Tuesday 30 June 2020

Match preview: Brighton&HA v Man Utd

United's frantic schedule continues apace as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men travel to Brighton for our longest away trip of the season.
A mere 72 hours after the dramatic FA Cup win over Norwich - Harry Maguire deep into extra-time sending the Reds into the last four - attentions turn to the tense and protracted battle for a top four Premier League place.
The Reds have been in majestic form since the coronavirus restart, collecting four points from two games as well as that tougher-than-expected win in east Anglia.

There have been five Premier League fixtures between United and the Seagulls of Brighton, with the home side winning on each occasion
. United comfortably clipped the Seagulls wings at Old Trafford earlier in the season but we have been beaten on both previous visits to Brighton's new (ish) ground.
The Amex has been a bedrock for Brighton's continued presence as a top flight club and United have twice proved their biggest scalp, with Chris Hughton recording back-to-back wins over his illustrious counterpart Jose Mourinho, 0-1 and 2-3.

Both teams have new managers this time around though, with Graham Potter have taken over on the south coast in the summer and instantly set about instilling a revolution. Although Brighton have still found themselves at the wrong end of the table, Potter's pass and move style is a considerable upgrade on the pragmatic, defensive-first mantra of his safe pair of hands predecessor. Albion, like United - 14 games unbeaten - have picked up four points from two games since the restart - with a famous win over Arsenal and a creditable point at faltering Leicester - to ease any lingering fears of relegation.
That said, Potter's men are not quite safe yet in fifteenth place, six points above third from bottom Bournemouth, co-incidentally United's next opponents.

United continue to put the pressure on Leicester and Chelsea, well placed to capitalise on any potential slip up from those two sides, six and five points behind respectively and with high-flying Wolves also putting the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons.

Solskjaer made eight changes to his XI for that FA Cup quarter final at Norwich, with only Maguire, Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes keeping their places from the corresponding 3-0 win against Sheffield United.
Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial were all introduced from the bench as Ole became the first manager to make six changes in a competitive match.
The United boss has a full squad to pick from, with all of those involved at Carrow Road available for selection as we look to end our south coast hoodoo and claim that elusive first ever victory at the Amex Stadium. Given the tight turnaround, Solskjaer will shuffle his pack again with Rashford, Martial and Pogba all expected to come back in from the start. Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are the only absentees.

Adam Webster is an injury doubt for Potter's men and Jose Izquierdo is still sidelined, but Tariq Lamptey could keep his place after a strong showing on his debut at right-back in the 0-0 draw at Leicester. Brighton have no other injury concerns.

On the team's run to the Cup semi finals, Solskjaer said: "We're delighted to be in the semis, and at the prospect of going to a final.
"At Wembley, against a team we've played so often over the last 18 months, we're looking forward to it. We seem to play Chelsea every other weekend, so we know them well and its a game that is very exciting.'
On Brighton, the boss added: "They're a good footballing side, they play football and make it hard for you. I haven't been down there myself, so it will be a new experience for me. Their fans are brilliant and of course they matter and have an impact. For us to get out of this lockdown period and get fans back into stadiums is a day that will be fantastic. Sometimes as an away team it can help you without the home fans, without that twelfth man, but then sometimes the pressure of the crowd can get to you, or give you an extra edge.
"We just need to go one game at a time and not think too far ahead, there are many teams in the battle for third and fourth and it will go down to the last game."

United's trip to the Amex Stadium is a free to air game in the UK and kick off is at 8.15pm.

Predicted United line-up: De Gea; Wan - Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; Matic, Pogba; Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford; Martial. 

Form guide: Brighton D D L D W D Man Utd W W W D W W
Match odds: Brighton 9/2 Draw 11/4 Man Utd 4/6
Referee: Andre Marriner

Saturday 27 June 2020

Match report: Norwich City 1-2 Man Utd (a.e.t)

Manchester United finally overcame valiant ten man Norwich as a late Harry Maguire winner sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side into the FA Cup semi finals.
With the tie deep into extra-time and heading for the lottery of a shootout, skipper Maguire pounced on an Odion Ighalo knockdown to bundle the ball home and seal a spot in the last four.
United were made to work hard for the win, having been pegged back by Todd Cantwell after Ighalo had put the Reds in front.
With Norwich in the ascendancy and looking favourites to snatch a winner, Timm Klose was sent off in the 89th minute having hauled down the lively Ighalo when clean through. That paved the way for an additional 30 minutes in which the Reds laid siege to the bottom club's goal, eventually prevailing despite Tim Krul's heroics between the sticks.

Coming as it did only three days after an impressive victory over Sheffield United and two days before a tricky trip to Brighton, changes were inevitable and there were eight in total. Solskjaer named a side virtually identical to the one that beat Derby in the last round, with Maguire ahead of Victor Lindelof the only alteration to that XI. That meant starts for Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Ighalo, Diogo Dalot, Eric Bailly and Sergio Romero with several squad players given a run out.

Without the pace and penetration of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, United lacked the guile to get behind a surprisingly solid Norwich defence, marshalled well by the impressive midfield work of Alex Tettey.
The returning and much malinged Lingard would go on to endure another poor night, fading into anonymity, but he started well and had the first chance after seven minutes.
Near build up saw Luke Shaw work the ball inside to the well-placed wideman, but his shot lacked accuracy and was deflected behind for a corner.
Krul saved under pressure from Ighalo from the resultant corner, and Bruno Fernandes - quiet by his usual metronomic standards - chanced his arm from distance.
Max Aarons went close for Norwich and Kenny McLean was also off target before Eric Bailly headed over at the other end.

