Friday 31 March 2017

Mata blow for United as injuries mount up

United's rapidly lengthening injury list could not have come at a worse time as the Reds face a crucial period in the season.

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are out with unspecified 'long term' injuries and Paul Pogba is absent with a hamstring problem. 

Now Juan Mata joins that trio on the sidelines and looks set to miss the rest of the season after he underwent a groin operation.

The news was confirmed by United on Friday and comes as a bitter blow ahead of the imminent run in.

It is unclear how the Spanish playmaker sustained the injury.

United have placed no timescale on his return but the usual recovery time for his injury is six to eight weeks - meaning his campaign looks likely to be over. 

Mata has been hugely influential as the Reds creator-in-chief this season and is the only player, excluding Zlatan, to reach double figures in his goal tally.

Mata is widely regarded as the nicest chap in football but, more importantly, his reputation as the ultimate "big game" man has elevated him to a United Player of the Season contender.

He has a happy knack of making the vital difference when it matters and, with every game crucial, his creativity and consistency will be hugely missed. 

Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic complete their bans against West Brom, bringing United's list of injured or unavailable men up to six.

Mata's injury means Henrikh Mkhitaryan is likely to come back in on the right having been rested in the win over Middlesbrough.

Marcus Rashford will again lead the line on his own, with Jesse Lingard - man of the match at Boro - and fit again duo Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney vying for the other attacking positions.
Ashley Young was also impressive on Teesside and could keep his place if Mourinho maintains the three-man defensive system he's relied upon of late. 

At the back, the injuries to Smalling and Jones leave Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly as the club's only fit senior centre backs  - although Daley Blind could play there if necessary. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and its in emergencies such as this that United's reputation for blooding young talent comes into its own.

Tim Fosu-Mensah could be handed a rare chance to impress (he's made only four appearances all season), with fellow Academy graduates Axel Tuanzebe and Matty Willock also drafted into Saturday's squad to fill the void. 

Match preview: United v West Brom

United return to action as the Premier League resumes after a two-week hiatus for international fixtures.

The Reds will be without five first team regulars for the visit of the Baggies, who are enjoying a fine season under the shrewd tutelage of Tony Pulis. 
This match is the first of nine in a packed April for the team, with nine games - five at home and four away - across two competitions in 29 days. 

Ibrahimovic serves the final game of his three-match ban, with Ander Herrera also suspended but both players will be available to face Everton on Tuesday. 

Paul Pogba (hamstring) will also miss out, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones face a lengthy spell on the sidelines having sustained 'long term' injuries on international duty. 
Wayne Rooney is in contention to play for the first time since March.

Gareth McAuley and Matt Phillips are doubtful for the visitors, but ex Reds Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Ben Foster are all set to face their former team-mates. 

Highly rated Academy prospect Axel Tuanzebe is in the squad and could feature, after he made his first team debut against Wigan in the FA Cup earlier this season.

The West Midlands side look on course for a best ever Premier League points tally and currently sit in eighth place.
United have won the last two meetings, both by the same 2-0 scoreline, but the Baggies enjoyed back-to-back successes at Old Trafford in 2013/14 (1-2) and 2014/15 (0-1). 

United manager Jose Mourinho said: "Usually, West Brom set up to defend and look for set-pieces, which they are brilliant at so it is difficult, they are dangerous, particularly without two defenders.
 "For us the important players are the ones that are ready to play, and the ones I trust.
"Some players are tired, of course, after the international break but I know they are going to give everything tomorrow to try to keep us in the fight for the top four. 
"I have a lot of quality and many options so that is important in a time when we play a lot of games.
"Smalling and Jones have long term injuries but I don't know how long they will be out for, I don't know."

Form guide: United W D D L W W West Brom W D W L L W 
Match odds: United 5/2 Draw 4/1 West Brom 10/1
Referee: Mike Dean 

United set for testing times with nine matches in manic April

The Premier League returns after a two-week break as United host West Brom in the first of nine matches in April.

The Reds face a heavily congested fixture list that takes in crucial games both in the battle for the top four and our continued bid for a first ever Europa League title.

Along with the resumption of our European campaign, the crowded schedule this month sees high profile, mouthwatering meetings with Chelsea and local rivals City. 

The team will have a say at the 'other end' of the table, too, April also encompasses fixtures with relegation-threatened Sunderland and Swansea. 

Hot on the the heels of the visit of the Baggies, Ronald Koeman's in-form Everton arrive at Old Trafford on Tuesday for a key game in the race for Champions League qualification.

The Merseysiders face their own hugely important derby this weekend, and depending on that result, could remain well in the mix for a top four place ahead of their match with us. 

After two home games, we make the long trip to Wearside and a reunion with former boss David Moyes and his Sunderland struggling side.

Despite their lowly position, the Reds have endured mixed fortunes against the Black Cats in recent years, with two defeats to them in the last three seasons. 

