Monday 27 February 2017

Ibra again takes centre stage as United's inspirational figurehead

United overcame a spirited Southampton side in the EFL Cup final despite a largely disappointing performance which was rescued by two goal inspiration Zlatan.

Jose Mourinho and the 35-year-old Swede are now the two central figures taking United forward.

Jose's move to bring Ibra to Old Trafford on a free transfer from PSG - surely the best such move the Premier League has ever seen - was strategic and wise.

One of Jose's first moves after his appointment was to summon the Swedish veteran to Manchester despite the questions and grumblings about his age and lack of pace.

Jose knew United needed an inspirational talisman to set the standard for a disillusioned squad increasingly accustomed to frequent upheaval and instability. 

Zlatan is a personality of equal stature and confidence, had a lot to prove having never played in England and is the world class match-winner we'd been crying out for.

Everything Ibra does have echoes of "The King" Eric Cantona - his enigmatic and languid style, his charismatic persona and his understated influence on the younger members of the squad.

He scored with a header on his United debut at Wembley against Leicester back in August and again came up with the goods when we needed it most. 
Once again, this was his playground, his platform, his show.

How we needed Ibrahimovic desperately on Sunday because for long periods United were ragged, disorganised and on the back foot against a vibrant and energetic Southampton side. 

He once again proved indispensable and made the decisive contribution to clinch a cup final that United did not deserve to win. 

Thoroughly unconvincing we may have been, but Mourinho teams find a way to get the job done and so it proved as Ibra powered home an 87th-minute header. 

He had earlier put United in front, albeit undeservedly, and then capped off another man of the match display with his late winner to seal a remarkable 32nd trophy of his career. 

If this EFL Cup win is to be the catalyst for another period of success at Old Trafford, Ibrahimovic's continued presence will be essential. 

United will never again be the dominant, trophy-winning juggernaut that we were under Sir Alex, no side will ever do that again in today's ever-evolving world of professional football.  

But, if we're to get anywhere near that status again, Ibra is the man integral to Jose's plans, despite being in the twilight of his illustrious career. 

With United still in contention for a possible cup treble, Ibra continues to be this side's inspirational figurehead and leader of the attack.

EFL Cup win just the start for success hungry Jose

Louis van Gaal led United to FA Cup success in May and was then replaced almost immediately by Jose Mourinho.

That cup victory felt like the end of a story but our fifth League Cup win - for all its good fortune - had the sense of a new chapter.

Mourinho claimed the season's first major trophy as he became the first United boss to win silverware in his maiden campaign in charge.

The Portuguese drew level with his illustrious predecessors Sir Alex and Brian Clough as he lifted the League Cup for a fourth time

History suggests that winning this trophy leads to bigger things. 

A league title - and then the double - followed the 1992 League Cup win over Nottingham Forest.
The success of Sir Alex's 2008 vintage can be traced back to the 4-0 win over Wigan in the final two years previously, which marked the first silverware for the emerging talents of Messers Ronaldo and Rooney. 

This competition is where it all began for Jose, too, with the first of his triumphs back in 2005 during his first season in England with Chelsea.
As with United's victory a year later, it sparked a new era of dominance for the west London side and the Portuguese will demand the same at United. 

Success breeds success and in a few years time this could be earmarked as the moment that  kick-started something special. 

Mourinho was bought to United as the man to revive our fortunes after a depressing and dismal three seasons of chaotic upheaval under David Moyes and Van Gaal.

The joyless existence post-Fergie needed change and in Jose we finally have a silver-laden manager to relish and embrace our history rather than shrink from it. 

Seven months after his appointment, it's a good start for the serial winner but he will want more, with United still in contention to add the FA Cup and Europa League trophies to the cabinet.

An FA Cup win was not enough to save Van Gaal's job, so it figures that a solitary EFL Cup cannot be considered as the limit of the club's ambitions.

Whilst trophy wins provide success and satisfaction, Mourinho's primary ambition must be to lead the team back into the Champions League.

After the world record purchase of Paul Pogba and the Ibra coup, a return to Europe's top table is surely the minimum requirement.

Mourinho looked downbeat throughout Sunday's dramatic denouement because of the modest prize on offer and ragged performance by his side.

He will be aware that there's still a long way to go, but this cup win was another step on the road to our recovery since he took over.

EFL Cup final: United 3-2 Southampton

Zlatan Ibrahimovic popped up with a late winner after spirited Southampton had fought back from 2-0 down in a thrilling EFL Cup final.

The big Swede headed home Ander Herrera's cross for his 26th goal of the season three minutes from time to deliver United's first major silverware under Jose Mourinho. He had earlier put United ahead with a free-kick, added to by Jesse Lingard's excellent strike, but the Reds were ragged for long periods and were pegged back by a vibrant and energetic Southampton side. 

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had a controversial opener ruled out for offside, struck twice to equalise and now has four goals in three games since signing for the Saints from Napoli.

Saints fully deserved to force extra-time and looked set to do just that until Ibra, as he has done so often, had the decisive say.

Fraser Forster had saved well from Paul Pogba early on but then came the game's main talking point in the 11th minute.

Gabbiadini swept the ball home after Cedric Soares had cut it back, but the flag was up against the overlapping Ryan Bertrand and the goal was chalked off.

Saints made much of the early running but United took the lead, against the run of play, on 19 minutes.
Oriol Romeu brought down Herrera and Zlatan curled a sublime 25-yard free-kick over the wall and beyond the helpless Forster. 

The goal did little to deter Saints who continued to press as David de Gea saved superbly to keep out James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic.

Lingard had scored in both of his previous outings at Wembley and maintained that run once more this time out.
Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo combined for the latter to turn the ball infield to Lingard who finished well with a low effort. 

Gabbiadini halved the deficit in first half stoppage time and then wiped out our advantage early in the second with a brilliantly instinctive strike.

Romeu headed against the post and Antonio Valencia rescued United with a brilliant clearance from Tadic's ball across goal.
De Gea saved well from Nathan Redmond and Ward-Prowse again went close from distance as United came under siege. 

At the other end, Forster blocked well at the feet of Ibra, Lingard fired over and Marcus Rashford also went close as United upped the ante again in search of a winner in an increasingly end-to-end encounter.

Cruelly for Saints, it came with three minutes remaining when Herrera found Zlatan who headed in to seal a fifth League Cup triumph for United. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Who else.

Saturday 25 February 2017

EFL Cup final preview: United v Southampton

Jose Mourinho leads United into their eighth League Cup final on Sunday at Wembley with a record-equalling feat at stake. 

The Reds boss has never lost in the final of this competition having won it three times across his two spells at Chelsea - 2005, 2007 and 2015. 
A fourth with United would match managerial greats Brian Clough and our own Sir Alex and seal a fifth success in this competition for the club.

United are boosted by the availability of Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney also looks set to feature after he confirmed he's staying at United. 