Maguire blocked superbly to deny Lukas Rupp, and came to United's rescue again in the same passage of play, this time to thwart Emi Buendia as the Canaries pressed for a shock lead.

They would be made to rue those misses, though, as the Reds moved in front six minutes after the interval. Shaw burst down the left wing and picked out Mata whom in turn poked the ball to Ighalo to untidily stab the ball in.
It wasn't pretty, but underlined Ighalo's growing worth to this team with his fifth goal in as many cup starts for the club, a useful option to have and one to allow for rotation.
Krul saved well from Lingard and Fernandes flashed a shot wide, before Norwich came close at the other end through Aarons, as Maguire did well to clear a driven cross/shot from the buccaneering right-back.

The next opening came for Norwich as Buendia's free-kick found Tettey and he flicked on for Ben Godfrey, only for the ball to strike the Norwich man on the line and bounce away to safety.
Then came Cantwell's excellent goal although there could be question marks over Sergio Romero - the effort was well hit and flew into the corner - but our cup keeper perhaps could have done better.
It was the first goal United had conceded in this season's FA Cup and sent up a frantic finale.

Substitute Mason Greenwood dragged narrowly off target, Romero punched clear from Aarons and Brandon Williams kept United alive with a stunning, game saving challenge to deny Onel Hernandez. Buendia went close with a 25-yarder and Teemu Pukki flashed across goal in a late flurry from our struggling divisional rivals.
Despite that, the momentum would change a minute from time when Jonathan Moss was left with no option but to dismiss Klose after he hauled down Ighalo, who had spun in on goal after a lovely flick from Fernandes.

United laid siege to Norwich during extra-time, going close through Shaw, Greenwood and Rashford, with Krul saving well to keep out first Paul Pogba and then a Maguire header.
Aarons blocked from Rashford and Fernandes again had a pop from range, but the ten men from East Anglia continued to dig in and hold firm.
Krul flicked a Fernandes effort round the post, but - with penalties looming - the relentless pressure told and United finally found a way.
Pogba and Ighalo were involved as the pair linked up to find substitute Anthony Martial. The ball came loose but only as far as Maguire and he turned in the loose ball to seal a result that was much harder work than it should have been.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Harry Maguire.

Friday 26 June 2020

FA Cup quarter final preview: Norwich City v Man Utd

Manchester United's frenetic catch-up mission continues apace as the FA Cup returns with the Reds sixth successive last eight tie.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's in form United - fresh from a vital victory over the 'other' United of Sheffield on Wednesday (yes, ON Wednesday not Sheffield Wednesday) - travel to struggling divisional rivals Norwich as red hot favourites for a place in the last four.
One win from Wembley and bidding for a fourteenth match without defeat, but nothing can be taken for granted though as Daniel Farke's Canaries will view this as a free hit and a chance to forget about their ever diminishing survival hopes. The tie will be decided on the night with no replays and penalties if required.
With United in the throng of a tense four-way battle for the Champions League and a trip to Brighton - our fourth game in twelve days - only 48 hours later, a raft of changes seem inevitable.
Solskjaer became the first manager in history to make a quintuple substitution against the Blades in a bid to keep his squad fresh and give several squad players a run out - taking off Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba.

Jesse Lingard is fit again after a short illness and is set to feature with the likes of Eric Bailly, Juan Mata, Mason Greenwood, Odion Ighalo and Diogo Dalot also in contention. Centre backs Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones are United's only absentees.
Grant Hanley, Christoph Zimmermann and Sam Byram are all sidelined for Farke's men, but Teemu Pukki could return having been on the bench against Everton last time out. Marco Stiepermann was also a substitute in that game, hinting at potential involvement here having recovered from a positive Covid-19 test.

Norwich had shown shoots of recovery prior to lockdown, with the Canaries scrapping to a 1-0 win over high flying Leicester in the league and knocking Spurs out of the Cup on penalties to set up the United tie. Successive home defeats to Southampton and Everton, however, have left the Canaries rooted to the foot of the table, six adrift of safety with seven games left.

Solskjaer said: "The FA Cup is a fantastic tournament and it's a wonderful final to play in and be a part of. It's a fantastic trophy to lift, for our team, a new, young team, to win our first trophy or title could be fantastic. Hopefully it would be a catalyst for things to come. We are very focused and ready to do our best and get through to the next round - then, hopefully, even better, the final.
"At the moment we have to look after our players. Rotation, we played Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday and then another Saturday game again, so there will be a few changes but if you want to be part of a winning Man Utd side then there has to be changes. That's the situation we're in, we all agreed on trying to finish the season and we're going to do our best to put on good performances and make sure the players are safe."

United have been miserly during their run to the quarter final, yet to concede a goal in four ties ahead of the trip to Carrow Road. Having edged out Wolves in the tightest of tussles after a replay, Solskjaer's men thumped Tranmere Rovers and division lower Derby 6-0 and 3-0 respectively to move into the last eight for the sixth successive season. The Reds last won the trophy in 2016 under Louis van Gaal through the aforementioned Lingard's stunning volley against Palace deep into extra-time. The Reds lost 1-0 to Chelsea in the corresponding showpiece two seasons ago.
Norwich meanwhile prevailed over Preston (4-2), Premier League rivals Burnley 2-1 and that KO of Spurs on penalties after a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane.

The quarter-finals will feature an all Premier League line up for the first time since 2005-06, with Norwich against United the first of the ties, to kick off at 5.30pm on Saturday. Arsenal travel to Sheffield United, Leicester City host top four rivals Chelsea and deposed champions Man City make the trip to Newcastle for a place in the semis on Sunday.

The draw for those semi finals takes place at half time at SJP with the Reds (or Norwich) ball number 3.

