Monday 28 May 2018

Here come the girls as United welcome new Women's team

The 2018-19 season marks the start of a new era for United and Women's football. For the first time since 2005, after an absence of 13 years, the club will have a fully established professional women's senior team next season.
For so long, it's been criminal that a great club the size and stature of the Reds have failed to make strides in the women's game, having disbanded the previous ladies team upon the takeover by the American Glazer. United were widely criticised for that move as the only Premier League club without a pro adult women's team and have been slammed in the past for being out of touch in the modern world of a rapidly evolving game during an era in which women's football has enjoyed more success, and popularity, than ever.

The news comes after a revamping of the women's professional game, run by the FA, who approved United's application and placed us into the second tier FA Women's Championship - also known as the Women's Super League 2 - alongside eleven other clubs that include Spurs, Villa, Millwall, Sheffield, Leicester City and south coast side Lewes, a surprise new addition to the restructured league. Existing clubs had to re- apply for their places in the respective leagues before a second, open "free for all" application phase which is where United come into the equation. The Reds will also play in the FA Women's Cup and the FA WSL (League) Cup.
The new team, to be dubbed 'Manchester United Women' will be based at our iconic Cliff training ground in Salford once ongoing re-development work has been completed. Former England captain
Casey Stoney - who was capped 130 times by the Lionesses - is expected to be installed as the new manager of the freshly-formed team. After retiring from playing earlier this year, she became assistant to former United man and England boss Phil Neville, having skippered Team GB in the London 2012 Olympics and now looks set to be the lady to drive United forward into what promises to be an exciting future.

United Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said: "All at Manchester United are delighted that the FA have approved our application.
"The new women's team will build on the success of the Girls Regional Talent Club and will have the same philosophy of all Manchester United sides, creating a pathway from academy and youth to the first team.
"We will be making some exciting announcements in the coming days and weeks - starting a brand new professional team from scratch is challenging but rewarding and we will make every effort to provide the support and experience for our new women's team to be successful and to uphold the fine and revered traditions of our great club."

The campaign begins on the weekend of 18/19 August with the opening games in the League Cup before the league fixtures start across 8 and 9 September. Here come the girls.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

2018/19 is make or break for Jose Mourinho

Two years ago almost to the day, Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford on a wave of expectation with the remit of turning United into genuine title contenders again. His second season at a club is usually the one where it all comes together and he wins the title - a pattern that he has followed throughout his career. United started the season in such swashbuckling style with a flurry of fabulous 4-0 wins, that the belief this was to be the year that history repeated was only further fuelled. By its end, the obvious signs of progress as we came second felt like they had evaporated  - although there are mitigating factors in the form of a Manchester City side who have smashed every record going. Although there has been progression, it's been slow, without even the fillip of a trophy in 2017-18.  Whilst he does deserve credit having stabilised the club, re-instilled team spirit and improved our position, there are concerns over both Mourinho's style of play, which is functional at best, and his ability to bridge the yawning chasm of the 19 points between us and City. Everything feels distinctly underwhelming.
He was meant to be the man to put United back on top, but the team are so far behind City, both on paper and in reality, that 2018/19 has the feeling of make or break for the manager. That takes us neatly to the infamous Jose Mourinho "third season syndrome" - the campaign where the triumphs of the previous season are quickly forgotten amid a toxic combination of bad results, fall outs with players and palpable discord among the fanbase. This happened at Chelsea during his last spell in England, with catastrophic results when he was sacked having dragged his champions into a fight for survival. Some would say Mourinho is not far off that point already at Old Trafford and is merely a ticking time bomb, going through the motions of a man at a crossroads of his career. For a man who had coveted the United job for so long, he certainly does not give off the impression of someone for whom this is his dream.

Jose somehow has to flip that model on its head and reverse a trend that has been as much a part of his decorated career as the many titles, trophies and glittering successes. Nothing else except winning the title - or at the very least going mighty close to doing so - will be good enough next term. Many of us were divided over his appointment at the start and those concerns have only exacerbated after a trophyless, Jekyll and Hyde season of glorious highs and equally inglorious lows in which we seemed to play strangulating football with the handbrake on. Another season of this would push our already rapidly thinning patience beyond the point of no return. If he's not careful, Mourinho's going to get hounded out. Is that really what we want? Succeed in taking us to the title, and the misgivings will be forgotten - Jose will be remembered as the man who ended the drought and proved himself as the first Sir Alex successor worthy of the name. Fall short again, and there can be very little justification for keeping him on. There can be no more meltdowns, no more excuses, no more negativity and no more second chances. Quite simply, Mourinho's got to deliver - it's the title or bust next term and the very definiton of make or break.

Top heavy United lack leaders and width

With Michael Carrick having moved from the pitch to the dugout upon his retirement, United will need a new captain ahead of 2018-19. United usually give the armband to the longest serving player, with Antonio Valencia having donned it for much of the season just gone. But he's not a natural captain - a skipper in name only -  and therein lies the main shortcoming in Jose's United. We had four different captains in the Champions League this season - from Valencia to Young via Pogba and Smalling. It never used to be this way - a far cry from the halycon days under the totemic on-pitch leadership of Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Bryan Robson. They were synonymous with the club. Pogba doesn't stand out as captaincy material, neither does Young and Smalling can hardly be put in the same bracket as United's previous defensive titans Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - both of whom led the team with distinction as great captains in a great United side.

United do not lack personalities, but there are no true, natural leaders in this squad. No one to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, no one to turn to dig the team out of a hole when the going gets tough, just as Keane used to. No one who stands up to be counted, no one to form a protective shield from the manager and take a struggling player under his wing. You can feel a certain degree of empathy for Jose in this regard - captains are born, not made, and you can't just go out, buy a player and give him the armband. The art of captaining a side just doesn't work like that. Think of the Class of 92 - a once in a lifetime group of homegrown players, a group that had leaders and strong characters in abundance.
Perhaps that same academy system now is not producing enough talent and characters to become leaders. Players are put on such a lofty pedestal at such a young age. Arsenal had Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, Chelsea had John Terry and Steven Gerrard often seemed to single - handedly drive Liverpool to victory. The best clubs all have strong captains as talismanic figureheads of the side, but those types of players have increasingly become a dying breed.

The squad is also top-heavy, jam packed with a plethora of number tens but no natural width with only one out-and-out striker in Romelu Lukaku. Valencia and Young are inverted, inside-out full-backs that can't beat their man and don't give you width, often cutting in, with Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford all similar in style as number ten-type players, meaning that the cogs in the Reds attack often play too close together and too narrow - making life much easier for opposition defences with the final third clogged up in central areas. The traditional flying winger in the mould of a Ryan Giggs or an Andrei Kanchelskis don't really exist anymore in these modern multifunctional times, but United have no natural width. Jose wanted a left-sided player last summer but didn't get his man - namely Internazionale's Ivan Perisic - which would have helped solve this.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Anthony Martial's United career at a crossroads

Anthony Martial lit up Old Trafford with a dazzling debut in a stunning campaign at Old Trafford and ended top scorer with 18 goals under Louis van Gaal in 2015-16, the one shining light set against the backdrop of an otherwise dark season.
 He became an instant hero with THAT wonderful solo goal against Liverpool and is the inspiration behind one of our best terrace chants, as he quickly illuminated a dreary United side upon his £50m arrival from Monaco. He had the potential to become one the finest foreign exports United have had for many a year, with all the assets to develop in a future Thierry-Henry esque superstar, at his best a  dazzling bundle of pace and trickery. But Martial has failed to kick on during the two years Jose Mourinho has been at the club (make of that what you will), having endured a torrid 2018 in which he has failed to score since January, opportunities were few and far between and his United career is now seemingly at a crossroads.

