Monday 27 July 2020

Manchester United are a Champions League club again

Cast your mind back to the 22nd January. The country was a very different place and we lived in much happier times. We could travel and see our loved ones at will, you could pop down to your local without a care and supermarket trips did not require this thing called a face mask.

For Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, however, life was a world of pain. That very evening, Burnley won at Old Trafford for the first time in 57 years, with The Times opting for the familiar headline: "Rebellion in the Air." It was a night that the already strained relationship between us fans and United's boardroom powers that be reached boiling point. Solskjaer - already a man under immense pressure - looked to have reached the end of the road. Even the most ardent of pro-Ole supporters had started to lose faith in the former Norway and United legend.

Ed Woodward, the hapless CEO, was the man on the receiving end of much of the bile. He cannot have failed to notice it, with the national newspapers lining the route from Old Trafford's reception area to his office.
That very same night, Leicester City beat West Ham 4-1, for their 15th win from 24 league games. The Foxes were in third, 14 points clear of Solskjaer's United and 1-3 to make the top four. United were 11-2 shots with the same bookies.
Yet six months on, at the end of an exhausting and elongated season, the tables have turned, quite literally, and United have made not only the top four, but third place.

I don't want third (find me a United fan that does) - we all know Manchester United's rightful Premier League place is two places higher at the top of the tree. But its a huge improvement on last season, having only managed sixth in 2018-19. Jumping three places in a single campaign is significant progress and if we do that again next season we'll win the league! Joking aside, its only the third time in seven years United have qualified for the Champions League through the league - having finished 7th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 2nd, 6th again and now 3rd. It is a watershed moment for Solskjaer and his young Reds side, the moment his rebuild well and truly kicked into life, an achievement that seemed so unlikely for so long. Third place may be the minimum expectation for a club of United's size and stature, but it will allow transfer plans to be put into place and makes the club a more attractive proposition for the likes of Jadon Sancho.

Unbeaten in the league since that fateful Burnley night, Manchester United are back in the Champions League. That simple fact will be all that matters for Solskjaer, his staff and our players after a gruelling, 11-month Premier League season in which we came to within two points of the relegation zone but yet finished as the third best side in the land.

Of course, it's a team game and the entire squad - with Solskjaer of course -  deserve credit for taking United into the top three. But there is one man to have stood out above all others, a kindred spirit with a touch of class, a ringleader, a string-pulling creator in chief who has become United's 21st-century Eric Cantona. Enter, Bruno Fernandes. Since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon for £47.7m, Manchester United are unbeaten and top of the form table. Fernandes has lifted the club, with ten goals and twelve assists in 20 appearances. It is telling he has only lost once in a United shirt - that defeat to Chelsea in the semi final last weekend. Fernandes has raised standards, made others better and has provided leadership previously conspicuous by its absence. Paul Pogba will almost certainly stay now thanks to the Portuguese magnifico. Even when Fernandes is not at his brilliant best, he has an impact and makes a difference. His performance at Leicester was probably the worst so far, but yet he was involved in the move that led to the opener and scored the resultant penalty.
After Fernandes debut on February 1 against Wolves, United still had that 14-point deficit to third-placed Leicester. But fast forward to his decisive role in the final day flourish over the Foxes and you can see the extent of his impact. The playmaker has provided the missing link for this United side, building a bridge between midfield and a talented array of attacking armoury with his talent and forward-thinking style. He's arrogant but in a way that just makes you love him.

Marcus Rashford's return from injury and the emergence of Mason Greenwood have also been key. There were wobbles against Southampton and West Ham, but overall United have been physically and psychologically stronger. Since that Burnley defeat, United went behind seven times but only lost once, compared to conceding the first goal on 13 occasions and losing nine times before then. That night will be looked back upon as the turning point in United's season.

It may be a cliche, but it would be fair to say that United are back where we belong. Not because we should have a divine right to mix it with the very best, but because a club of our resources and clout should be dining at European football's top table season in season out.

But we have been in this position before. This is not the first time since Sir Alex we have been in this position, not the first time that Champions League qualification has been heralded as a turning point. It should be the last time a turning point is needed, but that would require lessons to be learned from past mistakes.
In each of the Reds last three Champions League seasons - 2015-16, 2017-18 and 2018-19 - players were signed for exorbitant sums to build a squad befitting of the competition, but few proved a success.
From Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to Alexis and Romelu Lukaku, all would be cast off and replaced with two years. Diogo Dalot has fallen out of favour and Fred has struggled to recapture his pre-lockdown form with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba Solskjaer's preferred double midfield pivot.
For all the talk of progress - and even the most anti-ABU can't deny that something special is building at Old Trafford - United's final points tally of 66 is the same as it was last season. Third place now, sixth then. On average, 66 points usually gets you fifth spot. It is typically a Europa League tally rather than a Champions League one. It is a number in keeping with many of United's recent seasons - since Ferguson's retirement our points tallies have been: 64, 70, 66, 69, 81, 66 and 66 again. Other than the anomaly of Jose Mourinho's 81-point second place, all of those normally wind up in a finish between fourth and sixth. So despite the obvious trajectory, there is work to do and Solskjaer will look to avoid such a close race for the top four next season. We've closed the gap on City from 32 to 15, and bridging that further will be one of the key objectives in 2020-21.  To do that, he'll need sensible, future-proof squad building, similar to what he's done already but unlike what we've seen in the past.

United may be back where they belong, but there is much work to do over the next few weeks and months if we are to stay there.

This summer's attempts to capitalise on Champions League qualification need to be better than those that have preceded it. Woodward and United's de facto transfer guru Matt Judge have important decisions to get right.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Player ratings: Leicester City 0-2 Man Utd

Manchester United will play in next season's Champions League after a tense but decisive victory at top four rivals Leicester.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side won 2-0 at the King Power through goals from Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard to seal third place at the expense of Brendan Rodgers badly faltering Foxes.

Here, we run the rule over those in Red after our 38th and final Premier League game of a protracted 2019-20 campaign.

David de Gea - 6

Relatively untroubled and made one good save from Harvey Barnes in the second half with the game on a knife edge. That said, the Spaniard still provided a couple of heart-in-mouth moments, not least when he spilt an Albrighton effort only to be bailed out by the offside flag.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 5

Another tired showing from a player who has been a revelation this season. Made some good interceptions as usual and saw plenty of the ball, but must improve his forward runs and distribution. Did little wrong defensively.

Harry Maguire - 6

Booked early on in a slow start that epitomised United's nervousness. Going back to his former side, Maguire improved as the game wore on and kept Vardy quiet. It's been a mixed season for the Reds skipper, but ultimately its one that has ended with him leading the side to a top three finish.

Victor Lindelof - 9

The best of the back four, this was a huge performance from the Iceman. Looked assured playing out from the back, won everything in the air, used the ball well and never looked troubled by Vardy. Lindelof saved his best performance until last, in what was his best showing of the season. Immense. 

Brandon Williams - 6

Most positive of the two full-backs, he saw a lot of the ball and used it well. In his toughest examination of the season, Williams did his job well and caught the eye with his industry. Controlled aggression at the back, Williams has looked rash recently but did well here.

Nemanja Matic - 6

The stereotypical game of two halves for United's hit and miss Serbian. A passenger in the first half, he looked ragged against the Leicester press and was careless in possession, often losing the ball in dangerous areas. Matic improved in the second half, though, and carved the Foxes open with some lovely passes

Paul Pogba - 8

Dominant and controlled in midfield, and by far United's most creative player in the first half. Involved indirectly in both goals and Pogba looked the most likely to make something happen. Made amends after his rush of the blood to the head in midweek. That minor aberration aside, the Frenchman has made a huge difference to United since the restart.

Mason Greenwood - 7

A game in which United's brightest young star drifted in and out of. He made some good runs and created a few openings, but he was looked after well by the Leicester defence. Played a part in the opener when he won the ball high up the pitch and played in Martial for the penalty, also going close with a header. Next season will be a big one for the 18-year-old.

Bruno Fernandes - 5

A very uncharacteristic showing from Bruno Fernandes in another weary performance. Had a goal disallowed, but yet despite being below par he still made a difference by scoring from the spot - a goal of huge consequence for United. The last few weeks has not seen the best of him, but there can be no doubt the impact he has made.

