Wednesday 31 May 2017

United legends set to return for Carrick's star-studded testimonial

Old Trafford will pay tribute to one of our most decorated players - and one of the best ever United sides - at Michael Carrick's testimonial on Sunday.

The Reds 2008 Premier League and Champions League double winners squad will return to honour our brilliantly under-rated and long-serving number 16.
Managed by Sir Alex one last time, the Manchester United 2008 XI will face a Michael Carrick All-Stars team, managed by Carra's old West Ham boss Harry Redknapp. 

Carrick has enjoyed a magnificent and highly decorated United career spanning over 400 games and 11 years in which he's won everything there is to win at club level.
He signed for the club from Spurs in 2006 and the £18.6 million we spent on him has proved incredible value for one of the club's greatest ever signings. 

Carrick's glittering trophy haul of 18 major Old Trafford honours has seen him collect five league titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League, a Europa League, a Club World Cup and six Community Shields. 

He enjoyed one of his best seasons in the heart of midfield during that memorable 2007-08 season, in which United pipped Avram Grant's Chelsea to become champions of England before that never-to-be-forgotten night in Moscow. 
United beat the West London side on penalties for Champions League glory and that sense of nostalgia will be recreated on a star-studded afternoon at OT. 

Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Wayne Rooney - the only member of that side other than Carrick still at the club - will all play for the 2008 team, along with the man himself. 

John Terry and Frank Lampard both played in that Champions League final and will line up for the All Stars team, along with Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. 
Overseas stars also signed up for the opposition squad include Clarence Seedorf, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Michel Salgado, Robbie Keane and Eric Abidal. 

All proceeds from the match will go to both The Manchester United Foundation and Carrick's own charity arm - the newly established Michael Carrick Foundation.
This was a charity set up by the man himself and is aimed at creating opportunities for children to feel safe, valued and inspired to achieve. 

The kick-off on Sunday has been moved forward to 2.30pm from 4pm to accommodate the benefit concert at Old Trafford cricket ground for the victims of the Manchester terror attack.

It's Carrick, ya knowwww! 

Herrera to rebuff Barca and commit to United

Ander Herrera will reject any potential offers from Barcelona to extend his United career.

The Basque is on the radar of new Barca boss Ernesto Valverde - whom he played for at Athletic Bilbao - who has shown interest in bringing Herrera to the Nou Camp.
The Spanish midfielder has been linked with a return to his homeland, and Valverde has reportedly made Herrera his main transfer target.

Despite the lure of his former manager and one of the few clubs that would be a step up from United, Herrera has no interest of a move to the Catalan giants.

The Bilbao-born playmaker had three seasons with his home town team, the last of which were under Valverde, before he joined United in a £28 million deal in 2014. 

United first bid for Herrera the previous season but were rebuffed but, when we came calling again the following year, there was little the club could do.

He has one year left to run on his existing contract, with the option of a further 12 months, but he is likely to be offered a longer-term deal to thwart any potential suitors. 

Herrera was voted the club's player of the season after an impressive campaign under Jose Mourinho when he became a key cog in midfield, after the two frustrating seasons of Louis van Gaal's tenure.

He has long been touted as the natural successor to Wayne Rooney as captain and was man of the match in the Europa League final against Ajax.
Herrera's wearing the armband is irrelevant in many respects, though, as he is United's on-field leader and a captain in all but name. 

His excellent form also saw him earn a long-coveted senior Spanish cap, when he came on at Wembley against England in November's friendly.

Herrera's work rate, passion, energy and love for the club - a rare thing for a foreign export -  has seen him become a fans favourite at United and his stock has risen from outcast to first name on Mourinho's team sheet.

An extremely popular man both on and off the field, he's one of a number of the squad to have raised his game under Jose.
Herrera has answered his manager's wider call for greater leadership and a stronger mentality within the squad.

Turning down Barca and Valverde, who he is known to have a lot of respect for, will only enhance his reputation at United. 

Thursday 25 May 2017

Mourinho proves his passion and fire are still burning strong

Five months on from the lowest moment of his 17-year management career, Jose Mourinho proved that he has not lost his magic.

Jose was sacked by Chelsea in December 2015 with the side 16th in the table - having led them to the title the previous season - after a calamitous combination of bad results and a palpable discord in the dressing room.

Mourinho had, of course, lost jobs before but the spectacular fall from grace so soon after another Premier League triumph at the Bridge left a severe dent in his reputation and record. 

That led many to ponder whether the Portuguese's best days were behind him and whether he would ever rediscover the magic formula that has made a serial winner and one of the world's best bosses.

His behaviour at times this season, ranging from miserable to petulant to a man under siege -  coupled with United's early struggles - only re-inforced that belief for those that had written him off.

To see him cavorting around the pitch at the Friends Arena in Stockholm clutching the Europa League on Wednesday answered those doubters emphatically.

He kissed the trophy, was thrown around by his joyous players and looked like a man loving life once more. 
He proved that his passion and hunger for success still burns within him as brightly ever, and that United's decision to appoint him in the summer as LVG's successor was absolutely the right call.

There can be no greater response to his critics than two trophies - and securing Champions League football again - in his first season.
Let's not forget that this is still a squad that was largely inherited by Mourinho from Louis van Gaal and one that he is yet to fully make his own. 

Two pieces of silverware in one season is a fantastic achievement by any club, no matter their size and stature, but Mourinho will be aware that there's room for improvement.

United only lost five league games all season, as many as champions Chelsea and one less than City who were third in the table.
15 draws, however, stunted any hopes of a title challenge and for a club of United's resources and expectations, to finish sixth in the Premier League is disappointing. 

A better league campaign has to be more of a priority for Jose next term, and one glance at his glittering CV offers an immediate omen going into 2017-18. 

In a pattern that has followed him throughout his decorated career, Mourinho has never failed to deliver the league title in his second season at a club.

For a man who thrives on success, keeping that record intact will be all the motivation he needs as he continues to plot United's route back to the very top.

Pogba takes centre stage as Ajax young guns are overawed

This was always going to be a huge night for United's world-record signing Paul Pogba.

The Frenchman has polarised opinion since that eye-watering transfer from Juventus last summer, but this was the player that convinced the club and the manager to pay that £89 million fee.

One of the criticisms of him has been a perceived failure to not produce in the biggest of games, but here he delivered when it mattered most. 

An influence in both boxes, he grabbed the match by the shirt collar and produced an imperious display, dictating play, breaking up attacks, driving forward and constantly wanting the ball.

Like this United side as a collective, there is much to do before he can be regarded as anywhere near the finished article.
But the manner in which he secured an early midfield dominance was impressive and he added a goal - albeit one that was heavily deflected - for good measure.

It may end up going down as an own goal but Pogba will happily accept it as he tried his luck with a 20-yarder, after being afforded a little too much space by Davy Klaassen and Davinson Sanchez. 

It was a slice of fortune that he deserved having been denied by the woodwork so often this season. 
Pogba recently suffered his own personal tragedy after his dad passed away, and the midfielder has marked his return to the team with two goals in as many games - the first time he's done so at club level since April 2016, for Juve.

The youthful energy and exuberance of Ajax had proved so crucial in their run to the final.

But here, it was exposed as a weakness by Jose, the ultimate spoiling tactician.

Six of the Dutch side's starting line up were 21 or under, and it was clear at times that some of their inexperienced young players were left overawed.