Jose said: "The important thing is not myself, it is the club and the wonderful fans, so we want to win this cup for them.
"Wayne did it (issue the statement) in the right moment, he was not ready to play against Saint-Etienne but no doubts he is involved in this game.
"Carrick is available, he is clever, very experienced and left the pitch in the right moment with a little feeling - Mkhitaryan and Jones are out so let's see and I can decide tomorrow.
"All the squad want to play in this final but it is not possible so it is a tough selection for me."

Southampton have reached Wembley without conceding a goal but will be without two key players for the final: injured captain and star man Virgil Van Dijk (ankle) and top scorer Charlie Austin (shoulder). 

January signing Manolo Gabbiadini has scored twice in three games and will likely start up front with former Juve centre-back and free transfer Martin Caceres also set to feature. 

United have seen off Northampton Town, cross-town rivals City, West Ham United and Hull to get this far.

Saints, meanwhile, have faced top flight opponents every step of the way, having overcome Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and Liverpool in a memorable semi-final to reach a second ever League Cup final. 

Their first came in 1979 (2-3 to Nottingham Forest), and they also ended up on the losing side in their last appearance in a final, the 2003 FA Cup against Arsenal.

If they're looking for an omen, however, then their only previous cup success should offer them one.
41 years ago, as a Second Division side, Saints lifted the 1976 FA Cup having beaten United 1-0 in one of the biggest final shocks in the competition's history. 

Form guide: United D W W W W W Southampton W W L L L W
Match odds: United 4/5 Draw 5/1 Southampton 17/4
Referee: Andre Marriner 

Friday 24 February 2017

United to face FC Rostov in Europa League last 16

United have been paired with FC Rostov of Russia in the draw for the last 16 of the Europa League.

The first leg will be played at the Olimp2 stadium - a round trip of nearly 4,000 miles - on Thursday 9 March with the return meeting at Old Trafford a week later.

Sandwiched between the two matches is the FA Cup quarter final at Chelsea, scheduled for Monday 13 March with Middlesbrough at home in the league on the 19th. 

Last season's runners up in the Russian Premier League, Rostov are the lowest ranked side left in the tournament but have enjoyed a best ever European campaign. 

United finished second in Group A and reached this stage after an impressive 4-0 aggregate win over Ligue 1 outfit Saint-Etienne. 

Having seen off Dutch giants Ajax in the play-offs, Rostov reached the Champions League group stage for the first time.

Drawn in the "Group of Death" alongside European heavyweights Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and PSV, their creditable third place finish sent them into the Europa League.

Under the tutelage of Austrian coach Ivan Daniliants, Rostov beat Carlo Ancelotti's side 3-2 in the home fixture and reached this stage with an impressive 5-1 aggregate win over Sparta Prague.

Last season's runners up in the Russian Premier League, Rostov are the lowest ranked side left in the tournament but have enjoyed a best ever European campaign.

United boss Jose described the tie as "bad in every aspect", and said:

"It's far to travel and it is difficult because the team is very defensive and physical, it is in a bad period for us.
"They had a very good Champions League campaign, they beat Ajax and Anderlecht in the qualifying and managed important results against Atletico and Bayern Munich, famous clubs, big clubs. 
"They got third position to knock PSV out so it is a bad draw in every aspect but after Southampton and Bournemouth we focus on it and go for it."

Elsewhere, two of the tournament favourites will fail to progress beyond this round. 

Lyon, who knocked out AZ Alkmaar 11-2, will face Roma and Schalke have been drawn with Monchengladbach in an all-German affair.

The full draw is: Celta Vigo v FC Krasnodar, APOEL v Anderlecht, Schalke 04 v Borussia Monchengladbach, Lyon v Roma, Rostov v United, Olympiakos v Besiktas, Gent v Genk, Ajax v Copenhagen

United need to unsettle Saints with aerial height and power

Southampton go into Sunday's EFL Cup final without injured captain and their best player Virgil Van Dijk.
The Saints centre back has been arguably the most impressive defender in the league this season and his absence will come as a major hit to their Wembley hopes.

Without him, Claude Puel's side lack anyone with the ability to be commanding and win the aerial duels - a shortcoming we should exploit.

Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida did an admirable job as stand-ins in the win at Anfield, but Liverpool's possession-based passing game played into their hands. 
Former Juve defender Martin Caceres has joined Southampton on a free until the end of the season but has hardly played in the last year and looks likely to start on the bench. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start up front and, in the likely absence of the injured Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini could play a key role. 

Carrick's guile and fluidity contrasts starkly with that of Fellaini's style, but in the absence of the 35-year-old, Jose is likely to utilise the Belgian. 

The in-form Belgian has been a key man in our run to Wembley, scoring what turned out to be the decisive goal in the semi final win over Hull.

He was also influential when United salvaged a late point against Liverpool in January.

The introduction of the 6ft 4 Fellaini unsettled Jurgen Klopp's side aerially and he proved the perfect foil for the 6ft 5 Ibra, as the two players combined for the latter's late leveller. 

Fellaini was often pressed into service as a last-ditch target man by LVG and, as a result, the team often became predictable.
The addition of Zlatan into the team has seen dovetail perfectly with Fellaini, and Paul Pogba's impressive arsenal of weaponry has helped to play to the duo's strengths.

Ibra is the focal point, leader of our attack and the team's charismatic talisman.
He's already scored twice against Southampton this season so Saints will be all too aware of the threat he poses.
Stopping him from doing so again and cutting off the supply line is easier said than done - particularly without Van Dijk's leadership, positioning and heading ability

The key for United is to getting the ball up to Zlatan, then pushing players forward in support and running in behind to deliver it into the box.

Saints will sit deep, stay compact and force United to break them down so it is a tactic Mourinho is likely to use again at Wembley. 

Thursday 23 February 2017

Silverware and a slice of history on the line at Wembley

Jose Mourinho will lead United out for Sunday's EFL Cup final with Southampton knowing that victory will create a little piece of club folklore. 

Mourinho has won the League Cup in each of his three full seasons at Chelsea and a fourth triumph, this time with United, would create another first in the club's illustrious history.
The Reds will meet Claude Puel's Southampton side - themselves looking to re-write the record books. 

"The Saints" have never won the League Cup trophy and their only other major honour came back in 1976 when they beat United in the FA Cup final as a Second Division side. 

No Reds manager - not even legendary knights Sirs Matt and Alex - have been able to win a trophy in their first season at the helm.

Dave Sexton is the only United manager to get anywhere near silverware of any description in his first campaign.
Even then, it was only a Charity Shield (which doesn't really count anyway) in 1977, shared after a 0-0 draw with Liverpool in the days before penalty shootouts. 

Busby, who would go on to win 13 trophies at Old Trafford, including five First Division titles and a European Cup, had to wait until his third campaign for silverware - the FA Cup in 1948.

