Wednesday 26 August 2020

Lionel Messi to Man Utd... surely not...

Even by Manchester United's standards, Tuesday was a crazy day. First came the news of our captain's court case and conviction, a 21 month suspended prison sentence for assault, bribery and resisting arrest, before an even bigger bombshell later on that night.
Barcelona's announcement that Lionel Messi wants to leave the club predictably sent the world of football into a frenzy and, within hours, United were inevitably mentioned as among those clubs chasing the six time Ballon D'or winner's signature.

This sort of thing has happened before. It's not the first time Messi has spoken about leaving, or indeed, not the first time he's even attempted to do so. Barcelona always manage to placate him in the end and I expect this time to be no different. There are no guarantees in football, of course, or indeed in life, but I would be very surprised if we don't see Messi at the Camp Nou again in 2020-21.
To say he's important to that club would be the mother of all understatements, he's known to have a major influence in their decision making and Barcelona is all the little Argentine has ever known. Winner of ten league titles and four Champions Leagues, Messi is Barca's all time leading goalscorer with 634 but has become disillusioned with life in Catalonia after the club's trophyless season culminated in an 8-2 defeat at the hands of eventual winners Bayern Munich.

So it still seems very unlikely he will actually go, but let's imagine the seemingly impossible happens and he actually does leave. Any club in world football would surely want to sign arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen, but his situation is complicated and there's only a very small number of clubs that could actually realistically do so. Messi has a 700m (yes, SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION) release clause and earns over a million a week in wages, absolutely astronomical by any stretch of the imagination. He claims he can leave on a free due to a clause in his contract, but Barcelona claim it's no longer valid and a legal battle could ensue. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, with these sort of numbers floating around surely only Paris-Saint Germain and our neighbours from across the road, Pep Guardiola's mob at Manchester City, could realistically afford him. 

Yet Messi is the dream signing for a board driven by commercial dealings. Imagine the shirt sales and marketing revenue United would generate if we signed him. The biggest club in the world buying the greatest of all time and one of the most marketable, recognisable faces on the planet. The Glazers dream. Some may scoff at the very notion of Messi at United given our tendency to blunder our way through transfer markets, but consider this: in March, American football team Tampa Bay Buccaneers made major headlines by procuring Tom Brady, NFL's equivalent of Messi. The Glazers own Tampa and when they go big, they go big. Very big indeed. 

He's 33 and past his prime, but Messi still has a couple of years left in him and why wouldn't you want him at United. The younger players would learn so much from having a player like him in their midst, it would certainly solve our right wing issues and it would be the most sensational coup in the club's history. This is Lionel Messi we're talking about. We'd also become the only team in history to have our generation's two best players turning out for us, albeit at different stages of their career. Even better, could we entice a certain Mr Cristiano Ronaldo back from Italy to rejoin United and link up with Messi... oh, stop it. OK, I'm fantasising now but we're allowed to dream, right.. 

Of course, there's no way absolutely any of this will ever happen..

Harry Maguire should remain as United's captain

Harry Maguire 'brawl' sparked after sister injected with suspected ...
Manchester United have been rocked by the news that captain Harry Maguire has got himself into a spot of bother whilst on holiday.

What should have been a well deserved summer break on the Greek island of Mykonos instead descended into chaos when Maguire, his brother and another man were arrested after a scuffle on a night out. I don't know exactly what went on, nor do I profess to be a legal expert with insider knowledge on the Greek justice system. There seem to be three different versions of events ranging from Maguire leaping to his sister's defence to the three men becoming violent and assaulting the police. It's difficult to know which one to believe.

Either way, Maguire has been found guilty and been sentenced to 21 months and ten days in prison, although this will be a suspended sentence as he's a first offender and these are considered minor offences under Greek law. Maguire is free to resume his career and has indicated he will appeal the verdict, which was reached after only a day. His life and world have been turned upside down by events of the last few days which has left this calm, composed and outgoing character with a criminal record. Then again, even the most laid back of people can be transformed after they've knocked back a few drinks and been wound up. Add all that to the fact that there seemed little legal process, Maguire's defence team had a matter of hours to prepare, and the lack of time to examine evidence, hear witnesses and listen to both sides, and you get the impression this was rushed through by a kangaroo court.

