and sees the Reds in a fourth outing in eight days. 
The Reds slipped to third after that 0-0 draw with Saints on Saturday,  coupled with Chelsea's win over Stoke, whilst the hosts suffered their first defeat under new manager Sam Allardyce in a 2-1 defeat at Bournemouth. 

Romelu Lukaku became the latest victim of United's ever-lengthening injury list, after he was forced off on a stretcher against Southampton. He's set to miss two or three weeks and joins fellow striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Matteo Darmian on the sidelines. Ashley Young is set to begin a three-match ban having been charged with violent conduct by the FA for an incident against Saints. No fit full backs and no out-and-out striker - it's fair to say that Jose's resources are being stretched to the limit. 
 Lukaku may be ruled out of a first return to his old club, but Wayne Rooney is set to feature against United for the second time since he re-signed for the Toffees, with Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Keane to do likewise. Leighton Baines, Maarten Stekelenburg, Ross Barkley, Ramiro Funes Mori and Seamus Coleman will all miss out. United won the previous meeting 
4-0 at OT back in September with goals from Valencia, Lukaku, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and an Anthony Martial penalty. 

Everton were glancing nervously over their shoulders towards the bottom three when Allardyce took charge earlier this month, but have enjoyed a "new manager bounce" to rise up the table under the much-travelled and vastly experienced boss. The Cherries ended their seven-match unbeaten run, but Everton have climbed into the top half and come into this one in ninth place. 

Jose said: "Zlatan is one month out, of course you miss your striker and we are without Romelu (Lukaku) now also. You only have two attacking players for the next game, Anthony (Martial) and Rashford so that's difficult. I am happy with the players attitude and desires, there is no complaint about my players. There are many games in a quick time, so we cannot think about the last result, you move on to the next one and go one match at a time." 

Form guide: Everton D W W D D L United W W L D D D 
Match odds: Everton 9/2 Draw 5/2 United 8/11
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)

Hopes for 2018: Red line rising, blue moon sinking..

On New Year's Eve at the end of another busy and hectic year at Old Trafford, we reflect on the last 12 months and look forward to the year ahead under Jose Mourinho, in our "Hopes for 2018" feature.

I want more improvement, more progress and more trophies. That cry of 'more more more' may sound pretentious and greedy, but when asked what I wanted from United in 2018, that was my answer. As you read this on New Year's Eve  - a time for reflection and evaluation of the year just gone - I believe this is an expectation that's realistic, achievable and fair, based on where we were at this point of 2016.

Look at the facts: Mourinho had us sixth in the league on 40 points after 21 matches and a goal difference of 12. After the same number of games 12 months on, we're third with 44 points and a goal difference of 27. Despite the three consecutive draws over Christmas, the improvement is clear and the contrast far, far greater. Furthermore, back then we'd qualified for the Europa League last 32 after a Thursday night win at little-known Ukrainians, Zorya Luhansk. Today, we've progressed to the Champions League last 16 as Group A winners with 15 points and the prospect of heavyweight battles with Europe's elite to come. 

We cannot ignore the disappointment of this month's league results, or the Carabao Cup defeat to Bristol City at the quarter-final stage but setbacks happen and we must look at the bigger picture. The red line on the graph that charts our post-SAF progress is at a five-year high, and all of the evidence under Jose suggests that it will continue to rise. 

The problem is Manchester City, and their blue line which is also rising with frustrating purpose. Our overall progress is shrouded by the buzz of the increasingly unbearable Bluenoses, prompting envious glances across town - Pep and his boys are top of the table with a big lead that they don't look like relinquishing. It's grating to see them at the top, astonishingly being talked up as the "greatest side the Premier League has ever seen" - without yet winning a single pot. It's half-time in the league season and anything could still happen. The assumption that City have already got the title in the bag could prove the main reason why they do not - in football, complacency is the devil. 

If it was any other team then there would be quiet content, but it's City - those annoying cousins - who represent our greatest challenge in 2018. But, let's look at it this way: other than Liverpool leading the charge by a similar margin, what other scenario would inspire such a  chest-pumping, blood-boiling desire to improve, progress and win? There isn't one.

Winning the title from here looks a massive ask - even for us, a club that prides itself on never giving in and doing things the hard way. It's a tall order, maybe the tallest ever, but then so was scoring twice in added time of a Champions League final we had not played well in. It's in the very fabric of this great football club to play to the final whistle and believe in the impossible. 

Just have a little faith and patience: the boss is a relentless and uncompromising  winner with a proven track record of improving teams, with a mix of brilliant man-management and shrewd transfer activity.  We're moving onwards and upwards as a team both domestically and abroad. No matter how short-sighted and judgemental the modern game is, it's certainly that bigger picture outlook we need at this time. 

If the trophies do not arrive this season, then be sure that there's an all out assault coming in 2018/19. Should the manager replicate the improvement between last New Year's Day and this, then there's a lot for us United fans to look forward to. 

United's best of 2017: Part One

With 2017 almost over, we take a look at our favourite and most memorable moments from another hectic year at Old Trafford. In the first of our two-part series, we focus on the collective aspect of the past 12 months to comprise our highlights reels. In the second instalment, we'll shift the emphasis on to individual players.

This is United Faithful's Best of: 2017

Best moment - Winning the Europa League
Honorable mention: Zlatan's late EFL Cup final winner 

Nothing can compare with the feeling of winning a trophy and we were spoilt in that respect in 2017 with two major pieces of major silverware. After the terror attack in Manchester, it proved an emotional night in the Swedish capital where the Reds completed the full set of honours against Ajax. The League Cup win was also memorable, particularly Zlatan's winner, when time seemed to stand still as he rose to meet Ander Herrera's cross. The Swede's late finish sealed a 3-2 win - after Southampton had levelled from two down - to deliver the first trophy of the Jose Mourinho era. 

Best home performance: United 2-0 Chelsea (April)
Honourable mention: United 4-0 West Ham (August) 

Champions-elect Chelsea proved unstoppable as they rendered last season's title race a procession, but they were taken down a peg or two in gloriously unexpected fashion in April, thanks to another example of Jose's tactical acumen. Ander Herrera marked Eden Hazard out of the game, set up the first goal for Marcus Rashford and then scored himself. The Blues were well beaten on the day. There have been plenty of convincing home wins, but this term's opener against the Hammers, a demolition, offered much promise. Romelu Lukaku wasted no time at all to get off the mark with a brace on his official United debut.

Best away performance: Celta Vigo 0-1 United (May)
Honourable mention: CSKA Moscow 1-4 United (September) 

European semi-finals away from home are rarely straightforward, and this controlled performance proved the perfect platform for progress to the final. Marcus Rashford's expert free-kick gave the team a crucial advantage and one that we would not relinquish. This season's trip to Moscow looked to be the most difficult Group A tie, but CSKA were blown away in an early three-goal blitz and even a late consolation for the Russians could not prevent a  heavy 4-1 defeat. 

Best result: Ajax 0-2 United (May)
Honourable mention: Arsenal 1-3 United (December)

With the pressure on in a make-or-break European final, what better way to sign off the season with a dominant victory that was almost comfortable. Goals by Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan came at the ideal time in another Mourinho masterclass. Ajax's high-pressing game plan was never allowed to get off the ground as dangerous opponents were swatted aside to seal a long-awaited return to the Champions League. The recent triumph at Arsenal ended the Gunners long unbeaten run at the Emirates - and it may have owed a lot to David de Gea's heroics - but a 3-1 victory at our old rivals and one of the country's biggest sides has to go down as one of our best results of 2017. 

Best atmosphere: United 1-1 Celta Vigo (May)
Honourable mention: Southampton 0-1 United (September)

Old Trafford has seen some memorable European nights down the years, but the stadium was rocking at the end of the semi-final with Celta Vigo. In a tense finale with the tie on a knife-edge, the relief and explosion of joy was clear for all to see. Not least from the boss, who let his emotions pour out as he kissed the badge and threw a scarf into the Stretty to gee up the fans.
This season's match at St Mary's was a rare 3 pm kick off for the Reds, but the team were backed magnificently throughout by 3,500 travelling United fans who made the long journey to the south coast. The away support never stopped singing from first to last, and roared the team home to a valuable and hard-fought 1-0 win. 