Form guide: Norwich L W D L L L United D W W W D W
Match odds: 11/2 Draw 16/5 United 8/15
Referee: Jonathan Moss

Predicted United XI: Romero; Dalot, Maguire, Bailly, Williams; Fred, McTominay; James, Mata, Lingard; Ighalo

Thursday 25 June 2020

A team to be proud of and a side that's growing

The most pleasing aspect of United's 3-0 win over Sheffield United was not, perhaps, the result itself but the comfortable and clinical nature of it.
Most of us expected a difficult day at the office against direct - if unlikely - rivals for the top four, but instead the Blades were unable to lay a glove on us and left Old Trafford having been completely outclassed.

Anthony Martial's stunning hat-trick was the first by a United player in the league since Robin van Persie in 2013 and the Reds never looked back from the moment Martial swept us into a seventh minute lead. 
 It was perhaps our most comfortable day of the season and one that sent out a message to the rest of the league - this side is growing. The Reds have not tasted defeat since the season hit its miserable nadir on a filthy Old Trafford night against Burnley in January - a night that many, me included, thought could be the last of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United reign. Instead, that hideous night proved to be a catalyst. A catalyst for signing Bruno Fernandes, a catalyst for a remarkable turnaround in fortunes that has seen us beat City twice, win at Stamford Bridge and move to within touching distance of the Champions League and also two cup semi finals. 

The club stuck by him and he's repaid them in style. I've never seen one individual have such a transformative effect on a team a club and a fanbase that Bruno has had. We wanted to be entertained and have a team to be proud of and Solskjaer deserves huge credit for making that happen. No longer simply counter attacking merchants, United can sit in and frustrate team and can be patient when required (as we saw against Tottenham) but also blow them away from the off, playing on the front foot, working the channels and picking teams off. Adding several more strings to our bow and developing adaptability - no more perfunctory and further proof added to a growing body of evidence that Solskjaer is indeed the man to rebuild Manchester United. 

Despite temperatures of 30 degrees on a scorching day in Manchester, United - metaphorically at least - never broke sweat, stretching our unbeaten run to a thirteenth game and keeping up the pressure on not only Chelsea, but also third-placed Leicester. Yes, ladies and gents, I've said it - Manchester United should be not counted out of an assault on third place. Brendan Rodgers' Foxes have run into a wall, they're treading water and have a very difficult run - in, including a visit from United on the final day. Six points behind them with a game in hand, Solskjaer's side could yet overhaul Leicester to finish in the spot currently occupied by the faltering Foxes. Their position in the table is only due to the wretchedness of the rest but their spot in the Champions League is looking more and more fragile by the week. 

If this season follow the trend of last and goes downhill quickly, then you can come back to this and make me look a mug. After all, we all got a bit carried away then too, didn't we, when Solskjaer's United put together a stunning winning run during the early days of the then-interim manager's Old Trafford tenure.  Ole could do no wrong and the future looked bright until the team imploded spectacularly with only two wins in the final 12 games to slip to sixth. Everything could come crashing down around our ears, but this time it feels different. There's a cohesion, a consistency, an indomitable spirit and a growing sense of synergy. Partnerships building, a vision being put in place and a mixture of youth and experience with a sprinkling of stardust. 

No team have picked up more points since the start of February than United - the Red juggernaut gathering serious momentum and the team having picked up where they left off since the Premier League emerged from a three month hiatus. It's our best such streak  since Solskjaer took over, even including that remarkable, red hot impact, could-not-stop winning run during the first few months of his caretaker tutelage. 

The Sheffield United fixture saw the first time that Pogba and Bruno started together, leaving us salivating at the prospect of two of Europe's finest dovetailing in tandem. 
Whereas Pogba's much acclaimed cameo came in a roaming role as United chased the game at Tottenham, this time he operated in a slightly deeper holding hole. Sitting closer to the again magnificent Nemanja Matic (more on him later), but evidently with licence to surge forward, there were signs of a potent midfield combination.
It gave us an idea of how Ole wants to balance his midfield in this last month of the protracted season. Bruno and Pogba surely must start whenever possible, and Matic to share duties with Scott McTominay and Fred - depending on the situation, the opposition, form and fitness. 
Speaking of Matic, you'd have struggled to find a bigger critic of the Serbian than me, but - credit where credit is due - he has been nothing short of magnificent since the turn of the year. Gone is the ponderous, static and uncertain player we've seen for much of the last two years, replaced by an assertive, versatile, defence-splitting Matic remontada. His composure, passing range, pressing, positioning and reading of the game has been different class. A disciplined and calming influence on and off the ball, he broke the lines with his distribution and played with an intelligence that had been conspicuous in absentia.  Immense. I can't praise him enough since returning from injury. One of a number in Red to have lifted his level beyond recognition. 

He, perhaps more than anyone, has epitomised Manchester United's great renaissance. 

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Clinical Martial ends seven year drought

Image may contain: 1 person, close-upApril 2013. David Cameron is Britain's Prime Minister, Duke Dumont is top of the UK charts, and the world of sport is plunged into mourning when three people are killed and 264 more injured in a terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

London was basking in the afterglow of the most successful Olympics to date, Brexit was most certainly not a thing and Azerbaijan won the 58th Eurovision Song Contest. 2013 was also a hugely significant year in Manchester United's history. It was the year that our greatest ever manager - undoubtedly the finest boss football has ever seen - rode off into the sunset after 25 years. A quarter of a century during which he turned a sleeping giant into all conquering serial winners and provided the English game with three of the greatest sides these shores have ever seen.

