Monday 26 February 2018

Great Scott! McTominay impresses in coming of age performance

McTominay got the better of Eden Hazard throughout
For a manager who apparently doesn't like youth, it looks as though Jose and United have unearthed a gem. Scott McTominay was handed his first-team bow at the back end of last season as Mourinho took the opportunity to try his young talent with the senior stars rested for the Europa League final. But the 21-year-old, who has been at Old Trafford since he was five, has enjoyed a breakthrough season in his first full campaign.
 Ander Herrera, given the job of shackling Chelsea's star man Eden Hazard throughout last season's tie, was absent this time around. McTominay, deployed alongside Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in a midfield three, appeared to be given a similar job this time around.
The talented if tempermental Belgian was forced to the fringes at Old Trafford again, so much so that Antonio Conte took him off on 73 minutes with the tie poised on a knife edge in an attempt to wrest back control of the contest. Nine months ago McTominay was a nondescript midfielder for United's underwhelming Under-23 side, but such has been his meteoric rise that he's now starting in Champions League knockout games and heavyweight top six tussles - the former at the expense of Paul Pogba.

Romelu Lukaku's best game in a United shirt rightly earned him the man of the match award, but McTominay wasn't far behind. Alongside Pogba and the immense Nemanja Matic, this was a coming of age performance that belied McTominay's tender years and showed why he's regarded so highly by his boss. Many fans seems indifferent over McTominay, but many clubs have a player who their manager sees something which is not always apparent to others - Darren Fletcher is a prime example of a player who was criminally under-rated.

He wasn't phased by the high-profile fixture, or the fact that he was in direct competition with N'golo Kante - widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in Europe. True, McTominay was at fault for the opener when he lost Willian as Chelsea broke forward, but he showed character and quality to recover from that mistake. As a young player, when you make an error like that in such an important tie it can sit with you for a while, but it speaks volumes of McTominay that he did not allow that to happen.
Instead, he came out for the second half and - along with Matic - gained control of midfield. He also began the move that led to Jesse Lingard's headed winner.

Of course you have to be careful with a young player, as many have broken through at United before fading into obscurity. We've seen it so many times before, Tom Cleverley and Federico Macheda to name but two examples. But whereas those two gradually regressed, McTominay has made 18 appearances this season and seems to be getting better and better. For all the talk of Toni Kroos as a replacement for the soon-to-be-retired Michael Carrick, McTominay looks his natural successor. He's calm and composed in possession, has an adept range of passing, his distribution is good and he's forward thinking - he's got all the attributes that made Carra such a key cog when at the peak of his powers. If he turns out to be as good as Carrick has been for us, then McTominay will have done very well.

Mourinho beats Conte again as United rise to the occasion

As with this corresponding tie from last season, few gave United a chance of victory but Jose Mourinho pulled off another tactical masterstroke when it mattered. His counterpart Antonio Conte took off star man Eden Hazard with 17 minutes to go and the tie finely poised. It sent out the message that he had settled for the draw and added further fuel to the fire that the Italian is a man whose Stamford Bridge days are numbered. His jack-in-the-box antics may remain, but Conte looks a shadow of the manager who steered his team to title dominance in his first Premier League season last term.

Jose got the better of his rival again but the pair seemed amicable
Jose, though, showed why his tactical acumen remains renowned throughout world football. Eyebrows were raised in this fixture in April when he named a United side without talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But the Reds, deployed in a 3-5-2 formation that day, stunned the champions elect with a display of pace, power and tactical brilliance in what was then our best performance under the Portuguese. There have been many since, and this was another memorable day at the office. United were not quite as good this time as we were then, but then we didn’t need to be.
Chelsea have not been the all-conquering force that stormed to the title either. Jose got his tactics absolutely spot on, but in contrast Conte’s were questionable at the very least.
 Apart from his role in Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser, Anthony Martial had endured a frustrating day at the office. The Frenchman is a match winner when on top form, but he got little joy out of Cesar Azpilicueta, widely regarded as one of the league’s best defenders. Martial was doubled up on and had one of his quietest days for a while. When Mourinho replaced him with Jesse Lingard - who was unlucky not to have started the tie - shortly after the hour mark, the intent was clear. The substitution of Lingard for Martial proved another Mourinho masterstroke.
 Having played such a pivotal part in that 2-0 win in tandem with young colleague Marcus Rashford, Lingard’s contribution again proved decisive. He headed the winner - his 13th goal of his best United season so far - but more than that his overall impact helped the Reds to turn the tide. His pace, movement and intelligence to drift into space gave United an extra dimension, one that Chelsea could not cope with having shackled Martial successfully. Lingard may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there can be no doubt over his ability as a player in the form of his life. He’s got to be first choice for England in Russia.

All the talk in the build-up to this tie surrounded the situation with Paul Pogba, the Frenchman having been left out of Wednesday’s Champions League match amid speculation on his future. He started against Chelsea and showed glimpses of his best form, but it was Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay alongside him who caught the eye in United’s 4-3-3 system. Matic looked back to his metronomic level against his former side, and the two eventually got the better of Chelsea’s star duo Willian and Eden Hazard after the visitors had dictated things early on. Matic and McTominay - in a coming of age performance - seized control of the midfield battle that so often proves crucial, just as we saw in this fixture last year with Ander Herrera's magnificent, lung-busting performance. Between them, the pair did not allow Chelsea to gain any momentum, engaging their opposite numbers high up the pitch. That allowed us to push 20 yards further forward and go from a losing position to a winning one.
This was a day in which Jose usurped his counterpart Conte again - and it was one that showed he’s still a man who can mix it with the best.

Sunday 25 February 2018

United's character and spirit seals biggest result of our season

What a massive win that was. Not only did it open up a six point gap to Chelsea and the chasing pack, but it put us back up to second and was undoubtedly our biggest and most important result of the season.
Things didn't look too clever when Willian put Chelsea ahead shortly after the half hour mark with Antonio Conte's side having started superbly. Our poor record against the west London side - coupled with the Reds waning powers of recovery - and you could see why many of us were worried. Only four times under Jose have we turned a losing position into a win: against Middlesbrough on New Year's Eve last season, in an FA Cup tie at Blackburn a couple of months later, this season's home tie with Newcastle and the visit of CSKA Moscow to Old Trafford - all were won after falling 1-0 down. A far cry from a team who once prided ourselves on snatching improbable victories from the very jaws of defeat, but there were glimpses of that spirit here. 

To come from behind against any team is always a test of credentials, but especially so against a side with the quality and talent of Antonio Conte's men. The Chelsea of last season would probably have closed this out, but United seized on the visitors lingering vulnerability and, in the end, there can have no complaints about the result. The Blues looked stronger in the first half as United struggled to get a foothold but - galvanised by the timely leveller five minutes before the break - we were on the front foot after the break. There have been critics aplenty for the team in recent weeks, but United showed immense character and courage to fight back for a win that's massive in the context of our season.  Chelsea may be a shadow of the side that romped to the title last season, but they are still an excellent team. Beating them might not be as special as getting one over on City or Liverpool, but it still leaves you with a lovely feeling.

Romelu Lukaku was man of the match for an absolutely magnificent performance in which the striker was at his best - he scored the equaliser, set up the winner, almost scored a goal of the season contender and proved a constant menace throughout with his blistering pace, power and strength. The moment that typified Lukaku's day came in the dying minutes with Chelsea pressing. He won the ball on the edge of his own box, turned his marker and burst forward, leaving five Chelsea defenders for dead. It may not have ended in a goal, but his driving run got us up the pitch and helped us run the clock down. Lukaku has often been criticised for his performances in the biggest ties, but here he played with a point to prove against his former side. It was his best game in the red of United to date. He rose to the occasion and swung the match in our favour in a way that opposite number Alvaro Morata - who we nearly signed instead - could not.

 This was a day that proved Jose's oft-talked about and much maligned methods can still get the job done in these big ties - something that has been a concern.
Not only was this a welcome win in one of the league's most high profile fixtures against a difficult opponent, but we also moved back above that lot from down the East Lancs Road - and that's always something to shout about. Get in there!