That Old Trafford clash with Antonio Conte's champions-elect side (16th April) is sandwiched between the two legs of the Europa League quarter-final.

We make the trip to Belgium on the 13th with the return a week later on the 20th, which in turns comes three days before a testing encounter at Turf Moor.

Although Burnley are sitting comfortably in mid-table, the Clarets boast the third-best home record in the league having lost only twice there all season.

The Reds will be afforded a four-day breather before another monumental match-up and the third Manchester derby of the season.

Unusually for a league game, we play the mob from the Etihad on a Thursday (27th) in a hugely significant cross-town clash.

Only one of the sides are still in Europe, but the derby is the first of three potentially pivotal away matches for the Reds - with Arsenal and Spurs to come in the last week of the campaign. 

After five matches in 14 days, United's unrelenting run-in does not let up as Paul Clement's 17th-placed Swans provide the opposition, on Sunday 30th (midday kick-off).


Monday 20 March 2017

Supporting cast step up in absence of United's star names

In the absence of marquee summer signings Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United’s stand-ins proved able deputies against Middlesbrough.

Pogba picked up a hamstring injury in the win over Rostov and Zlatan was serving the second of a three-match ban for violent conduct after his clash with Tyrone Mings.

Daley Blind was also forced off against the Russians and a fatigued Henrikh Mkhitaryan was rested for the visit to the struggling and managerless Teessiders.

Marcus Rashford’s pace and penetration proved a constant menace to the home side’s defence – and Bernardo Espinoza in particular.

Jesse Lingard capped a man-of-the-match showing with another spectacular finish, and celebration to match, and Marouane Fellaini’s powerful presence ensured that the injured Pogba was not missed.

The Belgian headed in the opening goal from Ashley Young’s brilliant cross and continued his recent renaissance in Jose’s United side.
Fellaini has often been a divisive and much-maligned figure at Old Trafford and reached a nadir with a clumsy cameo after coming on at Everton in December.
He gave away a late penalty but has enjoyed the best form of his United career since.

Lingard continued his penchant for the spectacular with a contender for goal of the season, reminiscent of his goal against Palace in the FA Cup final.
His movement, energy and link-up play proved too much for Middlesbrough to handle and he was at the heart of everything going forward.
Lingard gets his fair share of criticism but he and his partner in crime Rashford were simply superb at The Riverside.
These two young, local talents continue to prove United’s faith in youth is unrivalled in driving us forward for many seasons to come.

Rashford led the line on his own and deserved a goal for another selfless and dynamic showing.
The young striker has struggled in front of goal this season with seven goals in 40 appearances abd again drew a blank at Boro, if not for the want of trying.
Former United keeper Victor Valdes twice thwarted Rashford after he had burst clear, but his relentless running unsettled Boro throughout.

Ashley Young took advantage of United’s injury problems with an impressive performance at left back and then, latterly, the left wing.

On the other flank, Antonio Valencia continues to go from strength and strength.
 You’d be hard pressed to find a better full-back than the lung-busting Ecuadorian who must be one of the favourites for our Player of the Season award.

No Pogba, no Ibra but no problem for the Reds as we demonstrated that Jose has an embarrassment of riches and the deepest squad in the league at his disposal.

Top four fight to go to the wire

The congested fight for a top four league finish took another twist over the weekend.

The race to qualify for next season’s Champions League looks set to go to the wire after dropped points for Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in the latest round of fixtures. 

Missed opportunities against Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Burnley and Bournemouth have been of great frustration for the team this season, but there was no disappointment at The Riverside.
Despite missing several key names, the Reds brushed aside struggling and managerless Middlesbrough to keep up the pressure on the sides above them.

The Reds had occupied sixth place for 106 days but have now displaced Arsene Wenger’s out of form side.
United’s 3-1 win at Middlesbrough stretched our unbeaten league run to 18 games and lifted us above the Gunners into fifth (it was also our landmark 600th Premier League victory).
The north London side have finished in the top four for 20 successive seasons but that exemplary record now looks under increasing threat after their 3-1 defeat at West Brom – a fourth defeat in five matches. 

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool shared the points with City in an Etihad thriller and are four points ahead of United, but the Reds have the caveat of two games in hand.

As a result of their three-pronged assault on the cups, United’s away trips to City and Southampton are yet to be added to an already congested fixture list.

Liverpool are unbeaten over eleven games against the other sides in the top six but have struggled against the teams in the lower half of the table.

With the league set for a two-week hiatus, the Merseyside derby on the 1st April is the only fixture they have left against any team in the top ten.

United, by contrast, still face that daunting trip to City as well as Chelsea at home and high profile visits to Arsenal and high flying, in form Spurs.

Those encounters are set to be played in on successive May weekends and will go a long way to defining each side’s respective destinies.

We're faced with the most testing run-in out of all the sides in top four contention, but thanks to our continued Europa League progress, we don't need to rely solely on league position. 

The competition has gained added importance and prestige since the winners were awarded automatic entry into the Champions League.