Ajax were gripped by nerves and their exciting young team were never able to show the full extent of their glittering promise. 

United controlled the game from the start, with our greater experience of the big stage proving the difference, as many thought it might.

Our physical approach - particularly that of Antonio Valencia, Pogba and Marouane Fellaini - was too much for Ajax.

The team pressed high up the pitch and were not afraid to go long when needed, with Fellaini tucked in behind Marcus Rashford.
Pogba was the star man, but Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Valencia, Chris Smalling and Rashford also impressed. 

Inspired by the passionate and emotional travelling United fans, this was a no-frills and professional tactical performance. 

United win season defining match in the shadow of tragedy

Jose Mourinho's first season at the helm would come down to the 64th and final game of a testing and gruelling campaign in Stockholm.

In a game played with a backdrop of unspeakable tragedy that rendered this match irrelevant - but also so much more important - in so many ways, it was still one that would define how both Jose and the team's season would be judged upon.

Defeat to Ajax in the Europa League final, sixth place in the league and only an EFL Cup to show for it, would count as a failure given expectations and expenditure after being appointed as Louis van Gaal's successor.

If United won then Mourinho would be seen as the man who once more guarantees success with two major trophies secured and a place back at Europe's top table in the Champions League.

As he has done so many times before, Jose took the winning option as United overpowered a talented but lightweight Ajax side to give the season, and thousands of celebrating Reds, a warmer glow.

It also provided a mourning and heartbroken city with cause for a measured and respectful outpouring of joy after 22 people were killed and many more injured at the Arena only 48 hours before.

This was a night high on emotion following those tragic events in Manchester and also an occasion in which Mourinho's bond with the United fans was sealed. 

He has occasionally looked a man ill at ease, not helped by a mixed bag of performances and results.

Jose gambled on winning this trophy to get us back into the Champions League, viewing a tournament win as more noteworthy than merely finishing third or fourth in the league.

The fight for a place in the league's top four was given up weeks ago as he concentrated on a tournament that he once derided to win a spot against Europe's elite.

It was a gamble that paid off and one that means the club's summer strategy can be built around transfer targets that we can afford and also offer the lure of the Champions League again.

We still managed to sign Paul Pogba for a world record fee and added the coup of Zlatan Ibrahimovic without that enticement last summer.

But Mourinho and the club's decision makers knew that an offer without Europe's top level tournament would result in diminishing returns - both financially and personnel. 

Victory over Ajax was always going to be crucial for Mourinho's short-term ambitions, and he can now plan for the future with optimism. 

The prospect of signing much-linked number one target Antoine Griezmann would have been non existent without the Champions League, but hopes of landing the French international are now significantly enhanced. 

This was not just a match for Mourinho's standing and reputation, the stakes were incredibly high for our team and the city - and the players did not let us down. 

Reds do their city proud with defiant and emotional triumph

United won the Europa League, completed the circle of silverware and qualified directly for the Champions League group stage next season. 

Most importantly of all, this was a victory in which the team did their city proud in a tiny slice of defiant joy after the traumatic horror back in Manchester on Monday.

Nothing will ever compensate for the devastating and tragic loss of 22 innocent lives, but in a small way this may have helped to restore a semblance of normality to a shocked and grieving city. 

The team looked engaged, energetic and, most of all, united. They seemed determined not to let Manchester down with their spirit, commitment, determination and desire.

"Manchester" was the cry from the Red Army as the team took control of this final and Jose Mourinho - the serial winner - sealed a 12th final win from the 14 he's been in.

United became only the fifth team (after Juventus, Bayern, Chelsea and Ajax) to complete the set of all three major European trophies and added this glittering silver vase to the Champions League and the now defunct Cup Winners Cup.

This Europa League campaign has been an arduous odyssey and a long journey, taking in fifteen matches, eight months, seven cities and 14,358 air miles. 

Despite the turbulent upheaval of the post-Sir Alex era, this was a third major trophy in the space of 12 months for the Reds.
 Spurs, City and Liverpool may all have finished above us in the league but none of them won anything, so only Antonio Conte's champions can claim to have had a better season than us. 

This was textbook Jose. He was appointed by United to win trophies and has done exactly that, claiming the EFL Cup and now the Europa League in his first season at the helm.

A sixth-placed league finish cannot be dressed up as anything other that a disappointment, but two pieces of silverware - and the prize of that place back in the Champions League - suggests a bright future ahead for Mourinho and this side. 

United may still be lacking the flair and stardust of yesteryear that some may crave, but this season must now be considered a success under the undisputed trophy king Jose. 

This victory made it four wins from four European finals after two with Porto and one with Inter Milan, and vindicates his gamble of effectively giving up on the league campaign to prioritise this competition.

He has often been irritable and jaded this season, not helped by those 15 Premier League draws that ended hopes of a title challenge, but responded in the only way he knows how - by winning.

He needed this trophy and ultimately proved why United made the decision to sack Louis van Gaal and appoint Jose as his successor. 

Match report: Ajax 0-2 United

United claimed a third trophy of the season and won Europe's second-tier tournament for the first time in our history on an emotional night in Stockholm.

In the team's 64th and final match of a gruelling campaign, it completed the set of major honours for the Reds, and sealed an automatic place in the Champions League group stage next season.

This was also a victory for the city and people of Manchester, coming just 48 hours after the tragic events in which 22 people were killed by a suicide bomber at the Arena on Monday. 

The build-up to the game had been overshadowed by the terrible atrocity, with the match preceded with a minute's silence and then applause as both teams donned black armbands.

Ajax started nervously and almost gifted United the lead inside a minute when Andre Onana fumbled and Paul Pogba flashed a volley wide.

Juan Mata's cross narrowly evaded the onrushing Marouane Fellaini and Sergio Romero had to be alert to keep out Bertrand Traore at the other end. 

United's early dominance paid dividends as we went ahead on 18 minutes with Pogba - impressive throughout - again heavily involved.

Mata found Fellaini whom in turn picked out Pogba and his 25-yarder looped over a back-pedalling Onana with the aid of a heavy deflection off Davinson Sanchez. 

Five minutes before the break, Antonio Valencia burst clear down the right and saw his angled effort beaten away by the Ajax keeper. 

United began the second half as they had ended the first and moved 2-0 ahead three minutes after the restart as Henrikh Mkhitaryan made history.

The Armenian hooked home Chris Smalling's flick on from a Mata corner for his fifth European away goal of the season - the highest such tally from a United player in a single campaign.

Fellaini headed straight at Onana and Jesse Lingard slipped when clean through having been played in by fellow substitute Anthony Martial late on. 

'Manchester, Manchester, Manchester' echoed around the Friends Arena in the closing stages as the 9,000 travelling Reds magnificently and poignantly backed the team throughout. 

There was to be no late twist in the tale this time as United saw out the match in relative comfort to complete the set of major honours and provide a fitting tribute to the grief-stricken people of their city. 

Overall team performance: 8/10

United Faithful Man of the Match: A superb all round team performance inspired by world record signing Paul Pogba who helped his side dominate and control the match. 

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Europa League preview: AFC Ajax v United

United fly to Stockholm for the Europa League final in a match overshadowed by the tragic events that took place in Manchester city centre on Monday. 