Maguire is not the first United player to transgress, nor will he be the last. George Best frequently fell foul of the law and served a three month sentence for an offence similar to Maguire's. Eric Cantona infamously assaulted a Crystal Palace fan and Wayne Rooney found himself in hot water on more than one occasion over drink driving and public intoxication. Another of our former captains, Roy Keane, was cleared of assault before being banned for five games and fined a record £150,000 for the Alf-Inge Haaland incident. Then of course there's Rio Ferdinand's eight-month ban for missing a drugs test. All very different misdemeanours, but all saw the players end up in front of a court.

All five are still revered as legends at Old Trafford. They are human, it happens, and no one is perfect. When one of our players gets into trouble, we stick by them and back them to the hilt. Should Maguire be banned for playing football ever again? There's absolutely no evidence to suggest this should be the case and there are several cases of other footballers and sportsmen committing worse crimes with nothing doing.
Chelsea's Marcos Alonso and Plymouth goalkeeper Luke McCormick were both involved in fatal drink drive incidents and the latter served a five year jail term, but both continue to ply their trade at professional level.

Withdrawing Maguire from England duty was the right call by manager Gareth Southgate but, more pertinently, should Maguire still captain Manchester United? This is where things get complicated. The easy decision would be to strip him of the armband, but you have to consider what that would do to his confidence and career. It could affect him so adversely as to be counter-productive. To strip him of the fabled armband could ruin his form, cause a permanent decline and impact dressing room morale. The captaincy of United is not simply symbolic, but a lifetime's ambition, the greatest of honours and highest of privileges. No one has ever been so dramatically stripped of it before. It takes some coming back from and presents Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with arguably the biggest call of his Old Trafford tenure so far.

If Solskjaer makes that decision and takes it off Maguire, then who's next. There's not exactly a long line of captains in waiting. Paul Pogba? A man who has publicly flirted with other clubs, carries a big ego and hasn't acted like a future skipper. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood may get their day, but both are still too young. Their time will come. Bruno Fernandes has only been here since January and, although he has shown signs of leadership, Fernandes should concentrate on what he does best - magnifico, conductor, string pulling creator in chief. Again, the armband may find its way to him further down the line.

For me, it will do more harm than good by taking the armband off Maguire so early into his captaincy. It would create an unnecessary problem and, as already mentioned, could affect team spirit. Maguire is set to appeal and could still yet see his conviction quashed so there doesn't seem any big rush to make a decision on this one now.

United should continue to back their man.

Friday 21 August 2020

United look for high flying start against our feathered foes

No soon has the dust settled on Manchester United's 2019-20 season, that preparations for the next one get underway.
By now, of course, the new campaign would normally already have begun, but normal times these are not. Fixture release day is always a seminal moment of the summer, but such has been the almost immediate turnaround from last term to this, this does not carry the air of a new season at all. It feels like a continuation of the last one. The Premier League fixture list was published yesterday with fans, as ever, keen to see when their team will be playing who and when. Due to the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, all games will continue to be played behind closed doors until October 1st at the earliest.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have returned to Carrington after the disappointment of our near miss in the Europa League. The squad will be given an extra week off, accounting for the Sevilla KO in the semi finals. It comes after an agreement between all 20 Premier League clubs, the FA and UEFA that any team involved in the latter stages of a European tournament be given at least a 30-day break before starting again. Therefore, United's Premier League campaign will kick off on the 19th September, not the opening day a week earlier on the 12th. This applies to cross town rivals Manchester City as well.