Match report: United 2-1 Chelsea

Jesse Lingard stepped off the bench and headed the winner as United came from behind to sink the champions and reclaim second spot in the table. The in-form Willian had put Chelsea ahead at the culmination of a superb counter-attack in the first half, before Romelu Lukaku levelled and substitute Lingard completed the turnaround in the 75th minute.

The result saw United re-establish our six point lead over Antonio Conte's side, and also saw us leapfrog back above Liverpool who had briefly moved second after their 4-1 win against West Ham on Saturday. It was Chelsea who started brightly, however, as they stroked the ball around with ease and pinned United back, with the Reds forced on to the back foot in the early exchanges. The visitors almost went ahead inside five minutes when Marcos Alonso picked out the returning Alvaro Morata, who volleyed against the bar, before David de Gea saved superbly from Eden Hazard on the rebound.

Just when it looked as though the Reds had started to find a foothold, Chelsea showed their quality with a wonderful counter-attacking goal. It came from the edge of our own box when Willian collected the ball and surged forward. The brilliant Brazilian played a neat one-two with Hazard, raced onto the Belgian's return pass and slotted the ball beyond De Gea - who probably could have done better at his near post - for his fourth goal in three games.

United found clear cut chances hard to come by but continued to persevere and we got our rewards five minutes shy of the interval. Lukaku's persistence paid off as his hold up play released Nemanja Matic, whom in turn slipped the ball to Alexis Sanchez. The ball was moved on to Lukaku via Anthony Martial and the Belgian made no mistake against his former side, with an unerring finish beyond Thibaut Courtois for his 22nd goal of the season.
Despite the boost of the leveller, the second half continued in a similar manner as Chelsea looked the more likely. Morata had an effort blocked after another surging run by Willian, and then there were hearts in mouths when De Gea uncharacteristically spilt Danny Drinkwater's drive from distance, but United recovered to clear.

Lukaku then almost put United ahead in spectacular fashion on 67 minutes, when his acrobatic scissor-kick volley was tipped over the top by Courtois. Jose introduced Lingard in place of the largely peripheral Martial, and the change reaped dividends when Lukaku - magnificent throughout - picked out the onrushing sub who ghosted in unmarked to steer home his header from close range with 15 minutes to go.

Morata had a goal chalked out for offside as Chelsea hunted an equaliser but the Reds held out despite four added minutes to complete a superb comeback win.

 Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match:  Honourable mentions to Messrs Matic and McTominay, but we've got to give this to Romelu Lukaku. Scored one, set up the winner and proved a constant menace throughout in probably his best game in United Red. Immense.

Saturday 24 February 2018

Match preview: United v Chelsea

It's second vs fourth at Old Trafford as United welcome the fading champions to Old Trafford after three successive away games in which the Reds endured mixed fortunes across three different competitions. We lost out to Newcastle in a tightly contested encounter, before the FA Cup win over Huddersfield followed by the goalless draw in Sevilla. This is a high profile clash with intruige and sub-plots aplenty, and all eyes will be focused on the touchline battle.

Jose and his combustible counterpart Antonio Conte have never got on that well, but their feuding hit acrimonious - and very public - heights in a war of words back in January. Given the volatile Conte's jack-in-the-box antics at the best of times, it could be a powderkeg situation. Jose, of course, got one over his former team the last time we met them at home, when he pulled off a tactical masterpiece to trump champions-elect Chelsea in April's 2-0 win. The Blues have a pyschological hold over United in west London, but they've only won once in their last seven visits to OT. Chelsea come into this one after a superb European display went unrewarded on Tuesday as Barcelona claimed the advantage in the Champions League through Lionel Messi's away goal after in-form Brazilian Willian had put them ahead in the second half.

The Reds were without Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Sevilla, but both Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford made their returns as substitutes in midweek. Ander Herrera - who played such a pivotal role in the corresponding fixture last season - is set for a spell on the sidelines with a muscular injury. Eric Bailly could make his 50th appearance for the club on his return having not started since the trip to the Bridge on 5 November. For Chelsea, David Luiz, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley are all out, but striker Alvaro Morata is available again. 
Jose played down the fact he faces his former club in this one, and said: "To play against Chelsea means less and less over the years, I left already a couple of years ago, and next season three years ago and the year later four years ago. The real meaning of it is that it's two of the best sides in England and two of the biggest clubs in the country playing one more match. That's it - the feeling of "I was once their manager" is disappearing step-by-step. This is always a big game, many times these were matches for the title and this time I think us and them would agree that is not the case. But we both play for the top four and it is always important regardless of what's at stake - last season they were fighting for the title, we weren't even in the top four but we saw what it meant when we won that match."

Form guide: United W L W L W D Chelsea W L L W W D 
Match odds: United 5/4 Draw 11/5 Chelsea 9/4
Referee: Martin Atkinson (Bradford)


Thursday 22 February 2018

No away goal but United favourites with tie on a knife edge

United's first Champions League knockout tie for four years is not one that will live long in the memory. The performance wasn't bad but not great. The result - at a Sevilla side who boast an impressive record at the Ramon Sanchez Pijuan - is one you would settle for all day long.

True, the lack of an away goal makes things a little bit harder than they could have been, and means that there's no margin for error in the return leg back at Old Trafford on 13 March.
 But United have won 15 out of 18 ties at home this season, with City, Burnley and Southampton the only sides to get anything. The tie remains on a knife edge, but Jose and the team are definitely favourites back in Manchester - especially when you consider that Vincenzo Montella's side have lost nine times on the road this season, in stark contrast to that form in Andalucia of one defeat in almost 40 games.

I've heard some United fans say that such is the strange dynamic of a two-legged European tie they'd rather have taken a 2-1 defeat rather than going to OT with a blank slate. The psychological impact of an away goal lingers favourably and conceding at home does not dramatically alter the hosts' aggregate objective. Personally, though, I don't buy that. The truth is, you never really truly know what constitutes a good result until after the second game. If we go through, Jose will claim that his approach here was justified. If we go out, though, questions will be asked and the critical lynch job will be out in force for the boss. It's a double edged sword but ultimately time will tell. Sevilla played on the front foot here, as you would expect them to do being at home and had 25 shots on goal, but it's hard to envisage the visitors creating too much at OT, given their aforementioned travel sickness and United's miserly defence.

This was a performance straight out of the Jose Mourinho copybook. A tight, tense, tactical battle that sometimes more resembled a chess match than a Champions League round of 16 tie. No quarter given, with the emphasis on sitting deep, stifling the opposition and looking to nick a goal on the counter. Not pretty and it might not be what everyone wants to see but there can be no denying that it's very effective. The guy has won two Champions League titles using the exact same blueprint and ask yourself this - if, and admittedly it's a big 'if', we go on to win a fourth European Cup come May, will anyone really care how we did it. Roberto di Matteo used the same formula when in charge of Chelsea's maiden win in the competition back in 2012. If we'd got that goal when the match opened up in the closing stages, this would have been a perfect smash-and-grab away performance.
No further forward to knowing whether we'll be in the quarter finals, but we've done the hard bit and now our aim is simple - to finish the job.

Match report: Sevilla 0-0 United

United were repeatedly indebted to David de Gea's heroics as the Reds secured a hard fought away draw in Andalucia, albeit without the precious commodity of an away goal. The trip to Ramon Sanchez Pijuan always looked a daunting assignment for the team, and so it proved, but there's no doubt that we'll be the happier of the two sides ahead of the return tie at Old Trafford on 13th March. Sevilla have lost only once at home since November 2016, so the Reds will be content with a job well done.

De Gea's stunning one-handed stop from Luis Muriel proved a contender for save of the season, and he also denied Joaquin Correa and Steven N'Zonzi as despite their pressure and territory, Sevilla were unable to take advantage. 

United - playing our first Champions League knockout tie for four years - were restricted to efforts on the counter attack. Romelu Lukaku volleyed wide early on, and substitute Marcus Rashford went close with two efforts in quick succession in the closing stages. Once more, it was the absence of Paul Pogba from the starting line-up that dominated the pre-match build up, but the Frenchman was pressed into service earlier than anyone expected when he replaced the injured Ander Herrera inside 20 minutes. It looked as though Jose would have to use two subs before the break, when Alexis Sanchez was hacked down by N'Zonzi, but the Chilean escaped serious injury with N'Zonzi deservedly booked.