22 people - many of them children - were killed in a terrorist bombing at the end of Ariana Grande's concert at the Manchester Arena, with a further 64 badly injured. 

Both sets of players will wear black armbands against Ajax in memory of those who lost their lives with a minute's silence to be held before kick off.
Manager Jose Mourinho cancelled his pre-final media conference out of respect.

The United squad held a minute's silence for the victims in their final training sessions before flying out to the Swedish capital on Tuesday. 

Speaking in a statement, Jose said: "Everyone at the club is deeply shocked and saddened about the tragic incident that happened last night - we cannot take out of our hearts and minds the victims, and their families.
"We have a job to do and we will fly to Sweden to do that job, it is a terrible shame that we do not feel any happiness that we always have before a big game.
"I know, even during my short time here, that the people of Manchester will all pull together as one."

Sergio Romero has been United's first choice throughout the European campaign and will keep his place in goal for the showpiece.
Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling both picked up knocks against Southampton but trained with the squad and are expected to feature.
Smalling's probable availability comes as a boost to United's defensive personnel as the Reds are already without Marcos Rojo (knee) and Eric Bailly (suspended). 

United have no new injury concerns for the 64th game of an epic season that is the biggest of the lot and the club's most important since 2013. 

Europe's second-tier tournament is the only major honour missing from the club's collection and victory would see United complete the set - and seal a direct passage into the group stages of next season's Champions League. 

Much has been made of the difficult challenge of Peter Bosz's emerging, young, vibrant Ajax side. 

With an average age of 21 and built on the highly talented products of their famed youth academy, they've taken Europe by storm and won many plaudits for their easy-on-the-eye style. 

Let's go and win this final for the city and the grieving, heartbroken people of Manchester. A City United. 

Form guide: Ajax L L W W L W United W L D L D W 
Match odds: Ajax 7/2 Draw 13/5 United 5/6 
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)

Front foot approach key to victory over Ajax

United's eggs are all in one basket which is a dangerous situation to be in against a young and highly talented Ajax side. Peter Bosz's side play with energy, intensity and at a high tempo - they will press high up the pitch and look to win the ball back early. 

Their front five - with Bertrand Traore and Amin Younes either side of Kasper Dolberg up top, and Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech slightly deeper - gives them a good mixture of creativity, goals, pace and skill.

To counter the high-pressing game plan of Peter Bosz's side, United have to play on the front foot and mirror the approach we had against Chelsea last month. 

We came flying out of the blocks in that match and took on Antonio Conte's side at their own game.  We were positive, put Chelsea under pressure from the off and never gave them a moment to breathe. 

United played on the front foot and used the pace of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to pin Chelsea back, and the energy of Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini to overpower them in the middle.

What we definitely shouldn't do is sit back and invite pressure as we did in the second legs of both the quarter final and the semi with Celta Vigo. 

The team were gripped by a nervous anxiety, we didn't play well and the opponents grew in confidence.United cannot allow that to happen here: this needs to be a game where we have to go out and start quickly. 

The Dutch team - despite their inexperience - don't have to deal with the level of expectation that we do - they've already qualified for the Champions League through their second placed Eredivise finish. 

The final is not break or break for them and Ajax's inexperience is definitely something we should try to exploit to tip the balance in our favour.  Jose Mourinho has great experience, not just of the big occasion but of getting results when it matters.

He is a serial winner, has won each of the three European finals he's been in and will have a massive influence in setting United up to do just that. 

He can't complain about fatigue having given the players the rest they needed in the three Premier League games since we reached the final.

United should be mentally fresh for the first time in five or six weeks.

It's a one-off game in which anything can happen but under Mourinho we'll be prepared, hungry and ready to make history. 

Monday 22 May 2017

Europa League opposition profile: AFC Ajax

United face Dutch giants AFC Ajax in the Europa League final on Wednesday. 

The Stockholm showpiece pits the two most successful sides in their respective countries together, as United and Ajax boast an astonishing 53 top flight titles between them. 

Alongside their 33 domestic league successes, the Amsterdam club have won 18 Dutch Cups, four European Cups/Champions Leagues (the last in 1995) and, unlike us, a UEFA Cup. 

A fitting final with, as Jose put it, two "monster clubs" on a collision course with the prestigious silverware - and a coveted return to Europe's top table - at stake. 

The two clubs share many similarities, from their glittering trophy hauls, renowned youth systems and the roll-call of household names to have played for and managed them. 

Like United, Ajax boast a storied, decorated history and are one of only two clubs to have achieved the rare feat of winning the European Cup three times in succession (Real Madrid are the other) - in 1971-72, 1972-73 and 1973-74. 
An away goals victory over Torino saw them lift their only UEFA Cup in the 1991-92 season under a certain Louis van Gaal, who also led them to a fourth European Cup three years later (a 1-0 win against Milan in Vienna). 

Patrick Kluivert scored the winner in that final, and the Dutch legend's 18-year-old son Justin will look to follow in his father's footsteps when he lines up against United.

Now managed by 54-year-old Dutchman Peter Bosz, it's been a disappointing domestic season by the Amsterdam club's lofty high standards.
They missed out on the Eredivisie title to United's group stage opponents Feyenoord as runners up for the third season in a row, and also suffered a shock KNVB Cup exit to second-tier side SC Cambuur.

Despite those setbacks,  this vibrant and energetic Ajax side - with an average age of 21 -  have taken Europe by storm with a team built on the famed talents of their youth Academy.

Spearheaded by 22-goal top scorer, 19 year old Dane Kasper Dolberg, they entered the competition at the third qualifying round having been knocked out in the Champions League play-offs by Rostov (who United eliminated at the last 16 stage).

An unbeaten group campaign was to follow, before they saw off Legia Warsaw, Copenhagen, Schalke and favourites Lyon over two legs to reach the final.

Netherlands captain Davy Klaassen (24), Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore (21) and attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech (24) are some of the other names to watch.

Stockholm final to determine success or failure in Jose's first season

United's season boils down to the 90 minutes against Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm on Wednesday.

After a demanding eight month and fifteen match European campaign, the team face the Dutch giants bidding to win the only major trophy missing from our club's glittering trophy cabinet.

It's the 64th match of a topsy turvy season and by far United's biggest and most important since Sir Alex stepped down in 2013. 

Whether Jose Mourinho's first season at the helm is a success or a failure hinges on the result of the Reds seventh European final in the Swedish capital.

Win, and the campaign would be one of the best in the club's recent history with two trophies in the bag and a return to the Champions League group stage. 
That would be a resounding success for Jose in his first season -  better, indeed, than anyone except Antonio Conte's domestic-double chasing Chelsea.

Lose, and serious questions would have to be asked after another underwhelming Premier League campaign and another year outside of Europe's elite club competition for the third time in four seasons - with only an EFL Cup to show for it. 

Lose, and Jose must be prepared to face the criticism that will inevitably come his way. 

He can claim to have been dealt a cruel hand with the injuries to Zlatan and Marcos Rojo against Anderlecht but his decision to prioritise the Europa League will only be vindicated with victory.

Having rested and rotated many of his senior men in the final weeks of the league season in preparation for the showpiece, there can be no excuses should we fail to deliver.
Physical and mental fatigue may have been a legitimate reason for some of the below-par performances a month or two back but the squad should now be in the best possible shape.

