Sunday 29 December 2019

Match report: Burnley 0-2 Man Utd

Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford scored late in each half as United signed off for 2019 with victory at Turf Moor.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds moved to within a point of the top four after back to back wins over Christmas and ended a 14-game run without a clean sheet. United have now taken 13 points from our last six ties and what, on paper at least, looked a difficult proposition, instead presented few problems on a comfortable afternoon for the Reds.

After his brace against Newcastle on Boxing Day, Martial tapped in his tenth of the season from close range a minute before the break. Andreas Pereira had dispossessed Charlie Taylor and picked out the onrushing Frenchman with a superb cross. Rashford then raced clear in stoppage time to put the seal on a deserved result.

Although Sean Dyche's Burnley sparked into life after half-time and David de Gea saved well from ex-Red Phil Bardsley, the Clarets never looked likely to extend United's wait for a clean sheet.

Martial had a goal ruled out after he was adjudged to have pushed James Tarkowski in the back, and Jeff Hendrick went close at the other end, as he skewed a shot wide when well placed.
The Frenchman had a shot cleared off the line by Bardsley, who was then involved at the other end as he popped up in the box, only for De Gea to save well low down.

Renowned as one of the trickier away trips in the league, akin to the days of Stoke City, the Clarets gave their visitors a typical blood-and-thunder-welcome with Ashley Barnes involved in an aerial tete-a-tete with namesake Young.

Nick Pope denied Rashford from a set piece, and the in-form 22 year old, in his best ever goalscoring season, went close again on the half hour mark. A viciously dipping shot from distance left Pope grasping at thin air, but the ball tickled the left hand post and bounced to safety.
Martial narrowly failed to turn home a cross from the superb Brandon Williams, but with half-time approaching, the breakthrough duly arrived.

Good work by Pereira saw him improbably nick the ball from Taylor, and the Brazilian then simply slipped in Martial and he showed excellent composure to tuck the ball beyond Pope and put United ahead.

Substitute Jesse Lingard was crowded out before Bardsley's effort, when the former United man stretched every sinew to meet a free-kick, but De Gea was equal to it and managed to tip wide.

Ben Mee and Taylor were booked in quick succession for fouls on the resilient Dan James, and Martial had the chance to put the result beyond doubt on the break. He showed why he can be so frustrating when he checked back under pressure from Pope when he had options for a pass or could have taken a shot on.

The Reds have let leads slip late on too many times this season, especially away from home, but there was to be no repeat this time.

After a couple of heart-in-mouth moments as the Clarets mounted an aerial bombardment at the death, the Reds wrapped up victory with a classic, trademark counter attack clincher. Young released James and he in turn found Rashford who burst clear and slid the ball home to send United into 2020 well placed in the table.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Andreas Pereira

Saturday 28 December 2019

Match preview: Burnley v Man Utd in our last tie of 2019

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer makes his first visit to Turf Moor as United manager a mere 48 hours after the Boxing Day win over Newcastle.
Solskjaer was not in charge for last term's 2-0 victory over our east Lancashire neighbours in September, coming three months before predecessor Jose Mourinho was sacked. Romelu Lukaku scored twice and Marcus Rashford was sent off.

The Reds make the 36-mile trip for an unusual Saturday kick off time of 7.45, off the back of a miserable defeat to Watford but impressive victory over Steve Bruce's Magpies. The fixtures come thick and fast at this time of year so Solskjaer is likely to make changes to keep players fresh with a New Year's Day tie at Arsenal looming on the horizon. The United boss admitted his side, whilst showing signs of progress, are further behind in the development than he had hoped for at this stage.

In our last game of 2019 and of the 2010s as a decade, it is impossible to predict what type of United side we are going to see. As erratic as we are electric, nothing has epitomised our season quite like the last two results. Two wins, a draw and a defeat in our last four games has only highlighted our consistent inconsistency. Despite that, United are somehow still in the fight for fourth, sitting only four points off a Champions League place and hunting down a Chelsea side as equally as up and down as us. When we are up and at em, we are as good as any side in Europe on our day. Yet we struggle to beat the likes of Watford, West Ham, Rochdale and dare I say it, Burnley on a bad day.

When that's the case, the last side you want to face is Sean Dyche's Clarets. A classic old school exponent of the low block 4-4-2, the Clarets - to their immense credit - have become an established Premier League force. United have a good record at Turf Moor having won there on every occasion since the hosts returned to the top table. Perversely, Burnley are unbeaten at Old Trafford across the same timeframe having pilfered three successive points on our turf (0-0 and 2-2, twice). We haven't lost to the east Lancashire side since our first ever Premier League meeting in 2009, when Robbie Blake sealed a famous 1-0 win for Owen Coyle's team.

Former Reds Phil Bardsley, Danny Drinkwater and Robbie Brady all ply their trade for Burnley, for whom Dyche recently celebrated seven years at the helm, therefore becoming the third longest serving boss in England.

A trip to Turf Moor under the lights in the middle of a frantic festive fixture schedule will be another huge test for Solskjaer's inconsistent Reds.
Scott McTominay is set to miss out having picked up a suspected knee injury in the win over Newcastle. McSauce was taken off at half time and was replaced by Paul Pogba. The Frenchman - having stepped off the bench in the last two games - could come in for his first start since September.
Diogo Dalot, Marcos Rojo and long term absentees Eric Bailly and Timothy Fosu - Mensah are all still sidelined but Daniel James could be brought back in having sat out the Boxing Day bonanza.

The decision on whether to go with James or stick with the in-form Mason Greenwood is Solskjaer's main selection dilemma for this one.
Dyche has a fully fit squad to choose from, with forward Ashley Barnes to return to the team for the visit of United having been rested in their defeat at Everton.

On preparing for two games in three days, Solskjaer said: "I don't think its fair to be expected to perform at your top level, mentally and physically, 48 hours after you have played.
"But I think we are in the best position to recover for Saturday. We managed to get the game over with by half time against Newcastle and we have young players in a young team with plenty of energy.
"We have an average age of 23 so that makes things easier and gives us an advantage over Burnley I think."

Form guide: Burnley L L L W W L Man Utd W W D W L W
Match odds: Burnley 15/4 Draw 11/4 Man Utd 3/4
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)

Prediction: Turf Moor is never an easy place to go and United struggle to break down sides who sit deep and put eleven men behind the ball. We think the first of three very difficult away ties for United will end all square. 1-1.

Friday 27 December 2019

Manchester United: Best XI of the decade

It's been a strange decade to be a Manchester United fan. It started just like any other, with a 12th and then a 13th Premier League title pilfered in 2011 and 2013. The continuation of the most trophy laden era in the club's history offset the latter part of the decade's constant state of flux and flummox.
We had the agony of the Sergio Aguero final day drama and the football landscape shifted dramatically forever when the day we had all been dreading became reality. Sir Alex Ferguson retired after a quarter of a century at the helm and - sure - there has been the odd trophy but the club entered our #BanterEra and have yet to come out the other side.
There have been highs, lows, five managers and a string of awful signings punctuated by some fine individual performances, games and goals.

It is the early part of the decade that this "best of" XI is perhaps slanted towards, but two current players and one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's coaching staff have made their way into this side.

Picking this was nostalgic and somewhat sobering. In either two of the previous decades, there was a plethora of title winning superstars to cut down into an all conquering eleven. For 2010-2020, though, the pickings were slim. The entire back four and two thirds of the attacking trio had already left the club by the halfway point of the decade.

I have chosen to reward consistency, longevity and quality over several years as the basis for inclusion with the exception of a couple of these men. So without further do, we hereby announce United Faithful's Team of the 2010s.

David de Gea

A no brainer. In a Manchester United side forever searching for consistency, De Gea has stood out as the one loan beacon of hope. A ray of light shining amidst the gloom. Whereas his predecessor Edwin van der Sar would have been a shoe-in for a team of the 2000s, De Gea is a certainty for this one. He may be past his best but there can be no denying the impact he's had since signing in 2011. It's a shame for him that his playing for the club in such a difficult period has perhaps denied him the chance of the major trophies. He has been a one man wall at times. His aura has certainly dropped over the last 18 months but his overall contribution has been immense and he deserves to be remembered as one of our best ever custodians.

Antonio Valencia

An honourable mention to the popular and affable Rafael Da Silva, but we've opted for consistency and loyalty over perhaps more notable  - if brief - title-winning excellence. Valencia may have been arguably inferior to his south American colleague in terms of pure pound for pound quality, but Old Trafford can rarely have seen such a hard working stalwart as the Ecuadorian. Valencia hit his peak during 2011 - 2013 when he was regarded as the best wideman in the league. He was a winger then, but converted himself into a full-back through sheer hard graft and even went on to captain the club. His consistency was also rewarded with the United Players Player of the Year and also won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year Award.