A blip... or something more serious at play?

Every team goes through a blip at some stage of the season, especially at this time of year when the games are coming thick and fast and injuries mount up. The 0-0 Old Trafford draw with the Saints was our third in our row, we slipped a place in the league and we've collected only 12 points from a possible 21 during December - traditionally a month when United are in red-hot form. The draws against Leicester, Burnley and Saints extended our winless run to a third game to make it a paltry nine points out of a possible 18, even though the derby defeat to City was our only loss. Even the three wins we've had in December were far from convincing, as we needed a goalkeeping clinic from David de Gea to beat Arsenal before narrow and nervy wins over struggling duo AFC Bournemouth and West Brom.

This feels like more than a blip now, and all the progress we've made is in danger of being undone if it continues. There's something more serious at play. Since Manchester City came to Old Trafford on 10 December and won with ease, United have lost the spring in our step and the swagger with which we were despatching opponents earlier in the season has been conspicuous by its absence. It's almost as if that derby defeat sapped all the team's energy, belief and spirit and, since then, we haven't recovered or been anywhere near the team we were in the opening months of the season. That may have been the day our title hopes were realistically - if not mathematically - ended, but that's no reason to stop playing and giving everything for the shirt. At present, some players just aren't doing that.

 Injuries certainly aren't helping either. Romelu Lukaku became the latest on the treatment table when was taken off on a stretcher against Southampton - to join Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the sidelines.

As the team have lurched from one disappointment to another, so the boss has become increasingly irritable, negative and prickly. Frustrated from the failure of being able to compete with City, no one has been spared. From criticising the players at Leicester, when he called them "childish", he blasted the club's board for not giving him enough cash to spend after the stalemate at Burnley. This time against Southampton, referee Craig Pawson bore the brunt of Jose's wrath after his failure to award the Reds a first-half spot-kick. Jose is no stranger to such meltdowns of course, but such outbursts usually arrive after he's won the league title - this time it seems, things have reached a boiling point a season earlier than usual.

You can't help but feel that the manager's negativity has filtered through to the players who don't look on the same wavelengths. It's a worrying trend. Jose was brought in to be the man to return the title to Old Trafford but - despite notable improvements and last season's double cup win - the prospects of him doing so look further away than ever now.

Match report: United 0-0 Southampton

United's winless Christmas run extended to a third game with another disappointing draw against a dogged and disciplined Southampton side. In the team's final outing of 2017, the Reds dropped to third in the league as Chelsea's 5-0 win over Stoke saw the champions leapfrog us and move 13 points behind City.

To add insult to injury - quite literally - Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku was stretchered off after a clash of heads with Wesley Hoedt inside ten minutes, with Lukaku set for a few weeks out - after Jose said he had needed a rest. 
It was he who went close early on in the fourth minute when Paul Pogba linked up with Juan Mata, whom in turn found Lukaku and he sent his powerful header over the bar. 

Out of form Saints had not come just to sit back, though, and went close themselves moments later. David de Gea came to United's rescue with a smart low save to keep out James Ward - Prowse, after Sofiane Boufal had cut the ball back at the culmination of a swift counter attack. 

Lukaku was then taken off on a stretcher and looked in some discomfort having received oxygen after a hefty collision with Hoedt. Luke Shaw's whipped inswinging cross flashed across goal, before Ward - Prowse tested De Gea at the other end with a dangerous set piece.

From the resultant corner, Mata fed Marcus Rashford who slipped in Henrikh Mkhitaryan but his ball in evaded everyone and Saints cleared. United then had a penalty shout waved away when Maya Yoshida looked to handled from Jesse Lingard, but referee Craig Pawson waved away the protests. Hoedt nodded wide and Mata fired straight at debutant Alex McCarthy, and the Reds would have gone in at the break ahead had Lingard directed his header in instead of wide after Mkhitaryan picked him out.

De Gea saved superbly from Shane Long early in the second half, and Mkhitaryan was denied from distance by the sprawling McCarthy. Anthony Martial came on as a sub despite carrying a knock, and his pace and direct running instantly caused the Saints problems. 
Ashley Young flashed a free-kick wide from 25 yards after the Frenchman was halted by Sam McQueen. Dusan Tadic went close with a header before Rashford delayed his shot when well-placed as the Reds threatened on the counter. 

Saints recently sold star defender Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool for a record fee, but despite his absence, Southampton stood firm at the back as United became more and more frustrated.
We finally looked to have found a breakthrough when Pogba poked home from a Nemanja Matic effort, but the goal was correctly chalked out for offside. Lingard had two half-chances late on but could not convert either as our final game of 2017 ended all square. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba 

Friday 29 December 2017

Match preview: United v Southampton

After a disappointing festive schedule so far, United welcome Mauricio Pellegrino's out of form Southampton side to Old Trafford for our final fixture of 2017. The Reds were forced to settle for a pair of 2-2 draws against Leicester and Burnley over Christmas, conceding a late equaliser in the former before Jesse Lingard's late leveller in the latter last time out.

The Reds would have targeted this pivotal point of the season to pull back some points on runaway leaders City, but instead a return of eight points from a possible 15 has seen City only extend their advantage further. With a yawning chasm of 15 points to Pep Guardiola's men, United's title hopes look realistically (if not mathematically) over. Saints are one of a number of sides in the bottom half looking nervously over their shoulders, and arrive at OT winless in seven and sit only two points clear of the drop zone having won only four times all term. Argentinian boss Pellegrino, who replaced Claude Puel in the summer, has come under pressure which only increased after their 5-2 defeat to Spurs at Wembley in their last fixture. United secured a hard-fought 1-0 away win in the reverse fixture at St Mary's in September through a Romelu Lukaku header. 

Centre-back Virgil Van Dijk has ended long-running speculation  over his future and will seal his record £75m move to Liverpool on New Year's Day. How the south coast side spend the money will be key as they look to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle. United, meanwhile, have defensive problems of their own. Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian will all miss out, with Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Anthony Martial also sidelined having missed the Boxing Day draw. Despite a fifth booking of the season against the Clarets, Marcos Rojo is available and could feature. Charlie Austin (suspended), Cedric (ankle) and Ryan Bertrand (hamstring) are unavailable for Southampton. 

Despite the indifferent results, Jose praised the efforts of his players and Lukaku, who he said is tired. 
The boss explained: "I think we played very well in both Christmas matches, the frustration is big because we had good performances but we made mistakes which cost us points in both. 
"We played very offensive, in a creative way with freedom for the players - we didn't score enough goals in relation to the chances we had. 
"Romelu (Lukaku) is incredible, I think for any player to play 90 minutes in 20 Premier League matches is amazing - he is physically a monster but not a machine and he is feeling it.
"The guy is fantastic for me and he needs a little rest but I cannot because Zlatan is a man who is not at his top level." 

It's a quick turnaround for the team as we begin 2018 with a difficult trip to rejuvenated Everton 48 hours after the full-time whistle against Saints. 

Form guide: United L W W L D D Southampton D D L L D L 
Match odds: United 4/11 Draw 15/4 Southampton 17/2
Referee: Craig Pawson (Sheffield)

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Pressure and frustration comes to a head as Jose hits out

You got the feeling this latest Jose Mourinho tirade had been coming for a while now. The further Manchester City have pulled over the horizon, the grumpier and more irritable Jose has become - the pressure and frustration of not being able to keep pace with his great adversary Pep Guardiola has finally become too much. The five point gap between us and them after ten games has now become an insurmountable 15-point chasm before 2017 is out.