Ajax have taken the competition by storm and have won many plaudits for their eye-catching style, despite a team with an average age of a mere 20.
Their side has been built primarily on products from their famed academy, and the added experience and relative veteran status of United's team could tip the balance in their favour.

It's difficult to know what to expect from the Dutch side.

Youthful and inexperienced, Ajax could freeze on the big stage in the biggest match of many of their young players careers.
In contrast they could thrive without fear in their role as the underdog - in the semi-final against Celta, it was United that were gripped by a nervous anxiety. 

It's a one-off match in which anything can happen, and United, and Jose, will be judged on the outcome.

Proud day for thriving Academy after Palace win

Jose has given more minutes to teenage players than any of the Reds top six rivals this season and named United's youngest ever league line-up against Palace.

With an average age of 21, the side included eight Academy players with another four on the bench as the manager shuffled his pack with Wednesday's European showpiece on the horizon.

Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney were the only players over 23 in the team, and the boss's young selection put on a show to sign off a disappointing league campaign with a much needed win. 

Josh Harrop joined an elite group of homegrown players to score on their league debuts for the first team, with James Wilson and Marcus Rashford also both having done so in recent seasons.

The 21-year-old hit a hat-trick for the Reds Reserves earlier in the week, and followed that up impressively with a solo goal and man of the match showing on his senior bow.

Harrop also became United's 100th different Premier League goalscorer with his stunning solo strike to put United ahead on 15 minutes.

There was youthful vim and vigour all over the park with the two full-backs, 20-year left-back Demi Mitchell and 19-year-old Tim Fosu - Mensah, particularly impressive.

Fosu - Mensah enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last term but has seen his progress stunted by a lack of minutes and injury this time around.
His season looked to be over after he picked up a shoulder problem in the derby, but he returned against Palace to stake a late claim for inclusion in the Europa League final squad.

Mitchell, on the bench against Spurs and Southampton recently, was excellent on his debut and shackled the pace and trickery of Palace winger Wilf Zaha throughout.

Having made brief cameo appearances off the bench earlier in the season, there were first starts for 20-year midfielder Scott McTominay and goalkeeper Joel Pereira, also 20.
McTominay had come on for the closing minutes of the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, while Pereira got a taste of senior football as a substitute in the 4-0 FA Cup win over Wigan in January.

With the match won and one substitute left, Old Trafford witnessed a piece of history with the introduction of 16-year-old Angel Gomes in the closing minutes.
The London-born but Salford-raised youngster became United's third-youngest debutant, behind Duncan Edwards and David Gaskell - and the club's youngest ever in the Premier League era. 

Match report: United 2-0 Crystal Palace

Josh Harrop capped a dream debut with a goal as United's youngest ever Premier League line-up finished with a flourish against Sam Allardyce's side.

The result did nothing to change either sides respective league positions with United sixth and Palace 14th, but offered promising signs for the future for a United side with an average age of 21. 

With Wednesday's Europa League final in mind, Joel Pereira and Scott McTominay were handed first starts, with full debuts for left-back Demi Mitchell and winger Harrop - fresh from his hat-trick for the Reserves on Monday. 

The bench included the newly crowned Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Year, Angel Gomes, along with fellow Academy products Zach Dearnley, Matty Willock and Kieron O'Hara.

The returning Timothy Fosu - Mensah thwarted Patrick van Aanholt with a lunging challenge inside five minutes and Harrop started brightly with impressive touch play.

Wayne Rooney lobbed an effort over the bar having been put through by debutant Mitchell, but 21-year-old Harrop didn't have to wait long to make his mark.

He latched on to Pogba's excellent through pass, cut inside and rifled the ball beyond the despairing Wayne Hennessey with a superb finish from 20 yards.

Four minutes later, the Reds were 2-0 ahead as Jesse Lingard collected the ball from deep and picked out Pogba - on his return after the death of his father - who burst through and fired in a fitting finish.

Harrop flashed an effort wide and Rooney went close from distance before Lingard and Pogba left the field moments before the break.

Christian Benteke headed off a post, Bakary Sako's deflected effort drifted narrowly wide and Pereira saved well from Luka Milivojevic's 25-yard free-kick.

History beckoned with the potential arrival of Gomes, who would become the youngest ever Premier League player (and the third youngest ever in United history) should he come on. 

Jose gave the United fans what they wanted as the 16-year-old stepped off the bench in the closing stages to replace Rooney for a historic debut.

Gomes, who became the first Premier League player to be born in the 2000s, showed some neat touches and promising runs in his brief cameo.
He added to the feeling that the future is bright for the next crop of  up and coming Old Trafford talent after a vibrant and energetic display from the United youngsters. 

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Josh Harrop

Friday 19 May 2017

Introducing.... Angel Gomes

United manager Jose Mourinho will hand several youth and reserve team players a senior debut in the Crystal Palace match on Sunday.

Among those mentioned who could feature in the Premier League finale is the newly-crowned Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year, 16-year-old Angel Gomes - who trained with the first team squad on Friday. 

Gomes became the youngest ever winner of the award and is in Jose's plans to feature against the Eagles.
If he does get on the field for the first team, a number of record are set to tumble. 

Should he play against Sam Allardyce's side, he would be United's youngest Premier League debutant, and third-youngest ever at 16 years 263 days, behind David Gaskell (16 years 19 days) and Duncan Edwards (16 years 185 days). 

Here, we take a look at the emerging prodigy and his rise to what could be a sensational senior bow.

A precocious talent, widely regarded as one of the best in the Academy, Gomes has been a shining light for Kieran McKenna's Under-18 team this term.

Playing at a level that belies his tender years, Gomes is an attacking midfielder who can also operate in the no.10 role.
Described as comfortable, intelligent and assured in possession with a wide passing range, his 12 goals in 19 Academy starts this season have showcased his finishing ability.

He also became the youngest player to score a hat-trick for United at Academy level in 15 years, with a treble in a 5-1 win at Everton three days before he turned 16 in August. 

As well as being a talented and versatile forward, Gomes has also demonstrated his leadership qualities, having captained England at both U16 and U17 level.
He looked set for a first taste of major tournament football with Steve Cooper's side at this month's European Championship, only to be cruelly denied with injury. 

Signed as a 13 year old, Gomes has always played above his level at United, making his much-anticipated youth team debut for the club when just 14, against Middlesbrough at the end of the 2014-15 season. 

Born in London, he comes from a footballing family with his father Gil a much-travelled journeyman player who played for Porto and Braga in his homeland (he also had a spell with Salford City in the 1990s). 
His brother was also once on United's books and he's the cousin of Valencia, Portugal and former United winger Nani. 

This week is perhaps the biggest of Gomes' fledgling career as he prepares to potentially be catapulted into the public spotlight. 

Match preview: United v Crystal Palace

United manager Jose Mourinho looks set to field an under-23 side in the last Premier League fixture with the Stockholm final three days away.

Palace are safe whilst the Reds will finish sixth, and Jose name-checked several reserve and youth team players who are in line to feature at Old Trafford.
Matty Willock, Demi Mitchell, Zach Dearnley, Axel Tuanzebe, Joel Pereira, Josh Harrop and Scott McTominay will all play, while Kieran O'Hara and 16-year-old Angel Gomes could also make their debuts. 