Rio Ferdinand

Steves Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates and Paul Allen. The Two Ronnies. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Just three of the greatest non football partnerships the world has ever seen. There can be no debate that when the subject of the best centre-back duo ever to grace the Premier League is mentioned, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic won't be far away. His best days may have been behind him by the time he left in 2014 after 12 years, but there have been few - if any - better. United have had plenty of other centre-backs since, but none have come close, not yet anyway, to warrant inclusion here. Ferdinand won two league titles in the 2010s, and was named in the Premier League team of the Year for 2012-13.

Nemanja Vidic

You can't have chips without vinegar can you? We can't include Rio without Vidic - during a time when United were the dominant force of English football, these two were simply totemic. It didn't help our post Sir-Alex cause than Vidic left at the same time as Ferdinand, as United's incredible, all conquering quartet slowly but inexorably broke up. Vidic also won two league titles at Old Trafford during the decade and was included in FIFA's Team of the Year for 2011 - when the Reds unexpectedly made the Champions League final. Vidic was an absolute tank and will forever be regarded as one of the greatest defenders in our club's history. The fact he has long left United yet still was an easy pick for this speaks volumes.

Patrice Evra

Like Vidic and Rio, Evra's best years came before the turn of the decade. But, at his peak, Evra was the best in the world in his position and is one of the best left-backs Old Trafford has ever seen. A leader on the pitch and off it, his presence was key as he won five league titles during an eight-year stay in Manchester. Evra captained United and his leadership qualities were widely praised. He left United at the same time as Ferdinand and Vidic, but will forever be synonymous with arguably the greatest ever back four the Reds have ever boasted. Luke Shaw is the only other left-back you could consider, but he's nowhere near the Frenchman and continues to flatter to deceive. I wouldn't mention him in the same book, never mind on the same page, as an ageing Evra.

Michael Carrick

After the blood and thunder of the Roy Keane era came the calm and smooth serenity of Michael Carrick. After the Ferrari came the Rolls Royce. Not as celebrated as his predecessor, Carrick's impact at Old Trafford was just as good as the Irishman's. The string-pulling heartbeat of United's engine room right up until 2018, Carrick played over 400 games for the Reds. Criminally under-rated, Carrick is one of an elite group of players to win every available major honours in the game. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year for 2013 and is now a member of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's backroom staff. "It's Carrick, ya know.... hard to believe he's not Scholes." He's exactly the sort of player the current team needs.

Ander Herrera

This was a tough call. We could have gone with Ryan Giggs but he didn't play long enough in the decade to really warrant inclusion. Herrera got the nod, and, like his team-mate Carrick, Herrera never got the credit he deserved. A lung-busting exponent of the "needle" and the dark arts, Herrera made us tick and was Man of the Match in the Europa League final against Ajax. Herrera's responsible for one of the finest individual performances I've ever seen from a United player when he man marked Eden Hazard out the game in 2017 as champions Chelsea were beaten at Old Trafford. There have probably been far better midfielders in terms of skill, flair and excitement at United in modern times, but some players have other strings to their bow. Herrera was such a man and United made a huge mistake in allowing him to leave. Given how our midfield has been of late, it's a decision that has made less and less sense as the weeks have gone by. I could have put Paul Pogba in ahead of the Basque here, but his a United career that has yet to take off and may never do so.

Paul Scholes

Although Scholes was heading towards the end of his career at the start of the decade, he was like a fine wine. Scholesy got better with age and would still do a job in midfield now. There's no doubt he's a significant upgrade ahead of what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer currently has at his disposal. Scholes would win the Reds games with his calmness and maturity, his passes were laser guided missiles and he was regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation. The complete player, the Ginger Prince won praise for his decorated career from his peers such as Xavi, Pele and Zinedine Zidane. The ultimate one club man in an era where players jump ship at the drop of a hat, Scholes is a shoe-in for any greatest XI and was included in the Premier League Team of the Decade for the 2000s.

Wayne Rooney

All time top goalscorer for both United and England, 122 of Rooney's goals came after 2010, more than warranting his inclusion in this selection. Rooney and De Gea were the easiest picks for this team, but we shouldn't ignore the former's continued desire to leave Old Trafford twice (2010&2013). It is this perhaps, that means Rooney still cuts a divisive figure amongst pundits and fans alike despite his staggering statistics. Any lineup that omits Rooney isn't worth even reading. Despite leaving in 2017, he is still a talismanic, synonymous figurehead behind some of United's best performances in the 2010s. His form dwindled in his last couple of seasons at OT under Jose Mourinho but he still managed to eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton's goalscoring record and win the Europa League.

Robin van Persie

What RVP's United career lacked in longevity, it more than made up for in impact. Simply based on the difference he made during our last title winning tete-a-tete in 2012/13, Van Persie has to be in this side. It may have only been one good season but goodness, what a season it was. Sir Alex Ferguson stunned world football when he eked Arsenal's prized asset out of north London and brought him to Manchester for a paltry £24m, offering him a long awaited tilt at the title he so craved. Boy, did he deliver - 26 goals that season proved pivotal as we wrestled the Premier League crown back from our neighbours City. Every goal was totemic, as he hit in ten different one goal victories and four draws. Not forgetting his free-kick at the death to pilfer the points at the Etihad. Injuries and the retirement of Sir Alex may have curtailed the remainder of his time at United, but he went on to score another 22 goals for the club - 48 goals in 86 league matches in all. An instrumental talisman in United's 20th, and to date last, league title, more than earns him a spot in my All-Decade XI.

Marcus Rashford

We were tempted to go with Zlatan for the final spot, but Rashford is more than worthy of a spot in this team. Having scored on every debut for United, he's already won three trophies and hit 50 goals for the club at the age of still only 22. He might be playing in an underwhelming team at the minute but he's enjoying the best season of a fledgling career and seeing him in the same team as Rooney and RVP would be a dream (or a nightmare, depending on who you support). There's a cracking player in Rashford and it's the fact he's a young local boy from the Academy who has risen through the ranks that shifts the balance in his favour ahead of Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic only had one season but - unlike RVP - the impact he made wasn't big enough to ignore. Although he had some world class moments, we don't feel he did enough to get in. I don't think the world is ready for my Team of the Decade with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, so Rashford it is - deservedly so.

So there you have it - De Gea, Valencia, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick, Herrera, Scholes, Rashford, Van Persie, Rooney.

What will the next decade bring? I can't wait to find out.

Manchester United in a decade: The 2010s

Christmas has gone and the New Year is fast approaching. The end of 2019 marks not only the start of 2020, but also the beginning of a new decade. A New Year is traditionally a time for reflection and contemplation on the last 12 months but also an opportunity to look forward at what lies ahead.

It hasn't been a vintage decade and the lows have certainly outweighed the highs since our last league title win in 2013. We won the FA Cup under Louis van Gaal, and both the League Cup and Europa League under Jose Mourinho in 2016-17. The first third of the decade continued the trophy laden zenith of this great club's illustrious history, whilst the rest has been a series of false dawns, awful signings and almost unrelenting underachievement.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds play their last game of 2019 at Burnley on Saturday as the games come thick and fast, before kicking off the new decade at Arsenal on New Year's Day. Here at United Faithful we decided to walk down memory lane and take a look at our club's best goals, games, players and moments from the 2010s. Here's to the next decade.

Best player - David de Gea

There were several contenders for this one - with honourable mentions to Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick to name but four, but we went for De Gea in the end. Although De Gea is no longer at the peak of his considerable powers, we would have been significantly worse off without him over the past six years. Four times our club's Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year thanks to his excellent consistency between the sticks, De Gea has also been in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year on five occasions.
His performance levels have dropped over the last 18 months, but he still deserves huge credit for what he's achieved - individually at least - during his time at Old Trafford. It's a shame he hasn't gone on to win the glut of major trophies that would be fitting for a player of his quality. There can be no doubt his place amongst United's great pantheon of legendary keepers.

Best game - Crystal Palace 1-2 Man Utd (FA Cup Final 2016)

Perhaps not the first game that springs to mind when discussing a "best of" for Man Utd in the 2010s. We won the Europa League against Ajax on an emotional night in Stockholm and overturned seemingly impossible odds in Paris to down red-hot favourites PSG with THAT Marcus Rashford penalty. We beat Arsenal 8-2, came back from the dead to spoil Man City's title coronation and enjoyed the 'Juanfield' match in 2015. And plenty more besides.
But we chose this game because it was the first trophy in the post Sir-Alex Ferguson era and was secured in a vintage United manner  in thrilling fashion. 1-0 down and down to ten men, United's young team fought back to force extra-time in the 2016 Cup final against Pardew's Palace at Wembley. Up popped one of our own Jesse Lingard, 25 yards from goal, with a dipping volley that beat Wayne Hennessey all ends up to win the Cup for United. Louis van Gaal had done as promised and won a trophy. He was sacked less than 24 hours later but deserved another season. A surprise winner of this category maybe, but it was special to me. A climb off the canvas victory in a major cup final with one player short, brought home by an Academy graduate. If that doesn't epitomise United then I don't know what does.