Sir Alex, British football's most successful ever boss, similarly endured  a difficult three seasons at the helm before the FA Cup win in 1990.
History suggests that he may not have survived beyond that season had we not won that  - a success which laid the benchmark for the phenomenal silver-gathering juggernaut that followed.
Three years on, and seven since he took over in 1986, the first of thirteen Premier League titles arrived in 1993. 

Louis van Gaal delivered a domestic trophy in his second season last term but Jose has the opportunity to eclipse them all.

Seven months into a four-year contract, Jose has taken us into the first of three possible finals this season with United the only English team fighting on all four fronts. 

He's stamped his authority and identity on the squad far quicker than LVG ever did and, if the talk is true, he looks set to be offered an new contract in the summer.

With the first major silverware of the season on offer, United are bidding for a fifth League Cup triumph to move joint second on the all time list of the competition's winners (Chelsea and Villa have five apiece).

Sunday's showpiece is the first of the Mourinho era at Old Trafford, but it almost certainly will not be the last. 

Match report: Saint-Etienne 0-1 United (Agg: 0-4)

United finished the job and progressed into the Europa League last 16 despite Eric Bailly's dismissal.

Leading 3-0 from last week's first leg, United grabbed the early away goal through Henrikh Mkhitaryan to put the tie beyond any lingering doubt.

The Armenian limped off shortly afterwards to make him a doubt for Sunday's EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley.

The goal came after a wonderfully intricate move on the quarter hour mark.

Juan Mata used Daley Blind's overlapping run as a decoy and instead drifted inside to guide a pinpoint cross to the back post.
Mkhitaryan did the rest and feathered the ball beyond the advancing Stephane Ruffier with a delicate touch.

Vincent Pajot almost put through his own net before Marcus Rashford replaced the hamstrung Mkhitaryan on 25 minutes.

Ashley Young fired across the face of goal, Bailly blocked well from Jordan Veretout and Loic Perrin headed straight at birthday boy Sergio Romero.

Rashford played in Zlatan to fire over the bar before a combination of Romero and Bailly thwarted Kevin Monnet-Pacquet when clean through. 

The hosts now needed five to progress and never looked capable of even an equaliser, although Henri Saivet volleyed narrowly wide soon after the break. 

Marouane Fellaini could have doubled the visitors lead when picked out by Blind, but the impressive Belgian could only find the side netting when well placed.

Ruffier saved well from Pogba but then came frustration for the Reds.

A second tackle by Bailly on Romain Hamouma in as many minutes saw him, perhaps harshly, booked on both occasions and the Ivorian was dismissed. 

That means that Bailly will be suspended for the first leg of our last 16 tie, with United set to discover their opponents in Friday's draw. 

Hamouma went close twice from distance, while the Pogba brothers both tried their luck at either end.
Florentin thumped a drive off target while Paul's header was hacked away to safety.

Rashford fired wide when one-on-one and substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger curled a shot narrowly over after nice build up play from Pogba.

Romero saved well to keep out Jorginho in the game's final action as United marched on and continued their four-pronged trophy tilt. 

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful man of the match: Juan Mata

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Rooney set to leave United at the end of the season

There is a clear sense now that the clock is ticking down on Wayne Rooney's Old Trafford career.

Rooney's stellar and trophy-laden 13 year spell at the club looks to be moving towards it end after a struggle for regular first-team matches so far this season. 

The United captain has previously said that he will not play for any other English side other than us or Everton and has been strongly linked with a move to China in recent weeks.

Jose Mourinho has not ruled out the prospect of any imminent transfer for Rooney, but any deal looks likely to happen at the end of the season. 

Talks have been held with Tianjin Quanjian and their World-Cup winning coach Fabio Cannavaro, but did not progress.

The lure of a final flourish overseas, coupled with the large payday that would bring, will be too good for Rooney to turn down. 

Less than a month after Rooney eclipsed Sir Bobby Charlton to become the club's record goalscorer, the United boss delivered a similar response to that when questioned on the futures of Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. 

The out of favour duo left United in January and, with 549 United appearances and 250 goals to his name, Rooney now seems certain to suffer the same fate.

He's contracted to the club until 2019 and previously hinted at seeing out his current deal, but a lack of game time and niggling injuries have hindered his progress.

He's known to be coveted by the mega-rich Chinese Super League, who would offer vast sums of money to add the England captain to their ever expanding alumnus of overseas stars. 

Demba Ba, Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Hulk and Graziano Pelle all joined the exodus east to ply their trade in China. 

Wazza plans to retire from international duty after next year's World Cup with the incentive of becoming England's most-capped outfield player.

A move to China, coupled with ever-emerging young talent for his place in the England team, would make that doubtful.

Four years after he threatened to leave United under Sir Alex, the reality is that it's a case of it, not when, Rooney leaves Old Trafford for good. 

There's one major trophy missing from both Rooney and United's decorated collection - the Europa League.
With the Reds still fighting on all four fronts, it would be a fitting end for one of our greatest ever players to bow out having lifted the trophy in Stockholm in May. 

Match preview: Saint-Etienne v United (Agg: 0-3)

Jose Mourinho looks set to rest a number of key players for the second leg in France with the EFL Cup final three days away.

The Reds have one foot in the last 16 following last week's 3-0 win in the first leg at Old Trafford as we look to finish the job and keep the European campaign going.
United continue to fight on four fronts - the only English team to do so - after the 2-1 FA Cup fifth round win at Blackburn on Sunday. 

Hat-trick hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic has travelled with the squad but Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw did not make the squad and miss out again.
Ander Herrera is suspended following last week's booking but David de Gea and Antonio Valencia - rested for the trip to Ewood Park - are expected to return.

Despite the comfortable nature of United's lead, Jose refused to take anything for granted, and said:

"We have all seen the crazy experiences in football so 3-0 is not a completely safe scoreline.
"I believe that anything can happen, we have to go there, defend well, not to concede and we know that one goal for us will put them in a very difficult situation.
"I have had results before where I have been 3-0 ahead but not won, or only just, so we know it is difficult and nothing is impossible.
"They played very well at Old Trafford, particularly in the first half, and were unlucky not to score the away goal so it isn't over yet.
"We have to go there and look to make it complicated for Saint-Etienne.
"I am looking forward to playing in this beautiful stadium, I know the atmosphere and it will be great to play in."

Like most other Europa League fixtures, the first leg took place on a Thursday and the scheduling of this tie for a Wednesday slot raised a few eyebrows.
Due to Lyon's European commitments and the fact that there are only 30 miles between the clubs - a 5pm kick off a day earlier than usual was chosen.

Despite this, United are expected to bring a large following with them to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, 'Le Verts' home ground and one of the most atmospheric venues in Europe. 

Form guide: Saint-Etienne L W L W L L United W D W W W W 
Match odds: Saint-Etienne 12/5 Draw 9/4 United 1/3
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany)

Monday 20 February 2017

Reds into the quarter finals where Chelsea await

After three wins over Championship opposition, United will face our toughest test to date in the FA Cup defence.

The Reds have overcome Reading, Wigan and Blackburn en route to the quarter finals for the third season in a row.