Whilst his last side was definitely not one of these, far from it in fact, it's still a team that an indelible mark in the final chapter of the Sir Alex Ferguson story. Winning the league by eleven points, United cantered to a 20th league title, wrapped up in that very same April of 2013 with a 3-0 win over Aston Villa through Robin van Persie's scintillating hat-trick. 2,620 days ago to be precise.

If you'd told us then that we would have a seven-year drought before another United player hit a league treble, we'd never have believed you. Yet, in one of football's most obscure but killer stats, that's exactly what happened.
Football is, of course, a team game and as long as United are making strides, winning and gunning for glory then the absence of the hat-trick hero doesn't particularly bother me. I don't really care who gets on the scoresheet or how often he does so if United are headed in the right direction. Individual feats and headline-grabbing exploits are but a footnote in my view. That said, it's always a proud moment for any player to get a match ball and scoring one for United is a wonderful moment that any player should be proud of.

Countless players have plundered braces in the intervening years, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic got a hat-trick in a Europa  tie en route to Stockholm glory three years ago. Wayne Rooney did likewise in a cup game a few years before and van Persie got another one in a Champions League tie against Olympiakos under David Moyes. Plenty have threatened, some have almost got there, but no one had managed to break the elusive duck from all those years ago. Conspicuous by absence, but certainly not un-noticed.

Until tonight that is. As Anthony Martial wheeled away in the 74th minute against Sheffield United, a semblance of a smile broke out upon his poker face and with it the realisation that the mercurial Frenchman had sealed a niche place for himself in United folklore. The first post-Ferguson man to grab that elusive hat-trick in a Premier League tie. A crucial one at that - and certainly a long time coming.

It began in the seventh minute when Aaron Wan - Bissaka's quick thinking released Marcus Rashford and he smashed across goal for Martial to pounce and steer home. The second, a minute shy of the interval, came in similar fashion.

Rashford and AWB linked up again as the former found the latter and he in turn picked out Martial to apply a harder-than-it-looked finish beyond Simon Moore to move within sight of the milestone.
Whilst nothing will ever compare with the Dutchman's brilliant volley in that game with Villa, the frustrating Frenchman - capable of delight and despair in equal measure - added the coup de grace with a stunning goal at the culmination of a sweeping team move. A delightful chipped finish over Moore from a Rashford pass put our drought to bed for the first treble of Martial's career to take him to 19 for the season.

Three chances, three goals and the crowning glory for a man enjoying his best season in front of goal since signing for United five years ago. And, finally, that stat can be put to bed.

50 million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again!

Match report: Manchester United 3-0 Sheffield Utd

Anthony Martial hit a devastating hat-trick as Manchester United struck a crucial blow in the race for the Champions League with a comfortable victory at Old Trafford.
The Reds put the blunt Blades to the sword in our first home match since March as Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba started together for the first time after the Frenchman's match saving cameo on Friday.
But it was Pogba's compatriot whom would steal the show, with Martial's treble the first in the league by a United player since Robin van Persie, seven years ago.

It took him only seven minutes to get off the mark as the Reds make a lightning start with a goal out of nothing. Aaron Wan - Bissaka's quick throw in found Rashford, he smashed across goal and Martial reacted quickest to turn home under stand in Sheffield stopper Simon Moore.

United were already controlling the game with Pogba and Fernandes linking up to clinical effect. Pogba provided the creativity from a deep holding role alongside Nemanja Matic with Fernandes roaming freely behind the interchanging trio of Mason Greenwood, Rashford and Martial.

All three were involved again as United went close to a second with the match only 15 minutes old. Martial burst clear of the Blades defence with almost embarrassing ease, and found himself one on one with the onrushing Moore. Martial teed up Rashford and we all expected the net to bulge, only for our top scorer to get the ball caught under his foot and send his shot inches wide of the far post.

Harry Maguire had a goal disallowed and saw another header  fly over the bar, before Enda Stevens had a rare chance at the other end, but he failed to trouble David de Gea with a 25 yarder.

Wan - Bissaka had little to do defensively but was being a nuisance in the final third, playing a key role as United capped a dominant first half with the second goal a minute shy of the interval.
Martial was again in the right place at the right time to meet the full-back's excellent cross and steer home a harder-than-it-looked finish to leave Chris Wilder's sagging side with a monumental uphill struggle.

Wilder's team have built their surprisingly high-flying season on a resolute defence but the Reds continued to carve them open at will. Mason Greenwood flashed a shot wide, Fernandes tested Moore from distance and Pogba almost capped a superb individual performance with an equally magnificent goal.

Collecting the ball 25 yards out, Pogba's quick feet and audacious trickery cut a swathe through the backpedaling Blades. The mercurial midfielder weaved and slalomed his way into the box and looked poised to shoot, only for his hat-trick hunting compatriot to take the ball off his twinkle toes.

Speaking of temperamental talents, Martial's moment was not much longer in coming. With the game won in the 74th minute, Matic found Fernandes and he in turned moved the ball on to Rashford, Rashford played a delightful one-two with Martial and he added the coup de grace with a disgustingly filthy lob over the Sheffield United keeper - the culmination of a sweeping move that would have had Old Trafford on its feet. It's a shame that there were no fans present for Martial's stat busting feat, becoming the first man since Robin van Persie to hit a hat-trick in a league game.

Wan - Bissaka flashed a shot wide, Moore kept out Matic with an effort from distance and Greenwood went close to a fourth before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became the first manager in history to make a quintuple substitution.
Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata, Dan James, Scott McTominay and Odion Ighalo came on in place of Pogba, Greenwood, Rashford, Fernandes and Martial as Ole chose to keep legs fresh and assess his options ahead of Saturday's FA Cup game at Norwich.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial

Saturday 20 June 2020

Spurs 1-1 Man Utd: Five things we learned

Manchester United returned to action with an exciting draw at Spurs in their first game for 103 days on Friday night. Steven Bergwijn put Jose Mourinho's side ahead against the run of play only for Bruno Fernandes to equalise with a late penalty to extend our unbeaten run to a twelfth game.