Best goal - Wayne Rooney (vs Man City, Feb 2011)

This was a no brainer for me, it instantly came into my vision when thinking about what to go with here. It wasn't just the actual goal itself, it was the opponents it came against, the magnitude of the game, the technique and the fact it kept United on track for the title. City were a growing force at the time and this goal kept the "noisy neighbours" quiet for another season even if they did go on to win the FA Cup. Nani's deflected cross, Rooney up like a salmon to send an unstoppable exocet missile beyond startled, stranded City keeper Joe Hart. Old Trafford erupts and one of the Premier League's most iconic moments is born. I can still hear the Sky Sports commentary even now to this day.
"ROONEYYYYYYY... It defies description, how about magnificent, what about superb." Nothing else needs to be said. Magic.

Best moment - A star is born 

Rewind to February 2016, when a depleted and injury hit United are in the depths of despair amidst a winter of discontent. Louis van Gaal's Reds have dropped into the Europa League and ahead of the Old Trafford tie with the Danish minnows of FC Midjylland, Anthony Martial - United's only fit senior striker - suffers an eleventh-hour injury in the warm up. Enter, an unknown 18-year-old Academy graduate by the name of Marcus Rashford. Marcus scores twice on his debut and then follows up with a brace on his league bow against title chasing Arsenal three days later. A star is born and a new chapter written. Rashford's emergence is our best United moment of the decade and rightly so. Almost four years on, Rashford is enjoying the best season of his young career, all kick-started by those three days in February when the local hero became a household name. Rashford has come of age and will only continue to come good as we approach the next decade.

So that's the best of, now let's take a look at our worst. We're not to do a match for this category
(I don't have all night), but whilst there have been some truly signings, one stands out above the rest. With honourable mentions to Angel Di Maria, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian, we bring you...

Worst signing... Alexis Sanchez 

United's recruitment has been nothing short of absolutely woeful, not just since Sir Alex stepped down but even before then. It started when Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid and we signed Antonio Valencia, Bebe, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen as 'replacements'. There's no doubt our recruitment has been on a downward spiral since 2009, but that side of things is starting to show the green shoots of recovery under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Nevertheless, whoever made the call to sign Alexis Sanchez needs their heads checking and charges should be made against them for fraud and breaking the trade description act.
I was very excited by his signing, finally we had a world class player and a proven top level star, a player who would help us kick on and elevate our level to where we feel we should be. He arrived as one of the best players in the league if not all of Europe, but Sanchez's swap deal to United may not have cost us anything in exchange for Henrikh Mkhitaryan (another contender for worst signing surely) but it was an absolute disasterclass from day one. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were flying at the time but thrown off kilter by his arrival, our wage structure became ridiculously top heavy and Sanchez scored three goals in two seasons. Awful. Now on loan at Inter Milan, I'd be surprise if we ever seen him in the red of United again. So there you have it. Sanchez tops a very lengthy list of United's worst signings of the 2010s.

Match report: Man Utd 4-1 Newcastle

Manchester United celebrated Boxing Day in style with a come from behind victory over Newcastle at Old Trafford.
It was a day for Martial, Mason and Marcus as the Frenchman cancelled out Matt Longstaff's opener for Steve Bruce's side. Mason Greenwood's stunning strike went in off the bar, Rashford headed in the third and Martial completed the rout with the fourth goal six minutes after the restart.

After Chelsea's home defeat to struggling Southampton, the result saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side remain seventh but move to within four points of a Champions League place. Erratic and inconsistent we definitely are, but performances like this prove the burgeoning potential of this young Reds team.

Having slipped to defeat at St James Park and facing a Newcastle side in a newly found run of form, this looked a tricky proposition as United - boasting an impressive Boxing Day record - faced Steve Bruce's Magpies.
Scott McTominay was booked inside a minute, one of the fastest ever Premier League bookings, but the visitors started brightly and twice went close early on. Miguel Almiron skewed off target before Dwight Gayle spurned an excellent one-on-one opening when he smashed over the bar having put through by strike partner Joelinton.
United did not heed these warnings though as black and white lightning struck twice a couple of minutes later. Matty Longstaff - brother of United target Sean and the man who made the difference in the return fixture - was at it again. Fred lost the ball on halfway and Longstaff played a one-two with Joelinton before the latter found the former unmarked on the edge of the area. Longstaff's low effort beat David de Gea, for the second league goal of his career both of which have come against Ole's Reds.

Parity was swiftly restored seven minutes further on. Luke Shaw threaded the ball through to Andreas Pereira, in the no.10 role, and he in turn laid it off to Martial.  The Frenchman tried his luck with a 20-yarder, and found the net with a daisy cutter. Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka should have done better but was unable to keep it out with his outstretched right arm.
Pereira twice went close and Rashford almost scored with a volley before a spell of relentless Reds pressure was capped with a magnificent moment of magic from one of our own and a generational talent.
Fabian Schar lost possession as United harried and the ball fell to Mason Greenwood. Collecting the ball from deep, the teenager surged forward and fired towards goal. The ball took a slight deflection but he hit it with power and it was probably going in anyway even without the intervention of Longstaff. Greenwood's left-footed effort crashed off the bar to leave Dubravka helpless and put United ahead - Greenwood's eighth goal of a breakthrough season.

Solskjaer's side continued to press as Dubravka saved well from Pereira, but the Reds were rampant and moved further ahead four minutes shy of the interval. McTominay won the ball from Sean Longstaff, the ball was pushed wide to Aaron Wan - Bissaka who placed a pinpoint pass on to the head of Rashford and he buried a CR7-esque header.

De Gea saved easily from Joelinton after he had spun Victor Lindelof, before Paul Pogba came on for the limping McTominay at half-time.
United needed to put the tie beyond any lingering doubt and duly obliged six minutes into the second half. A poor backpass by Longstaff (S.) allowed Martial to burst clear and he dinked the ball over the advancing Dubravka to wrap the game up and seal three hard earned points. 4-1 was, though, perhaps a slightly flattering scoreline.
Dubravka saved from Pogba and Martial was only denied a treble by the upright, as he rattled the post having been found by influential compatriot Pogba.

Greenwood was unable to turn home a lovely cross by substitute Juan Mata before Harry Maguire tested the busy Dubravka from range, but things petered out and United comfortably cruised to victory.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial

Monday 23 December 2019

Manchester United's possession problem

United's 2-0 defeat at basement boys Watford was as damning as it was predictable. An error strewn performance condemned Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to a fifth defeat of the season - each one against sides languishing in the lower echelons of the table.

Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford. It might sound like a list of destinations for a cheap budget holiday, but is in fact the ever lengthening list of lesser lights that United have fallen pray to so far. It's not hard to see where the problems lie. Three of our last six losses in the league have come against sides starting the round of fixtures in the bottom three. It was not hard to see this coming, and indeed many of my fellow Reds predicted a struggle at Vicarage Road.

On the face of it, our latest loss came from two individual errors, from players that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can usually regard as his biggest assets. David de Gea is a wonderful shot stopper but you can only blame the first goal on him. He inexplicably failed to hold Ismaila Sarr's tame, mishit effort and then Aaron Wan - Bissaka missed his first tackle all season. The resultant penalty allowed Watford a two goal lead that they were never to relinquish.

United have picked up 14 points from a possible 18 against the superior, "top six" sides, title winning form. In contrast, we've taken the same number of points from 13 games against the rest. As welcome as those recent wins over Jose Mourinho's Spurs and Pep Guardiola's City were, they've counted for nothing now and always came with a caveat.  We know we can beat those sides - that's never been an issue for this United side. We're unbeaten against the sides above us but have beaten only two (Norwich and Brighton) of the eleven sides that sit below us.
Indeed, the Reds have won five out of six league games in which we've had less than half of the ball, drawing the other one. In stark contrast, we have won only one of the dozen ties in which we've had more possession. Statistics can be distorted but this one is telling. Robin Hood FC. Taking from the rich to give to the poor.

There is no future in this type of football. Burnley and Newcastle, as an example and co-incidentally United's next two opponents, might be able to tick along and nick points when they allow the opponent to have more of the ball. But you have to find a way to win without the ball as well as you do with it.
For example, Liverpool - runaway leaders and champions elect - have won a staggering 93% of their matches in which they have had the majority of possession - only United's death-by-counter-attack coming up trumps against Jurgen Klopp's side.
Leicester's ratio is 77%, with Manchester City and Chelsea - teams that have struggled to contain the counter-attack - still boast superior numbers with 65 and 56% respectively.