With the season starting a month later due to the pandemic, the games will come thick and fast. The upcoming season will be five weeks shorter than usual because of the late, lockdown-enforced final to the 2019-20 campaign, and the winter break has been scrapped. So too has the five substitutes rules, with clubs to revert back to the standard three.
The Community Shield between Liverpool and Arsenal is to be played next weekend, 29 August, and there will be a brief international break before the season starts anew. The final league fixtures will be completed on 23 May - eight days after the FA Cup final.

The Reds were scheduled to travel the short distance to Lancashire rivals Burnley on that weekend, but the clash will now be postponed, with the new date yet to be confirmed. Instead, United will face Crystal Palace at Old Trafford in their first game. The two sides met early doors last term, too, when Roy Hodgson's men visited M16 in our second home game, emerging victorious on that occasion by a 1-2 scoreline. The Eagles finished 14th last term after an awful post-lockdown run, in which United won 2-0 in south London as Palace suffered seven consecutive defeats.

Then comes our first and longest away trip of the season as, fresh from facing the Eagles of Crystal Palace, we make the 261-mile journey to the south coast. The Reds recorded their first ever victory at The Amex Stadium last term, and will look to get off to a flying start against the Seagulls of Brighton, set for their third season of Premier League football. The Eagles and then the Seagulls - certainly a feather-themed examination and avarian foes mark the opening skirmishes to United's 2020-21.

There is a London-heavy presence to the Reds opening exchanges, with Jose Mourinho's Spurs, and top four duo Chelsea and Arsenal all to visit Old Trafford in October after a tricky trip to St James Park on the 17th of the month. This ensures that United will face three of the league's bird-monikered sides in our opening four games. A flying start and some clipped wings in the top flight is certainly needed.

December looks to be a make or break month for the Reds, with the ever-hectic festive programme seeing United cram six games into 23 days. The first Manchester derby will be played at Old Trafford on the 12th, with our first league clash against Leeds for 16 years coming hot on the heels of that contest after a trip to Bramall Lane. We travel to Leicester - scene of last season's final day Champions League shootout - on Boxing Day and then host Wolves 48 hours later.

We travel to Anfield and the Emirates in the opening month of 2021, with United gunning for a third successive victory at Stamford Bridge when Solskjaer locks horns with Frank Lampard again on the final weekend of February. That match could be postponed should either the Reds of Manchester or the Blues of west London (or both) reach the Carabao Cup final. A week later it's seconds out round ten, when the second derby day of the season will be played at the Etihad.

United will have the opportunity to relegate Leeds as we visit E****d Road in our penultimate away game and then the prospect of end
ing the Scousers title hopes as they come to Old Trafford on the 5th May. As always, these mouth watering clashes with our biggest rivals will be moved for TV coverage and to minimise the risk of crowd trouble (assuming fans are allowed back to matches by then).

Leicester and Fulham finish United's home season before a difficult away day to Molineux concludes the delayed season.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Manchester United: Reflections on a season like no other

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer calls for Man Utd signings after more semi ...
Manchester United's marathon, 61-match and 371-day season came to a shuddering halt with a cruel Europa League KO at the hands of Sevilla in the semi finals. As the dust settles on 2019-20, we take a look at the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disappointments. 