Now, the Frenchman - still only 22 - has missed out on a place in his country's World Cup squad after an indifferent season of regression and flux. He started the campaign in a blistering run of form, a run that co-incided with a rejuvenated United's opening surge to the summit of the table in September.
But that lightning start has quickly eroded, with a combination of less game time (Martial started just 18 Premier League ties this term and played the full 90 only five times), a dramatic downturn in form and the New Year arrival of Alexis Sanchez hardly helping his cause. Martial never seems as if he's enjoying himself, he carries the same pained expression and plays like the weight of the world is enveloped on his young shoulders.
The Chilean's arrival has pushed him down the pecking order, he seems to be lacking in confidence and unsure of his main role within this number-ten heavy United identikit. Having scored a paltry 19 goals across the last two campaigns, Martial's influence has declined and he's been forced to the fringes of the first team. He now looks in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of players who have failed to make it at the club despite promising beginnings. It also does little to enhance Jose's already sceptical critics regarding his man management of young talents.

Martial came on for the final 17 minutes of Saturday's cup final against Chelsea - a fleeting, brief cameo that looks set to be his last in the red of United. If that's the case, then it's an inglorious and anti-climatic end to a United career that will be remembered as one in which the player's burgeoning potential ultimately went unfulfilled. The boss has seemingly lost all faith in Martial and - with Jose planning a summer overhaul in both playing squad and backroom staff - our number 11 looks set to become the first casualty of the clearout.

Monday 21 May 2018

Jose Mourinho needs to get ruthless and bin the dross

Phil Jones struggles against Eden Hazard in the cup final - in which he gave away the match-winning penalty and was given the runaround by the talented and tempermental Belgian - only served to further highlight the collective shortcomings of United's ageing and undermanned defence. Since 2013, we've invested £130m on the back four alone, yet the quartet (quintet if you include Dave), remains the same as it did seven years ago. Which other 'top' side have kept together a defence that clearly isn't up to standard for that long? An overhaul is needed and Jose Mourinho needs to get ruthless and bin the lorry load of deadwood that is permeating and puncturing this United squad - starting with the defence. Recruitment has been scatter-gun and players that should have been sold years ago are somehow still first choice.

Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young - four Sir Alex Ferguson signings who have been great servants for this club. Statistically we may have the best defence in the country, but that's largely down to the heroic exploits of the world's best goalkeeper David de Gea. The reality is that Valencia and Young are converted wingers in their mid 30s who can't cross or beat their man, Jones is injury prone and Smalling erratic and riddled with mistakes. Marcos Rojo can be put in the same bracket, Daley Blind isn't good enough and Eric Bailly's omission in the closing weeks of the season has been baffling. The Ivorian was Jose's first signing as United manager and remains our best defender. Victor Lindelof struggled to start with but has grown into a superb player as the campaign has gone on. You can't really compare Pep with Jose - that would be like looking at apples and oranges - but Pep's first job as City boss was to rip out full-backs who didn't fit his identikit and - although he spent more than £200m in the process - replaced Bacary Sagna, Aleksandr Kolarov and Gael Clichy with younger, fitter and better upgrades in Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy - the starting point for his City revolution.

For a club of our size and stature to only have one proper right-back and one proper left-back is criminal - you have to have a least two players for every position. Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian are both not of the standard we require at this club and should be moved on. Timothy Fosu - Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe - who have been out on loan at Palace and Villa respectively - have had a season of first-team football, I like what I see of both and they are ready for the step up. Young, hungry, quick, strong and most importantly of all, home grown Academy graduates. Juve's Alex Sandro has been linked with a £50m move to Old Trafford, and at 27 the left-back is five years Young's junior, he would be ideal and would provide fresh impetus to a defence badly in need of just that.

It's not just the defence that needs an overhaul - midfield too. With Michael Carrick now retired, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic give us a strong balance in midfield, but Ander Herrera and the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini have failed to convince, despite both seemingly being among Jose's favourites. Anthony Martial has regressed alarmingly and lost his place in the team as a result - it's been a gradual decline for the young Frenchman since his breathtaking breakthrough season in 2015-16 under Louis van Gaal. So much so that he has missed out on World Cup selection for France. For the good of United and his career, he should be moved on too. Juan Mata has been the symbol of consistency as string-puller in chief through these turbulent post-Ferguson times, but his influence is on the wane and the little Spaniard is no longer first pick, indeed it's hard to think of the last time he had a good game. I'll cry if he leaves, but United's forward line needs a fresh sprinkling of stardust and Mata isn't in it.

United only scored once in the four ties that co-incided with Romelu Lukaku's end-of-season absence, a drought that only went to show how much we rely on the burly Belgian as the focal point of our attack. With Martial's apathy and Marcus Rashford's regression, another striker and a winger - a left sided player that Jose was after last summer - wouldn't go amiss either. The manager needs to show all the qualities that have made him one of the best bosses of his generation - he's got to be ruthless, decisive and make decisions that may be unpopular with many, but ones that must be necessary for the good of the club. His long term future depends on it.

Sunday 20 May 2018

Rashford's alarming regression hints at more serious issues

On a sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling afternoon at Wembley, United's sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling season finally spluttered and juddered to a halt. It has been a campaign of progress in many ways, with obvious improvement in the league. But it passed here without the silver lining of a trophy as Eden Hazard's first half penalty settled a largely forgettable cup final in favour of Chelsea.
From Anfield to St James Park, from Andalusia to Ashton Gate, United's season has been a leaden-legged mish mash, with a sense throughout of clogged energy, of expensive cogs that don't click together, of results wrung out through sheer bloody-mindedness and force of will.

If a player embodies this incohesive jumble, it's the frantic and often forlon figure of Marcus Rashford - a player whose megawatt glow has dimmed, flickered and burned out as flaws and a startling lack of confidence have slowly ebbed away at the golden game of one of England's genuine 24-carat talents. Publicly criticised - rightly or wrongly - by his boss after a dreadful performance at Brighton two weeks ago, Rashford was given the chance to redeem himself up top at Wembley in place of the injured Romelu Lukaku. This was a wonderful opportunity for Rashford to play as a starting centre-forward in a season-defining tie.  It was a chance that he did not take - isolated and marshalled superbly by Chelsea's experienced defence - he failed to make any meaningful impact in a game in which United needed him most. Rashford is still only 20 and in the middle of one those seasons that any young player is allowed to have. The wider issue is the sense of a player drifting into a dead-end where he seems unsure of not just his role but of his own ability. He clearly has talent and willing but there's something missing - there has simply been no development, just an underwhelming sense that Rashford is not the ready-made centre forward he's being asked to be. It seemed that Jose Mourinho wanted Rashford to be the Lukaku-lite battering ram centre-forward that Jose so craves in the absence of the injured Belgian. This is a player who thrives on penetrative though - balls in behind the defence, not crosses into the box. He never had a prayer. Either way, Rashford looks more like an over-promoted Academy graduate than when he actually was one.
Certainly it is clearer than ever how important Lukaku is to Jose's United. Second balls, holding the ball up, bouncing off defenders, providing physicality and fighting for scraps: that's the job now. Here, Rashford seemed to be playing through a fog: blunt when sharpness was needed, a player making the right runs at the wrong moment. He seems bereft of everything that made him the overnight sensation that catapulted him into the national spotlight as the finest young forward United have had for many a year. Bereft of confidence, touch and that refreshing vigour, belief and fearlessness he brought when he first broke through. He was hauled off before the end of the final with the team chasing the game - he looked dispirited, beaten and deserved to be subbed. In a tricky time for the club, Rashford was a local lad who brought renewed pride in our ability to nurture youth.

Now he looks a forlorn figure at odds with himself - and the concern for United (and England, with a World Cup looming), is that he's simply failed to flourish and develop.