Paul Pogba is expected to return following a family bereavement, and Tim Fosu - Mensah - back from injury earlier than expected - could be given a chance to stake his claim ahead of the Europa League final. 
Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling have picked up minor knocks and will not be risked ahead of the Stockholm showpiece, 
For Palace, Andros Townsend misses out and Yohan Cabaye is doubtful, but 15-goal striker Christian Benteke will lead the line for the visitors. 

The return fixture at Selhurst Park was a dramatic and controversial contest, as Zlatan popped up two minutes from time to settle a game littered with refereeing errors. 

The Eagles have flirted with the drop for much of the season but - after they appointed survival specialist Sam Allardyce is December - confirmed their safety last week.

The 4-0 win over Hull City, which followed a 5-0 thumping at Manchester City, ended any lingering doubts of relegation and sent Marco Silva's side down instead. 

That win for the south London side rendered this match a dead rubber, and Jose said: "I will bring three or four first team players to play a half each.
"Paul Pogba is fine, he is a strong guy with a strong mentality, he is ready to play and needs minutes so he will play against Palace, Tim Fosu - Mensah also.
"If he gives a good reaction with no problems then he gives us a strong, new option for the final. 
"In this moment, I'm not focused on the final as we still have Sunday's match to think about. 
"We want to try and get something positive in the last league game and in front of our own fans.
"We try to win as no one wants to lose or throw matches away
"It will be a great experience for the kids, many of them are new to the team and to play at Old Trafford in the Premier League is fantastic."

Form guide: United D W L D L D Crystal Palace D W L L L W 
Match odds: United 13/8 Draw 10/3 Crystal Palace 7/4
Referee: Anthony Taylor 

Captain in waiting Herrera caps a brilliant season with coveted award

David de Gea's three-season hold on the club's prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award was ended by compatriot Ander Herrera on Thursday.

The race to win this season's prize was expected to be one of the most difficult to call and so it proved - with the shortlist narrowed down to Herrera, Antonio Valencia and top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Eric Bailly could consider himself unlucky to miss out after a fine debut season, and Juan Mata has also enjoyed another impressive campaign, until he was hampered by a recent groin injury.

Zlatan sits top of the goalscoring charts with 28 and would surely have hit the rare landmark of 30 in a season if not for that cruel injury against Anderlecht.
His prolific campaign helped United to the Europa League final and it was his two-goal contribution that proved the decisive difference against Southampton in the EFL Cup final.

For the winner Herrera, however, the award cemented his status as a fans favourite and has capped a rise from squad outcast to indispensable asset. 

The Basque was signed by the club from Athletic Bilbao in 2014 but lacked consistency and conviction under Louis van Gaal and struggled to hold down a regular first-team place.

Herrera seemed unsure of his role in the side, LVG seemingly never trusted him and he became an outcast in the Dutchman's rigid and tedious Old Trafford regime. 

Deployed in a deeper midfield role under Jose, those early struggles are now a distant memory as Herrera's combative, all-action and whole hearted performances have won him many admirers. 

No one has made more appearances than his 49 in United's testing 62-match season, underling an importance that saw him earn a much-longed for senior debut for Spain against England in November. 

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 winding opponents up and getting stuck in - Herrera's a fantastic exponent of "the needle" -  he speaks with a passionate love of the club and its fans rarely seen in a foreign player. 

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. 

With Wayne Rooney in the twilight of his career, Herrera has to be United's captain in waiting. 

Herrera is United's Player of the Year after superb season

Ander Herrera capped his best-ever United season by winning the club's prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year Award.

In a poll voted for by the club's fans, the Basque midfielder narrowly pipped Antonio Valencia and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closest ever three-way contest for the prize.

Herrera never convinced Louis van Gaal of his qualities but, operating in a deeper role in Jose Mourinho's midfield, he has become an indispensable asset to the team.

His work rate, energy and passionate all-action displays has seen Herrera become a fans favourite at United and earmarked him as a possible future captain.
His next appearance for the Reds will be his half-century for the season in a campaign that included a senior debut for Spain at Wembley - to finally realise Herrera's long-held ambition of international recognition. 

The first name on the team-sheet, the high point of Herrera's season came in the 2-0 win over champions Chelsea last month.
He was at the heart of everything the team did, with a goal, an assist and a magnificent man-marking masterclass to snuff out the threat of the Blues' star man Eden Hazard.

David de Gea, the first man to win the coveted accolade three seasons in succession, presented his friend and compatriot with the gong. 

Despite missing out on the main award, Valencia received deserved recognition after another impressively consistent campaign at right-back.
The Ecuadorian - who won three monthly awards during the season - was the pick of his peers in the dressing room as he was voted the club's Players Player of the Year. 
Valencia has again been a key cog in this United side and is widely regarded as the best in the league in his position.

Unsurprisingly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's scorpion-kick goal against Sunderland was a runaway winner of United's Goal of the Season.

The Armenian's breathtaking piece of acrobatic improvisation on Boxing Day, set up by an equally exquisite cross from Zlatan, was the landslide victor with 57% of the votes. 

Wazza's record-breaking free-kick at Stoke in January (13%) and Paul Pogba's long-range effort from distance against Swansea completed the top three.

16-year-old Angel Gomes, regarded as a precocious talent with a bright future, became the youngest ever winner of the Jimmy Murphy Youth Team of the Year trophy. 
Gomes, a striker or no.10,  has already had England age group recognition and was the leading scorer for Kieran McKenna's vibrant, free-scoring Academy side. 

Axel Tuanzebe, who has started the last three Premier League matches, capped his promising breakthrough season with the Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year award (ahead of Josh Harrop and Demi Mitchell). 

Thursday 18 May 2017

Match report: Southampton 0-0 United

United and Saints played out a meaningless and uneventful goalless draw on the south coast in the Reds last league away match of the season.

Neither side had anything to play for, with Claude Puel's Southampton comfortably in mid table and United's top four hopes long since over with the Stockholm final looming large. 

Sergio Romero showcased his qualities with a string of superb saves to preserve a hard-earned clean sheet, including a fine early stop from Manolo Gabbiadini's penalty.

Anthony Martial struck a post in the second half for the rotated and much-changed Reds, with the team backed magnificently throughout by 5,000 travelling United fans. 

The game's main talking point came inside five minutes when Eric Bailly handled a Dusan Tadic cross.
The infringement looked to have occurred outside the box, but referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot. 

After recent penalty failures by Tadic and Shane Long, Gabbiadini added his name to that list as Romero saved superbly low down to repel the Italian's spot-kick.

Bailly was then involved at the other end as he seized on a loose ball from Matt Targett and burst forward, but Fraser Forster tipped the effort wide.

Martial flashed a shot wide and Henrikh Mkhitaryan also went close from distance before Axel Tuanzebe - on his third successive league start - was thwarted by a lunging block from Maya Yoshida.

James Ward - Prowse fired narrowly off target from a free-kick and Nathan Redmond tested Romero with a 20-yarder at the end of an evenly contested first half.

Saints began strongly after the restart with the Reds indebted to Romero who continued to preserve parity almost single handedly.

The stand-in stopper beat away a well-struck effort from Tadic, tipped behind Oriol Romeu's close-range snap shot, and then acrobatically clawed away Ward - Prowse's dipping drive in a prolonged spell of pressure from the hosts.

United went close on the counter-attack through Rooney and then Juan Mata, before Martial came within inches of the opener with 20 minutes to play.