Here, we take a look at five things we learned from our Premier League resumption at an empty White Hart Lane.

Our first glimpse of the Pogba/Bruno duopoly

One of the major talking points ahead of kick off centred around the return of United's talented if temperamental World Cup winner, and how he would dovetail with January signing Bruno Fernandes at the apex of United's attack. As it happened, we had to wait until the 63rd minute to see the pair of them together, with Pogba summoned from the bench as United chased an equaliser. He did not disappoint, stretching and opening Spurs up with his power, surging runs and dazzling array of weaponry. One moment in particular will live long in the memory when Pogba spun Moussa Sissoko, pulled the ball down on his chest and took out five Tottenham players with a stunning 60-yard half volleyed pass to Marcus Rashford. On another day, a sharper Rashford would have run through to score, but it showed the rare talent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has at his disposal. Pogba is a world class baller when he wants to be, if only he could do it consistently and put to bed the furore around his future. As for Fernandes, he scored from the penalty spot - after Pogba had been hauled down - despite having a relatively quiet game. There will be plenty more opportunities for United's deadly duo to continue to strike fear into opposition defences.

Vintage Mourinho makes life tough

If there's one thing you don't want to happen after a three-month hiatus, it's going behind to a Jose Mourinho team in your first match back. Yet, that was the fate to befall United on 27 minutes through Steven Bergwijn and it looked for a long time like Mourinho's occasional ability to pull off a scalp would return to haunt his Old Trafford successor. It would be a stretch to say Mourinho outclassed his opposite number, but,  after Spurs had gone ahead, the tie lapsed into a familiar pattern as a leggy United side struggled to break through Mourinho's low, deep block and massed, well drilled, hard working ten man defence. To the Tottenham manager's credit, he exploited United's weaknesses by targeting Luke Shaw, using Serge Aurier as a constant attacking outlet and pushed Bergwijn further forward to utilise Harry Maguire's lack of pace. Mourinho closed off the channels, denied United space and starved Anthony Martial of service, rendering the enigmatic Frenchman almost anonymous. Bruno Fernandes has made a lightning start to life at Old Trafford but was quiet here, although to be fair that was mainly down to Mourinho's familiar stifling suffocating tactics and his use of Harry Winks. Winks sat on Fernandes throughout, with the mobile Sissoko for company, making it impossible for the playmaker to get involved and it was not until Pogba came on that United - and Bruno - had a lot more joy. Mourinho was close to getting one over his former side, but it was testament to the Reds character that we managed to preserve a point despite Mourinho parking the bus.

United pass toughest test of run - in

United had nine games left as the league restarted and the trip to Spurs was undoubtedly the most difficult. Tottenham had been in wretched form before the lockdown, but with Harry Kane and Heung - min Son back available, it was a much toughest test than this otherwise might have been. The Reds only have Leicester to face now out of our top six rivals on the final day in a top four battle that will go to the wire. United came into this tie three places and four points ahead of their north London opponents and continue to maintain social distancing measures by keeping Mourinho's men at arm's length. It can't have been easy chasing the game at 0-1 having not played for more than 100 days, but the Reds showed character and dug in to get a result. You feel that a year, even six months ago, we'd have crumbled and gone under. This will stand us in good stead and although we didn't get the win we wanted, we could have nicked it at the end. Nonetheless, it was a tough test and one that we passed with considerable credit in the bank. With games against Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa coming up, the Reds will look to maintain the momentum built up during this twelve match unbeaten run.

Patchy United lacking match sharpness

Very few people - if anyone at all - expected United to turn up and simply blow Spurs away. That was simply never going to happen, not after three months in lockdown and having only played one 60-minute training match against West Brom. Strangely, the team's fitness seem to improve as the tie went on, with the Reds starting strongly and finishing with a flourish in a dominant second half. The Reds played in patches of form, with a strong opening 25 minutes and an impressive last 20. There were moments when the players looked tired, leggy and struggled to get a foothold, but that's completely to be expected and it will take a few weeks to build up the optimum level of fitness and match sharpness. Certainly, Maguire looked rusty and a sharper Rashford would have tucked a couple of his three good chances away. Scott McTominay looked like he'd never been away and Aaron Wan - Bissaka was his usual bundle of energy at right-back. Some individual players will invariably be in better shape than others, and you can't help but feel that a United side with a slightly sharper edge is winning that game. That said, I thought our performance was a decent one considering the circumstances.

The best and the worst of David de Gea

Oh, DDG what are we going to do with you? Another unforgivable error from the United keeper cost us badly as he made a complete hash of Bergwijn's efforts - despite the shot coming in at a good height for him and at a pace that should have been comfortable to deal with. Maguire got the wrong side of the Spurs Dutchman to allow him a shot off, but for a keeper of De Gea's quality, he should be doing so much better. It's certainly not the first time we've said that this season. It's becoming a worry, particularly with the consistently impressive form of Dean Henderson at Sheffield United this season. United will soon have a decision to make - stick with De Gea as a show of faith or give Henderson - the brightest young goalkeeper in England - a go when his loan expires at the end of the season. To De Gea's credit, he made two good saves in the aftermath of the goal, keeping out Bergwijn with a close range reflex stop and tipping Son's goalbound header over the bar to keep United in touch - interventions that would later be critical. Even so, talk of a sharp decline in the stopper's fortunes will not go away and there are many who feel his days at Old Trafford are numbered despite his prolonged brilliance in recent years.

