Thursday 28 February 2019

United's latest Academy starlet makes first team bow

With Man Utd 3-1 ahead and comfortable against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, Man Utd turned to youth. With a host of injuries and a threadbare squad, Reds youngster James Garner came on in the closing stages to make his senior United debut. It was only a brief cameo for the 17-year-old but nothing can take away the fact that the lad from Birkenhead has got a first team debut under his belt. It is surely the first appearance of many.

There was a lot of talk ahead of the game that the likes of Garner, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood may get some game time, but in the end Garner was the only youngster to be subbed on by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 He enjoyed a marvellous first full year at Under-18 level, making 24 appearances in all competitions, scoring three goals and emerging as an outstanding contributor. So much so, he was shortlisted for the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award. Garner's leadership qualities and outstanding work in the middle of the park helped the young Reds win the 2017/18 Premier League North title but he missed the national final against Chelsea due to his international commitments, skippering his country in the European Championship. Following a breakthrough season for the Reds, Garner put pen-to-paper on a first professional contract in the boardroom at Old Trafford and hopes are high he will push on further.

Garner was one of four youngsters to travel down south with the squad in the midst of an injury criris.  Chong joined the midfielder on the bench while  Greenwood and Gomes had to settle for a place in the stands.
Garner, who has been on the bench against Valencia in the Champions League and Reading in the FA Cup this season, became the 230th Academy graduate to be given his Manchester United first team bow and took to Instagram after the game to express his pride.

"Proud moment for me and my family making my Manchester United debut! Dream come true," Garner wrote.

Garrner has drawn comparisons with his first team coach Michael Carrick, Garner is a technically gifted central midfielder, who can play just in front of the back four, slightly further forward or even in central defence.
 The 17-year-old's technical attributes are incredibly strong for someone of his age, showcasing his superb talent.
 Solskjaer was full of praise for the teenager and believes he has a bright future ahead of him.

 He said: "I believe he's got the chance to have a great future.
"He knows we believe in him, we've got great faith in him as the next Michael Carrick. I know he's young and I know it's not fair on kids to compare to great players like Michael was, but he's the same mould, he plays simple passes, plays through the lines. Scott McTominay did really well today, some of the passes through the lines into Paul were excellent.
"You're at Man United, so Michael had the pressure of coming in after Roy Keane, that's just the way it is at Man United. I am sure he will be fine, with Nemanja (Matic) and Ander (Herrera) out, Garner will get plenty more chances. We might even think about him for Southampton on Saturday."

Match report: Crystal Palace 1-3 Man Utd

Man Utd made light of our crippling injury crisis to move to within five points of third-placed Tottenham in the congested battle for the Champions League.
Despite a makeshift line-up and missing ten senior players, United ground out an eighth successive win away from home - the first time in the club's history we have achieved such a feat. Romelu Lukaku scored twice either side of half-time to move into double figures for the season and, although Joel Ward pulled a goal back, Ashley Young's late third sealed another win.

United are fifth, one point behind place above Arsenal and five off faltering Tottenham, with ten games left to play in what looks set to be a frantic fight to the finish.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was forced to make three changes to the side that drew 0-0 with Liverpool on Sunday. Fred, Diogo Dalot and Alexis Sanchez came in for injured trio Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, though the latter recovered enough for a place on the bench.
Lukaku was lively throughout and the first chance of the match fell his way inside ten minutes when he volleyed over the bar having drifted away from his marker.
Andros Townsend flashed a shot wide and James McArthur tried his luck from distance before the Reds took the lead shortly after the half hour.

Luke Shaw was again the provider, as he skipped past a back-pedalling Townsend and into the box. The left-back laid the ball off to Lukaku, who took a touch and then rifled a curler beyond the helpless dive of Palace stopper Vicente Guaita.
The pace and trickery of Townsend - who has a penchant for the spectacular - proved Palace's biggest asset and he went close again as he fired narrowly wide from distance after Jeffrey Schlupp had cut the ball back.

Paul Pogba headed over from a Diogo Dalot delivery, but it wasn't long before the Reds, and Lukaku, had our second. Palace failed to clear their lines from a corner, with Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof getting to the ball ahead of their opposite numbers. Lindelof's header dropped to Lukaku, who spun and fired in a finish over Guaita.

 As the hosts found to their cost last year, 2-0 can be a dangerous scoreline and, this time, it was United who were made to sweat. Ward’s diving header at the back post from Schlupp’s dangerous cross gave Roy Hodgson’s side hope on 65 minutes and it was Palace who looked the more likely to score again in the following ten minutes.
 De Gea saved well from Max Meyer and Luka Milivojevic fired into the side-netting from a set piece.

 However, Young made sure of the three points in the 83rd minute. Lovely interplay between Pogba and Lukaku on the edge of the area allowed Pogba time to slot a ball through to Young, and the captain drilled a low effort across goal, with Ward unable to keep it out on the line.
James Garner came on as a late substitute to make his senior debut and this will be a special night for the 17-year-old midfielder, and the travelling fans who - as ever - made themselves heard throughout in the capital.

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

A special mention once again to United's travelling Red Army. They never stopped singing throughout, helped the boys home and are, quite simply, the best away fans in the country.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Preview: Crystal Palace v Man Utd - Carrick to make a comeback?

Man Utd interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joked that Reds coach Michael Carrick will need to dust off his boots in the midst of a crippling injury crisis.
The Reds are without ten players for the tricky-looking trip to in-form Crystal Palace and, when asked if he will play in the match, Ole quipped:
 I don’t think age is the problem, the problem is my fitness, but maybe we could ask Michael (Carrick, coach) if he can dust his boots off.
“We’ve not had a session yet, so I don’t think there are a lot of positives, no. I don’t know the list [of players] that’s supposed to be injured, Matteo [Darmian] trained the other day, I don’t think he’ll be ready, [Marcos] Rojo will be involved, Rashy we’re still waiting to see how his ankle is responding to the treatment, muscle injuries are too early to think about. That’s it. Luckily at centre back there are quite a few fit ones, Victor (Lindelof), Chris (Smalling) and Eric (Bailly), the three of them are ready, Solskjaer added.

Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Phil Jones and Nemanja Matic are all ruled out, while Marcus Rashford (ankle) is a doubt. Martial is nearing full fitness and could make his comeback against Southampton at the weekend.
Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia remain absent, but defender Marcos Rojo is set for his first involvement of the season.
This all opens the door for the next generation of Old Trafford talent, with teenage trio James Garner, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes to travel to London but prolific 17-year-old striker Mason Greenwood is sidelined. Garner, Chong and Gomes were left out of the Under 23 match with Reading yesterday, strongly hinting at their senior call-ups.
 For Palace, centre back Mamadou Sakho will miss Wednesday’s game because of the knee injury that forced him off against Leicester. Fellow defenders Martin Kelly and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will be assessed. Palace are unbeaten in six and come into this one on the back of a 4-1 win at Leicester last time out.

After looking dead certs for relegation in the opening weeks of the last campaign, Roy Hodgson helped the Eagles soar clear of danger with an eleventh-place finish. This season, the Premier League’s oldest manager, at 71-years of age, has helped his side to reach another mid-table perch as things stand - thirteenth, going into the latest round of fixtures.
So far this term, Palace have punched above their weight on occasions with the standout performances being an Emirates FA Cup third-round victory over Tottenham and a staggering 3-2 win at Manchester City in the Premier League which featured a Goal of the Season contender from Andros Townsend.

The same could be said for his opposite number Solskjaer, having transformed a season that was going nowhere into one of real promise. That promise will be tested to the full, here, though, with an injury list as long as both of your arms.

 United would normally be strong favourites to overcome Crystal Palace, but our raft of injuries makes this harder to call than you might think. The Selhurst Park side have never beaten the Reds in the Premier League era, but will never get a better opportunity to do so here.

 Form guide: Crystal Palace W D W D W W Man Utd D W W L W D
 Match odds: Crystal Palace 11/5 Draw 9/4 Man Utd 5/2
Referee: Martin Atkinson (Yorkshire)

Monday 25 February 2019

How to solve a problem like Romelu Lukaku

It may have been difficult to judge a player during the torrid and tumultous final months of the Jose Mourinho era, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought a new hope and new era to Old Trafford.
Under the Midas touch of Ole's revolution, there has been a clearly noticeable upward trajectory of everyone in Red. Everyone that is, it seems, except Romelu Lukaku.
Ah, big Rom. In the absence of the recently departed Marouane Fellaini, Lukaku becomes this United side's great enigma. One of the Premier League's most consistently prolific strikers at Everton, Lukaku was often mentioned in the same breath as Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane when on form and on top of his game. Swapping the blue of Merseyside for the Red of Manchester, Lukaku became the focal point of Mourinho's United identikit. The archetypal wrecking ball target man -  a £75m one at that - on paper his debut season at Old Trafford didn't appear too shabby.