Having collected the ball from substitute Michael Carrick, the Frenchman burst forward and unleashed a superb strike which cannoned back off the inside of the post.
Mkhitaryan should have done better with the rebound, but blazed the ball over the bar from close range with only Forster to beat.

Saints subs Sofiane Boufal and Jay Rodriguez both rifled off target late on, but there was to be no breakthrough as the match petered out into a disappointing stalemate. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Sergio Romero. Showed why he fully deserves his start in the final with a series of superb saves.

Special mention to the fantastic vocal backing of the away support, who never stopped singing despite the wet weather for a midweek game with nothing to play for. 

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Match preview: Southampton v United

United make the 225-mile journey to the south coast and St Mary's for our final league away match of the season with nothing to play for. 

The Reds lingering hopes of a top four finish were mathematically ended at White Hart Lane on Sunday, leaving next week's European final in Stockholm against Ajax as the overriding priority.

United claimed the season's first piece of major silverware with EFL Cup triumph at the expense of Saints, who sit comfortably in mid table and still with a chance of a top eight finish in Claude Puel's debut campaign at the helm. 
Victory at relegated Middlesbrough last time out ended a run of five games without a win and saw the Saints wedged between West Brom and local south coast rivals Bournemouth. 

United are likely to be much changed again for this twice rearranged midweek fixture. 
Paul Pogba will miss out following the death of his father, but Marouane Fellaini is available again having completed his three-match domestic ban.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial all look set to feature but Daley Blind will be rested, with youngsters Axel Tuanzebe, Demi Mitchell and Scott McTominay also pushing for inclusion. 

Saints will certainly be pleased to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic absent from the team sheet - the Swede having hit four in the two league and cup encounters between the sides so far including the match-winning brace at Wembley. 

Southampton duo Virgil van Dijk and Alex McCarthy will not feature despite returning to training this week, but Charlie Austin could push for a place up front after six months out. 

United manager Jose Mourinho said: "I have to build some players with the minimum of conditions to fight for a result.
"We always want to fight - I don't want to field a team where people think we aren't going fighting for a result because we always are.
"Now it is time to finish with two good league games to close the Premier League and reach the Europa League final with momentum and in the best shape we can. 
"What I want from the players is a positive attitude, good team spirit and an understanding of the current situation of rotating players to keep them fresh.
"I'm trying to get people to be the best that they can, against Southampton I will give two or three players a rest, and against Crystal Palace another two or three more - to try to arrive in the final in the best possible condition." 

Form guide: Southampton L L D D L W United D D W L D L 
Match odds: Southampton 8/5 Draw 12/5 United 7/4 
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral) 

Monday 15 May 2017

Match report: Tottenham 2-1 United

Spurs completed an unbeaten home season and signed off from White Hart Lane with a historic and deserved win over the much-changed Reds.
The victory ensured Tottenham bow out from their home of 118 years with 17 wins from their 19 home fixtures (with only draws against Liverpool and Leicester denying them an extraordinary 100% record).

Mauricio Pochettino's side scored early in each half - through Victor Wanyama and Harry Kane - to seal the runners up spot as United went down in north London for the second successive week. 

Wanyama's opener came from Spurs first attack as Ben Davies picked out the Kenyan to head in his third goal of the season from close range in the sixth minute.
Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney went close with headers and Anthony Martial flashed an effort narrowly wide having burst clear on the counter-attack.

At the other end, United were indebted to David de Gea who saved well from Son Heung - min and then palmed away Christian Eriksen's follow up.
Kane headed against the bar and de Gea produced another superb stop to keep out Dele Alli's dipping drive from distance.

Spurs threatened to run riot but the Spaniard came to his side's rescue again shortly before the break when he denied Kane with his foot. 

The second period began in the same way as the first as Spurs moved 2-0 ahead with their first attack.
Eriksen's sublime free-kick from wide on the left was met by Kane, who stole in ahead of Chris Smalling to flick the ball home from six yards.

Kane flashed an effort inches wide moments later before Martial did the same for United after he had linked up well with Mata.

United continued to press and finally got a foothold in the game with 20 minutes to play.
Martial was the Reds most promising outlet going forward and made an impact again when his run and resultant cross picked out Rooney who couldn't miss from two yards to give United hope. 

Phil Jones cleared off the line from Alli after an exchange of passes with Kane as Spurs to establish their two-goal advantage once more.
United substitute Marcus Rashford then had a chance to salvage a point, but blasted wide when clean through under pressure from a posse of Spurs defenders.

That proved to be the last action, as the emotional Spurs fans stormed the pitch at full-time to celebrate the end of the White Hart Lane era. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea

Saturday 13 May 2017

Match preview: Spurs v United

Fresh from their progress to the Europa League final, United are back in north London for a last ever visit to White Hart Lane.

Spurs will play at Wembley next season while their new £700 million ground is being redeveloped. 
Just as we did at Upton Park, United will have the honour of being the home side's last ever opponents before their move to the new stadium for the 2018 - 19 season. 

Mauricio Pochettino's side hold a seven point lead over third-place Liverpool and boast one of the strongest home records in the country - with a club record run of 13 successive league wins at the Lane. 
Should they avoid defeat against United, it would create another slice of history as their first ever unbeaten home league season. 

That has seen them mount another title challenge as Chelsea's closest challengers, but those hopes were extinguished with a surprise 1-0 loss at West Ham last time out.
Chelsea sealed the deal on Friday but Spurs can take solace by the fact that they will finish above fierce local rivals Arsenal for the first time in 21 years following their recent derby win. 

Attentions have turned to the European final on May 24 and Jose again looks likely to rotate the team with several key men rested.
Zlatan, Marcos Rojo, Tim Fosu - Mensah, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw are all out for the rest of the season, but Eric Bailly could feature.
The Ivorian will be available for United's three remaining league games after his sending off against Celta and Marouane Fellaini will serve the final game of his three-match domestic suspension. 
Axel Tuanzebe is again an option and Juan Mata could also return having remained on the bench in Europe. 

Spurs remain without long-term absentees Harry Winks and Erik Lamela but Danny Rose could return after four months out with knee ligament damage. 

On his side's league run-in, Jose said: "I approach these games the same, I have to give some players minutes as there are only 15 players.
"In the league we can only finish fifth and sixth, I don't think we can finish fourth and we can win a trophy so that is what we are focusing on.
"We want to give a difficult match for our opponents, we are going to try and play to win but there is one match that is more important than these others.
"But we are not going to say that the match on Sunday is not important."

Form guide: Tottenham W W L W W L United W D D W L D 
Match odds: Tottenham 1/4 Draw 7/10 United 14/5
Referee: Jon Moss (County Durham) 

Fellaini rises to the occasion to influence another semi final

Marouane Fellaini has a habit of turning from villain to hero for United and did so again on Thursday.

His uneasy relationship with the Old Trafford fanbase was stretched to breaking point once more following his senseless sending off against Manchester City two weeks ago. 
Sergio Aguero made a meal of the contact, but it was hard to find reasoning and mitigation for Fellaini ducking his head into the Argentinian.

It is for this kind of brainless incident that explains why Fellaini remains a hugely divisive figure and may forever remain that way. 

Back in December, Jose was forced to leap to the Belgian's defence again after he clumsily conceded a penalty at Everton four minutes after coming on.
United squandered two vital points and Fellaini was booed by sections of the crowd when he came on against Tottenham the following week.