Jose has made no secret of his desire to take us all the way and, with that back door open, there's added incentive for United in the only major honour missing from the club's collection.


Sunday 19 March 2017

Match report: Middlesbrough 1-3 United

United made it 18 league games unbeaten and moved into fifth position with a deserved and hard-fought win at struggling Middlesbrough.

In the Teessiders first match since the sacking of Aitor Karanka on Thursday, United were missing marquee summer signings Paul Pogba through injury and the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Pogba’s replacement, Marouane Fellaini, headed United in front on the half hour before Jesse Lingard’s brilliant 25-yarder doubled the lead.

The visitors were pegged back when Rudy Gestede halved the deficit, but Antonio Valencia capitalised on former United keeper Victor Valdes’ error late on.

Under the caretaker stewardship of Karanka’s assistant Steve Agnew, goal-shy Boro were the lowest scorers in the league and had slipped into the bottom three after a torrid recent run.

United were almost off to the perfect start after six minutes when Marcus Rashford burst clear but was thwarted by the onrushing Valdes.

Opposite number David de Gea saved well from Gaston Ramirez but the Reds were dominant and nearly capped a wonderful team move with a 24th-minute opener.

Jesse Lingard found Juan Mata who crossed for Rashford and Valdes blocked, before the former Red also somehow kept out Valencia’s follow up.

The breakthrough was not long in coming though as United moved ahead on the half hour mark.

Ashley Young picked out Fellaini with a superb cross and the big man headed in at the near post from close range.

Former City man Alvaro Negredo headed wide, before Marten de Roon pulled the ball back for the onrushing Spaniard, but he was unable to connect.

United frequently threatened to hit Boro with the pace of Rashford, Lingard and Valencia, and that quality arrived in emphatic style just past the hour mark.

Valencia found Lingard who collected the ball from deep, drove at the back-pedalling Boro defence before he unleashed a dipping 25-yarder reminiscent of his FA Cup final goal last season. 

Negredo should have done better with a pair of headers, but Agnew then introduced Gestede and the change paid dividends.

It was he who took advantage of Chris Smalling’s mis-kick to sweep home past De Gea and give Boro hope of an unlikely fightback.

The revitalised hosts pushed a late leveller, but United weathered the flurry and put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time.

Valdes slip allowed Valencia to rob him of the ball and tap in his first of the season to send United fifth ahead of the international break.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jesse Lingard 

Romero and Rojo prove their worth against Rostov

United were indebted to stand-in stopper Sergio Romero in Thursday’s Europa League win over Rostov.

The Argentinian made three fine stops, including a save of the season contender from Christian Noboa at the death, to prevent the Russians from forcing extra-time. 
He beat away the Rostov captain’s 30-yard free-kick with stunning reflexes and was also at his best to keep out Sardar Azmoun and Miha Mevlja during a second half in which the visitors came on strong. 

Romero was signed on a free at the beginning of last season and has been an impressive understudy to David de Gea in that time. 
He was man of the match on his United debut against Spurs and earned the honour again with a brilliant performance on Thursday. 

Such has been Romero’s influence that to call him a second string choice almost seems demeaning and unfair.
 de Gea is, rightly, the team’s number one but nothing about Romero is second rate - in fact, he’s staking a claim for the title of best back-up keeper in the league.

He’s only ever been on the losing side in a United shirt twice in 21 appearances and has conceded only three goals in his eleven starts this season.

His reflexes, shot stopping and distribution are as good as any keeper in the league and he’d surely be number one at any other club but the Reds. 

He played in the World Cup final and has proved influential as our cup keeper this season during the run to the Europa League quarter finals.

It wasn’t just Romero who caught the eye against Rostov.
His compatriot and fellow countryman Marcos Rojo continued his renaissance with another quietly impressive and consistent performance.

Rojo has had his critics and struggled for form under Louis van Gaal but - like so many of his team-mates - Jose’s arrival has co-incided with an upturn in form.

He was arguably our man of the match in the FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, something that would have been unthinkable last term.
With Eden Hazard in full flight on a raucous night at The Bridge, Rojo was a picture of intensity and energy as he attempted - ultimately in vain - to press Chelsea into submission. 

His outing was a lesson in desire and determination - the apparent stamp on Hazard aside. 

When Rojo plays at centre-back, with Romero behind him, he is no longer a liability, a player to be watched anxiously through the fingers. 

Jose's Reds revolution continues apace and there's no greater exponent of that than Rojo. 

Friday 17 March 2017

United to face Anderlecht in Europa League quarters

The Reds have been drawn against Belgian side RSC Anderlecht with a place in the last four of the competition at stake.

United edged through to the quarter-finals with a slender 2-1 aggregate win over Rostov after Juan Mata's solitary goal at Old Trafford. 

As with the last 16 tie against the Russians, the two-legged contest is sandwiched between a heavyweight meeting with Chelsea.