United? Eight - EIGHT %. Only Norwich have been unable to avoid defeat to Ole's United - deny United space in behind, sit deep and set up a low block, and you're dandy. We're clueless when we have to break teams down. We don't have a clue what to do.

Quality is an issue but the lack of it becomes more apparent when there's a massed posse of players between United and the opposition goal.
What's the solution? On the evidence of his brief but impressive cameo at Watford, Paul Pogba's return will help. He was United's man of the match in his 26 minutes as he carved open the Hornets at will and linked up with Martial to good effect. The game may have been gone, but Pogba was quality. Say what you like, but he gives us a new dimension and offers the team something no one else can or does.

Scott McTominay is a fine player, he has been magnificent this season as a future United captain in the making but he's a grafter. His role is to give a platform and his running helps to press the opponents, particularly in the bigger, high profile games. But he can't pick a pass like Pogba does. He and Fred are destroyers and spoilers, not creators.
Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira are United's number tens but none of them are good enough. There is no one else capable of providing the service from midfield that we need.

The nagging doubts and questions that Pogba wants out refuse to go away. So to the suggestion that United would be better off without him and that we need players who want to stay for the long term as we rebuild.

Perhaps that's true, maybe it's mere fallacy, but without him - or someone similar- the evidence is growing that Solskjaer's United are doomed to fail.

David de Gea living off his reputation now

There can be no doubt that David de Gea deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon of Manchester United's greatest goalkeepers. He's right up there with Harry Gregg, Alex Stepney, Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel to name but four as among the best gloveman ever to grace the Old Trafford pitch. De Gea would easily walk into any domestic or European select XI as the 'best of'. I've lost count of the number of times he has single handedly rescued us from a self-inflicted fate. He has defied gravity and logic on countless occasions and has been a class act as our most prized asset and only world class player.

In a United side seemingly in a constant state of flux, there has been one man to stand as a symbol of consistency and calm. Amidst the darkness, one man has been the solitary lone beacon of light. He's been nigh on untouchable as the best keeper on the planet for the last three or four years. But as United have plateaued over the last 18 months, De Gea's form has followed suit.

 No longer Mr Reliable, his error against Watford was the second successive match where a mistake directly led to an opposition goal. Although he could consider himself unfortunate against Everton, when replays showed he was impeded, he failed to get enough height to clear the ball, was outmuscled far too easily and it ended up striking him before rolling into the net via Victor Lindelof. Against the Hornets, Ismaila Sarr's miscued, underhit effort should have been food and drink for a goalkeeper of De Gea's standing.
Instead, inexplicably, it squirmed through his arms, bounced off his face, struck the post and dropped in. It was the latest in a series of high profile gaffes, following on from similar blunders against Palace, Aston Villa, Sheffield United, and West Ham this season alone, as well as the aforementioned draw with Everton. Not to mention Arsenal (twice), Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Everton off the top of my head last term.  Cracks have appeared where there appeared to be none. To me, it seems that this all started with a woeful World Cup in which he was made the scapegoat for La Roja's earlier than expected exit.

Of course, De Gea is only human. Every player makes mistakes and it doesn't mean you suddenly become useless overnight. But his form has become a huge worry. Aaron Wan - Bissaka made a rare abberation when he felled Sarr for Watford's penalty and resultant second goal, the first tackle he has missed all season. But De Gea's error was all too familiar. He's been error strewn for 18 months now and - with the uncertainty over his contract - it was perhaps understandable. But with that behind him and a new deal penned, there has been no sign of an upturn in fortunes. Having elevated himself to such lofty standards, he has become a victim of his own success.

Since the start of 2018/19, he has made the most errors out of all the Premier League stoppers. Right now, he is living off his reputation.

As well as too many errors, he can't command his area, he doesn't come off his line or go for crosses, his distribution is poor and he hasn't saved a Premier League penalty since October 2014 when he kept out Everton's Leighton Baines. Troy Deeney continued that trend yesterday with his trademark blast down the middle with De Gea all at sea. Surely a good goalkeeper studies opponents and puts a plan in place?

Sergio Romero, in contrast, has kept 32 clean sheets in 51 games for the Reds and has never made a mistake whenever he's played. It's time to give him a run and remove De Gea from the spotlight.

Ole's faith in de Gea is admirable but can't continue. Dean Henderson at Sheffield United would be a better fit at present.

The De Gea problem is the last thing the Reds and Solskjaer need right now.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Match report: Watford 2-0 Man Utd

Struggling but improving Watford scored twice in four minutes to condemn a below par United side to a disappointing but not unexpected defeat.
It was only the Hornets second win of the season as they remained bottom but moved to within six points of safety through goals from Ismaila Sarr and talismanic figurehead Troy Deeney.
United's season hit a further bump in the road as a side that impressively saw off Spurs and Manchester City slipped to another defeat against an opponent languishing in the league's lower echelons.

Watford were helped on their way courtesy of David de Gea's error when he allowed Sarr's mishit shot to bounce weakly through his arms, strike him in the face and find its way in.
Deeney compounded the misery for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side with his first league goal since April with a penalty after Aaron Wan - Bissaka had scythed down Sarr.

Not even the introduction of Paul Pogba after almost three months out proved enough to lift United, whose first shot on goal came after 70 minutes with the game lost.
Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue both went close for Nigel Pearson's new side whilst Anthony Martial flashed a shot into the side netting early on at the other end.

The hosts had a goal disallowed on 19 minutes when Craig Cathcart scored but only after he had knocked the ball out of de Gea's grasp.
Luke Shaw blocked well from Deeney before Jesse Lingard - looking to end his long wait for a league goal - lobbed the onrushing Ben Foster but his effort landed on the roof of the net.

The same pattern of play continued with United's best openings coming on the counter, but despite the Reds probing, a newly resilient and organised Watford team stood strong.

The breakthrough arrived five minutes after the interval when De Gea could only push Sarr's scuffed, mishit effort onto a post. He should have dealt with it easily but the ball dropped into the net via a post.
Scott McTominay had a headed chance shortly afterwards, but with the Reds still reeling from the goal, Watford struck again and dealt a potentially pivotal KO blow.
Up the other end, Sarr went down under AWB's challenge having burst into the area. Following a VAR check the decision stood and Deeney smashed the spot-kick down the middle to double the Watford lead.
McTominay was again denied by Foster, and Pogba made an immediate impact when he picked out Rashford, but the in-form frontman was off target.
Foster continued to defy his former side as he kept out Pogba, Rashford once more and Harry Maguire, whilst sub Mason Greenwood fired over the bar.

That proved the final action of United's last encounter before Christmas and the Reds host Steve Bruce's Newcastle on Boxing Day.

Overall team performance: 3/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba. Only on for 25 minutes but did more in that time than the rest of the team.

Thursday 19 December 2019

One year on: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first 12 months at Man Utd

12 months ago exactly to the day, Manchester United were at rock bottom. Jose Mourinho, brought in as the man to steady the ship, was instead sacked amidst the wreckage of a rapidly sinking season.
He left behind a bitterly divided fanbase, a dressing room broken beyond repair and results at an all time low. What started so well had ended in an achingly familiar fashion - in tears.

United needed a complete reset, away from the instant gratification that everyone seems to want these days. Mourinho was meant to bring that, and to an extent I suppose he did, but the boom-or-bust nature of his management came with catastrophic consequences.
Mourinho had been sacked after a dismal 1-3 defeat at the unspeakables, and attentions quickly turned to his successor. You'd have got long odds on that man being Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - a club legend but one with a modest coaching record and credentials that couldn't be further apart from the two men to have preceded him. But, on December 19th 2018, Solskjaer, manager of Molde in his native homeland, got the SOS call from United's CEO Ed Woodward. It's hard to imagine that either man could have possibly predicted what would follow.

One year on, and how has Solskjaer done in his fledgling tenure at United? How do you put a year like this into perspective and then try to gauge how the next one might pan out? And, when a manager comes in tasked with a multi-year rebuilding job, how should he be judged? It's surely simply about more than just what happens over 90 minutes on a matchday. If that's your view, then Solskjaer is the best thing to happen to this club for many a year. If it's not, then you probably feel he's lucky to still be here and that his appointment was nothing more than a throwback to the halycon days of yesteryear by a board caught up in the growing clamour of a whirlwind romance. Opinions are like arseholes - everyone's got one.