Scott McTominay, impressive throughout, went close from distance but Sevilla edged the opening half and the hosts soon burst into life with DDG forced to underline his status as the best keeper on the planet. He twice denied Correa - with a deflected effort and a 20 yarder - before remarkable reflexes kept out point blank range headers from N'Zonzi and Muriel. The latter prompted the Colombian striker to congratulate De Gea as he went down the tunnel at the break. Sevilla began the second half in the ascendancy, but failed to trouble De Gea again as United impressively held firm. Centre-back Clement Lenglet fired weakly at DDG, but the Reds began to exert control as the tie opened up.

Pogba shot wide as Jose went in search of the pivotal away goal with introduction of the pace and trickery of Anthony Martial and the fit-again Marcus Rashford. Lukaku then looked to have completed the ultimate smash-and-grab raid when he slammed home an excellent finish on the turn, but the goal was ruled out after a handball from the Belgian in the build-up. Rashford then flashed a shot into the side netting and went close from a set-piece, but the goal never came which means the sides head back to OT with the last 16 tie still on a knife edge.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea. Who else. Magnificent and the world's best keeper by a mile.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Match preview: Sevilla v United

United will welcome four players back into the fold as we head to Andalucia for a first ever competitive meeting with Vincenzo Montella's dangerous Sevilla side. Marcus Rashford, Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia and Paul Pogba all missed the FA Cup win at Huddersfield, but the quartet are expected to feature in the first leg of this daunting tie at the Ramon Sanchez Pijuan. Eric Bailly, fresh from his (very) late cameo against the Terriers, could make his 50th appearance for the club. However Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are sidelined. This is United's first knockout tie in Europe's elite competition since 2013, with the return leg to be played at Old Trafford on 13 March.

The bar has been set high by the other English team in the last 16, with resounding wins for Liverpool and Manchester City - 5-0 at Porto and 4-0 in Basel respectively - and creditable draws for Tottenham and Chelsea with heavyweight duo Juventus and Barcelona. Your move United.... In form Sevilla, however, represent a significant step up in quality from anything we've faced so far in this tournament, with the five time UEFA Cup/Europa League winners targeting a  spot in the last eight for only the second time ever. More famously known for their impressive expoits in Europe's second tier tournament, this is their sixth Champions League season. Spearheaded by 17-goal top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder and string-puller in chief Ever Banega,  Montella's Sevilla boast grit and guile in equal measure, with metronomic midfielder Steven N'Zonzi  and ex City man Jesus Navas a familiar presence to English fans.

Banega, Joaquin Correa and club record signing Luis Muriel are all expected to be fit after suffering minor knocks, but right-back Sebastien Corchia is doubtful. The side from southern Spain won the Europa League in three successive seasons - deposed by United last term - have endured a transitional season during which they've been inconsistent. They've reached the Copa del Rey final but sit fifth in La Liga. 
Jose said: "I normally say that the Champions League dreams start around the quarter-finals, not yet in the last 16. Last 16 looks a long way to go but when a team reaches the last eight, I think it's the moment when even the teams who are not favourites - which is our case - start realising that anything is possible.
"For the moment, we have to focus on the very difficult opponent that we have, Sevilla, and the first match of this  two-legged knockout tie. It does not decide anything but is very important."

The Reds have never faced the side from Andalusia in a competitive game before - they will therefore become our 220th official opponents. We have, however, faced the Spanish side in a couple of Old Trafford friendlies - in Rio Ferdinand's testimonial (1-3) and a 3-0 win against the then UEFA Cup holders in 2006 also at OT.  

Form guide: Sevilla D D L W W W United W W L W L W 
Match odds: Sevilla 11/5 Draw 9/4 United 7/5
Referee: The wonderfully named French official Clement Turpin takes charge of his first ever United game. 

Opposition lowdown: Sevilla

It's been quite a wait since United topped our Champions League group back in December but the knockout stage is finally upon us. The Reds head to Andalucia on Wednesday for the first leg against Spanish side Sevilla in our first ever competitive meeting with Los Nervionenses. 

It will be a daunting assignment for Jose and the team against one of Europe's heavyweight powerhouses, so to ensure you're all fully clued up as to what's in store, let's take a look at the men from Nervion.

Formed in 1890, Sevilla are Spain's oldest club just dedicated merely to football, rather than being a multisports entity like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Based in the Andalucia region in the south of the country, they've won 13 major trophies as well as quartet of second-tier titles. However, they only have one La Liga success to their name, way back in 1946. After three seasons in the second tier at the end of the 1990s, the team found stability under Joaquin Caparros, who made them known as a physical, rugged side not to underestimated. His successor, former Tottenham boss Juande Ramos, created the side that became renowned across Europe as a mighty and prominent force to be reckoned with.

Despite their very impressive UEFA Cup/Europa League pedigree - including a run of three successive tournament wins in that competition under Unai Emery between 2014 and 2016 - this is only Sevilla's sixth Champions League season. The first two of those triumphs, in 2006 and 2007, were achieved by one of the most celebrated sides in the club's history, under the tutelage of Ramos with big name stars that included the likes of Dani Alves, Luis Fabiano and the late Antonio Puerta.  For the second successive campaign, having negotiated a difficult qualifying group, English opposition lie in wait in the first knockout round for Vincenzo Montella's men.  Sevilla memorably fought back from 3-0 down to earn a point at home to Liverpool on Matchday Five. They fell to Leicester City at the corresponding stage last time.This time around, though, their squad is stronger and watch out for midfield metronome Ever Banega, 14-goal top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder, club record signing Luis Muriel and string-puller in chief Steven N'Zonzi - formerly of Blackburn and Stoke. Much like Jose, Montella usually deploys a 4-2-3-1 system. Their two-legged Copa del Rey quarter-final win over Atletico Madrid showcased his tactical acumen, and Sevilla will have as much steel as silk.

This has been a season of transition and upheaval for the club - who ply their trade in the atmospheric and pictureseque surroundings of the 42,500 capacity Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Feted coach Jorge Sampaoli left in the summer to take up the reigns with his native Argentina. Replaced by compatriot Eduardo Berizzo, his pre-Christmas sacking looked a harsh one, and the club then appointed ex-Roma and Milan boss Montella for his first job outside of Italy. Currently in fifth place in La Liga, Sevilla sit six points adrift of the top four with 14 to play as they bid to return to Europe's elite for next season.

This will be a very tough examination of United's credentials as Sevilla become our 220th official opponents in a competitive tie.

Sunday 18 February 2018

United to host Brighton with Wembley on the horizon

United beat Huddersfield 2-0 in the FA Cup fifth round to set up a home quarter final with Brighton&Hove Albion in a repeat of the 1983 showpiece. Chris Hughton's side are into the last eight for the first time in 32 years after they knocked out fourth tier side Coventry 3-1 at The Amex.

A few years ago, this would have been a dream tie for the club from the south coast but having enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top flight, it's a second Old Trafford trip of the season for the Seagulls as a Premier League team. The two sides met at OT in the league for the first time since '83 back in November in a tight contest, settled by Ashley Young's solitary strike. The return league fixture is the penultimate one of the season at the Amex in May.

But this is a fixture that will forever be synonymous with that meeting of 35 years ago, when the first Wembley match ended in a 2-2 draw, a tie famous for Gordon Smith's miss in the dying moments. United made Brighton pay in the replayed encounter five days later and eventually prevailed 4-0, with a brace from Bryan Robson added to with goals from Norman Whiteside and an Arnold Muhren penalty. 

A replay is not a possibility this time, with all ties from the quarter finals onwards to be played to a finish on the day. That means that extra-time and penalties could be needed to decide which team goes through to the last four, should things finish all square. There's also the option of a fourth substitute to be used in extra-time if needed. This is the fourth season in a row that United have got to the last eight of the world's oldest and most prestigious cup competition. The injustice of last season's quarter-final at Chelsea, when Eden Hazard's histrionics cheated us out of a shot at the semis, still lingers.