Friday 19 June 2020

Match report: Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Man Utd

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side returned to action for the first time in 103 days as a late Bruno Fernandes penalty earned the Reds a deserved point at an eerily deserted Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Paul Pogba made his first appearance since Boxing Day and swung the game in United's favour, finally carving open Spurs resolute rearguard as former manager Jose Mourinho threatened to get one over his former side with a classic spoiling performance.

The Reds first game at Spurs new ground should have been witnessed by a 62,000 crowd but the players had to be content with a fan wall projected around the ground with the game played behind closed doors.

Pogba won the late penalty from which Fernandes scored his fourth goal for the club, with a draw a fair result for a United side that started strongly and finished with a flourish.
The Reds had been on a roll before the lockdown, stringing together an eleven-match unbeaten run to move to within touching distance of the top four, keeping Mourinho's injury-hit Spurs at arm's length as we attempt to chase down Chelsea in the protracted battle for a coveted Champions League place.
Mourinho was able to welcome back Harry Kane and Heung-min Son whilst top scorer Marcus Rashford came straight back in fresh from his victory over the UK Government this week.

Understandably, the Reds were rusty and played in patches but dominated the second half and showed character to dig themselves out of a hole. Although Fernandes was quiet, that was partly down to Mourinho's vintage tactics and he still managed to make enough of a difference in a game in which defeat would have been harsh.

The Reds began brightly and went close inside five minutes, when Rashford's half volley was well saved by Hugo Lloris. The Frenchman was going the other way but managed to deflect the ball away with his foot, before he did well to deny Fernandes after he tried his luck from distance. Fred also had a go with a more routine effort, but despite United's strong start, Spurs drew first blood when they went ahead with their first attack of the game.
Steven Bergwijn's goal - his third in six games since arriving for PSV - came just before the half hour. Lloris thumped the ball downfield, Luke Shaw and Rashford failed to get hold of it and Bergwijn burst clear. Skipping beyond Harry Maguire and Fred, he fired in a finish that looked a good height for David de Gea but the ball went through him, a goal for which a keeper of De Gea's quality definitely should have done better.

To his credit though, De Gea redeemed himself with a superb save moments later. Turning creator this time, Bergwijn picked out Son and the Korean's header looked destined for goal but De Gea brilliantly tipped the ball over the bar to keep United in touch.
Fred flashed wide from a free-kick and Bruno was off target with a 30-yarder but the pattern for the second half was already set.

Mourinho turned to his raison d'etre and dropped all of his men behind the ball in a bid to defend his side's slender lead. Fernandes looked to have Lloris finally beaten but his ambitious daisy cutter flashed inches wide of the far post with the keeper stretching.
One of the major talking points ahead of United's return to action centred around Pogba's comeback. Having missed six months with an ankle injury, United's World Cup winner was summoned from the bench on 62 minutes with the Reds in need of added creativity to break down Spurs.

It was another Frenchman, or rather Frenchmen, in the action soon after though. Anthony Martial had been on the periphery all night but sprung into life when played through by Rashford. Lloris pulled off the best save of the night, however, denying his compatriot with a superb stop to push the ball over the bar and to safety. Still the Reds continued to press as Tottenham found themselves a side under siege.

Martial was thwarted by a superb lunging challenge from Eric Dier, but he would later turn from hero to villain when Pogba's neat footwork saw him clumsily hauled down by the struggling Spurs centre back. Fernandes made no mistake for his fourth goal for the club, and United then thought they had another spot kick when referee Jonathan Moss adjudged Dier to have erred again, this time on Rashford.
Replays showed there was minimal contact and VAR correctly overturned the call, but United still could have won it right at the death when substitute Mason Greenwood's angled effort flashed across goal in the final seconds.

Overall team performance: 6/10. We did well considering the circumstances
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba. Changed the game and his 60-yard missile to Rashford was simply madness.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Manchester United return to action after 103-day absentia

103 days on from Scott McTominay's derby day clincher in the teeming Manchester rain, football - and Manchester United - are back!
It may not be the beautiful game as we know it, but after three long months in perjury beggars cannot be choosers. Bereft of everything that keeps you going - social contact, the gym, the pub and the beautiful game itself - I'd watch a tiddlywinks championship if offered the chance at the moment - if indeed that's even a thing.

United were the form team before the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, putting together an eleven match unbeaten run inspired by the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. Annoyingly and typically, only Mother Nature stopped the team's rapidly building momentum with players forced to train at home and away from others during the UK's spell in isolation.
The league restarts in a very different looking world from the one it left behind. Indeed, this does not feel like a resumption of the 2019-20 campaign, merely the start of a new one.
Proceedings resumed on Wednesday evening with Aston Villa and United's top four rivals Sheffield sharing an appropriately sterile goalless draw before Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side make a first ever visit to Spurs shiny new stadium and renew hostilities with Mr Mourinho on Friday night in United's first match for almost three months.

Solskjaer - Mourinho's successor at United - has an almost fully fit squad to pick from, with only defenders Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones unavailable. Top scorer Marcus Rashford, on his return from injury, will be looking for another big victory in a week when he took on the UK Government and won.  Paul Pogba is also set for a comeback with his potential partnership with Bruno Fernandes a major talking point.
 United would have faced a Spurs side without Harry Kane and Heung-min Son had the tie initially taken place when scheduled, but the pair are available again. Steven Bergwijn was also set to miss the rest of the campaign but the January signing has returned to full fitness, with Moussa Sissoko also in line to feature. Dele Alli will miss out but Mourinho's hand is significantly strengthened by having most of his key men back at his disposal.