He has often talked about the "bumps in the road" and the "peaks and troughs" of football management. Whilst some of those bumps have been huge, at the other end of the scale there have been moments of joy and heady emotion that not even Sir Alex Ferguson experienced. From THAT never-to-be-forgotten victory with a reserve side in Paris, the record-breaking winning streak and the finest performance  - and result - of his reign so far, at City only a few weeks ago. In stark contrast, we've had the dismal defeats to former side Cardiff, West Ham, Newcastle,  Bournemouth and a draw with Huddersfield to name but five.
There have been many peaks and many, many troughs - more than his managerial contemporaries will have ever presided over.

Solskjaer boasts a win % of just over 50 from 55 matches in charge, thanks in no small part to the remarkable run that began in his first game as manager and saw him put together 14 wins from his opening 17 matches at the helm. A streak that began in south Wales as United scored five times in a league game for the first time since Sir Alex only ended three and a bit months later with that extraordinary night in Paris. Ole, was indeed, at the wheel.
Whilst it was tremendous fun while it lasted, every relationship has a honeymoon period, and Solskjaer's was surely the longest of all. Looking back now with hindsight, in fact that start was the worst thing to have happened. Expectations - understandably but perhaps unrealistically - sky rocketed and everything seemed to happen too soon. The players, carrying a sense of freedom and sticking a metaphorical two fingers up to the departed Mourinho, were determined to prove a point. There was no way it could continue, and when form quickly fell off a cliff, it did so in equally spectacular style.

The full time job beckoned, and off came those wheels. Under Ole the caretaker, United simply could not lose. Under Ole the permanent boss, we just could not win. A first league defeat, albeit to Arsenal was swiftly followed by an FA Cup KO to Wolves and then Champions League elimination at the hands of Barcelona. No disgrace in any of those results necessarily, but the dye was cast.
The poor results kept on coming and - a week after a dismal draw at Huddersfield - the season wound up with a miserable 2-0 defeat to Cardiff. A dismal defeat that I had the pleasure, or the misfortune, of attending and suffering through.

Solskjaer's recruitment has been bold and has been the one over-riding success of his tenure so far. The signings of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Daniel James and Harry Maguire showed that United had strayed away from big money, big name commercial signings and instead focused on a philosophy of a young British core with the club's values at its heart. The likes of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia came under Ole's watch, the sale of Romelu Lukaku proved that Ole wasn't cowed about making big decisions for the long term, no matter the short term impact. Not getting a replacement may have been criminal, but that's more to do with the board's total ineptitude rather than any shortcomings on Solskjaer's part.
He wanted to jettison the deadwood, get rid of anyone not prepared to fit with his vision, and got what he wanted. He wants players that would bleed United red, and run through brick walls for him. Not for Ole was the lazy, money motivated, big name. Goodbye Alexis Sanchez.

Solskjaer has spoken fondly of United's conveyor belt of talent, and has given ten Academy graduates a senior bow during his year at the helm. All have played their part in the positive mood around the club as the green shots of recovery begin to show.
A combination of injuries and a cut-down squad meant he had little option but to blood the youngsters, but the future certainly looks in good hands. Scott McTominay looks like a United captain in the making and Marcus Rashford is having the season of his life. In teenagers Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, Solskjaer's United have championed two terrific young, emerging talents with the potential to become world stars.

Solskjaer survived treacherous, shark infested waters in the early months of the season to buy himself both time and breathing space with the two best performances under him so far. The downing of Mourinho's Spurs and Pep Guardiola's all-conquering juggernaut could prove the seminal moment of Solskjaer's time at United. The glorious, upside down, against the odds triumph at the Etihad was the epitome of what Manchester United should be. We followed up a great win over Spurs with an even better one - evidence of why Ole needs to be given time, and the tools, to succeed in the job.

It was evidence of the spirit, resilience and character instilled at Old Trafford. So too was the draw with Liverpool that came after we hit rock bottom at Newcastle - we are still the only team to pilfer any Premier League points off the champions elect.

Some United fans remain unconvinced on whether the affable Norwegian is the right man for the job. How should he be judged on his first year? It depends on what you're judging him on, and what your expectations are. One thing's for certain - after such a rollercoaster, topsy turvy first 12 months, I can't wait for what the next year will bring. Up the Reds!

Manchester derby in Carabao Cup semis

The dust had barely settled on our last bruising encounter with City when the stage was set for another totemic cross-town clash.
It may "only" be the Carabao Cup, a competition considerably low on both clubs list of priorities, but we're one step from a Wembley final and - no matter the occasion - a Manchester derby always gets the pulses racing.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have been drawn to face local rivals City in the draw for the semi finals. East meets West in all-Midlands tussle in the other tie, with in-form Leicester taking on divisional rivals Aston Villa in the other last four encounter.

In many ways, its the perfect draw for us as City's approach is the perfect platform for United's own counter-attacking style. 12 days ago, the Reds gameplan worked to perfection as we ran riot on the break. It was a tactical masterpiece built on United's penchant for pace and power going forward. Ole's record against superior opponents is up there with the best, it's against the so called lesser sides that we struggle. But lightning rarely strikes twice...

Surely Pep Guardiola won't get lured into that trap again? United are going to have to do something different this time to get past a side that has won this cup for the last two seasons - a side gunning for an unprecedented League Cup hat-trick. City and United have met seven times in the League Cup over the years and this will be the third time the Manchester giants have clashed in the semi finals. The first meeting, in 1969, saw City progress on aggregate to make the final. They repeated the feat five years on but it was a different story in the first semi final meeting for 35 years - this time Sir Alex's side prevailed in two thrillers, 4-3 on aggregate, and went on to lift the trophy. We last played City in this cup at the fourth round stage in 2016, winning 1-0 at Old Trafford - again going on to win it.

It will be two very different games and history counts for nothing with City still smarting from that shock defeat on home soil at the hands of us only a few days ago.

That said, Guardiola's focus will be on the one trophy that has so far eluded him during his time with the men from across the road - the cup with the big ears. Solskjaer named a stronger than expected side for the clash with League Two Colchester and will almost certainly do so again for both legs of the semi final. Solskjaer clearly has eyes on this trophy and will go all out to try and get us to Wembley.

Are we good enough to get past them over two legs? If it was a one off game, ideally a final, then I'd be more confident but I'm not sure we've got enough. Not over two games with the first one at Old Trafford. 180 minutes against, for my money, the best team in the land..We've got a chance, for sure, but City will be favourites. It's a big ask but it'll be a test for them and no doubt we'll give it a good go.

The first leg will be played at Old Trafford on Tuesday, 7 January, with the second leg at the swamp three weeks later on Wednesday 29 Jan.

Bring it on!

Match report: Manchester United 3-0 Colchester United

United scored three goals in nine second half minutes to set up a semi final with local rivals Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer named a virtually full strength side for the visit of the League Two side and our place in the semi finals never looked in doubt despite a goalless first half. Last time the Reds got this far was in 2017 when we went on to win it under Jose Mourinho.

Marcus Rashford, as is his wont, missed a glut of chances but continued his fine run of form when he broke the deadlock early in the second half. He cut in from the left and thumped home a finish before Ryan Jackson's unfortunate own goal. Rashford then turned provider to set up strike partner Anthony Martial for the third goal.

Colchester offered little against their more illustrious opponents with Callum Harriott's strike from distance, an effort that flew narrowly wide, their best moment.
John McGreal's side - the lowest team left in the cup - defended deep and in numbers throughout and United were mainly restricted to efforts from long range. Rashford twice fired wide and had a free-kick saved by keeper Dean Gerken, who managed to avoid getting himself in a pickle.

Martial also went close with a 30-yarder and Juan Mata saw a snapshot held by the stretching Gerken. But the fourth tier side were punished six minutes after the interval as United sprung forward on the counter. The U's launched their first meaningful attack as Jackson's low cross was smothered by Sergio Romero. The Argentine keeper got down well to save from full-back Jackson and rolled the ball out to Nemanja Matic. He, in turn, swung it 40 yards into Rashford who galloped towards goal, cut inside Tom Eastman, outfoxed Luke Prosser and hammed home beyond the stranded Gerken - a 14th goal of his best ever season.

From then on, there was no way back even for a side who had got past United's divisional rivals Crystal Palace and Spurs on their way to a historic quarter final tie.
Five minutes further on, Mason Greenwood got free down the right and tried to pick out the onrushing Rashford, but a stretching Jackson could only turn into his own goal in his attempts to stop United's top scorer. Just after the hour mark, Rashford turned provider as he popped up at the far post to cut the ball back for Martial to stick out a foot and score. Nine minutes, three goals, game over.

Full marks to McGreal's gutsy team, with Prosser in particular epitomising their tenacious resistance. He threw himself in front of a Martial strike, and two long balls from Andreas Pereira caused problems, only for Rashford and Greenwood to fail to capitalise.