The amount of money in Premier League football seems so high as to be almost meaningless, forcing us to develop different standards for what to expect from a player based on their transfer fee.
But can a player with a £75million price-tag ever be considered anything between success and flop? Well, Lukaku has certainly tested that theory at Old Trafford. Indeed, when we’ve seen some moments of real class from him, they’ve been tempered by circumstance. A player of his build and gait doesn’t look like he’d be the type to act with subtlety cutting in from the wing, or produce nutmegs against Brazil, but that kind of quality seems more impressive when juxtaposed with the moments that barely feel like something any footballer should be doing, let alone one with Lukaku’s CV.

 A former super-sub himself, Solskjaer warned his players when he took over from Mourinho that some would have to take the opportunities given to them from the bench, and Belgium striker Lukaku has been one of the few losers from the switch in tactics and positive vibes that have arrived under the Norwegian interim boss.

 There was a moment during  United’s draw with Liverpool when Lukaku send the ball out of play with one of those “what was he doing?” touches, but few if any other players produced as many moments of real, genuine quality.
There was his delightful through-ball to Jesse Lingard, for example, giving the England midfielder his one big chance before he was forced off through injury, and then we had the cross which very nearly brought a late winner for Chris Smalling. The good and the bad of Lukaku all mashed together in a curious elixir of a performance.

28 goals, which would have been the legendary 30 if not for injury last season, represented a creditable return in a side built on defensive solidity and containment. But the doubts about Lukaku were not dispelled.
Often accused of being too lazy, cumbersome and a flat-track bully with a first touch that was often a tackle, Lukaku represents something of an anomaly. He is the only player not to have stepped up during the transition from Mourinho to Solskjaer. Lukaku confuses me and the Belgian often resembles a lottery winner with the prize of a game up front as a Manchester United striker.

 Lukaku just can not find his place in the post José Mourinho era and is looking like an analog player in a digital world. Played on the wing and in the middle of the Reds forward line, Lukaku has struggled to look comfortable in the more mobile offensive unit.

 I've never seen a centre forward with such poor control of a football and he still looks double the size he should be. Against Liverpool, Lukaku was stationed wide on the right with Marcus Rashford's lack of mobility through injury. He did well in a similar position in the fourth round against Arsenal but against Liverpool he was picked there again and was almost anonymous. He has only scored two goals under Solskjaer versus Newcastle and Reading to take his tally to a paltry nine for the season. It's nearly March and Lukaku hasn't made it into double figures.

If he is the answer, then what on earth is the question?

Ole's United facing injury crisis

Just about everything that could've gone wrong in the first half against Liverpool did go wrong. For all the brilliant work Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done to revive a season going nowhere, fate has dealt its fickle hand in the two biggest games of his tenure so far.

The complexion of the tie against Paris Saint Germain changed completely when Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial had to go off by half-time. United had been competing well until then, but the double injury blow allowed the French giants to seize a controlling tiller that they never relinquished.
Then, as Jurgen Klopp's table topping Scousers arrived in M16, things only unravelled further with Solskjaer forced into three substitutions inside 20 first half minutes. Ander Herrera was first to limp off with a suspected hamstring injury, replaced by rhyming colleague Andreas Pereira.

Moments later, Juan Mata went down clutching his thigh and was also forced off, to be replaced by the returning Jesse Lingard.
Lingard, on his return from injury, lasted less than 20 minutes - suffering a recurrence of that hamstring problem which forced him off in the Champions League 12 days ago - and was replaced by Alexis Sanchez.
To add insult to injury - quite literally - United were already without Nemanja Matic and finished the half with Paul Pogba the only recognised midfield regular.
Marcus Rashford was also limping throughout the game after a challenge from Jordan Henderson in the opening exchanges. With the Reds having already made their three changes, Rashford had to play on one leg and effectively reduced United to ten men.

Liverpool also suffered an early injury blow, with Roberto Firmino, who pulled up after rolling his ankle while passing the ball, being replaced by Daniel Sturridge after the half-hour mark. It was the first time in Premier League history that there had been four substitutions in the first half of a game, I simply have never seen anything like it.
The chaos leaves United with six injured first team men, with a difficult trip to in-form Crystal Palace to come on Wednesday. We'll be down to the bare bones and don't have the depth or quality to compensate. 

Rashford is unlikely to be fit for the visit to Selhurst Park, but it is hoped that Anthony Martial will return from a groin problem. Lingard, Herrera and Mata will all undergo tests on their respective hamstring injuries, with Matic expected to be out for up to three weeks.

Solskjaer is facing up to the prospect of being without his entire first-choice midfield and two thirds of his attack as United attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit in their Champions League round of 16 tie with PSG next week.

Solskjaer said: "I've never seen the like of this before, three hamstrings in the first-half.
“Rashy obviously was kicked, he did his ankle straight away, we should have taken him off as well.
  “But we’ve got some good kids coming through, so we’ll have 11 players on the pitch on Wednesday night. And luckily we’ve got two days’ recovery.”

Sunday 24 February 2019

Match report: Man Utd 0-0 Liverpool

The biggest game in English football once again failed to live up to the hype as a brave but injury hit United stifled league leaders Liverpool at Old Trafford.
It was a captivating if cautious contest that saw four substitutions before half-time, a Premier League record. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard - who had come on for Mata - all went off injured, and Marcus Rashford was forced to play 70 minutes on one leg, effectively reducing United to ten men.
Rashford was hurt in a challenge with Jordan Henderson after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had already used his three options off the bench. Nemanja Matic is expected to be out for a couple of weeks having picked up an injury in training on Friday.
For their part, Liverpool lost Roberto Firmino after half an hour and without him his side struggled to pose any sort of threat in front of goal in what was was a typically intense encounter. It was a match with plenty of perspiration but little inspiration.

The constant disruptions made for a disjointed first half and neither side could truly find their rhythm after the break - although the lack of quality did not affect the raucous atmosphere throughout.
Jurgen Klopp's side failed to truly test United keeper David de Gea, with a shot from distance by Firmino's replacement Daniel Sturridge their only shot on target in the 90 minutes.
United had the best chance of the game, but Alisson brilliantly denied Lingard after he ran on to Romelu Lukaku's pass and attempted to go around the Reds keeper. Lingard's return from injury was a brief one as he only lasted 17 minutes before being hurt in a collision with the visiting custodian.

 Matic's replacement, Scott McTominay, was making his first league start since Solskjaer took charge in December and ended up being one of the outstanding players of United's makeshift midfield.

First Herrera was forced off, to be replaced by Andreas Pereira after 21 minutes, with Mata limping off four minutes later after he was hurt in a crucial challenge with Mohamed Salah.

 Both sides were searching for that killer pass that would break the deadlock and after 40 minutes it looked for all the world that Romelu Lukaku had produced the key to unlock Liverpool’s defence.
The hosts had broken away and Old Trafford was on its feet as the Belgian steadied himself and then slipped a beauty of a ball through to meet Lingard’s run. Liverpool’s Brazilian keeper Alisson, however, had read the danger and came out quickly to smother the England attacker's attempt to glide past him. Lingard appeared to tweak a hamstring as he stumbled beyond Alisson and was himself replaced by Sanchez before half-time.

Understandably, those changes left United lacking spark in attack - especially because Marcus Rashford played on despite also appearing to pick up an injury early on.
At the other end, however, United yielded nothing, and Solskjaer deserves nothing but credit for the way he reorganised his side. We worked hard, kept our shape superbly and - just as Ashley Young did in last year's fixture - forced Salah to the fringes as he was magnificently shackled by man of the match Luke Shaw.

Lukaku forced another smart stop from Alisson, and Paul Pogba also went close with a header from a free-kick shortly after the restart. Twice, United thought we had nicked victory when, first, Joel Matip turned into his own net from a Young free-kick, but replay showed that Chris Smalling was fractionally offside.  United soaked up Liverpool efforts to smash down the door and, at  the other end, almost snatched a victory at the death. Just as the electronic board went up to signal two minutes of added-on time, Lukaku fired over a low cross that just evaded both Alexis and Smalling as they raced towards goal looking for the winner.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. 