United fall short despite character and spirit

This was a Jose Mourinho masterpiece: nick an early goal, play on the counter, sit deep and squeeze the life out of the opponents to get the job done and take home the prize. Not pretty but effective - the tactic he has made a career of. Only this time, unpalatably, he and the team were on the receiving end. This time it was Antonio Conte - Jose's opposite number and arch-rival who executed a Jose-esque tactical blueprint to perfection. This result is unlikely to save the Italian from the sack after a disappointing season but in what looks set to be his final game in charge of the Stamford Bridge side, he "Out-Mourinho'd" Mourinho. It's true that they did indeed "park the bus", but it's also true that we can't complain at Chelsea doing so, as we'd undoubtedly have done the same had we gone ahead in the first half. Chelsea's game management was bang on point, they did what they had to do and did it well - the Blues defended manfully, stood strong and were very well organised and disciplined so fair play to them. They got over the line and that's all that matters in a final - they've got the cup and we haven't. End of story.

Can someone please explain to me, why, in the name of our good Lord, it took our players so long to wake up to the fact that this was a cup final. The team started the final with all the pace and intensity of a testimonial - slow and sluggish -  and again, as we've seen so many times this season, only got going when 0-1 down and chasing the game in the latter stages. The team played out of their skins in the second half and showed superb fighting spirit in an - ultimately futile - attempt to turn the tide. It was a brave if belated rally and we couldn't have given more, but I'm sure I can't be the only one scratching my head and wondering why we never start games in this way. It's been like this all season long and begs the question of what might have happened had we hit top form in both halves of matches - most of the high points came from one superb 45-minute spell.
Only when we're behind do the real Manchester United come to the party and even then, you feel that sometimes we're playing purely on survival instinct rather than any clear clarity of instruction. Reactive and strangulating football remains Mourinho's modern raison d'etre.
On some occasions you can get away with it but not here - not against a streetwise Chelsea side with a manager who thrives on the no-frills tactic of the classic Italian catenaccio. In some ways it was fitting that our season should end in a manner that has epitomised much of it - a typical game of two halves for this Jekyll and Hyde United side. Pedestrian and ponderous for much of the first half, United were off the pace and distinctly second best against a Chelsea side who looked sharper, stronger and more 'up for it'. The second half, however, showed flashes of the brilliance and character that proved the catalyst in those epic climb-off the-canvas victories at Crystal Palace and in the derby at the Etihad. It was the latest in a number of performances that have left us scratching our heads at the transformation in our team from one half to the next. One that leaves us wondering why we can't play like that in every game from the get-go. This time, we left ourselves with too much to do. One mistake cost us and we fell short.
United may have ended the league season with a whimper, but certainly can't be accused of doing that here. Resurgent and rejuvenated, the players gave it absolutely everything after half-time and fully deserved to force extra-time. Such was our dominance, if we had done so there was surely only ever going to be one winner. That, in many ways, summed up this final: what if. What if Paul Pogba's late header had nestled into the corner instead of flying agonisingly wide, what if Alexis Sanchez had not strayed marginally offside when he turned home Chris Smalling's second half header. What if Romelu Lukaku had started ahead of Marcus Rashford. What if Phil Jones had managed to avoid tangling with Eden Hazard in the 22nd minute. Ifs, buts, maybes... the story of the final and of our season.

United left to lick their wounds after cup final heartache

So, the end of another season. A season that promised so much but ultimately delivered very little, a season that looked set to be the one in which United would re-affirm the belief that we were a rejuventated force to be reckoned with - a belief only fuelled after a blistering and swashbuckling blitz out of the blocks that appeared to throw down a marker that we were the team to beat. Nine months on, and there couldn't be a more starker contrast.
A Jekyll and Hyde campaign from which we go away empty-handed. Nothing to show for nine months of toil and hard graft - as thoughts turn to summer and the World Cup in Russia, we're left with nothing but the hollow feeling of cup final pain and disappointment - a feeling that will linger for a while. Having won some silverware to head into the off season with something to savour in each of the last two years, in the form of an FA Cup, and last term's EFL/Europa Cup double, this time we're left with only a nagging feeling of frustration and a case of what might have been. A trophyless season - a situation that can never be considered as acceptable for Manchester United. I'm absolutely gutted and I'm sure everyone else who holds this club dear to their hearts feel the same way. Many had dubbed this the 'Consolation Cup' but I'm not having that - anyone who's anyone would give their right arm to see their team play in a domestic final that ranks as the most prestigious in the game and one trophy is better than none at all. Every tie matters - if it didn't then there wouldn't be such a horrible mood. You can't win them all, that's football, and the tough to take losses make winning the next one that bit more special.

It's a feeling made worse by the fact that Eden Hazard - a vile man and a player who must rank as the most detestable individual in the game - scored the winner, and that we lost to a Chelsea side who were very eminently beatable. They lost 3-0 at Newcastle the week before for pity's sake. Yes it's true they "parked the bus" - but it's also true that we would have done exactly the same had we scored first. We're in no position to grumble at their approach. This was a final in which we probably deserved to force extra-time, but Chelsea did what they had to, did it well and managed the game superbly so fair play to them. The better team lost, but they've got the cup, we haven't and that's all that matters.
It was an anti-climatic end to a season that, from a United perspective, started with the potential to be the best in years but gradually and painfully fizzled out into nothingness. A modicum of comfort can be taken from the league form - still some way off champions City but certainly an improvement from 2016-17. Second gives you bragging rights and you can claim to be just that - the second best team in the country - and we earned over 80 points for the first time since we last won it. In the grand scheme of things it might not mean much, but Jose can at least point to progress from last term's sixth placed finish. We are United, and we roll on.

Saturday 19 May 2018

FA Cup final: Chelsea 1-0 United

United quite literally paid the penalty for a poor first half performance as an Eden Hazard spot-kick proved decisive in the cup final at Wembley. The rejuvenated Reds mounted a spirited rally after the break, but Antonio Conte's resilient and disciplined side held firm to ensure they end an indifferent season with a trophy. United, meanwhile, go empty handed from a campaign that promised so much back in the heady days of August.

Romelu Lukaku had to settle for a place on the bench after not being risked following injury, but it was his compatriot Hazard who stole the show to run the Reds ragged as the diminutive string-puller caused United no end of problems. He went close early on as David de Gea blocked well to parry away his low effort after Hazard had seized on Jones underhit pass. Referee Michael Oliver was soon at the heart of proceedings, but to his credit he got every one of the tie's big decisions spot on. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alexis Sanchez both had shouts for a spot-kick waved away, but there were no doubts at all about the call that went in favour of Chelsea in the 22nd minute.

Hazard spun away from his marker and burst clear in a race with Jones - who could only manage to upend the Belgian as he lunged in with a last-ditch challenge. The lack of protests from United's players spoke volumes, and Hazard made no mistake as he sent Dave the wrong way from the resultant spot-kick. Marcus Rashford was crowded out and Jones almost made amends with a header at the end of a half in which the Reds were distinctly second best.
This was the latest in a series of Jekyll and Hyde performances - a showing in keeping with our inconsistent season  - with the timid and tame United of the first half replaced by a resurgent and rejuvenated Red tide upon the resumption.
Thibaut Courtois saved well from Rashford, Nemanja Matic lashed wide from distance and the pressure looked to have paid off when Alexis Sanchez turned in a loose ball after Courtois had saved from Chris Smalling, but the Chilean was flagged offside.

This was the rise in fire and ferocity that a lethargic final urgently needed,  with the Blues penned back deep in their own half as United continued to lay siege. It was Conte's side who almost put the tie beyond doubt, though, with DDG to the rescue again to deny Marcos Alonso as he shaped to shoot.

Jesse Lingard and Rashford almost linked up wonderfully for the leveller, before Courtois did well again as he pushed away a Matic piledriver from distance. United continued to press and saw our best chance go begging with eight minutes left. Antonio Valencia finally produced a set-piece worthy of the name to pick out Paul Pogba - unmarked six yards out - but he could only direct his header off-target and wide.

With it went United's hope of deservedly taking the tie into extra-time.

Overall team performance: 6/10. Awful first half but much stronger in the second.
United Faithful Man of the Match: No one really stood out for me, but Nemanja Matic stood strong and tried to drive the team forward.