In a bid for back-to-back Cups for the first time ever, the draw for the last eight did not treat the holders nicely, however.

We were handed the toughest possible tie, a trip to Jose's old side and league-champions elect Chelsea. 

Antonio Conte's side sit eight points clear at the top of the Premier League and, in contrast to United's congested fixture list, the Blues have no European commitments to contend with ahead of the tie. 

The Reds knocked out West Ham at the same stage last season with a 2-1 replay win at Upton park after a harum scrum draw at Old Trafford.

This season, though, replays will not be used to settle the quarter finals so the tie will be decided on the night - with extra time and penalties if required.

Both managers, however, will be permitted the use of a fourth substitute during the additional 30 minutes as the FA look to aid potential fixture congestion. 

United have a poor record against the west London side having not beaten them since 2011 (a winless sequence of 12 matches) and - we'd rather forget this - were beaten 4-0 on their last visit there in October.

The Reds are much improved since then with that defeat our only one in the last 24 matches, so a repeat scoreline looks unlikely.

With the hosts chasing a domestic league and cup double, and the visitors still in contention for a cup treble, there will be a lot on the line when the two English heavyweights collide for a place at Wembley. 

The quarter final will be played on 10, 11, 12 or 13 March which means that United's league game at Southampton (scheduled for Sunday 12) will be postponed. 

It was at the corresponding stage in 2012-13 that the two sides last locked horns in the competition, when the Blues - then managed by Rafa Benitez - knocked United out at the second attempt after a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. 

 In the other quarter finals, Spurs host Millwall in a London derby and Middlesbrough will host the winners of the Huddersfield - Manchester City replay.

Lincoln stunned Premier League Burnley to set up a tie at either Arsenal or fellow National League side Sutton United. 

Statement signings deliver again as United march on

Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have had a near telepathic understanding this season and combined again for United's winner at Blackburn.

An unwanted replay looked set to be added to our hectic and ever-increasing fixture list but the Reds marquee signings made the difference to send us through to the quarter finals.

The pair have proved United's go-to match winners on many other occasions this season - Swansea, West Brom and Palace to name but three - and linked up to devastating effect once more at Ewood Park. 

United fell behind through Danny Graham's early opportunistic strike but quickly pulled level through the brilliance of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and composure of Marcus Rashford.

Named on the bench for the third FA Cup tie in a row, Ibrahimovic and Pogba were summoned just after the hour mark in place of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.

Jose had probably hoped he wouldn't need his big guns but they were sent on with a mission with the tie poised at 1-1 and duly delivered.

Pogba has really come into his own during United's excellent run of one defeat in 24 outings and his passing range, energy and pace lifted the Reds from their slumber.

In almost a carbon copy of the winner at Palace in December, he picked out Ibra with an inch-perfect pass for Zlatan to do what he does best.

That one moment of quality proved enough for United to progress, but it was by no means the only decisive contribution from the Reds summer acquisitions.

Mkhitaryan controlled much of the match with his intricate passing, elusive movement and pacy, incisive forward play.

The Armenian started in the number ten role and showed his class throughout with a majestic individual performance.
United's man of the match set up Marcus Rashford's equaliser with an exquisite, outside-of-the-foot ball that opened up Blackburn's defensive line. 

Far from the gamble many thought Jose had taken, the addition of Ibra to the squad has proved to best our best for years and nothing short of a masterstroke. 
For a 35-year-old to hit 24 goals in his first season in England is outstanding, but his off-the-field contribution has not gone unnoticed either.

Rashford and Anthony Martial have said that the Swede has been a role model for the younger players and that working with him is an invaluable learning curve.

There remains some questions over an extended Old Trafford stay for Zlatan but we should look to get him signed up as quickly as possible. 

Match report: Blackburn 1-2 United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepped off the bench to fire United past battling Blackburn and into the FA Cup quarter finals.

Danny Graham had ended the Reds run of five consecutive clean sheets, only for Marcus Rashford to swiftly equalise after a stroke of magic from Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

With an unwanted replay looming, Jose introduced Zlatan and Paul Pogba, and the changes reaped dividends as the latter set up the former to send the Reds through to the last eight for a third successive season.

Rovers belied their lowly league status as Championship strugglers throughout and Owen Coyle's side pegged back their illustrious opponents with a fast start.

Sergio Romero saved well from Marvin Emnes but United did not heed that warning and Blackburn took a shock lead on 17 minutes.

Emnes was again involved as he superbly turned Marcos Rojo on the edge of the box and played in journeyman striker Graham who fired high beyond Romero - the first goal United had conceded in 450 minutes.

United responded strongly and went close soon afterwards as Ander Herrera was thwarted by a smart stop from Jason Steele.

It didn't take long to restore parity, however, thanks to Mkhitaryan's brilliance shortly before the half hour mark. 

The Armenian magician glided beyond Danny Guthrie in midfield and played an exquisite, outside-of-the-foot through pass into Rashford, who ran through, rounded Steele and slotted in. 

Craig Conway fired over from a tight angle and Jesse Lingard went close with a header 
in an increasingly end-to-end fifth round tie.

Conway volleyed straight at Romero and Charlie Mulgrew lashed wide from distance, but United gradually exerted their authority on the match and Jose introduced Pogba and Ibra in search of the elusive winner. 

It was the Swede who so nearly made an immediate impact, but Herrera's cross/shot narrowly evaded the outstretched leg of the onrushing striker. 

Ibra didn't have to wait much longer for his chance to be our match winner yet again, though, as Jose's double change proved inspired. 

Pogba collected the ball deep in midfield and picked out Zlatan with a inch-perfect through ball over the top.
Ibrahimovic did the rest as he chested down and fired home beyond the advancing Steele for his 24th goal of another stellar season.

Anthony Stokes had goal ruled out for offside and Romero saved from substitute Connor Mahoney as Blackburn pushed for a late leveller.

They were unable to force an Old Trafford replay, however, and United held out to secure a spot in the quarter finals in their bid for back-to-back FA Cup triumphs. 

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Henrikh Mkhitaryan 

Saturday 18 February 2017

Match preview: Blackburn Rovers v United

United face Championship opponents for the third round in a row as we make the short trip to struggling local rivals Blackburn for a place in the quarter-finals.

Having dispatched second-tier sides Reading and Wigan by the same 4-0 scoreline, the holders hit the road for the first time in this season's competition to meet Owen Coyle's injury hit Rovers. 

The Reds have never retained the famous trophy and with one foot in the last 16 in Europe and the EFL Cup on the horizon, Jose is likely to stick to his rotation policy of the previous ties. 

In contrast to many of his top flight peers, the boss has insisted he's taking United's Cup defence seriously and despite changes, looks set to name a strong side at Ewood Park. 