Friday 22 February 2019

Match preview: Man Utd v Liverpool

The Reds of Manchester and Merseyside lock horns for the 202nd time in a competitive meeting in the standout fixture of the weekend. The magnitude of the tie speaks itself but this time around there are subplots and intrigue aplenty. United have a score to settle after December's debacle at Anfield and will be looking to dent Liverpool's title charge further. The men from down the east Lancs road make the 34 mile journey to Old Trafford with little margin for errorin the latest installment of English football's most storied rivalry,
Two months ago, you'd have got long odds on a Manchester United side getting anything from this game. But such has been the change of mood and form since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over in December that Solskjaer's side go into this one as arguably marginal favourites - and with confidence rather than trepidation. The Reds have not lost to Jurgen Klopp's side on home soil since 2009, winning seven of the last nine meetings in M16. If we prevail this time, then there are no surely no more lingering doubts over Solskjaer's suitability for the permanent United job. What more would he have to do to get it?
There are set to be two shock names in the United squad for the visit of the Scousers. Despite initially being ruled out for up to three weeks, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are set to be available in what is a huge boost for us.The pair have been integral under Solskjaer although he could name an unchanged side.

David de Gea will return in goal after being rested for the FA Cup tie at Chelsea last time out. There are no other injury concerns for United. Liverpool have mixed news in defence, with colossus Virgil Van Dijk to return after he was suspended for their midweek Champions League tie with Bayern. Dejan Lovren (hamstring) is out.
Solskjaer said in his press conference: "I'm focusing on us and what we have to do to get to where we want to be. It's a three-horse race for the title and fourth, that's my focus.I played a few of these games against Liverpool myself and know the magnitude of it for the fans and everyone who works here.
"It's our job to be focusing and channelling all that energy into performance mode when we start the game on Sunday.
“We want to build this team to be worthy of Manchester United history and it’s another step [defeating Liverpool],” he said. “Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea away – it was fantastic to win those three games. We want to be in the top four at the end of the season and we’re playing Liverpool We know how big that game is for Manchester United, the staff, supporters. We’re just looking forward to another challenge for this team."

Form guide: Man Utd W D W W L W Liverpool W W D D W D
Match odds: Man Utd 11/5 Draw 9/4 Liverpool 7/5
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland)

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Santo's pack of Wolves await in last eight

Having beaten London giants Arsenal and Chelsea back-to-back, United face another tricky proposition in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
With the Reds one game from Wembley again, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have been paired with the Premier League's 'best of the rest' in the form of Nuno Espirito Santo's charging pack of Wolves.

The draw was made following the Reds' comprehensive 2-0 victory against Chelsea on Monday, when headers from Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba secured our spot in the last eight of the competition for the fifth season in a row.
The superb result was a first victory at Stamford Bridge for seven years, after we conceded an injury-time equaliser in the 2-2 draw in the league earlier in the campaign.
The tie will take place over the weekend of 15-18 March, meaning our previously arranged Premier League fixture against Manchester City will now be played at a later date.

With the exception of a City side still chasing an unprecendented (if unlikely) quadruple, it's the toughest tie that we could have had in a third consecutive FA Cup fixture away from home. That said, Ole's United have proved they're a match for anyone and few would bet against us going all the way to a nineteenth Cup final in May. With a trip to Molineux, it's our third successive away draw - no one can accuse United of having it easy in this Cup run.

Much-fancied Wolves will be a tough nut to crack at Molineux after beating Liverpool in round three.
The draw was made by former Reds favourite Darren Fletcher and Wayne Bridge, who played for the likes of Southampton, Chelsea and Manchester City during his 16-year playing career.
Last year, we eliminated Brighton & Hove Albion in the quarter-finals, en route to Wembley where we lost by a solitary goal to Chelsea. 

Wolves possess a nasty bite and are in the midst of a very impressive season having already taken points off five of the league's top six sides so far this season. They upset the Old Trafford apple cart with a 1-1 draw in September and repeated that feat with a draw by the same scoreline at the Emirates. Wins over Chelsea and away to Spurs - as well as the aforementioned win over the Scousers in round three - served notice of their ability, confidence and quality, and even the champions Manchester City came unstuck on their visit to Molineux. The ambitious Black Country club could yet qualify for Europe and will go down as the finest newly promoted side the top flight has seen for many a year. Beware of the Wolves!

Wolves vs Man Utd is one of two all Premier League quarter finals, as Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace, finalists in 2016, make the 22 mile journey to Hertfordshire to play Watford.
Guardiola's City, very unsurprisingly, were handed lower league opposition for the umpteenth time, with a trip to Swansea's Liberty Stadium. Chris Hughton's Brighton have qualified for the last eight for the second season in a row and will play Championship Millwall for a place in the Wembley semis.

Ander Herrera a Man Utd captain in all but name

Paul Pogba's swashbuckling brilliance may have stolen the Stamford Bridge show, but Man Utd had another metronomic midfield master pulling the strings. Under-rated and under-stated
but invaluable, it was a night when Ander Herrera proved the scourge of Chelsea once more. He was everywhere - first to every tackle, winning every header, dominating every second ball to harry and hassle Chelsea into submission. He was omnipotent, popping up everywhere to snuff out even the merest hint of danger at its source.

Herrera will always be synonymous with this fixture, with his magnificent man marking job on the Blues talismanic figurehead Eden Hazard almost two years ago at Old Trafford still fresh in the memory. Their rivalry was rekindled as the little Basque again kept the mercurial Belgian in check, nullifying Chelsea's creator in chief and allowing the Reds to take complete control. Chelsea must be sick of him. Vigilant, effervescent, unstinting and a bundle of energy throughout, this was Herrera at his irritatingly brilliant best. He must be a nightmare to play against but is a man and a player who everyone would want at their club.

Aside from scoring the opener, where he timed a perfect run at the back post to head home Paul Pogba's cross, Herrera's Eden project came to fruition again as he proved his nemesis' kryptonite throughout. Pogba may have officially been named as man of the match at Stamford Bridge with an assist and a goal, but Herrera was right up there as the Reds pick of the bunch. This was arguably his best performance since signing for United from Athletic Bilbao in 2014. Having fallen foul of the toxic Jose Mourinho regime, he has regained those leadership qualities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Herrera's header marked his third goal of the campaign and his second on Solskjaer's watch.

If Alexis Sanchez is an empty bottle of ketchup, then Herrera is a bucketful of sauce. He epitomises everything a Man Utd player should be. So much so, that he is surely now an Old Trafford captain-in-waiting. An expert of the needle, master of the dark arts, shithouse extraordinaire. From outcast under Mourinho to indispensable under Solskjaer.
 Fans seem to harbour a romantic notion that the captain should be a homegrown talent, rising through the Red ranks to lead his side to glory. But in a United side not exactly blessed with natural leaders, Herrera needs to be given the armband and is this side's captain in all but name. Ander carries an unstinting passion for the club that's unusual for a foreign export, wears his heart on his sleeve and loves Manchester United like we do. Out of contract in five months time, it's absolutely essential that we get this man tied down to a new deal whatever it takes.

Herrera talked up Alexis Sanchez pre-match, and then went straight to him for a gee up and motivational hug at full-time. It was that one moment, perhaps more than anything that had gone before, that proved why our number 21 should be the next Man Utd captain.

Ole ole Ander Herrera!!

Monday 18 February 2019

Immense United lay ghosts of Stamford Bridge to rest

How can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not get this job now? If anyone was still in any doubt over the capabilities of United's caretaker manager, this was the night when those lingering questions were dispatched as emphatically as the Stamford Bridge crowd's patience.
With the tide turning seemingly beyond repair for beleaguered Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, opposite number Solskjaer continues to build a body of overwhelming evidence that will persuade United's infamously star struck hierarchy to break with tradition and give the Norwegian the nod. This is more than merely a new manager bounce, it's not luck, Ole has shown serious tactical nous, game management and instilled courage and spirit into a group of Manchester United players that are unrecognisable.

United's last win here came in 2012 when times were very different. Sir Alex Ferguson was still in charge, there was little sign of seismic Old Trafford change (the Boss would leave at the end of the season) and the Reds were on the way to our 13th Premier League title. Javier Hernandez was scoring against European champions Chelsea, and the home side were left feeling Blue at the start of a run that spelt the beginning of the end for manager Roberto Di Matteo. Under unpopular replacement Rafael Benitez, the Blues went on to win the Europa League, paving the way for the return of a certain Jose Mourinho at the end of the season.

Since then, United have been to Chelsea's SW6 home eleven times. They've drawn two and lost nine, in what has been the unhappiest hunting ground of them all. Three short months ago, as the season capitulated under that very same Mourinho, you'd have got long, nigh on impossible, odds, of the team breaking that suffocating stranglehold. As the saying goes, there are three things certain in life: death, taxes and Chelsea beating United at Stamford Bridge. No matter how well we've played, no matter what form Chelsea have been in, it has been a succession of controversies, hard luck stories, and heroic failures. Six years on, there was none of that. In front of United's watching knight of realm, perched high up in the post seats at Stamford Bridge, this was a performance befitting of the great man. It was a night in which United well and truly banished their demons and laid the Stamford Bridge ghosts to rest.