With tournament favourites Roma and Monchengladbach now out of contention, Jose and the team are now the clear front-runners to go on and lift the trophy in May's Stockholm final. 

The first leg will be played at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium on 13 April with the return at Old Trafford a week later.

Anderlecht's elimination in the Champions League third qualifying round pushed them into Europe's second tier tournament.
On route to the clash against the Reds, they finished second in Group C before they edged past Zenit Saint Petersburg on away goals.

They saw off Cypriot outfit APOEL Nicosia (2-0 on aggregate) in the round of 16 and currently lead the standings in their domestic league ahead of Club Brugge.

Even though matches between the two sides have been few and far between, Anderlecht hold a unique place in United's history.

The Belgians provided the opposition for the Reds first ever foray into European competition back in 1956.
The "Busby Babes" won 2-0 in Belgium before, most famously, Anderlecht found themselves on the end of the Reds record scoreline - a 10-0 win in the second leg at City's Maine Road ground. 

The sides next meeting came in November 1968 when United were holders. 
A 3-0 win at Old Trafford proved just enough for the Reds to go through on aggregate despite a 3-1 defeat in the away match.

Anderlecht also won the last meeting at their place, 2-1 in the group stage in the 2000-01 season, but we avenged that defeat with a 5-1 thumping at Old Trafford in the return. 

Of the sides left in this year's tournament, Lyon look to be the most dangerous threat to United's hope of winning this trophy for the first time. 

The Ligue 1 side knocked out strongly fancied Roma 5-4 on aggregate in the last round and will now face Turkish team Besiktas
Elsewhere, Ajax play Schalke (who knocked out Monchengladbach) and Genk won the all-Belgian affair to set up a tie with Celta Vigo. 

Match report: United 1-0 Rostov (2-1 agg)

United survived a late scare against Rostov to edge into the Europa League quarter-finals through Juan Mata's second half goal.

Mata clipped home from Henrikh Mkhitaryan's low cross to send the Reds into the last eight - but we were indebted to stand-in stopper Sergio Romero.

The Argentina pulled off four stunning saves as Rostov came to life after the break, including one of the season's best from Christian Noboa at the death.

The Reds lost Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury early in the second half and the world's most expensive player now faces an enforced absence. 

United were completely dominant in the first half but struggled to find a way beyond Rostov's massed defensive ranks.

Nikita Medvedev saved well from an early Marcos Rojo header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - available in Europe despite a domestic ban - struck the post from a tight angle.

United's positive attacking intent pinned Rostov back and we twice went close again in quick succession, with the Swede at the heart of everything.

He had a free-kick blocked by Andrei Prepelita and was then denied by Medvedev after Mata had delightfully played him through. 

Despite the visitors need for an away goal of their own, the Russian side were intent to simply sit back and frustrate United.

Mkhitaryan had a penalty appeal waved away after he was shoved in the back but the elusive breakthrough then almost arrived on two occasions.

The Armenian's clever lob drifted inches wide and then Ibrahimovic unleashed an unstoppable effort that thumped back off the post for a second time.

Much-criticised Paul Pogba forced a good save from Medvedev on the stroke of half-time with the tie still in the balance but United ahead with the away goal.

With that in mind, the Russians came out of their shell and almost took a shock lead on 55 minutes. 

Sardar Azmoun's 20-yarder was beaten out by Romero, and the keeper then saved well again from Miha Mevlja.

Ibrahimovic headed over the bar from Antonio Valencia's cross, but the Reds patience finally reaped the rewards with 20 minutes to play.

Mata scored from close range after neat link-up between Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan to take him into double figures for the season.

The closing stages became increasingly nervy with United reliant on Romero as a brilliant reflex stop thwarted first leg goalscorer Aleksandr Bukharov.

An even better save followed as the Argentine tipped over Noboa's free-kick from distance in the final action.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Sergio Romero

Thursday 16 March 2017

Match preview: United v FC Rostov (Agg: 1-1)

United have the edge against Russian side Rostov who make the 1,872 mile journey to Old Trafford for a place in the last eight of the Europa League.

On a much-maligned playing surface at the Olimp-2 last week, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's all-important away goal (his third successive strike on the road in Europe) was cancelled out by Aleksandr Bukharov. 

Despite that, 1-1 away from home is Europe has to be considered a good result and the Reds very strong home record in the competition - a 100% win rate - puts us in the driving seat for progress to the quarter finals. 

Having suffered only a second defeat in 29 matches at the hands of Chelsea in the FA Cup, United return to action as they continue a busy week in a bid to lift the only major trophy to elude us.

Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial have not recovered from the injuries that ruled them out at the Bridge but Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera - both banned domestically - will feature. 
Eric Bailly will return from a one-match European suspension having been sent off in Saint-Etienne. 

The visitors will be missing suspended duo Aleksandr Gatskan and Timofei Kalachev, while Vladimir Granit broke his collarbone and will miss out.