Friday 18 May 2018

How we should judge Jose's second season at Old Trafford

Everyone knows what Jose Mourinho does - he always, without fail, delivers the league title in his second season at a club. He has done it every time, and we all believed that this would be the year he carried on that trend and returned United to the very top. That belief was only fuelled further by the Reds blistering, frightening burst out of the blocks - we swatted aside all comers in a style not seen since the all-conquering Double winners in 2008. Sadly, things didn't turn out as we hoped, despite a season which has been one of undoubted progression and improvement.
Of course, the season is not yet done - we've got one big job left before we can rest up and think of Russia, but that would be my three word review of this campaign - progression not success. Even winning the FA Cup would not alter that perspective. Most clubs and most fanbases would be delighted with a term that sees their side finish as runners up with a trophy thrown in for good measure - but we are not "most clubs". Anything less than either a league title or a run deep into the Champions League - or at the very least coming close to winning both - has to be viewed as disappointing when you happen to be Manchester United. Second is satisfactory but certainly not a success. Standards are high - perhaps maybe too much so - but that comes with the territory at United.
 In the boss's settling-in season, we won two trophies but could only pilfer a sixth-placed finish in the league. This time around, the Premier League season has been much better but yet we remain in danger of going empty handed. If that's the case and we lose the cup final, then in many ways 2016-17 will be viewed in a better light as 2017-18 - despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Strange times indeed.

It's been our best post Sir-Alex season (you only have to glance at the league table to see that), but also a case of what might have been. It's true that, as much as it pains me to say it, there's absolutely no disgrace in finishing second to a simply sublime Manchester City team, who smashed every record going on route to becoming the Premier League's first centurions. But we were a distant second and failed to build on a two-month blitz that saw us storm to the summit and win 4-0 six times in the first eleven games. Defeats to Bristol City in the EFL Cup, and shock losses to all three promoted sides - Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton - not to mention the unpalatable and shambolic mess that was our two-legged Champions League tie with Sevilla - epitomised the inconsistent nature of our season. Especially set against the brilliant climb-off-the-canvas comebacks at Palace and City, and the victories over each of the top six sides - something we've not done in a single campaign since 2011. We've been too inconsistent, dropping 14 points against the league's lesser lights - 14 points that, if converted into victory, would have seen finish a mere five points behind City. There's also a case that we've been unlucky - we ended up with 81 points. Usually with that, you wouldn't expect to be 19 points behind the champions. Take nothing away from City but it's been a freak season for them - a season which comes along once in a lifetime. In any other campaign we'd have been a lot closer.

It's been a season that offered plenty of promise but one that threatens to deliver very little - let's go out and become FA Cup world champions of the universe and end a Jekyll-and-Hyde year on a high.

FA Cup final preview: United v Chelsea

 At the end of a season that started nine months ago in the Macedonian capital of Skopje in August with the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid, it all comes down to this - the 56th final and decisive match of another up and down season with silverware - a trophy that would represent Jose's third in his two years at the helm - on the line. United take on fellow Premier League heavyweights Chelsea in the 13th domestic showpiece at the capital's cathedral of football at Wembley. It's Jose second FA Cup final and first since 2007, whilst Chelsea are in the domestic showpiece for a second year in a row having lost 2-1 to Arsenal to miss out on a rare double 12 months ago.
United bring down the curtain on a season of progress with a bid to win our fourth major trophy in three seasons and reclaim our hold on a cup we won in 2015-16 under Louis van Gaal. In our record equalling 20th FA Cup final, a win would move the team level with Arsenal as 13 time winners of English football's oldest and most prestigious competition, as Jose Mourinho faces former side Chelsea and managerial foe Antonio Conte in what looks set to be the fiery Italian's last game in charge of the Stamford Bridge side. It's been a hugely dissapointing season for Chelsea, who limped home in fifth place and out of the Champions League next season, having stormed to the title is superbly swashbuckling style last campaign. For both sides, this represents a shot at silverware salvation as United aim to continue an impressive recent cup final record after a season in which we've failed to build on plenty of early promise.

Anthony Martial is fit and in contention to feature in the cup final side, but a late decision will be made on the fitness of Romelu Lukaku, with the Belgian in a fight for fitness having been forced off against Arsenal last month. Marouane Fellaini has missed the last two games but travelled with the squad, but Michael Carrick will not be involved.  Conte kept his selection cards close to his chest but Brazilian-born Italian Emerson Palmieri is thought to be Chelsea's only absentee.

Mourinho puts a potential cup win into perspective, and said: "Of course it makes a difference, but it's one thing to have a difference and the other is to consider the season good or bad because of one match. I analyse the work I do, the effort I put in, and everything we did at the club, I'm not going to analyse this because of one - very important - match.
"I know what my players did, I know what I put in, what effort, the positive things - I know the negative things and I'm not going to change my analysis of the season because of the result of one match. Not at all."

United have overcome Derby, Yeovil, Huddersfield, Brighton and Tottenham - scoring 12 goals in the process - to set up this clash with the Blues, who needed a penalty shootout to squeeze past Norwich before convincing wins over divisional rivals Newcastle, Championship side Hull to reach the quarter finals. There, an extra-time win over Leicester sent them to the semis and another victory over a Premier League side in Southampton.

In a fitting tribute to the late Ray Wilkins, who represented both clubs with distinction, his widow Jackie will present the medals and the FA Cup world champions of the universe to the winners.

Come on, United!

Thursday 17 May 2018

Lukaku winning battle ahead of cup final

Romelu Lukaku looks set to feature in the Cup final having travelled down to London with the rest of the United squad on Wednesday. Having not played since he was forced off through injury against Arsenal last month, there had been doubts over the big Belgian's fitness ahead of the clash with Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday tea-time. Jose himself admitted it was a race against time for Rom, but it's one the 27-goal top scorer appears to be winning.

Bereft of Lukaku's pace and power, United have only scored once in three ties we've played without him,  and have struggled to make inroads in attack, so his inclusion in the squad will be a major boost. His presence on the train from Stockport to Euston siggests that he will be on the bench at the very least, with the Belgian purportedly prepared to play through the pain-barrier in pursuit of a maiden winners medal. Anthony Martial was also among the 24-man squad having been a surprise absentee against Watford in the last league tie. 

Arguably Lukaku's best game in the Red of United came against our Cup final opponents, when he bullied Chelsea into submission and caused them all sorts of problems in February's tie at Old Trafford. Magnificent throughout, he scored the equaliser and set up Jesse Lingard's winner in a breathtaking MOTM performance against his old club. It was an example of what he offers when at his best, and even a half-fit Rom is better than no Rom at all. In an impressive debut campaign at United, Lukaku was within touching distance of the 30-goal landmark, three shy of it - just as Zlatan was last season - before injury cruelly curtailed him against Arsenal. The ankle injury came as a massive blow, and thoughts instantly turned to his chances of a place in the team for Chelsea and the cup final. Having travelled back to his homeland for intensive round the clock treatment, there's no doubting Lukaku's commitment to the cause. There is even a hope that he could start the final as opposed to merely a place on the bench. Mourinho will reveal all when he address the media with team news in his pre-final presser on Friday.

At his best, Lukaku resembles a bulldozer, able to cut a relentless swathe through even the most miserly and watertight of defences. His ability as a goalscorer has never been in question, having averaged 20 a season even when at some of the league's lesser lights such as West Brom and Everton. But since he's joined us, his all-round game has stepped up a notch, with his work rate, link up and ability to bring others into play as good as any in the Premier League. Third place behind only Jesse Lingard and DDG proved how important he's been to us this term - we need you out there for Saturday big Rom lad!

United head to Wembley with season-defining silverware at stake

London, and the capital's cathedral of football, await for Jose's United, who will meet Chelsea on Saturday team-time in our 20th FA Cup final. It all comes down to this - the Reds 56th and final tie of the season.
The team capped off a much-improved domestic campaign last Sunday, with our 25th league win of the season against Watford thanks to Marcus Rashford's goal. Although United finished with 12 more points, 15 more goals and four places higher that last time in our best league finish since 2012-13, the prospect of silverware makes Saturday's heavyweight clash with the deposed champions a season defining one.