He said:

"We played already two teams from the Championship so it is not new for us to play an opponent from this level and difficulty.
"One thing is Old Trafford, it is another to go away so I go serious and we will have a strong side.
"I'm going to change a few players but it will be a good team because I respect the competition a lot, and Manchester United demands that you go serious for every game so we shall do that.
"If we lose, we lose, but it will not be because we throw the game away.
"Sometimes the opponent is better or you don't play well but we will go to Blackburn with respect."

United will be strong favourites to reach the last eight, with our five clean sheets in a row coupled with Blackburn's focus on their battle for survival in the Championship.
Rovers come into this tie one place off the bottom and three points from safety after a 2-1 defeat at promotion-chasing Sheffield Wednesday last time out. 

They go into this fifth round encounter with a host of injuries and unavailable players and sit one place off the bottom of the table, two points from safety. 
Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick are expected to be available after slight injuries but Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Phil Jones are both doubtful. 

Elliot Bennett and Hope Akpan are suspended for the hosts with Lucas Joao cup-tied, while top scorer Sam Gallagher is out with a knee injury.  
Ex Red Corey Evans, Adam Henley and Elliott Ward will all miss out but former United legend Wes Brown could feature.

Form guide: Blackburn D W L W D L United L W D W W W 
Match odds: Blackburn 17/2 Draw 15/2 United 1/3
Referee: Martin Atkinson 

Friday 17 February 2017

Underrated Lingard made the difference against Saint-Etienne

It was no-coincidence that United's second half performance was much improved after the introduction of Jesse Lingard against Saint-Etienne.

This lad may not be the most naturally gifted player we have or be anywhere near Ballon D'Ors and FIFA Team of the Year, but his qualities are there for all to see.

No one is saying that he should start every week, but the criticism he gets in the media and from other fans (even some United supporters) is unfair and unjustified. 

Tenacious, hard-working and always a goal threat, Lingard offers pace and determination that, coupled with his intelligence, movement and selfless running, creates freedom and space for those around him.

He reminds me of Nicky Butt, who was less appreciated that his more celebrated Class of 92 peers, but nevertheless a vital cog in Sir Alex's benchmark-setting Red juggernaut. 

With Henrikh Mkhitaryan absent through illness, Marouane Fellaini was handed a start but Lingard is a more natural replacement for the Armenian and perhaps should have got the nod. 

The first half did not go as planned but Jose, as we've seen on previous occasions this seasons, wasn't afraid to change things up and put on Lingard to United another dimension. 

His energy and tempo-setting ability allowed us to push Saint-Etienne back and, coupled with the later introduction of Marcus Rashford, proved too potent for the visitors to cope with.
He dovetailed superbly with his fellow young colleague as United recovered from a slow start to eventually overpower the French side. 

He's a completely different type of player in every way to what Fellaini is and every squad is built on players such as Lingard. 

After numerous loan spells in the Championship, Jesse became a first-team regular at Old Trafford under Louis van Gaal.
His second season has proved to be a little more stop start, but he's still produced important, match-defining moments.

He scored in the season's curtain-raiser in the Community Shield win over Leicester and also opened his European account against Fenerbahce. 

His cross for Zlatan's opener at West Brom in December was one of the finest you will see anywhere but yet was only met with acknowledging glances.

Lingard doesn't get the credit he deserves and it's about time he did. 

Whatever he goes on to achieve in his career, Lingard has forever ensured his place in club folklore with his sumptuous winner in that never-to-be-forgotten FA Cup win over Palace in the final at Wembley. 

Zlat will do it for Reds as United chase possible cup treble

It's almost a year to the day since we suffered one of the lowest points in the club's history in the obscure Danish outpost of Midtjylland.

United slumped to a woefully embarrassing 2-1 loss against the part-timers and, although, we turned it round with a 5-1 second leg win (enter stage left Marcus Rashford), it effectively signalled the end for LVG.

Now, however, under Mourinho, the sense that something special is building at Old Trafford continues to grow.

The Reds are the only club in the country that continue to fight on four fronts, the Saint-Etienne win was a fifth clean sheet in a row and - the aberration at Hull last month aside - we haven't lost for three months.

Far from the flop many had predicted, Zlatan's now up to 23 goals for the season and, even for a manager as shrewd as Jose, his signing has been a masterstroke. 

The 3-0 win over the Ligue 1 side was far from fluid and indeed the scoreline flattered United. 
At 1-0, the Reds had looked set for a tricky return meeting in France next week, but Zlatan's first hat-trick for the club has now rendered that match a near formality.

The second game will take place three days before the EFL Cup final and Jose will now have the luxury of giving several key players the night off to rest and prepare for Wembley. 

It wasn't Zlatan's greatest treble: a deflected free-kick, a five yard tap in complete with a penalty and his general performance rarely went above average but it could turn out to be one of his most important. 

The mercurial Swede has 11 titles and three domestic cups to his name, but a major European trophy remains missing from his otherwise immaculate CV.
This year's Europa League final will be played in Stockholm at the very stadium where the Swedish FA will have a bronze statue of their country's greatest ever player.

Of course, there's a long way to go yet in the tournament but there seems a sense of fate in completing the collection in the great man's homeland. 

As an added fillip, glory in the Europa League would provide United with an automatic passage through to the group stages of next season's Champions League. 

United travel to Championship strugglers Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round on Sunday looking for another piece of history - we've never successfully retained that trophy. 

Jose is rediscovering United's aura once more and the future looks bright...

Match report: United 3-0 Saint-Etienne

Zlatan Ibrahimovic hit his first United hat-trick to leave the team in a strong position in the tie ahead of next week's second leg.

Despite the scoreline, the Reds rode their luck during a first half in which the visitors - with Paul Pogba's elder brother Florentin at left-back - spurned numerous chances for a potentially vital away goal.

Zlatan took his tally to 23 for the season with a deflected free-kick, a close range tap in and a late penalty as the Reds took a huge step towards the last 16 of the Europa League.

Back noisily by their 5,000 travelling fans, 'Le Verts', fifth in Ligue 1,  capitalised on a nervy start from the hosts and almost took a shock lead after just 73 seconds.

Romain Hamouma found himself clean through on goal, but stand-in stopper Sergio Romero did well to smother at the feet of the forward.

Marouane Fellaini had a goal chalked off and then Anthony Martial, impressive throughout, had a 20 yard strike pushed away by Stephane Ruffier.

That early sighter proved to be only a temporary reprieve as United moved ahead after 15 minutes.
Ibra was bundled over just outside the box, took responsibility for the set-piece and his low effort took a huge deflection off Vincent Pajot, wrong-footed Ruffier and trickled over the line.

In an increasingly end-to-end encounter, United went close twice in quick succession through Martial and Juan Mata, while Henri Saivet fired narrowly wide at the other end after a swift breakaway. 

Saint-Etienne continued to come on strong and could count themselves unfortunate not to go in at the break on level terms.
Hamouma had a shot blocked by Eric Bailly and former Villa man Jordan Veretout fizzed an effort wide shortly before half-time.

United upped the ante after the break and frequently threatened to double their lead.