This is the Reds third outing in eight days, but Jose played down any talk of fatigue, and said:

"My boys are all good professionals and good professionals find strength, energy, motivation and desire.
"The players are ready, playing at Old Trafford always give them a little bit extra and that is important when we are trying to qualify. 
"If we do that, then the teams in the quarter-finals are not easy, so it is difficult for us but we are going to try.
"We can cope with this situation, the fans can give us that extra support and now we can fight to be in the quarter finals. 
"It's a very important competition for us, that's why we play with a good team, a strong team, from day one."

Russian Premier League side Rostov, under the stewardship of Latvian Ivan Daniliants, have reached the knockout stages of a European tournament for the first time ever. 

Form guide: United W W W D D L  FC Rostov W W D W D D 
Match odds: United 6/1 Draw 11/2 FC Rostov 19/5 
Referee: Lithuanian Gediminas Mazeika takes charge of his first ever United match 

Tuesday 14 March 2017

'Brand Pogba" outshone by brilliance of metronomic Kante

In the absence of talismanic figurehead Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Chelsea, United needed world record £89 million signing Paul Pogba to step up and prove his worth. 

When a player signed for an over-the-odds fee is struggling for form and his team have lost, he is always going to be made a scapegoat and Pogba is no exception.

The spotlight will always fall on him, sometimes unfairly, but the Frenchman does not help himself with his frequent change of hairstyles and shameless flogging of "Brand Pogba." 

The effort and endeavour of many of United's players put Pogba to shame.

Marcus Rashford ran himself into the ground despite illness and Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo - late clash with Eden Hazard aside -  all enjoyed more profitable nights than the fitful contribution of the world's most expensive player.

He struggled again and another disappointing night was amplified by the relentless brilliance of the hosts magnificent midfield metronome N'golo Kante.

The contrast between the two Frenchmen could not have been starker.

Where Pogba's showing was one of listless indifference, countryman Kante was once again quite simply immense for his side.

Kante was perpetual energy and industry as he started attacks, broke up United's moves, linked the play effortlessly and capped another man of the match showing with a brilliant and deserved winner.

Pogba simply could not get into the game either before Chelsea took control or afterwards when Mourinho looked to his showpiece summer capture - the signing he set his heart on - to revive United. 

Pogba's quality should prevail given time at Old Trafford but he is falling short at the moment. 

He was not signed for his defensive acumen but is not offering nearly enough going forward either.
When an opportunity did arise in front of goal, he fluffed his lines with a presentable chance that quite possibly would have forced extra-time. 

Chelsea's fans revelled in Pogba's struggles as they serenaded him with chants of "what a waste of money" - accusations that cannot be levelled at Kante who looks a £30 million bargain. 

In his defence, he looks like a player who's been running on empty of late and is in need of the rest Jose seems averse to giving him. 

Fatigue seems to be compounding his problems but he will probably start on Thursday and in the upcoming league games with Middlesbrough and West Brom because of Ander Herrera's suspension.

A bridge too far for United despite brave and valiant effort

United's hopes of retaining the FA Cup disappeared with the flash of Michael Oliver's red card in the 35th minute of this quarter final.

An already uphill task was rendered almost impossible when Ander Herrera was sent off for a (harsh) second booking for a clumsy foul on Eden Hazard.

The Belgian, as he did all night, greatly exaggerated the coming-together to get the Spaniard sent off and despite a bravely valiant effort, the tie proved a (Stamford) Bridge too far for the team. 

The players can take great heart from their performance, though. 

There's no shame in getting knocked out by the best team in the country and a side who remain overwhelming favourites for the domestic double.

With the odds stacked against them in adversity, the Reds showed courage and commitment and kept going until the death.

Instead of the feeble surrender we saw in October and despite the numerical disadvantage, there was the heart-warming sight of a spirited late rally on the Chelsea goal.

Had Paul Pogba's 86th-minute effort crept in the corner and not narrowly wide, United would've forced extra-time and then who knows what might have happened.

In the absence of their three main forwards, the Reds summoned Marcus Rashford from his sickbed and, despite not being 100% fit, the young man was our best performer.

He almost capped a superb individual display with a goal - thwarted only by Courtois after a breathtaking counter-attack - and ran his socks off all night in a selfless showing of pace, energy and industry. 

Antonio Valencia was again immense at right wing-back and there were also stellar showings from Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo - who could face FA action after a late altercation with Hazard. 

This was a brilliantly feisty and frenetic encounter that lived up to its billing, with as much drama on the touchline as the pitch.

The two managers kicked every ball on the touchline and at one point had to be pulled apart by fourth official Mike Jones.

The flashpoint came when Mourinho - angered by what he interpreted as a Marcos Alonso dive - exploded with fury and clashed with Conte in a heated exchange of bad blood.

It was a feud that bubbled throughout but ended amicably with a warm handshake and embrace on the final whistle. 