"This club is all about trophies, titles, it's about finals" said Ander Herrera, who scored the winner in the semi against Spurs to send his side to the showpiece.
"We have another chance in another final against a top team, a very good team." added the Basque, an unused substitute during United's last FA Cup final - that 2-1 win over Palace in 2016 which at the time was a record-equalling 12th success in the competition. Herrera is under no illusion at the size of the challenge that awaits the side at Wembley.

He added: "There is a fifty per cent possibility for us, we will respect Chelsea but we know they are a top team, top quality, and are used to winning as well. This makes the final even more difficult. But we are Manchester United, so they will respect us as well." Herrera was injured in our last meeting with Chelsea, and will tussle with young Scott McTominay for a starting place in the final with both having superbly shackled Eden Hazard in disciplined man-marking jobs on the Belgian in the last two meetings between the sides at OT.
McTominay said: "The FA Cup is the one cup competition in England that everyone wants to win, it's important that we do go and really take the game to them and come away with the trophy."
Like Herrera, Phil Jones was also on bench for that 2016 showpiece, so this tie offers the centre-back a first chance of playing in an FA Cup final, having impressed alongside Chris Smalling in the semi-final against Spurs.

He said: "It's a fantastic history that we've got, time does not stand still and we can't let opportunities like this FA Cup final coming up pass us by. This team and this squad is the one that has to keep producing trophies and maintaining the history of the club."

On Saturday, Mourinho's men have the chance to do just that, by winning a record-equalling 13th F Cup which would, once more, make United the competition's joint-most successful club, alongside the Gunners. More importantly, it would add another piece of silverware to Old Trafford's bulging trophy cabinet, and provide the thousands of travelling Reds with one of the days of their lives beneath the iconic steeple of the Wembley arch.

Come on United - it's time to deliver!

One big job left in our record-equalling Cup final

The team have one big job left to finish the season on a high as Jose's United face his former side and under-pressure counterpart Antonio Conte in Saturday's FA Cup final. Having cemented our status as runners up in the league, our best post-SAF finish, attentions now turn to our record-equalling 20th final in English football's oldest and most prestigious competition and the chance to end the campaign with another piece of silverware to add to the Old Trafford cabinet. Granted it's not the league or European title that we may crave, but a trophy is a trophy, right?

Louis van Gaal ended his bizarre two-year reign with this cup in 2016, in a final fondly remembered for Jesse Lingard's coming of age winner deep into extra-time against Crystal Palace. That was followed by a Europa League and EFL Cup double during Jose's settling-in season, with United bidding for a fourth major trophy in three seasons. An impressive record for a side who we're constantly told are someway behind former glories. Only a league or Champions League title will ever truly sastify some legions of United's fanbase, and this has been a season of progress rather than success. We'll have nothing to show  for that improvement if we end up empty-handed, though, with Chelsea also in desperate need of a trophy to mask a very indifferent campaign for the under-fire Conte and his cohorts. Chelsea narrowly missed out on a rare league and cup double last season, pipped by Arsenal in the corresponding final. That win ensured that the Gunners moved ahead of United at the top of the all time FA Cup winners list, as they secured a 13th title in their history.

At times, the Reds have looked like Jekyll and Hyde United, with victories against all of the top six sides offset by shock defeats to all three promoted sides. If it's been an inconsistent season for our team, then the same can't be said for Chelsea - they have underperformed right from the get-go and that shock opening day loss to Burnley set the tone for what was to follow. Conte superbly steered his Blues to the title in a magnificent first season at the helm, but the deposed champions lost their way this time around and failed to even qualify for the Champions League, eleven points behind second placed United. After a fifth placed finish continued the recent trend of below-par title defences, Arsenal are surely not the only London club to be in the market for a new manager. It would be a major surprise if the firebrand Italian remains in charge for their Europa League season in 2018-19. Jose can claim a major part in Conte's downfall, with the Chelsea boss having never quite carried the same confident swagger since Mr Mourinho cut him down to size as tensions between the two men boiled over at the turn of the year. Conte has appeared a man at odds with himself - and those above him - all season and a parting of the ways now seems simply inevitable: a matter of when and not if, regardless of what happens here. Since our last FA Cup final meeting in 2007 - a cagey contest settled by Didier Drogba's extra-time winner - Chelsea have won the competition three times and boast an impressive recent record in the tournament.

We'll be keeping you across everything in the build-up to Saturday's final, with our full preview, thoughts from the squad and things to watch out for.


Monday 14 May 2018

Match report: United 1-0 Watford

Michael Carrick provided the assist on his final United appearance as a solitary Marcus Rashford goal cemented second place and saw us reach 81 points in the table.

Carrick - who captained the team on his 464th and farewell game - pinged a pinpoint pass into Juan Mata to square for Rashford on 34 minutes as the Reds ended the Premier League season with our highest points tally since we last won it in 2013. Carrick received a guard of honour from both sides and was taken off to a lasting and rapturous ovation five minutes from time before a post-match speech in which he spoke of the challenges ahead as a member of Jose's coaching staff.

Due to the 'dead rubber' status of the tie with next weekend's FA Cup final the priority and Watford already safe from relegation, it was a lethargic and low-key start with clear - cut chances at a premium. Then, in the 33rd minutes, Carras fittingly rolled back the years and put his own personal stamp on his final game with a glorious pass to start the move for the only goal. Deep in his own half, he guided a measured ball forward to pick out Mata, who had ghosted in beyond the Hornets backline.
Mata brilliantly controlled the ball and slid across goal for the onrushing Rashford, who side-footed home beyond Heurelho Gomes from close range.

Sergio Romero came into the side for the rested David de Gea, and the rested Spaniard would have been proud of his deputy's intervention shortly before the interval. He tipped Richarlison's point blank range header around the post, and then saved well to deny Gerard Deulofeu's follow-up effort from the resultant corner.
The second half resembled little more than an end-of-season stroll in the sun, as Old Trafford rose as one to offer support to Sir Alex Ferguson as he continues recovery from a brain haemorrhage.

 Mourinho threw a curve ball when Ander Herrera was introduced in place of Daley Blind, for whom this could also prove to be his final tie in the red of United. Scott McTominay flashed a shot wide from distance, before acclaim for the departing Carrick arrived in the 84th minute. A player who will forever be remembered as a legend and one of the greatest players in the history of this club left the stage for the final time to a standing ovation with arms aloft as he kissed the badge with a bear hug from his manager, Paul Pogba on in his place. All of it was fitting recognition for a magnificent and multi-medal winning United unsung hero.

There was no further action as the curtain came down on a league season which, although it did not yield the much longed-for title, saw United left in the shade only by the breathtaking brilliance of Pep Guardiola's record-smashing centurions.

Our campaign is not over yet, as attentions turn to the FA Cup final at Wembley against Chelsea next Saturday as United bid for a fourth major trophy in three seasons.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Michael Carrick. Hard to believe he's not Scholes.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Match preview: United v Watford

With nothing but pride to play for on the final day of the Premier League season, attentions turn to a fitting farewell for United legend Michael Carrick, in his final match before retirement.
After 12 years of loyal, brilliant and trophy-laden service, Carrick will captain the rotated Reds and is set to be substituted before the end of his 464th and final United tie to allow the Old Trafford crowd to pay homage to a player who will be fondly remembered as a criminally under-rated and understated stalwart of the club, a player who became the string-pulling heartbeat of our last great side, the 2008 Premier League and Champions League double winners. This is also United's 1,000th Premier League game in our history - only five other teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Spurs) will have reached that landmark.