This time, there's a place at Wembley at stake for the winners with a spot in the last four up for grabs. Brighton's main priority is to secure survival in their debut Premier League season and you get the feeling that their attentions lie in the thrillingly congested relegation battle. But for United an FA Cup run is always welcome as the Reds chase a 13th title in this competition - one that would equal Arsenal's all-time record of wins in the Cup. With the Reds 16 points off the pace in pursuit of Manchester City, and a fourth European Cup crown improbable, this is a trophy that looks our most realistic chance of silverware. Elsewhere in the draw, Leicester face Chelsea in another all-Premier League tie, Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea wll play the winners of Rochdale's visit to Wembley to play Spurs, and Southampton travel to Wigan or Manchester City - who meet on Monday in a repeat of their famous 2013 final. 

 The ties take place across the weekend of 16 - 19 March. 

Match report: Huddersfield Town 0-2 United

A Romelu Lukaku double set up a last eight tie at home to Brighton as United reached the FA Cup quarter-finals for a fourth successive season with a second win over Huddersfield in as many weeks.
The Reds had beaten David Wagner's side by the same scoreline last time out at home and avenged October's defeat at the John Smith's Stadium with a comfortable victory to maintain ambitions of a record equalling 13th FA Cup win.

Lukaku put the Reds ahead inside five minutes and then added his - and the team's - second ten minutes into the second half, in a match which also saw VAR (Video Assistant Referee) take centre stage.  The technology caused confusion when Juan Mata's 'goal', initially awarded by ref Kevin Friend, was ruled out by Neil Swarbrick after a lengthy delay, with the Spaniard adjudged to be fractionally offside. 

United were ahead after only three minutes through Lukaku, who demonstrated his blistering pace, power and strength when he burst into the box, turned Christopher Schindler and thumped home an emphatic finish after lovely link-up play with Mata - the Belgian's 20th goal of a prolific season. Tom Ince went close at the other end and Huddersfield responded well to the setback, before Collin Quaner's deflected cross was tipped over the top by Sergio Romero. Rajiv van la Parra headed straight at the keeeper and Florent Hadergjonaj's low ball in was almost turned home on the stretch by the onrushing Ince.

Phillip Billing tried his luck from distance but United then seemingly moved into a strong position on the cusp of the interval - only for the technology to intervene. A surging run down the right from Ashley Young found Mata, who rounded Lossl and tucked the ball home. But Friend called for a VAR review, being used for the first time in a Reds match, and - the decision was over-ruled with Mata in an offside position. 

Despite the confusion, it ultimately did not matter as United put the result beyond any lingering doubt ten minutes after the restart with a classic counter-attack clincher. 
Lukaku started and finished the move after a Reds break from a Terriers corner, as he collected the ball on halfway, fed Alexis Sanchez, received the return pass from the Chilean and slotted  home with aplomb beyond the advancing Lossl. 

Abdelhamid Sabiri headed over as Huddersfield bravely rallied, but United's front three oozed confidence and Lukaku almost got his hat-trick, but his shot was blocked by Schindler after superb build up that involved Mata and Alexis. 

This was the first of three matches in three different competititons for the Reds which could ultimately define our season. Having assured smooth progress into the FA Cup quarters, attentions now turn to the daunting Champions League trip to Sevilla on Wednesday.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku

Friday 16 February 2018

Three important ties set to define United's season

Having suffered back-to-back away defeats for the second time this season, United's schedule only gets more intense as the team face three season-defining ties in six days, each in a different competition, before February is out. Following the losses at Tottenham and Newcastle, the Reds travel over the Pennines to Huddersfield with a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals at stake for the winners on Saturday tea time. With United 16 points off the Premier League pace, and a Champions League tilt not beyond us but highly improbable, a record equalling 13th FA Cup success looks our best remaining hope of silverware. Jose has only ever lifted the famous trophy once, with Chelsea in 2007 (ironically at the expense of United), and will attempt to guide United to the quarter-finals for a fourth successive season.

Then comes a third consecutive tie on the road - the daunting Champions League last 16 trip to Sevilla on Wednesday - before we welcome Antonio Conte's Premier League champions to Old Trafford in the league next Sunday. Conte's side may have endured an indifferent season during a campaign in which the Chelsea manager has found himself under almost permanent pressure, but they have the quality and firepower to hurt the very best and we have a poor record against the west London side. A repeat of last season's 2-0 win would be a very nice way to end the month.

 It would be foolish to write off Jose's United in Europe, with the boss bidding to become the first manager to win the competition three times with three different clubs. It will be interesting to see if the Champions League competition takes preference over domestic matters - as we saw with the Europa League campaign  - last term. Jose loves the tournament's unpredictable twists and turns, and he's bidding to become the first man to win it three times with three different clubs. But Sevilla will be a very difficult proposition and the very best that Europe can throw at us still stand in the way. It remains a gloriously unexpected opportunity, but one that's hard to envisage. Liverpool and City have set the bar high this week - albeit against sides inferior to our Spanish opponents - so United have a tough act to follow.

With so much still to play for, the Reds need to put the recent blip to the back of their minds and get back on track. Responding to a setback is a something that we've often seen in the Reds, but be wary of an unwanted record - not since the winter of discontent in 2015 have the Reds lost three successive away matches. Back then, Wolfsburg, Bournemouth and Stoke put an out-of-form United side to the sword and pushed the hapless Louis van Gaal further towards the Old Trafford exit door. With Huddersfield chasing a unique double, the Terriers of course having put the first dent in the Reds title ambitions back in October, let's hope that lightning does not, indeed, strike twice. 

 The season doesn't end in February - far from it - but the outcome from these three ties will go a long way to determine where we are at the end of it come May. Bring it on!

FA Cup preview: Huddersfield Town v United

United face the Terriers for the second time in as many weeks after two successive away defeats sandwiched by the Old Trafford win over David Wagner's side. We travel across the Pennines to the John Smith's Stadium - scene of arguably the shock of the season - for a place in the FA Cup quarter finals. Huddersfield famously inflicted our first league defeat of the season on us back in October so we have a score to settle this time. 

The 2-0 win at Old Trafford 13 days ago saw Alexis mark his home debut with a goal as United remembered Munich on an emotional afternoon. 

With a difficult Champions League away tie looming large in Sevilla on Wednesday, this is the Reds second of three consecutive fixtures on the road, and, despite the hectic schedule, United manager Jose Mourinho looks set to name a near full-strength side. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera will again both miss out through injury, as they did against Newcastle, and Marouane Fellaini remains sidelined. Eric Bailly is back in training after ankle surgery. The Ivorian has been absent since November but is fit and available for this fifth round tie, with his timely return a much needed boost at the back. Zlatan Ibrahimovic could return before the month is out. For the hosts, key man Aaron Mooy will miss the next two games, while Michael Hefele is ill, Chris Lowe and Sean Scannell are out injured and Alex Pritchard cup-tied. Alexis Sanchez is set to play for the Reds as he did not feature in Arsenal's third round exit against Nottingham Forest. 

Both sides have seen off lower league opponents to get this far as the Reds beat Championship Derby and League Two Yeovil 2-0 and 4-0 respectively. Huddersfield have overcome two second tier sides so far, but struggled in both. After a 2-1 win at relegation-threatened Bolton, they set up this visit of United with an extra-time victory over Steve Cotterill's Birmingham following a 4-1 replay win at St Andrew's. The Terriers arrested their recent slump in form against Bournemouth last time out, and have bigger things to occupy them than the FA Cup.

Jose rubbished rumours of a rift with Paul Pogba amid speculation the Frenchman is unhappy and wishes to leave United. 
The boss said: "It's a big lie that our relationship is not good, in this moment the player is not in good form but we agree with his positions and his dynamic within the team. 
"It's easy and honest to say that Paul did not play well against Newcastle and accepts that he has not be, but Paul is happy here, no problem - he plays on Saturday.
"He had a big injury, he was playing phenonemal before that and played phenomenal after that. He had a red card in his best performance against Arsenal, the team needs him at a good level, the team is not as good as the team is when he plays phenomenal. I think it happens with every team when the best players, the most crucial players for some reason are not performing." 