With our FA Cup run over, attention now turns to another cup competition as we face Rostov on Thursday for a place in the Europa League quarter-final.

Jose has always maintained that the competition - and the Champions League prize it brings - has been of priority for him and the team this term.

Despite Monday's disappointment, there are lots of positives to take ahead of the run-in which could still end in European glory in Stockholm in May. 

Match report: Chelsea 1-0 United

Chelsea maintained their pursuit of the domestic double as N'golo Kante's second half winner settled a stormy FA Cup quarter-final.

After Ander Herrera's red card left the holders with an almost impossible uphill struggle, Kante's sublime 20-yarder early in the second half proved enough for Antonio Conte's side to progress.

United were hit by a striker crisis coming into the contest, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic banned and both Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial injured.

Marcus Rashford rose from his sickbed to lead the line, and the youngster was arguably United's most influential player.

The Reds fell behind inside a minute in October's league meeting, but this time we started well and soon carved out a decent opening.

Rashford was challenged on the edge of the area and the ball dropped for Henrikh Mkhitaryan who fired narrowly wide from 18 yards.

The hosts then went close themselves as Eden Hazard brilliantly turned away from Chris Smalling and burst through on goal.
David de Gea was equal to the effort, though and turned the ball behind with a marvellous reflex stop.

The keeper again came to his side's rescue again from the resultant corner as, despite being unsighted, he palmed away stand-in skipper Gary Cahill's low shot.

Conte and opposite number Mourinho were kicking every ball on the touchline and had to be pulled apart by the fourth official after a coming together between Marcos Alonso and Phil Jones.

Then came the pivotal moment in the contest on 35 minutes.

Herrera's foul on Hazard was clumsy but the Belgian made the most of it with a vastly exaggerated tumble as he went down like he'd been shot, and referee Michael Oliver dismissed the Spaniard.

That left the Reds with a mountain to climb and Chelsea were dominant from then on.

Victor Moses had an effort blocked, Cesar Azpilicueta went close and then Kante capped another magnificent showing with his decisive goal.

Rashford continued to prove United's inspiration and almost pulled his side level just beyond the hour mark.

David Luiz misjudged a long ball, Rashford ran on to before twisting and turning his way past Cahill, only to be denied by a superb sprawling save from Thibaut Courtois.

Paul Pogba flashed a shot wide and Willian was thwarted by De Gea at the other end but, despite a brave and valiant effort, there was no way back for United.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford

Sunday 12 March 2017

United set for strikerless system at Stamford Bridge

United's plans for Monday's FA Cup tie at Chelsea have been thrown into chaos after devastating injury news.

The Reds will make the trip to Antonio Conte's champions-elect without a recognised striker for the quarter-final showdown.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic begins a three-game ban for elbowing Tyrone Mings and Wayne Rooney is sidelined.

The United and England captain misses out with a head injury after he collided with Phil Jones in training.

Without the 26-goal Swede, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were expected to fill the void and feature prominently for United at the Bridge. 

After both suffering stop-start seasons so far, the young duo had been touted to step up to shine with a place in a Wembley semi-final at stake. 

There were rumours of their absence when the rest of the squad were pictured leaving Stockport station without them, and it later emerged the pair have been sidelined with illness.

When the draw pitted United against Chelsea away from home, it was the toughest tie possible and the biggest of asks.

Everything points to a win for the west London side: without the rigours of European football, they've stayed fresh and are champions-elect having surged ten points clear in the league.
The Reds made a 4,000 mile round trip to Russia on Thursday, we've a wretched record against the hosts  and Chelsea are not a side you want to face when you're tired.

Quite simply, there's no better team in the country at present. 

It's no co-incidence that they've suffered no injuries as a result of playing once a week, with United's schedule clogged by domestic and Europa League commitments.

Zlatan's suspension left us with an uphill struggle and this trio of injuries and illness suggests it's now almost mission impossible.

Jose's carefully-constructed gameplan will now need a rapid re-think, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan a possible option to move into the middle as a 'false nine'. 

In that selection, Juan Mata would likely start on the right and either the hard-working Jesse Lingard or Ashley Young wide left.

Alternatively, Marouane Fellaini could be deployed as an emergency centre-forward as he has been in the past under Louis van Gaal.

Luke Shaw was rested for the trip to Rostov but travelled with the squad, with Tim Fosu-Mensah and Eric Bailly also among the 19-man party. 

Travelling United players: De Gea, Romero, Henderson, Valencia, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Jones, Bailly, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Shaw, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Pogba, Lingard, Young. 

Reds set for toughest test of the season at Stamford Bridge

United's bid to successfully retain the FA Cup for the first time ever meets a major hurdle with a daunting last-eight trip to double-winners elect Chelsea.

The stage is set for a mouthwatering heavyweight contest between the country's two most in-form sides for a place at Wembley.

After winning the first major trophy of the season last month, the Reds have built an impressive run of one defeat in 28 matches in all competitions, that stretches back to October.