Marcus Rashford - 6

Played far too deep, taking up the role of playmaker rather than finisher. Had two good chances in the first half and was involved in the Lingard goal when he won possession. Forced a good save from Schmeichel but a contender for United's player of the season struggled to make an impact.

Anthony Martial - 6

Brightest of the front three and looked a threat every time United went forward. Made the decisive dart forward to earn United's penalty and had two good chances in the first half. Another decent performance from the Frenchman, who ends the league season with 17 goals.


Jesse Lingard - for Greenwood 77 - 6

On what could be his final farewell in the Red of United, Lingard buzzed around and capitalised on a rare Schmeichel error to score. Did his job.

Scott McTominay - for Fernandes 86 - 5

Did little but helped to wind the clock down by keeping the ball ticking over. Subject of the late lunge that saw Evans sent off. McTominay will probably play in the Europa League.

Timothy Fosu - Mensah&Odion Ighalo - for Rashford and Martial 90+7 - N/A

Came on too late and neither got a touch. No rating

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - 7

Job done. Got the result he needed and steered United to third place. Deserves huge credit for doing so having come from nowhere since the turn of the year. Team selection was good, United look re-energised and a third place finish is a huge improvement on last season.

Match report: Leicester City 0-2 Man Utd

Manchester United secured Champions League football at the expense of Leicester City after a tense final day victory at the King Power Stadium.
Coming into the final furlong a point ahead of the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side needed a point to be sure of a place at Europe's top table and pip a Leicester side in strong contention for so much of the season.
Bruno Fernandes put the Reds ahead from the penalty spot before Jesse Lingard's rare goal with virtually the last action secured the result for the Reds - who finish third in the Premier League, ahead of Chelsea on goal difference. 
It caps a remarkable turnaround from Solskjaer and his young side, with the Reds 14 points behind Brendan Rodgers side after 26 matches. The Reds only moved into the top four in midweek, but yet secure their second-highest league finish since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson seven years ago.

Whilst a point would have sufficed for United, Leicester were in need of only a victory but came up short with Chelsea's win over Wolves meaning the east Midlands side finish fifth.
Solskjaer picked his strongest possible side, and United started brightly with two openings in the early minutes.
Brandon Williams was scythed down by the impressive Wilfried Ndidi in the box, and thenMason Greenwood headed over the bar having been picked out by Marcus Rashford.
Ndidi flashed an effort wide and Marc Albrighton was also off target before David de Gea was called into action for the first time shortly before the first drinks break. Albrighton found Iheanacho with a reverse ball, De Gea spilled his effort and Jamie Vardy reacted quickest. However, the Golden Boot winner was flagged offside having eagerly followed up on the rebound. 

Fernandes then also had an effort chalked out by the linesman, but Leicester remained a threat with Youri Tielemans next to go close with a 25-yarder.
The Reds finished an evenly fought first half on top and should have gone in ahead at the interval. A spinning pass by Paul Pogba took James Justin out the game to find United's joint leading scorer, but our no.10 failed to direct the ball goalwards, instead sending his lobbed effort wastefully wide.

Martial's shot was deflected wide by former United man Jonny Evans after another sublime pass from Pogba, and from the resultant corner Schmeichel beat away a fizzing effort from Rashford as the Reds started to exert their authority.

The second half started as the first had ended, with United on top and dictating the tie. Martial was thwarted by good defending from Wes Morgan and Greenwood fired wide, but the game was still on a knife edge and Vardy went close twice in quick succession.

The Foxes clipped the top of the crossbar with a header and then flashed an effort wide as the much needed breakthrough remained frustratingly out of reach. 

As the match headed to a nerve-jangling finale, United fans were finally able to draw breath when the Reds were awarded a penalty. Martial was scythed down by a combination of Morgan and Evans, the penalty was given after a VAR check and Fernandes slotted the resultant spot-kick beyond Schmeichel for a crucial advantage.

Leicester now had no option but to pour forward and the hosts created the first chance after the second drinks break, when substitute Harvey Barnes was denied by De Gea.
Morgan's air shot failed to test the United keeper and another substitute, Demarai Gray had an effort deflected behind off Maguire.
The Foxes continued to push but the Reds remained resolute and snuffed out any opposition chances.
In stoppage time, former Red Evans was sent off for a late, high lunge on substitute Scott McTominay - earning a straight red card from referee Martin Atkinson.

The Reds put the seal on a successful mission accomplished in the final seconds when Schmeichel dawdled on the ball and sub Lingard dispossessed him and rolled home into an empty net. 

We are Champions League! Ole's at the wheel!

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Victor Lindelof. Immense. 

Saturday 25 July 2020

How Manchester United closed the gap on Leicester and the top four

Manchester United head into Sunday’s showdown with Leicester City at the King Power Stadium in third, a point clear of the Foxes, who sit fifth.
The Reds moved ahead of the Midlands outfit with a draw against West Ham at Old Trafford on Wednesday, and will complete a remarkable turnaround with a draw or a win over Brendan Rodgers’s side, who occupied second position in the table on New Year’s Day.
On January 1, when the Foxes beat Newcastle and United lost at Arsenal, Leicester were a full 14 points clear, with a goal difference 20 superior to that of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men.
In the space of 15 matches, the Reds gradually eroded that gap, before leapfrogging Sunday’s hosts during the week.
How did we do it? Let’s take a look…
Premier League standings on 1 January 2020 

Leicester’s 3-0 success at St James’ Park on the first day of 2020 moved them on to 45 points, but that was actually the last time the Foxes tasted victory on the road this season. After that disappointing reverse to the Gunners, United made up ground the following week by beating Norwich at home while Leicester were stung as a late Danny Ings goal ensured all three points for Southampton. Successive defeats to Liverpool and Burnley for United, however, coupled with a 4-1 win for the Foxes against struggling West Ham, ensured the points gap of 14 remained – although a stumbling Chelsea were a more realistic target for Solskjaer at the time, especially after the club clinched the signings of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo before the transfer window slammed shut.
Positions: Leicester 3rd, United 5thPoints gap: 14

Goal-difference gap: 21

The second month of the year began with similar results for both sides – Leicester were pegged back by top-four rivals Chelsea to draw 2-2, before Wolves held United to a goalless stalemate at Old Trafford later in the day, in the game where Fernandes made his debut. It was advantage to the two sides in blue as we went into the winter break, then, although a key 2-0 win for Solskjaer’s side at Stamford Bridge, followed by a comprehensive victory over Watford, helped lift us back into fifth. The Foxes, meanwhile, started to splutter, losing to Manchester City and Norwich City within the space of six days as the points difference between the clubs was narrowed down into single figures.

Positions: Leicester 3rd, United 5th
Points gap: 9
Goal-difference gap: 15

Of course, the coronavirus-enforced suspension of football cut March short when the month was just two games old, but United’s point at Everton – the day after the Foxes suffered in East Anglia – as well as a Manchester derby to remember left fans desperate to get the season back underway as the hunt for the Champions League continued. Leicester thrashed relegation-threatened Aston Villa 4-0 in what would be the last Premier League game played for 100 days, as the country turned its attention to more important matters.
Positions: Leicester 3rd, United 5th
Points gap: 8
Goal-difference gap: 16

As football resumed, United’s primary target was once again catching Chelsea, although the draw at Tottenham resulted in Frank Lampard’s men soon opening up a five-point gap over the Reds. Solskjaer’s side were then near-perfect in consecutive 3-0 drubbings of Sheffield United and Brighton & Hove Albion, while Leicester came out of the break cold, drawing with Watford and Brighton before their away day travails continued at Goodison Park on the first day of July. Unbelievably, United were now just a win behind Leicester, although the Foxes’ goal difference – boosted by October’s record win at Southampton – was still much healthier than our own.
Positions: Leicester 3rd, United 5th
Points gap: 3
Goal-difference gap: 9