Antonio Valencia fired wide from distance, Ruffier saved well from Martial and Pogba headed off the bar from six yards.
Saint-Etienne were pushed on to the back foot but almost snatched an unlikely leveller when substitute Nolan Roux clipped his effort over the onrushing Romero and on to the roof of the net.

The Reds looked set to be frustrated in their bid for a more convincing advantage to take to France, but the second goal duly arrived on 75 minutes.

Marcus Rashford - on for his 50th United appearance - squared for Zlatan who slotted in from five yards.
Fittingly, the Swede had the final say in style when he completed his personal treble from the spot to leave United in an almost unassailable position ahead of next Wednesday's return meeting.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial. Zlatan may have got a hat-trick but Tony was at the heart of everything going forward..

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Match preview: United v Saint-Etienne

United boss Jose Mourinho has admitted he's worried about a fixture pile-up for his side ahead of the resumption of our European campaign on Thursday.

The first leg tie against Ligue 1 outfit Saint-Etienne is our 40th of the campaign, with the possibility of a 65-match season with a run to the Europa and FA Cup finals. 

Jose said: "It is a really complicated situation but we cannot choose competitions at Manchester United - the Europa League is on a Thursday which makes it even more difficult and at least one match will be postponed also. 
"If we progress in the FA Cup and in Europe, we will be in trouble in April and May.
"But we play to win every game so this is a problem we have to contend with.
"There are a lot of doors open - we are in the last 32 but not eight or four so there is a long way to go.
"They (Saint-Etienne) are a French club with a lot of history and success, like Manchester United and they have won the most titles in their country so it's a big club with a big tradition."

"Le Verts" arrive at Old Trafford amid another quietly impressive campaign, sitting in fifth place in France (albeit 19 points off the top) having topped their Europa League group with an unbeaten record (three wins and three draws). 

Marcos Rojo is fit to face Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford, but Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney are all sidelined due to "minor issues".

An intriguing sub-plot to the tie sees Florentin Pogba, elder brother of Paul, line up opposite his sibling at the heart of the defence for Christophe Gaultier's side. 
The third Pogba brother, Mathias, is also a professional player with Sparta Rotterdam in the Eredivisie. 

United have won 13 of their 26 meetings against sides from across the channel, with 11 draws and only two defeats. 
The last of those encounters came in 2011 as United edged out Marseille 2-1 at home to move into the Champions League last eight. 

This meeting marks the first of four cup contests in a row, with Blackburn away in the FA Cup on Sunday, then the return in France before the EFL Cup final with Southampton at Wembley. 

Form guide: United D L W D W W Saint-Etienne W W L W L W 
Match odds: United 1/3 Draw 4/1 Saint-Etienne 10/1
Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Opposition profile: AS Saint-Etienne

United have been drawn against Ligue 1 side AS Saint-Etienne in the Europa League round of 32 with the first leg at Old Trafford on Thursday.

Here, we take a detailed look at 'Le Verts' European pedigree, their history and key men including their own Mr Pogba (yes, really) and what we can expect from them as we bid for a place in the last 16. 

The club was founded in the industrial mining city of Saint-Etienne in 1919 by employees of local grocery chain Groupe Casino - hence they adopted their primary colour of green (or 'Le Verts').

Given the dominance of Lyon, and latterly mega-rich PSG, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Saint-Etienne feed off scraps when it comes to major honours in France.

Think again - they are actually the most successful club in the country with ten league titles (their last came in 1981), so this meeting pits the two most successful teams on both sides of the channel.

Saint-Etienne's European record is not as strong as our but they did reach a European final in 1976 where they lost narrowly 1-0 to Bayern Munich.

United have locked horns with 'Le Verts' just once before, in the first round of the 1977-78 European Cup.
The first leg ended 1-1 with the return match notable for the fact that - due to crowd trouble in France - UEFA forced United to play the 'home' leg at least 200 miles away from Old Trafford.

Plymouth's Home Park was chosen and goals from Stuart Pearson and Steve Coppell successfully sealed our passage through.

They've lost on all three of the previous visits to England but are unbeaten in ten ties this season and topped their group with a superb victory in Anderlecht on Matchday Six.

Christophe Gaultier (Europe's second longest serving boss after Arsene Wenger) has revived his side's fortunes since he took charge in 2009 - with a top six finish in Ligue 1 every season since 2013. 

Like United, expect to see Gaultier use a 4-3-3 system, with talented playmaker Henri Saivet pulling the strings from deep, flanked by captain Loic Perrin, top scorer and winger Romain Hamouma, and Florentin Pogba, elder brother of our very own Paul. 
Stephane Ruffier is an impressive and highly-rated presence between the sticks, while Swiss player Leo Lacroix and attacking right-back Kevin Macuit form half of a miserly and well organised defence. 

Saint-Etienne remain one of the best supported teams in France, with their fans bringing a noisy, passionate and colourful following to their side's matches both at home and abroad. 

Sunday 12 February 2017

Brilliant Bailly back with a bang

Eric Bailly must have been disappointed by his country's early exit from the AFCON but it certainly hasn't affected him.

The Ivorian returned against Leicester last week, played like he'd never been away and was narrowly edged out in the man of the match vote against Watford.

It was a brilliant all round team performance against the Hornets, but Bailly - along with Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, was very impressive. 

He kept Troy Deeney quiet and last week, for the third time this season rendered Leicester's talisman and last season's top scorer, Jamie Vardy, anonymous. 

You would have been forgiven for thinking that Vardy wasn't on the pitch until Bailly sent him sprawling with a crunching - but legitimate - challenge. 

It's testament to Jose Mourinho's rock-solid defensive unit that the Reds maintained their impressive run of form despite Bailly's six week absence. 

In that run, we only conceded four goals (one against Liverpool, one against Stoke and two at Hull), and Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling all joined forces to prove more than capable deputies.

Questions were asked when Mourinho signed Bailly from Villarreal for £30 million in the summer but he's answered them emphatically.
Bailly became Jose's first signing at Old Trafford and it's easy to see why there were as many as five other clubs believed to be vying for his signature.

He looks like he's been playing in the English top flight all his life and has all the assets that you want from a centre-half.

Combative and commanding, he's exactly the type of centre-half that we've been crying out for over the last few years. 

Quick, aggressive and strong, he's not looked back since three man of the match performances in his first four United outings.

When looking at Jose's summer signings, it's a tough call over who to claim as the best. 

All four of them have proved instrumental to our collective and individual progress this season. 

Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan started slowly but have grown in importance and stature, Bailly as mentioned has been consistently impressive and Zlatan is top of the goalscoring charts. 

Given his age and the fact he cost nothing - and despite the doubts over his best days being behind him - Zlatan gets my vote.

It's a bold claim to mention him in the same breath as Rio, Vida, Jaap Stam et al, but at 22 Eric Bailly still has his best years ahead of him.

Under the tutelage of Jose, he will continue to develop and improve and don't be surprised if we've a world class defender on our hands in a few years time. 