Fellaini remains a exasperating mystery of contradictions. His clumsiness and heavy handed approach is baffling and at times nasty - yet three United managers have trusted him and there can be no denying his importance in this side. 
Indeed, there is still the sense that he remains an unsophisticated Plan B, the shambolic transfer strategy of David Moyes, and the epitome of the floundering post-Sir Alex regime. 

Jose started Fellaini in the first five league matches of the season, before Ander Herrera became the regular man in the deeper midfield role.
Yet the Belgian has fought back into the reckoning, operating higher up the pitch and offering an outlet, a physical presence and a goalscoring threat.
Mourinho has been impressed by Fellaini's work rate and willingness, and he continues to grow in stature and credibility as a United player. 

Fellaini has a knack of influencing important matches for the team and rose to the occasion once more against Celta Vigo.
He scored in a Manchester derby under Louis van Gaal and his 17th-minute header against the Spanish side was his fourth of the season and third in semi finals.

He scored the opener in United's 2-1 FA Cup win over Everton at Wembley last term as United went on to lift the trophy, and played a pivotal part in Juan Mata's leveller in the final with Palace.

Fellaini scored the crucial, tie-settling second at Old Trafford in January's EFL Cup semi final tie with Hull and was at it again on Thursday.

His far-post header, which has become something of a trademark, made the decisive difference as United were left frantically clinging to that goal in the dying moments. 

Fellaini deserves credit for turning his Old Trafford career around, if only he can cut out his stupid and reckless off-the-ball errors. 

Friday 12 May 2017

United look to complete the set in seventh European final

United completed the job against Celta Vigo to set up a seventh European final and first for six years.

We've won four of our previous six finals, with the two defeats coming against the all conquering Barcelona juggernaut in 2009 and 2011.

The UEFA Cup/Europa League remains the one missing piece of the Old Trafford jigsaw. 

In recent seasons, and bearing in mind United's rich history in the European Cup/Champions league, winning Europe's second rate tournament would be considered an unwanted honour.

Now it is considered a must win as the Reds look to complete the set of European honours and become only the fifth club side to win all three major UEFA club competitions.

Incidentally, the other four are Champions League finalists Juventus, Bayern Munich, Premier League champions Chelsea and our opponents in this final, Ajax. 

Sir Alex led United to Cup Winners Cup glory in 1991, as two Mark Hughes goals beat Barcelona on that famous night in Rotterdam.
Two more glorious triumphs were to follow as Ferguson built two more swashbuckling sides to deliver the treble in 1999 and a league and European double in 2008.

Then came those two crushing defeats in those showpieces, the latter of which was described by Ferguson as the toughest of his career.

A controversial refereeing decision robbed him and the team of one final stab at European glory, as Nani's red card scuppered what had looked to be a perfect tactical victory over Real Madrid in his last season. 

David Moyes took United into the quarter finals, but we failed to get out of the group last season under LVG in a third placed finish - an unpalatable campaign that ended with a Europa League KO against Liverpool. 

Expectations were high that Jose Mourinho would bring an end to the malaise that has bogged the club down since Sir Alex's retirement in 2013.

United have finished seventh, fourth and fifth in the three campaigns since, and Mourinho arrived with loftier ambitions than simply scraping another top four finish.

He's already become the first United boss to win silverware during his debut season with the EFL Cup success, and as our league form faltered, winning the Europa League quickly became the priority.
It was a bold if understandable decision but one that will only be justified with victory in Stockholm on 24 May. 

Despite a number of underwhelming performances, particularly at home, there is a feeling that United are definitely moving forward under Mourinho.

To prove that the club are, finally, showing positive signs of life after Fergie, we must complete the job and bring home that trophy from Stockholm. 

One last European hurdle left as Ajax await

United's European campaign continued into an eighth month and fifteenth match which represents the most significant hurdle of all - a make or break Europa League final. 

Waiting for us there are Dutch giants Ajax, who saw off a spirited fightback from strongly fancied Lyon in the semi final. 

Peter Bosz's side edged through 5-4 on aggregate, and their enterprising, vibrant young side have taken this season's competition by storm.
The Stockholm showpiece pits the most successful clubs in their respective countries together, as United and Ajax boast an astonishing 53 top flight titles between them. 

Alongside their 33 domestic league successes, the Amsterdam outfit have won 18 Dutch Cups, four European Cups/Champions Leagues (the last in 1995) and, unlike us, a UEFA Cup. 
A fitting final with, as Jose put it, two "monster clubs" on a collision course with the prestigious silverware - and a coveted return to Europe's top table - at stake. 

Winning the Europa League has become Jose's priority as he looks to steer the team back into the Champions League having missed out in two of the last three seasons. 
Glory in the competition will be the yardstick to determine whether the Portuguese's first season in charge has been one of success or another post-Ferguson campaign of disappointing underachievement. 

United will certainly have age and experience on their side in the final, with the average age of the Ajax squad a mere 21 with only two players over 30 in their ranks.
That could work to our advantage and prove the decisive factor, with the uncertainty over how their young players will react to playing on the big stage.

They could freeze or be overawed but, on the other hand, all the pressure will be on us, so Ajax could play with freedom and without fear.
United's European sojourn will finish as it began, against Dutch opposition.

This time though, we'll need a better result as Feyenoord ran out 1-0 winners on that occasion.
Having come through a tricky group, we've got past Saint-Etienne (4-0 aggregate), Rostov (2-1), Anderlecht with extra time needed (3-2) and that narrow, nervy win over Celta Vigo.

Ajax have also endured a campaign of fluctuating fortunes, with their unbeaten home record offset by indifferent away form with three defeats from their four knockout ties on the road.

Like United, they needed extra-time to eventually see off Schalke, with two away goals deep into extra-time enough to set up that tie with Lyon.

Daley Blind is likely to play for us in the final, and also featured the last time we played Ajax in this competition - in 2012, under Sir Alex at the last 32 stage (we won the two legged tie 3-2). 

United revert to type but are into the final - just

This was a typically familiar United, holding on, making it hard and squeaking - by inches - over the line and into the final.

It was functional, fraught and not flashy but United, as they've done so often, diced with death and just about did enough to get the job done and set up a final with Ajax.
On this evidence, though, the performance levels will need to be much improved to overcome Peter Bosz's vibrant and energetic young side in Stockholm. 

The most explosive moment of the night came during the late melee that led to Eric Bailly's sending off and subsequent suspension for the final.

Some are questioning Mourinho's suitability at the club when it should not be forgotten that Sir Alex regularly embraced pragmatism.

Nine years ago, on the way to a league and European double with a team considered his finest, United's brave and resilient rearguard clung on against a daunting and vastly superior Barcelona side (having settled for a goalless draw in the first leg). 

Jose and Ferguson are both capable of mixing things up and it's this adaptability that sets them apart from many of their managerial peers. 

Jose reverted to type against Celta but yet could still end the season with two trophies and coveted Champions League qualification, a campaign that would have to be considered a success. 
But when we deploy grit over guile and resilience over ruthlessness against a mid-table Spanish side - albeit one that have beaten Barca and Real this term - with a team worth almost £200 million, then there is something fundamentally flawed.