May is usually the month in which titles are awarded, relegations suffered and European places sorted, but in this most unusual of seasons, it would be July where the Premier League would reach its conclusion. While United were comfortably seeing off Bournemouth at Old Trafford, Jamie Vardy was passing 100 Premier League goals to help Leicester to their first league win since lockdown, over Crystal Palace. The league’s top scorer struck again to rescue a point at Arsenal, guaranteeing that the Foxes would end matchweek 34 above United, regardless of our result against Aston Villa. Nevertheless, we got the job done in the Midlands, to keep the pressure on.
Then came the weekend that blew the top-four race wide open. Both Chelsea and Leicester were beaten, at Sheffield United and Bournemouth respectively, giving the Reds the chance to leapfrog both, if we could negotiate the tricky-looking visit of Southampton. We so nearly did, until Michael Obafemi’s 96th-minute equaliser ensured the two sides in blue were let off the hook. A further three points for all three contenders followed, before Jose Mourinho’s Spurs found joy on the counter to consign the Foxes to another away defeat. Our point at home to West Ham, coupled with Chelsea’s defeat to Liverpool, means we go into Sunday’s match in pole position – but who knows what could happen next in this rollercoaster of a year…

Positions: United 3rd, Leicester 5th*
Points gap: United lead by 1*
Goal-difference gap: Level*

Leicester vs Man Utd preview: The 100m match

Seconds out, round 38 and a contest between two heavyweights in need of the final bell.
From being ahead on points throughout this long and gruelling struggle for supremacy, Leicester now find themselves needing to land a knockout blow - against the heaviest of heavyweights who they haven't laid a glove on in their last three meetings - and have only beaten once in 23 meetings since 1998.

It's a line as tired as these two sides have looked in the last week, but what a difference the 12th man at the King Power could have made in this 100m contest.
All the pressure is on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United, though, despite the fact we only need a draw - although Solskjaer himself spoke only of going there with winning in mind.
You'd have got long odds on this being effectively a Champions League play-off back in January, when Leicester sat in second place having picked up 15 wins from 24 matches. By contrast, the Reds were humbled by Burnley and sat 14 points adrift of their opponents.

Yet six months on, the two clubs have switched places and Leicester have to win to overhaul United and make the top four. United can still qualify for the Champions League by winning the revamped Europa League - and the Reds are favourites to do so - but the Foxes do not have anything to fall back on, no Plan B. It is win or bust for Brendan Rodgers side. A draw would only be enough for Rodgers men if Chelsea lose at home to Wolves - in which case they would pip the Stamford Bridge side on goal difference.
With three sides still vying for the final two Champions League places, there are permutations aplenty ahead of league game no.38. The Reds will be certain of a place at Europe's top table for 2020/21 if we avoid defeat in the east Midlands - should Wolves win at Stamford Bridge, even a defeat would see us home.
Should the Reds prevail, they will almost certainly finish third given our vastly superior goal difference over Chelsea. In this scenario, Frank Lampard's side would claim the final place and Leicester would finish fifth.

They will have to do without three key men who have contributed magnificently to an impressive season at the King Power. Full-backs Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell, regarded as among the league's best, are both missing with influential string-puller James Maddison also sidelined. Daniel Amartey and Christian Fuchs will also miss out. Leicester didn't sign a replacement for Harry Maguire when the centre-back joined United last summer, instead putting their trust in little known Turk Caglar Soyuncu. Soyuncu has been another to go under the radar and catch the eye, but he too will miss the final day decider as he completes a three-match ban having been sent off in the 4-1 defeat at Bournemouth. That means former Red Jonny Evans is set to line-up in a three-man Foxes defence alongside ageing thirty somethings Ryan Bennett and Wes Morgan. Maguire will need to be wary of his former team mate Jamie Vardy with the league's leading scorer set to lead the line for Leicester.

Between mid-October and early December, Leicester went on a nine-game unbeaten run, leading some to rank the East Midlanders as outside title contenders, but Sunday's hosts soon came unstuck, with back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool during the busy festive period.

However, that did not deter the wily Foxes and, prior to the suspension of football in March, they had an eight-point buffer to United in fifth position. Since the restart, though, Leicester's form has been patchy, yielding three draws, three defeats and just two wins, with points dropped from winning positions against relegation-threatened Watford and AFC Bournemouth.

This means Leicester, who have been the hunted for so long this term, now become the hunters for a top four place as this strangely protracted season reaches its climax.

 Luke Shaw (ankle) is doubtful for United, whilst fellow defenders Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are all unavailable.

Solskjaer said: "We've not ended up anywhere yet. If we get a result against Leicester, everyone will say the journey, the process, has been a good one. But then this is not the end of our journey. There are two, painfully those two teams are Liverpool and Manchester City, who are too far ahead of us so we have to step it up even more."
He added: "We're looking forward to it, we've given ourselves a great chance of being in the Champions League next year - but we can't go into the game thinking about the permutations. We just have to go and perform, and perform to a high enough level to get a result.
"We want to go there and dominate the game, we wanted to get to this position, having to go to Leicester and needing to beat them. We only need a draw but we won't change our approach, we want to go there and win."

The Reds have been nothing short of magnificent in hauling back a seemingly unassailable deficit to Leicester but that will count for nothing if we don't get what we need. How are your nerves? Have you all got good tickers? I've got a feeling we're all going to need them.

Form guide: Leicester L W D L W L Man Utd W W D W L D
Match odds: Leicester 11/5 Draw 8/2 Man Utd 7/4
Referee: M Atkinson

Predicted United XI: De Gea; Wan - Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw; Pogba, Matic; Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford; Martial

Friday 24 July 2020

Strap yourselves in, hold on tight and prepare for a day of drama

The Premier League title may have been wrapped up a long while ago, but there is still plenty to play for on the final day of the protracted season on Sunday.

The relegation battle has gone down to the wire, with AFC Bournemouth, Villa and Watford fighting to avoid the two remaining places. Norwich are already down, but Villa currently hold the tightest of advantages as they sit in 17th, separated from the managerless Hornets by goal difference only.

It is a situation mirrored at the other end of the table, with Leicester facing third-placed United in what's effectively a play-off, and Chelsea - themselves not yet certain of a place in the Champions League - hosting a Wolves side set for the Europa League.

Three simply does not go into two, and there are nine possible permutations to decide who finishes where. Manchester United make the top four in all but two of those. In other words, it's harder not to than to get there. The annoying thing is, the Reds would already be home and hosed had we beaten Southampton and West Ham. If we had done so, United would be on 67 points and unable to be reeled in by the chasing pack. But this club never does it the easy way and so a final day shootout it shall be.

Here, we take a look at who needs what.

Manchester United - 3rd, 63 points

The Reds only need to avoid defeat against the depleted and out of form Foxes in order to clinch Champions League football. A point would be enough. However, should we only manage to draw and Chelsea win, United would drop to fourth below Frank Lampard's side. Should Chelsea lose their match, United will still qualify no matter what happens at the King Power.

Chelsea - 4th, 63 points

Like the Reds, Lampard's men only need a point to be certain of their place amongst the elite. The Stamford Bridge side can also afford to lose, but only if United beat Leicester which means the standings would remain unaltered - Chelsea therefore clinching their own qualification at the expense of the Foxes by a single point.

Leicester City - 5th, 62 points

Brendan Rodgers' men have endured a simply shocking run of form. Seemingly nailed on for a Champions League berth when they were second at Christmas, a combination of loss of form and a lengthy injury list have seen Leicester's position and their destiny slip from their grasp although it remains in their own hands. Like the other two clubs, the equation is simple for the Foxes: they cannot lose. They either need to beat United or get a draw and then hope that Wolves win at Stamford Bridge - in which case Leicester would squeak over the line and pip Chelsea on goal difference. 

Either way, its going to be a bumpy ride, so strap in, hold on tight and stay close to the nearest sofa. Probably best getting a few beers in, too, just in case.

Predicted top four top scorelines and permutations:

- Leicester City 1 Man Utd 2
- Chelsea 2 Wolves 1

Final table based on those scores:

3. Man Utd 66 points +29GD
4. Chelsea 66 points +13GD
5. Leicester 62 points +27 GD
6. Wolves 59 points +13GD

Wednesday 22 July 2020

United's date with destiny on the final day

After 37 games and 3,330 minutes, Manchester United's date with their destiny will boil down to 90 tense minutes of final day drama at the King Power Stadium.
After languishing on the fringes of the Champions League qualification places for what seems like forever, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds moved into third position - level on points with Chelsea - ahead of the final round of fixtures.