With Rui Faria - Jose's long-time assistant - to leave United, his departure casts a new light on Carrick's position on the coaching staff next season: he could now be set for an earlier than expected promotion to Mourinho's number two right hand man, with the club keen on a former player to eventually take the top job.
Carras, winner of 18 major honours during his time with us, will skipper a much-changed United side, with second place secured and the FA Cup final clash with Chelsea looming large on the horizon. Sergio Romero, Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are all set to play, but Belgian duo Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku are both injured, with United hopeful the latter will be fit enough to feature in next week's final.
Javi Gracia's Hornets - sat safely in mid-table after an indifferent campaign - will be without six players for their season-ending trip to Old Trafford. Former Red Tom Cleverley is sidelined with a hamstring injury, with Younes Kaboul (metartarsal), Tommie Hoban and Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), and forwards Stefano Okaka (thigh) and Andre Carrillo (groin) all ruled out.

Second in the table will never be deemed a success by Jose or the club as a collective, but it represents our best finish since 2013 with the team currently 12 points better off than at the corresponding stage last season. 

On Carrick, Jose said: "He's going to start the match as the captain and he's not going to end the match because I want him the pitch alone and I want him to feel what the United supporters feel in relation to him.
"He is going to be even closer to me than he was as a player so it is just an emotional moment because it is the last match of a fantastic career for a fantastic player.
On the season, the boss added: "I'm happy because second place is the highest position that we had available since October or November, if we cannot be first we can be professional and finish in the next best position, we can jump to more than 80 points if we beat Watford - in the top two domestic competitions in this country, we are at least second best. It is not enough to celebrate - not for me - but we did our job the best we could and the boys can now think they have done a positive thing."

With Champions League football already in the bag and second place assured, the focus for the team is building confidence and momentum ahead of the cup final next Saturday. COYR!

Form guide: United L W W W L D Watford D L L D L W
Match odds: United 4/9 Draw 18/5 Watford 11/2
Referee: Lee Mason (Bolton)

Friday 11 May 2018

Captain Carrick set for United swansong

This weekend marks the end of the Premier League season, a United legend's farewell but not goodbye and the end of an era at Old Trafford.
Bringing down the curtain on his illustrious and decorated career, Michael Carrick will make his 464th - and final  - appearance for the club when he leads out the Reds as captain against Watford for his last game as a player before he hangs up his boots and takes up a role on the coaching staff next season.
As he ends his journey as a legendary player who became the unsung hero of one of this club's greatest ever sides, it could be the start of a brand new career that may one day culminate in Carrick patrolling and prowling the touchline, his initials interwoven into his club tracksuit and notebook in hand as manager of Manchester United. It might not be for a few years yet, it may not even happen at all, but for all his outwardly quiet and softly-spoken character, Carra is deeply respected by the players, possesses a steely determination and a calming influence and has often spoken of his desire to have a stab at management.

Jose Mourinho has confirmed that Carrick - who bows out after 12 illustrious and trophy-laden years at United during which he won everything there is to win at club level -  will skipper a much- changed side and will be substituted at some point during the tie to allow him to leave the Old Trafford pitch alone to a standing ovation in honour of his loyal and unstinting service ahead of the traditional end of season lap of honour - a nice sentimental touch from the boss to ensure a richly deserved swansong for a criminally under-rated and under-appreciated player. Carrick has made only four appearances this season, and - as Wayne Rooney was last season - been gradually phased out of Jose's evolving United team. Never a star in the traditional sense of Cantona, a Beckham or a CR7, Carrick was vital to our greatest successes in the modern era despite going under the radar. Carefully constructing attacks and dictating play, he boasted a phenomenal range of passing, his positioning and composure was excellent, and his reading of the game faultless. Throw in his immense and unyielding consistency, and you have the perfect deep-lying playmaker.

Eyebrows were raised when Sir Alex parted with £16mil to sign Carrick from Tottenham in 2006, but he quickly won over the early doubters to become a key cog in a metronomic midfield of grit-and-guile alongside the equally as pivotal and much more celebrated figure of Paul Scholes. The pair developed into the string-pulling heartbeat of United's 2008 Double winners - a side widely regarded as among the finest in our history and our last 'truly great' team. Carrick is the last man standing from that vintage, his final flourish synonymous with the passing of time as the flame flickers and dies as a last reminder of United's golden age. As he did throughout his decorated playing days, Carrick will be working hard to improve and develop other United players from the touchline in a typically understated manner.

 Thanks for the memories, Carras...

Why Jose Mourinho remains the right man for Manchester United

Football is a game of opinions and you won't ever hear me criticising anyone for expressing theirs but, for those who want Jose Mourinho sacked, please have a word with yourself and think about what you want. Yes it's true we might not be the most colourful side to watch but is that the be all and end all - when a pragmatic and business-like German side won the World Cup in 2014, were their fans complaining? I don't think so. Do you think anyone was bothered when those two last minute goals nestled into the back of the Bayern Munich net in a Champions League final in which we had been substandard at best? Diego Simeone - arguably the greatest manager in Atletico Madrid history - broke the Barca/Real La Liga duopoly in 2014, came within a penalty kick of winning the Champions League and will lead his side out for a second Europa League final in a few weeks time. Regarded as an arch pragmatist with an emphasis on a tightly organised and well drilled defensive shape, you don't hear any of their fans baying for his blood. Quite the opposite - Simeone has become a legend and one of the most sought-after bosses of his generation.

We've been utterly spoilt throughout years of unprecedented success and I wouldn't trade those times for anything, but in many ways those halycon days of yesteryear created an unreasonable level of expectation and self-entitlement that leaves some legion of fans acting like spoilt children who want everything yesterday - a legion of so called fans for whom there will never be any pleasing. If you want amazing, exciting football then go and watch Tottenham, just don't expect any silverware any time soon. If Spurs are as brilliant as they are made out to be, then ask yourself this: how come we've scored near enough the same number of goals as them, beaten them twice and are certain to finish higher this year. Same can be said for Jurgen Klopp's "heavy metal" Liverpool - who are yet to have beaten us since Jose's appointment almost two years ago.

We knew what we were getting with Jose - he's the closest guaruantee of success as its possible to have - so why is there so much contempt? This is a man who has prioritised substance over style throughout his illustrious career - his Internazionale side that won the Champions League in 2010 was an ageing, far from vintage team that won the semi final against Barcelona with 28% of the ball in the second leg in the Nou Camp. In the final vs Louis van Gaal's Bayern, they had 32% possession and won 2-0. Mourinho's managerial career in microcosm. Winning is the name of the game - how you do so is merely a footnote that no one ever remembers. First and foremost, winning silverware should be the only thing that matters to a club and a manager. As a fan, I want to see the team I love, win trophies and be successful. In a perfect world in the obsessive search for the perfect football ideology,  there seems to be an indulgance that you should so in an 'attractive' manner, but we don't live in such perfect times. Pep Guardiola is a rare exception to the rule (and look at what he's got at his disposal). I'd much rather 'win ugly' every week if it means a trophy or two at the end of a long season than support a club that win nothing but plaudits for their style.

 In the two seasons since he arrived at Old Trafford, Jose has picked up the shattered remnants of two catastrophic managerial regimes and turned United into a competitive - if not quite yet all-conquering - beast once more. The two trophies last season, in the form of a first ever Europa League victory coupled with the EFL Cup, may have been offset by a lacklustre sixth-placed Premier League finish, but proved a sign of things to come. At this moment in time, who else could do any better and oversee such a monumental task of repairing the shoddy building project of three previous managers?..A change would take us back to square one and wouldn't make any difference. 
 Even during a transitional settling in season, he managed to bring in two trophies and has continued that with signs of tangible progression this time as we've secured a second placed finish. We've had our best finish since SAF, accrued more points, scored more goals in a single season since 2013, with had some high-octane results to savour, beating all of the top six - often in a thrilling and gloriously unexpected manner along the way. Yes, we've been inconsistent and yes there's been some dissapointments, there's no getting away from that, but looking at the season as a whole and the improvement is there for everyone to see. If not for the swashbuckling and consisteny brilliance of City - the most dominant champions the land has ever seen - we'd be right in contention for the title. We have of course got one more big job left - the fillip of a 20th FA Cup final and the chance for a record-equalling 13th victory in English football's oldest and most prestigious knockout tournament. A chance for our fourth trophy in three seasons. For many, that still won't be good enough, but then nothing ever will be.