In an ideal world, White Hart Lane 2.0 would be a sell out, a bubbling cauldron of atmosphere and excitement on United's maiden voyage to England's second biggest club ground - only our very own Old Trafford is larger in terms of capacity.

Instead, it's a step into the unknown in more ways than one with only 300 people (standard home matchday for Man City then), including the players and both managers, to be permitted inside and social distancing measures maintained at all times. Players must travel separately, there will be no ball boys, players cannot surround the referee and won't be allowed to spit or clear their noses. All non playing staff must wear face coverings, hand sanitisers will be in use and post-match interviews will be done on the side of the pitch (with all press conferences taking place via video link).
All the matches will be played behind closed doors, there are no handshakes, staggered tunnel walks and five substitutions permitted (with managers able to choose nine instead of the usual seven). Opposition managers will not shake hands and all non playing staff must wear face coverings.
 The remaining games will be played without fans - stadium access is limited to around 300 people including players and coaching staff - with a whole new vibe around the behind-closed-doors fixtures as the country still comes to terms with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It's fair to say that English football is taking a huge step into the unprecedented and unknown. But after months with nowhere to go, nothing to do and no-one to see, it gives us all something to forward look to, even if not in the way we know it.

Ahead of our long awaited return, OGS said via Zoom: "It's a great game, of course a big one against one of the best teams in the league, our top four rivals, Champions League finalists less than a year ago.
"We know we're up for a hard game but have prepared as well as we can. We've trained well, the boys have done well over the lockdown and we've had a couple of inter-club 11 v 11s and a warm up against West Brom which was good. Hopefully that will stand us in good stead, they are young, fit, and look ready, so we will see tomorrow night."
On Rashford, Solskjaer added: "It has been fantastic to follow Marcus through this period, it's not only that he's spoken to the Prime Minister directly and got him to change his mind but also what he's done over the last few months.
"Marcus is a top, top human being, his experiences have really resonated and he's changed the lives of so many kids already. So he's already been captain of the club at such a young age, he's proving all the time with his human qualities which is the main attribute for a Man United player, along with his abilities as a player."

United's match at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium kicks off at 8.15pm and is live on Sky Sports.

Form guide: Tottenham Hotspur L L L D D L United W W D W W W
Match odds: Tottenham Hotspur 7/4 Draw 5/2 United 7/5
Referee: Jonathan Moss

Support Your Club. Stay Safe. Watch from Home!

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Final eight dust up to settle UEFA pair

This season's Champions League and Europa Cup will be played as a "final eight" straight knockout tournament in four cities throughout August, UEFA have announced.

With competition suspended since March because of coronavirus, the Champions League will resume with the remaining last-16 second leg ties on 7 and 8 August, with Manchester City vs Real Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Chelsea, Juventus against Lyon and Napoli's tie with Barcelona. It is yet to be confirmed whether these will be played at the home venues behind closed doors or at a neutral venue.

When those matches have been completed, the tournament will proceed with the eight quarter finalists to play one legged matches in Lisbon, Portugal, between 12 to 23 August. The final, also in the Portuguese capital, will be played on the latter date. Istanbul in Turkey was supposed to be the venue for this year's denouement but will instead play host to the 2021 showpiece.
St Petersburg will host 2022, with the 2023 and 2024 finals now to be held in Munich and at Wembley respectively.

The Champions League matches will be shared between Benfica's Estadio da Sport and their rivals Estadio Jose Alvalade with games at Porto and Guimaraes completing the continental campaign.

The Europa League will resume on the 5&6 August 2020, with the format the same as its elder, more glamorous sibling. The remaining last 16 ties will be finished over two legs before the four quarter finals on the 10 and 11 August - again as single-leg encounters and the final in Cologne, Germany, on the 21st. Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen have all been selected as other stadiums for the remaining rounds.

A decision is yet to be made on whether the second leg matches of the outstanding last 16 ties will be played at the home venues or at a neutral ground. Inter Milan vs Getafe and Sevilla vs Roma will become a one-legged fixture. United, 5-0 up against Austrian side LASK, will likely play the second leg of that tie behind closed doors at Old Trafford - if restrictions allow -  despite already having sealed a place in the quarter finals.

The Reds don't yet know who we'll face in that tie, with the draw to take place at UEFA's HQ in Nyon next month and the exact details still TBC.

The Polish city of Gdansk was scheduled to host the final - with United in with a strong chance of going all the way - but, like the Champions League, will host the 2021 Europa League final instead.

As with the Premier League, five substitutions will be permitted in all the remaining fixtures in both tournaments.
New signings won't be permitted to play but teams can include three new players already registered with the club in the squad - meaning Paul Pogba would be allowed to play if required.

Although Euro 2020 - which would have got underway this week - could have been moved to later in the year, putting it back a year enables matters to be settled and ensures that there will be names on the trophies of Europe's two major club competitions.

As things stand, all the matches will be behind closed doors but UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin did not rule out the return of fans should the pandemic continue to recede with the situation to be "assessed" at the beginning of July.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

United ready for competitive return after 103-day absentia

As the old adage goes, you never know what you've got until its gone. Never has that been truer than the last few months with Britain in lockdown and life as we know it changed like never before. With the world in the deadly grip of a global pandemic, our pleasures - from social gatherings, to the gym, the church and sport, having been stripped away one by one.