The draw with West Ham may not have been pretty but it lifted us into that top four for the first time since September, separated from the Blues on goal difference only. It was a result that sets United up nicely for one of the biggest games in our recent history. Our destiny calls. The Champions League awaits. This team has a habit of rising to the big occasion with an almost flawless record against the top six this season, we've already beaten Leicester and this side is a team at its best when nothing other than a win is needed. 

It's a position, I'm sure, the Reds would have gladly accepted had they been offered it at Christmas. No one would have believed you then had you told them United would go into Gameweek 38 with the chance to overhaul a Leicester side that looked to have their Champions League place locked down. In the top three for most of the season, Brendan Rodgers men have had an alarming slump, winning only two of their eight games since the Premier League emerged from its three month hibernation. 

Indeed, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have snapped your hand off for such a scenario with the Reds 14th in the table at one point during November. Solskjaer has overseen a minor miracle to keep the team in contention, and to be in this position seemed a pipe dream a few months ago, but it is one that will ultimately count for nothing should United fail to get the job done on Sunday. 

So what is that job? Well, the equation is simple. United's fate is in our own hands and we only need to avoid defeat in the east Midlands to finish in the top four. We could technically lose and still qualify, but that would depend on Chelsea's result at home to Europa League chasing Wolves. A draw would be enough at the King Power for Solskjaer's men. Frank Lampard's side themselves only need a point to qualify, so if they get it and Leicester win, United would be bumped down to fifth at the expense of the Foxes. As we now know, that spot will no longer be enough to get in with Manchester City's ban getting overturned. Of course, United still have the safety net of the Europa League in case the league goes pete tong, with victory in that competition earning the Reds a place in the Champions League. So all would not be lost, but that would be doing it the hard way and relying on that is not ideal given the watered down version comes at the end of a year-long season with the players already out on their feet. Although a draw would do, I don't want United to play with that mindset. I want them to go all out for the win in this last game. Play like its a win or bust cup final. 

After putting together an impressive 19-match unbeaten run, sandwiched between the coronavirus lockdown, United have showed signs of flagging but still hold the crucial advantage when it matters most. Beaten by Chelsea and held by Southampton, there are questions of this side's mental and physical state but none of that will matter if we get over the line. 

Solskjaer's remit in his first full season in charge was to get United into the Champions League. He knows the importance of qualifying for it, and he also knows the success  - or otherwise -  of his season depends on whether he achieves that aim. He will be judged solely on finishing either just above or just below that perilous dotted line, the one that can define futures and shape success. 
After 22 years of never finishing lower than third, this would be only the third time in seven years that United have finished in the top four. It would increase our chances of signing the likes of Jadon Sancho and would also provide a much needed boon financially in these testing economic times.

I hope you've all got good tickers - I've got a feeling we're going to need them! If you suffer from a nervous disposition, then I would suggest you stay away from your TV, laptop or radio on Sunday as this is certainly not for the faint hearted. Strap yourselves in, hold on tight, close your eyes and stay close to the alcoholic beverages. It might be worth finding a sofa to clamber behind, just in case.. I'm nervous already. 

Match report: Manchester United 1-1 West Ham

Manchester United moved into the top three after Mason Greenwood cancelled out Michail Antonio's opener after a moment of madness from Paul Pogba.
The Reds face Leicester in a final day shootout for Champions League qualification against Brendan Rodgers men, and only need a draw to make certain of their place at Europe's top table next season.

This was a display in keeping with United's below par performances in recent weeks, despite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer restoring several of his big guns after resting the likes of Anthony Martial, Pogba and Greenwood at Wembley.
West Ham needed a point to rubber stamp their survival with David Moyes setting up his in-form side to make life hard against his former employers. Nonetheless, United made a fast start to the game and quickly called Hammers stopper Lukasz Fabianski into action, with two efforts in quick succession from Martial and Greenwood.

Bruno Fernandes was unusually off colour and his frustration was clear after he uncharacteristically mis-controlled a Marcus Rashford through pass when well placed. Martial flashed a strike over the bar  but the well-drilled visitors weathered the early storm, slowly growing into the game as they began to cause United problems.
Angelo Ogbonna headed wide but Rashford, lurking on the periphery throughout, then burst into life with a 25-yarder that Fabianski did well to save. Greenwood had a shot blocked after good work by Brandon Williams, but the Hammers remained a threat when right-back Ben Johnson picked out Antonio under pressure from Victor Lindelof, only for David De Gea to thwart the onrushing forward.

Yet West Ham disappointingly took the lead out of nothing on the stroke of half-time, when a Declan Rice free-kick was blocked by the outstretched arms of Pogba. The Frenchman may have instinctively trying to protect himself, but there could be no arguments about the award of the spot-kick.
Referee Paul Tierney checked with VAR, the decision was upheld and West Ham's in form leading scorer did the rest from 12 yards.
United responded to the setback and equalised with the best move of the game. It was intricate, it was neat and it was deadly as Martial and Greenwood linked up to find a way through the Hammers watertight defence. The former found the latter to power in a trademark finish for his 17th goal of the season - the best by a teenager at United - on his 50th appearance. He is 18.

Pogba went close from distance but if West Ham expected a siege then it was not forthcoming. The under pressure De Gea saved superbly from a deflected Jarrod Bowen strike, and Rice chanced his arm from distance.
Antonio nodded wide and De Gea saved again from Pablo Fornals before United introduced Odion Ighalo in search of a winner. The substitution almost worked, too, as the Nigerian swept narrowly wide from a Williams cross almost immediately after coming on. But there was to be no late drama as West Ham locked the game down, with both sides, in the end, happy with a point.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood

Monday 20 July 2020

Man Utd buckle under pressure... again

There is no doubt that Manchester United have made great strides over the last few months, building momentum, confidence and putting together a winning run for the ages.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had put together a very impressive unbeaten sequence - nineteen games - to carry a vibrant and energetic team to the brink of the Premier League's top four and, until Sunday, still in contention of two pieces of silverware.
Of course, perspective is needed - United need
only two points to finish in those Champions League positions and are favourites to win the watered down, post-lockdown version of the Europa League. One defeat in twenty is hardly a cause for panic, even if the disappointment of choosing an FA Cup semi final to cough up the worst performance of our season will linger for a long time to come. We knew that Chelsea were beatable, and although the law of averages suggested there had to be a time when they would prevail, we had been playing well and scoring for fun. The Blues had been beaten three times, so the stranglehold they used to have on United had been well and truly lifted. Despite the argument of the FA Cup being the least important of United's three remaining priorities, it was a very disappointing way to go out of a very winnable competition - surrendering meekly and simply having no answers to a Chelsea performance in which they were far from sizzling, but did what they had to.

But despite United's wonderful run of form, questions remain. The pressure has ratcheted up tenfold, with every match massive in these final weeks of the season, and no margin for error. We're at the stage of campaign now where you simply cannot afford any slip ups. But again, United have struggled to seize the moment - missing the chance to go third by drawing with Southampton and then wilting in the face of a Chelsea onslaught as a place in the FA Cup final slipped from the team's grasp. It seems that whenever there is a chance to achieve something tangible - whether that be firmly taking control of a Champions League position or getting to a cup final  - United find a way to mess things up. They prefer to be chasing, rather than be chased. There are most definitely still issues surrounding this side's mentality and ability to cope with a pressure cooker environment. When it comes to the crunch, the scenario when it truly is win or bust, this side continually fall short. Granted, this is a young team and times like this will stand them in good stead for the future, but there's also experience too - Nemanja Matic, Harry Maguire, David De Gea and even the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are young players with experience, so there can be little mitigation. Let's not forget that this was our second defeat in a cup semi-final this season having been knocked out in the last four of the Carabao Cup, too. A good achievement to get that far and more signs of tangible progress, but again not getting over the line when it matters. No disgrace in losing narrowly to a side as good as Manchester City over two legs, of course, but more evidence of this side's shortcomings at the business end of a competition. Semi finals and finals mean nowt if you don't win them.