United are bidding for a place in the FA Cup quarter finals for the fourth season in a row as we chase a record equalling 13th success in the competition. 

 Form guide: Huddersfield Town L D L L W W United W W W L W L 
Match odds: Huddersfield Town 7/1 Draw 15/4 United 15/8 
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)

Monday 12 February 2018

Tactics and selection were wrong from the start on Tyneside

As a fan, you feel silly questioning the decisions of one of the greatest managers of our generation, if not of all time. After all,  it's not as if any of us could do any better.

But we cannot ignore the mistakes that Jose Mourinho made in United's 1-0 defeat to Newcastle. It wasn't all his fault as there was nothing he could have done to prevent Chris Smalling's catalogue of errors for Matt Ritchie's winner - but I believe there were three things that the manager got wrong. St James Park is a difficult place to go and one that always looked a tricky challege, but it was a disappointing day for the Reds. 

Firstly, having been emphatically beaten by Tottenham in our last away game, he kept faith with the same side that lost at Wembley, despite the impressive performances of Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw against Huddersfield.  I cannot understand why the both of them were not retained here, with the boss having praised Shaw for his renewed vigour in training, it seemed a strange call to drop him. It certainly won't help Shaw's confidence. Maybe it was a decision taken with Sevilla in mind, but that's not for another week and if that's the case then why just rest Shaw when it could have been any of the others.

Why Chris Smalling, and to a lesser extent Ashley Young, were recalled is hard to fathom. What message does that send out when a team that underperformed so badly barely two weeks before are sent out to do battle again in the very next away tie. It's baffling. It shows the lack of investment in the squad since 2013, especially in defence which includes six members of Sir Alex Ferguson's last team - David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Smalling, Phil Jones, Young and Michael Carrick. It may not have altered the outcome, but our defence would certainly have benefited from the presence of Rojo and Shaw in it against Rafa Benitez's side.

Mourinho's default setting of 4-2-3-1 needs to be ditched, or at least temporarily moved away from. If we're to get the best out of Paul Pogba then you can't play him in a flat midfield two. Again, Jose used that system at Wembley and it failed miserably, so there was no sense to the decision to deploy it again at St James Park. Mourinho's stubborness and faith in this system  is hugely frustrating and certainly not helping the cause.

In that system, Pogba's out of position on the wrong side of the pitch and can't do what he does so well when pushed further forward. I don't have a problem per se with the system and in certain matches it's the best formation to use. For example in Sevilla next week, a match where we'll have less possession and play on the counter, 4-2-3-1 is perfect as it gives protection to the back four and enables us to play a bit deeper and build from the back. But there's absolutely no reason why we couldn't have gone with a midfield three against Newcastle. Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini were injured, but Carrick and McTominay came on and could easily have slotted in from the start alongside Pogba. Or even if Nemanja Matic sat deep, we could have Pogba alongside Juan Mata as two number eights in a 4-3-3. Against sides where we play on the front foot, we have to play with a three which allows Pogba to dictate the play and roam with freedom. Against Newcastle, Valencia and Young didn't push up, which meant that crosses into the box were scarce and Romelu Lukaku was starved of service as a result.

 His substitutions were also questionable against Newcastle. Granted, Herrera and Marcus Rashford were both injured and that meant he didn't have a lot to fall back on. The bench consisted of three defenders, two midfielders, Sergio Romero and Mata.  It wasn't so much who he put on but who came off. Pogba may not have enjoyed his finest hour and was clearly playing with a knock, but to take off our best passer and the one player who looked most likely to open them up at 1-0 down was strange. When Jesse Lingard followed suit soon afterwards, the little attacking impetus we had left went with him.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Smalling's bad day on Tyneside epitomises his struggles

Chris Smalling, one of the last survivors of the Ferguson empire, endured an afternoon to forget at St James Park. It was a dissapointing defeat for the team but Smalling cannot escape his share of the flak after a (very) bad day at the office in which he was the side's weak link time and again.
Alongside Phil Jones, another player who joined the club under Ferguson, the centre-back suffered a torrid time as he was fortunate not to concede a penalty, became possibly the first defender in history to get booked for diving, and then was at fault for the goal from the resultant free-kick. The booking was farcical but the concession of a preventable goal even worse. United failed to clear their lines from Jonjo Shelvey's delivery as Smalling didn't react quickly enough which allowed Lejeune to beat him in the air, he flicked the ball on and it dropped for Matt Ritchie to score. To compound his terrible day, Smalling didn't win a single tackle or make a successful interception during the 90 minutes at St James' Park.

You win as a team in the same way you lose as a team, and it would be unfair to point the finger entirely at him, but Smalling is simply not good enough. Along with defensive partner Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and David de Gea, Smalling is one of five players who have survived the transition of three post-Ferguson managers to still ply their trade at Old Trafford. One of the criticisms aimed at the former manager in his latter seasons at the helm was that he didn't do enough to strengthen the defence. There's a case to be had that the same has happened under Jose. In 2011, we played Swansea away from home with Jones at right back, Smalling in the centre and Valencia and Young as wingers. Seven years on that's not right, and it's absurd to think that the quartet remain our first choice back four.
It's remarkable that Smalling, especially, still finds himself a regular in this side. He had a monstrous season in the 2015-16 campaign in Louis van Gaal's second season in charge, so much so that he was voted as our Player of the Season by his peers. If that was his zenith as a United player, then this campaign has become the nadir. The manager needs to be ruthless and move Smalling on in the summer. Failing that, then he should be relegated to the role of a back-up squad player.

I like Phil Jones as a player, but he needs a solid partner alongside him to iron out his flaws. Smalling is not that man, and they can't play together.
Jones makes mistakes that Smalling exposes and the return of the injured Eric Bailly cannot come soon enough. The Ivorian, along with Jones, formed a grit-and-guile partnership earlier in the season that was reminiscent of the Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic axis in their pomp, and that was a key aspect to our blistering start to the season.
Victor Lindelof is yet to find his feet although there are signs of growing promise, and Marcos Rojo, whilst by no means a world class defenders, represents a definite upgrade on Smalling. The Argentinian played well against Yeovil and was also good last time out in the Huddersfield tie. After Smalling's recent struggles and the debacle at Tottenham, it was a surprise that Rojo did not keep his place for the visit to the North East.


Match report: Newcastle 1-0 United

Matt Ritchie's second half strike punished a profligate United performance and lifted the Magpies out of the bottom three and into the relative safety of 13th. Rafa Benitez's side were dogged and resilent and - after Alex Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku all missed clear openings, Ritchie's finish from 15 yards on 65 minutes proved decisive in a smash and grab raid for the St James' Park side . It was United's second successive away defeat agead of two more fixtures on the road against Huddersfield in the FA Cup and Sevilla in the Champions League.

Newcastle came into this tie as one of ten sides in the thick of a relegation scrap, having not won at St James' Park since October. In a bid to avoid an immediate return to the Championship, Benitez handed a debut to January signing Martin Dubravka, the goalkeeper on loan from Sparta Prague. It proved to be an inspired decision, with the Magpies indebted to a string of fine saves as the Reds controlled much of the match for long periods. 
Dwight Gayle went close with a free-kick early on before man of the match Jonjo Shelvey was denied by a stretching David de Gea on the rebound. 

Ayoze Perez flashed a shot wide from distance, before Lukaku picked out Alexis who returned the ball to the Belgian, but he failed to make the most of the chance. Jesse Lingard fired straight at Dubravka, before the Slovakian came to his side's rescue again on 35 minutes. Nemanja Matic played in Martial with an inch-perfect through ball, but his side-footed finish was kept out by the legs of the advancing Dubravka. Martial again had a chance with a header from Lukaku's cross, before the hosts had a penalty appeal waved away when Gayle went down under a challenge from the hapless Chris Smalling in the box.