United edged past Rostov in regulation time and needed an extra 30 minutes to see off Anderlecht last time.
Indeed, none of the knockout wins in Europe, with the exception of Saint Etienne, have come by more than one goal and that hardly resembles the potent and free-scoring form of potential Europa League winners. 

As we've seen so often this season, the players seemed gripped by fatigue and nervous anxiety in the last 20 minutes as Celta swarmed forward.
Mourinho could be seen frantically waving his side up the pitch, a sign that he had not intended for us to sit deep and invite pressure. 
He was noticed instructing Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to offer more going forward and Marcus Rashford to stay up top as United sat deeper.

That suggests that the reticence does not come from the touchline but that there's a psychological cautious instinct - maybe even fear -  holding the players back. 

At this stage of the season, results are all that matter and United need to banish any mental demons with one more big hurdle to overcome in Stockholm. 

Match report: United 1-1 Celta Vigo (Agg: 2-1)

United survived a frantic finale and a late scare to edge through to the Europa League final on a nervous night at Old Trafford.

Marouane Fellaini's 17th minute header opened up a seemingly comfortable two-goal aggregate lead, but Facundo Roncaglia's 85th-minute leveller left Celta needing one goal to progress.

The centre-back was then sent off in a scuffle with opposite number Eric Bailly - who was also dismissed and will now miss the Stockholm showpiece against Ajax.

The real drama was yet to come, however, when Celta almost snatched victory with the final play of the game. 
Former City reject John Guidetti miskicked six yards out with the goal gaping after substitute Claudio Beauvue - who was well-placed to shoot himself - had instead opted to pick him out. 

Despite the Reds 100% European home record, Celta started strongly as ex Liverpool man Iago Aspas forced Sergio Romero into a good early save.

A brilliant piece of skill from Paul Pogba almost sent Marcus Rashford clear, but United made the breakthrough they needed on 17 minutes.

Having settled the first leg in Spain, Rashford was again involved as his world-class cross to the back post picked out Fellaini to power in, although goalkeeper Alvarez probably should have done better. 

United could have doubled the lead soon afterwards as Rashford burst clear but, this time, he was thwarted by a superb lunging challenge.

Daniel Wass went close with a header and Hugo Mallo flashed a shot across goal as Eduardo Berizzo's side raised their tempo and intensity. 

Alvarez saved well from Rashford and Fellaini in quick succession, before Guidetti missed the first of many good chances when he headed wastefully wide.
Romero saved well from Aspas and and substitute Jozabed went close from distance as Celta began to gain the upper hand. 

United have made a habit of making things hard for themselves in Europe this season and did so again when Roncaglia glanced home his header from a Pablo Hernandez cross. 

That left the visitors requiring only one more to go through on the away goals rule, and tempers flared with the goalscorer and Bailly both sent off in a fiery flashpoint.

Exactly what happened was difficult to see in a melee of players, but Antonio Valenca was also fortunate to escape censure after he clashed with Guidetti.

The former City man endured an eventful night and his misfortune was encapsulated deep into added time. 

Celta hoiked the ball up to Beauvue, he spurned a glaring opening to shoot and Guidetti followed up with a hopelessly wayward finish.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful man of the Match: Marouane Fellaini

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Match preview: United v Celta Vigo (Agg: 1-0)

United are within touching distance of a seventh major European final after last week's narrow 1-0 win in Galicia.

The Reds hopes of Champions League qualification via the league look over, so it's all or nothing in Europe now ahead of this season defining semi-final. 

Marcus Rashford's superb set piece separates the sides and, despite the challenge of a strong Celta Vigo side, the Reds remain firm favourites to progress to the final.

Eduardo Berizzo's out-of-form team have lost their last five in all competitions, and United, in stark contrast to our indifferent home league form, boast an imposing 100% Old Trafford European record this term.
Sitting comfortably in mid-table in La Liga, Celta have never reached a European final and, like United, have been resting players in preparation for this tie. 

With the Reds bidding to win the only major trophy missing from the club's collection,  and claim the Champions League place that comes with victory, Ajax look set to provide the opposition on 24 May.
The Dutch giants hold a commanding 4-1 lead over Lyon in the other last four tie and barring a very unlikely turnaround, will progress to the Stockholm showpiece. 

Jose Mourinho will restore several of the side's key men, having rotated his side at Arsenal in preparation for this one.
Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia and Rashford are all likely to return having been rested on Sunday, and Marouane Fellaini is also available.

Ashley Young became United's latest injury casualty when he limped off with a hamstring tear in the first leg shortly after coming on.
He is likely to miss the rest of the campaign and joins Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Tim Fosu - Mensah and Luke Shaw on the sidelines. 

Mourinho said that his decision to prioritise Europe over league duties was common sense and the only way to manage United's hectic fixture list.
He said: "It is not a gamble, seventeen matches in six weeks with 16 players is impossible. 
"It was a simple decision, the Europa League is a trophy and that is what we want, not to finish fourth or fifth so it is the only way.
"It's a decision with common sense, we are giving everything so it is no problem.
"For Celta it is the most important match they will ever play, and for us a European final would be beautiful.
"It doesn't matter what happened before, what's important is what happens next." 

Form guide: United W W D D W L Celta Vigo D L L L L L 
Match odds: United 15/8 Draw 10/3 Celta Vigo 33/1 
Referee: Romanian ref Ovidiu Hategan is the man in the middle

Sunday 7 May 2017

Welbeck proves point as Arsenal gun down United

Danny Welbeck loves scoring against United - his header on Sunday was his third in four appearances against his former club.

Sold by Louis van Gaal in 2014 after 13 years at his boyhood club, Welbeck is now showing United what they're missing and proving a point.

When at United, Welbeck earned a reputation as the Reds 'big game' player and became highly valued by Sir Alex.
Best remembered for his performances in the 2013 Champions League tie with Real Madrid, his pace, work rate and intelligence often saw him utilised as a tireless winger to pin the opposition back.
Even though now he's a dangerous presence for a major rival, Welbeck remains loved and respected by many at Old Trafford. 

Van Gaal sold him because he was not prolific enough so it's ironic that, since being shipped out, he's come back to haunt the Reds on three occasions.

Welbeck proved the Gunners match winner as he put paid to our hopes of silverware on his first return to Old Trafford.
His decisive goal knocked United out of the FA Cup at the last eight stage in the Dutchman's maiden season at the helm.

He was at it again in the next campaign, albeit in a losing cause this time as his predatory strike was not enough to prevent a 3-2 defeat (Welbeck notched Arsenal's opener). 
That goal was overshadowed by Marcus Rashford's breathtaking brace as he launched his league career in style.

Welbeck took centre stage again on Sunday as he rose above Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to power home an unstoppable header.
His Arsenal career has been blighted by two career threatening knee-injuries, the latest of which ruled him out for nine months but he remains a vital part of Arsene Wenger's plans at the Emirates.

Jose Mourinho admitted that Welbeck, along with Angel Di Maria and Javier Hernandez, would not have been sold had he been in charge at the time.

It would be interesting to see where Welbeck - who boasts an impressive 14 goals in 34 games for England - would fit in now had he remained at the club.

Would Marcus Rashford have enjoyed the same rapid rise to fame that he has done with the presence of the Longsight lad in the squad? 
Of course, Welbeck could have dovetailed alongside Rashford and Jesse Lingard in an all homegrown, entirely Mancunian front three.

But then we may not have needed to sign Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan and this season may have panned out very differently.