There has been a noticeable drop off in the last three games, as the Reds won ugly at Palace before crashing out to Chelsea in a tie where Frank Lampard's side were better. In every department. The Blues were fitter, sharper, stronger, more energetic and more aggressive as the string-pulling Bruno Fernandes was strangled and overpowered. United wilted in the face of the Chelsea press. The Reds had built their winning run on belief, solidity and not to panic when questions were asked but all of those attributes were conspicuous in absentia. It's all well and good brushing aside bottom half fodder - albeit impressively - as United have done, but since lockdown there have been three true tests of United's mettle. The Spurs game can be excused as that was the first after three months out of action, but throw in the Southampton stumble and the Chelsea capitulation and we've failed to pass any of those tests. Three difficult opponents with everything on the line, and three black marks. It could of course, be simply a matter of weary legs and scrambled minds, but history suggests it's something more that that: something more deep rooted and psychological. If that's the case, then there's no simple solution - can you coach players on how to deal intrinsically with pressure? If you can, then it could be a good move for a young manager like Solskjaer to tap into sports psychology. Or is it a tactical issue?

It was a situation we saw last season when the Reds got into a great position to make the top four against all the odds, only to fall away and end the season in ignominy with defeat to relegation-bound Cardiff. I still think United will make the top four - two draws against West Ham and Leicester will be enough. That would be progress and a step forward, but with United's previous of going under when on shaky ground, it is far from certain.

David de Gea has been sublime but his time is up

Amid the chaos of Spain's shambolic and premature World Cup exit of 2018, perhaps there was no greater victim than David de Gea.
The days when his heroics repeatedly and almost single-handedly papered over United's plethora of cracks seem very distant indeed. Given the nod ahead of usual cup goalkeeper Sergio Romero as the Reds bid for a place in the FA Cup final, De Gea cost the Reds with a woeful, terrible performance that was amongst his worst between the sticks.

If he was arguably at fault for Chelsea's first goal, failing to get enough on Olivier Giroud's close-range flick, then he definitely was to blame for their second. Even the third goal, turned past him by his captain Harry Maguire, should have been dealt with. In those two moments, United's long unbeaten run disappeared - and with it, a place in a first cup final under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer slipped, literally, from our grasp.

Exactly what happened in Russia two years ago may never be known, but one thing's for sure. The De Gea whom came back from that tournament was not the same De Gea whom went. There are many theories, but nothing definitive. Of course, every keeper makes mistakes, but this is more than just the odd isolated error. It's happened all season long and even last term, De Gea was littered was gaffes and blunders.
The sight of the once impenetrable Spaniard's long, sad face - made even more mournful by his preacher's beard - ruing another error and slapping the turf has become grimly iconic.

Perhaps it's the fact that at United he was playing behind a defence that sat deep in contrast to the high line of La Roja. That is not what he's comfortable with, even if his passing success rate of 74% is up there as the highest in the league - behind only Kasper Schmeichel and eclipsing outfield powerhouses like Raul Jimenez, Pierre - Emerick Aubameyang and Harry Kane.
Thrown into a high pressure situation for a team with lofty standards, and asked to fulfil an unfamiliar role - coupled with a last-minute change of manager - it's as though everything DDG had modelled his game on completely fell to pieces. The dye was cast from the very first game, when former United man Cristiano Ronaldo's shot slipped under him in the group game with Portugal. De Gea conceded from every shot on target against him in the tournament.

De Gea has gone from being the best in the world, a shining light and a beacon of reliability, to being somebody from whom mistakes are no longer a surprise, somebody who has become a liability. There is a list as long as both my arms of De Gea blunders this season - West Ham, Watford, Everton twice, Burnley, Arsenal, Spurs, Bournemouth and Chelsea twice during 2019/20 alone. That's before you even consider the blunders against Barcelona and Chelsea (again), to name but two from last season.

No keeper has made more errors leading directly to goals in Europe's top five leagues than De Gea over the past year. He continues to give the impression of a goalkeeper either in permanent decline or a very long slump. As a certain fan from a certain football fan channel on YouTube might have once said, its time to go. One or two mistakes from time to time is forgivable, but it keeps happening and is costing us hugely. No matter how good DDG has been for us down the years, you simply cannot ignore the fact that he's a massive worry now.

Chelsea would not have won so comfortably - indeed, perhaps not even won at all - had it not been for De Gea's errors. The first one from Olivier Giroud should have been met with the sort of reflex block that was once his trademark. The second goal - a straight, low, weak effort from Mason Mount - should be a gimme for any goalkeeper at any level and the third - well that was simply the epitome of a dreadful day. A confident, assured David de Gea, United's four time Player of the Year not so long ago, saves all of those Chelsea goals. Romero had played in every round and has an impressive clean sheet record - he definitely keeps those out.

With one of the best young keepers in England plying his trade at Sheffield United whilst still a Manchester United player, serious decisions have to be made ahead of next season. Solskjaer has to at least consider bringing Dean Henderson back to Old Trafford and making him number one. Sergio Romero has to start the remaining games in both league and Europe to take De Gea out of the firing line and make him fight for his place between the posts.

Match report: Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United

David de Gea endured a nightmare day at the office as three blunders from United's keeper sent Chelsea into the 2020 FA Cup final.
The Reds were unbeaten in 19 games but had shown signs of fatigue - a factor that ultimately saw manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rest Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial with a top four place on the line and the games coming thick and fast.

But Solskjaer ditched his usual cup keeper Sergio Romero in favour of the Spaniard, and it was decision that cost United a place in the final against Arsenal on August 1.
De Gea made a flimsy attempt to deal with Olivier Giroud's daisy cutter on the stroke of half-time, then weakly fumbled Mason Mount's tame 20 yarder into the net moments after the resumption.

He should have done better with the third goal too, as he was slow to react after the ball had deflected off Harry Maguire from a Marcos Alonso cross, to compound United's troubles.

United had beaten Frank Lampard's side three times previously this season, but there can no complaints about this result as the west London side thoroughly outplayed a United side that looked mentally and physically shattered.
The fact the Blues had two days extra rest certainly didn't help matters, but in truth that cannot fail to mask that the Reds blew a massive opportunity to secure a trophy, which will now have to come in the form of the Europa League.

Solskjaer reverted to a back three, deploying a system that had brought success against Chelsea on those other occasions, but Lampard worked it out this time and was able to successfully subdue the influence of the string-pulling Bruno Fernandes, in turn rendering the Reds link between midfield and attack almost anonymous.

Chelsea were on the front foot from the off, with the impressive Mount at the heart of things. He forced a save from De Gea, then picked out Alonso to head over from close range in an early sign of intent.
Willian flashed a shot wide and Mount had another effort off target, but the Reds were then forced to change tack when the luckless Eric Bailly suffered a nasty knock after banging heads with Maguire.

United reverted to a more familiar back four and introduced Martial earlier than they would have wanted, a sign that perhaps all was not well.
Yet this failed to spark the Reds into life as Chelsea went in at half-time with a lead they fully deserved as Willian found Cesar Azpilicueta whom in turn picked out Giroud, and the French striker slid home a close range effort with which De Gea should have done better.

Then came his most costly gaffe, in a goal that was a comedy of errors. Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Maguire failed to track the run of Reece James before Brandon Williams lost possession and gave the ball straight to Mount. The Chelsea man still had a lot to do, but was helped hugely by De Gea as his shot went straight through the hapless keeper - despite De Gea getting down to it - and into the corner.

Fernandes was overpowered in midfield and United had no punch in attack, despite the introduction of Pogba and Greenwood, as well as Martial. The latter could have had a penalty when he went down under a challenge from Kurt Zouma, and Marcus Rashford pulled his angled effort narrowly side as United briefly threatened a comeback.

But Chelsea were always stronger and put the result beyond any lingering doubt 15 minutes from the end when the ball was recycled after De Gea had tipped away to keep out James. Giroud found Mount, he moved the ball on to Alonso and his cross/shot was diverted beyond the hapless De Gea by an equally hapless Maguire.

A late Fernandes penalty at least offered a glimmer of consolation, but this was a day in which the Reds were second best in every department.