Ander Herrera's evolution from outcast to indispensable

Ander Herrera has enjoyed a quietly impressive season to continue his rise from fringe player to one of the first names on the manager's team sheet.

Louis van Gaal never seemed convinced by Herrera's qualities and, perhaps because of his struggles to nail down a first team place, lacked conviction and consistency under the Dutch boss. 

The Basque midfielder was again one of United's best players against Watford and has developed into one of the most complete midfielders in the league.

Anthony Martial was voted man of the match with Juan Mata and Eric Bailly also excellent, but Herrera was immense again and doesn't get the recognition he deserves. 

Deployed alongside the world's most expensive player Paul Pogba, Herrera was instrumental in keeping United ticking and quietly pulled the strings from his deep-lying engine room role.

Mourinho appears to slowly be phasing Michael Carrick out of his team, and so Herrera has picked up the baton of our most important player. 

He intercepted wayward Watford passes, broke up attacks and moved the ball forward to set United moving.
Herrera always look to play the ball forward, and although it may not seem the most difficult thing in the world, it sets the tempo for the side.

Pogba may be a superb player in his own right, but his style contrasts vastly to that of the quietly efficient Herrera. 

The young Frenchman possesses more strings to his bow in terms of his passing range, power and physical ability but often tries the spectacular instead of keeping things simple.

There's one area of Herrera's game that needs work on: his finishing.

His goals-per-minute ratio under LVG was decent in his more advanced position but under Mourinho he's been utilised in a more withdrawn role and so does not push forward as much.

His long range efforts from distance invariably find the Stretford End but, if he keeps this level of performance up, we'll gloss over that. 

Herrera may not be the snarling, in-your-face, raging bull Roy-Keane esque leader that we perhaps associate with a United skipper, but he has all the credentials of a future captain. 

Softly spoken but yet not afraid of getting stuck in, Herrera speaks with a passionate love of the club and its fans rarely seen in a foreign export.

He has an understated ability to inspire those around him, is known as a vocal organiser both on the field and in the dressing room and only N'golo Kante can top him for work rate and energy. 

Mesmeric Martial sparkles on first team return

Anthony Martial made a mockery of recent speculation with a man of the match performance against Watford.

Having been forced to settle for sporadic appearances in recent weeks, the 21-year-old set up Juan Mata's opener and then rubber-stamped the result by scoring the second.

Starting on the left of the front four, Martial terrorised Hornets right-back Younes Kaboul and delivered a timely reminder of his burgeoning talent.

Martial was at the heart of a stylish United win and dovetailed superbly with the mesmeric creativity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata alongside him.

That trio interchanged fluidly throughout and - with Ibra leading the line up front - must form the regular nucleus of the Reds attack whenever possible. 

In a dreary campaign last term under Louis van Gaal, the young Frenchman was our shining light in his debut season and recaptured that form yesterday.

Martial was top scorer last term and lit up Old Trafford with THAT sublime individual goal on his United bow against Liverpool.

He's failed to reach those heights this season, mainly due to Jose's rotation policy and added competition for places with the signings of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan.

Martial has been far from the first name on Mourinho's team sheet following his well-documented personal problems and injury concerns earlier in the season.

After a series of inconsistent showings, Jose appeared to have lost belief and patience in the young winger.
Having shone on his last start against Wigan in the FA Cup, however, Jose told the player that he would be given further chances to impress and he responded emphatically against Watford. 

As always seem to be the case when a player doesn't start every week, there's been a catalogue of speculation surrounding the player's Old Trafford future.
Just as we saw with Henrikh Mkhitaryan during his prolonged absence from the squad, there were a number of reasons put forward for Martial's lack of game-time.

Reports of a fall out between manager and player proved to be wide of the mark, as did claims that Mourinho was unhappy with Martial's attitude and remained unconvinced in his abilities.

Despite these rumours, the club, the manager and the player and his agent never mentioned the possibility of a transfer and always remained tight-lipped on his future.

Martial will be at United for a long, long, time and - if he continues his upward trajectory - has all the attributes to become one of the world's best. 

Match report: United 2-0 Watford

United moved to within two points of second placed Spurs and extended our unbeaten league run to 16 matches.

Walter Mazzarri's side beat the Reds for the first time ever in the league back in September and came into this meeting off the back of successive wins over Arsenal and Burnley.

United were impressive throughout and played some of their best football of the season to stay in the hunt for a top four finish and the Champions League qualification that brings.

The Reds started brightly and after a clever interchange between Antonio Valencia and Juan Mata, went close when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scuffed his shot wide.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan tested Hornets keeper Heurelho Gomes from distance but the visitors had not come to merely sit back and soon went close themselves.

Jose Holebas was Watford's pacy outlet on the counter-attack and he unleashed a dipping 30 yarder that flew narrowly wide.

Gomes saved superbly from a similar Paul Pogba effort, Ibrahimovic volleyed over and Ander Herrera then went close twice in quick succession. 

After frustrating home draws against Stoke, Burnley, West Ham and Hull, it was beginning to look like another one of those days for United as Gomes continued to come to his side's rescue. 

He somehow turned away Ibra's goalbound header from five yards, but was finally beaten moments later as United moved ahead just after the half hour mark.

Mkhitaryan released Anthony Martial free down the left, and the lively Frenchman cut the ball back for the 'Special Juan' Mata to tap home.

David de Gea was called into action to claw away Mauro Zarate's free-kick and Martial flashed a shot inches wide at the other end. 

Sitting on an increasingly nervy one goal lead, the Reds had to wait until the hour mark to put the result beyond doubt. 

Martial linked up well with an unselfish Ibra and wrong-footed Gomes with a neat finish at the near post. 

To their credit, Watford continued to press and should have pulled a goal back almost immediately.

Daryl Janmaat sliced wastefully wide, Troy Deeney was denied by De Gea and then Gomes kept out Mkhitaryan after a good save with his legs.

Ibrahimovic had a late chance for 3-0, but the Reds had done more than enough to wrap the victory ahead of a run of four matches  in three cup competitions.

Incidentally, this result ensured that United became to first team to stack up 2,000 Premier League points. 

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Tony Martial, he came from France....

Friday 10 February 2017

Match preview: United v Watford

United are on their longest unbeaten league run since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement ahead of the Old Trafford visit from Walter Mazzari's Watford.

The reverse fixture at Vicarage Road in September was the low point of the Reds season as the Hornets buzzed to an impressive 3-1 win, their first ever in the league over a then meek and out of sorts United.

Since then, Mazzari has found himself under pressure after an eight game winless run in the league and a shock FA Cup exit at the hands of League One Millwall.

However, back-to-back wins over Arsenal and Burnley have moved the in-form Hertfordshire outfit into the top ten and banished any lingering fears of relegation. 

After our emphatically impressive victory against the champions last time out, another win here would - albeit maybe only briefly - lift us into the top four before Liverpool host Spurs in the tea-time kick off.