Indeed, not since Louis van Gaal's 'Juanfield' masterpiece in 2015 has there been a United performance quite like this one. It was the best we have seen for years, especially away from home. Equally as devastating without the ball as we were with it, United showed class and then character, grit and then guile, to race into a 2-0 lead. Arguably the two most improved players under Ole - and our standout performers on the night - Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, did the damage.
Even after half-time when Chelsea monopolised possession after the break, Sarri's side simply ran themselves into a brick wall and had no answer to the Reds magnificent organisation, discipline and resilience.  It was an absolute masterpiece and one that showed both sides of United's tactical blueprint.

 Pogba was named man of the match as he got an assist and scored, but it was an accolade that could have gone to anyone. Every player was absolutely immense - to a man and from front to back. Chris Smalling barely put a foot wrong, Victor Lindelof showed why he's now one of the best defenders in the land and even Romelu Lukaku did his bit. Herrera was simply magnificent as the scourge of the Stamford Bridge side. Buzzing about as Chelsea's tormentor in chief as he has done so often,  Herrera harried and hassled the usually metronomic N'golo Kante into submission. First to every tackle, header and second ball, the little Basque was both omnipresent and omnipotent. Starved of service by the attentions of Juan Mata, Jorginho was rendered anonymous. Luke Shaw picked up a painful knock flying into a last ditch challenge to thwart a dangerous attack. To a man, the Reds were everything we could have asked: the lads worked like dogs, played like kings and were fierce in every department without the sacrifice of flair.  A complete display and one in which United swarmed all over Sarri's side like men possessed.

Solskjaer was stripped of Lingard and Martial but still produced a positive gameplan based around aggression, the drive of Pogba and the searing pace of Marcus Rashford. Is there a better player in world football right now than Pogba?

Ole's at the wheel!!

Match report: Chelsea 0-2 Man Utd

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer piled more pressure on his beleaguered opposite number Maurizio Sarri with a magnificent masterpiece to guide United into the FA Cup quarter finals.
The Reds are now one game away from another Wembley appearance and will face another tricky trip to Molineux in the last eight after a first win at Stamford Bridge since 2012.
SW6 has been the unhappiest of hunting grounds for United in recent years, having drawn two and lost nine of our last eleven visits to the venue. This time, though, it was Sarri left feeling blue after man of the match Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba headed the visitors into a 2-0 lead at the break. It was a lead that United were never to relinquish.

The hosts huffed and puffed and monopolised possession after the break, but in truth they never looked like scoring in the face as a superbly organised United side stifled and squeezed an increasingly frustrated Chelsea - the holders -  into submission.
Solskjaer had suffered his first serious setback as boss in the wake of defeat to PSG in midweek, and questions were asked regarding how he and the players would respond. Here, it was top class.
Unsurprisingly billed as the tie of the round between two sides that have won 20 FA Cups between them, the tie started at breakneck speed.
Romelu Lukaku's teasing low cross was cleared by David Luiz, who then did well to turn away on the stretch under pressure from Marcus Rashford. The Belgian then had an opportunity himself but volleyed over when well placed.

Chelsea soon came on strong as Luiz stung the palms of Sergio Romero from distance, before Pedro again called the Argentine into action. Romero smothered well to ensure that things remained level.
Given the freedom to do so, Lukaku and Rashford constantly switched sides to keep the Chelsea defenders on their toes - with Eden Hazard and Pedro doing the same for the Blues.

Hazard - so often United's tormentor in chief - flashed a shot wide and loan signing Gonzalo Higuain lobbed wide and then went close soon afterwards with a header.
Pogba had a quiet opening half hour by his own mighty standards but soon made a devastating impact on the tie. He collected the ball wide on the left, befuddled Antonio Rudiger with a series of step overs and whipped in a pinpoint cross onto the head of the onrushing Herrera. The Spaniard barely broke stride as he nodded the ball back across goal, beyond compatriot Kepa and in.

The travelling away support mirrored the team's efforts on the pitch, but - after a couple of half chances came and went for Chelsea - the Reds struck once more.

From a throw-in in our own half, Pogba played Rashford in to space on the right wing, and our no.10 did well to get his head up and deliver an excellent cross for the Frenchman to power home a brilliant diving header.
Luke Shaw tremendously thwarted Hazard when one on one with Romero after the interval, and Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof also stood strong in the face of Chelsea upping the ante.

It was possession for possession's sake, though, as United managed the game brilliantly to keep Chelsea at arm's length. Romero had nothing of note to do, as we shut down Chelsea magnificently to leave both managers heading in seemingly opposite directions.The hosts showed plenty of perspiration but little inspiration.

The Reds held firm for the remainder of the game and that makes it seven victories away from home in all competitions for the first time since 2002, putting us into the FA Cup quarter-finals for the fifth consecutive season.

Overall team performance: 9/10. Immense. The best performance for many a year
United Faithful Man of the Match: Ander Herrera. Could have given this to anyone, but this man was magnificent. Got the opening goal, stifled and suffocated Chelsea and proved a real nuisance. Again.

A special mention must go to United's 6,000 travelling fans who were once again absolutely magnificent and never stopped singing throughout. Their unstinting support and unequivocal vocal backing continue to do the club proud. The best away support in the country by a distance.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Opportunity knocks for United's next generation

The stars have finally stopped aligning for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. Not only did our interim manager taste defeat for the first time in his seven-week tenure on Tuesday, but fate has also dealt its fickle hand. Two key players have been lost in the process, with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard - integral and indispensable to Ole's United identikit - ruled out for at least the next four matches.

The pair could not be injured as a worse time, with an already difficult challenge at Stamford Bridge now looking almost impossible. With the spectre of Liverpool on the horizon next Sunday, things are only getting harder for Solskjaer and the team.
Unless, of course, Ole dispenses with the incompatible pair of Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata and takes the plunge by giving youth teams talents Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes their chance.

But it is also another opportunity for Alexis Sanchez to finally deliver for the Reds, as the Chilean has endured a woeful time at the club so far.

The boss hinted at the pair's involvement, and said: “Angel and Chongy have been training with us all week, even the weeks leading up to this, so there is a big chance they will be involved.”

That’s music to my ears!
Our current injury situation reminds me of the crisis we had under Louis van Gaal in his second season at Old Trafford when he was forced to promote Marcus Rashford to the first team as all our first-team strikers were out injured. That didn't turn out too badly, did it now...

Mason Greenwood, 17, has plundered 25 goals in 26 appearances for the Reds youth ranks this term and also looked set to come into the first-team frame at Stamford Bridge, but he's also sidelined for two weeks with injury. Greenwood's long awaited senior bow will have to wait but it surely won't be too long.

Both of United's highly rated young forwards have featured in the early stages of Solskjaer's tenure. He gave 19-year-old Chong his debut against Reading in the third round of this cup and Gomes, 18, also cameod in the Boxing Day win over Huddersfield.

Despite Gomes' tender years,  it's clear to see why he is so highly-rated at the club. A quick, dynamic winger who loves to take on defenders, he seems destined for big things. Chong has also a significant impression through his displays at youth level. The Dutchman's frizzy mane of hair bears resemblance to Marouane Fellaini but his speed, skill and eye for goal suggest he is poles apart from the Belgian in terms of playing style.

These two are very exciting prospects, Stamford Bridge is no place for the faint hearted so let's hope for another chance to get a glimpse of the future.

Match preview: Chelsea v Man Utd FA Cup

Football, they say, is cyclical, so perhaps it should be no surprise that Chelsea and Manchester United meet in a repeat of last season's FA Cup final. 
From Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford - via Wembley and Moscow - this is English football's most played fixture of recent times. The two sides lock horns for the fifth time in six years in the stadnout tie of the fifth round with the Cup the most open it's been for years. Chelsea have won 1-0 on the last three occasions, following a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in 2013, and are looking to reach their third consecutive final. 

 Chelsea, of course, won last season's final and the Blues haven't been knocked out of a domestic cup competition by Manchester United since 2002.
Back then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still had a big chunk of his playing career ahead of him, and Maurizio Sarri had not long given up banking to concentrate on coaching Sansovino in Italy's fourth tier.
As the two men shake hands at Stamford Bridge, one could be wondering what will happen to him at the season's end - and the other pondering whether he will even last that long.