Overall team performance: 3/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes

Saturday 18 July 2020

FA Cup semi final preview: Chelsea vs Manchester United

Manchester United face Chelsea for the fourth time this season as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side bid to reach a 21st FA Cup final.
The two heavyweights lock horns at Wembley in the iconic competition for the fourth campaign in a row, with the Blues beating United in the 2018 showpiece but the Reds turning the tables with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in the fifth round last term.
Solskjaer has already beaten opposite number Frank Lampard three times this season, having completed the double in the league with a 6-0 aggregate whilst knocking the west London side out of the Carabao Cup for good measure. The only side to beat the Blues four times in the same season? United - in 2010/11.

However, despite a place in the final being at stake, you would forgive both managers for not seeing this one as their main priority.
With both clubs being in the thick of a thrilling three way battle for two Champions League spots, and European commitments still to fulfill, the FA Cup - whilst still a competition very much worth winning - will play third fiddle. Chelsea travel to Anfield in midweek with United also facing a difficult tie against former boss David Moyes and his West Ham side. The Reds come into this one in the finest of fettles, but fatigue is beginning to show with slow starts, sluggishness and a drop in level
becoming very noticeable. United did not play well at Palace but won ugly and got the job done - the sole objective at this stage of the season. But a number of players looked leggy, with Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford in particular among those in need of a rest.

With that in mind, rotation is a strong possibility with the likes of Odion Ighalo, Eric Bailly, Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard and Diogo Dalot all expected to feature - even if there's likely to be a steep decline in quality. Luke Shaw is definitely out and could miss the rest of United's season with an ankle injury, but fellow left-back Brandon Williams is fit again having picked up a nasty facial knock against Southampton. Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are both still sidelined but there are no other injury concerns. Sergio Romero, United's cup keeper, has played in every FA Cup game so far but Solskjaer neither confirmed nor denied whether the Argentine will again begin between the sticks.

N'golo Kante (hamstring) will miss his fourth successive tie for Lampard's side with young playmaker Billy Gilmour (knee) also a long term absentee. Chelsea otherwise have a fully fit squad to pick from.
For United, the aim is for this year's FA Cup campaign to be a record-equalling one, as they seek to match Arsenal's haul of 13 cup wins, but we've had to do it the hard way with an away tie in every round. It took two gos to see off European-chasing rivals Wolves 1-0 at Old Trafford after a replay, before seeing off Derby (3-0), Tranmere (6-0) and Norwich (2-1 after extra time). Lampard's side have beaten Nottingham Forest, Hull, Liverpool and Leicester to set up this semi final tie.

Solskjaer stressed the importance of silverware for his side, and said:
 "You can't pick and choose, it is a cliche but we have to go one game at a time.
"This is a great chance to get to our first final together as a team, we're just one step away - it's at Wembley, unfortunately without our fans, so we just focus on the FA Cup. And a trophy of course is massive for any player and any team to win, so that's our main focus now. We have important games coming up but we will look at those after focusing on getting to the final.

He added: "When you are at United, you need to win trophies - that's what we've done in our history, and we want to do the same playing the right way.
"We've had some great battles with Chelsea over the years, this is the fourth year running we've played them in the cup, we've already managed to beat them three times this season so hopefully it will be exciting."

Should the semi final be level after 90 minutes, there will be extra-time and penalties if needed. As is now the norm, both managers can use five substitutes in three blocks with the option of a sixth - as we saw in United's win at Norwich in the last round - should there be that additional 30.

United or Chelsea will face Arsenal in the final on August 1st after the Gunners shot down Manchester City with a magnificent performance in the other last four tie on Saturday evening.

Man Utd predicted XI: Romero; Wan - Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Williams; Pogba, Matic; Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford; Martial

Man Utd v Chelsea: FA Cup semi final (Wembley) KO 6pm
Form guide: Man Utd W W W W D W Chelsea W L W W L W
Match odds: Man Utd 11/8 Draw 9/4 Chelsea 7/2 (bet365)
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)

Thursday 16 July 2020

Match report: Crystal Palace 0-2 Manchester United

Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial stepped up again to keep United's Champions League ambitions alive with a battling victory at Selhurst Park.
Leicester ha
d applied further pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds with their earlier victory over Sheffield United, but this time United did not blink and responded to remain level on points with the Foxes as a final day showdown looms.

United were made to work hard for the win despite facing a Palace side on a run of five successive defeats. Rashford broke the deadlock after a sluggish start, illuminating an otherwise drab contest for his 22nd of the season. Martial followed suit at the culmination of a glorious team move - inevitably involving Bruno Fernandes - to make the game safe in the 78th minute.

The result extended United's unbeaten run to a nineteenth game, a sequence approaching record territory, but Palace could feel aggrieved after having two decisions marginally go against them.
First, former United man Wilfried Zaha went down under a challenge from Victor Lindelof moments before the Reds took the lead, and Jordan Ayew then thought he had equalised - only for a hare's breadth offside decision to chalk it out.

Palace started the brighter with the enigmatic Zaha at the heart of things. The Palace talisman had the first opening when he turned ex team-mate Aaron Wan - Bissaka and let fly, only for David de Gea to repel the winger's effort. Harry Maguire went close with two headers before de Gea was called into action again, this time to deny Luka Milivojevic from distance at the other end.

Mason Greenwood uncharacteristically miscued but Palace threatened again, this time through leading scorer Ayew, as De Gea sprung to United's rescue again with a smart save with his legs.
Then came the first moment of controversy when Zaha tumbled after a coming together with Lindelof. Replays showed that Lindelof had attempted to play the ball but made contact with the Palace man - whilst it certainly wasn't clear and obvious you have seen them given.

Moments later, United were ahead when Fernandes, who else, picked the key to the lock and opened the door. A perfect pass into Rashford's feet sent the United striker away, shimmying past two defenders before he dummied the advancing Vicente Guaita and rolled the ball in.

Milivojevic went close again with a trademark free-kick, but Ayew looked to have levelled when he turned home at the back post from a Zaha cross.
Subject to the obligatory VAR check, the goal was disallowed with the Eagles feathers ruffled after replays showed Ayew had strayed fractionally offside. A tough call, but a correct decision given the laws of the game.

James McCarthy tried his luck from long range as United's lead increasingly looked a fragile one. Andros Townsend flashed across goal and with memories of United's late draw with Southampton still fresh in the mind, the Reds needed that all important second goal to settle the nerves.

Nemanja Matic had been given a rest but came on to get a hold of midfield, and the Reds immediately looked more assured and cohesive in possession.
Fernandes cracked a scorcher off the post, but the classic clincher duly arrived four minutes later when Rashford burst clear down the left and played a one-two with Fernandes. The Portuguese playmaker swept the ball on to the onrushing Rashford, he touched it back for Martial and the red-hot Frenchman curled home a beauty.

Zaha almost set up another nerve-shredding denouement with a 25-yarder only for De Gea to tip wide, and there were eleven added minutes after a nasty injury to Palace left-back Patrick van Aanholt.

There were no further scares as Untied comfortably saw out a game in which they had started slowly but gradually got better.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Manchester United's frantic finale for a top four finish

I had carried the feeling with me all day, a feeling that I couldn't shake nor rationally explain. The sense that something, somehow, was going to go wrong. Surely Ralph Hassenhuttl's Saints - a good side, but one with little to play for sat firmly in mid-table would not present too much a problem for a red hot and rampant Manchester United.

Yet there was the feeling that everything had been TOO easy, it had been all going too well and that Manchester United always do things the hard way. There had to be a bump in the road - the notion of four routine wins to cruise into the top four was too simplistic for a club defined by making life hard for themselves. United had the chance to go from the hunters to the hunted and put pressure on Chelsea and Leicester by going above them and into third. History tells us that when United are presented with such a chance, they fail to capitalise.