On the pitch, too, there have been signs that all is not well - with the very un-Mourinho like concession of that injury time goal at Leicester. The very least you expect from a team managed by Jose is that they're well organised, defensively strong and miserly from set-pieces at both ends of the pitch. Recently, we've not been any of those, although the situation has hardly been helped by injury. This month, both of Manchester City's goals were gifted to them from dead ball situations, we failed to deal with Marc Albrighton's cross into the box against Leicester and Burnley were the latest beneficiaries with two free-kick strikes on Boxing Day. From corners, a valuable source of goals and another characteristic of a Jose team, we've regularly committed the cardinal sin - failure to beat the first man.

It's hardly a reason for over-reaction, after all we are still in second place in the league and with a last 16 Champions League tie to look forward to, but neither are sustainable on current performances.
 After the Burnley draw, no target was spared as Jose unleashed an angry torrent - his players (who he had called childish and immature after the Leicester game), for conceding two "s**t" goals, the board for not giving him enough cash to spend, and leaders City for their lavish resources and whom he accused of effectively buying their way to the title. Ed Woodward and the United owners, the Glazer family, were sent a blunt message: the £300m windfall splashed across the last two transfer windows is not enough.
There's nothing wrong with a manager criticising his players if it's justified, and it's hard to argue that two points from Leicester and Burnley represents a disappointing return from the Christmas games - ideally we were looking at four, or even six. But when the players are publicly slammed and criticised in the public eye, there's very little justification. It may well be a motivational tool, but more often that not it backfires and does more harm than good. We saw that at Chelsea when Jose accused his "lazy" players of betraying him after a defeat at Leicester, of all places, during the ill-fated 2015-16 season. He was sacked two days later.

That won't happen this time, but for a man who so coveted the Old Trafford job, Jose has rarely looked like a manager enjoying his time at the club. Yes, there has been improvement, but also a growing concern that Mourinho - who remember has never failed to win the title in his second season at a club - is not the man to end a title drought that now looks likely to extend to a sixth campaign.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Match report: United 2-2 Burnley

A second half salvo from substitute Jesse Lingard salvaged a point as United came back from two down to snatch a point in injury time against Lancashire rivals Burnley. Ashley Barnes fired the Clarets ahead inside five minutes when Johann Berg Gudmundson's free-kick was not cleared. Steven Defour made it 2-0 with a superb 30 yarder nine minutes before the break, but Lingard flicked home Ashley Young's cross to halve the deficit on 55 minutes.
United poured forward and rescued a point when Lingard fired home a loose ball in the 91st minute to rescue a point that the Reds probably deserved. Both teams should earn some credit from the match. Sean Dyche's side again showed wonderful resilience, discipline and endeavour to prove that their seventh-placed standing in the league is no fluke. On United's part, this was two points dropped but we can at least take heart from the spirit, fight and courage in the second half that saw us nick a draw in a frantic finale. 

Marcos Rojo picked up a booking in only the third minute for a foul on Jeff Hendrick, and from the resultant free-kick, United failed to clear Berg Gudmundsson's delivery and Barnes stole in and hooked the ball home. It was a dream start for the visitors who proved more than a match for United in every department, but Juan Mata, Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba all soon threatened as the chances started to stack up in front of the Stretford End. An equaliser looked in the offing, but Burnley stunned Old Trafford and sent their travelling fans into a frenzy when they doubled the lead on 36 minutes. The second goal came from another free-kick just outside the box and it was clinically despatched past a stranded David de Gea by the Clarets impressive Belgian international Defour. 

Romelu Lukaku flashed a shot wide before the half-time introductions of Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in place of the ragged Marcos Rojo and ineffective Zlatan Ibrahimovic - a swap that saw Nemanja Matic drop back as an auxiliary member of the Reds rejigged defence. 
United were revitalised and got back into the game on 53 minutes through Lingard - who had been denied by Nick Pope moments beforehand. Young's cross picked out the in-form attacker, and he flicked home a clever back-heel finish to make it 1-2. 

Jose's side ratcheted up the pressure but came up against a superbly organised and tenacious Burnley side, who refused to lie down as they clung to their slender lead. Mata shot wide, Rashford flashed a shot across goal, but for all  the pressure, Pope was relatively untested as the clock ticked down. 

The match entered five minutes of added time, but just when the Clarets looked set for a famous win, Lingard and United saved the day. Burnley failed to clear a corner and the ball dropped invitingly for Lingard who thumped home a low finish to ensure a deserved share of the spoils.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10. Deserve some credit for the second half rally. 
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jesse Lingard. Changed the game and rescued us with another impressive performance and a brace having come on at half-time.

Sunday 24 December 2017

United's seasonal half-term report card

The Premier League season is now at the halfway point with Jose and United safely in second spot with the frantic festive fixtures in full swing. We welcome overachieving Burnley to Old Trafford on Boxing Day for league game number 20. Here, we take a look at our season so far and deliver's United half-term
report card.

It's been a season of progress but also a case of what might have been. We started superbly with form reminiscent of the Sir Alex era. 4-0 win followed 4-0 win and we looked set for a serious assault on the title. But, although things are considerably better in our best season since 2013, we've paled into the shadow of Manchester City's blistering champions elect. The league campaign is threatening to fall into an anti-climax. There have been flashes of the old United, but also a frustrating recurrence of old shortcomings - the high-profile clashes with Liverpool and City were particularly disappointing. Jose's old caution got the better of him on both occasions, admittedly mitigated by the loss of influential midfielder Paul Pogba. Jose and the Reds would have hoped to be closer on the tails of Pep Guardiola's side after the £75m summer outlay on Romelu Lukaku. In any other season, our current points tally would be enough for us to sit atop the table. 
While both the Belgian and the team have performed creditably - there's certainly nothing to be ashamed of - City have proved too clinical, too classy and too strong so far. We've fallen away a little after a hugely promising start and it now looks like a tussle for second at best. 

Qualification for the Champions League knockout stage was impressive with five wins out of six in the group, and a last 16 tie with Spanish side Sevilla in 2018 represents a tangible chance of progress to the quarter-finals. If we get that far, two of Barca, Chelsea, PSG and struggling Real Madrid will be absent so it's up for grabs. With Jose at the helm (he's won it with Porto and Inter), we've got enough about us to go deep in the competition. It's the toughest of the four available pieces of silverware to win and we have to be realistic, but the Reds can't be ruled out of going all the way. 

The Carabao Cup may not be our main priority as the least important trophy we can go for, but Jose loves the competition and has always made it a target. He will have seen it as a chance to get one over on City, but the disappointing exit to Bristol City scuppered that. As holders, you always want to try and keep the cup, and going out to a side we were expected to beat came as a blow. But it should be seen as a blip in isolation. 

United get their FA Cup campaign underway at home to Derby in the third round on January 5, and that competition probably now represents our most realistic chance of a trophy. 

There's plenty to play for still in the second half of the season. Definitely better than the last four years, but you can always look to improve. 

Team rating: 7/10 

Match report: Leicester 2-2 United

United were punished by a combination of Harry Maguire and a glut of missed chances as the Foxes cancelled out Juan Mata's brac
e with an injury-time leveller. Jamie Vardy had put the hosts ahead with a classic counter-attack goal, before Mata's low finish and sublime free-kick looked set to give United a fourth successive away league victory. Leicester is a difficult place to go, and any away point in this league is a good one - but in the circumstances, this one felt like two dropped. 

That was until Marc Albrighton's cross fell to Maguire, who ghosted in front of the injured Chris Smalling and slotted home a dramatic leveller with the final action of the game. In truth, United should have been out of sight after Anthony Martial missed a clear opening from six yards, Jesse Lingard hit the post having rounded Kasper Schmeichel and Marcus Rashford should also have done better. 

Smalling - who would later be added to the Reds ever-lengthening injury list - headed over from a corner and Jesse Lingard had a deflected effort tipped over by Schmeichel. Paul Pogba then tried his luck with a 25-yarder, before Martial's burst forward found Mata but he fired over.
At the other end, Leicester finally found a foothold as Riyad Mahrez went close, before the in-form Foxes hit United with a classic counter-attack goal that came straight out of their title winning blueprint from two seasons ago. Wilfried Ndidi collected the ball high in the Leicester half and he fired a long ball upfield. Smalling was left isolated one-on-one against Mahrez, and the Algerian held the ball up for his quickly arriving partner-in-crime Vardy, who continued his excellent scoring record against the Reds with a clinical finish beyond David de Gea. 