Chelsea made a superb start to the season and looked set to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool as they were unbeaten until November. But form has plateaud badly, United have leapfrogged the Blues into the top four and Sarri's side come into this one off the back of a record 6-0 defeat at the Etihad last weekend. Chelsea may be struggling for consistency, but you can be sure that Solskjaer's Reds will be in for another tough examination of credentials at a ground where we have not won since 2012 - Stamford Bridge is United's unhappiest hunting ground of them all. There are three things certain in life: death, taxes and defeat at Chelsea.
That said, it took a late, late leveller from Ross Barkley to maintain the Blues stranglehold over United back in October after United had threatened a come-from-behind win through a brilliant Anthony Martial brace.

Speaking of Martial... United have been dealt a cruel double injury blow with the Frenchman and Jesse Lingard ruled out for up to three weeks with respective groin and hamstring injuries. Full-backs Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian remain sidelined, but opportunity may knock for Academy products Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes. Marcos Rojo could also be in line to return with the Argentine not having featured at all this season. Lingard and Martial have become key components of United's revival under Ole, so their absences come as a major setback. The pair will miss this tie, and Premier League matches against Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Southampton.

Holders Chelsea will assess the fitness of several unnamed players ahead of Monday night's tie.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek's ongoing back problem kept him out against Malmo in the Europa League, while Marcos Alonso was rested for that game - both could return.

Solskjaer said: " You have to bounce back at this club. You'll always have challenges, and away against Chelsea is one of the tougher challenges.
"We know there was a spell against PSG - seven, eight, nine or 10 minutes - where we lost our way a bit. But apart from that, we weren't too bad defensively.
"We need to keep working on the way we want to play football - the way we approach the games will always be in an attacking, positive mind."

Form guide: Chelsea W W L W L W Man Utd W W D W W L
Match odds: Chelsea 21/10 Draw 5/2 Man Utd 11/4 (Bet365)
Referee: Kevin Friend

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Alexis Sanchez is ill disciplined, overpaid and has ruined our team

Where do we even start with Alexis Sanchez? What on earth has become of the player whose world class influence carried an average Arsenal team for so long? It was another night of toil for the Chilean as he again fialed miserably to live up to the heightened expectations he arrived with.

The highest paid player in the league, it is not unreasonable to expect Alexis to do what Sergio Aguero does for Manchester City, what Mo Salah does for Liverpool, or indeed what his replacement Pierre - Emerick Aubameyang does for his former club.

Sanchez has been at United for a little over a year but the only thing he's managed to play well so far is the piano. Free from the shackles of the Jose Mourinho regime, under the lights on a European night against genuine European powerhouses - it was an occasion that the best players perform in, a stage to relish. Instead, Sanchez looked more like a lottery winner whose prize was to blag a game in attack in a United shirt. It's games such as these that you make you a bona fide cult hero, but also can expose you as a player found wanting should things go awry. Indeed, how things have gone so badly awry for Sanchez.
I lost count of the number of times he lost the ball, there was no desire to win it back, he never lifted his head up and looked a man completely at odds with himself. Maybe we shouldn't persist with him, but then again, who else is there? If Anthony Martial's injury is as bad as first feared, Sanchez will have to start. He replaced the injured Jesse Lingard moments before half-time, but was rendered anonymous and proved completely ineffective. So much so, I forgot he was even playing. It was a mistake to ever sign him, Sanchez is simply not a Manchester United player and is surely living on borrowed time. Ask yourself this: what has he done is his 13 months at Old Trafford? Had one good half in the Manchester derby at the Etihad back in April, and scored against his former club in the FA Cup. Two significant moments in over a year for a player on reported wages of £400,000 a week.

It's remarkable how so many of his team mates have risen superbly in form and stature since Ole’s arrival, but this lad continues to look as awkward as a priest in Ireland’s largest lingerie section.
He is ill disciplined, overpaid and harms the entire dynamic of the team. Playing in the space often occupied by Paul Pogba, the Frenchman's influence is neutered and that in turn makes the team ineffective and unbalanced. For a player widely regarded as a rare Premier League example of a world class talent during his time at Arsenal, it is a baffling fall from grace. Under Mourinho perhaps that could be excused as the life was suffocatingly squeezed out of our attacking players, but you hoped that - under Ole - Sanchez too would be given a new lease of life.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done many good things during his two-month tenure, but even he seemed at a loss when it comes to helping the player rediscover his peak Arsenal form. He said that Sanchez had to do it for himself after another abject showing against PSG.

That question remains - just how do you solve a problem like Alexis?...

I love Juan Mata but he has to go

It breaks my heart to be penning these pages about a man I adore and love in the Red of United. Who doesn't love Juan Mata - the nicest man in the game and a gem on and off the field. I'd never want him to leave our club, but there comes a time when the head has to rule the heart.
That time has come. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has barely put a foot wrong in his two months at the helm, and there was little he else he could have done to stem the flow as PSG dominated and then dispatched an outclassed United. But when Mata replaced Anthony Martial at half time, any semblance of a game plan that we had went with him. Beyond  the six core players of this side- Herrera, Matic, Pogba, Lingard, Martial and Rashford - United don't have enough and will be in trouble moving forward.
Mata has been a joy to watch, a player who isn't flashy but does the simple things so well - his vision, his touch, his elegance and his set-piece prowess has won many a game for United. Even when he plied his trade for Chelsea at the height of their rivalry with us, Mata was a player and a man that it was very hard to have anything but affection and admiration for. At the time of his signing, he was exactly what we needed.
As a number ten, his talent was unrivalled and, as an opposition player, you always feared him as someone that could inflict serious damage. Mata remains the last reminder of the David Moyes 'era' as one of the few good things the Scot did when he signed the playmaker for £37m from the Stamford Bridge side in a then record deal.
But the game's moved on since then, Solskjaer's United are evolving and - simply put - Mata is just not good enough any more as a member of United's supporting cast. In a side that plays without a typical number ten, Mata is rendered anonymous. He's played on the wing to try and compensate for that, but he simply does not have the skillset required for that.
He slows the game down, has no pace, defensively isn't good enough and - on a night when Ashley Young needed help - he left him isolated. It was a night to forget for Mata and one that proved that United's supporting cast aren't up to the standard we want. He's wasted on the wing and it was sad to see the game pass him by on a night when the Reds needed inspiration.
Mata's future is yet to be resolved with talks of a new contract but that would prove to be a money-saving exercise by the board. Sentiment cannot get in the way of reality.
I love Juan Mata, he is my favourite current United player but if we're to be successful you have to be ruthless, and that means it's time for him to move on.

Response to setback will determine Ole's future

It will take a recovery of Herculean proportions to keep United's Champions League campaign alive after PSG proved far too strong at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's in-form and rejuvenated Reds had gone into this tie with optimism and the chance to put the renaissance to the litmus test against a PSG side widely tipped to go all the way in the competition.

The task awaiting United at the Parc des Princes is one akin to climbing Everest without oxygen - Solskjaer will not give up hope but logic suggests this is the end of the road for Manchester United's Champions League ambitions.
To make matters worse, Angel Di Maria made two contributions of real significance to fire a dagger through the hearts of his former employers. The Argentine held the club to ransom and refused to play at the end of a sorry season in Manchester, but showcased his full arsenal of weaponry here as he created both goals for Presnel Kimpembe and wunderkid Kylian Mbappe.

As mentioned elsewhere in these pages, we should not use these 90 minutes against  a top quality side to decide Ole's future. It was very much a 'free hit' where we'd learn more in defeat than we would in victory. For my money, he's already done enough to be given the job. There was always going to be a setback, and perhaps it's no bad thing. You can't win every game - but how we respond to it will be key when it comes to the United hierarchy giving the nod to Jose Mourinho's full-time successor. This game may not have been season defining, but United's response to it certainly will be. It's a chance to show what we're made of and to show the mentality of Ole's United - or it will perhaps show that, for all the good work so far, it's simply been a honeymoon period.

PSG is one thing, but the tricky tests continue to come thick and fast with Chelsea and Liverpool in the pipeline.
No sooner has one top class opponent come and gone, than another one loom large on the fixture list. United haven't won at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge ground since 2012 - it is the least happy hunting ground of them all. With the Champions League all but gone, 'only' the twin ambitions of league and cup remain. The latter takes United to SW6 in the fifth round on Monday. For all of United's trouble and strife at a venue that has become as much a pyschological issue as anything, there appears to never be a 'better time' to play Chelsea. If United are to end their wretched run of nine defeats and two draws, then this is surely the year to do so. If we can do so, then Ole will be one step closer to the job.

Battered and beleaguered after a 6-0 hiding of Pep Guardiola's City slickers, Maurizo Sarri is a man under pressure after a season that started so well but has rapidly gone south. That said, if Chelsea play like we know they can, especially at home with such a good record against United, then we should expect a very difficult tie - but one that's certainly winnable.

Now Ole has a chance to show what he can do in adversity. Now he has a chance to prove he is worthy of getting the job full time. If he's not up to it, it doesn't matter, he's still a legend, he's still done what we needed of him and we will still move forward next season.