All this, and you can see why the nerves only intensified when Southampton started quickly and went ahead. Paul Pogba lost possession to Danny Ings, and Nathan Redmond's cross found Stuart Armstrong to slide beyond David de Gea. Sure, United had hit back emphatically from conceding the first goal against AFC Bournemouth, going to squash the Cherries and hit them for five. But this Saints side are made of much sterner stuff, they are not Bournemouth, and would not surrender so easily.
Even when United had done the normal and turned the deficit into a lead - Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial at the double again - Saints hung around like a bad smell. Buzzing around midfield like a swarm of bees, Southampton presented a challenge that United simply couldn't get their heads around - well-organised, energetic, combative and hard working. Nemanja Matic got bogged down and strangled by the press, and United's creative heartbeats - Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes - never got a second on the ball.

Those two were by no means the only players in Red to have an off night. For the second game running, Aaron Wan - Bissaka was below par, Mason Greenwood was well marshalled by an excellent left-back in Ryan Bertrand and Matic looked lethargic and leggy. Greenwood came in for some rough treatment, particularly from Oriol Romeu who was fortunate to escape even a booking for a late, high lunge on the United youngster.

 Only Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw did well. Victor Lindelof had a good game marred by his error for the equaliser and no one else covered themselves in glory.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's decision to name an unchanged side for the fifth game in a row made sense but, in hindsight, the team perhaps needed freshening up. Certainly there must be changes for the Palace game. Scott McTominay or Fred should come in for Matic, Diogo Dalot for AWB and Eric Bailly ahead of Lindelof. Fernandes has looked fatigued but is too important to leave out. United could have a problem at left-back at Selhurst Park with both Shaw and Brandon Williams doubtful.

This was a game the Reds should have won despite not playing anywhere near our best. A de Gea punch, a Harry Maguire header or a goal-line clearance downfield, and we'd be sitting here in third place. Instead we're fifth, level on points with free-falling Leicester and one point behind Chelsea, with Frank Lampard's side currently occupying that position.

Solskjaer had a dilemma - there were some tired legs and subs needed to be made, but United's squad depth just isn't good enough and it came back to haunt us, Jan Bednarek flicking on for substitute Michael Obafemi to bundle home at the back post. Fine margins. It was a sickening sucker punch, but one that United now need to make sure does not become a knockout blow.

It was a very annoying and criminally soft goal to concede, but despite the usual over-reaction nothing has actually changed. United's fate is still in our own hands and our mission is clear - we had to win every game before Monday night and that's still the case. Three wins from these last three games and United are certain to finish either third or fourth no matter what anyone else does. Two wins and a draw could be enough. We don't have any wriggle room now or the safety net of fifth to fall back on. Where before there had been little margin for error, now there is none. This is a fight that will be fought to the bitter end and one that will go down to the wire. A season that has been played out over almost a year is likely to be decided across 90 minutes on the final day.

Leicester still have to play Sheffield and Spurs before they host United - in a match that looks increasingly likely to be a Champions League play-off. Chelsea have Norwich, the champions and Wolves and we play Palace, Moyeseh's boys and that final day showdown with Leicester.
On paper, I know which side's run in I'd rather have, but we're at that stage of the season now where every game matters and everything is on the line. United have come too far to blow this now and its squeaky bum time with three cup finals left.

Match report: Man Utd 2-2 Southampton

Southampton inflicted the latest of late blows as Saints sub Michael Obafemi denied United the chance of going third with a last gasp equaliser at Old Trafford.
The Reds, despite being below par, had looked on course to leapfrog top four rivals Chelsea and Leicester after Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial had turned a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

But this Saints side are made of stern stuff and were never out of the game. In truth, they deserved a draw and could even have won it had David de Gea not made a brilliant late save from Nathan Redmond.
Despite the setback, United's Champions League hopes remain firmly in their own hands with the twin scenarios of either three wins or two wins and a draw from the remaining games enough to secure either that third or fourth spot. Nothing has really changed but this was a huge opportunity to apply pressure on the sides around us and take a huge step towards that European spot. With the news of Manchester City's ban being overturned earlier in the day, we now know that fifth place won't be good enough. United are firmly on a collision course with Leicester City with the two sides meeting on the final day in what could be a straight shootout for the final place.

Stuart Armstrong had headed Saints in front in the twelfth minute when Danny Ings dispossessed Paul Pogba and found Redmond. He in turn moved the ball on to Armstrong to turn the ball beyond De Gea at the far post. Kyle Walker - Peters and Ryan Bertrand were causing problems from full-back and got in behind United on more than one occasion but the Reds reacted well to the danger.
United responded quickly and equalised through Rashford, who swept home at the culmination of a quick counter attack from a Martial pass before Bruno Fernandes picked out the Frenchman to fire in a stunner - his 21st goal of an increasingly prolific season.

Rashford had a goal ruled out for offside and Alex McCarthy saved from Fernandes, but the clinical touch that has become United's trademark strangely deserted us.
Too many players had an off night, exemplified by Pogba's below par showing in which the midfielder - so impressive of late - looked ponderous, nervous and struggled in the face of Southampton's well organised and highly energetic style.
Then came a major talking point that has gone largely unnoticed. Mason Greenwood picked up the ball and turned only to be scythed down by a challenge from Oriol Romeu. Replays showed the Saints man had not gone for the ball, his studs were up and his boot made contact with the back of the United youngster's calf. Romeu was fortunate to escape censure with referee Chris Kavanagh not even deeming the challenge worthy of a yellow card - why didn't VAR look at it?

Rashford flashed a shot wide and had another effort cleared off the line by a lunging Bertrand, with Martial thwarted at the last by Jan Bednarek after a stunning solo run.

De Gea tipped over from Redmond and in-form Ings was narrowly off target, as Southampton - on the back foot for most the match - stubbornly remained in the tie. The match arguably turned on the injury to sub Brandon Williams, whom sustained a nasty head injury in a collision with Walker - Peters. Despite having only made four of the allotted five subs, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was unable to make that fifth change as new rules only permit a team to introduce replacements in batches of three - in this case on 64, 75 and 84 minutes.

That meant that Nemanja Matic dropped to centre back with midfielder Fred filling in at left-back as a makeshift side limped through the final few minutes.
But there would be more drama to come as a Saints corner wasn't dealt with by United, Bednarek flicked the ball on and Obafemi bundled it in at the back post.

A disappointing night but United's fate remains in our own hands with three league games to go and another tricky test at Crystal Palace on Thursday.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial - an assist, another goal and a brilliant all round display

Monday 13 July 2020

Match preview: Man Utd v Southampton

Manchester United face a Monday night fixture for the first time in nearly five months as in-form Southampton visit Old Trafford for the Reds penultimate home fixture.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to name an unchanged line up for the fifth game in succession - something that has not happened since 1993 and the inaugural Premier League season.

The Reds are unbeaten in seventeen games across all competitions and on Thursday became the first team ever to win four in a row by a margin of three goals or more - after racking up wins over Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa. United will move into third place with victory but face a difficult test against a Southampton side arriving in M16 in fine fettle.

Ralph Hassenhuttl's Saints have enjoyed a sharp upward trajectory since that dark October night that saw the south coast club on the receiving end of a record-equalling 9-0 defeat to Leicester. The team looked in relegation trouble for much of the early weeks of the season but a run of six wins in nine at the turn of the year helped pull Hassenhuttl's team clear of trouble.
The Southampton hierarchy stuck by the Austrian manager and have been rewarded with an impressive turnaround, with Saints beating Manchester City last time out and boasting a fine recent record at Old Trafford - avoiding defeat in four of their last visits (two wins and two draws). The Saints have done well since the Restart, claiming ten points from their first five games back, beating struggling duo Norwich and Watford before their backs-to-the wall victory over deposed champions Manchester City.

The battle for Champions League qualification is firmly in United's hands with four games left. Win these four 'cup finals' and the Reds will finish in that third spot - a superb return from Solskjaer's first full season in charge. Especially when you consider that Leicester sat 14 points ahead of United after 24 games and the Reds have spent much of the season on the fringes of the top four. Results went our way over the weekend, with Chelsea losing at Sheffield United and Leicester going down to a shock 4-1 thrashing at struggling Bournemouth to open the door for Solskjaer's in-form men.

Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are the only absentees for United, but Southampton are without injured trio Moussa Djenepo (calf), Sofiane Boufal (thigh) and Yan Valery. The visitors will hope to have Jannik Vestergaard (muscle) available for selection again.
Saints striker Danny Ings scored his 19th league goal of the campaign last time out and the English net-buster is on the verge of becoming only the third Southampton player to reach the 20-goal mark in a Premier League season, after legends Matt Le Tissier and James Beattie.