Lukaku has enjoyed a strong scoring record against Newcastle but this was not to be his - or United's - day.  He went close again on the stroke of half-time when Alexis linked up with Paul Pogba to pick out the striker, but his deflected effort could only clear the crossbar. He then had a goal correctly chalked out when he headed in from close range, but referee Pawson ruled he had fouled Florian Lejeune. Then came United's biggest opening of them all, with Lukaku again involved. Sanchez latched on to his through ball and looked certain to score having rounded Dubravka, but Lejeune snuffed him out superbly with a lunging challenge as the Reds started to wonder if this was to be their day. 

The sucker punch came against the run of play when Smalling was comically booked for diving, and then failed to clear Shelvey's resultant set-piece, which dropped for Ritchie who slammed in an excellent finish from 15 yards. 
The Reds laid siege to the Newcastle goal but the Magpies continued to hold firm as Ashley Young's effort was palmed away by the excellent Dubravka, who enjoyed a superb debut. Martial was then somehow denied twice in quick succession when the Slovak blocked his flick and Jamaal Lascelles threw himself in the way to turn away the follow up. 
United forced a flurry of late corners which almost led to a dramatic leveller, but it was not to be as Jose's winless run on Tyneside - he's never won at St James' Park - continued.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku


Friday 9 February 2018

Shaw to sign new contract after rapid reversal of fortunes

Luke Shaw is set to commit his future to United with the left-back to sign a new long term deal at the club. That's a sentence I never thought I would find myself writing this time last year, when Shaw's career looked to be headed only one way - through the Old Trafford exit door. Frequently criticised by Jose for his lack of commitment and poor attitude, Shaw made only 16 appearances last term and was considered fifth choice behind Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian. 
Mourinho often lambasted the player in public, which is often seen as counter productive and not the way to go, but on this occasion it seems to have done the trick with Jose impressed by Shaw's efforts in training. Credit to Jose's man management, and the criticism of Shaw clearly spurred the player on to fight his way back into contention.
Once Mourinho has given up on a player, it's notoriously hard to win him back over so deserves massive credit in doing so.With a dearth of top quality left-backs at United and Young in his 30s, Shaw - still only 22 - has the potential to make the position his own in the years to come.

After his first start of the season against CSKA in December, he was promised more minutes by the manager, and has played the full 90 minutes in nine of United's 14 matches since then. Rojo, Blind and Darmian, three players which by his own admission Jose preferred over Shaw, have been usurped. Why they were ever ahead of him in the pecking order in the first place is beyond me, but now it's a straight fight between him and Young to get the nod on the left. With the Reds still fighting on three fronts, the pair look likely to be rotated between now and May.

Shaw has made twelve appearances this season, his third as a United player, and staying free of injury has undoubtedly been a huge factor in reversal of fortunes. He's look a real threat either as an out-and-out left back or a wing-back, and recent performances suggest he's close to recapturing the blistering start he enjoyed to his United career. Signed as the world's expensive teenager as a 19 year old from Southampton in 2014 for £27m, Shaw had a flying start to life at United, particularly in the 2015-16 season when he struck up a potent and prolific partnership with Memphis Depay. His horrible double leg break in a Champions League tie at PSV kept him out of the game for a year and he struggled, as any player would, to return to full fitness.

A combination of bad luck with injury, struggles with weight and fitness and the spats with Jose appeared to signal the end of his United career before it had even really begun - a huge letdown for a highly rated young player who arrived from St Mary's with such promise. His reversal of fortunes has ensured that won't be the case.

Match preview: Newcastle v United

United have no fresh injury concerns for the trip to Tyneside as we return to St James Park for the first time since a thrilling 3-3 draw 23 months ago. Then, as now, Newcastle were embroiled in an intruiging battle to avoid relegation and are one of nine sides in genuine danger of the drop. To continue their yo-yo existence of recent years, the Magpies went down that season but went straight back up at the first attempt as champions under Jose's old adversary Rafael Benitez. The two men have locked horns in big games aplenty down the years and had a storied rivalry when in charge at Chelsea and Liverpool respectively.

It's been an emotional week off the pitch for everyone connected with the club, as we remembered those we lost in Munich 60 years ago on Tuesday. Respects were paid last time out against another promoted side, Huddersfield, before the commerorations continued on the 6 February anniversary itself. But focus now switches to on the field matters and the visit to Newcastle. Paul Pogba is set to return to the starting line up having come on against the Terriers but Marouane Fellaini is sidelined following his knee surgery. The Frenchman took centre stage the last time the two sides met at Old Trafford back in November as he marked his comeback from injury with a masterful man of the match performance.
Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both back in training but this match is expected to come too soon for either to feature. Daley Blind is also unavailable. For the hosts, Joselu could return while transfer window signings, Slovak goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and Leicester loanee Islam Slimani could make their debuts. 
Another loan addition, Kenedy, who the Magpies acquired from Chelsea, has brought an added threat to their attacking weaponry, with the young winger having claimed two assists against Burnley and Crystal Palace.
Benitez's side made an impressive start to life back in the top flight and looked set to challenge for a top half finish after they were fifth in October. Since then, they have not won at home and their form has plateaud dramatically. The Toon have kept only two clean sheets in their last 17 matches, winless in five, and sit 16th in the table - a point above the bottom three - with 12 games to go. 

Jose said: "Newcastle had a very good transfer window, they got three players in, players that I know well and they can really improve their team. Rafael Benitez knows how to get points, they are at home, so I think it will be a difficult game. 
"If you ask me if I think Newcastle are going to be in the Championship next season, I say no way. They are strong,  Mr Benitez has them hard to beat, I like the Geordies, the fans are good and enthusiastic and I like the stadium but I have lost and drawn a few times here. I hope the result on Sunday is different this time."

This is the first of three successive away matches in three different competitions, as we travel to Huddersfield in the FA Cup next Saturday before the first leg of our last 16 Champions League tie in Sevilla. 

Form guide: Newcastle W D L L D D United W W W W L W 
Match odds: Newcastle 19/4 Draw 14/5 United 4/6  
Referee: Craig Pawson

Wednesday 7 February 2018

United set for Huddersfield rematch in FA Cup fifth round

United will travel to the John Smith's Stadium for the second time this season after Huddersfield's extra time win over Birmingham set up a meeting with the twelve time winners in the fifth round. 
The Terriers saw off the challenge of Steve Cotterill's division lower side in the replay 4-1 at St Andrew's to arrest their awful run of form and seal their progress into the last 16. Jose and the team will travel across the Pennines to Huddersfield for the match next Saturday 17 February, for a 5.30 kick off.
The John Smith's Stadium was the scene of course, of one of the most bitterly dissapointing afternoons of the season as David Wagner's newly promoted team put United to the sword back with an assertive and energetic performance that ended our unbeaten start and put the first dent in our title bid. In one of the shock results of the season, Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre scored before half-time as Marcus Rashford's solitary reply was rendered merely academic.
But the dynamic is different this time around with the Terriers having lost their bite and, after a wretched run of nine games without a win, they look a side devoid of confidence, goals and inspiration. But with the scent of another giant killing in their nostrils, they should not be underestimated in what looks set to be another testing tie in the atmospheric stadium for the Reds.

The fifth-round tie will be our second meeting with the Terriers in as many weeks, after United exacted a modicum of revenge for that October reverse with Saturday's 2-0 win at Old Trafford. That sent Huddersfield into the bottom three and was the west Yorkshire side's fifth consecutive defeat. The 4-1 win over Birmingham provided a welcome fillip for Wagner's men and they scored three times in the additional 30 minutes as a Marc Roberts own goal, Steve Mounie, substitute Rajiv van la Parra and Tom Ince saw them avoid a minor shock. Lukas Jutkiewicz had equalised for the Blues.
For us, the ultimate objective remains a run to Wembley for a record-equalling 13th victory in this competition, a feat that would put us level with Arsenal who have won the famous trophy three times in four seasons. City and Chelsea block the way, but this trophy remains our most realistic chance of silverware with the league all but gone and the Champions League a long shot.
The Gunners were the biggest casualties of round three, when an understrength side were knocked out by Nottingham Forest, and another Premier League top six side have also been added to that list when Liverpool lost 3-2 at home to struggling West Brom in round four. 