In a campaign like no other, a season of the like we've never seen before nor will ever see again, it capped a typically turbulent but ultimately successful season for United. Whilst the pain of that defeat will linger for a while, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer achieved his primary objective in his first full season at the helm - to make Manchester United a Champions League club again. Anything else would have been a bonus. 
United did not just make the top four, they came in the top three, after a stunning run of form, inspired by new signing Bruno Fernandes. 14 points behind third-placed Leicester after 24 games, United overhauled the Foxes at the last thanks to a nerve-shredding final day victory at the King Power. The unfancied Reds were a country mile behind the top two, but, having come into the season with no expectations, third was probably the best we could have realistically hoped for. The Reds had faded badly in the closing weeks of the previous season to find themselves adrift of the top four and set for another season in the Europa League, the impact of Solskjaer's honeymoon period of his caretaker stewardship having well and truly fallen by the wayside.
Despite the fact we had no expectations, belief was only heightened when United kicked off their season - on the 11 August 2019 - in spectacular fashion. Bolstered by new signings Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Harry Maguire, with fellow new addition Dan James waiting on the bench, the Reds tore into Chelsea as Solskjaer outmanoeuvred fellow rookie Frank Lampard on his way to a 4-0 win, albeit one that slightly flattered United. There wasn't a dry eye in the house when James came on to rubber-stamp the rout a matter of days after the death of his father.
It was a result that was to prove something of an anomaly as the Reds had seemingly used up their goal quota in those 90 minutes. Not until December would the team find the net more than once in a league game - by then we had dropped as low as 14th in the table until victories at home to Brighton and at struggling Norwich (sandwiched by a defeat to Bournemouth) lifted us to the dizzying heights of seventh.

Meanwhile, the Reds had started their Europa League campaign in style, winning three of their first four games to move top of a group containing AZ, Partizan and the unknown quantity of Astana. The name Mason Greenwood had been one on the lips of every Red for some time, thanks to his red-hot form in the United reserve team. But this was to be the season when this generational talent would make himself a household name, scoring his first senior goal against the Kazakhs (becoming our youngest goalscorer in European football), and grabbing another against Partizan. He would find the net again in our last game in the group, a 4-0 win over the Dutch side, sending United through as group winners. Greenwood scored his first league goal in a see-sawing thriller at Bramall Lane, with his movement, technique and dead-eye ability in front of goal inevitably drawing comparisons with Robin van Persie.
The first seminal moments of the season came inside four days in December, when an inconsistent United side found themselves faced with their former manager - newly appointed Spurs boss Jose Mourinho - and a visit to the champions City. Solskjaer, a man under increasing pressure, needed to avoid defeat in both, ideally win both, to stave off the prospect of losing a job that had been his zenith. Win them both we did - 2-1, in our finest pair of performances so far. Spurs were vanquished through the left peg of Marcus Rashford before City subsided in the wake of a United showing for the ages. A counter-attacking masterclass left our derby rivals black and blue, on a day when this emerging young United side came alive. It was arguably the best display and result of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson days.
The win at the Etihad moved United up to their highest position of the season, fifth in the table, with the games coming thick and fast as the festive period approached. 
Wins over Newcastle and Burnley kept United in touch upon the turn of the year, but the Reds started the 2020s with a soporific defeat at Arsenal before further losses against Burnley and runaway leaders Liverpool cranked up the pressure on Solskjaer once again. You would have been hard pressed to believe those twin defeats would be our last of the season in the league. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. 
On 30 January, United completed the signing of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon in a 47m switch. It would be a transfer that would change the entire complexion of the campaign and have a catalystic effect not seen at Old Trafford since the arrival of Eric Cantona.
With the new man in tow, United cruised through the early rounds of the FA Cup and began to build an ominous momentum in the league, completing the double over Chelsea and putting Watford to the sword. Then came the high point of the season, as the Reds completed another double - this time over Pep Guardiola's soon-to-be-deposed champions, with Scott McTominay's injury time clincher conjuring up the best scenes Old Trafford had witnessed for years.
But the country then turned attention to matters far, far more important than football as a new virus from China called Covid-19 took its deadly hold. The outbreak would soon be labelled as a pandemic, and life as we knew it stripped away piece by piece. The Premier League was suspended in March as we all focused on staying safe, staying inside and simply getting through each day. With the killer virus costing the lives of thousands on a daily basis, football couldn't have been further from our minds.
Talk of the season being declared null and void proved just that and, in early May, the season was given a restart date of 17 June - traditionally a time when clubs and players are on their summer holidays. The remaining 92 games would be crammed into five weeks over 39 days. Five subs, no fans, sterilised match balls, individual travel and a strange new world of social distancing - this was football like never before. No pub, no away days, no meeting up with friends, none of the traditional rituals that makes the game so special for match going fans, instead having to resort to watching from afar.
United would only drop six more points - to Spurs in their first game back, then Southampton and West Ham in the last two home games of the season. Cutting a swathe through the league, United turned on the style to storm through their rivals and surge to a top three finish, inspired by the magnificent Bruno Fernandes, and the explosive dynamism of a Marcus Rashford/Anthony Martial/Mason Greenwood triumvirate which outscored even champions Liverpool's much vaunted front three.