Ole said: "There's so many things you have to consider when you manage a team, we've got players here champing at the bit and those that are in the rhythm.
"I have a lot of decisions to make, but the players help by playing and performing well. If we don't get too many injuries, there's no reason to change much when you're going well.
"There is a lot of planning to do - when do we start the league? It depends on so many factors, how we do in Europe for example. So we can't really decide on the training programme. There are so many small decisions that can make a big difference, sometimes these are out of your hands so you always need a plan for different scenarios.
"Southampton is a very fine football club with a strong tradition. I've got huge respect for the job Ralph has done there, you know what he's doing and he deserves a lot of credit for turning it round there. The way they play is direct, it's high energy, and hard working so we know what we're up against and it will be a difficult one for us."

United's home tie with Southampton is our penultimate home game of the 2019-20 and kicks off at 8pm, live on Sky Sports
Form guide: United D W W W W W Southampton L W L W W D
Match odds: United 7/2 Draw 9/2 Southampton 8/1
Referee: Chris Kavanagh takes charge of his first ever game at Old Trafford

Thursday 9 July 2020

Match report: Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd

Paul Pogba scored his first goal of the season as Manchester United cruised to victory over struggling Aston Villa and moved to within a point of the Premier League's top four.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's in-form Reds surged to a fifth win in six games to keep up the pressure on Leicester and Chelsea with four games remaining, extending our stunning unbeaten run to a record-threatening 17 games.  United visit the King Power on the final day in what could be a straight shootout for the final place in Champions League.

The tie brought United face-to-face with potential new employee Jack Grealish, linked with a summer move to Old Trafford after a string of impressive performances in a poor season for the west Midlands side. The result left Grealish and co. in desperate trouble at the foot of the table, four points adrift of fourth-from-bottom Watford and in nineteenth place with matches against Crystal Palace, Everton, Arsenal and relegation rivals West Ham to come. Relegation and an immediate return to the second tier would certainly make United's potential pursuit of Grealish more palatable and less costly.

It was Villa's captain and talismanic figurehead whom had the first opening of the game, when he failed to hit the target with an angled effort from close range after being played in by John McGinn.
Anwar El Ghazi headed wide and Douglas Luiz also went close to an opener when he flashed a shot wide having burst clear.
Mahmoud Trezeguet cannoned a shot off the outside of the post but United repelled the quick-starting hosts and soon gained control when Bruno Fernandes spun Ezri Konsa but was brought down as he shaped to shoot. After a brief VAR check, referee Jonathan Moss upheld the decision and Fernandes was spot on again for his eighth goal since joining the club in January.

Pepe Reina saved well from Anthony Martial, and the former Liverpool keeper was called into action again with a full-length stop to deny Mason Greenwood.
Fernandes headed over the bar and Pogba then had an effort saved by the busy Reina but, where those two had failed, Greenwood showed his more senior colleagues how it's done.
The Reds devastating, clinical and free-flowing attack dovetailed again as Pogba found his compatriot Martial and he in turn picked out Greenwood. The most exciting young talent in world football latched on to the pass and thumped home a trademark finish in first half stoppage time to effectively end the game as a contest.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka missed a golden opening for his first United goal when he nodded wide from point blank range after Marcus Rashford had picked him out. Rashford himself then had another strike chalked out for offside, but the third goal was not long in coming as United's superiority was rubber stamped.  Pogba stroked home a curler- our 100th of the season - two minutes shy of the hour mark for his first goal since returning from a long injury lay off.
Martial rattled the bar, substitute Fred should have done better and our no.10 again went close.

In a unique slice of history, the team managed something not even Sir Alex Ferguson's vintage ever achieved, becoming the first team in history to win four consecutive games by a three-goal margin or more.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood.

Match preview: Aston Villa vs Man Utd - A key game at both ends of the table

Jack Grealish will come face-to-face with his potential new employers with time and games running out for the Villa captain to spark a late run to Premier League survival.

Villa Park is traditionally a happy hunting ground for Manchester United. Aside from numerous FA Cup semi final wins, we haven't lost at the west Midlands venue since 1995, when John Major was Prime Minister - a run of 20 consecutive games without defeat there. Unsurprisingly given that stat, it is the Premier League away ground where United have most victories to their name.

Dean Smith's side are firmly entrenched in the relegation mire, four points adrift of safety and third from bottom, but with a game in hand on the sides above them. Precariously placed with the fight for survival set to go to the wire, Villa's final day clash with David Moyes West Ham could go a long way to deciding whether they remain at England's top table or immediately return to the second tier after only one season.

At the other end of the table, United's top four destiny sits in our hands, one point off faltering Leicester, in the knowledge that five wins from the remaining games would be enough to guarantee  that coveted fourth spot, perhaps even third should Chelsea slip in tough looking games against Liverpool and Wolves. Chelsea moved into third with victory over capital rivals Crystal Palace on Tuesday, with Brendan Rodgers side claiming a late point at Arsenal the same evening. United's hopes were lifted by that result and given a further boon through Sheffield United's victory over Wolves 24 hours later.

With Manchester City's fate and potential ban to be announced next week, fifth place also might be enough to qualify for the Champions League - United currently occupy that position but can't rely on the schadenfreude of others to get back amongst Europe's elite. The Reds are the country's form side, unbeaten in sixteen games, red hot, rampant and scoring goals for fun. They will be wary of Villa's threat, though, with the strugglers have picked up an unlikely point at Old Trafford in December, with a moment of magic from Grealish in a 2-2 draw.

There is no doubt that Grealish - linked heavily with a summer move to United - is the talismanic figurehead of the west Midlands side. In a season of struggle, the captain has stood out as a rose amongst thorns. In a campaign where no Villa player has reached double figures for goals, Grealish has shone in that area, too, currently heading their scoring charts with nine.
That in itself tells you everything you need to know about his side's plight, though, as does the fact they've conceded 62 goals - only bottom club Norwich have surpassed that tally.

In short, not scoring enoug
h and conceding a hatful, a recipe for disaster for any team and music to the ears of United's 55-goal front three, fresh from a five star showing against another relegation threatened side, AFC Bournemouth, last time out.

Former Villa man Axel Tuanzebe is sidelined along with defensive cohort Phil Jones. Victor Lindelof is also a doubt through a back problem, but United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the option of naming an unchanged side for the fourth game running should Lindelof be fit. Eric Bailly would deputise in the Swede's possible absence, but there are no new injury concerns. Luke Shaw has started every match of the Reds unbeaten run, and Nemanja Matic could be in line for a rest despite his impressive form of late.
Talisman Grealish and centre-back Tyrone Mings both picked up knocks in the defeat at Anfield, but both are expected to feature for Smith's side. Tom Heaton, Matt Targett and Wesley are all sidelined, with defensive duo Frederic Guilbert (ankle) and Bjorn Engels (knee) not having played since the restart. Ex-Liverpool stopper Pepe Reina will continue to deputise for the injured Heaton, with Keinan Davis likely tasked with leading the line on his own for Villa.

Solskjaer said: "Villa have shown since lockdown that they're no pushovers, they can hold their own. The games they've had have been tight, there are some good players in their team, so we know we have to be ready for that. They have worked on their shape, and their counter-attacks are powerful, they spring quickly and set plays, good deliveries and first contact players, so we're expecting a very tough test going there.
On the top four, the boss added: "It's a cliche, but we can only focus on one game at a time. We just focus on this one, then the next one and the one after that. If we win all of them, which will be tough, then we are in the top four. We cannot rely on help from anyone else, we just have to do it for ourselves. That's to grow as a team and know that going into next season we can put a different challenge to other teams in front of us."

United's trip to Villa is the final tie of Matchweek 34, and kicks off at 8.15pm live on Sky Sports.

Form guide: Aston Villa L D L D L L Man Utd W D W W W W
Match odds: Aston Villa 9/1 Draw 9/2 Man Utd 2/5 (Paddy Power)
Referee: Jonathan Moss (West Yorkshire)