Classy PSG inflict a reality check on Ole's United

It had to happen at some point and, on Tuesday night, it came. It was perhaps a mark of how far Man Utd have come in a few short months that there was optimism - even genuine belief - around Old Trafford ahead of the visit of the mighty Parisians from the French capital.

At full time, it was a mark of how far we still have to go to reach the level set by the likes of PSG. This was similar to the Juventus game earlier in the campaign - the Reds could not be faulted on character or effort, but they simply did not have enough to trouble one of European football's genuine heavyweights. PSG brutally exposed our shortcomings through the width and delivery of Angel Di Maria, the calm composure of the marauding Marco Verratti, and the irresistible pace and power of Kylian Mbappe.

 It was all a sharp contrast to when the last-16 draw was made and the cloud of Jose Mourinho's final days in charge loomed over a United side viewed as the plum Premier League pick for Europe's elite.
The loss marks the first blot on Ole's Old Trafford copybook - but it should not define the season, or indeed determine whether the Norwegian should be appointed as Mourinho's long term successor. It would churlish to judge Solskjaer on a tie with a side who are clearly a cut above us. This was a reality check, one that will stand United in good stead as we go forward with the twin ambitions of securing a return to this competition next season, and trying to make a mark on the FA Cup.

The latter presents another tricky test in the form of a trip to a wounded Chelsea on United's bogey ground of Stamford Bridge next Monday. Perhaps the biggest examination of United credentials so far will be how we respond to a first defeat under his temporary tutelage.

PSG are fuelled by fierce ambition and Qatari billions and yet even they are struggling to establish themselves among the big Champions League hitters - but on this evidence they are still far in advance of United.
 It was no reflection on Solskjaer that United lost, and nor should it be. We were simply the victims of a better team that still possessed an outstanding attack in the shape of Di Maria and Mbappe, even in the absence of Neymar and Edinson Cavani. The visitors had more skill, more guile and more nous.

 Football has the capacity to produce miraculous comebacks but it stretches the imagination to think this United side, deservedly back in the top four at home but miles off the pace in Europe, can claw this back. It's done and dusted - and any faint lingering of hope we may have had ended with the flash of Daniele Orsati's red card towards Paul Pogba in the closing minutes.

The gap - nay, the chasm - between United and PSG only underscored the importance of Ed Woodward and his merry band of men finally getting a big decision right when it comes to choosing their next manager and the path forward.
Optimism has rightly risen amid Solskjaer's renewal of United, but this was a graphic illustration of just how far away they are from where they want to be.
Is appointing Solskjaer a gamble or a question of Woodward and the board holding their nerve and moving away from the star-struck recruitment policy that led to Louis van Gaal and later Mourinho?
Whatever it is, the manner in which they were outclassed and dismissed by PSG only emphasised the fact that this time they cannot afford to take another wrong turn or they risk falling even further behind Europe's best.

Match report: Man Utd 0-2 PSG

PSG overpowered United and took control of the last 16 tie as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suffered his first defeat as caretaker boss.
It was to Solskjaer's credit that there was an air of optimism - even genuine belief - before the game but, despite a creditable first half showing, the loss of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial through injury proved costly.
Presnel Kimpembe could count himself fortunate to stay on the field but put Thomas Tuchel's side ahead before Kylian Mbappe wrapped up the victory. To quite literally add insult to United's injury, a difficult task was rendered virtually impossible when Paul Pogba was sent off in the closing stages.

Former Manchester United misfit Angel di Maria unpalatably proved tormentor in chief, his 53rd minute corner allowing Kimpembe, arguably fortunate to still be on the pitch, to escape the attentions of Nemanja Matic and sidefoot past David de Gea.
And it was fitting that the brilliant Mbappe, whose searing pace was a threat all night, enhanced PSG's position of superiority when he turned Di Maria's inviting cross past the exposed De Gea on the hour.
If United's plight was not bad enough already, it was made worse when Pogba was sent off for a second yellow card in the final minute of normal time and will miss the second leg.

 United were unable to find any of the magic that has been sprinkled on them by Solskjaer in his opening 11 matches, which brought 10 wins and one draw. Europe was another level and PSG showed why they are among the favourites to go all the way to the final in Madrid in May.
Di Maria - jeered constantly throughout - instantly looked the Parisians main threat as he flashed an early sight wide from distance. Marcus Rashford forced a save from veteran stopper Gianluigi Buffon, before the Reds squandered a three on one opening when Lingard found Martial on the counter. But the Frenchman hesitated, the ball rolled behind him and the chance had gone.

United had kept PSG's danger man Kylian Mbappe at arm's length, but he burst into life shortly before the half hour mark. After a slick, flowing move, Mbappe stormed clear and rounded De Gea but could only find the side netting. Di Maria was then denied by De Gea, but was flagged for offside.

 The first half was littered with yellow cards and the evening got tasty when Ashley Young shoulder-charged Di Maria off the pitch and into a metal barrier, to the delight of the baying Old Trafford crowd.

United then lost Lingard and Martial - replaced by Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata - respectively and were forced into a tactical reshuffle after the interval.
PSG began the second half in full flow and were ominously getting into their dangerous stride. The movement and agility of Tuchel's team were another level, and they inflicted the first blow eight minutes into the half. De Gea pushed Mbappe's effort away for a corner but - from Di Maria's resultant flag-kick - Kimpembe capitalised on United's flat footed rearguard to thump home a volley.
The Frenchman was lucky to still be on the pitch to score it, having somehow avoided a second booking when he had scythed down Marcus Rashford moments earlier.

Dani Alves went close from distance and De Gea saved well from Julian Draxler, but a stunned United side hit back through Ander Herrera, who fired wide of Buffon's post with a 20 yarder.

However, Solskjaer’s men just couldn’t cope as PSG began to fluently attack at pace. The classy French outfit made it 2-0 on the hour as they broke at speed and Thilo Kehrer sent a ball away down the left to Di Maria. The Argentine snaked away and drilled over a perfect low cross for Mbappe to sneak in between Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof and steer the ball in.

PSG were rampant now as United simply couldn't contain the talented Parisians, even without two of their biggest hitters. 20-year-old wonderboy Mbappe had come to the party and almost got his second of the game, only for De Gea to keep out his lob with a smart reaction stop.

PSG eased off after the sucker punch that devastated United but even then the Reds were so rattled by the killer period that we couldn’t rally and grab a goal that might have given us more of a fighting chance in Paris.
But the Reds couldn’t muster up an opportunity to trouble Buffon, who was largely untested throughout in the visiting goal.
It got worse for United as they will be without Pogba for the second leg in France. The French midfielder had been yellow carded in the 25th minute and then clattered into Alves in the 89th minute. Italian referee Daniele Orsato consulted VAR before handing out another booking and then showing Pogba a red.
It was a disappointing end to a disappointing European night but Ole's name was still cheered to the rafters at the end.
 Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Nemanja Matic

Monday 11 February 2019

Opposition profile: Paris Saint-Germain (PSG)

In Man Utd's 197th competitive continental fixture, we face first time opponents in the shape of the mighty PSG. The Parisian giants - jam packed with class and quality - make their first ever trip to Old Trafford as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pits his wits against Thomas Tuchel and co. in the last 16 on Tuesday. We may have never played PSG before, but they are a top class side known and revered throughout Europe.
As heavyweights from two of the world's greatest cities go head to head, here's everything you need to know about the men from the Parc des Princes.

Paris Saint-Germain was founded in 1970, following the fusion of Stade Saint-Germain (created in 1904) and Paris FC, although the latter withdrew from the arrangement in 1972.
Two years later, PSG were promoted to the top flight, where they have stayed ever since – making them the longest-lasting Ligue 1 side.
After winning their first major trophies in the ‘80s, Paris came to prominence when they were bought by French broadcaster Canal+ in 1991. It was the start of a period in which they won the 1996 European Cup Winners’ Cup, becoming the second French club to win a continental title, and the last one to date.
Despite still being in their relative infancy with a short history, this club is an illustrious one. Not quite as illustrious as us, of course, but they reached new heights (and ambitions) in 2011. That year marked the takeover of Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). 
 Barely two years later, Paris were crowned French champions for the first time since 1994. And since 2014, they have been enjoying an almost total domination over the French trophies, winning every edition of the League Cup, four of five French Cups and five out of six Ligue 1 titles.
 However, PSG are yet to fulfill their potential in the Champions League: they reached the quarter-finals four years in a row between 2013 and 2016, then bowed out in the last 16 during the last two campaigns, respectively against Barcelona (following a surprise ‘remontada’ or comeback, losing 6-1 after winning the first leg 4-0) and Real Madrid.