United were behind completely against the run of play, but Leicester's was a lead that didn't last long. Thirteen minutes later, United were level five minutes shy of the interval through Mata. Martial's cross found Lingard and his layoff to Mata allowed the Spaniard to roll the ball into the corner from close range.

Maguire should have done better and put Leicester ahead again, but he miscontrolled with only DDG to beat and the chance was gone. Victor Lindelof then blocked well from Christian Fuchs early in the second half. United then hit Leicester with a counter-attack of our own. 

Lingard found the impressive Romelu Lukaku, who in turn fed Martial, but he could only blaze over when clean through six yards out. The Frenchman was then blocked off and Mata turned the game on its head with a curling, inch-perfect free-kick into the roof of the net on the hour mark.

The Reds should have wrapped the game up when the Belgian picked out Lingard, but when he rounded Schmeichel he fired against the post when well-placed. Then Rashford squandered a clear opening having also skipped past the keeper from Pogba's pinpoint pass, but the substitute failed to pull the trigger and was snuffed out. 

 Daniel Amartey was then sent off for a clash with Rashford, having only just come on and been booked minutes earlier after a foul on Ashley Young. Predictably, those missed chances came back to haunt United as the hobbling Smalling stood off Maguire who slid in to score in the dying seconds to snatch an unlikely point.

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

Thursday 21 December 2017

Match report: Bristol City 2-1 United

Korey Smith struck deep into injury time as Championship high flyers Bristol City knocked out the holders and sent the Robins into
the Carabao Cup semi-finals.

Lee Johnson's side had beaten three Premier League sides en route to the last eight in the shape of Stoke, Watford and Crystal Palace. They took the scalp of United to make that five and set up only a second ever major semi final where they will face Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's free-kick - his first goal since his return from an eight month lay off - cancelled out Joe Bryan's exquisite opener. The quarter-final tie seemed set for extra-time until Smith smashed high beyond Sergio Romero with an angled finish that sent Ashton Gate into delirium. 

United can consider themselves unlucky to go out, having struck the post and the bar through Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford. City were also indebted to ex Reds keeper Luke Steele who produced several smart saves to keep an almost full-strength United side at bay. 

Romero saved well from Josh Brownhill early on but United knocked on the door early on and almost went ahead after 18 minutes when Anthony Martial picked out Ibra and his effort deflected onto the bar and rebounded to safety. 

City threatened again when Marlon Pack was headed towards goal by Nathan Baker, but Daley Blind cleared well from under the bar. Rashford was then very unfortunate not to put United ahead with a shot from distance, when his 30 yarder thudded back off the post with a scrambling Steele beaten. 

Romero saved superbly from Hordur Magnusson before Aden Flint had the ball in the net, but his effort was chalked out for a foul on the Reds stand-in stopper. The hosts ended the half strongly, and Blind was again required to save his side with a superb last-ditch challenge on Smith as he looked poised to score. 

The Robins took the lead within six minutes of the second-half restart when Pack picked out Bryan who thumped home off a post with a stunning finish beyond Romero. Parity was quickly restored, though, when Ibra's clever free-kick went under the wall and in with the aid of a slight deflection seven minutes later.

United pushed for a winner with Rashford denied by an inch-perfect challenge by Bryan, before substitute Romelu Lukaku forced Steele into two superb diving saves with a header and a low drive. 

It was to be the hosts who would claim a famous victory, however, as Smith's close-range finish prompted scenes of wild celebrations from the jubilant home fans with a pitch invasion at full-time.

United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford
Overall team performance: 6/10

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Match preview: Bristol City v United

The fixtures continue to come thick and fast for Jose's United as the holders head down the M6 to face Lee Johnson's Championship high flyers in the Carabao Cup quarter-final. Despite the fact that they're the lowest ranked side left and the only non Premier-League team in the last eight, the in-form Robins will pose a serious threat of United's credentials at Ashton Gate. 

Promotion-chasing City sit third in the table, behind runaway leaders Wolves and four points off second-placed Cardiff as they chase a first ever promotion to the Premier League. Johnson's side have won their last four games, and have already proved their giant killing ability having claimed the scalps of top flight trio Watford (3-2), Stoke (2-0) and Crystal Palace (4-1) to get this far in the competition. They've reached the last four on two previous occasions in their history, in the 1970-71 campaign and the 1988-89 season. 

Out of favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan is set to be recalled to the United squad having been left out for eight of the last nine games. Paul Pogba is available again after suspension and Sergio Romero could feature for a rotated but still strong-looking United side, with the stand-in stopper having played in both previous Carabao Cup matches. Antonio Valencia will miss out with the hamstring injury he picked up at the Hawthorns last time out.  We beat Burton Albion 4-1 at Old Trafford and then continued the defence of the trophy  with a 2-0 win at Swansea through Jesse Lingard's double. The Reds beat Southampton in a thrilling final last season for Jose's first major silverware as boss.

Cauley Woodrow and West Bromwich Albion loanee Jonathan Leko are cup-tied and therefore unavailable, with Callum O'Dowda an injury worry for the Robins. At 36, Johnson is Britain's youngest Football League manager, and he said: "It is a fantastic game for the players, myself, my staff, the club and the city. When Man Utd come to town, it's always a big tie, I know we are underdogs and whatever XI they put out, it will be a world-class one.  The players have got to feel that one of them can be a hero in this game. I think we have a group that are very hungry to prove how good they are."

Opposite number Jose said: "For me now the Championship is not the league of five or ten years ago - the Championship is now high quality teams with players that could be playing the Premier League easily. They (Bristol City) are one of the best teams in the division and it will be a difficult game. 
"We need to take this game very seriously, I will make a few changes but not too many and it's possible that Mikki will be involved."

Form guide: Bristol City D L W W W W United W W W L W W 
Match odds: Bristol City 4/9 Draw 17/5 United 11/2 (Bet365) 
Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral) 

Monday 18 December 2017

Herrera's regression after best ever season in Red

Ander Herrera enjoyed his best ever season in a United shirt last term and was rewarded with the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award for his efforts. The Basque was simply immense as the fulcrum of United's midfield with a series of lung-busting displays and was our man of the match in the Europa League final win against Ajax. There was also his magnificent shackling of Eden Hazard as Herrera man-marked Chelsea's creator-in-chief out of the match when the champions came to Old Trafford in April. He was even muted as United's next captain in waiting to replace the departed Wayne Rooney. 

This season, however, couldn't have been in starker contrast to last and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what's happened to Herrera. Those level of performances that we saw last term have been conspicuous by their absence.  Admittedly, he's had less playing time because of the potent partnership of new signing Nemanja Matic and the in-form Paul Pogba. Those two have been key to United's impressive form and Marouane Fellaini is also now ahead of Herrera in Jose's pecking order. Matic has been consistently impressive and Pogba changes the entire dynamic of the team with his pace, power and passing range. He had a slow start to life back at United and Herrera benefited from that, but roles have been reversed this time around. 
It seems to be the case that whenever Herrera gets his opportunity to shine, he doesn't take it. With Pogba suspended, he was poor in the derby against City and also underwhelmed in the win over West Bromwich Albion on Sunday. With Pogba having completed his ban, Herrera is likely to be consigned to a bench role once more in the coming weeks. 

When the Frenchman missed two months of the season through injury, many of us felt that he wouldn't be missed too much as we had a more than able deputy in Ander. He can't play the same role as Pogba, but he failed to exert his authority in midfield and it's hard to pick out a noteworthy individual performance. His dip in form could also be because of the change of system that Jose has implemented, with Herrera often forced into a deeper role rather than his favoured position further forward, with United lined up in a 3-4-1-2 system. In the infamous defeat at Huddersfield, he was even used as a makeshift centre-back in the second half. He then risked the wrath of his manager by publicly criticising the team - albeit with words that were totally justified.

