Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Manchester United toil but then triumph to finish 2020 with a flourish

Time seemed to stand still as Marcus Rashford cut inside and let fly with a solitary swing of his trusty left foot. Devoid of confirmation from the deserted stands, it seemed to take a few extra seconds for everyone to realise what had happened. In the split second when the ball was jammed like a trapped fish between the net and the stanchion, no one quite seemed sure what had happened.

Celebrations were delayed until Rashford wheeled away to be mobbed by his exultant team-mates amid the realisation of a vital intervention and a potentially season-defining moment for Manchester United. United have dropped silly points like this so many times before, so this vintage Fergie-time victory - secured when not playing well - felt particularly semimal. Two points from difficult fixtures with Leicester and Wolves would have felt acceptably underwhelming but four cannot be seen as anything other than significant progress - for team ethic, in individual quality, in character and in mentality. 

Although the ball looked to have slow down having nicked off the unfortunate and otherwise excellent Roman Saiss, the deflection from the Wolves defender actually added a yard or two of pace to it, and enabled Rashford's effort to squirm under the despairing dive of Rui Patricio. United had been badly in need of a stroke in fortune and so it proved. 

It seemed a moment so in keeping with the recent history between these two - slow, sluggish and  benignly non eventful. This was the fourth meeting between the sides this calendar year. Two of them had ended 0-0 and, for so long, there was again so little to separate United and Nuno Espirito Santo's increasingly annoying Wolves side. This was a tie full of perspiration and endeavour but sorely lacking in quality and inspiration. It seems familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt. This was a game that had looked almost certain to follow the infuriating pattern of those that had preceded it - a stale, sterile, tactical battle with Wolves content to come to Old Trafford and play not to lose. Manchester United and Wolves have met seven times under the respective tutelage of Messrs Solskjaer and Nuno Espirito Santo. Those fixtures have produced nine games and a series of battles that can only be described by people who want Garry Kasparov to be unhappy. 

Even if you had dozed off during 90 soporific minutes (and who could blame you) and missed the moment, you would still get a pretty good idea of who was responsible. You could have surmised the provider. Bruno Fernandes made his debut in the corresponding fixture last season, an eye-catching cameo that offered a tantalising glimpse of what would follow.

This was United's first league win over Wolves since the Midlanders were promoted, with last season's cup replay victory (yep, another 1-0), puncturing a sequence of six games without success against them. With the visitors penchant of party poopers, coupled with the Reds renowned reputation for failing to cash in when presented with a jackpot, there was a familiar sense of frustration as the clock agonisingly ticked down. Not for Fernandes, though. The Portuguese had been responsible for United's fleeting moments of promise - crossing into the isolated Edinson Cavani and going close himself with a header. But big moments need big players and this time - despite a relatively quiet showing by his  usually metronomic standards-  United's golden talisman again summoned his kindred spirit. He fashioned the winner far from goal with a long ball that was similar to Rashford's - a punt, a hit and hope. But, in truth, it deserves far more credit than that.

He received the ball from Harry Maguire when deep inside the United half with his back to goal and slalomed away from a man he knows so well - compatriot and friend Joao Moutinho. Spotting the onrushing Rashford with a single glance, Fernandes - like a daring golfer on the 18th - pulled out the wood. How elite players have the ability to make such crucial decisions in a split second is beyond me. No one else would even have tried it. He was unbalanced as his sand-wedge pass spun out to Rashford, but still made up the ground to burst into the box as Rashford shaped to shoot. Had our no.10 delayed instead of hitting the shot, he could have laid it back to Bruno. Even his desire, his mere presence and his aura with everything he does transforms the very indentikit of this United side. Very often, the best players will have the biggest impact on a game when they have not played well. Fernandes makes a difference even when far from his best. He loses the ball a lot but takes risks and everything United do goes through him. In his 29th game for Manchester United, this was his 32nd direct involvement in a goal. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had risked further scrutiny by leaving United's third substitute on the bench with the game still goalless. Juan Mata, Donny van de Beek, Daniel James and McFred were all put through their paces but none were summoned from the shadows of the South Stand dugout. Mata, another lock-picker and United's only goalscorer against Wolves across almost 400 minutes of football in 2020, has dovetailed well with Fernandes when the two have been in tandem. He would've been the obvious replacement, but yet this proved validation for Ole, who moved Rashford to the right, the channel from where the winning moment came.

It was a deja vu denouement synonymous with another classic Old Trafford finish a decade before. The cast list may have been very different, but had fans been present in the Stretford End, the ground would have seen similar scenes of celebration. Against the same opposition at the same end of Old Trafford, Ji Sung Park's 93rd-minute winner saw the diminutive Korean swamped by the rest of his jubilant team-mates. Patrice Evra and Ji-Sung Park lifted Park, scorer of both goals, off his feet. United, just like in 2020, were second and two points off the summit - Sir Alex Ferguson's side went on to win the title. 
Just like Park, Rashford's almost identical squeezed-near post finish provided a quintessential United finale: an undeserved and unlikely added-time intervention enriched by the schadenfreude at Wolves expense, a moment to boil the piss of ABUs anywhere. It was impossible to quantify the extent of the true euphoria United felt on Tuesday, against the backdrop of an eerily silent Old Trafford. 

Fans were last present for Scott McTominay's derby day clincher back in March, but you can imagine the jubilation last night would have been akin to that seminal post-Ferguson epoch. After all, nothing ever beats the visceral joy of a last gasp winner. 

As Bruno Fernandes raced into the arms of Luke Shaw and both men leapt skywards, it was the kind of celebration mirrored in living rooms up and down the land. 

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

United's 21 downloading in 2021?


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tricky Reds are firmly in contention for the title as the new decade approaches.

In a world where life changed seemingly overnight, the end of 2020 marks the departure of a year like no other - a year of the like none of us have ever seen before, nor will ever likely see again. Yet in this strangest of times, a familiar and long overdue sight is enough to fill the hearts and warm the cockles of Manchester United fans up and down the globe.
A sight you began to wonder we'd ever see again. It was a sight we used to take for granted, one that become achingly familiar - glorious for everyone who loves this club, overwhelmingly sickening for everyone else. It is, of course, the view from a lofty position in the Premier League. Not since our last title in 2013 have United been as close to the top of the table at any stage in a season as they are now. Not since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, after that last title win, have United flexed their muscles as a genuine contender for the title. We may have finished second under Jose Mourinho three seasons ago, but that felt like a false position. We were never anywhere near the leaders, and didn't even try to catch them. In a poor season, Manchester United were a very distant and half-hearted second. 

But yet, as we finally say good riddance to 2020, a year that has felt like an eternity, United are again second in the table but, this time, within striking distance of Liverpool at the summit. We finished 33 points adrift last season, but are now only two points off the top with a game in hand. Not bad for a PE teacher with no tactics. 

 This time 12 months ago, the Scousers were already receding into the distance and Solskjaer's United were nowhere. This terrible year is, at least, ending on a high note.
What's more, United soared into second in a manner befitting of this great club - a manner ingrained in the very workings of this football club. A Fergie-time winner in a game where United had not played well, sealed by one of our own - a man who has displayed rare qualities in one so young, and the epitome of the human inspiration that has touch our hearts in an extremely difficult year. Is there anything more Manchester United than that? You love to see it.

This was a victory for football - a victory secured in vintage style against opponents who refused to attack and came with a solitary aim in mind, to park the bus and nick a draw. Last season, or even a few short months ago, Wolves would have succeeded in that mission. United simply wouldn't have had the staying power or the werewithal to keep believing and pushing
to the end. 

 The Reds may not have been at their best, but isn't that what potential champions do? Grind out results and win ugly when not playing well. How many times did we do that throughout our all-conquering reign as England's football tour de force. We often made a habit of it, so much so that teams used to quake in fear at the very sight of the time added-on board going up. Solskjaer's United may not yet have reached that stage of psychological warfare, but there are signs the club's long-term vision, their belief that Solskjaer is the man, is coming to fruition.  

This side never knows when its beaten and has spirit, character and courage in abundance. Again, as he continues to do every week, Bruno Fernandes made the difference. 32 goal involvements in 29 games for a man who still hasn't been here for a year yet. 

Not even the most staunch United fan, or even the most confident better, would have predicted this. You'd have got long odds on Solskjaer's side being Liverpool's closest challengers on New Year's Day, especially given our poor start and the constant pressure the United boss has been under. But yet here we are, clinging to the coat-tails of a Liverpool side that have been far from infallible. Of course, it's premature to say we will be their closest challengers but, as the old adage so often says, your position at the turn of the year is roughly where you'll end up come May (or maybe June)...
Do I think Manchester United will win the title? No, not this year anyway. We won't, but we certainly can, we're in the mix and genuine contenders for the first time since the retirement of Sir Alex. I would settle for closing the gap and pushing hard at the top. That in itself is progress. 

United go to Anfield on January 17th. We'll get a much better idea regarding our credentials after that. If we emerge unscathed, like West Brom but unlike so few others, we have a title fight on our hands. You suspect we still have a way to go, but nothing is certain in these bizarre, topsy-turvy times. Imagine ending Liverpool's unbeaten home run with a 97th-minute, wrongly-awarded, twice taken Bruno Fernandes penalty to put us top of the league... we can all dream, right?

And so, as we leave 2020 behind, the hope is for an upward trajectory and a better year for all (let's face it, nothing can be worse). Solskjaer's United approach the imminent changing of the calendar in fine fettle and in their best shape for almost a decade. Wouldn't it be fitting, so gloriously, so unexpectedly fitting, if the arrival of 2021 paved the way for the arrival of Manchester United's 21. 

Match report: Manchester United 1-0 Wolves


Marcus Rashford struck deep into injury time to win it for Manchester United and send Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side second. 
In their final game of a year like no other, the Reds had toiled for 90 arduous minutes against a resilient and resolute Wolves side and looked set for a second successive draw as Nuno Espirito Santo's toothless visitors so nearly claimed the point they had come for.

That was until Rashford, not for the first time in 2020, took centre stage as Harry Maguire kept the ball in rather than opting for a throw in, and found Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese magnifico played a defence-splitting pass to Rashford and United's no 10 took the ball down, cut inside and fired home a finish with the aid of a deflection off Roman Saiss in the third of five additional minutes. A game that was heading for a familiar stalemate turned into late Happy New Year glory. 

The result carried United into second position, two points behind champions Liverpool, who play on Wednesday, with a game in hand. Solskjaer made six changes from the side that drew at Leicester with Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Alex Telles, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani in for Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Fred, Dan James and Anthony Martial as Solskjaer shuffled his pack amid the hectic fixture schedule.

After United's thrilling 6-2 victory over the old enemy of Leeds, this was a predictable come-down between two sides who redefine the definition of drab encounters. 
David de Gea was the busier of the two keepers early on, as he saved well from Pedro Neto, Vitinha and Ruben Neves. Saiss struck the top of the bar from a set-piece, before United sparked into life and went close at the other end through Fernandes, with Rui Patricio alert to the danger. He pushed away Fernandes header after Mason Greenwood had picked out the onrushing playmaker. 
De Gea was tested again as he kept out another effort from the impressive Saiss, after the centre-back had flicked on an inswinging Neto set piece.

Shaw replaced the injured Telles at the interval, and the substitute left-back instantly added more urgency to United's play with a series of darting runs down the left. One such burst saw Shaw cut the ball back to Greenwood, whom flashed a shot wide. But United had toiled in front of goal, urging Solskjaer to add Martial to the attack in place of the young winger on 65 minutes.

Four minutes later, and Cavani looked to have netted his first Old Trafford goal when he turned home a loose ball, only to be flagged offside after a VAR check despite a check for handball against Conor Coady. 

Paul Pogba sprung into life and went close from distance with a drive and compatriot Martial then should have done better soon afterwards as he lifted the ball over the bar from close range. At the other end, De Gea had enjoyed a quiet second half but was called into action from nowhere on 77 minutes. Wolves burst forward as Ruben Neves swept the ball on to substitute Daniel Podence but his goal bound effort was clawed to safety by De Gea, who reacted well to tip the ball over the bar.

United had started to take control as an attacking force but it looked as though they would have to settle for another frustrating point against a limited Wolves team. Up stepped hero Rashford to strike home the winner, however, and sent United into 2021 in the finest of fettles. Ole's tricky Reds!

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Eric Bailly. Immense. 

Monday, 28 December 2020

United in the mix for most unpredictable title in years

On the eve of Manchester United's final fixture of a year like no other, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are firmly in the mix.
2020 has been an extraordinary year - a year that no one will want to remember but one we will never forget. Lockdowns, Netflix, masks, sanitiser, Zoom meetings and a time spent adrift and isolated from those we hold dear. There was a time when we didn't even have the spectacle of sport to keep us going in these difficult and dangerous times. As the old saying goes, you often don't truly realise what you had until it's gone. Matches have continued to be played behind closed doors and it simply isn't the same, but it's better than nothing at all. 

It is perhaps fitting that, against this backdrop, we are witnessing the most unpredictable Premier League season many of us have ever seen. Liverpool may lead the way at the moment, but Jurgen Klopp's side have been far from infallible and, where they romped to the title in record fashion last term, it's a totally different story this time. Almost halfway through the season, you could throw a blanket over the chasing pack with ten points separating Klopp's men from tenth-placed West Ham United. 

Not since 2015-16 has the league seen a campaign of such wildly fluctuating fortunes. That was, of course, the year when Leicester City, 5,000/1 outsiders, stunned the world with the greatest giant-killing upset of all time. Claudio Ranieri's side won the league by ten points, with Arsenal and Spurs separated by only a point and United five points further back. Louis van Gaal's side were pipped to fourth by Manchester City and outgoing manager Manuel Pellegrini with Southampton sixth and West Ham seventh. It may seem hard to believe now, but Liverpool, with the newly-appointed Klopp, finished eighth and defending champions Chelsea were tenth - at that point, the worst ever performance by defending champions. There were only sixteen points between them and United. But even these bizarre string of surprises, that strange, seemingly once in a lifetime turn of events, have been rendered almost irrelevant.

The 2020-21 campaign didn't feel like a new season, more simply a continuation of the old one, a campaign with no pre-season brought about by the short turnaround time after lockdown. Teams with a lack of preparation, no fans and perhaps therefore less pressure, with a game every few days, all contributed to a season that no one could predict.

There have been some crazy scorelines - Aston Villa's 7-2 win over Liverpool, United 1-6 Spurs (both results came on the same day), Spurs 3-3 West Ham, a six goal thriller with the same result between West Brom and Chelsea, Villa 3-4 Southampton, Liverpool putting seven past Palace, United 6-2 Leeds and Arsenal's struggles. Relegation-threatened West Brom have gone to last term's top two and pilfered two draws. There was no goalless game until the 47th match and the champions have already dropped three points more after 15 games than in the entirety of 2019-20. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United had their worst home start for almost 50 years, with three defeats, two draws and two wins from the first seven matches at Old Trafford - undoubtedly an effect of having no fans in with Salford in tier three. 
Yet despite that poor start, Solskjaer's side are the closest we have been to the top since we last the thing, in 2012-13. Five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand and an unbeaten away record, Solskjaer has gone where David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho failed to go and got United into the thick of a genuine title tussle upon the turn of the year. The Reds may be harum-scarum with a defensive blueprint that would bring Alan Hansen out in a cold sweat but at least we're watching through our fingers instead of falling asleep. 
I don't think Manchester United will win it - we're too inconsistent and too leaky at the back - and the cream rises to the top after 38 games. You would put Liverpool and Man City ahead of us at present, but no one has taken control of this league yet in the way the former did last term. By hook or by crook, United have a chance - albeit an outside one - of title number 21, at the halfway stage of the season. 

For as good as our attacking play has been, United's defensive frailties have undermined their season. You don't win titles if you can't defend and the porous back-line remains the Reds Achilles heel. We've conceded 23 goals, the most of any side in the top half, and only three fewer than winless, rock bottom Sheffield United. This side still has holes in it, and to remedy that, United need to make at least one, if not two, top quality centre-back signings in January. Only then will the green shoots of promise come sprouting to the surface. 

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Match report: Leicester City 2-2 Man Utd

Manchester United were forced to settle for a point as a late Jamie Vardy leveller denied Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side a record-equalling eleventh successive away league win. 
United had led twice through Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes but were pegged back each time by the Foxes, as both sides retained their pre-match position in the table of second and third respectively, with Leicester three points behind Liverpool and one ahead of place-below United, who have played a game less. 

Harvey Barnes cancelled out Rashford's opener and the ageless Jamie Vardy pilfered a precious point late on after Bruno Fernandes - who else - looked to have won it for United. 

The boss made one change from the side involved in the demolition of Leeds as Eric Bailly replaced the injured Aaron Wan - Bissaka. Victor Lindelof switched to right-back with the Ivorian in central defence.

In a thrilling Boxing Day bonanza, this was a high octane encounter from the get go between two of the top division's leading lights.

Rashford sent an early header wastefully wide when he should have done better, before Vardy went close on the volley having nipped ahead of Bailly after James Justin had picked him out. 

Fred thwarted Marc Albrighton and Vardy pulled a shot wide only to see a linesman put the flag up for offside. 
The game lapsed into a more systematic pattern after a frenetic start and United went ahead on 23 minutes.
Dan James cut in and found Fernandes and he, in turn, moved the ball on to Rashford. The in-form striker did the rest with a clinical low finish beyond Kasper Schmeichel to put the Reds in front for his half-century of league goals. 

Despite the fact the Foxes had not mustered a shot on target at that point, a response was not long in coming as the high-flying hosts equalised only eight minutes further on. Fernandes had played his part in our opener but he was inadvertently involved at the other end as he lost possession after trying to nutmeg James Maddison. The Leicester playmaker scooped the ball into the path of Harvey Barnes and he fired home a dipping, venomous effort beyond the stranded David de Gea.

Fernandes almost atoned for his error when he headed narrowly off target from a Luke Shaw cross two minutes shy of the interval after an end-to-end first half.
Justin snuffed out a dangerous United counter, but back came Leicester to go close at the other end as Maddison's free-kick was deflected to safety off the wall.

Schmeichel produced a stunning one-handed save to deny Rashford when one-on-one, before Martial had a goal correctly chalked out having strayed into an offside position after his strike partner had played him in.

Maguire headed over the bar against his old side but the captain was celebrating soon afterwards as the Reds restored their advantage on 79 minutes. Scott McTominay found substitute Edinson Cavani and the hard-working Uruguayan flicked the ball into the path of Fernandes and he finished with aplomb from close range - his fourteenth goal of the season before 2020 is out. 

But, for the second time in the game, it was to be a lead United would relinquish as we were made to pay for our profligacy
. With five minutes left, Ayoze Perez picked out the ever-dangerous Vardy and he swept the ball home - via United sub Axel Tuanzebe - to level. Perez went close and Schmeichel denied Cavani but there was no more late drama as things ended all square. In truth, a draw was probably a fair result.  

The point apiece ended our record-equalling ten-match winning run away from home, only one short of the record set by Chelsea in 2008. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Solskjaer's United aim to break semi final jinx

Manchester United remain on course for our first silverware since 2018 after a 2-0 win over Everton in the League Cup quarter finals.
Goals from Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side into the semi-finals for the second successive season, where we will face cross-town rivals Manchester City... also for the second successive season.

It remains to be seen whether United are genuine title contenders, but what cannot be disputed is that we once again stand 90 minutes from a first cup final since 2018 in a bid for a sixth League Cup triumph. 

It's the fourth time United have reached a cup semi final under Solskjaer, but we are yet to win one. The Reds suffered an unwanted hat-trick of last four losses last term as Guardiola's side prevailed 3-2 on aggregate in this competition en route to a third consecutive League Cup triumph at Wembley.
Then came the FA Cup defeat to Chelsea at an error-strewn David de Gea horror show cost United dear - a much changed Reds side went down 3-1 and froze on the big occasion. Most gut-wrenching of all, United were beaten 2-1 by Sevilla in the Europa League despite a dominant showing, as the eventual winners dealt us a late KO in the closing stages of the semi-final.

 You must be doing something right to repeatedly reach that stage, but to lose one semi final is perhaps unfortunate. To lose two, careless. But three? That's unforgivable. There's something amiss when you have three chances to make a major final but fail each time. Most clubs would settle for a top three finish and the last four of both domestic cups and a major European tournament. But we are not 'most clubs' - we're a club that thrives on winning trophies, and - having not done so since 2017 - we badly need to break this jinx. As captain Harry Maguire said after the Goodison Park victory, the Reds need to start winning these big games. The irony is, United have been good in such occasions under Solskjaer but yet have so far fallen short with silverware at stake. Simply getting to the semi-finals isn't enough when you're Manchester United. After several near misses, Solskjaer needs a statement victory, a trophy lift, a tangible demonstration of progress. This has to be our moment. 

After missing out last term, Solskjaer's men will be determined to go one better this time. For Solskjaer himself, the challenge of progressing beyond this stage for the first time and demonstrating just what he's learned will be gleefully embraced. He will relish the fact that Manchester City stand in our way as United look to lift their own jinx and simultaneously end City's three-season stranglehold on this trophy.  The Reds were the last different winners when we beat Southampton with a late Zlatan header to prevail 3-2 in a superbly see-sawing final at Wembley under a certain Mr Mourinho. 

Over the two legs of last season's semi, you always felt City would have a bit too much for a pre-Bruno Fernandes United side. The Reds were outclassed at Old Trafford in the first legs and, despite a gutsy effort, simply left ourselves with too much to do. 

This time, though, circumstance favours us. This season's semi-finals have been reduced to a single game instead of the traditional two-legged tie, due to the pandemic-enforced fixture congestion. United have a much better chance against City in a one-off tie rather than over two as our counter-attacking and high press style is more sustainable in a 90-minute ding dong rather than a 180-minute chess match. Having said that, the tie will be played at Old Trafford where United have been disappointing. The rout of Leeds may prove a turning point in that regard but - given our sensational form away from home - United may have wanted the fixture to be played at the Etihad. 

Solskjaer has beaten Guardiola three times in six meetings, with the Catalan winning two plus one draw - the last meeting between the sides at Old Trafford twelve days ago. Bring it on!

Match report: Everton 0-2 Manchester United

Late goals from Edinson Cavani and substitute Anthony Martial set up a Manchester derby in the semi finals of the Carabao Cup.

The rotated Reds had dominated at Goodison Park but it looked as if they would have to settle for the lottery of a penalty-shootout with the quarter-final tie goalless after 87 minutes. That was until Cavani, who netted his first Reds goal on this ground in the league last month, returned to haunt Everton again with a brilliant curler having been found by Martial.

The Frenchman himself made sure of the win with a low finish in the final seconds to send United into a fourth last four match under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Reds lost three semi-finals last season and will now have the chance to end City's run of dominance in this competition when the two meet in a one-legged game at Old Trafford in the New Year.

With this the first of three games in six days, Solskjaer made nine changes from the 6-2 win over Leeds as only captain Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes kept their places. Axel Tuanzebe came in at right-back, Eric Bailly returned alongside Maguire and there were starts for Nemanja Matic, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles and Cavani. It was still a strong-looking side despite Solskjaer shuffling his pack.

Carlo Ancelotti also made three alterations but, again, still selected a strong side with the Toffees searching for their first silverware in a quarter of a century.
The Reds had started like a train against Leeds and continued that here, with Everton barely even able to get a foot on the ball as United opened at breakneck intensity.
Van de Beek had an effort blocked having linked with Paul Pogba, before stand-in stopper Robin Olsen saved twice to deny Cavani with a snapshot and then on the rebound.
Pogba nodded straight at the keeper, Cavani went close with a drive and Mason Greenwood headed off a post as the Reds laid siege in the opening half hour. 

Dominic Calvert - Lewin headed straight at Dean Henderson at the other end, and the United stopper was then belatedly called into action as he pushed away a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick.
Fernandes also saw a set-piece saved by Olsen, and Pogba then flashed a shot wide from distance, but the Reds were unable to make the pressure count and - despite our superiority - went in at half-time with the game still goalless.

Solskjaer's side continued to dominate as Cavani superbly pulled the ball down, spun and thumped in a shot, only to see Olsen tip the ball away for a corner.
Richarlison limped off after a coming together between him, Fernandes and Bailly, whilst Martial and Marcus Rashford replaced van de Beek and Greenwood on 67 minutes as United continued to press for the winner.

Telles was narrowly off target with a trademark set-piece but, just when United needed one last effort, clear cut chances lessened.
A dreaded shoot-out now looked inevitable but United had reckoned without the net-busting instincts of Cavani. Matic won the ball in midfield and moved it on to Martial, and he burst clear down the left to pick out the lurking Uruguayan. Cavani cut in and curled into the corner with two minutes left to finally break the elusive deadlock.

There was no time for Everton to come back and Martial turned from provider to scorer as he rubbed-stamped the result in the final minute. As the Toffees poured forward in desperation, a trademark counter-attack culminated in Martial's low finish into the corner beyond Olsen for his fourth of the season. 

United were drawn with Pep Guardiola's holders - winners three times in succession - in the semi-final in a repeat of last season's match-up. League Cup specialist Jose Mourinho will bid to take his Spurs side to Wembley as they face Brentford in the other tie.

Overall team performance: 8/10

United Faithful Man of the Match: Edinson Cavani. 

Monday, 21 December 2020

McTominay masterclass in United rout of Roses rivals

Manchester United put Leeds to the sword in a stunning display of attacking football epitomised by Scott McTominay.
On a day when every United man played his part in a victory for the ages over our old rivals from across the Pennines, McTominay emerged head and shoulders above the rest. 
The Lancaster-born Scot was eight the last time these two sides met at league level, but, in a game not for the faint hearted, you'd never know he was a virgin of this fixture. In a dominant and devastating team showing, McTominay epitomised everything United did with a virtuoso individual performance. It was by far the best showing of his fledgling Old Trafford career to date. 

At times, McTominay seemed to be on a one-man crusade to grind Leeds into the dust and to make them squirm. Left out of the team on Thursday night for the trip to Bramall Lane, it seemed clear that Ole had him in mind to start here, ensuring his charge stayed fresh and fit for a fixture where work rate would be key. Having done so - he certainly didn't disappoint. Against a side that would run until they dropped and with a press to die for, McTominay turned into a hybrid of Paul Scholes, Andres Iniesta, Roy Keane, Zinedine Zidane and Andrea Pirlo rolled into one. 

McTominay, remarkably when you consider the impact he had, only touched the ball 38 times against Leeds. But it's what you do with it that counts. He was a furious force, immediately setting the tempo with his running, movement, clinical finishing and physicality. Not in the usual way that he tackled everything that moved, but he channelled his inner Scholes by bursting forward from a deep-lying playmaker role. 

Arriving late in the manner reminiscent of our flame-haired midfield maestro, McTominay thundered in a 25-yarder and then doubled the lead 24 seconds later with a beautifully caressed finish after a shimmy and a step over. In doing so, he created a unique piece of history as the first man ever to score twice in the opening three minutes of a league game. Marcelo Bielsa's philosophy thrown out the window inside five minutes by simple but wonderfully executed football. Leeds had waited 16 years for this fixture only to see their hopes left in tatters by one of our own and a man on a mission. Is there anything better than that?With the possible exception of securing a derby double from 40 yards at the Stretford End... luckily for Scott, he's done that too..

Deployed in defensive midfield alongside Fred in Solskjaer's preferred 4-2-3-1, McTominay was so much more than simply a holding player. He scored twice, set up Dan James for the fifth and was involved in another. His energy levels were through the roof, he constantly kept the team moving with his range of passing, he linked the play, started attacks, finished them and proved the very definition of box to box. McTominay now has more league goals than Chelsea's £75m Kai Havertz with three, the same as Anthony Martial. 

Although McTominay hobbled off clutching his groin in injury time, his immense energy at the heart of the team was key - despite their revered work-rate, Bielsa's side only ran 2.6km further than United. His intensity and energy never allowed Leeds to play through midfield, driving the Reds forward at will to exploit the gaping holes left behind by a very naive Leeds team. 

Much of the pre-match talk centred on the play-making influence of Leeds Kalvin Phillips, a man synonymous behind his side's rise to Premier League prominence. Having been so impressive as to be capped by Gareth Southgate's England, Phillips was rendered virtually anonymous here in the face of an onslaught from his opposite number. McTominay never gave Phillips room to breathe, and he was hooked by Bielsa at the break. A huge credit to the United man. 

It wasn't just his running and awareness off the ball that impressed, either. McTominay, believe it or not, used to play as a striker and this encounter was a rare reminder of his ability in the attacking side of United's game. 

I'm very pleased for a young player I like and rate highly. Often a easy target when the team aren't playing well, yesterday highlighted just how important McTominay is to this side. On this type of form, there aren't many better at what he does. 

The rebirth of Solskjaer's United... just in time for Christmas

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rampant and rejuvenated Reds stormed into third place for Christmas after a stunning six-star salvo over old rivals Leeds.

United will sit in the top three on the 25 December at this stage of a season for only the third time in eight years, five points off the summit with only Liverpool and Leicester ahead of us. United’s first post-Christmas assignment? Brendan Rodgers side at the King Power Stadium on Boxing Day - a repeat of last term’s final day ding dong for the Champions League. 

Even in 2017-18, a season when the Reds went on to secure their highest post-Sir Alex Ferguson finish as runners up, they were worse off then at the same stage compared to now. United were second at Christmas on that occasion, but a distant 13 points behind a Manchester City side rapidly receding over the horizon. This time around, United are five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand. Not since we last won the league, in Sir Alex’s final farewell season of 2012-13, have United been this close to the top at Christmas. In 2013-14, we were eight points off the summit - and since then the deficit to the leaders has been ten, nine, thirteen, thirteen again, nineteen and twenty-four points respectively. 
 
The old adage says that where you are at Christmas is a likely indicator of your final placing come May. Somehow, kicking and screaming and by hook or crook, Solskjaer has dragged United into contention. Can we stay there? It’s too early to tell, and - to paraphrase Tom Hanks - life is like this Manchester United team. You never know what you’re going to get. But you know what, I quite like it that way. 
It has capped a remarkable turnaround for the Reds boss after a poor start to the campaign left the United boss - for seemingly the umpteenth time - a man on the precipice. As the Reds subsided to a woeful 6-1 defeat at home to Tottenham and former boss Mourinho, you’d have got very long odds on such a revival. It came having lost to Palace on the opening day, and then undeservedly scraped past Brighton with a Bruno Fernandes penalty after the final whistle. 

Given the fact United have spent most of the campaign in third gear, no one would have predicted this. It Is both a huge credit to the team and Solskjaer but yet the epitome of a crazy, unpredictable and topsy turvy campaign like no other. Back in November, before the trip to Everton that kick-started this winter, cockle-warming run, the Reds had endured their worst start to a league season for three decades. 
For all the critics, Solskjaer now finds himself above managers such as Frank Lampard, Mourinho, Marcelo Bielsa,  Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta - all of whom have purportedly been touted as superior. Not bad for a PE teacher. 
The Champions League exit remains a lingering disappointment after a strong start in a difficult group, but Solskjaer is certainly not alone in falling short in that competition at United in recent years. 

The Reds have ticking along quietly for some time now, creeping under the radar with six wins from seven, albeit with performances far from perfect. At times, we’ve looked more like a side fighting relegation that one within touching distance of the top. But now, win the re-arranged game at Turf Moor against Burnley - whenever that may be - and we’d go second, two points off the top. It’s a big IF, and nothing is ever certain with this United side, but it’s hard to deny that we aren’t genuine title contenders at this moment in time with a third of the season gone. Yet Solskjaer has received little credit - the players seem to be getting the kudos and its only down to him when things go wrong. 

Every time we lose a game, it’s made out to be the worst thing ever and it is time for him to go. The very fact we’re in touch at the top shows progress and proof of how we continue on an upward trajectory with Solskjaer into his third year as United manager. Only Liverpool and City have picked up more points than us since he took charge. 
Jurgen Klopp’s juggernaut from down the east Lancs Road continue to unpalatably set the standard and be the benchmark. But, far from the gaping, yawning 33-point chasm of last term between the Reds of Manchester and Merseyside, United could well be within touching distance by the time the two sides meet in January. 
We still don’t quite look like a side capable of a genuine title challenge, but yet we’re in contention with Leicester, Wolves, Villa and Fulham in our next four league ties. Win those, and we go to Anfield breathing down the necks of Liverpool. Then, who knows? 
This emerging young side have momentum mixed with confidence, and Solskjaer’s United will believe anything is possible.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Match report: Manchester United 6 (SIX) Leeds United 2

A Scott McTominay inspired Manchester United stormed into third place in the Premier League with a clinical six star demolition of old rivals Leeds.
McTominay scored twice inside the first five minutes and claimed a further two assists as a brace from Bruno Fernandes, a Dan James breakaway and a rare Victor Lindelof strike completed the rout in the first league meeting between the two Uniteds in sixteen years. 

To their credit, Marcelo Bielsa's newly promoted side more than played their part in a Christmas cracker, but the hard-working visitors were ultimately undone by their porous defence. 
This "War of the Roses" derby had not been played at league level since 2004 and with both sides focused on attacking intent, it was always felt this would be a thriller - yet nobody would have expected this stunning, rip-roaring and wildly fluctuating contest.

McTominay thumped in a wonderful finish after 67 seconds as he latched on to a Bruno Fernandes pass and caressed a 25-yarder beyond Illan Meslier. The Reds, in stark contrast to many of their games this season, had started at breakneck speed. With Leeds on the ropes and reeling, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side struck again only seconds later.
Anthony Martial found McTominay, the Scottish international burst into the box with a step-over and powered the ball beyond the Leeds keeper with a second touch. In doing so, McTominay created a unique piece of history as he became the first player ever to score twice in the first three minutes of a Premier League game. Incidentally,
McTominay was also the first man to hit a brace in a league game with Leeds since a certain chap by the name of Solskjaer in 2002... whatever happened to him?

Patrick Bamford went close and then had a goal ruled out for offside in a strong riposte from the Yorkshire visitors. Just when it seemed as though Leeds had gained a foothold, though, United ripped them apart on the counter attack and moved 3-0 ahead inside the opening 20 minutes. Former Leeds target Dan James - a surprise inclusion in Solskjaer's line up - began the move on halfway and he, in turn moved the ball on to Fernandes. The Portuguese maestro flicked on to Fred, Martial burst clear and fired in an effort but the loose ball fell to the onrushing Fernandes and he placed the ball across Meslier to leave the United players, staff, officials and fans quite unable to believe what they were seeing.

Against any other team in the division - surely even Liverpool - a 3-0 lead would be enough to see you home and dry. But Bielsa's men have a reputation for being never-say-die workaholics with a penchant for the unexpected, so even in the face of an unrelenting onslaught from the Reds, you always felt Leeds were capable of a United-esque comeback. 

But the hosts were in no mood for a let up and put the game beyond any lingering doubt on 37 minutes when Lindelof turned the ball home from a Martial flag-kick.

On a weekend when Liverpool won 7-0, Leeds were heading for similar as the Reds ran riot, but - to their credit - they managed to grab a consolation on 41 minutes when captain Liam Cooper nodded in an inswinging Raphinha corner.

David de Gea saved superbly from the same player as he pushed Raphinha's effort on to a post, and Martial went close to a fifth at the other end as this brilliantly bonkers bonanza continued to ebb and flow magnificently. 
But another goal was not long in coming as McTominay, on a hat-trick, this time turned provider. Collecting the ball from deep, the Scot shimmied beyond his marker and turned another, laying the ball off to James who took the ball in his stride. The young Welshman advanced on goal and fired in a 20-yard effort under Meslier - whom should have done better - for his first league goal of the season. 

Fernandes made it 6-1 with a trademark penalty in the 70th minute after Martial was scythed down, but - incredibly - there was still more to come. Leeds continued to press with remarkable energy and pilfered another consolation through the excellent Dallas, as the full-back advanced and slammed a stunner beyond the despairing De Gea.

Edinson Cavani headed over and Meslier saved from another sub, Donny van de Beek, whilst Jack Harrison missed a sitter at the other end. 

Rodrigo was denied by De Gea in the final moments of a crazy game, but even a late injury to hero of the hour McTominay did little to dampen Red spirits. What a win! Solskjaer's side travel to Everton for their final pre-Christmas fixture in midweek. 

Overall team performance: 7/10

United Faithful Man of the Match: Scott Andres Iniesta McTominay 

Saturday, 19 December 2020

United and Leeds rekindle a rivalry for the ages

 One of English football's longest running rivalries reignites after 16 years as Leeds visit Old Trafford on Sunday. 
For the first time since 2004, the Red of Lancashire's United meet Yorkshire's white football tour de force, following the Elland Road's side rise to prominence under the tutelage of charismatic, obsessive and maverick manager Marcelo Bielsa. 

After Leeds financial meltdown, spectacular fall from grace and double relegation (they certainly know a thing or two about going from tier one to tier three), the two clubs have met twice in both domestic cup competitions, with honours even. But Leeds promotion back to the promised land after almost two decades ensured that this age old ding dong re-emerged on the Premier League fixture list. 

For all the mocking and schadenfreude towards the men from across the Pennines, there's no denying that the two league fixtures between these two Uniteds are ones to be relished. It is a crying shame, but also perhaps a blessing, that there will be no fans present to witness the occasion. The old adage may say time itself is a great healer, but that won't be the case when these two very different clubs, sleeping giants from two very different cities, lock horns again on Sunday. United and Leeds may have spent the last 16 years in different divisions, but there's no love lost here - its a fire that continues to burn as fiercely as ever. 

This is a feud - much like the United vs Liverpool loathing - that transcends football and one steeped in history, tradition and mutual hatred. Like many a tangled tale, its a complicated affair.
Bizarrely, its one that kick-started back in the days of Shakespeare and the Tudors when the Plantagenet house of Lancaster (red) and the house of York (white) were embroiled in a series of civil wars to establish supremacy and to eliminate potential heirs to the throne. I don't pretend to know all the bitter, gory details, but you get the idea of where and how this all started.

It was an underlying sense of feeling only exacerbated over time, reaching a zenith in the 60s when the two Uniteds were competing for trophies under two men whom hated each other. Matt Busby and his side were widely respected and appreciated by neutrals and even rival fans, whereas Don Revie and his "dirty Leeds" were reviled throughout the land. A pivotal moment was the Johnny Giles saga - a man who rose through the ranks at Old Trafford before signing for 'them' and going on to become the mainstay of Revie's all-conquering Leeds side. Busby's United were the slick, easy on the eye, youthful team playing football as it should be played. Revie's team were physical and dirty with a poor disciplinary record and a penchant for the incendiary. 

Revie's United were often regarded as the nearly men - we pipped them to the title on goal average (or goal difference) in 1965 whilst Leeds twice lost European finals as United finally won the cup with the big ears three years later. Six years later, Busby's Reds were relegated and Revie's Leeds were dominant champions. The balance of power continued to swing until Manchester's finest asserted their dominance - sparked by the signing of Eric Cantona from, you guessed it, Leeds, in 1992. As United finally scratched a 26-year itch, salvation came, with delicious irony, from an enemy. Thirteen titles in 21 years, all sparked by a phone call and the arrival of Cantona the catalyst. Up until until that seminal turning point, it had been David O'Leary's youthful, exciting and aggressive side to carry the air of potential champions - it was they, not us, whom had widely been tipped to become serial winners. 

Leeds ignominious plummet to relegation led to a firesale while Alan Smith - the lifelong Leeds fan who had declared he would never play for United - later did exactly that. Denis Irwin and Rio Ferdinand also followed the same path in swapping Elland Road for Old Trafford, as did Giles, Joe Jordan and the two Gordons, McQueen and Strachan. 

A common denominator here is that these two Uniteds - two of the biggest and most iconic football names in the land - have a long and colourful history of fights, fisticuffs and feuding. Many are local, many involve subplots, but there is something particularly fierce, perhaps even more so than our rivalry with Liverpool - there is something especially visceral about this one.

Its a rivalry just as fierce off the pitch as on it - with banners, Munich songs and reference to the two Leeds fans stabbed in Turkey in a European game at the turn of the century. 
Both managers like to play the expansive stuff, so the first cross-Pennines league meeting in 16 years may prove to be a festive cracker to warm the cockles. 

Friday, 18 December 2020

Manchester United: The Premier League's greatest showmen?

Football is not merely a results business. It is also a combination of the entertainment industry and show business. At the moment, Manchester United - by hook, by crook or sheer force of will - are managing to provide all three.

This is by far the most fun United side we've had since 2009 - perhaps not the best,  but definitely the most eye-catching. If there were fans present at every game, they certainly wouldn't feel short changed. Apart from the breath-of-fresh air provided by Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds side, is there a more eminently watchable side than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tricky showtime Reds in the Premier League at present? Speaking of Leeds, we renew rivalries with the men from across the Pennines on Sunday at Old Trafford and it certainly won't be boring. 

United provide entertainment in many different ways, specifically the art of the contradiction. We don't merely lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous on a week by week basis. Oh no. We manage to achieve both extremes within the same 90 minutes. 
This was never more clearly illuminated than another baffling performance at Bramall Lane. Not for United is the easy or the routine. Playing last on another midweek festival of football, the Reds forgot to turn up for the first 15 minutes at Bramall Lane - where last season's surprise package Sheffield United are rapidly becoming this term's whipping boys.

Having gone behind to a side that hadn't taken a lead all season, indeed, a side with only seven goals to their name from 13 outings, the Reds were sloppy, lethargic and anodyne in the opening exchanges of this clash between two of the Premier League's United's. We then scored three in third gear, swaggered around with class, confidence and arrogance before somehow almost turning three comfortable points into only one if not for Dean Henderson - the man at fault for both of Sheffield's two goals. Henderson's own personal performance was the epitome of his side's collective showing in microcosm. His late save from Lys Mousset highlighted his undoubted quality, but he should have done better for both of David McGoldrick's early and late efforts. 

As Tom Hanks once said in the guise of Forrest Gump: life is like a box of chocolates because you never know what you're going to get. The same can be applied to this bewildering yet beguiling Manchester United side. 
The 2020-21 may be an extraordinary season like no other, but it's been a magical mystery ride for us Reds so far. Every game should come with a health warning, and it's advisable to never be far from a defibrilator when watching this United side - capable of delight and despair in equal measure - strut their stuff. More rollercoaster white knuckle ride than unstoppable runaway train. There is still the sense that we're still not quite sure what this United side are or supposed to be? Are we genuine title contenders or a team constantly papering over the cracks and doing enough to just scrape by? 

Are these exciting, thrill-a-minute victories masking bigger problems or are we truly a side capable of mounting a tangible quest for the major honours? But as out greatest showman himself once said - attack wins you games, defence wins you titles. Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire continue to look incompatible against even the most rudimentary of opponents. Until the Reds fix that particular Achilles heel, it's difficult to see how this current trend is sustainable. We cannot keep leaking goals or giving opponents a one or two goal head start. You might get away with it against the likes of Southampton, West Ham and Sheffield United but - as we saw in Leipzig - against the best in the business there's no escape. Coming from behind will only get you so far. The attacking trident - Messrs Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood with Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba (when they want to be) - as good as any but opponents are exploiting a lack of pace and cohesion at the back. Lindelof and Maguire aren't necessarily bad players, and both offer plenty individually, but they don't work well enough together. United are two top quality centre-halves away from mounting a genuine assault on the major honours. 

 If - and it's a big IF given United's consistent inconsistency - we win our game in hand at east Lancashire rivals Burnley, Solskjaer's side will somehow be in second place in the table, two points off the top. Let's assume Chelsea and Manchester City are considered as contenders for the title - well then, at the moment, so are United considering we are above both in the league almost halfway through the season. This most unpredictable of sides are firmly in and amongst the chasing pack in this most unpredictable of league campaigns. 

Of course, the very nature of this harum scarum, unpredictable raison d'etre is the sense that trouble and strife is never very far away. As one cross Pennines derby ended in a five goal thriller, the spectre of another storied ol' Roses clash loomed large for Solskjaer's United. Yes, of course, it's Bielsa and his Leeds side - a clash of two of English football's sleeping giants and of two sides for whom defending is an occupational hazard. It's the start of a massive week for Manchester United - how many times have we said that, too? 

Hold on tight, strap yourselves in and to reword a Robbie Williams classic, Let Them Entertain You. 

Match report: Sheffield United 2-3 Manchester United


United went sixth in the Premier League after Marcus Rashford scored twice in another harum-scarum thriller at Bramall Lane. 
The Reds recovered from a poor start against struggling Sheffield United to record a tenth successive away win and maintain their habit of nail-biting, erratic climb-off-the-canvas victories. Whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side boast a proud 100% record away record, we have fallen behind each time before fighting back to do it the hard way. Things proved no different here. 

The result lifted United to within five points of the Premier League table and into sixth with a game in hand whilst Chris Wilder's blunted Blades remain rooted to the foot of the standings with a solitary point from 13 games. 

Despite their lowly league position, Sheffield United stunned their more illustrious namesakes as they went ahead after 81 seconds, albeit through a large helping hand from a man they know well.
Dean Henderson, on his second league start, spent two seasons on loan at Bramall Lane but was badly at fault for the opener when he dallied on a Harry Maguire back-pass and was robbed by Oliver Burke. The ball was knocked back to David McGoldrick and the striker had a simple finish into an empty net from five yards.

John Fleck flashed a shot inches wide before the hamstrung Sander Berge was replaced by veteran defender Phil Jagielka. 
Solskjaer's side finally sparked into life as Rashford linked with Bruno Fernandes and the former went close from distance with a drive. 
Sheffield failed to heed those warnings, however, and Rashford would gobble up his second chance on 26 minutes. The in-form striker latched on to a raking Victor Lindelof pass and pulled the ball down with immaculate control before he thumped the ball beyond the despairing Aaron Ramsdale to bring the Reds level.

That seemed to rouse United and we had turned the deficit into an advantage within five minutes for a goal made in France. Paul Pogba may have attracted unwanted headlines but was at the heart of things here as his defence-splitting pass found fellow Frenchman Anthony Martial and put his one-on-one with Ramsdale.
The mercurial forward nicked the ball beyond the advancing keeper and flicked the ball home to end his goal drought for his first of the season in the league.
Mason Greenwood fired wide and Rashford also went close as the Reds fluid, interchanging attack looked threatening every time they went forward.

The Reds continued where they had left off after the interval as Rashford nutmegged substitute Jagielka and, after a stunning solo run, Greenwood had an effort blocked.

United's no.10 finished the job himself six minutes into the second half after more excellent work from the mercurial Pogba. The World Cup winner started the move deep in midfield and found Fernandes, whom in turn moved the ball on to Greenwood. The teenager had too much for the ageing Jagielka and was scythed down, but the referee played advantage as Fernandes moved the ball on to Martial and he in turn cut the ball back for the onrushing Rashford to fire home a finish under Ramsdale. 

For the sixth league game in a row, the Reds had come from behind to win, scoring at least three goals in the process.
That appeared to have put the result beyond doubt with 25 minutes remaining as defender Callum Robinson blocked from Martial, ex-Blade Harry Maguire was also thwarted and United sub Juan Mata was denied by Ramsdale on the counter attack.

The match appeared to be drifting to a benign conclusion, but United never do things easily and were made to hang on for the win as Sheffield threatened an unlikely late fightback.
When a Blades corner was swung in, Lindelof got a touch on the ball only to see his header hit McGoldrick and loop beyond the unsighted Henderson on 87 minutes.

It set up a frantic finale few had seen coming, with Henderson called into action within moments to preserve the Reds increasingly slender lead. 
The United stopper pawed away substitute Lys Mousset's well-struck drive and Maguire cleared under pressure late on as the Reds repelled an unlikely late charge from the winless hosts. 

Solskjaer's side deserved the win, though, and held out for a record-extending tenth consecutive win on the road ahead of the Old Trafford visit of Leeds on Sunday. 

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

Monday, 14 December 2020

Solskjaer's United set for Spanish Silva service in Europa League



Manchester United face a difficult hurdle in the last 32 of the Europa League after being paired with Spanish league leaders Real Sociedad.
Having dropped out of the Champions League Group of Death, the Reds were handed arguably the toughest tie when the continent's second tier tournament resumes in February. The men from San Sebastien have made a surprise start to their La Liga season, topping the table from Atletico Madrid on goal difference (albeit with two games in hand), as the traditional heavyweight powerhouses struggle. In this most unique of years, will there be an unexpected title winner or will the cream rise to the top as Real and Barcelona restore the equilibrium? 

The two sides have met only once before, in the group stages of the Champions League in 2013-14 when United - then under David Moyes - won 1-0 at Old Trafford before a 0-0 draw in Spain. Moyes would go on to have a year-long stint as manager of the Basque Country side after his Old Trafford sacking, signing Adnan Januzaj from United. The Scot may be back on these shores, but Januzaj, once touted as the Reds next great hope, remains in blue and white.

David Silva, one of Manchester City's finest ever players and a Premier League legend, will relish a reunion with his former side's derby rivals. The schemer will be 35 by the time United come to town, but he still has magic and flair in his ageing legs and will no doubt look to inspire his side to a famous scalp over a United side with a poor recent record in European competition. 

Silva and Januzaj are by far the most recognisable names in the Sociedad squad, with ex-Arsenal man Nacho Monreal and former Newcastle player Mikel Merino also amongst their alumni.

The first leg will be played at Sociedad's Anoeta Stadium on Thursday 18 February followed by the return at Old Trafford a week later on 25 February 2021. Hopefully by then, any travel restrictions will have been lifted allowing the Red army to sample the delights of San Sebastien, a tourist hotspot renowned for its beachfront bars and a particularly nice part of a wonderful country.

Sociedad, under the tutelage of Imanol Alguacil, finished sixth in their league last year, which qualified them for Europe. Drawn into Group F of the competition, they emerged as runners-up to Napoli in the section, finishing second ahead of AZ by a point to set up only a second ever meeting with the Reds. 

United, of course, are looking to go one better than last season when we suffered semi final KO heartache at the hands of Sociedad's divisional rivals Sevilla. Julen Lopetegui's side prevailed as eventual winners for their sixth triumph but are not involved this time having qualified for the last 16 in the Champions League, meaning there will be a new name on the trophy this year. Alguacil's side have never gone further than a European quarter-final.

Solskjaer's side weren't the only English team in the draw, made virtually at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. 

Struggling out-of-form Arsenal have saved their best performances for this tournament and cruised into the knockouts with six wins out of six. They were paired with Jorge Jesus Portuguese giants Benfica in the last 32, whilst Premier League leaders Tottenham will play Wolfsberger of Austria. Leicester take on Slavia Prague and Steven Gerrard's high-flying Rangers were drawn with Belgian side Antwerp. 

The winners of the competition will qualify for next season's Champions League, with the 2020-21 final to be held in Gdansk, Poland on 26 May. 

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Match report: Manchester United 0-0 Manchester City

The 183rd all-Manchester meeting ended all square as United and City shared the spoils in a dreadful derby at Old Trafford. 
In a dismal match devoid of quality and excitement, neither side were able to carve out the opportunity to make the difference amid the eerie silence of a deserted Theatre of Dreams. This was a tie lacking everything that makes a derby special and will be an instantly forgettable encounter starkly in contrast with some of the epic classic on this ground. The result ended United's four match winning league streak but at least extended our unbeaten run. 

There were hardly any chances of note and the closely-contested encounter mirrored the league table with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United and Pep Guardiola's City locked together in eighth and ninth respectively. 
After our unfortunate Champions League KO in midweek, Solskjaer reverted to a more familiar system as he returned to a back four and made two changes with midfield pair Paul Pogba and Fred coming in to the side in place of Alex Telles and Nemanja Matic. 

United went closest early on through last season's derby hero, Scott McTominay. Victor Lindelof flicked on a Luke Shaw corner and McTominay stuck out a foot, only to see the ball narrowly evade his lunge. 
The Reds main threat came through set-pieces, and another flag-kick almost led to United's opener. A Bruno Fernandes cross deflected behind and Shaw's inswinger was met by the United skipper, but Harry Maguire headed narrowly over when well-placed. Guardiola's City slickers had shown ominous signs of clicking into gear in recent weeks, but United kept them at arm's length with a resilient and disciplined defensive showing. 

Raheem Sterling fired wide and Gabriel Jesus blazed off target having been put through by Riyad Mahrez, but the clearest chance of the half - maybe even the entire game - fell to City on 35 minutes. 
The Blues broke at pace as Sterling linked up with Rodri to play in Mahrez, and his low effort was well saved by the onrushing David de Gea. The rebound ran free and fell to Kevin de Bruyne, but the Belgian was uncharacteristically wayward with his effort.

Lindelof headed over from yet another set-piece, a Fernandes corner this time, but the two sides went in level after the stalest of first half stalemates. 

It looked as if the breakthrough was not long in coming shortly after the restart when Marcus Rashford burst clear and was felled by Kyle Walker. Manchester-born referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a spot-kick, but replays showed the United no.10 had strayed offside and VAR correctly over-ruled the official. 

The excellent Maguire blocked superly from De Bruyne and Mahrez flashed wide before United sent on Anthony Martial in place of Mason Greenwood with 15 minutes to play.

The rest of the game passed without incident, although City started to get a grip of the derby with a lift in movement and tempo as the tie entered the last ten minutes.
United broke out of the Blues press and carved out an opening to win it, inevitably through Bruno Fernandes. Rashford found the Portuguese 20 yards out and well placed, but his shot summed up the tepid state of affairs as he fired weakly at the under-worked Ederson. 

Fernandes flashed another effort wide in the closing moments but any late drama would have been out of keeping with an awful encounter that won't live long in the memory. 
United face their two namesakes from Yorkshire in our next two contests, as we travel to winless Sheffield and then host old rivals Leeds at Old Trafford five days before Christmas. 

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw 

Friday, 11 December 2020

Manchester derby: Combined XI - United 4, City 7

It's Matchday 12 in the Premier League and the eyes of the world will again be honed on Old Trafford as United and City go head-to-head in the 183rd Manchester derby. 
The two city rivals endured contrasting Champions League fortunes as United were eliminated despite a late fightback in Germany, but Pep Guardiola's side secured progression the last 16 as group winners. 
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have been consistently inconsistent, with no one ever quite sure which United team will turn up. City similarly started slowly but have started to click into gear although arrive at Old Trafford a point and a place behind United in the league. With that in mind, we run the rule over both sides talents and comprise a theoretical combined XI.

We haven't considered injured players, only men that are fit and available for the fixture, so without further ado, here is our team that we would call, fittingly, a City United. We're going for a 4-4-2 formation. 

GK - Ederson

Two of the best keepers in the league will go head to head - on their day both are almost impeachable, but both are equally as culpable of being error-strewn. The recent dip in David De Gea's form pushes him behind City's Brazilian in this selection, even though Ederson is far from infallible. The latter has pilfered eight clean sheets to the Spaniard's three, although admittedly has a better defence in front of him. Our over-riding memory of Ederson in this fixture is his loose throw out - seized upon by Scott McTominay - back in March. On current form, you have to go with the Brazilian. 

RB - Aaron Wan - Bissaka

This is a straight shoot-out between "The Spider" and Kyle Walker. The latter has been the epitome of the modern day full-back, with his crossing and strength in the tackle considered among the best in the Premier League. Wan - Bissaka may not be as good going forward, but there are very few better defensively and I just feel he's the better player out of the two. It depends what you want from a full-back, but Walker's star is perhaps on the wane and, despite a bit of a dip from Wan - Bissaka, he gets the nod based on pure out-and-out full-back play. 

CB - Aymeric Laporte

Frenchman Laporte has been injury-ridden but, when fit, is the best centre-back across both teams. He is a certain starter and has been one of Pep Guardiola's best signings since taking over at the Etihad. City had a makeshift defence of Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi in both games last year, but their backline is looking much more miserly this time. You have to be good to get past Laporte with much of the burden in doing so on his United compatriot and opposite number, Anthony Martial.

CB - Ruben Dias

Picking Laporte's partner was one of the difficult choices in our combined side. Statistically, Harry Maguire has bettered any other City centre-back, but the team have also kept one more clean sheet and conceded eleven league goals to United's seventeen. The sample size is small, but Dias has made a strong start to his Manchester City career and you feel that neither of United's first choice centre-backs would get in ahead of him. Based purely on pound-for-pound quality and the fact he plays in a better defensive unit, Ruben Dias takes the other spot in this all-City centre back pair. 

LB - Luke Shaw 

Another difficult position to pick given that Alex Telles has only just arrived, whilst Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko have been inconsistent and have struggled for form and fitness. I'm yet to be convinced by Telles from an admittedly small sample size, even though the new United left-back has been filling in for the injured Shaw of late. None of the other contenders have covered themselves in glory but Shaw had a good season last year and had impressed before his latest spell on the sidelines and so gets the nod despite the fact Mendy scored his first City goal in the recent win over Burnley. 

RW - Riyad Mahrez

Mason Greenwood is a generational talent but this is only his second senior season and the mercurial Mahrez is a player in fine fettle. The Algerian took his time to get going in the sky blue of City but hit a devastating hat-trick in the rout of Burnley last time out. We've picked another possible contender for this position in his more natural role of an out and out forward, so Mahrez gets the nod with the teenage wonderboy of Greenwood waiting in the wings, no pun intended, to come on later if needed. 

CM - Bruno Fernandes

No defensive minded player in this XI with Fernandinho in the twilight of his career and Rodri, although impactful, not on the same level as the Brazilian. David Silva's departure has left a gaping hole in the City midfield, so it can only be the two stand out stars of their respective sides for the central midfield positions. Both of these positions are no brainers, with Fernandes having scooped his fourth player of the year award and quickly becoming the beating heart of Manchester United - this side's inspirational and talismanic figurehead. Fernandes tops the Reds scoring charts with ten, and his mere presence transforms the entire dynamic of this Manchester United side. What a player. 

CM - Kevin de Bruyne

De Bruyne has yet to reach the metronomic heights of previous seasons but is as important to City as Fernandes is to us. City's Player of the Season last term also won the PFA Player of the Year and Premier League Player of the Year last term and has created 72 of City's last 164 goals. Although he has only scored twice this term, he has reached double figures in terms of assists and remains Pep Guardiola's go-to match winner. Like Fernandes, when De Bruyne plays well, so do City. Widely regarded as one of the finest exponents of his craft on the planet, De Bruyne is simply undroppable. Never mind the lack of balance in this selection, we can only drool at the creativity levels these two would provide. 

LW - Raheem Sterling

The winger has developed from unpolished diamond into a goal machine, and he remains one of City's most important string pullers in chief. Sterling can play anywhere across the front, and there's no United player even close to him in the competition for places here. Anthony Martial can play off the left but is the epitome of inconsistency and simply doesn't justify a spot in this side so its Sterling all day long. Leroy Sane would have given Sterling a run for his money but the German has departed to his homeland so Sterling is a certain starter. He was involved in both goals against Fulham and will be ready to resume his personal battle with Aaron Wan - Bissaka. 

FW - Marcus Rashford

Taking Rashford out of his position on the flanks to a central striker role, we wanted a homegrown Academy boy in our selection. Rashford has been in winning form on and off the pitch and knows, more than anyone else, what this fixture means. In the last four league games, Rashford has either scored or assisted and almost bailed the Reds out with a dramatic late equaliser in Leipzig in midweek. Rashford hit double figures for the season with the game-winning clincher at the London Stadium and has a decent record in front of goal against City having scored in two of the four derbies last term. 

FW - Sergio Aguero 

The net-busting Argentine may be injury hit and in the latter days of his career but he is City's record scorer and one of the finest strikers the Premier League has ever seen. Gabriel Jesus is set to lead the line in the derby with Aguero on the bench as he recovers from his latest injury problems. Aguero has been the scourge of United in many a derby, becoming one of the top scorers in all-Manchester meetings history, up there with Wayne Rooney. Aguero may not be the unstoppable force of old, but he is still a fantastic player and one for the Reds to be wary of. Edinson Cavani is injured and unlikely to feature, Martial is nowhere near this discussion and Jesus doesn't warrant selection here. 

Fernandes and Fred key to victory in 183rd Manchester derby

The stage is set, the curtain is raised and the eyes of the world will home in on Manchester as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola lock horns again.

Solskjaer has been a man under seemingly incessant pressure but yet United go into the 183rd all-Manchester meeting a point and a place ahead of the men from across the city, by hook or by crook.
Although Manchester City's golden era is perhaps on the wane, there can be no denying the galaxy of stars at the Catalan's disposal. Any side with Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero in will be dangerous, and - although their start to the season has been far from vintage - there have been signs in recent weeks that City's slickers are ominously starting to click into gear.

But Solskaer knows how to get one over on his more illustrious counterpart. Last term, the affable and erudite Norwegian led United to a derby double over City for the first time in a decade, with a League Cup semi-final second leg win thrown in for good measure (although United missed out on a place in the final on a 2-3 aggregate). That ensured Solskjaer became only the second manager to beat Guardiola three times in a single season - Jurgen Klopp is the other man to do so. So for all his critics, it would be churlish to count out Solskjaer's United completely. After all, this team have a happy knack of rising to the big occasion. The bigger the opposition, the better we often seem to play. 

To secure victory in the first ever derby to be played without fans, you feel two men will be key for United. 
Midfield is often where matches are won and lost, and this one looks to be no exception. Whilst City possess probably the best pound-for-pound player on the planet in Kevin de Bruyne, the City schemer has had a disappointing season by his own metronomic standards. Perhaps he's suffering the effects of his missing link with the departed David Silva, or maybe the lack of preparation and pre-season has had an impact. It could be something else entirely. Either way, although he is too good to simply ignore, de Bruyne perhaps does not carry the same fear factor that saw him voted PFA, Premier League and City Player of the Season in 2019-20. 
Individual battles can often be as gripping as the main event and the undercard is just as compelling as the heavyweight fight on this occasion. Despite his aforementioned struggles, De Bruyne is still widely considered as the best pound-for-pound playmaker in world football. You have to be a very special talent indeed to put him in the shade. Enter, Bruno Fernandes. The impact of United's talismanic, match-winning figurehead needs no embellishment but the Portuguese has had a stellar campaign so far. The midfield maestros go head-to-head at Old Trafford on Saturday at teatime, with the pair holding the key to victory for their respective sides. 

We saw in the last fixture between these two what Fernandes offers: his quick-thinking impudence caught City napping as he flicked a set-piece over the wall and set up Anthony Martial to score. 
Fernandes has played 53 minutes more than De Bruyne, and his crucial influence was in evidence again as he transformed the Reds from the bench against West Ham last time out. His mere presence transforms the entire dynamic of the side and his leadership stands out in a side lacking exactly that. It is both credit to Fernandes but also damning for United, how he has quickly become our most important player. Fernandes has rapidly become a key tactical cog for Solskjaer, efficiently moving the team up the pitch when he's on the ball, coupled with an instinctive knowledge of when to press and where and when to sit in when out of possession. Manchester City are likely to monopolise possession and push us back, so Fernandes may have to be patient and look to push United high up the pitch in transition. He will, once again, be pivotal. 

Fernandes may be mocked as a penalty merchant, but yet four of his seven league strikes have come from open play, with only from the spot. In contrast, both of De Bruyne's goals in 2020-21 have been from 12 yards. Now who's the spot-kick specialist...

Solskjaer seems likely to go with one of two formations - his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 raison d'etre, or the three-at-the-back that has served him so well in games such as this. Whichever of these two probable shapes he uses, Fred is set to come back into the fold. Left out at West Ham and suspended against Leipzig, the Brazilian is a player whose importance becomes clear only in absentia. Fred has been at his best when in a double pivot, alongside Scott McTominay, at the base of midfield. His combative, naturally feisty nature is made for games like the derby, and he ran the show in both games against Pep's slickers last term, turning the tables with a magnificent performance of pressing, power and perseverance. City will go through his area of the pitch, so Fred will be relied upon to break up play, move the ball on and link the play with his potent range of passing. He provides a consistent central option during build up phases, and continually offers support as a recycle point when the ball is advanced further forward, as it inevitably will be. 
City are likely to go with Gabriel Jesus in attack and will attempt to pass us to death, so Solskjaer will look to the little Brazilian to shut down the channels and stop the supply line to his compatriot. In both a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-1-2, Fred's role is to both support those around him, to start attacks from deep but also to advance further forwards. He was sorely missed in Germany, and in east London to a lesser extent, but his selection here is surely a no brainer. 

De Bruyne vs Fernandes, Rodri vs Fred, Aaron Wan - Bissaka renewing his personal duel with Raheem Sterling... United vs City, Red against Blue, Solskjaer vs Guardiola. Bring.It.On!