Positivity mixed with disappointment as United seal second spot

United's goalless draw at the London Stadium cemented our status as the best of the rest in the Premier League as runners up, albeit by a considerable distance to all-conquering champions Manchester City. Added to that is the caveat of a record-equalling 20th FA Cup final next weekend against Chelsea, our fourth major cup final in three seasons. Yet it's still not enough for some. There may still be misgivings over style, but you can't be greedy and have everything.
The progress has been clear for all to see. All I keep hearing is how wonderful Tottenham and Liverpool both are, yet we're above both in the table having beaten the former twice and we're unbeaten against the men from Merseyside since Jose took over. Neither of them have ever done anything, yet all we get is criticism. I'd much rather have a pragmatic manager with a winning mentality than one who feels obliged to enthrall but consistently fails to deliver on the biggest stage.. ask yourself this question: would anyone be moaning if we'd have just won the title. If you say yes then that simply does not hold sway. I've never known there to be so much negativity surrounding a second-placed side, one who could yet add another piece of silverware to the cabinet.

There are some so called United 'fans' who, thanks to the glories of yesteryear, are spoilt brats that want everything yesterday, but the reality is that a second placed finish represents our best finish of the post-Ferguson era, with more points and more goals accrued in a single season since our last title-winning one of 2012-13. Second place should not be a cause for celebration, as Jose himself alluded to, more a sense of a satisfying step in the right direction and a great deal of progress from 12 months ago. We're not underachieving, nor are we overachieving. It's a fair reflection of where we are as a club at this moment in time, and also it's important to remember that City - set to become the first top-flight team in history to hit a century of points - have surpassed every single one of the previous 26 sides to be crowned Premier League champions. They've broken nearly every record in the book. What are we expected to do against a team that have been so dominant all season long? Of course, ideally we'd have liked to have been closer to Pep and his boys when the season kicked off back in August - a campaign that began with so much promise - but none of us could have imagined the dazzling new heights that City would go on to reach. All we can do is doff our collective caps and satisfy ourselves that we're superior to the other 90 teams in the country. It's hard to imagine a repeat of such a stunning season for the neighbours next term, and having turned sixth into second, there's no reason why - with a bit of consistency - we can't go one better in 2018-19 as they will surely suffer a drop-off (just look at Leicester and Chelsea as proof of how hard it is to retain the title).

David De Gea will pick up his first Golden Glove award for the Premier League keeper with the most clean sheets, with the draw at the London Stadium his 18th of the season. This felt like a tie in which Mourinho utitlised his options with cup final places up for grabs, and maybe also a last chance for some squad members whose futures remain uncertain.

Match report: West Ham United 0-0 United

Jose's United picked up the point we needed to secure a second - placed league finish with a game to spare in a dead rubber tie at the London Stadium. With the FA Cup final in mind - and perhaps to enable him to look at players to keep or not next season - it was an unorthdox 3-4-2-1 formation with no out-and-out strikers and eight changes from the side that lost at Brighton last time out.

The Reds end the season at home to Watford on Sunday, another tie in which Jose is set to rotate his side again ahead of the cup final clash with Chelsea next week. With a back three against the Hammers and former United boss David Moyes, there was an experimental look to the line-up as the hosts, who secured Premier Leageu safety at Leicester, started brightly. In-form Marko Arnautovic had an early effort saved by David De Gea, and the livewire Austrian then went close again after Chris Smalling's nervy miscue.

Scott McTominay flashed a drive wide, before Adrian made the first of a number of impressive saves when he beat out Jesse Lingard's effort from distance as the West Ham stopper started to his earn his corn. He saved well from Alexis and Luke Shaw thumped against the post from the rebound, before the recalled wing-back tested the keeper again in a strong spell of United pressure before the interval.

Arnautovic continued to look a threat and drifted past Smalling to find Joao Mario at the near post but his flicked header drifted off target before Lingard was thwarted again by the increasingly busy Adrian. United continued to carve out chances, this time through Paul Pogba who went close twice in quick succession with a header and a 30 yarder which he thumped narrowly wide after excellent build up play from Alexis.

The match petered out into nothing as the clock ticked down with both sides seemingly content to hold what they had. Arnautovic sliced a wayward volley off target and Phil Jones cleared went under pressure from substitute Andy Carroll. Completely out of context in a typical end of season nothing tie, there was an unexpected rise in the temperature with both Pogba and Mark Noble booked for a fiery coming together in the dying moments. The West Ham skipper was fortunate not to escape more serious censure for raising his arms before Carroll and Luke Shaw became involved in the melee.

Dave claimed his maiden Golden Glove award with the result United's 18th clean sheet of the campaign.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jesse Lingard

Sunday 6 May 2018

Jekyll and Hyde United hit unwanted hat-trick

United may yet reach 83 points and are still likely to finish runners - up, left in the shade only by the all-conquering brilliance of the Manchester City juggernaut. Yet this has been a bizarre Jekyll and Hyde season, one that hit another dissappointing dip on the south coast. The Reds have beaten Arsenal (twice), Tottenham (twice), Chelsea, Liverpool and City in recent months, but yet have now lost to all three of the promoted sides - Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton, scoring only once and conceding four. That, more than anything, encapsulates the peaks and troughs of an improved but strangely erratic season. A baffling lack of consistency had continually proved our undoing.

The Champions League KO against Sevilla came hot on the heels of the victory over Liverpool, we lost to West Brom a week after that win of all wins at the Etihad, and this defeat at the Amex brought us crashing back down to earth again, a matter of days after we shot down the Gunners with Marouane Fellaini's late intervention. I've given up trying to put my finger on why this keeps happening - why every belting victory is followed by the desperate low of defeat when it's least expected. It's clearly not a question of ability and talent - if that's the case then how come we've beaten all of our heavyweight rivals? Maybe it's because Jose doesn't know how to approach the fixtures against the league's lesser lights and that uncertainty filters through to the players. Maybe it's a question of mentality and attitude. Whatever the issue is, we're not going to get anywhere until it's resolved. We don't have a proper captain, a leader, in this multinational, vastly talented and expensively assembled squad, and that's something that holds sway in feeling a certain degree of empathy for the manager - you can't just go out, buy a player and give him the armband. The art of having a natural born captain simply doesn't work like that.

The Seagulls needed the points more with the whiff of survival in their nostrils, and United haven't got much to play for in the league with the FA Cup final looming large in a fortnight's time. Perhaps with that season - defining tussle with Chelsea in mind, it was a heavily rotated United side for the Friday night fixture, with six changes from the Arsenal tie and a rare run out for many of the Reds fringe players.

Jose's shop - window eleven failed to impress, with wantaway full-back Matteo Darmian left bruised and bewildered with the audacious dribbling and directness of Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert. Why Victor Lindelof - comfortably our man of the match against Arsenal - was overlooked in favour of a rusty and undercooked Marcos Rojo is beyond me. Paul Pogba briefly spluttered into life as United pressed late on, but the Frenchman was otherwise quiet. With Romelu Lukaku injured and Alexis Sanchez rested, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were given rare chances to shine. If this was a chance to prove the pair of them should start more often, it was not one they seized.
It has been a season of flux for Rashford, whose megawatt glow has dimmed since the turn of the year. Since then, there have been only three goals - one against Yeovil and two against Liverpool - with only one full 90 minutes completed in that period. Rust has begun to creep into the golden game of one of England's - and United's genuine 24-carat talents. Martial has been linked with a move away, and it's not hard to see why on this evidence.

Nemanja Matic needs a rest and Marouane Fellaini - who has not exactly done his already questionable popularity any good with recent comments over his contract - should not have started. It was a mish-mash selection and one that proved the second string aren't of the standard required.