In a season when many players have improved and stepped up their game beyond recognition - the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard to name but three - Herrera has regressed and seems stuck in a rut. 

He's too good a player for this dip in performances to continue, though, and form is temporary, class is permanent. 

We are Man United... we'll fight to the end

United have made their best start to a season since the last time we won the league in the 2012/13 campaign, yet City hold a commanding eleven point lead and look nailed on for the title. Leagues are not won in December, but they certainly can be lost. There's the gathering theme that everyone - from other sides, pundits, the media and even themselves - have  crowned Pep Guardiola's side as champions far too early. We're not yet even at the halfway point of the season and, even though they've won 16 successive league games, there's still a long way to go.

It's been a very annoying season so far for us  - in any other season our tally of 41 points from 18 games would be enough to put us top of the table. At this time last year, Antonio Conte's Chelsea had accumulated 43 points and held a nine point lead at the summit on their way to winning the league. The season before, eventual champions Leicester were top with a paltry 35, six less than our current total, and they won it with 81 points. Even the Arsenal Invincible team of the 2003/04 season had 42 points at this stage. We're eight points better off ourselves than we were after 18 games of 2016-17. It's just our luck that we've run into a Manchester City side who look set to send all opponents - and records - tumbling. Their haul of 52 points is a record at this stage of a season and no side has ever won 16 successive Premier League matches until now. It hurts to see them playing at an astronomical level never witnessed before in English football and their dominance is hard to stomach, but credit has to be given where it's due - despite the fact they've only spent in the region of £500m in doing so.

It's typical of our fortunes over the last few years that in the season that we find ourselves challenging for the league again, our main rivals have proved to be an irresistible force and a winning machine that no side could keep pace with. At the moment, it's hard to see them slipping up even slightly, but we are Manchester United and cannot give up just yet on the title challenge. All we can do is keep winning, continue to do our own job and worry about ourselves. Everything else that unfolds is out of our control. Since losing the derby, United have responded with two narrow and hard fought victories that will give the team and Jose huge satisfaction. Jose said after the victory at West Brom that the Reds won't celebrate too early, which seemed a dig at City and Pep after their over-exuberant (but understandable) celebrations following the derby win. That fact is giving Jose and the players an added motivation to push the neighbours all the way.  The players are giving absolutely everything and doing us proud - but at the moment, there is simply nothing we can do with City clearly on a different level to the rest.

But Jose will demand that United do not relent, keep winning and pushing in the hope that the champions elect have been proclaimed too early.

Match report: West Brom 1-2 United

Romelu Lukaku scored against his old club for his third goal in four games as United held on for a third successive league away win.

Lukaku headed home his fifteenth goal of the season from Marcus Rashford's cross shortly before the half-hour mark and Jesse Lingard continued his superb recent form with a the second eight minutes later. Gareth Barry grabbed a goal back for the Baggies late on, but - despite late pressure from Alan Pardew's strugglers - second placed United again opened up a three-point advantage over champions Chelsea.

It was a strange quirk of the frantic December fixture list that the Reds returned to the Hawthorns exactly a year to the day since our last visit there, a 2-0 win on 17 December 2016 with a brace from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Reds started strongly with much of the ball but it took until the 27th minute to carve out the first opening of note. It was not a chance that was wasted, either, when the recalled Rashford's resultant run and cross picked out Lukaku, who powered home his header - a goal reminiscent of the Belgian's midweek effort against Bournemouth. 

The hosts threatened to hit back immediately and United needed Chris Smalling's intervention when he blocked well from Allan Nyom with Salomon Rondon poised to pounce on the follow-up. But the Reds then hit West Brom with a classic counter-attacking sucker punch as Nemanja Matic found Juan Mata whom in turn played in Lingard and his 20 yarder struck Ahmed Hegazi and wrong footed former United keeper Ben Foster. David de Gea saved well to deny Jake Livermore from distance at the other end, and Oliver Burke - on his first league start for the Baggies - narrowly failed to play in Rondon. 

Rashford half-volleyed wide and the Reds then almost put the result beyond doubt when Mata again found Lingard but this time he could only fire straight at Foster after a flowing and incisive move. Rondon and substitute Chris Brunt both saw chances fall their way, but moments later another sub - Gareth Barry - brought his side back into the game and set up a frantic finale. 

He bundled the ball in from a Brunt corner to halve the deficit for the Baggies first goal under new manager Pardew. That gave West Brom a new lease of life and United suddenly found themselves on the back foot as we came under late pressure. Jay Rodriguez flashed a header inches wide, De Gea blocked at the feet of James McClean and then saved well again to keep out Livermore's drive from distance. 

Lukaku dragged his late effort wide, but that proved to be the final action of the match as the Reds held out for another important and satisfying win.

Overall team performance: 7/10

United Faithful Man of the Match: Nemanja Matic. Proved his usual metronomic self as defensive shield but also caused problems going forward with his penetrative and probing passing. 

Saturday 16 December 2017

The curious case of Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was hooked after an hour of United's 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge on 5 November following a performance in which the Armenian was anonymous. It marked a dramatic dip in form for the the player as he fell into a trough after a start to the season when he was at the peaks of his powers. Since Chelsea, he's made only one appearance for the team, when he came on as a sub against Brighton.

He's not featured in a matchday squad since then and has been strongly linked with a move away from the club in the upcoming window amid talk of a training ground rift with Jose. Mikki became the boss's third United signing last summer when he joined from Borussia Dortmund for a £30m fee. He initially struggled to adapt to life in England and was frozen out following an inauspicious derby debut. When he signed for us from Dortmund, it was widely acknowledged that we were getting a superb player with outstanding technique, movement, skill and vision. He belatedly showed those qualities during a brilliant run of form early in the New Year when he finally made an impression on his manager. He claimed six assists in the first three games of this campaign to highlight his undoubted quality but his form and influence gradually fell away and Jose seems to have lost faith in the player again.

He hasn't been playing well enough to justify selection, but perhaps our system doesn't suit Mikki's skill-set, turn of speed and technique. A good example of this came back when we played Spurs at home in October, when creator-in-chief instead effectively turned makeshift destroyer, as he chased, harried and grappled to cut off Spurs supply line to Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. It's not what he did last season and wasn't the job he was asked to do during that sublime purple patch both during the previous campaign and earlier this. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's return to action may also have played a role in his demotion.

It's a strange turn of events that, 14 months on, things have come full circle and Mikki finds himself in exile again with his United career at a crossroad. It's even more baffling given that he bounced back from that tricky start in style to play a starring role in our Europa League win and proved to be such an influential player in our flying start to this season. He was our top scorer in the competition that we went on to win last season with six goals, and made a unique slice of club history by being the first man to score in five different European away games in a single season, including the 2-0 victory over Ajax in the final. When we look at the impact he had on that Europa League triumph, we can't really label him a United flop in the same way that Memphis and Radamel Falcao were. But he hasn't been the roaring success story that we hoped for either.

Whether Messrs Mourinho and Mkihtaryan's footballing attitudes are entirely compatible, though, is another matter.

Match preview: West Brom v United

United begin a testing run of five games in 13 days with the first of three successive away encounters at Alan Pardew's struggling West Brom side. The Reds follow up the trip to the Hawthorns with the Carabao Cup quarter-final at Bristol City in midweek and then return to the Midlands to face Claude Puel's in-form Leicester next week, before two home games in the final week of 2017.

Paul Pogba completes the final game of his ban, but Eric Bailly will require ankle surgery and is set for a three month absence. Luke Shaw is in contention, Marouane Fellaini is doubtful but Marcos Rojo could return. For the 19th-placed Baggies, Gareth Barry should be available but Nacer Chadli is sidelined. Craig Dawson and James Morrison are also out. West Brom replaced one much-travelled Premier League boss with another with Pardew in for Tony Pulis but - although the Baggies have been harder to beat under the former Palace manager - they remain without a win since the second week of the season. 