French League x 7 (including five of the last six), French Cup x 12, French League Cup x 8, French Super Cup x 8, European Cup Winners’ Cup x 1, International Champions Cup x 2.

Famous past players: David Ginola, Youri Djorkaeff, George Weah, Nicolas Anelka, Ronaldinho, Pauleta, Claude Makelele, Blaise Matuidi, Mamadou Sakho, Zlatan Ibrahimović, David Beckham.
  Since taking charge last summer (replacing the Arsenal bound Unai Emery), Tuchel has tried numerous tactics, both at the back and up front – where he has plenty of talent competing for spots. Typically, Presnel Kimpembe and Thiago Silva are the two centre-backs, shielded by Marquinhos, but the young Brazilian drops back when Paris are out of possession to make a five-man-strong defence.
Further up the pitch, the manager’s main idea was to give as much freedom as possible to Neymar. Initially a left winger with a free-roaming card, he was often used as a playmaker, freeing the wing for Angel Di Maria or Julian Draxler. The opposite wing is occupied by 20-year-old Kylian Mbappe, while  Edinson Cavani is the target man.
Without long-term absentee Neymar, Tuchel has reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, with a midfield populated by Di Maria on the left and Alves on the right; an option designed to occupy the width during build-up, and strengthening the flanks when they drop back.
 Marco Verratti was also out in the past weeks, nursing a sprained ankle, but the diminutive Italian resumed training on Monday (along with fullback Layvin Kurzawa). Tuchel welcomed his return, as he didn’t have any genuine holding midfielder, since Adrien Rabiot is sanctioned by the club (for refusing to sign a new contract, with his current deal due to expire this summer) and new recruit Leandro Paredes just arrived and still settling in. 

Fun fact: PSG have five World Cup winners in their alumni: Gigi Buffon (Italy, 2006), Draxler (Germany, 2014),  Mbappé,  Kimpembe and Alphonse Areola (France, 2018).

 PSG had a rocky start to 2019: eliminated from the French League Cup by Guingamp (who sit bottom of Ligue 1, with only three victories to their name), and losing both Neymar and Verratti to injury. They then suffered their first league loss of this campaign, against Olympique Lyonnais.

Yet this terrific team should not be underestimated. They have won all five of their other matches in 2019, scoring a terrifying 22 goals while conceding just one in the process. They are top of Ligue 1, 10 points clear of their closest rival (with two games in hand).

They’ve only lost three matches this season in all competitions, including a last-minute 3-2 defeat at Anfield in September (before winning the reverse fixture 2-1 at the Parc des Princes). In fact, when the last-16 draw was made, this was their only loss of the season, and back then United was struggling, which prompted most French media to call it a great opportunity and flagging PSG as the clear favourites.

Of course, the tables have turned since and the general mood in France is that this will be a tough fixture for Tuchel's team.
While he’s only 20, Mbappe needs almost no introduction. After a few successful years in Monaco – where he turned professional a few months after Anthony Martial left to join United – the young forward enjoyed a good 2017/18 season in Paris, which earned him a regular spot in the France team. The rest is history: he then lifted the World Cup trophy, notably scoring a brace against Argentina in the last 16 and adding a goal in the final against Croatia, barely six minutes after Paul Pogba had made it 3-1.
His incredible pace and deadly finishing have already allowed him to contribute 36 goals this season in 29 matches (26 goals, 10 assists), including four in 13 minutes against Lyon in their 5-0 humbling back in October, plus a hat-trick in the 9-0 thrashing of Guingamp in their January Ligue 1 meeting.
Mbappe’s speed of achievement on the pitch is matched by his list of honours: elected in the Best XI of the Under-19s Euros in 2016, he was named Best Young Ligue 1 Player the following year and Best Young Player of the 2018 World Cup.
You probably remember the old poster starring Reds legend Eric Cantona: 1966 was a great year for English football. Eric was born. 
Well, Mbappe was born in 1998, the year of France’s first World Cup triumph…

Possible PSG line up at Old Trafford: Buffon; Kehrer, Kimpembe, Thiago Silva, Bernat; Marquinhos, Verratti; Dani Alves, Draxler, Di Maria; Mbappe.

Match preview: Man Utd v PSG

When the Champions League draw was made, Jose Mourinho was still in charge and the thought of facing PSG would've had every Red trembling in trepidation. A moribund and miserable United side wouldn't have a prayer against a side with such firepower. Two months on, and the size of the task facing United is still a dauting one, but one that we can approach with optimism. Mourinho was sacked a day after we were pulled out of the hat with French football's pre-eminent force.
Now, almost two months on, who would have thought that the Reds come into the first leg with PSG as, arguably, marginal favourites? Madness and heady days indeed.

Having seen their unbeaten league season ended at the hands of Lyon last week, Thomas Tuchel's side needed extra time to see off third division Villefranche in the French Cup. To add to that, two thirds of their first choice forward line are set to miss the first game at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Neymar is out until April with a metartarsal injury, and Uruguayan hitman Edinson Cavani (hip) is also a major doubt.
 That leaves World Cup-winning forward Kylian Mbappe - who replaced Cavani at the weekend - as the only fit member of their first-choice front three. Ex Man Utd man Angel Di Maria (ssssss) will start (I'm sure he'll get a, ahem, warm welcome), and Julian Draxler is likely to come in to fill the void left in the absence of the big hitting attacking duo.

Despite their domestic dominance - the Parisian giants continue to cut a swathe through the domestic French football scene - the cup with the big ears has become the sole obsession and the apple of president Nasser Al-Khelaifi's eye. They may have won Ligue 1 in five of the last six seasons, but PSG have failed to make a serious impact on the Champions League, having never progressed beyond the quarter finals in six attempts.

 In the first competitive meeting between the two sides, right-back Thomas Meunier is also out of the first leg with concussion but Marco Verratti is fit after an ankle problem.
United have almost a fully-fit squad, with Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian the only injury absentees. Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard are set to be recalled after they were dropped to the bench against Fulham on Saturday.  The battle between Rashford and Mbappe - two of the fastest and msot sought after players on the planet - looks particularly mouthwatering.

United head into Tuesday's game on the back of 10 wins in 11 matches, to climb back into the Premier League's top four and reach the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Interim boss Ole now wants to transfer this domestic form into Europe, and admitted it has been too long since Old Trafford enjoyed a big European night in the Champions League.

Solskjaer said: "Both the players and the supporters have been looking forward to some of these nights because they have always been special.
"Maybe my last one as a player]was when we beat Roma 7-1 in 2007, a typical Old Trafford night.
"We lost 2-1 away and the manager was so happy. He said, 'That's OK, we will win at home'.
"He was so confident in our abilities. I just want my players to go into this game confident and embrace it."

Form guide: Man Utd W W W D W W PSG W W W W L W
Match odds: Man Utd 13/5 Draw 12/3 PSG 5/2 (Bet365)
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy) 

Not for the first time, Solskjaer has done what seemed impossible

Just eleven matches have passed since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hiring and he somehow has United in the top four, a feat which many rightfully believed would take the whole season if it were to happen at all. The undefeated Norwegian knows the Manchester United job could very well be his if he holds on to his progress.
It is a fair claim that Solskjaer, as he did in the dying embers of United's never-to-be-forgotten 1998/99 season, has restored fans’ ability to dream. The contentment of rediscovered ambitions stems from United’s likely participation in Europe’s elite competition next year, combined with improved player morale and the prospect of competing in tough upcoming fixtures.

Given that Jose Mourinho had United scraping through their Champions League group, eliminated from the Carabao Cup and marooned in the Premier League’s sixth position, it seemed at the time of his sacking that nobody would be able to do that, let alone a relatively inexperienced rookie from Norway’s first division who oversaw Cardiff’s 2014 relegation during his only spell as a boss in England’s top flight.

Even more unfathomably, Paul Pogba is world football’s most in-form player, Anthony Martial has committed to spending his best years in Mancunian red, and Victor Lindelof has become one of the finest, most formidable defenders in the Premier League. Nearly every player has been spurred on to greater heights under the watchful eye of the affable Ole.
The players have all shown marked improvements under Solskjaer, who has been as keen to restore enthusiasm as he has been able to force performances out of players by creating competition in a threadbare squad. Outside his core of key players who have helped United to ten wins from eleven, fringe players who struggled in the later months under Mourinho are looking to restore themselves and fight for places, with the rust remover slowly but hopefully working on Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku.