Jurgen Klopp's side are a place and a point above United, with Arsenal, who are fourth, two points ahead (they face a rejuvenated Hull side in the lunch time match).
United would move to within a point of City in third spot - who travel to leaky Bournemouth on Monday - in the congested battle for the Champions League positions. 

Phil Jones is United's only absentee with Wayne Rooney available again and Marcos Rojo also looks set to feature after he picked up a knock against the Foxes.

Jose believes the team are in for a testing afternoon against the "organised and dangerous" visitors, and said: "I know that Watford are very difficult - they are defensive but there are teams that play like that without organisation.
"That is not Watford's style, he (Mazzari) is a very good coach, his team are very well organised and have the capability of being dangerous on the counter-attack and at set pieces with a very physical team. 
"We lost to them last time so this time we are going to do everything to win and hopefully we can put that right."

After this match, the Reds league commitments take a back seat with a run of four matches in three cup competitions.
Our European campaign resumes next week with the two-legged tie against Saint-Etienne of Ligue 1 before domestic duties in both the FA and EFL Cups. 

Form guide: United D D L W D W Watford W D D L W W 
Match odds: 8/1 Draw 15/4 Watford 23/2
Referee: Robert Madley 

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Man-Management of Mkhitaryan shows Jose knows best

Henrikh Mkhitaryan enhanced his already burgeoning reputation with an impressive man of the match showing in the 3-0 win at Leicester. 

The gifted and mercurial Armenian got United rolling with a wonderful solo strike just before the break that showcased his scintillating talent. 
It was a goal very different from his effort against Sunderland, as he burst into the box with pace, poise and balance to despatch a finish high beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

Having moved from out wide to a roaming position behind Zlatan, Mkhitaryan also set up Juan Mata with a wonderful one-two move for the third goal.

"Mikki Ryan' has started our last six league games, which suggests that Jose is satisfied with his £28 million summer signing's adaption to both English football and his evolving United side.

Many of us had hoped to see Mikki involved more regularly earlier in the season, especially given the indifferent results and search for consistency. 

The press gleefully speculated that his continued absence from the team was down to a fall out between player and manager and that Mkhitaryan's United career would be ill-fated and short lived. 

The fact is that no-one, not even the most clued-up fan or well-connected journo, knows what goes on off the pitch and behind the scenes at a professional club. 
All we see is how a certain player performs in front of the watching world during the small 90-minute window of a match - but there's so much more going on that we don't hear about. 

Jose signed Mikki last summer for his creative, game changing abilities so, even though he didn't pick him in the early weeks, he must've had clear reasons for doing so. 

There's a similar situation unfolding now with Anthony Martial who has featured only sporadically having made four appearances in the side's last ten outings.

Again, we don't know the circumstances, but Martial stayed put in January and there's nothing to suggest that his immediate future lies away from Old Trafford.

Jose knows what he's doing as one of the best around and his track record speaks volumes. 

United may not be back at the summit of the English game just yet, but Jose and the players will be doing everything to change that.

As fans, we must have faith and trust that something special is going to happen. 

Monday 6 February 2017

Five games in 16 days for United in a season-defining schedule

United have only one more league game this month but the squad's mental and physical resolve will be tested to the limit in a frenetic February.

The visit of Walter Mazzari's Watford is the first of five games in 16 games across every competition, with United the only English team to be fighting on all four fronts. 

After the meeting with the Hornets, the Reds don't play another Premier League fixture for almost a month - with an FA Cup fifth round tie, the EFL Cup final and the resumption of our European campaign on the horizon.

The Manchester derby was originally scheduled for the 26th February, but will now be re-arranged as that's the same date we face Southampton at Wembley for the first major silverware of the season. 

Paul Pogba will go head-to-head with his brother Mathias in the two-legged Europa League tie with Saint-Etienne, with the Old Trafford meeting to be played a week Thursday, 16th.

There are six days between the two ties against the Ligue 1 outfit, but it's no rest for the wicked as United face a third successive FA Cup tie against Championship opponents on the following weekend.

Having seen off Warren Joyce's Wigan, United hit the road for the first time in this season's tournament as they travel to Blackburn Rovers

The fifth round tie with Owen Coyle's second tier strugglers kick offs on Sunday 19th, with a 4.15 kick off, and is the last stage in which replays will be used (from this season onwards, the quarter finals will be played to a straight finish).

With these three games in quick succession, how Jose rotates and utilises his squad will be key. 

The Europa League would appear to be a realistic target for the Reds with United having named a near full strength side for every match in the competition so far.

For all the talk of the tournament being an unwelcome distraction, we've never won it before (the only major trophy missing from our collection), so that alone surely makes it worthwhile. 

Both FA Cup ties have featured a heavily rotated - albeit still strong - Reds team and Jose is likely to do the same again for these fixtures. 

He will want to give everyone game time but will also be wary of the risk of injury and fatigue with the cup final in mind at the end of the month.

United's nine successive wins over Christmas and New Year came with only domestic duties to take care of.

With an upcoming fixture schedule that encompasses demands both at home and abroad, the squad's mettle and stomach for the fight will be tested to the full in the coming weeks. 

United remember the Munich tragedy 59 years on

The 6th February is a date indelibly marked on the calendars of everyone connected with Manchester United.

On the darkest day in the club's history, the Munich air crash claimed the lives of 23 people - eight of whom were United players - and the finest club side British football has ever seen was effectively wiped out.

Pioneering manager Matt Busby had defied the Football Association to take United into European competition and his side, known as the "Busby Babes" (even though he hated the phrase), looked set to vanquish all-comers.

Tottenham Hotspur became the first British side to win the league and cup double in 1961 but many believe that United would have done it first had it not been for the devastating tragedy. 

The team's plane had stopped in Munich to refuel on the way back to Manchester from Belgrade, where we had progressed into the European Cup semi-finals after a 5-3 aggregate win over Red Star. 

After two aborted take-off attempts, the third ended in tragedy when the plane never got airborne and smashed through a perimeter fence into a nearby house. 

Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards all died, along with club secretary Walter Crickmer, Tom Curry and assistant Bert Whalley.
Co-pilot Kenneth Rayment died in the weeks following the crash and although his colleague, Captain James Thain survived, he faced a long and protracted legal battle to clear his name. 

Thain was eventually exonerated, as the crash, initially thought to be caused by ice on the wings, happened because of a build up of slush on the runway. 

Busby somehow survived his horrific injuries to regain full health and build another brilliant young side, who would finally realise his dream ten years on from the disaster.

In the ultimate tale of triumph over adversity, United rose from the ashes and went on to finally conquer Europe in that never-to-be-forgotten night at Wembley. 

Local youth was a driving force behind Busby's dream and, fittingly, it was young whippersnapper Brian Kidd who hit the third goal in the 4-1 win over Benfica.

50 years on in 2008, United would once again channel the spirit of their fallen heroes with our third European Cup win, this time against Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. 

They will never be forgotten and forever remembered.