Draw specialists West Brom are the second lowest scorers in the league having scored only 12 times in 17 games so far, but they did hold free-scoring Liverpool to a draw at Anfield last time out - having lost 1-0 at fellow strugglers Swansea in Pardew's second game in charge (his first also ended goalless, against his former club Palace who are also deep in the relegation mire). That result on Merseyside lifted them out of the dreaded drop zone and into 17th, but results elsewhere on Saturday saw them drop back into the relegation places. Despite their perilous position, their defence has been relatively watertight having conceded only 22 goals this term.

Despite the ongoing impotence of the second-bottom Baggies, United boss Jose Mourinho said he expects a difficult match in the Midlands. He said: "We are second, yes in other seasons the number of points could be first, but in this moment we have to accept second. As I have been saying, match after match, we go one match at a time and let's see where we are at the end of the season. West Brom and Pardew have a lot of tactically good, physical, experienced Premier League players and they have know - how. Their squad is good, their stadium is enthusiastic and we cannot take them lightly. This will be a difficult match." 

United will look to re-establish our three point advantage over Chelsea and consolidate second place after the champions moved level on points with us with a 1-0 win over Southampton. City, meanwhile, opened up a yawning 14-point chasm at the summit with a 16th straight win having thumped Spurs 4-1. All we can do is keep winning and focus on our own job as the season reaches a critical stage. 

Form guide: West Brom L D D D L D United W W W W L W 
Match odds: West Brom 6/1 Draw 14/5 United 11/2
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester) 

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Match report: United 1-0 AFC Bournemouth

Romelu Lukaku's first half header settled a tight encounter with the Cherries as United consolidated second place behind Manchester City. The Reds had come into the game on the back of disappointment in the derby to slip eleven points off the pace and - despite an unconvincing showing against the south coast side - did enough to get back on track. 

Lukaku's bullet 26th minute header from Juan Mata's cross ultimately proved decisive, but Eddie Howe's side will consider themselves unlucky as their effort, energy and endeavour went unrewarded. After Anthony Martial's attempted flicked through pass narrowly evaded both Lukaku and Mata, the Cherries got a foothold and started to come on strong. 

David de Gea was called into action twice in quick succession as he saved well from Charlie Daniels 25 yarder and then did well to deny Dan Gosling from close range. Three minutes later, United had moved ahead when Mata picked out Lukaku, and the Belgian silenced his critics with a powerful headed finish from ten yards. 

Phil Jones returned to the side after injury and put in an impressive performance at the heart of United's defence. He was involved in an attacking move, however, that almost led to our second goal shortly before the break. He linked well with the equally impressive Luke Shaw, as Jones 50-yard pass picked out the onrushing Shaw, he cut the ball back and Simon Francis almost inadvertently turned the ball into his own net.

Junior Stanislas went close from distance and Francis then nearly scored at the right end when he fired over the bar after a flurry of Bournemouth corners. De Gea was tested again on the cusp of half-time when Ryan Fraser's cross caught the Spaniard off guard, but he managed to get across and palmed the ball away to maintain United's slender advantage.

The next chance came ten minutes after half-time and it was one that would've put the result beyond doubt. Nemanja Matic crossed for Lukaku whom in turned nodded down for Anthony Martial, but he only skewed his effort over the top five yards out. 

Substitute Marcus Rashford rattled the crossbar with a piledriver, DDG saved from the dangerous Defoe and Jones last-ditch challenge denied Benik Afobe as the Cherries pushed for an equaliser.

Defoe was thwarted again by the legs of De Gea, but despite late pressure - in which Fraser tested the keeper once more - United held out.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw 

Match preview: United v AFC Bournemouth

United make a quick return to league action as the frenetic festive fixtures begin in earnest with the visit of Eddie Howe's Cherries.  The Reds must brush off any lingering derby day disappointment with victory over the south coast side - the Reds first of six matches packed into a hectic 17-day schedule. 

Paul Pogba is serving the second of a three-match ban and Marcos Rojo is doubtful after he was forced off with a head injury at half-time in the derby. Victor Lindelof came on to replace him and Phil Jones was an unused sub so the boss has plenty of defensive re-inforcements but Eric Bailly is still out. Marouane Fellaini is edging closer to fitness and could feature whilst Zlatan is also available for another cameo appearance. For the visitors, Adam Smith is back from a ban but fellow full-backs Tyrone Mings and Bradley Smith could miss out. 

AFC Bournemouth endured an awful start to their third Premier League campaign, as they lost five of their first six games to spark fears that they would struggle after last term's excellent ninth-placed finish. Their form has picked up since, however, and the Cherries come to Old Trafford in 14th place on 16 points, three points outside the bottom three, and on a run of one defeat in six. They drew 2-2 at struggling Crystal Palace last time out, with a brace from veteran striker Jermain Defoe who is in line to start against United. Howe's side held us to a 1-1 on their previous visit here in March in a match remembered for two fiery clashes between Zlatan and Mings, which led to both players being handed retrospective bans. Andrew Surman was also sent off for the visitors. 

In his press conference, the boss refused to elaborate on the pre-derby "Milkgate" incident in the OT tunnel in the aftermath of the defeat. He said: "I am not here to talk about that, this is post-Bournemouth not pre-Manchester City. It is history and what happened, happened. When you lose the last match, you probably have a bit more desire to win the next one. Nobody likes to lose once, nobody wants to lose twice. I think that's something that belongs to every team in the world, not just Manchester United. When you lose a match, the next one you have that little bit of extra to give. We need to do that."
On the gap to leaders City which is now eleven, Jose added: "We go now one match at a time, we try to win and try to get the maximum possible points - we are seven, eight points better off than we were last year in this moment, so we have to try and keep going." 

Form guide: United L W W W W L AFC Bournemouth W W D L D D 
Match odds: United 1/4 Draw 5/1 AFC Bournemouth 13/4 
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire) 

Tuesday 12 December 2017

United to face Sevilla in Champions League last 16 tie

United will face Sevilla in Europe after the two sides were paired together in Monday's draw for the Champions League last 16. 
The two most recent winners of Europe's second-tier tournament will meet for the first time in a competitive fixture, with Eduardo Berizzo's side having come back from 3-0 down to snatch a point against Liverpool in Group E on Matchday Five. 

Currently fifth in La Liga, the Andalusian side have been excellent in continental competition over recent years,  winning a record five UEFA Cup/ Europa League titles, including three in a row - in 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16. Former City men Nolito and Jesus Navas are among their current squad. Steven N'Zonzi, once of Blackburn and then Stoke, also plies his trade for Sevilla and will be another familiar face to Premier League fans. It's been one of their lesser lights who has starred for Sevilistas this season, however, with French forward Wissam Ben Yedder their leading marksman with 13 goals. 

The club traded one Argentinian manager for another when Berizzo took charge in May, replacing compatriot Jorge Sampaoli who left Sevilla to become boss of his country's national team. 

Real Madrid and Barca are of course Spain's dominant duopoly but Sevilla - even though they've only got one Spanish title to their name - have been one of the country's strongest sides over the past few years, with five Copa del Rey triumphs alongside their European successes. 

The Reds topped Group A with five wins from six to set up the tie with the team from southern Spain, and we visit their Ramon Sanchez Pijuan home on Wednesday 21 February. United will be at home for the second game, which will be played at Old Trafford on Tuesday 13 March. 

There are no easy games in Europe, and Sevilla will pose a difficult challenge for Jose and the Reds. But considering we could have got one of Europe's biggest hitters - in the shape of twelve-time champions and holders Real Madrid or German giants Bayern Munich - in the draw, then we couldn't have asked for much better and it's a relatively kind tie. 
The winners of the tie will go into the hat for the quarter-finals, and - if we can get through - it's anyone's game and the Reds will fancy their chances. Even more so when two of PSG, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Barcelona will be absent from the last eight line-up. 

Jose has won this competition twice, once with FC Porto and once with Chelsea and he relishes the twists and turns that it brings. With City disappearing into the distance on the domestic front, it will be intriguing to see whether, similar to last year,  Europe takes precedence in his plans. 