Just two months after his appointment, Manchester United finishing fourth without any glory would almost be disappointing, but now is the worst time to begin to dream. Three matches ahead could well and truly make or break United’s season.
It was Mourinho’s rotated side that lost at the hands of Valencia, throwing the chance to beat Juventus to top spot in the group and forcing Solskjaer into a tough Round of 16 draw against Paris Saint-Germain. Outside United’s improvements, the countdown to the tie has been met by the end of PSG’s unbeaten season at the hands of Lyon last week, and injuries to key players such as Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and perhaps Marco Verratti, not to mention the freezing out of Adrien Rabiot.
Nonetheless, Solskjaer’s men will have to produce their best performance of the season over the two legs to stand a chance, as seen by the struggles of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at the Parc des Princes. Beat PSG, undoubtedly one of the top sides in Europe based on talent alone, and United will believe they can beat anyone. But then, we won away in Turin earlier in the campaign so if you win against Juventus in Juventus you can beat anyone.
The same goes for United’s FA Cup tie away at Chelsea, where a late Javier Hernandez winner secured their last win over the Blues in 2012 and the only away win at Stamford Bridge since 2002. An exodus of top sides from the FA Cup that included Jesse Lingard’s moonwalk at the Emirates leaves only Maurizio Sarri’s side, and Manchester City, who trounced them 6-0 this weekend to secure United’s fourth-place position for the next two weeks.

 Lastly and arguably most importantly, though, United must beat Liverpool at Old Trafford on February 24th. Denying Jurgen Klopp and Mohamed Salah a favour in their quest to lift the Premier League title is as important as consolidating a place in the top four and proving the mental strength to overturn this season successfully.
Likely the toughest match of the three is also the highest profile, as it would allow revenge for the embarrassing Anfield defeat earlier in the season and move the attention over to Spurs, who would have the chance to deal final blows to Chelsea and Arsenal in successive Premier League matches before United travel to France.
Anything other than an absurd finale would see United fall short domestically, in no small part due to 2018 form. The same could be said about the Champions League, where United still simply fall short of Europe’s top teams, all of whom can expose United’s weaknesses.

However, more progression and more momentum carried into the summer would leave a squad that, at its best, is in the Top 10 in Europe, not too far short of the elite. Europe currently seems to lack the same dominant club sides which filled the majority of the decade, and with many clubs vying to be among the next, there is no reason why Manchester United cannot participate in the discussion.
Heading into the summer of 2018, it seemed this United side needed just a few changes to head toward Europe’s elite before the club imploded intrinsically. The measure of Solskjaer’s success upon hiring would have been the restoration and improvement of a talented side, and he has done exactly that.

Through game-changers on the pitch playing attractive and effective football, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has promised and delivered upon a dream. At Manchester United, the only reward for a dream is a thousand more expectations, and for the club’s millions of fans, there isn’t a more exciting prospect. The notion of a club legend leading a sleeping giant back to the halycon days of yesteryear is one that seemed merely a fantasy, but one that could soon become a reality.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Ole's at the wheel in three season defining ties

Man Utd have moved into the top four after stringing together ten wins in eleven. But the hard work starts now for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the team with three epic tussles in the space of a fortnight. Three games that look nothing short of season defining.

Ole has done a nothing short of miraculous job in his seven weeks at the wheel, taking United into the Champions League places after the bridging of an eleven-point chasm that former manager Jose Mourinho described as impossible.

Speaking of the Champions League... starting with the visit of the mighty PSG to Old Trafford on Tuesday, it's a three-game run that, for the all good work he's done so far, will go a long way to deciding if Ole gets the permanent gig. For that to happen for me, we have to finish in the top four and win a trophy. They are not mutually exclusive and one without the other is not enough. For his part, our caretaker manager realises that.
 The Parisian giants continue to cut a swathe through the domestic French football scene, but the cup with the big ears has become the sole obsession and the apple of president Nasser Al-Khelaifi's eye.
Despite their domestic dominance - winning Ligue 1 in five of the last six years - Thomas Tuchel's side are yet to make a serious impact in the Champions League.
For my money, they are favourites to get past United over two legs, but we have a chance and it's certainly not a foregone conclusion. The big of news, of course, is the injury to Brazilian superstar Neymar that has ruled him out of both matches.

That's followed six days later by another visit to United's bogey ground - the least happy hunting ground of them all.
The Reds 'reward' for hurdling the challenge of Arsenal in the last round sees an even more hazardoud trip to the capital in the form of Chelsea - United have not won at Stamford Bridge since 2012.

That said, even with the season at its nadir under Jose Mourinho, United were a matter of seconds away from laying that ghost to rest back in October - when Ross Barkley bundled home an equaliser in the sixth additional minute. Chelsea are inconsistent at best and inept at worst so it holds sway that this represents United's best chance of getting a result at the Bridge.
There are only seven top flight teams left as the Cup reaches the fifth round stage in the most open tournament in years. With the memories of last season's final loss still all too fresh, Ole probably has to win silverware to become permanent boss and the FA Cup is our only remaining realistic chance of doing so.

But United's manic month does not finish there. Far from it. United will still have a say in the title race, not by winning it, but by virtue of the fact that we face the two main contenders before the end of March. Liverpool make the trip down the East Lancs road on the 10th March, in a dynamic that couldn't be in starker contrast to the last time we met them.

Defeat at Anfield sounded the death knell for Mourinho on a day that sent Liverpool to the summit. They remain locked in a frenetic fight to the finish with City, but they a poor recent record at Old Trafford and surely won't fancy facing a United side in this rich vein of winning form.

It could be a bittersweet day - the chance to put a possibly irreparable dent in the Scousers title hopes - but simultaneusly aiding the cause of the bluenoses from across the city. Weird times indeed.

Whatever happens, games of this magnitude are the ones you live for and, where before there was only fear and trepidation, now there's genuine excitement and optimism.
Ole's at the wheel!

Saturday 9 February 2019

Match report: Fulham 0-3 Man Utd

Man Utd moved into the top four as our incredible run continued under Ole with a comfortable win over struggling Fulham.
Solskjaer made six changes to the line up with Tuesday's visit of PSG in mind, but this did not effect United as we inflicted further woe on Claudio Ranieri's men, whilst boosting our own hopes of Champions League qualification.

Anthony Martial was in sensational form, making the first for Paul Pogba and scoring a wonderful second as United secured their 10th victory in 11 games under caretaker manager Solskjaer.
Pogba wrapped up the points in the second half when he stroked home from the penalty spot after Juan Mata was fouled in the area.
Fulham have now conceded a European high of 58 goals this season and seem certain to return to the Championship after only one campaign back in the top flight.
 When Jose Mourinho was sacked seven weeks ago,  a top four spot looked a distant pipedream with Chelsea eleven points ahead after the Reds worst ever start to a Premier League season. Solskjaer has made it look easy to bridge that gap and overhaul both Arsenal and Chelsea to within six points of place above Tottenham.

Despite their lowly position deep in the mire at the foot of the table, Fulham started brightly as United were forced to live dangerously early on. Luciano Vietto volleyed wide in the opening five minutes after the impressive Andre Schurrle had picked him out.
After the early storm from the west London side had blown itself out, the Reds began to exert their authority on the contest and moved ahead after 15 minutes. Martial's beautifully weighted pass picked out his compatriot Pogba, who ran on to it and fired a sublime angled finish beyond the stranded Sergio Rico.

United's trademark under Ole has become one of clinical counter attacking football, and that held the key again here. The second goal, unsurprisingly, came from the rejuvenated Martial on 23 minutes.

Reminiscent of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo’s winner at the Cottage in February 2007, the young forward picked up the ball inside his own half from a Phil Jones pass and had the Fulham defenders back pedalling with his driving run. He skipped past Denis Odoi’s challenge, set himself up with the deftest of touches and slotted in beyond the advancing keeper.

Jones (yes, really, Phil Jones), went close to a third when his strike from distance was tipped over by Rico shortly before the break. At the other end, David de Gea was called into action when he denied Calum Chambers.

Chris Smalling and Jones, starting together for the first time in the league since our last outing against Fulham at Old Trafford in December, did well to limit Fulham’s opportunities.
Ex Liverpool winger Ryan Babel could only fire off a post when it looked easier to score, and Aleksandr Mitrovic also went close with a header.

By then, though, United had put the tie beyond any lingering doubt from the spot. Juan Mata went down under a challenge from Maxime Le Marchand as he attempted to wriggle clear.
Paul Tierney pointed to the spot and the referee's namesake duly obliged as he rolled in from 12 yards after his usual spot-kick shenanigans.

 Pogba continues to enjoy playing under Solskjaer; the Frenchman has been directly involved in 13 goals in his last nine Premier League appearances, scoring eight and setting up five.
Rico saved well to prevent a fourth from substitute Alexis, but that was to prove the last action of the match as the Reds warmed up for the two legs against the mighty Parisians in buoyant mood.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba.