Saturday 29 February 2020

Everton return brings chance of redemption for Solskjaer's United

Ten months after the Easter Sunday massacre at Goodison Park, United return to Everton with an opportunity to show this side's progress since that miserable afternoon.

The 4-0 capitulation was probably former Toffees boss Marco Silva's best day in the job, but in stark contrast United's own season hit a desperate nadir in the worst performance of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Old Trafford tenure. There have been a few more lows since, but none quite as bad as that one. We were ripped to pieces by Everton and, although it was 4-0, in truth it could have been a lot worse. Granted, Silva's men had beaten Arsenal and Chelsea in two other big scalps in their previous two home games, but there was no logical explanation for the nature of United's collapse. Ole admitted it was his lowest point as United manager and accused his players of showing nothing and giving up.

Goodison Park has been a far from happy hunting ground for United sides in recent years - our record since the turn of the last decade in L4? Won 3, Drawn 2, Lost 5, with one of those wins coming way back in 2011.
As Solskjaer and his team return to the scene of the crime, things have changed but there's still work to do. Sunday's renewal of hostilities with the blue side of Merseyside presents United with the chance to show the progress and strides that have been made since that fateful April day in 2019.

Despite sitting fifth in the table and an unpalatable 38 points behind the unthinkables, United have made improvements since the nightmare of Goodison. The Reds go into this one on the back of our best run for more than a year, unbeaten in seven games (won five, two draws) with six clean sheers in that sequence.

United's defence - that day we had the chuckle brothers with stand-in right back Victor Lindelof and Diogo Dalot - was ruthlessly ripped apart by the pace, energy and movement of the hosts attack. The static Nemanja Matic and an out-of-his depth Fred offered nothing in midfield. All of these players are still at the club, but although things may be far from perfect at present, Solskjaer made a concerted effort to fix the side's defensive deficiencies in the summer.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka and captain-in-waiting Harry Maguire joined from Crystal Palace and Leicester respectively, for a combined fee of £130m. Expensive yes, but necessary and the two have become an integral part of Solskjaer's much improved defence. Added competition from Brandon Williams has helped to lift the level of Luke Shaw. Statistically, we've got the joint second best defensive record in Europe (17 shutouts, with Liverpool), only PSG (22 clean sheets) are superior. We boast the fourth best in the league, having conceded 29 clean sheets compared to last term's 54, although our seven clean sheets could be better.

The much malinged Fred, the epitome of all United's problems that day, has come on immeasurably, whilst alongside him Scott McTominay has become totemic before our eyes. Even Matic has done well since deputising in the injury enforced absence of the latter. Perhaps most pertinently of all, the signing of Bruno Fernandes has given the team a fulcrum, a go to match winner and a leader. He already looks at home in the red of United.
Inspired by Fernandes, we finally seem to be finding consistency but the trip to Everton is only the start of a difficult run of fixtures.

In the 4-0, Solskjaer had Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira and McTominay in his matchday squad  but that was only the start. He has given a plethora of youth graduates their debuts since then with Mason Greenwood and the aforementioned Williams the biggest beneficiaries. Rashford has had the best season of his young career and his injury was a massive blow for the player, the club and his manager.

A new striker should be top of the shopping list in the summer, even despite Rashford's brilliant form and Martial's creditable if inconsistent showings as the number nine. I had no problem in us getting shot of Romelu Lukaku, he wasn't good enough and wanted to leave, but we didn't replace him and that was a big mistake even if Solskjaer ultimately had no say in it. Odion Ighalo is surely only a short-term stopgap.

There's the issue of Dan James who had a lightning start but has fallen off a cliff since, and although Solskjaer has shifted a lot of the dead wood, debris still remains. Smalling, Alexis Sanchez and Marcos Rojo have left on loan whilst Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Lukaku and Matteo Darmian have left the club permanently. Those first three players, having correctly been deemed as not good enough, cannot return to the fold and Phil Jones also needs to be moved on. Solskjaer has done a good job in this area but recruitment still remains an issue. Clearing the deadwood and building a side with quality. Isn't that what a rebuilding project is supposed to be?

As United make the short trip to the other side of Stanley Park, this will be a tough test against a side themselves launching a challenge for Europe under Carlo Ancelotti. But for us, it's certainly a chance to show how far we've come since the dark days of the four goal massacre on this very ground 312 days ago.

Friday 28 February 2020

Man Utd's Fred outshining his illustrious peers

Bruno Fernandes may have been the catalyst for United's recent upturn in fortunes but no one has quite gone from strength to strength like Fred.
Small in size but increasingly huge in stature, the diminutive 5ft 4 Brazilian was dismissed a figure of fun, a joke player, an expensive flop and a symbol of Manchester United's recruitment failings as he endured a torrid start to his second full season in Red.

 Underwhelming, lightweight and seemingly short on quality, Fred was a player Jose Mourinho admitted he never wanted and it showed.

It is to his eternal credit that he has turned his Old Trafford career around from much maligned outcast to the first name on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team sheet. So much so, you'd be hard pressed to find a more in-form midfielder on the continent at the moment. N'golo Kante gets all the plaudits as one of the best in the business and the benchmark for everyone else, but Fred is outperforming him right now, even if the Chelsea man is injured. His stats across the season are superior to his more illustrious peer, with 154 interceptions compared to Kante's 127, a 66% pass completion rate and more distance covered.
Stopping attacks, making interceptions, passing between the lines, working the channels, linking play, tenacious, strong and brave, Fred has been the ultimate big game man and is adding goals now. All this despite not having a regular partner alongside him in the middle. Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Andreas Pereira have come and gone but Fred has remained consistent, and his confidence has soared with a regular run of games in the side. Where are those critics now? Eggs and faces come to mind.

Before Thursday night's game with Brugge, Fred had only scored once for the club. Although his position stationed in front of the back four at the base of midfield means goals do not define him, it was the one chink in his armour. He tripled his tally in eight second minutes against the depleted Belgians, first with a neat finish from a Jesse Lingard cut-back and then a thumping finish from distance - his first strikes in 53 games.
On a night when new signing Bruno and veteran playmaker Juan Mata shone, Fred was the pick of the bunch and picked up the official Man of the Match award with 40% of the votes. This is the player we thought we were getting and the Fred who was so impressive at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Is there a more under-rated player anywhere at the moment than this man? I'll admit it, I didn't think he was up to the job and wasn't afraid of saying so - indeed, I penned many an article on these very pages questioning his suitability as a Man Utd player, especially after the October defeat to Newcastle in which we went in hard on him. I don't like being wrong but on this occasion I'm happy that's the case. I'm struggling to remember such an individual improvement in a player in such a short space of time. Perhaps people that don't watch him don't realise why he's so important and an unsung hero, much of his work goes unnoticed but you could say the same for the likes of Kante, Sergio Busquets and Ilkay Gundogan to name but three.

The Ukrainian Premier League winner is industrious and effervescent, too. Always buzzing tirelessly up and down the pitch, he never stops running and fights for the badge. That's something that will always endear you to us fans, and - like most of his South American compatriots - he's tenacious and willing to get stuck in. He averages an impressive 3.5 tackles per game and is equally adept at snuffing out the opposition as he is at starting attacks. A contender for our Player of the Season?

He was the sole creator, destroyer and enforcer in that midfield for so long, an almost impossible task for one man on his own. With Bruno Fernandes and the returning Sir Scott of McSauce, Fred's quality will continue to shine through. Fair play to him for turning things around after an inauspicious first year in M16. It shows a mentality, desire and hunger to get better and improve, both for him and our team. That's the attitude we want from players donning the iconic red of Manchester United.

United to face tournament debutants in Europa League

Manchester United avoided the remaining big guns and were handed a favourable Europa League draw in the last 16 of the competition.

Having completed a 6-1 aggregate win over Brugge of Belgium on Thursday, United earn their place in the next knockout round as we look to repeat the success of 2017 under Jose Mourinho.

With the likes of Inter Milan, Sevilla, Roma and Bayer Leverkusen plus dangerous outsiders Wolves and Olympiakos all in the hat, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United could have faced a stern test on the road to Gdansk, Poland, where the final will be played on 27 May.

But we were instead handed a favourable tie, indeed probably the best possible one, against LASK of Austria, making their first appearance in the tournament and having got out of a group containing Bruno's Sporting, PSV and Rosenborg.

If you want to look at the official UEFA co-efficient for disparity between the two sides, there's 93 places separating the clubs but form and stature tends to go out the window when it comes to the nature of knockout football.

Although they are there on merit and certainly should not be underestimated, United will be confident of reaching the quarter finals against the Austrian debutants and there's no reason why we can't after this draw, held at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

Solskjaer will be pleased not to face the might of Antonio Conte's Inter at this stage in a tie definitely befitting of a final with the two sides currently joint favourites at 4/1 to go on and win the trophy.

The first leg will be played at LASK's Waldstadion/Linder on the 12th March, with the return at Old Trafford a week later, on the 17th. Valerien Ismael's men currently sit top of the Austrian league and got past United's group opponents AZ Alkmaar in the last 32 to reach this stage.

After Arsenal's Greek tragedy at the hands of the aforementioned Olympiakos, United and divisional rivals Wolves are now the only English sides remaining.
Elsewhere, there is a clash of the heavyweights as record five time winners Sevilla face Chris Smalling's Roma, Wolfsburg play Shakhtar Donetsk and Steven Gerrard's Rangers were paired with Bayer Leverkusen.

Other ties are: Istanbul vs Copenhagen, Inter Milan vs Getafe, Olympiakos vs Wolves and Eintracht or RB Salzburg vs Basel

I'm not a huge fan of this competition but Solskjaer needs a trophy and the Reds look to be getting better and better as the season enters its final furlong.

Match report: Man Utd 5-0 Club Brugge (Agg: 6-1)

Bruno Fernandes-inspired Manchester United eased into the last 16 of the Europa League with a five goal rout of the hapless, ten man Belgians.

Coming into the Old Trafford tie at 1-1 but with a slender advantage through Anthony Martial's away goal, United never looked troubled and - even before Simon Deli's madcap red card - had far too much for Philippe Clement's ultimately outclassed visitors.
The Brugge defender's dismissal opened the floodgates for the Reds as Bruno Fernandes scored his second in as many games, Odion Ighalo grabbed his first United goal, Scott McTominay marked his return from injury with a trademark strike and even Fred scored twice.

Arsenal's exit at the hands of Olympiakos means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side - and divisional rivals Wolves - are the last English teams left in the draw, which will take place at midday on Friday.
There were seven changes to the first-leg team including a first start for Nigerian loan signing Ighalo, with Martial ruled out because of a slight knock and the return of McTominay after three months out.

In a frantic start to the game, United went close inside two minutes when ex Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet saved superbly to deny Juan Mata from distance. Brugge were not without intent themselves, though, and almost grabbed a shock lead as United's defence was caught napping. David Okereke couldn't finish a finish, however, and the danger passed through a combination of Eric Bailly and Luke Shaw.
Bruno Fernandes struck a post for the second time in his embryonic Reds career, but back came Brugge at the other end. Sergio Romero punched clear from top scorer Hans Vanaken's cross, the ball dropped to Mats Rits but he could only lob over the bar when well placed.

All this came in the first 15 minutes but the breakthrough came with a delayed penalty after Deli inexplicably palmed clear a goalbound Daniel James effort. There could be no doubt it was a spot-kick and a red card, but there was a four minute VAR check before referee Serdar Gozubuyuk upheld his decision.
Fernandes made no mistake with a trademark stroll-and-skip style spot kick to put United ahead after 21 minutes.
The Portuguese was inevitably involved in the second goal, too, seven minutes further on. Fernandes picked out Mata with a pinpoint pass and his fellow Iberian cut the ball back for Ighalo who merely had to tap in.

The Nigerian striker almost got a second in quick succession but was this time denied by the diving Mignolet.
McTominay, on his first start since Boxing Day, effectively put the game beyond doubt by half-time as he swept home a clinical finish after Fred had teed him up four minutes shy of the interval.

With the game and tie all wrapped up and important fixtures on the horizon, Solskjaer took the opportunity to rest James with Fernandes and McTominay following suit later on. Tahith Chong, the much maligned Jesse Lingard, and Mason Greenwood all came on as the ten men of Brugge went into damage limitation.

There were few clear cut chances in the second half, but there was still time for Fred to score only his second, and then his third, goals for the club.
Sub Lingard squared for the Brazilian to knock in number four nine minutes from time, and he capped a superb individual performance with perhaps the best goal of the game in the dying moments.

Lingard and Chong had both gone close to a fifth but another slick move unlocked the tiring visitors and Fred thumped in a teasing ball from Chong to complete the rout.
With the likes of Inter, Roma, Sevilla and Leverkusen still in the draw, this won't be easy for United but no one will want to face them in the next knockout round.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: With honourable mentions to Bruno Fernandes, Mata and McTominay, we're giving this to Fred. Getting better and better by the week.

Monday 24 February 2020

Cheeky, arrogance, and a touch of class... all hail Bruno Fernandes

It takes a big character for someone to arrive at a club like United and instantly take on the responsibility of becoming the most important player.

The signing of Bruno Fernandes has injected a new lease of life into this side and our season and a sprinkling of stardust on and off the pitch. I've never seen a player make so big an impact in such a short space of time - imagine what might have been had we signed him last summer as we should have done.
As we welcomed struggling but improving Watford to Old Trafford, it was in the knowledge that this is exactly the sort of game we have fallen short in this season. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira - conspicuous by their absence - aren't even good enough against the fodder of the Hertfordshire Hornets. We've had three number tens that simply aren't fit for purpose and, although Juan Mata is still a quality squad player, Fernandes represents a significant upgrade. He looks the real deal, a breath of fresh air and the epitome of a Manchester United player. A younger, faster, more agile version of the diminutive Spaniard, if you like. He's the best thing about this United side at the moment, a player who has settled immediately, something his more illustrious contemporaries have failed to do.

The Theatre of Dreams already seems set to become his stage, his curtain call, his destiny. Not for a long, long time have we had a breath-taking, edge of your seat player like this. Everything we did went through him, the maestro conducting the orchestra as United danced to his tune and Watford bent to his will. Three goals, four assists and one goal already with his Old Trafford career only three weeks old. He could be the signing that sways the future for United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Cheeky, classy and arrogant in a good way, Fernandes ran the show, dominated and showed exactly what we've been missing in the mysterious and continued absence of Paul Pogba. Not since the days of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has Old Trafford seen anyone with this kind of confidence, aura and flair.
Fernandes lifted the entire stadium and, as well as scoring and setting up the other two, his range of passing, use of the ball and direct style was hugely impressive. He found Anthony Martial to score a filthy second goal and played in Mason Greenwood for number three.
On top of that, he was brimming with pace and trickery and showed great awareness - clearly the special someone to unlock a mass defence while Pogba is out and Mata's ageing legs are used sparingly. He was telling his team-mates what he wanted and where to play the ball and he looks like a leader, another string to his bow that we desperately needed. I loved the way he scored his penalty with an elaborate jump and flicked finish beyond Ben Foster - pure impudence. United's transfer policy and recruitment strategy may have been questionable for a few years now, but there can be no doubting we've got ourselves a good'un here.

He's already made others around him better and raised the game of two players - Dan James and  Martial - in particular. Martial has responded to the arrival of the string-pulling Portuguese with three goals in as many games for the first time since 2017. Good players elevate the level of others and Fernandes has done that.

Of course, every new relationship has a honeymoon period and there's a chance Fernandes tails off as opposition defences suss him out and stop him. We have seen glimpses of his quality but there's a lot more to come and he'll only continue to get better and better.

Arrogant, cheeky and an abundance of magic - we've got ourselves a new hero in Bruno  Fernandes.

Bruno Bruno Bruno!

Match report: Man Utd 3-0 Watford

Bruno Fernandes took centre stage as Manchester United eventually overpowered Watford to return to fifth in the table.
The influence of United's 47m signing is growing by the week as he scored his first goal for us and also chipped in with two assists and a man of the match performance.

Fernandes got off the mark with a penalty - becoming the first United player to score his first goal for the club in such a manner.
Anthony Martial's filthy second from Bruno's ball and Mason Greenwood's brilliantly-taken third - again from a Fernandes pass - wrapped the game up and earned Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men coveted, much needed back to back league wins.

It was not all plain sailing though, and what would a Premier League game be these days without VAR intervention. At 1-0, Troy Deeney thought he had equalised when he bundled in under pressure from Harry Maguire. The video assistant referee, however, ruled that the ball had struck Watford defender Craig Dawson on his arm as the ball rebounded off a post in the build up.
It look accidental and harsh but the correct decision under the new handball laws.

Given what was to come, it was a shaky start by the Reds against Nigel Pearson's struggling but improving Watford. The Hertfordshire Hornets had proved what a tough nut to crack they can be when they beat us 2-0 in December, and looked full of fight and intensity from the off here.
They were almost gifted an opener inside five minutes when Maguire and Nemanja Matic ran into each other as they attempted to mop up danger. Instead, they created a self inflicted fate and Deeney seemed poised to score for the second time against United. However, the Watford skipper's touch was heavy and Luke Shaw preserved parity with a superb lunging challenge.

David de Gea saved well from the lively and powerful Abdoulaye Doucoure and Daniel James then went close at the other end in a much improved showing from United's former Swansea man.
Fred flashed a shot wide after James teed him up but the breakthrough was not in coming, with DJ again involved.
He collected the ball on halfway, burst past two Watford defenders and picked out the onrushing Fernandes. United's new boy was scythed down by former Red Ben Foster and took responsibility for the kick himself. He opened his account and broke the deadlock with the cheekiest of penalty finishes three minutes before half time.

Then came the Watford 'equaliser' on 52 minutes but the technology did its job to deny the Hornets a vital foothold in their battle against the drop. From then on, their threat faded and United took full control.

String puller in chief Fernandes was involved again two minutes shy of the interval as he sent Martial clear in the 58th minute. Foster appeared to have snuffed out the Frenchman's chance of a goal, only for the striker to recover possession, spin and brilliantly lift the ball audaciously over the stranded Foster and in.

Maguire headed wide from another Fernandes cross and Mason Greenwood was denied by Foster, but you can't keep the 18 year old quiet and out of the action for long.
If the first two goals had been impudent, then the third was pure ferocity and power. Greenwood started and finished the move as he found, you guessed it, Fernandes. The Portuguese gave him it back and Greenwood, as is his wont, went for power and thumped the ball in off the underside of the bar for his eleventh goal of a breakthrough season.

Watford's talented talisman Gerard Deulofeu struck the bar with De Gea beaten, and Solskjaer then made three changes in quick succession including the introduction of former Hornet Odion Ighalo.

Ighalo, still working up to full fitness, was denied a dream Old Trafford debut against his old club when - after beating Foster - his angled effort was blocked at the near post by the stretching Adam Masina.
Fellow sub Tahith Chong went close to a fourth but there was no further action as United moved above Spurs and Sheffield United to return to fifth, three points behind closest rivals Chelsea.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes. Scored one, set up the other two and ran the show. Magnificent.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Match report: Club Brugge 1-1 United

Anthony Martial's potentially pivotal away goal put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's rotated Reds in the driving seat after Emmanuel Dennis' opener.

The two sides will head to Old Trafford all square, but United hold the advantage thanks to Martial's strike ahead of the return leg next week. Brugge will have to go forward and attack, and that plays right into United's hands in a side built for the press and the counter attack.

The Belgian champions-elect had dropped out of their Champions League, admittedly from a difficult section featuring PSG and Real Madrid, and faced United five years after the clubs had met in the competition.
With one eye on Sunday's important league clash against Watford, Solskjaer made six changes to the team that picked up an impressive win at Chelsea - with only Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Brandon Williams, Nemanja Matic and Martial keeping their places. He stuck with the three at the back system that has been increasingly frequent in recent weeks, but United struggled early on and were caught cold after 15 minutes.

Matic looked to have won a corner, but a goal kick was signalled and Brugge took full advantage. Ex Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet thumped downfield to pick out the onrushing Dennis, and he made no mistake with a neat lobbed finish over the advancing Sergio Romero. It was a rare mistake from United's normally reliable number two, as there was no reason for Romero to come out so far off his line.

United equalised when Martial raced through to fire beyond Mignolet and grab the crucial away goal nine minutes before the interval for goal number 14 of the season and second in as many games.
The former Liverpool man saved well from the same player and Odilon Kossounou went close to a winner when he bent narrowly wide.

United's three-man defence - particularly in the first half hour - looked fragile and exposed and Solskjaer's side failed to heed an early warning when Nigerian striker Dennis burst clear but Victor Lindelof scrambled away.

Having moved ahead, Brugge almost moved 2-0 ahead with two chances in quick succession. Percy Tau flashed a shot wide and Romero atoned for his error with a smart stop from Eder Balanta.

Martial has often flattered to deceive but was United's most impressive performer here. Having equalised, he was unlucky not to put us ahead when Mignolet pushed his effort onto the post just before the interval.

Clear cut openings proved to be at a premium in the second half. Brugge talisman Hans Vanaken went close from distance, as did Nemanja Matic at the other end, but neither goalkeeper was really tested.

Kossounou somehow steered wide with the goal gaping after the impressive Dennis had picked him out, and the Nigerian then almost grabbed his and his side's second when he headed wide from a Clinton Mata cross.

Another positive for United was the late introduction of Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese midfielder was only introduced with nine minutes left but his desire to get on the ball and his positive, forward-thinking style was yet another indicator that we have a serious player on our hands. So good was he, there's a case to be had that he was man of the match despite his brief appearance off the bench.

He set up Juan Mata with a sizzling pass, only for the Spaniard to be flagged offside, before Odion  Ighalo's acrobatic effort and Jesse Lingard's daisy cutter ensured the tie is all square at half time.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial. Fernandes a contender, but we can't give it to a man who played ten minutes. Martial got no service but led the line well and grabbed the crucial away goal.

50 million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Huge win in the battle for the Champions League

Manchester United arrived at Stamford Bridge in the last chance saloon. Six points behind Chelsea, anything but a victory would have left United not only facing further exile from the Champions League but the possibility of missing out on Europe altogether through the league.
Frank Lampard's side sat fourth, mainly by virtue of the shortcomings of everyone else rather than by his own side's exploits, yet the Chelsea manager had seen his team lose as many games as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United.

 Solskjaer has been a man under almost constant pressure amid a rising cacophony of discontent this season - yet somehow continues to always pull out a result just when one is most needed.
Chelsea, as you'd expect, dominated the ball without really threatening - David de Gea didn't have a save to make - but United scored twice from three shots on target.

It was a much needed victory after a goalless draw with obdurate Wolves and a 2-0 loss to Burnley and only further illustrated the boom or bust nature of this baffling Reds team, picking up a seventh victory over a top six rival this season.
For all of Liverpool's unpalatably sustained brilliance, this will surely only serve notice that they are about to win probably the poorest quality Premier League for many a year - Chelsea have now lost nine games yet are still in that fourth position. We're three points further back and have lost eight. Burnley, in eleventh, are only seven points adrift.
Fluid and unpredictable, yes, and exciting certainly so, but it doesn't say much for the standard of the league when United, who have been dire for most of the campaign, are arguably now favourites to claim the final Champions League place.

United's current reduced status, and the reason why questions are asked about Solskjaer's ability to revive our fallen giant, is emphasised by the fact we have half of the soon-to-be-champions (gulp!) point tally.
It is a galling, damning statistic but yet, somehow, helped by the failings of everyone else and our own ability to grind out vital results, we find ourselves right in the mix for the top four.
With events across the city throwing the race wide open, fifth place could yet prove precious and lucrative.

It was far from vintage United, but we were well drilled, organised and defended superbly to a man, taking our chances when they came. Solskjaer's side were more ruthless and punished Chelsea for their profligacy, sealed in comfort by the excellence of captain Harry Maguire, returning Eric Bailly and the colossus that is Aaron Wan - Bissaka. It was a win that felt hugely significant.

We'll leave the VAR repercussions for another day, but let's just say we'll take any good fortune we can get. We've not had much to shout about this season so let's enjoy this one.

This is enigmatic United side are the Robin Hood of the Premier League - taking from the rich but constantly giving to the poor. We've won at Manchester City, twice, beaten Spurs, we're the only team to take points off Liverpool and completed out first double over Chelsea since 1987-88.

And yet there has been so much mediocrity - we've lost to Watford, Bournemouth, Newcastle, Burnley, West Ham, Crystal Palace and the weakest Arsenal side in decades.
Solskjaer needed this result and deservedly celebrated at the final whistle as he beat Frank Lampard for the third time in under a year.

With twelve games to go in the league, there will be plenty of twists to come. Fourth place should be considered a success and that's the reality of where we are now as a club. Such is the erratic nature of United's bizarre season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see us drop points to Watford on Sunday.

It really is a funny old game.

Bruno Fernandes is a baller and absolute class

Bruno Fernandes may have only been a Manchester United player for a matter of weeks, but the difference he's made already is frightening.
After an impressive debut against Wolves, in which Fernandes was the best player on the pitch for 65 minutes before he understandably faded, the trip to Stamford Bridge presented a different proposition entirely.

This United side was crying out for a conductor, a creator, a string puller in chief, and Fernandes has not disappointed. He was substituted in stoppage time to allow a rapturous ovation from the vocal United following after a night in which he ran the show, outshone Chelsea's attacking triumvirate and was at the heart of everything we did.
Always wanting the ball, he organised and instructed those around him to make runs, when to drop deep and when to push up, took risks and always looked to play forward. His Reds career might only be two games old and we don't want to hail him as a saviour too early, but goodness, what a player he looks to be.

Falling the width of a goalpost short of his first goal for us, Fernandes atoned for his narrow miss with an orgasmic delivery from a corner that allowed Harry Maguire to score his first league goal for us. After years of watching Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young thud set pieces tamely into the shins of opposition defenders, we finally have someone who can whip a ball in. Not since his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo left have we had someone to look such a constant danger from set piece situations.

For much of the last decade, Manchester United's midfield has been defined as much by its absence as it has by presence. Through the Fletcher years, the Fellaini years, from Morgan Schneiderlin to Scott McSauce, United's midfield has felt like a jumbled mishmash of discombobulated pieces. If it doesn't do anything, does it exist in the first place? Enter, Bruno Fernandes..

His touch, vision, ability on the ball, decision making in the final third, link up play, understanding of when to drop deep to collect it, and potency from set pieces, solved problems that had haunted United time after time in Paul Pogba's absence.
The Portuguese international arrived to much acclaim and ends United's over-reliance (by necessity rather than choice) on the perennially injured or frustratingly disengaged Frenchman, as well as the simply useless Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard.

More than that, though, what makes Fernandes arrival so timely is that he gives exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to try and do with his attacking fulcrum. His press and work rate is reminiscent of a peak Wayne Rooney, combined with the football ability and brain that Juan Mata boasted in his prime. He's no slouch over the ground either.

The modern midfielder draws some comparison to some of the league's best playmakers, fits Solskjaer's system well, and creates plenty of potential direction for the manager. He could fit alongside Pogba and Scott McSauce, play in front of a destroyer or slot in seamlessly alongside another newly signed playmaker -  Jack Grealish and/or James Maddison, maybe?..
He can dovetail with Fred as the two players complement each other well by offering balance and threatening the opposition.

It's staggering the difference just one elite passer has made so far - imagine what could be if another is added to this side, regardless of whom that may be.
United's transfer recruitment has been far from flawless in recent years but - in Bruno Fernandes - this is one that Ed Woodward and the scouting team maybe, just maybe, deserve credit for.

Two games is far too small a sample size to be making judgement one way or t'other, but on this early evidence the kinetic Fernandes may just be pointing the way towards a brighter future.

Match report: Chelsea 0-2 Man Utd

Manchester United surged back into the hunt for Champions League football with a third consecutive victory over Chelsea on a contentious night.
Anthony Martial headed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side in front on the stroke of half-time before captain Harry Maguire - who was perhaps fortunate not to be sent off - thumped home a trademark header in the second half.

Chelsea had two goals disallowed, both correctly, but will feel aggrieved that Maguire did not see red for a sliding lunge of Michy Batshuayi, a similar challenge that Tottenham's Heung min Son was sent off for earlier this season.
United came into the game six points and two places behind their hosts, knowing that victory was a must to stay in the last chance saloon for the top four. Manchester City's potential ban means fifth might be enough, but United can't take their eye off the ball in the congested battle at the top of the table.

This was a night when Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Harry Maguire had their best games in Red, with the former silencing the critics who say he can't attack with a wonderful cross for Martial's opener. He picked out the Frenchman with a sumptuous piece of skill and blocked, tackled and cleared everything that came his way. Maguire held the defence together, organised superbly and scored a wonderful header. He was signed to thrive on nights like this and turned in his best game in a United shirt so far.

Reece James flashed a shot wide early on, Jorginho also went close from distance and Fred had an effort deflected behind at the other end, having been teed up by Bruno Fernandes.

The game's major talking point came after 21 minutes when Maguire slid in to challenge Belgian Michy Batshuayi on the touchline. As the two tussled, Maguire's foot made contact with the striker's groin and sent him tumbling to the ground. VAR checked the incident, but deemed there was no intent and the United captain escaped censure. Chelsea were furious but replays showed there was little the sliding Maguire could do to move out the way and it seemed a natural reaction rather than any deliberate attempt at kicking out.

Batshuayi pulled a shot wide when well-placed having been picked out by early substitute Mason Mount, but Fernandes continued to pull the strings impressively for the Reds.
The Portuguese international fired narrowly off target with a 25 yarder, and then picked out Martial with a pinpoint pass that the Frenchman could only drag wide.

He fared better with his next effort though, as Fred and Wan - Bissaka linked up well and the latter made space to curl in a right wing delivery which was superbly guided beyond Willy Caballero by United's number nine.

Batshuayi fluffed his lines again as United went in a goal up.

Substitute Kurt Zouma thought he had equalised when he volleyed home from a Willian corner, only for VAR to rule out the goal for a push on Cesar Azpilicueta on Brandon Williams.

Having rattled the upright from a free-kick, Fernandes was involved again as United extended their advantage further. For the first time in what seems like an eternity, the Reds produced an accurate corner as Fernandes picked out Maguire and the skipper rose brilliantly to power home a header for his first league goal.

United were buoyant but hadn't got the game won and survived further angst six minutes further on as Chelsea's frustrations grew. The returning Eric Bailly blocked brilliantly from Mateo Kovacic before VAR intervened once more. Mount and fellow substitute Olivier Giroud combined again, with the latter heading in the former's cross. However, replays correctly showed Giroud's foot was marginally offside and the decision, again, was no goal.

Mount put a set piece into the side netting and late debutant Odion Ighalo was denied a dream goal by the outstretched leg of Caballero. Ultimatley, the goals from Martial and Maguire proved enough for an excellent victory as the Reds won again at Stamford Bridge - for the third time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It was our third victory over the Blues this season and completed the club's first league double over Chelsea since 1987/88.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Aaron Wan - Bissaka. Colossal.

Sunday 16 February 2020

How Manchester City's UEFA ban will effect Manchester United

Man City manager Pep Guardiola and OGS 
A bombshell was dropped on the world of football on Friday with an announcement that could have far reaching consequences.
In case you've been living under a rock or have been cut off from the outside world with no form of internet or news, let me fill you in.
Following a lengthy investigation by UEFA, Manchester City were judged to have breached Financial Fair Play Rules and failed to disclose the true extent of sponsorship revenue. They were also fined 30m euros (£25m) and as, a result, have been banned from European competition for two years.

The club can appeal and will do so, and it seems unlikely the entirety of the sanction will be upheld by CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport), with a possible scenario of the ban being reduced to one year and any financial penalty halved. Their expulsion from the Champions League will bring very impactful implications with United one of the clubs affected. The futures of City manager Pep Guardiola and several of the club's star players have been thrown into doubt.

It will have a huge affect on the race for next season's competition, with the league champions ban freeing up another Champions League place for the chasing pack.
The decision, should it remain in place, will ensure that qualification will drop down a place, if City finish in the top four which they almost certainly will. It means that fifth place will be enough to get in, with sixth and seventh taking the resultant Europa League spots.
Sheffield United currently occupy the spot, with Chris Wilder's surprise package defying the odds to launch a stunning assault on the league and push for the unlikeliest of European rewards. As it stands, the Blades will be in the Champions League for 2020/21... now, there's a sentence I never thought I'd be typing. Everyone, me included, loves a story of the underdog, the rank outsider, coming from nowhere to upset the applecart. Part of me would love nothing more than seeing Sheffield United strutting their stuff with the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern next season - it would be bigger than Leicester winning the Premier League back in 2016 with odds of 5,000/1. As good as it would be, I'm a Man Utd fan first and foremost and would never want any other rival to enjoy success at our expense.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are four points further back, in ninth but with a game in hand and hopes of a return to the continent's top table were given a boost by Friday's shock verdict. Just when we thought all hope had gone, schadenfreude has intervened. Perhaps now Champions League football next season would be a big possibility.
Up until this point in the season, fourth place, and the riches that come with it, had looked very unlikely. Not impossible - we're a club that don't know that word - but unlikely. Solskjaer's side have seen countless opportunities go begging to capitalise when Chelsea have dropped points and despite picking up points against the superior sides, we've struggled against the sides below us.

City have ten days to lodge the appeal with CAS, and as already mentioned, could yet see the ban reduced or even overturned (you just know they're going to throw endless money at it until they get their way). Friday's ruling is not the end of this story by any stretch. While United can hope the ban is upheld and the additional space given to fifth spot, the focus should remain on ourselves rather than the shortcomings of others. The temptation might be to aim for fifth and taking our eye off the Europa League ball, but imagine how embarrassing it would be if we missed out on the Champions League if City ARE banned and fifth, does, indeed, get given that extra place. It's a lifeline we didn't see coming but one we desperately crave. Short term suffering for long term success - even if that does mean a little helping hand from a next door neighbour in our hour of need.

Should City win the Carabao Cup or the FA Cup and therefore qualify via that route, then their European spot would again jump a place in the league, possibly down as far as eighth in the table, with United one of a cluster of sides waiting in the wings. The race for Europe is wide open thanks to the biggest football story of the season.

Match preview: Chelsea v Man Utd

It seems like a lifetime ago that Manchester United last played a football match. In fact it will be a little over two weeks by the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side take to the field after the Premier League's first ever winter break.

Solskjaer has beaten Frank Lampard three times in their previous three managerial meetings, boasting a 100% record against his counterpart in the battle of two relative rookies. But Lampard can claim to be happier with his side's season so far, with the Blues currently occupying fourth place, only two points ahead of United.... surprise package Sheffield United!

We sit six points further back in eighth position and this Monday night fixture surely looks a must win to keep alive any lingering hopes of reeling in the chasing pack. Manchester City's potential Champions League ban could mean that the fifth placed team qualifies for the Champions League in their absence, sprinkling added intrigue to an already congested battle.

United beat Chelsea 4-0 on the opening day of the campaign and also prevailed on our last trip to Stamford Bridge - Marcus Rashford's wonder goal proving the difference in a 2-1 Carabao Cup victory in October. The Reds have a baffling ability to turn it on against the top teams yet frequently fall short against the league's lesser lights, struggling against the likes of West Ham, Bournemouth, Watford and Burnley.

New loan signing Odion Ighalo is set to travel with the squad and will be involved, with the former Watford striker set to make his debut, probably off the bench. He hasn't played much football or even trained with the team since arriving from Shanghai Shenhua on deadline day, so Solskjaer probably won't throw him straight in.
Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe have been out since December but both travelled to the Reds winter training camp. This match seems likely to come too soon for the pair, however.
Marcus Rashford (back) and Paul Pogba (ankle) also remain sidelined, while Tim Fosu - Mensah - who is yet to play this campaign - has suffered a minor setback but is not far away from full fitness.

Bruno Fernandes will make his first appearance away from home following an impressive debut against Wolves last time out.
Lampard has a fully fit squad to pick from with Ruben Loftus - Cheek the Blues only injury absentee.

Solskjaer said: "Of course, a win gives us a three point gap and that's what we've got to aim for.
"We've played them twice already this season and done well but Chelsea are a good team. They are at home so it's more difficult for us, but we're going there to try and win the game.
"We've got to, to give us more belief and more hope and confidence that we can kick on, because we need to kick on.
"We know it will be difficult but the boys have trained well, we've had a rest so we're ready to go."

On the benefits of the winter break, Ole added: "I think it's a big advantage for everyone in the squad, individually, the team, but also the other teams and the league. I think the league will see a benefit from it, the quality of the football will improve, because December and January are relentless.
"It's a good move by the authorities, every other major league in other countries have some form of break, so it's just up to the boys to show that freshness we've shown this week."

United's visit to Stamford Bridge is the MNF game on Sky Sports and kicks off at 8pm

Form guide: Chelsea W W L D W D United W L L W W D
Match odds: Chelsea 5/6 Draw 11/4 United 7/2
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Wythenshawe)

Saturday 1 February 2020

Match report: Man Utd 0-0 Wolves

United debutant Bruno Fernandes enjoyed an impressive debut but was unable to inspire his new side to victory in another stalemate with familiar foes Wolves.

In a game of few clean cut chances, the £47m man - signed from Sporting Lisbon on Thursday - did force a few good saves from compatriot Rui Patricio, who almost inadvertently dropped another over his own goal line.

They say familiarity breeds contempt and that was certainly the case as the men from Molineux met United for the sixth time in eleven months - our third clash with Nuno Espirito Santo's side in 29 days with 2020 only a month old.
It was perhaps because of these regular tete-a-tetes that this match proved a largely dull and anodyne affair. The two sides know how each other player, they have similar styles, are very similar clubs and its always a tight contest between the combatants. The three previous encounters had ended 1-1, 0-0 and 1-0, proving that there's rarely much to separate the two well matched teams.

The nearest United came to scoring a deserved winner came in the final minute when substitute Diogo Dalot headed inches wide having been picked out by Aaron Wan - Bissaka.
Wolves worked hard and were tough to break down but, despite introducing their own new Portuguese signing Daniel Podence, also lacked a killer touch in front of goal.

While it could not be described as an explosive debut, Fernandes did enough to indicate that he will instantly offer United an improved attacking threat. Eager to get on the ball, he took risks, is quick, looked creative and sparky, took the initiative at set pieces and was not afraid to shoot.

Typically, Fernandes had the first effort of the encounter when he flashed a shot narrowly wide on the angle, and then fired a 20-yarder straight at Patricio.  He wasn't afraid to get stuck in either, with a crunching challenge on countryman Joao Moutinho, which earned him a booking.

Another free-kick and the routine strike Patricio made a mess of were his second half highlights, but he won't be able to raise the level of this team on his own.

The visitors had chances too, with Raul Jimenez denied by David de Gea and Roman Saiss heading over when he should have better eleven minutes from time.

Podence had a shot blocked on the turn and Ruben Neves tried his luck from distance but Wolves, playing their 41st game of the season, ran out of steam.

Fernandes was not the only man restricted to only long range efforts as Harry Maguire flashed a shot over the ball and Andreas Pereira was unable to call Patricio into action.
Juan Mata pulled a shot inches wide on the turn and the visiting keeper then frantically had to shovel another Fernandes around the post.

Mason Greenwood - on as a sub for the ineffective Andreas - almost grabbed a potential winner six minutes after his introduction when his drive deflected off Willy Boly and Conor Coady but Patricio was able to snatch the ball low down.

Sub Dalot then came even closer with the final action of the game when his stooping header rolled agonisingly wide ensuring another stalemate.

So the match, the fourth of the season between the clubs, ended all square and goalless.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes. A superb debut even if he did understandably tire late on