Rashford, Martial Match Ronaldo & Tevez's Record as Bruno Equals ...
Mission Accomplished.

Manchester City had won the first silverware of the new season with victory over Villa at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final, having squeezed past a pre-Fernandes United side over two legs in the semis (3-2 on aggregate). No disgrace there. It meant that Solskjaer became only the second manager to defeat Guardiola three times in the same campaign, a feat he also achieved against his old foe Lampard, knocking out the Blues in the fourth round en route to the last four. Speaking of which, the pair would meet again in the delayed FA Cup campaign, this time at Wembley with a chance for both managers to reach their first finals. Lampard would prevail on this occasion, knocking Solskjaer's United out with a large helping hand, literally, from the error strewn David de Gea. The Reds quest for a 13th cup would be put on hold for another year. So too would Chelsea's opportunity for silverware with the Gunners of Arsenal running out 2-1 victors in the showpiece.
And so to the Europa League. Having come through against Club Brugge and the Austrians of LASK (6-1 and 7-1 on aggregate, respectively), United's remaining ties would be played over one leg at a neutral venue in Germany after UEFA announced plans to finish the watered-down version of an otherwise lengthy competition. You don't need me to tell you how it would end for us. A year and five days after starting their season, United would finally end it by agonisingly falling short - again - at the semi final hurdle, becoming the first English side to lose three semi finals in three separate cup competitions in the same season.
There were some fine individual performances - Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford had their best scoring seasons, Aaron Wan - Bissaka had a fine debut campaign whilst Luke Shaw and Nemanja Matic both had a renaissance. Greenwood and Brandon Williams were the breakthrough Academy stars and the impact of Fernandes was far more significant than anyone could have predicted. United's defence improved considerably, so did their record in front of goal in a season of undeniable progress, both individually and as a collective. Martial ended as top scorer, the 23-goal striker finishing one ahead of an impressive Rashford, whom enjoyed the best season of his young career. He, Martial and Greenwood hit 62 between them, with Fernandes claiming a remarkable 23 goal involvements in 22 games. This was a season that will stand Manchester United in good stead.
2020-21 will be here before we know with only a few short weeks to recover and draw breath before the new season kicks into life again. United will be given a delayed start due to their European exploits, but we can't wait to find out what this one will bring. Up the Reds!