Substitute Jesse Lingard went close to a fourth but there was no further addition to the scoreline as United progressed to their first semi final under Solskjaer. We now face Pep Guardiola's men - two time defending champions in this cup - for a place at Wembley. The first leg will take place at Old Trafford in early January.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford

Friday 13 December 2019

Fred the Red a symbol of rejuvenated Man Utd

After week of poor results, worse performances and calls for change at every level of the club, positive winds are blowing through the Old Trafford corridors.
If a week is a long time in politics then it is an eternity in football. United - buoyed by superb performances over Spurs and Man City - are in the finest of fettles and on the charge up the Premier League. Our upturn in form will be music to the ears of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who had faced questions from pundits, press and players alike after the early promise of his interim tenure evaporated once he got the job permanently. The romantic notion of his appointment as the club legend attempting to rekindle the glory days in his dream job gave way to doubts over his suitability.

Solskjaer will feel vindicated having answered his critics in some style, but perhaps no one will feel more vindicated than Fred. The Brazilian has struggled for form, fitness and fluency since his £52m signing from Shakhtar Donetsk the summer before last. Fred had become the symbol of all United's shortcomings, first under Jose Mourinho and then Solskjaer. Struggling to hold together a ponderous, porous and ineffective team from his pivotal role in defensive midfield, he was deemed too slow and too lightweight for the breakneck English game - a millstone around our necks.

You could find no bigger critic of Fred than me. My words were unrelenting and, indeed on this page, we went in hard on our number 17. In light of that, we thought it only fair to reflect and provide balance to recognise his reversal of fortunes.
 In the space of a month, Fred has gone from a joke of a player to the influential, string pulling cornerstone of a reborn United side.
As United put together potentially season defining victories against all odds over Spurs and Manchester City, the much malinged South American delivered. He has been simply magnificent - thanks in no small part to his manager's tactical brilliance.
Having returned from the ankle injury that kept him sidelined for almost a month, Scott McTominay was drafted back into the XI at the first possible opportunity alongside Fred for the visit of Jose Mourinho's Tottenham.
Bolstered by the presence of the tenacious, brave and unstinting Scot, Fred was allowed time and space on the ball that has been served such short thrift instead of having to hold hands with Andreas Pereira. He responded with a commanding performance that has been noticeable in absentia as Mourinho endured a disappointing night at the hands of his former employers.

It was his best performance in the Red of United so far but with the spectre of a Manchester derby looming large, there could be no let up. There wasn't. Fred was in the eye of the storm three days later across the city, pelted with missiles and allegedly subject of sickening racist abuse. But he rose above the barracking with a performance akin to a hybrid of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Bryan Robson all rolled into one. Fred was the spearhead in United's finest performance for many a year and ran rings around his illustrious opposite numbers Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri to see United to a magnificent
2-1 victory. Tackling, pressing and passing City into submission, Fred was immense. If not for the Herculean efforts of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, he would surely have got the nod for man of the match. Simply sensational, this was the Fred that persuaded United to part with that £52m.

Those two wins have undoubtedly lifted the dark clouds of discontent that have enveloped the club at every term. Sunday's clash with managerless Everton, though, provides an altogether different test - the type of test that United have fallen short in this season. Fred is unlikely to see the pitch open out for him to lead the charge on the counter, with the Toffees set to sit deep and pack the defence. It will be a far less expansive game than we saw against Spurs and City.

Fred now needs to prove his recent improvement is not just a flash in the pan emblazoned by two excellent collective showings. He needs to sustain such level of performance on a consistent basis. The clash against revitalised Everton - under the caretaker tutelage of former Toffees warhorse Duncan Ferguson - will be key for him and McSauce as the Reds looks for a fourth win in a row.
But one thing is certain: Fred is slowly but surely shredding his reputation as a figure of fun and, if he keep up this renaissance, the only joke will be on his critics.

United await last 32 fate in Europa League

Manchester United sealed their status as Group L winners with a 4-0 victory over AZ Alkmaar on Thursday night.
That result means that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds will be seeded in the draw for the knockout stages and join divisional rivals Wolves and Arsenal in the hat for the last 32. Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers are also there to make it a full house of British sides in the tournament.

The Reds will be paired off with one of the unseeded teams and there are 14 possible opponents including Getafe, Sporting Lisbon, Eintracht Frankfurt and Roma who all finished second in their respective sections. As well as playing one of the runners up, United's status as group winners ensures we will play the second leg at Old Trafford.

We could also play Club Brugge, Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiakos and Shakhtar Donetsk, who dropped out of the Champions League. We cannot be drawn against the Gunners or the men from Molineux as fellow English sides, or AZ who emerged from our group. There are some other big hitters in the draw, with Ajax, Romelu Lukaku's Inter Milan and Benfica. The Reds cannot face any of those three teams at this stage.

When asked about the importance of qualification in top spot, United manager Solskjaer said: "It's vital for us, it means we can have the second leg at home and we will play a lower seeded team.
"You'll always play against the good sides at some point anyway and with our luck in the draws we're going to get a good team."

Monday's draw takes place at 1pm at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

The full list of teams we can face in the next round are: APOEL, FC Copenhagen, Getafe, Sporting Lisbon, Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Rangers, Ludogorets, Wolfsburg, Roma, Club Brugge, Olympiakos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen.
The other 17 sides in the draw are: Sevilla, Malmo, Basel, LASK, Celtic, Arsenal, Porto, Espanyol, Gent, Istanbul Basaksehir, Braga, RB Salzburg, Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Wolves.

Match report: Man Utd 4-0 AZ Alkmaar

Manchester United hit four in eleven minutes to brush aside our Dutch opposition and secure a seeding in the knockout stage of the Europa League.
The Reds were already through but needed a point to confirm our status as group winners and avoid some of the other big hitters in the last 32.
After a mundane first half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side turned on the style and burst into life on 53 minutes when Ashley Young drove home a Juan Mata cross for his second goal of 2019.  It was United's third successive victory in the space of eight days and capped one of the best weeks that Solskjaer has had as manager.

But - on a night when the UK decided its future - United's already seems to be in good hands. Mason Greenwood has been touted as a world class talent in the making and more than lived up to that billing here. The 18-year-old stole the headlines as he thumped home an excellent finish and then completed the scoring with a fine finish reminiscent of Robin van Persie in his pomp. It was the first time Greenwood has scored twice in a game and despite his tender years, he has leapt to the top of our European goalscoring charts.

Only Marcus Rashford has scored more in all competitions for the club this season. There's no doubt we're watching the emergence of a star coming of age before our eyes.
Andreas Pereira and Mata both fired wide from distance in a first half when chances at either end proved to be at a premium. Calvin Stengs tested Sergio Romero in the United goal and Dani de Wit narrowly failed to turn home a Jonas Svensson cross in a lively ten minute spell from the visitors.

The intermittent threat of Anthony Martial flashed a shot over the bar after Greenwood had teed him up but then, eight minutes after the restart, the Reds found the breakthrough. Out of nothing, the deadlock was broken when Pereira found Mata with a brilliant piece of skill. On election day, he managed to get his cross into the box for the onrushing Young, whom in turn drilled the ball beyond the stranded Marco Bizot.
What a goal can do for confidence. Minutes later, James Garner collected the ball 20 yards out and it fell to Greenwood who smashed home a first time effort before Bizot could even move.
Another five minutes further on, 2-0 became 3-0 when Mata scored from 12 yards after Greenwood had been bundled over by former Southampton player Jordy Clasie.

Never was the cliche "a game of two halves" more appropriate than here as United completed the rout on 64 minutes with Greenwood again the instigator. The striker drifted away from his marker, shimmied past another, and fired in a Robin van Persie-esque finish from the edge of the box - two goals rich reward for a dazzling display full of promise and intelligence.
Four goals in eleven minutes was harsh on Alkmaar but to their credit, Arne Slot's side continued to press and went close to a consolation when Romero saved well from Stengs late on.
The hat-trick hunting Greenwood was uncharacteristically wayward in the closing stages but United headed to last 32 off the back of our biggest win since the opening day. Despite their heavy defeat, AZ also progressed from Group L as runners up.

Monday 9 December 2019

Man City 1-2 Man Utd: Player ratings

Man Utd upset the applecart and derailed Pep Guardiola's title ambitions with a stunning victory in the derby. The result revived the Reds own aspirations and silenced the critics of United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Every player was immense, and our player ratings reflect that. Without further ado, we run the rule over those in red at the Etihad.

David de Gea - 7

Remarkably in an away derby at the home of the champions, De Gea had little to do. His opposite number Ederson was by far the busier of the two keepers, with De Gea mainly having to deal with shots from distance. He made a crucial, match winning save from Riyad Mahrez at 2-1 in the dying moments, clawing the ball away rather than back into the danger area. Great save!