Match report: Brighton&Hove Albion 1-0 United

Jose's rotated Reds suffered another inglorious dip in this bizarre Jekyll and Hyde season as a Pascal Gross header ensured Chris Hughton's Brighton rubber - stamped their Premier League survival. Gross met Jose Izquierdo's back post cross on 57 minutes and despite Marcos Rojo's futile attempts to clear, the ball crept beyond David de Gea's whitewash by the tiniest of fractions - a mere 28.3mm. On such fine margins are ties won and seasons decided.

With the cup final on the horizon, this was very much a second - string United side for the trip to the south coast, but the fringe players failed to grasp their opportunity and made it an unwanted hat-trick of defeats, with the team now having lost away to all three promoted sides. Offset against impressive wins over all of the league's heavyweights, this has been a strange season in which logic has been tossed aside, although following results elsewhere over the weekend, a solitary point is all that's required for a second placed finish with two matches to play.

Marouane Fellaini touched in Marcus Rashford's second minute free-kick, only to correctly be adjudged offside, and Dale Stephens went close with an early sighter at the other end. Izquierdo had a daisycutter gathered before DDG was truly tested for the first time on 32 minutes. The ball sat up nicely for Brighton's top scorer Glenn Murray 25 yards out, he thumped it goalwards but De Gea - at full stretch - somehow tipped it past the post. De Gea saved well again from the mercurial Izquierdo, and the resultant corner narrowly evaded the onrushing Murray from a Duffy flick on.

Missing the injured Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, Rashford was left to plough a lone furrow up top and got little joy out of Brighton's miserly centre back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. When he did manage to get the better of the former and burst into the box, the zip and assurance of Rashford's best work was betrayed by a failure to find the onrushing Anthony Martial, he was crowded out by a posse of players and the chance had gone.
Anthony Knockaert has endured a difficult Premier League season having been the best player in the Championship last term, but he came to the party here, causing United's hapless defensive duo Rojo and Matteo Darmian no end of problems. He flashed a shot wide and had another sighter cleared, before Dunk bravely blocked a Paul Pogba piledriver from distance in unorthodox fashion with his face shortly before the break.

When Brighton's best chance arrived three minutes shy of the hour mark, they took it. Darmian's misjudgement allowed Izquierdo to surge beyond him and whip the ball in. His lofted cross was met by Gross, who crashed the header goalwards. Rojo looked to have cleared, but Craig Pawson's wristwatch was buzzing, the AMEX erupted, a city did too and - ragged and reeling - United were on the ropes. On the intervention of the Goal Decision System, Brighton's safety was sealed.

United were understrength and Jose sent on Luke Shaw along with former Brighton loanee Jesse Lingard in response. United probed and pressed without ever really penetrating. Mat Ryan cleared well under pressure from Chris Smalling, and Lingard lashed wastefully wide with four minutes left having linked superbly with Rashford in a rare moment of quality.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea.

Friday 4 May 2018

Match preview: Brighton&Hove Albion v United

United make a first ever visit to Brighton's AMEX Stadium for a rare Friday night fixture in our penultimate away league game of the season. The south coast side have proved a tough nut to crack this term - particularly at home where only Chelsea, Liverpool, City and Leicester have prevailed. Chris Hughton's side are not yet mathematically safe, however, and would confirm survival in their debut Premier League season with a win here.

This will be a new away day experience for the travelling Reds, with United not having played away at Brighton since 1982 when the Seagulls plied their trade at the old Goldstone Ground. Having moved to to the 30,000 capacity AMEX in 2011, Brighton enjoyed six seasons of Championship football before their promotion to the Premier League last term.

Romelu Lukaku will miss out through injury having been forced off last time out against Arsenal, but the Belgian is expected to be fit for the FA Cup final on 19 May. Eric Bailly is available, with goalkeeper Sergio Romero the Reds only other absentee. As for Brighton, midfield man Davy Propper could feature after the completion of a three - match ban for his sending - off against Huddersfield. Beram Kayal has done well in the Dutchman's absence so could keep his place in the Seagulls side, a team spearheaded by 14 goal top scorer Glenn Murray, who at 34 has continued to bely his veteran status. This will be the third time the two sides have met this season, with United the reverse league fixture 1-0 back at Old Trafford in November, we also knocked Brighton out of the FA Cup at the quarter - final stage, the tie ending 2-0 in our favour on a bitterly cold Saturday evening back in March. The Albion come into this tie in 14th position on 37 points, five clear of third-from-bottom Saints with two games to go - although those are away to champions City and third - placed Liverpool in a daunting run - in.
 Having been clear of the drop zone all season long - even briefly rising as high as eighth, Brighton held Spurs to a draw in their last outing at The AMEX, and have also taken the scalp of Arsenal in their biggest result so far.

United boss Jose Mourinho belives Brighton are a good side who will cause us problems, and said: "I think they are a strong side, capable of giving us a difficult match. They are not desperate - their situation is probably good enough, I don't think they need any more points to survive. They need mathematical confirmation, but they survive safely all season. For us, we need four points in three matches so if we can leave Brighton in a better position, then that is good.
"Bailly is one of five defenders that I can use, he is not injured but there is a World Cup coming and he is the only one whose country is not in it, so I have to make a kind of emotional and effective choice to try to help my players."

The Reds look set to secure second spot, which would be our highest finish for five years, with ties at West Ham and at home to Watford on the final day to come after this one.

Form guide: Brighton&HA L L D L D D United W W L W W W
Match odds: Brighton&HA 10/4 Draw 14/5 United 4/5

Referee: Craig Pawson

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Spanish Dave scoops POTY double again

David de Gea won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award - as voted for by United fans - for the fourth time in five seasons to become the all - time record winner of the coveted gong at our annual awards night.
The prestigious prize is certainly in safe hands, after Dave - who was the first man to win it in three consecutive years between 2014 and 2016 - surpassed Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick. Ander Herrera broke the streak last season, but after yet another stellar season in which he cemeted his status as the best in the world, De Gea pipped runner - up Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku in third. De Gea's double save at Arsenal, in one of the finest goalkeeping clinics the Premier League has ever seen, was voted as stop of the season. His fine form earned an inclusion in the PFA Team of the Season for the fifth time, and nomination for the main Player of the Year award - eventually deservedly won by Liverpool's Mohamed Salah.

De Gea - who won United's Player of the Month awa
rd back in February -  is also on course for a first ever "Golden Glove", awarded to the man with the most clean sheets across the 38-game league campaign, two ahead of Manchester City keeper Ederson. Along with United's miserly defence, De Gea has kept 21 clean sheets so far. Facing stiff competition, De Gea also emerged a worthy winner of the Players Player of the Year, decided by his peers to scoop a glittering double. From that remarkable intervention in Andalusia against Sevilla, to that aforementioned stunning string of stops at the Emirates, the keeper has made a number of truly spectacular saves that have often defied logic, belief and description. He will head to Russia for the World Cup as the undisputed number one for both club and country. It has been another campaign of records and recognition for the man who, if he isn't already, will surely go down as the finest ever custodian in the club's history by the time he hang up his gloves.

Nemanja Matic has enjoyed an immense debut season as the heartbeat of United's engine room, a campaign capped with the Goal of the Season gong for his injury time intervention under the lights in south London, his dipping 30 yarder completing a memorable and madcap United comeback. Antonio Valencia's piledriver vs Everton came close with a number of Jesse Lingard worldies also in contention, but Matic deservedly picked up that prize.

United manager Jose Mourinho admitted that he is not a big advoceur of individual prizes, but that did not stop the boss from a surprise gatecrashing of the ceremony, as he paid tribute to rising star Scott McTominay, presenting the young Scot with his unofficial Manager's Player of the Year.

The other age group awards saw full - back Demetri Mitchell and prospect Tahith Chong named as the Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year and Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year respectively, with the pair proudly named as the star performers for United's Under 23 and Under 18