Monday 17 August 2020

Match report: Sevilla 2-1 Man Utd

Manchester United players

Manchester United suffered a cruel self-inflicted fate as Sevilla sub Luuk de Jong hit a late winner to send the Spaniards of Sevilla to the Europa League final.
The one time Newcastle man stepped off the bench to fire the tournament specialists into Friday's final and condemn United to a third last four defeat of the season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have now fallen short in the semi finals of all three cups to go with the third placed finish in the league. A season of progress, but one in which we'll end empty handed.
It proved a bitter pill to swallow for the Reds, with Solskjaer's men made to pay for their profligacy having taken the lead through Bruno Fernandes early on.
The five time winners equalised when former Liverpool flop Suso swept home beyond David de Gea before half-time.
United's fate was sealed when they missed a glut of chances in a second half siege, with Sevilla indebted to the heroics of their goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. There was a sense of inevitability that a side as good as Julen Lopetegui's serial winners would punish such wastefulness, and so it proved as de Jong swept home from a Jesus Navas cross 12 minutes from time, with Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Victor Lindelof left bemused and ball watching.
United could not respond at the end of a long season and saw the chance for a first trophy under Solskjaer slip from their grasp.
The Reds had looked on course to return to Cologne on Friday for the final having taken the lead inside ten minutes. Anthony Martial's superb reverse pass found Marcus Rashford, and he was scythed down by Diego Carlos after the ball had gone. Fernandes slammed home United's 22nd penalty of the season in trademark fashion.
Rashford flashed a shot wide and stung the palms of Bounou from a set-piece, whilst Fred also went close from distance in a very bright start from a lively United side.
Sevilla are made of stern stuff, though, as their five triumphs in this competition prove. After de Gea had saved well from top scorer Lucas Ocampos, the Spaniards levelled shortly before the half hour mark. It came from a throw in that should have gone in United's favour, Sevilla surged upfield as the tricky Sergio Reguilon found Suso to steal in and score.
Martial fired over the bar and Bounou saved from Rashford and Fernandes before the half was out, with Sevilla guilty of several cynical fouls and pointless protests, the Spanish side showing their experience and know how.
United started the second half in dominant form, and it seemed only a matter of time before we retook the lead. Bounou denied Greenwood after a sizzling ball from Fernandes, and frustrations grew as another point blank save from the Sevilla stopper denied Martial and then Fernandes. Sevilla repeatedly threw their bodies on the line, with De Gea rendered a virtual spectator at the other end. Paul Pogba flashed a shot wide and Bounou came to his side's rescue again, this time to deny Greenwoon, whom also chanced his arm from distance without success.
But Sevilla stood firm and took the lead - decisively as it turned out - with 13 minutes to go. Navas burst clear down the right, Brandon Williams failed to stop the cross and de Jong nipped between Maguire and Lindelof to pounce and half volley beyond De Gea.

With time running out and the team tiring, Juan Mata, Dan James and Tim Fosu - Mensah were all thrown on to rescue the tie, but United were unable to find one last big moment. On the balance of play, it was very harsh on Solskjaer and his side, but we can a least take solace from finishing in the league's top three.
Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes

Wednesday 12 August 2020

United set for Spanish inquisition in Europa League semis

We now know Manchester United will face Sevilla of La Liga in the last four of the Europa League on Sunday.

The side from Andalusia set up a tie with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds after a narrow but dominant, more comfortable than it sounds over the dark horses of our divisional rivals Wolves.
Raul Jimenez had a penalty saved for Nuno Espirito Santo's side but the Spanish side took control with 75% of the ball and 17 shots on target. Their winning goal did not arrive until the closing moments, though, when Lucas Ocampos headed in on 88 minutes. It sent the Champions League-bound Rojiblancos into the semi final against United, which will take place on Sunday in Cologne. 

Sevilla are record winners of this competition, lifting the Europa League on five occasions, more than any other team. They are to this competition what Real Madrid are to the Champions League. Sevilla have now won 24 of their last 25 Europa League knockout ties, each against different opponents - the Czechs of Slavia Prague the only side to stop them, way back in 2013. Sevilla sacked their coach Pablo Machin in the immediate aftermath of that one defeat. 

With all due respect to Wolves, I wanted us to get Sevilla as it will feel like a proper European tie, they are better than Wolves and our games against the men from Molineux are always drab, sterile, boring affairs. Then there's the small matter of revenge. 

We hardly need reminding of what happened the last time we played these opponents - for many, it was the straw that finally broke the camel's back under Jose Mourinho. United's dismal Champions League KO at the hands of the rank outsiders proved the beginning of the end for Mourinho - he lost control that night and would never get it back. It was then that the cracks began to show, his relationship with the fans and his players started to go downhill, and he forever became synonymous with the man responsible for the worst night in United's proud and illustrious European history.

Manchester United win Europa League, beating Ajax 2-0 | Sports ...

It was night of desperate disappointment less than a year after the club had won a first Europa League title. But United have come a long way since then - we're purring now, and avenging that dismal night of 2018 would be a pleasing subplot and a chance to draw a line in the sand to show how far we've progressed since that nadir. 