This will be our third clash with Huddersfield this campaign having already faced them twice on league duty, but we've not played them in either domestic cup since a 5-0 win at Old Trafford in this competition in 1963. Perhaps it's an omen, as we went on to win the FA Cup that season following the emphatic victory at the third round stage.  For the record, ex Terrier Denis Law scored a hat-trick with further strikes from Johnny Giles and Albert Quixall.


Tuesday 6 February 2018

How the Munich Air Disaster shaped United and redefined our history

 6 February, a date synonymous as the darkest day in the history of this great club. It's a day that represents everything we stand for as a club and one that changed Manchester United forever. Before the Munich Air Disaster, United were just like any other club. After it, we became a club loved and respected the world over and turned into the global institution that we are today. We may all wish to remember the trophies, the triumphs, the silverware and the iconic figureheads that make this club so special, but we must never forget Munich. The air crash marks an indelible chapter of the Manchester United story as much as anything that has happened before or since.

The story of the tragic events that unfolded 60 years ago today on a snowy, slush-covered runway in Munich - and the outpouring of grief and anguish that followed it - is a tale that has been told throughout the world. Matt Busby's swashbuckling and pioneering young side - widely regarded as the finest squad of players English football had ever seen - were cut down in their prime. Eight players, friends, local lads from Manchester and the surrounding area, would never return home from Belgrade. A remarkable team was no more.

Yet, somehow, against all the odds and in the face of adversity that seemed impossible, United showed the strength, the courage and an unbreakable spirit that to this day remain at our very core to recover from the tragedy that struck them - qualities echoed by the extraordinary determination of Busby, who was severly injured in the crash and twice received the last rites. Despite his crippling injuries, Matt - together with his lion hearted assistant Jimmy Murphy - rebuilt United from a shattered club that was on its knees and put together another great side. Ten years on from the tragedy, the Reds conquered Europe in the very competition the Babes would most likely have gone on to win had fate not cruelly intervened. Three of the survivors of that horrific night played at Wembley, captain Bobby Charlton (one of only two remaining survivors), Bill Foulkes and Shay Brennan - who was not present on the fateful flight.
As well as the eight players killed, the crash also took the lives of three members of club staff,  eight journalists,  the co-pilot, a cabin steward, and two United supporters who had travelled with the club - 23 victims in total.

It's been a poignant week at Old Trafford, particularly so today on the anniverary, as we come together to remember the Flowers of Manchester: a truly unique and pioneering group of players who took United into Europe and swept all before them to become the dominant footballing force of the 50s. Their careers and lives may have been ended too soon, but those Flowers produced seeds that later were to bloom. One of the great legacies of Sir Matt's management at this club was an emphasis in youth - a belief in young, homegrown talent that played attacking, entertaining football that won trophies. It's one of the many characteristics that are still in evidence to this day. Today, all those who died were remembered, both at Old Trafford and at the crash site in Munich. The first team squad, Under 23s and some of the youth players were in attendance. To add to the poignancy, United's academy team will play in Belgrade tomorrow against Brodarac.
The Busby Babes set a benchmark and pioneered an ethos that is still important to us today, a legacy that will forever be ingrained in the United DNA, and one for others to follow.  Many believe we would not be what we are today if the Babes had not been what they were in their time.

They shaped United as a club and redefined our history. None of them will ever be forgotten.

In the cold snow of Munich they laid down their lives
But they live on forever in our hearts and our minds
So come all supporters and hold your heads high
For Manchester United will never die.

Sunday 4 February 2018

The exploits of the Busby Babes made United the club we are today

The 6th February is a date etched on the hearts and minds of United fans everywhere, young or old. It's a date that is always a poignant and emotional one, but especially so this year as 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the darkest day in the club's history. Even for a Reds fan of my age, a supporter who experienced nothing of the post-Munich United, we must never forget those who died in 1958. Munich was a disaster that has shaped and defined the club into the global modern day institution we have become. The home match with Huddersfield on Saturday was the one closest to the anniversary date, and as tradition dictates, saw commemorations to mark the air crash. The players wore black armbands, prayers and poems were read out beneath the permanent East Stand memorial, and Old Trafford fell silent before kick off in memory of the 23 people who lost their lives. Eight of those victims were players and a further three were members of club staff.  The finest club side that English football had ever seen was effectively wiped out and United as a club were reduced to rubble.

On Tuesday, the anniversary itself, there will be a special service at the club with more commerorations and another minute's silence at 3.04pm - the exact time the plane went down 60 years ago. You don't need me to tell the story of the crash and the Busby Babes it so tragically took the lives of. It's a day of horror that has been recounted countless times and these pages would not be fitting to tell that tale when it's known so famously throughout the world. None of us ever know what that swashbuckling and trailblazing side, built so brilliantly by Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy, would have gone to achieve, but their exploits are interwoven in the fabric of United, and what happened after the crash only served to show what an indelible mark every one of those boys had on the history of this club. Masterminded by Busby - who himself very nearly died - and his visionary, understated assistant Murphy, the Reds somehow rose from the wreckage to become champions of Europe ten years later in the ultimate tale of triumph over tragedy in the face of nigh on impossible adversity. Murphy had the job of rebuilding not just a team, but an entire club, and did so with the very hallmarks that make us the club we are: courage,  passion, spirit, strength, bravery, the ability to never give in and the precious commodity of a never-say-die attitude.

Even for those of us who did not have the privilege of watching arguably United's greatest ever team, we've grown up with the household names of the Busby Babes who set the benchmark for every other United side since then to follow, succeed and live up to. The current Reds side may boast a vastly experienced squad of international superstars managed by one of the best in the business, but this team will never make their mark - or be held in the same esteem - in the same way.
The first English side to face a step into the unknown and take on the best the continent had to offer, it was a cruel twist of fate that their pioneering exploits would end up costing the Busby Babes their lives.

Every single one of them will never, ever, be forgotten. The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.  KTRFFH for Man United will never die.

Match report: United 2-0 Huddersfield Town

Alexis Sanchez scored on his home debut as United marked the Munich commerorations with a routine if unspectacular win over David Wagner's struggling Huddersfield. Although the Reds never looked in danger of a repeat of the scoreline in the return fixture, following Wednesday's Wembley disappointment, we were made the work for the win.

On a poignant afternoon at Old Trafford, Romelu Lukaku broke the deadlock ten minutes after the interval before Alexis capped his man of the match showing with his first goal for the club on 22 minutes from time. With the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster on Tuesday, the players wore black armbands as Old Trafford fell silent before kick-off in memory of the 23 people - including eight players and three club staff - who lost their lives on the darkest day in United's history. When the match got underway, Huddersfield favoured a robust, physical approach over their high-pressing and energetic style that was the visitors trademark during their superb start to life in the Premier League. Scott McTominay - one of four changes that Jose made to the team - was flattened by Terence Kongolo in what was a stonewall penalty, but remarkably referee Stuart Attwell ruled the challenge as a coming together and took no action. Alexis then went close to a debut goal when his low 20-yard strike was tipped wide by the stretching Jonas Lossl.

There was also another shout for a spot-kick when Alexis went down under a challenge from Mathias Jorgensen, but Attwell was again unmoved. Jesse Lingard was denied by Lossl from distance, Chris Smalling headed wide and Lukaku's snap shot was blocked but, for all United's possession and territory, the Terriers managed to maintan parity until half-time.
But a breakthough felt inevitable, and, in the 55th minute, it came. Alexis was influential in the build up as he found Juan Mata after a burst forward. Mata, in turn, picked out the onrushing Lukaku with a pinpoint pass, and the Belgian swept the ball home from close range for his 19th goal of another prolific season.
13 minutes later, the Reds were finally awarded a spot-kick when Sanchez was tripped by Huddersfield substitute Michael Hefele. The Chilean took responsibility in front of the Stretty and, although his initial effort was repelled by Lossl, he snaffled up the loose ball to make it 2-0 and get off the mark in the Red of United. Substitute Anthony Martial flashed a shot wide and Lossl saved well from  Marcus Rashford - who had also started on the bench - went close with a shot on the turn.