Sevilla v United first leg 21.2.2018, Ramon Sanchez Pijuan
United v Sevilla second leg 13.3.2018, Old Trafford 

Saturday 9 December 2017

Manchester derby: Liverpool the biggest game but City is special

Ask any United fan and we’ll tell you that Liverpool is always the game we want to win the most: the clash against our bitter and most hated rivals has historic and tribalistic connotations that make it stand alone as the biggest game of all.The two clubs and sets of fans may despise each other, but we’re 34 miles apart, and no matter the feuding between us, you cannot call the game between the two biggest clubs in the land a derby in the true sense. This Sunday’s meeting with the mob from across town gives us United fans a feeling that no other game can. There’s the usual mix of derby-day nerves, excitement, tension, expectation and that “pit of your stomach” feeling that only those who love their club can describe.

The rivalry with City is very different, and until 2008 it was merely a geographical affair with only bragging rights at stake. Since City’s takeover that saw them become one of Europe’s richest clubs, however, the importance of the derby – and its intensity – has grown, with City on a much more level playing field. For years United were the dominant force and the fixture was one-sided, but now it’s a much more unpredictable affair. Even though City have been mightily impressive: unbeaten, eight points clear and having dropped only two points all season, we’ve certainly got the quality and firepower to be the side to finally stop the juggernaut. They’ve had to rely on late winners in their last three games, cracks have started to show and they won’t relish coming to Old Trafford which has become a fortress again under Jose – 40 matches unbeaten and counting.  We have belief in our team again and there’s a sense that something special is building, no matter what goes on to unfold.

After so many years of them sitting in our shadow, it’s been painful to watch City finish above us for four seasons in a row – no doubt revelling in our post-Ferguson downfall. The noisy neighbours have become unbearable. But this has been our best season since that last title-winning one in 2012 / 2013, and it’s a nice feeling to go into this one as their closest challengers having finished seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth in the four years since.

Such is the unique nature of any derby game, that it’s almost a match played in isolation. Points, league position and form usually seem to go out the window. This is about pride, passion and playing for the shirt. That said, a City win would put them eleven points clear, surely an insurmountable hurdle even at this stage of the season. If we win though and the gap becomes five – that would surely affect City mentally and blow the race wide open. How both managers set up, Jose in particular, will be an interesting subplot. It will be a fascinating contest for the neutral.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in this one, but one thing’s for sure: Manchester will become a football Mecca at 4.30pm on Sunday. The world will be watching … the stage is set and come on United!

Shutting down City holds key to derby day victory

United's game-plan of containment and counter-attack worked a treat against Arsenal last time out and will be key again in the derby.

City have struggled in their last three matches against Huddersfield, Saints and the Hammers when confronted with teams that frustrate and stifle. Not only do United have the most miserly defence in the league, but Jose is a manager renowned for his spoiling tactics in high-profile fixtures. Without the suspended Paul Pogba pulling the strings in the middle, and like it or not, adopting a similar approach by sitting deep and hitting on the break looks the best bet in beating them. 

United are at home and on a club record-equalling run of 40 matches unbeaten at Old Trafford, so the expectation and temptation will be for the Reds to open up and attack City. As much as we all want to see Jose go for the jugular,  I can't see him doing so as that would play right into City's hands -  they would just pick us off and it's exactly what Pep's team would want us to do. 

The key battle will come in the middle of the park, with United set to go with the same 3-4-1-2 formation that Jose has utilised in recent weeks. Paul Pogba's suspension will not only be a huge blow for us as a team, but also a massive loss for the fixture as a whole. The battle between Pogba and Kevin de Bruyne - the two best pound-for-pound midfielders in the league this season - had been a mouth-watering prospect for the neutral: a match-up almost as eagerly anticipated as the contest itself. Who Jose chooses to select in Pogba's absence is his biggest selection call. Although Marouane Fellaini is available, Ander Herrera looks likely to get the nod and partner Nemanja Matic, who will play despite carrying an injury. The Basque is often at his best on the big occasions, and his energy, work ethic and industry could be key in disrupting City's free-flowing rhythm. 

It's entirely possible that Herrera will be deployed as De Bruyne's man-marking shadow, as he was used in similar circumstances to shackle Eden Hazard when Chelsea came to Old Trafford. Herrera was simply magnificent that day as he rendered one of the league's most creative and eye-catching talents almost anonymous and forced him to the fringes. He will need to be at his best to shut down De Bruyne, who has been unstoppable at times, and if he does so, it will give United a pivotal platform to build from in midfield. 

It's not just the form of the Belgian that have set City on such a roll this season, though. He is just one of many threats all over the field, with David Silva and Leroy Sane at the forefront of everything. 
Red hot Sterling and silky Sane could not be better suited to provide two key cogs in Pep's fluid 4-3-3 system, and both have contributed goals and assists in abundance, often at key times. 
United's front three will stay tight and narrow, and the two wing-backs, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, will have licence to provide United's attacking width, but they will also need to drop back and help out defensively - we'll have a back three with the ball but a back five when City have it. 

This will be a fascinating and intriguing collective and individual battle. 

Manchester derby: Five memorable meetings

You may have heard that there's a fairly important match to be played at Old Trafford tomorrow.... it's the small matter of the 175th Manchester derby. Whilst it's too early to be deemed a title decider, it's certainly going to be a pivotal point in the season.
City head to Old Trafford with a 100% record on the road, whilst United are unbeaten at home in 40 matches... something has to give, the stage is set and the eyes of the world will be trained on Manchester...

To get you in the mood for the cross-town clash between the top two sides in the league, we take a look back at five recent and most memorable meetings with the noisy neighbours... here's hoping for more of the same tomorrow.

5. Curtain raiser KO - United 3-2 City (August 2011, Community Shield)

This may have only have been a Community Shield contest and not really important in the grand scheme of things, but any time we beat City is sweet. Especially so here as United, Premier League champions, were 2-0 down to Roberto Mancini's FA Cup winners (City had beaten us in the semi final and we also suffered Champions League final pain against Barcelona)  Joleon Lescott and Edin Dzeko scored twice in seven first half minutes. But count out the Reds at your peril. We came storming back and, by the hour mark, we had levelled the game. Chris Smalling turned in Ashley Young's free-kick on 52 minutes, and - six minutes later - Nani equalised with a stunning finish at the culmination of a devastating, sweeping team move. The two sides continued to trade chances, with David de Gea making three key saves, while United rattled the bar through Danny Welbeck. With no extra-time and a penalty shoot-out looming, Portuguese winger Nani pounced on some hesitant City defending to run on to Wayne Rooney's through ball, round a stranded Joe Hart and slot the ball home in the fourth minute of added time. A classic Fergie time winner.

4. The demolition derby - United 4-2 City (April 2015, Premier League)

Louis van Gaal, justifiably so, had his critics during his two soporific seasons in the United dugout. But, give the Dutchman credit where it's due - he usually got his tactics and gameplan spot on when it mattered. United went into this derby clash in red-hot form, on a run of five successive league wins in the midst of a rare purple patch under LVG, but Manuel Pellegrini's City had taken the honours in the previous five derby meetings. City arrived at OT a point and a place behind the Reds, but left with their tails between their legs: beaten, bruised and comprehensively battered. Sergio Aguero, so often the scourge of United, put them ahead inside ten minutes, but United had turned the tie on its head by half-time. Ashley Young and the revitalised Marouane Fellaini put us ahead, and from then on it was one-way traffic. Juan Mata's clinical finish put the result beyond doubt, and Chris Smalling headed home a free-kick from man of the match Young to send Old Trafford into dreamland. Aguero pulled a late goal back for 4-2, but the damage had long been done. Get in!