Our last meaningful defeat came at the hands of Monday's opponents as the Stamford Bridge side ruined Jose's first return with an emphatic 4-0 defeat.

A repeat of that scoreline looks unlikely, with United a much-improved outfit since then, but Chelsea have only lost once at home this term and are favourites for the domestic double. 

Without the demands of European football, Antonio Conte's side have managed to keep their squad fresh, focused and injury-free and the Blues hold an imposing record against us.

We've not beaten them in 11 attempts since 2012 when Robin Van Persie and Chicharito scored in a 3-2 win in west London during SAF's last season. 

That's a damning statistic that is sure to affect United psychologically and to make the task even harder, the absence of 26-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic serves a major blow.

The Reds top scorer and talisman begins a three-match ban after he elbowed Bournemouth's Tyrone Mings during last weekend's 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

That immediately gives Jose Mourinho a question to answer.

Wayne Rooney was rested for Rostov and could return, Anthony Martial may move into the middle or Marcus Rashford could get his chance up front. 

United have, at times, relied on Ibra's strength and firepower this season: his 26 goals in all competitions put him 17 ahead of our second top scorer Juan Mata.

His absence creates problems not just for his goal-scoring but also his aerial ability and influence on the rest of the team.
Zlatan is the inspirational figurehead and leader of the attack and his suspension will make life 
easier for Chelsea's back three.

Conte's switch to that system was widely regarded as the turning point of their season, with Tottenham the only team to beat them since.

Mourinho deployed a wing-back system in Russia to match Rostov's shape, and could utilise it again here to deal with the floating threats of Eden Hazard and Pedro. 

Whatever system and formation Jose uses, we can be sure that he will have a plan to derail his former club's seemingly unstoppable march to glory. 

Match preview: Chelsea v United

United face the stiffest test so far in their FA Cup defence with a quarter-final trip to champions elect Chelsea.

For the third season in succession, the Reds have reached the last eight but - having seen off Championship opposition in every round so far - the draw handed the holders the toughest possible pairing. 

Antonio Conte’s side have proved an irresistible force this term to sweep all before them and power to a seemingly unassailable ten-point title lead. 

Led by star duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, the Blues have built an impressive home record, having lost only once on home turf all season - to Liverpool back in September.

Jose’s first return to his former stamping ground back in October ended in a chastening 4-0 reverse, the Reds last meaningful domestic defeat.

Once again, the boss’s return to his former employers will dominate the build-up to this mouthwatering tie, with Jose keen to set the record straight having fallen well short last time. 

Chelsea remain favourites to win the domestic double and United’s already difficult challenge is made harder by the enforced absence of top scorer Zlatan.

The Swede will serve the first of his three-game ban at the Bridge with Marcus Rashford his likely replacement up front.
Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw both sat out the trip to Rostov and are pushing for inclusions, whilst Eric Bailly is available again. 

Chelsea’s surge to the top of the table has been aided by very few injury problems and the hosts are expected to again report a clean bill of health. 

Despite the Reds illustrious Cup history we’ve never successfully retained the trophy, but victory here would seal another trip to Wembley.

United have won four times at the national stadium in less than a year and - with Arsenal and City already through - the semi finals will be held on 22/23 April. 

This heavyweight contest could also be brushed with a touch of history.
There are no replays at this stage of the competition, which means the match will be played to a finish on the night - with extra-time and penalties if needed.

Also for the first time, the managers can make a fourth substitution during the match should an additional 30 minutes be required. 

Form guide: Chelsea D W D W W W United W W W W D D
Match odds: Chelsea 9/4 Draw 5/2 United 18/5
Referee: Michael Oliver 

Friday 10 March 2017

Match report: FC Rostov 1-1 United

United remain favourites to progress to the Europa League quarter-finals thanks to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s away goal in Rostov.

The Armenian put the visitors ahead ten minutes before the break and - although Aleksandr Bukharov equalised - the Reds emerged unscathed on a challenging surface

Four days before the FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea, there were understandable concerns over the state of the Olimp-2 stadium pitch.

But the Reds delivered a professional away performance, none of the players picked up an injury and - against a side with an indifferent record on the road - will be confident of progress in next week’s second leg. 

United lined up in an unfamiliar 3-5-2 system with Ashley Young and Daley Blind as wing-backs to counter Rostov’s own formation.

Paul Pogba miscued from close range early on, but the bobbly pitch and swirling wind contributed to a scrappy encounter of few chances. United went ahead with the one moment of quality in an otherwise disappointing half.

Marouane Fellaini superbly pulled down Phil Jones long cross-field pass and picked out Zlatan Ibrahimovic.                                                                                   The Swede drifted away from his marker and cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan to stroke home from six yards for his third successive European away goal. 

Ibrahimovic went close and Young flashed an effort wide after the interval as United threatened to take control of the tie.

But Rostov, who beat Bayern Munich at home in their Champions League campaign, finally came to life. 