 In truth, United should have won by a greater margin but the result saw us consolidate second place and we now trail runaway leaders City by a mere 13 points. Huddersfield, meanwhile, drop into the bottom three and suffered a fifth successive defeat. This was a much better performance by the lads than Wednesday's horrible reverse to Tottenham, as we marked the Munich anniversary with a professional performance on an emotional afternoon at OT.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Alexis Sanchez.

Friday 2 February 2018

Match preview: United v Huddersfield Town

Saturday's visit of Huddersfield is an occasion far more important than just another Premier League match - it will be a poignant and emotional day as United remember those we lost in the Munich air crash. Tuesday marks the 60th anniversary of the disaster - the darkest day in the club's history - and Old Trafford will fall silent before kick-off against the Terriers to pay respects to the 23 people, eight of whom were United players, who lost their lives on that fateful day. Fans will also pay their respects outside the ground with readings and prayers, and a rendition of the "Flowers of Manchester" underneath the memorial on the East Stand concourse.
As well as commerorations on the day itself, the home fixture closest to the 6th February is one that always has added significance, and this year even more so 60 years on. The players will wear black armbands and Jose called for his side to honour those who died in the most fitting of ways - with victory. 

He said: "I think it should affect the team in a positive way, if we believe those victims are watching the match I think it's one more reason for a happy day and for a good performance and result. It is an amazing day to show respect to them and their families, the passion for the club, the strength and yes, a minute's silence, but they would love happiness, joy, a Manchester United victory, points and goals. It is something we will try and bring them. 
"As Manchester United manager of course it becomes more important and for me, every supporter and every player, tomorrow is a special day."

Marouane Fellaini will miss the match through the knee injury he sustained at Wembley, but Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are back in training and could return later this month.  Alexis Sanchez is set for his home debut and David de Gea will make his 300th appearance for United in goal. For Huddersfield, Danny Williams (dead leg) is out, and defender Chris Lowe has picked up a minor knock. Congolese forward Elias Kachunga is the Terriers only long term absentee. 
David Wagner's side inflicted United's first league defeat of the season back in October in a superb start to their first ever Premier League campaign. First half goals from Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre sealed one of the shock results of the season, and Marcus Rashford's late strike proved merely a consolation.
But the Terriers have lost their bite since then and arrive at Old Trafford winless in seven and on a run of four successive league defeats. In the ridiculously congested scrap at the bottom of the table, Huddersfield currently sit 17th, a single point outside the bottom three, and they could find themselves in the drop zone for the first time this season if other results go against them. The two sides could meet again in the FA Cup on 17 February, if Wagner's men beat Championship side Birmingham in their midweek replay. This is Huddersfield's first visit to Old Trafford for 46 years, when United won 2-0 in the 1971/72 season. 

Form guide: United W W W W W L Huddersfield Town L W L L D L 
Match odds: United 8/1 Draw 15/2 Huddersfield Town 50/1
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire)

Sanchez may be the present but Rashford remains United's future

A world class talent with match-winning ability aplenty, there's no doubt that United's capture of Alexis Sanchez from under the noses of Manchester City represented a major coup for Jose and the Reds. But there have been some fears that the acquisition of the ex Arsenal star will have an impact on United's next generation of talent - particularly the future of Marcus Rashford, who plays in the same position that Alexis has occupied so far for United.

It's easy to see why Rashford has been targeted as the player most likely to suffer from the impact of Sanchez's arrival. Despite doubts over the summer that linked him with a move away, Anthony Martial has been on fire this season while Jesse Lingard is in the form of his life and has become a vital player for the Reds. Rashford, meanwhile, has been indifferent at best. He's too often been guilty of poor decision-making, and has struggled to rediscover the clinical and dynamic touch that saw his burst on to the scene - and stay there - in 2016. This is the first sticky patch of his United career, but we must remember that he's still a very young player and even the best suffer from difficult setbacks. Despite his apparent dip in form, he's still maintained an impressive level of productivity with ten goals and eight assists.
 Rashford has featured in all but one of our 35 competitive games this term, so concerns over his long-term future are misplaced. While Martial has usurped him to become first choice on the left-hand side, Rashford remains Jose's go-to selection as a game-changing sub or top quality rotation option. 

At 20, playing for the biggest club in the country both in the league and in Europe, that's not a bad position for Rashford to be in: his fairytale start to life in England set the bar (and expectations) very high indeed, but there's no need to rush his development. We all know just what a special young talent he is and he won't hit his peak for another three or four years yet.  His versatility, too, will see him given more than enough game time to keep his progress on track. He's able to play on either wing or up top as the central striker, which is where many - myself included - still think to be the position where his future lies. Sanchez can also fulfill all of the same roles, and as United's marquee, superstar signing, he'll automatically be ahead of Rashford in the pecking order. But let's not forget that Alexis is 29 now and is very much a signing for the here and now. Players such as him often begin to regress when they're around 33 or 34, by which time Rashford will only be 24 - an age still considered to be young - with the odd mistake excused in the name of the learning process. Indeed, Rashford's opener in the 4-0 FA Cup win at Yeovil, set up by the debutant Chilean, proved that the two can link up together perfectly well and that Rashford will not suffer from Sanchez's role in the side.
 Our new number seven will hold a near-undroppable position initially, and that means that Rashford will vie for one of the remaining three forward places in Jose's 4-2-3-1 system. But he won't be starved of opportunity and the fact that he's appeared in every game (with the exception of Wembley on Wednesday), proved just how highly the manager rates the young forward.

The jury is still out for many on just how high Rashford's ceiling is. But whatever the level of his true potential, the arrival of Sanchez will not bring about his Old Trafford exit. United's future is in good hands.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Match report: Tottenham 2-0 United

Christian Eriksen scored inside eleven seconds as Spurs became the first side to beat and score past United in 2018 on a dissapointing night at Wembley. The Dane's opener - the second fastest goal in Premier League history - was added to by Phil Jones inadvertent finish into his own net as the Reds slipped to a first defeat in eight games. 

Despite this setback, the Reds remain second and three points clear of closest challengers Liverpool and Chelsea - who suffered a shock 3-0 reverse at home to Eddie Howe's Bournemouth side. Manchester City pulled further clear with victory over West Brom with the Reds now locked in a three-way battle for the league's runners up place.   Spurs, meanwhile, stay fifth - two points off Antonio Conte's champions, ahead of their trip to Liverpool on Sunday.

Mauricio Pochettino's side, in the thick of the race for the Champions League positions, went ahead when a long ball forward found Dele Alli, he tried to turn but the ball struck Chris Smalling and fell fortuitously into the path of Eriksen who nipped in to score. Technically, the goal should not have stood as replays showed that Harry Kane was two yards inside the United half when the kick-off was taken. 

United responded well to that early and unexpected blow, as Jesse Lingard was unable to get his shot away when well placed, and Anthony Martial was thwarted by a superb last ditch challenge from Ben Davies.

Kane, searching for his 100th Premier League goal, fired tamely at David de Gea, but that proved only a temporary reprieve as Spurs maintained their frenetic pace and extended their advantage on the half hour mark. Kieran Trippier's whipped cross caused confusion in the Red backline, and Jones miscued his attempted clearance to instead divert the ball beyond the stranded De Gea and in.  
Eriksen, who caused United no end of problems with his surging runs and accurate crossing then flashed a shot wide as Spurs remained a constant threat throughout.  Alexis Sanchez, on the periphery for the most part, then had a penalty appeal turned down when his header appeared to hit the arm of Heung - min Son, but referee Andre Marriner remained unmoved.

United had their chances - the best of which fell to Paul Pogba, who headed over and Lukaku, who was denied by a stretching Lloris early in the second half. Marouane Fellaini, who had come on along with Juan Mata in an attempt to turn the Tottenham tide, then had to be replaced through injury only seven minutes after his introduction.

 No dramatic turnaround was forthcoming, though, as Spurs beat United in north London for the third successive season to leave the Reds without a win on the road against Spurs since 2011.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku. The best of a bad bunch, Rom put a shift in and was unlucky not to score.