3. Rashford rises to sink City - City 0-1 United (March 2016, Premier League)

United headed to the Etihad having not won against our cross-town rivals away from home since 2012. Both sides were out of contention for the title and instead scrapping for the Champions League positions. This wasn't the best encounter in terms of quality or drama, but it was memorable for two reasons: the result, but also the fact that it was settled by an 18-year-old local lad on his Manchester derby debut. Barely a month into his first-team career, Marcus Rashford lit up the match and demonstrated his world-class potential with a dazzling piece of skill in an otherwise unremarkable game. In the 16th minute, he collected the ball from Jesse Lingard - the only other homegrown player on the field - and ghosted past poor old Martin Demichelis to get one-on-one with Joe Hart. Marcus dispatched an unerring finish past his future England colleague to become the youngest goalscorer in the history of the fixture. It proved a rare bright spot in an otherwise very disappointing season under LVG who - despite leading United to FA Cup glory - would lose his job at the end of the season. So too would City counterpart Manuel Pellegrini - with the arrivals of Messrs Mourinho and Guardiola set to add a fascinating subplot to the derby landscape.

2. Red Robin rescues ragged United - City 2-3 United (December 2012, Premier League)

One of the best Manchester derbies of all time, this was a thrilling, end-to-end encounter that fittingly ended in classic United fashion with a late winner from a player who could quite easily have lined up against us. But that doesn't even tell half the story. City had pipped United to the title on goal difference on the final day of the previous season - my therapist says I can't talk about that - and had put together a 37-match unbeaten run at the Etihad. United, having signed Robin van Persie ahead of our cross-town rivals in the summer, were top of the table and in control in the tussle for the title. Wayne Rooney's scuffed finish and close-range effort - the latter his 150th Premier League goal - put United 2-0 ahead by half-time and seemingly cruising to a routine win. But Roberto Mancini's side had other ideas and came storming back to level through goals from Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta. As the game entered its final moments, it seemed United were frustratingly set to drop two pivotal Premier League points and open the door to the chasing pack. In injury time, United are awarded a free-kick 25 yards out - enter £24m man RvP. The 14-goal striker had been on the periphery up until this point, but showed he only needs one clear-cut chance to make the difference. He demonstrated his worth as the set-piece took a deflection off Samir Nasri and wrong-footed a stretching Joe Hart to send United's away end - and Reds everywhere - into euphoric delirium. Ooooh Robin van Persie!

1. Liverpool legend enters United folklore - United 4-3 City (September 2009, Premier League)

It takes some doing for a player to be loved and hero-worshipped by fans of both United and our most hated rivals from the other end of the East Lancs Road. Whilst some Liverpool fans have never forgiven Michael Owen for joining United - the ultimate betrayal in their eyes - he will always be fondly remember for his exploits on Merseyside. He didn't have quite the same impact in Manchester, but a 97th-minute winner in a must-win derby is good enough reason for him to be catapulted into hero status at Old Trafford. This was, quite simply, the greatest ever derby in the long history of the fixture.  The sides had traded goals aplenty, with Wayne Rooney and a Darren Fletcher brace for us being cancelled out each time by Gareth Barry and two from pantomime villain Craig Bellamy (his second strike came in injury time). A thrilling, topsy-turvy and superbly see-sawing contest had swung one way and then the other until substitute Owen latched on to Ryan Giggs perfect through-pass and smashed the ball beyond Shay Given deep into stoppage time. Old Trafford erupted, City boss Mark Hughes spontaneously combusted (sorry, Sparky) and the result left champions United clinging to the coat-tails of Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Derby day preview: United v City

The stage is set, the world will be watching and United are ready for Sunday's 175th Manchester derby - the biggest and most important for years.

Pep Guardiola's unbeaten leaders have dropped only two points all season and head to Old Trafford with a perfect away record. United, meanwhile, are on a 100% winning run at home and set a new joint-record of 40 games unbeaten at OT in midweek. Something has to give. 

It's too early to call this cross-town, top of the table clash a true title decider but it will certainly have a huge impact on the dynamic of the season. City have been in blistering form to open up an eight-point advantage, but cracks have started to show and they've needed late winners to get past Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham recently. They suffered a first defeat of the season - albeit in a dead-rubber - away in Ukraine in the Champions League on Wednesday. In-form United head into the game on the back of four successive wins and a 3-1 victory at the Emirates last time out. City are unbeaten and flying, but we certainly possess the quality and firepower to be the side to finally stop the juggernaut. A City win would put them eleven clear - surely an insurmountable hurdle even at this stage of the season. A United win, though, and that gap is five - that would surely affect the visitors mentally and blow the race wide open. It's perfectly poised and promises to be fascinating for the neutral. 

The team news ahead of the game is intriguing. Paul Pogba's suspension comes as a massive blow for United as the Frenchman dictates the game and makes a huge difference to our play. Eric Bailly and Michael Carrick remain sidelined, but Nemanja Matic will start despite carrying an injury. Zlatan is set to be involved, Phil Jones is available again and Marouane Fellaini could also feature. Unsurprisingly, David Silva is fit for City and will start, despite his manager's attempted mind games. A late decision will be made over the fitness of captain Vincent Kompany, but fellow defenders John Stones and Benjamin Mendy are out. 

Jose said how this was a match between two top sides who have significantly improved from last season: "For me, it's one more big match against one of the best teams in the country. We are a better team than last season and I think City is better also than last season.
"I don't need to know that a derby is something special for the fans and the people of the city. For us it is just another three points but honestly for the people born in this city and feeling the colours, it's a good positive rivalry and a special match."

The two sides meet competitively for the first time sine the tragic events in May in which 22 people were killed at the Manchester Arena. Both clubs put differences asides in the aftermath of the attack, and Jose added:
"These are the beautiful things that football can do, and we could feel in that time that the clubs were willing to work together and help the city. It would be really said if that was not the case. Now this is an important football match." 

This is a match where points, league position and form goes out the window - it's about pride, passion and playing for the shirt. Let's go out there and stand up to be counted. Our season could depend on it.... Come on United!!

Form guide: United W L W W W W City W W W W W L 
Match odds: United 12/5 Draw 5/2 City 6/5 
Referee: Michael Oliver 

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Rotated Reds head into derby in buoyant mood

In-form United head into the derby in buoyant mood as the Reds came from behind against CSKA despite only needing a point. With United 1-0 down and victory not essential, thoughts could easily have turned to the looming spectre of Manchester City at the weekend.

Not a bit of it. The rotated Reds - with six changes from the Arsenal game as Jose shuffled his pack - procured a fourth successive win and eleventh in a row at home with a stirring fightback. The character, desire and spirit that we showed at Arsenal shone through again as we turned the game on its head with two goals in two minutes in a rousing comeback. It was further evidence - if it was needed - that this evolving United side are on a huge upward trajectory. It might have been 'only' CSKA and we were all but through anyway, but the refusal  to accept anything but victory - when there are bigger hurdles around the corner - was again reminiscent of the United of old and filled me with immense pride. 

Of course, we've lost games under Mourinho and will in the future - that's football. But what's different is the mentality. Under David Moyes and to a lesser extent, LVG, you felt that there was no way back when United went behind. Under the former, the squad didn't trust their manager and looked they didn't know what they were doing. With the latter, it was a turgid and timid two years when the players seemed to live in fear of their rule-by-clipboard manager with a reputation for being a dictator. The difference that Jose has made in a little over a year since he arrived has instilled in this squad is remarkable. He's made it his own, thrown in a large dollop of team spirit, instilled confidence and belief and the results are coming to fruition for all to see. We might not win this league this season, but one thing's for sure, the players will run through a brick wall for the manager and won't give up without a fight. 

The team were also determined for the Russian side not to be the opponents to end our 40 match unbeaten run at home. That might look like only a stat, but it's a huge achievement for any side and it must be a proud one that the players will stop at nothing to keep intact. 
This was a highly satisfactory night for United -  and not just because of the result. Luke Shaw got 90 minutes under his belt, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford starred whilst Academy graduates Axel Tuanzebe and Scott McTominay both got further tastes of European football (but apparently the manager doesn't play youth...). Jose was able to rotate his squad to good affect and give several of his key men the night off to prepare for the derby on Sunday. 

United now have four days to freshen up, focus and head into the derby on the back of a fine run of form with two of the most precious commodities in football: confidence and momentum.