Like United, the hosts scored from their first real opportunity on 53 minutes.
Bukharov latched on to Timofei Kalachev’s nice-weighted through ball to control and blast in beyond Sergio Romero.

Aleksandr Erokhin had a penalty appeal waved away and he then poked wide when well placed shortly afterwards.

Erokhin headed over, Aleksandr Gatskan tested Romero from distance whilst substitute Anthony Martial went close at the other end.                                      Fellaini headed straight at Rostov keeper Nikita Medvedev, and Marcos Rojo’s brilliant lunging challenge thwarted Sardar Azmoun when he threatened to burst clear. 

Neither side were able to force a late winner, but Mkhitaryan's important away goal leaves us with the slight advantage ahead of the return leg at Old Trafford. 

Overall team performance: 7/10                                                                                          United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcos Rojo 

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Match preview: FC Rostov v United

United make the 2,000 mile trip for a first ever meeting with Russian side FC Rostov amid concerns over their pitch. 

The Reds cruised past Saint-Etienne 4-0 on aggregate last time out to set up this Europa League last-16 tie against a side who narrowly missed out on qualification to the Champions League knockouts.

In their first ever European campaign, Rostov famously beat Bayern Munich 3-2 at the Olimp-2 to finish a creditable third in the competition's "Group of Death", a pool which also contained Spanish giants Atletico Madrid. 

Ivan Daniliants side are unbeaten at home for nearly two years - May 2015 was their last loss on home soil - and Mourinho admitted the state of their surface could affect his team selection.

He said: "It's hard to believe that we play a European away match on this field, if you can call it a field.
"I don't know which team to play, really, I have a lot to think about because I was expecting something more playable.
"I spoke to a gentleman from UEFA when I looked at the pitch and he said that is something happens then no problem - the players are insured so we shall play.
"Normally I know my selection a couple of days beforehand but this time I don't so it is difficult.
"It's a similar pitch to the one we had in China when Man City decided not to play, but this time we have no option so we have to deal with the situation." 

The Reds faced a similar struggle in Ukraine in the last group match when they defied a plastic surface and sub-zero temperatures to beat Zorya Luhansk 2-0. 

United will definitely be without Eric Bailly through suspension after his sending off in the second leg against Saint-Etienne.
The hosts have a near full-strength squad to pick from but first-choice keeper Soslan Dzhanaev will miss out with injury. 
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is set to feature despite a three-match domestic ban and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has travelled, although the Armenian's hamstring may not be risked. 

Both players featured prominently in the last round, after Mkhitaryan rubber-stamped Ibra's first hat-trick for United in a comfortable two-legged win over the Ligue 1 side. 

Rostov also enjoyed an impressive aggregate victory to reach this stage as they brushed aside their Champions League disappointment to despatch Sparta Prague 5-1. 

Form guide: Rostov W D W L D W United W W W W W D 
Match odds: FC Rostov 17/4 Draw 5/2 United 4/5
Referee: Felix Zwayer (Germany) 

Friday 3 March 2017

Match preview: United v Bournemouth

United return to league action against free-falling Bournemouth in a meeting between two teams in vastly contrasting form. 

Fresh from their thrilling EFL Cup win over Southampton last time out, United - with one defeat in 25 and six wins in a row - can move fourth with victory over the Cherries. 

The Reds have not played a league match for a fortnight but a win would lift us above both inconsistent Liverpool and an indifferent Arsenal, who meet at Anfield in the tea time kick off. 

Eddie Howe’s side survived in relative comfort in their first ever Premier League campaign last term, but have not found things as stable this time around.

The out of form Cherries are without a win in 2017, a torrid run of eight matches, to slip from mid-table to the fringes of a relegation battle.

They sit 14th but are four points off the drop zone and looking nervously over their shoulders at the chasing pack.

Despite the visitors poor form, United boss Jose Mourinho said that his side cannot underestimate the south coast outfit.

He said: “Bournemouth are a very tricky and dangerous team with quality and ambition, they are not afraid to play .
“They always try to attack, and to win, never to play just to draw, so they will pose a difficult challenge and we cannot underestimate them.                                         “I think there will be no impact from us after the EFL Cup win, it is one less competition for us to worry about - the League Cup is finished and we have to focus on the league.”

Mourinho confirmed that Luke Shaw - who has not played since the 4-0 FA Cup win over Wigan - and captain Wayne Rooney are both set to feature in some capacity against the Cherries. 

Phil Jones is also set to return but Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains doubtful. 

The corresponding fixture on the final day of last season was memorable for all the wrong reasons when the game was abandoned because of a suspicious device found in an Old Trafford toilet.

It was later found to have been left behind by a local private firm during a routine exercise but United won the hastily rearranged fixture 3-1 three days later.

Form guide: United W W W W W W Bournemouth L D L L L L

Match odds: United 1/3 Draw 5/1 Bournemouth 14/1
Referee: Kevin Friend