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 9.5

The Spiderman lived up to his name in an incredible performance on his Manchester derby debut. At one point, he even popped up on the left wing to make a tackle and win the ball back. Astonishing. One of the best players in world football in Raheem Sterling was forced to the fringes and rendered almost anonymous. Is there a better defender in the Premier League than this guy? A monstrous effort. Simply sensational. Blocked, tackled, headed, intercepted and shut down everything that was thrown at him. Magnificent. Colossal. Immense.

Harry Maguire - 8

Maguire will be disappointed with the goal we conceded, as he possibly should have picked up Otamendi who had a free header from the corner. That aside, Maguire enjoyed a steady, solid and commanding game at the heart of the defence. Showed leadership qualities and held the defence together as part of a simply immense collective display.

Victor Lindelof - 8

Immense. The Iceman channelled his inner Nemanja Vidic as he blocked everything, organised those around him and made a match winning block to deny Kevin de Bruyne. Read the game superbly and stood strong as United came under siege. Lindelof has had his critics but he was brilliant here. Shackled Gabriel Jesus superbly.

Luke Shaw - 7

Solskjaer's major selection headache was who to pick at left-back and he got it right. Although Shaw felt the pace a bit late on and got taken off, I thought he did well. He worked hard, got stuck in and did his best to support Marcus Rashford down the left. He made six clearances and two interceptions as United kept Guardiola's much vaunted attack quiet. An admirable effort.

Fred - 9

Goodness, was that really Fred or was it some sort of Roy Keane/Michael Carrick hybrid? What a performance from the Brazilian. I've been his biggest critic but he was good against Tottenham and even better here. Strong and tenacious, he put a shift in, stormed forward and did his bit defensively, linking the play to devastating effect. Tackled, pressed and passed with supreme confidence. Up against Rodri, David Silva and De Bruyne, he seized control of the midfield area and even at one point nutmegged the former to set up an attack. The ball seemed attracted to him like a magnet at times. Magnificent. Subject of some sickening racial abuse, he dealt with it very well too.

Scott McTominay - 8

Having this lad alongside him elevates Fred to another couple of notches. It's no co-incidence that our two best performances of the season - arguably our two best under Solskjaer - have come with the return of Lord Scott of McSauce. Solskjaer came to the Etihad with a gameplan and it worked to perfection. McTominay is a crucial part of that plan. An unsung hero in the side, McTominay worked like a trooper, won tackles, fought like a lion and did everything asked of him. He knows what this game means. A counter-attacking gameplan means you need a holding midfielder and McSauce did that superbly. Disciplined in front of his defence, his gamesmanship sucked the life out of City. What a player.

Daniel James - 8

Could have had a hat-trick in the first half and showed bravery and maturity beyond his years as United ripped City to pieces. It was his performance against City for Swansea in an FA Cup tie that reportedly persuaded United to sign him. He replicated that here. An absolute bargain at £15m. He chased every ball, lead the charge on the counter attack and even dropped back to help Wan - Bissaka in defence. He got an assist for Anthony Martial and was unlucky not to score himself. Excellent again.

Jesse Lingard - 7

Solskjaer picked a team built on pace and energy and Lingard was the man for the job. He's difficult to mark here. I don't think he was brilliant by any means, but by the same token he didn't do anything wrong either. Had a chance to score himself and was involved in the build up to Martial's goal. His energy and movement caused City problems and I still think he offers more off the ball than he does on it. He was the target of racial abuse from the Manchester City section but didn't rise to bait and kept his head in the firepit. Solskjaer got this one right.

Marcus Rashford - 9

A player in the form of his young career. A constant threat down the left, City could not get near him and he continued his fine run with the opening goal from the spot. Hit the bar with a clever lob, pulled the strings with patience and precision from the left, and no longer feels the need to desperately force himself on a match. He's unplayable right now and one of the most in form players on the planet. We never would have said any of this a few short weeks ago, so it's testament to the way he's playing. Immense again.

Anthony Martial - 8

On his return from injury, this was the very best of Martial. As is his wont, he drifted in and out of the game but still made his mark and was a constant menace on the break in the first half. Martial scored what turned out to be the match winning goal, even though Ederson should have done better. Gave Fernandinho no end of problems with his pace and trickery, in fact City could hardly lay a glove on him. Looked to have the stomach for the fight. He was taken off - perhaps understandably tiring - 15 minutes from the end but did everything he was asked to do.

Subs - Andreas Pereira (for Martial 74) - 6

Just not convinced by him. The only thing he really did of note was get booked seconds after coming on. Don't think United would have won this game had he started. Don't rate him.

Axel Tuanzebe (for Lingard 89) - N/A

Came on in the dying moments as Solskjaer shut up shop. No rating

Ashley Young (for Shaw 89) - N/A

Replaced Shaw in a like for like change in the last few minutes. No rating

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - 9

In front of his former mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, this was a tactical masterpiece straight out of the great man's vintage. Outclassed Pep Guardiola emphatically, and deserves huge credit for a gameplan and team selection that was spot on. Did everything right. Would have been a 10 had we not conceded a goal. So pleased for him.

What a difference a week makes for OGS

What a remarkable week it has been for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Cast your mind back to this time seven days ago. After United's dire draw with Aston Villa, the guillotine was ready and the noose was tightened for the axe to fall on the United boss.
A week that began with headlines that Solskjaer would fear for his job if we lost two mammoth matches against Spurs and City ended with Ole being toasted as the pride of Manchester having defied the odds and won the 179th derby.
Lose both, and that pressure would've only intensified - Solskjaer might even have been gone, following in the footsteps of Marco Silva, Quique Sanchez Flores, Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettino as the recent managerial fall guys.
There was uncertainty whether Ole would make it to his half century of games as United boss, but his 50th match in charge could instead prove a seminal moment and a turning point.

Ole's at the wheel again and all is rosy in the Old Trafford garden.

Who would’ve thought that his Manchester United would’ve beaten José Mourinho’s Spurs and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the space of three days. Football, bloody hell. Not only that, but deservedly so as well. Solskjaer deserved huge credit for going to Manchester City and setting us up perfectly. We went toe to toe with Guardiola's all conquering juggernaut on their own patch and prevailed. It was a tactical masterpiece built on speed and tenacity. The counter attacking gameplan would work perfectly and Guardiola simply had no answers. We struck a perfect balance between attacking quality and defensive discipline - just like the teams he used to be a part of. The red and blue halves of Manchester came out swinging as if we knew Anthony Joshua had earmarked his bout with Andy Ruiz as the day's cagey affair. City played right into United's hands, leaving our front with three with huge swathes of wonderful lush green grass just begging to be run into.

Up in the directors box, Solskjaer's former manager and mentor Sir Alex Ferguson certainly enjoyed it. Seated alongside him was David Gill, a reminder of United's halycon days of yesteryear. It it those days that the hero of 1999 is attempting to emulate.

The man himself may have dismissed the speculation about his future as just that - speculation - and the feeling inside the club is that despite indifferent results, he and the players are on the right track. These last two results will have only served to underline that feeling.
 United believe they moved away from their origins during the Van Gaal and Mourinho eras. They feel, in that extended honeymoon period, when he won 10 of his first 11 games, Solskjaer proved himself capable of the 'cultural reboot' demanded.
It hasn't seemed that way over the past few months. Prior to this week, it had been nine months since United had won back-to-back Premier League games. Who would have thought Solskjaer would end that run by beating Mourinho and Guardiola, two of the best managers in world football. And doing it with an additional handicap. Not bad for a 'PE teacher' from Norway.
"Three days," Solskjaer fired back, when asked what it felt like to beat those two managerial heavyweights in the space of five days. "We had 24 hours less recovery time than both those teams. That is a big advantage."
United have taken 14 points from 18 against the so called "big six" - having picked up wins over Chelsea and Leicester as well as Spurs and City and drawing with Arsenal and Liverpool - we remain the only side to take points off Jurgen Klopp's runaway league leaders. That's title winning form and we also knocked Frank Lampard's Chelsea out of the cup at Stamford Bridge, too, for good measure. 
In contrast, we've dropped ten points from the league's lesser lights - with defeats to Palace (1-2), West Ham (0-2), Newcastle (0-1) and Bournemouth (0-1). Only Norwich have been beaten, with dropped points also coming vs Southampton (1-1), Sheff Utd (3-3) and Villa (2-2). 
We play Everton, Watford, Newcastle again and Burnley in our next four league games, and winning these two big uns' will count for nothing if we don't get 12 points from these. Now, it's all about momentum and keeping this run going. Off the back of our two best performances for many a year, Solskjaer once again has United treading the right path. So pleased for him.