The combatants may be the same, but the cast list is very different. Sevilla have only three players from that night - Sergio Escudero, Ever Banega and Franco Vazquez - still on their books and are now managed by former Real Madrid and Spain boss Julen Lopetegui. Vincenzo Montella is now out of work and Wissam Ben Yedder, chief orchestrator of United's downfall, plies his trade for Monaco.

But Sevilla are a very different, and better, proposition, now. The club will be back in the Champions League next season and boast the second best back line in La Liga. Defensively solid and a dangerous side going forward - mainly through top scorer Ocampos - they will pose a difficult examination for Solskjaer's men. Former Man City pair Jesus Navas and Fernando Reges are two names familiar to English fans, whilst Ibrahim Amadou spent the 2019-20 season on loan at relegated Norwich. Ex-Liverpool flop Suso and former Newcastle loanee Luuk de Jong also currently play for the La Liga club. 

But let's not forget that United have a decent record against stronger opponents. There was only one defeat in ten against the top six last term, and even that came against the dominant champions of Liverpool. So it might suit us and will carry the feel of a genuine heavyweight contest, an exciting semi final that will bring out the best in our players. Apart from Inter, Sevilla are the best remaining team in the tournament so knocking them out would be a huge feather in United's cap.

Speaking of Inter, Antonio Conte's side will face Shakhtar Donetsk in the other semi final in Dusseldorf, a night after United take on Sevilla. Both ties will again be played over a single, one off fixture. 

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Match report: Man Utd 1-0 FC Copenhagen

Bruno Fernandes extra time penalty took United past FC Copenhagen and kept us on course for a second Europa League triumph in three years. 

Fernandes 95th minute spot-kick, awarded after Anthony Martial was scythed down, sent United into a third cup semi final of the season with the team looking to reach a first showpiece under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen: Fernandes penalty finally ...

The Reds had dominated for long periods on a sweltering night in Cologne, but were repeatedly denied by a combination of the woodwork and the heroics of the Danish side's keeper Karl - Johan Johansson. 

The Copenhagen custodian enjoyed the game of his career, stopping the Reds almost single handedly and proving equal to everything thrown at him. In total, Johansson made 13 saves on the night, the joint most by a goalkeeper in a single Europa League match since the competition's rebranding in 2009-10. 

It was the rank Danish outsiders whom began strongly with three chances in the opening 17 minutes.

Eric Bailly blocked from the impressive Mohammed Damary when well-placed, before Brandon Williams vital goal saving header from a Rasmus Falk corner denied the capital club a shock lead. The lively Daramy got in again after Fred had lost possession 30 yards out, but Maguire blocked the initial effort before Paul Pogba was on hand to thwart Jonas Wind.

That early storm blew itself out, though, and United gained a foothold after the first drinks break. Fernandes headed against the bar, and Fred narrowly failed to find Marcus Rashford where a little more accuracy would have put the England man clean through.
Daramy was causing most of the problems and came close again on 37 minutes when a cross picked him out from close range, only for the excellent Bailly to get in ahead of the 18 year old and clear the danger.

Former Red Guillermo Varela was fortunate to escape censure having bundled Martial over, and the Frenchman then couldn't get his shot away after a good ball from Aaron Wan - Bissaka.

Rashford stung the palms of Johansson before United thought they had gone ahead on the stroke of half time, only to see Mason Greenwood's wonderful off-the-post finish correctly chalked out for offside. 

The Reds were now applying constant pressure to the Copenhagen goal and had another effort disallowed shortly after the restart. Greenwood thumped the post for a second time and Rashford snaffled up the rebound, only for the linesman's flag to come to the Danish side's rescue again.

Fernandes was denied by the post and Rashford was twice kept out by Johansson, whilst Wind had Copenhagen's best opening, only for him to fire wastefully wide when well-placed.