As restrictions are lifted piece by piece, we're returning towards some semblance of normality, with the Premier League set for Project Restart exactly 100 days since its last competitive match, in Leicester's 4-0 win over Aston Villa. Villa get proceedings back under way as they host Sheffield United on Wednesday before Arsenal travel to Manchester City (two games that could affect United), as the four sides with games in hand reawaken the English game from its three month hiatus before a full round of fixtures over the weekend.
The league will splutter into life in a very different world from the one it left behind, with new guidance in place to stop the spread of the virus. These includes only essential staff being in attendance at stadiums, with players travelling to games individually and in sterilised environments, keeping 2m apart from others at all times. Tunnel walkouts will be staggered, with no pre-match formalities undergone. Teams will be allowed to make five substitutions with short water breaks, no ball boys, or surrounding the referee. Players will not be permitted to spit or clear their noses but VAR will remain in place. Opposition managers will not shake hands and all non playing staff must wear face coverings.
 The remaining games will be played without fans - stadium access is limited to around 300 people including players and coaching staff - with a whole new vibe around the behind-closed-doors fixtures as the country still comes to terms with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It's fair to say that English football is taking a huge step into the unprecedented and unknown. But after months with nowhere to go, nothing to do and no-one to see, it gives us all something to look to, even if not in the way we know it.

Typical isn't it, that United build up a head of steam and establish themselves as the country's most in-form team before our momentum is stopped in its track by an outside force, an unknown enemy, an act of God. The Reds had put together a stunning run of form with an eleven match unbeaten run to reignite a flickering season by staying firmly in the race for Champions League qualification and reaching the quarter finals in two knockout cups. When United return against fellow top four rivals Tottenham on Friday night, it will be 103 days since Scott McTominay steered a 35-yarder over Ederson in the teeming Manchester rain, putting the seal on a famous derby double. That result kept up the pressure on the chasing pack, with United fifth, three points behind Frank Lampard's Blues with nine games left.
Our pre-lockdown form counts for nothing, though, and United will have to hit the ground running, with top scorer Marcus Rashford back fit and the salivating prospect of Paul Pogba in tandem with Bruno Fernandes. We would've faced a Tottenham team without the match winning superstar quality of Harry Kane and Heung-min Son, but the two men will be back fit and firing for Jose Mourinho's Spurs side on United's first visit to Spurs' new stadium.

I don't know about you, but I've been filling the United-shaped hole in my life by watching highlights on YouTube and MUTV. Just about anything to do with the club has kept me going, from the 2008 Champions League final (of course) to the humble beginnings of the Class of 92. It's not the same as a proper matchday of course, but the passion kicks in, the senses are stirred and the wonderful memories of yesteryear come flooding back. Even in absentia, United have been a constant source of satisfaction. There's another famous saying that springs to mind, here. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Under Mourinho, statistically United ran the least combined distance out of all their league rivals, but had become one of the fittest sides in the league under Solskjaer. Players have been keeping their fitness going at home during the lockdown, but you simply can't reprise the intensity of a 90-minute game through a training regime in your back garden. To fine tune for the restart, United played two warm up games at Old Trafford against WBA (Bruno and Pogba's full strength side won 2-1, another United 'B' team lost 3-1).
With all 20 teams on a level playing field in terms of lack of match action, it could well come down to fitness levels and sharpness. It's going to be fascinating to see so many different variables at play in these strange, post-coronavirus times but my brain is starved of its football-mad oxygen and guess what people - United are back!

Magnificent Marcus leading the fight against child poverty

Having already raised £20m to help feed under privileged schoolchildren during the Covid-19 pandemic, Marcus Rashford continues to win hearts in his fight to end poverty.
Working with charity FairShare UK during the coronavirus lockdown, Rashford ensured that some of Britain's hardest hit families would be provided form, raising the money and delivering the meals himself.

United's number ten has shown that he's more than merely one of England's finest young footballers in an emotional battle with Downing Street after he penned an open and emotional letter to MPs in which he urged for the school voucher scheme to run into the summer months.
Rashford drew on his own experience on relying on free school meals and foodbanks growing up, saying his story was "all too familiar" for some families in England.

Gary Lineker said he was very impressed with Rashford's efforts, understanding that kids wouldn't normally be fed by schools during the holidays but that these are "very, very difficult times."
Since the lockdown, low-income families whose children ordinarily rely on free meals have been eligible to receive food parcels or vouchers, but the scheme will stop at the traditional end of term in July.

Rashford has pushed for this to be extended over the summer, with the full force of the economic impact of Covid-19 not to be felt for many more months.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Department for Education said the decision will not be reversed - but Rashford is not giving up without a fight, tweeting: "we aren't beaten yet" and "MPs, please #maketheuturn#
2020 has not only proved to be Rashy's best season in front of goal for Man Utd, but also a year when he came of age as an inspirational role model, showing a maturity, an intelligence and a level headedness beyond his tender years. Using his status in the public eye to push for social equality is a very rare thing for a Premier League player, especially one so young. United have done a lot right during the global pandemic and Rashford is just another shining example of our club's high moral compass.

Rashford has previously learned sign language to help judge a poetry competition at a deaf school, and launched a Christmas shoebox appeal to help the homeless. Football has become irrevocably intertwined with political movement, and Rashford is one of the few footballers to stand up for what he believes in publicly. The haters will say it's nothing more than an elaborate PR stunt, but there's nothing to be gained from the PR surrounding these issues. He's taken action because he wants to campaign for changing lives. He will have earned so much respect and admiration, his mum and the club must be bursting with pride at the man he has become. He's an absolute credit to the name Manchester United.

It says a lot about the running of the country when a professional sportsman, himself still only 22, has to take action because no one else has. He shouldn't feel he has to do this at all but Rashford's doing a great job. I'm beyond proud that he's one of our own, a man of the people, a superbly grounded and generous young man moulded as both a player and a person by his own humble roots in the underprivileged backstreets of Wythenshawe. Rashford has become a wonderful role model and honours far beyond those on the football field surely await for United's captain-in-waiting.