Sunday 8 December 2019

Reflections on the 179th Manchester derby

How can you even begin to describe that? No words can do it justice. It was one of the most magical memories this wonderful, this balmy, this upside down football club of ours
has given me. As I write this when the dust has settled 24 hours on from the final whistle, I'm still in a state of shock and euphoria.

Manchester United were faced with a task akin to climbing Everest without oxygen and with slippers on, attempting to derail Pep Guardiola's City slickers - two time defending league champs - in their own backyard. Although (whisper it), City did not appear to be quite the all conquering juggernaut of the last two seasons, they should still comfortably have had far too much for the worst United side I've seen in my 24 years as a fan. After all, this was a side boasting the metronomic talents of Messrs de Bruyne, Sterling, David Silva and Sergio Aguero's far from incompetent deputy Gabriel Jesus with one of the best bosses in the business. 
We had made our worst start to a league season ever, forced to watch Liverpool receding into the distance and marching to the title whilst lurching from one shitshow to another under a club legend, a man we adore but one whom had started to look like a rabbit in the proverbial headlights. Spurs and Jose Mourinho were deservedly put to the sword in midweek in United's best performance for some time, but this would be a different kettle of fish entirely. We had to make sure it wasn't merely a flash in the pan, a metaphorical two fingers up to former manager Mourinho. 

Even the feeling that this United side saves itself for the biggest of occasions - our finest wins have come against the top opponents - did not prevent the numbing sense that the inevitable was about to happen. Nor did the fact that United are at their most dangerous when trapped in a corner, backs firmly jammed up against a wall. Just ask Mourinho about that. As the Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto once famously said: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." That may have been used regarding the out of nowhere attack on Pearl Harbour but, 78 years on, its very apt for this stranger than fiction 2019/20 Man Utd vintage. 
Both of those have been proved true, but even so, it would take a huge leap of the imagination to predict anything other than a win for the home side at a venue where City had only lost once in the league in 610 days. You always get freak results in any league, so even the fact that Wolves had come to the Etihad and taken the points home with them did little to raise expectations. 

Until the match got underway, that is. In the first half an hour, City simply did not know what had hit them. United started like an express train and steamed forward with pace and panache at every opportunity. We came at them, and kept coming like men possessed. Dan James, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard all could have put United out of sight, before a Rashford penalty - awarded by VAR - signals a small fist pump from yours truly. 

1-0, a deserved lead and a good start but still a long way to go. City will fight back, and to paraphrase a certain commentator in 1999, they always score.. 
Sure enough, the game's second goal is not long in coming, but gloriously, unexpectedly, it's United who strike again. Absolute scenes and dreamland for the Reds as Anthony Martial spins and fires in a finish at the near post. Ederson should save it, but no one cares but a jot. 2-0 and surely the best half an hour by a visiting team here for many a year. Still though, we can't let up, we have to stay solid, stay organised, remain focused and keep working. 

A penalty shout - unluckily so - goes begging for Guardiola's men. Frustrations are mounting - is this Manchester United's moment? Maybe, just maybe, it will be our day. Against any other team in the world, I'd be confident but this is the Etihad. Manchester City away. A 2-0 lead here is like the game is goalless. I'd have taken a draw before the game, but this 45 minutes will feel like 45 hours now.

The second half is a siege. A tide of sky blue against a red wall. At times, it's a one man wall. A rock solid wall of brick, mortar and concrete by the name of Aaron Wan - Bissaka. On his Manchester derby debut, the virgin of this fixture is everywhere. He blocked, tackled, intercepted, headed, and thumped clear everything that came his way. Raheem Sterling never got a sniff. One of the best players in world football was forced to the fringes and made a peripheral figure by a man who makes tackles like they're going out of fashion. 
 Victor Lindelof, at times much maligned, throws his body on the line and looks like he'd rather die than concede a goal. Reading the game superbly, the Swede was at the heart of United's immense, heroic, Herculean defensive efforts - throwing himself at everything, heading, clearing and reading the game superbly. The Iceman was the epitome of his side's collective performance, channelling peak Nemanja Vidic. His block to deny Kevin De Bruyne was crucial, if not a match winner. 

Manchester United were 2-0 up after 64 minutes when De Bruyne's shot was destined for the back of the Red Devils' net, with plenty still on the clock. The Swede produced the intervention of the match, stretching and straining every sinew of his being to deflect the ball away to safety. 
 To a man and from front to back, every single United player had the game of his life. We were superb, immense, heroic and just about every other adjective I can think of. Fred morphed into Roy Keane, following up his best game in Red against Tottenham with an even better one here. McSauce, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial.. all of them put a shift in, a shift that cut Guardiola's side to ribbons and at times left them looking clueless and chasing shadows. Lingard was quietly impressive and Harry Maguire held the defence together in a calm and understated fashion. We attacked like kings, worked like troopers and defended like lions. 

Even when City finally score, it came from a mistake and a set-piece, but there was no luck involved here. It's not even as if we were hanging on by our fingertips. This was a victory that we fully deserved, and in fact the final scoreline proved hugely flattering to City - United should have been four up by half time.

Despite five minutes added on and in the presence of the great man, there is no "Fergie time" leveller. As referee Anthony Taylor blows his whistle and with this particular Red on pint number four Manchester is red again and United - not for the first time - have defied the odds in the face of all reasonable logic.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Match report: Man City 1-2 Man Utd

Manchester United stunned Pep Guardiola's faltering City and re-invigorated our own top four challenge with a thrilling and fully deserved victory in the 179th Manchester derby.
Marcus Rashford continued his red hot run of form with a VAR-assisted penalty and the returning Anthony Martial made it 2-0 with a superb second six minutes further on. City looked devoid of ideas for long periods but fought their way back and set up a frantic finale through substitute Nicolas Otamendi's header. Despite coming under siege in the final moments, the Reds heroically stood strong to secure the biggest win of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's permanent tenure at the club in his 50th match in charge.

United and manager Solskjaer have justifiably had their critics this season but, to a man, every player was absolutely immense. In truth the scoreline proved a flattering one for the hosts with a glut of chances falling our way with United a threat every time we went forward.
The result saw City slip 14 points behind Liverpool and their hopes of a third successive title - if not quite yet in the dust - are now hanging by a thread. Their air of invincibility has slipped and United's penchant for defying the odds was once again in evidence at the Etihad.

The Reds set the tone for what was to follow with a blistering start that could have yielded two goals in the first ten minutes. Springing clear on the counter, Jesse Lingard found Dan James and his effort was beaten away by Ederson. The City keeper was by far the busier and came to his side's rescue once more to deny first Lingard and then Rashford.

Rashford's clever lob came back off the bar and Martial flashed a shot wide as incredibly, Guardiola's side were left chasing shadows and struggling to get a foothold in the game. United were bristling with intent and got our rewards in the 23rd minute when Rashford burst clear but was clumsily bundled over by Bernardo Silva. Referee Anthony Taylor initially waved play on, but overturned his decision on the advice of VAR and Rashford sent Ederson the wrong way from the spot for his 13th goal of an impressive season.
With City still reeling from the shock, United set about causing more problems for their hosts and duly obliged on the half hour mark when James picked out Martial and he had time and space to squeeze his shot inside Ederson's near post.

City finally managed to get a grip of things after that, especially in midfield, although the damage was done and the stuffing simply knocked out of them. They had a penalty appeal turned down for handball against a lunging Fred shortly before half time, and Gabriel Jesus headed wastefully wide from a Kevin de Bruyne cross.

Raheem Sterling - marshalled superbly by the magnificent Aaron Wan - Bissaka throughout, barely got a sniff and blazed wildly off target when a rare opportunity did fall his way.
It was testament to United's heroic defensive efforts that, for all their possession and territory, City were unable to apply any serious pressure on David de Gea.
In fact, we went close to making it 3-0 when Ederson tipped wide from Lingard after another lightning break.

Otamendi's header five minutes from time - when he thumped in a header unmarked - set up a harum scarum finish as City came again and laid siege to the United goal. De Gea saved brilliantly from substitute Riyad Mahrez with his foot, Victor Lindelof thwarted Kevin de Bruyne and Jesus flashed a shot across the face of goal in the first of five added minutes.

United held out for two huge back to back wins to end an important week in glorious Manchester United fashion. UTFR!!

The game was marred by allegations of racist abuse towards Lingard, Rashford and Fred in the second half, while the latter was also twice hit by an object thrown at him from the stands.

Overall team performance: 9/10. Every player absolutely immense, to a man and from front to back.
United Faithful Man of the Match: We could give this to the entire team, we were that good. With honourable mentions to Fred, Rashford and Victor Lindelof, it just has to be Aaron Wan - Bissaka. Simply magnificent. He had the game of his life on his Manchester derby debut. Colossal.