Former Everton man Bryan Oviedo had a glorious chance to score, denied by by a superb Wan - Bissaka tackle, whilst Johansson continued to defy the Reds with a performance that was quickly becoming a clinic.

He tipped wide from Fernandes 25-yarder and then came to his side's aid again with a spectacular stop to claw away a dipping effort from a similar distance, this time to thwart Martial.

Martial had come alive and almost won it at the death when he weaved through the Copenhagen defence and burst clear, only for Victor Nelsson to save the day with a superb inch-perfect challenge at the vital moment. 

It seemed incredible how the tie had remained goalless, with extra-time now needed to separate the two tiring teams. Juan Mata replaced Greenwood for the start of the additional 30 and it proved a masterstroke, with the Spaniard's cameo a throwback to his peak of 2011. His link with Martial would make the decisive difference, as he first played United's no.9 through on goal only for - you guessed it - Johansson to save again. 

The Frenchman continued his personal duel with the Copenhagen keeper, this time kept out by the legs of Johansson, but the heroic stopper would finally be beaten on 95 minutes. 

Mata spun in the box and picked out Martial who was clumsily fouled by former Brentford player Andreas Bjelland. Fernandes made no mistake as he converted the spot-kick in familiar fashion to give the Reds a lead that had been so long in coming.

Martial returned the favour to Mata with a sublime back-heel but his resultant shot was blocked and the 32-year-old then flashed another effort over the top as United looked to put the tie beyond reach.

The fact they did not do so was down to that man Johansson, in inspired form again to save from Fernandes and then somehow keep out Mata's follow up with a remarkable reflex stop. Victor Lindelof struck the post on the rebound and Martial was crowded out having danced through the Danes in the closing minutes. 

There were to be no nervy moments as the Reds held firm and seal a place in the last four, where we will face either divisional rivals Wolves or old nemesis Sevilla on Sunday. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial

Friday 7 August 2020

Opposition in profile: FC Copenhagen

Jonas Wind celebrates

Manchester United will face the Danes of FC Copenhagen in the quarter final of the Europa League in Cologne on Monday with a place in the last four at stake.

The two sides lock horns for the first time in 14 years but what do we know about the Danes? How have they fared? Who's their manager? Which key players do we need to watch out for? Let's take a look at the men from the City of the Spires.

Having won a thirteenth Danish Superliga title in 2018-19, Copenhagen qualified for the Champions League but were knocked out at the penultimate play-off hurdle by Latvian Baltic rivals Riga, 3-2 on aggregate. That put them into the second tier Europa League, where they successfully negotiated a group including Dynamo Kyiv, The Bridge derby rivals Malmo and Swiss side Lugano.
Second to champions-elect Midtjylland domestically, FCK looked impressive against Neil Lennon's Celtic in the round of 32, before powering past Istanbul to set up a first ever continental quarter final.

The two sides met back in 2006-07 when Copenhagen - group stage debutants - went down 3-0 to United at Old Trafford when Paul Scholes, John O'Shea and Kieran Richardson scored. Marcus Allback, once of Aston Villa, returned the favour in the Danish capital with a 1-0 win, in which a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started up top for the Reds.
Speaking of Ole, the United boss will go head-to-head with his experienced compatriot Stale Solbakken, back in charge at FCK for a second stint. 
Solbakken led Copenhagen to that famous win over us and he will be looking to plot the downfall of his more exalted countryman for a second time. He is not a complete unknown to English fans with the Norwegian having suffered an ill-fated spell in charge of Wolves during the 2011-12 season before returning to the Parken Stadium two years after his departure. 

Former Hull and Sunderland forward Dame N'Doye now plies his trade with the Danes, with the Senegalese international by far their most dangerous player. Having returned to the club for a second time in 2018, N'Doye continues to impress despite his advancing years. Now 35 years of age, N'Doye's 120 goals in 200 games have come at a ratio of one every other game. Joint top scorer in the league, N'Doye will be the main threat to United's defence on Monday. There are other players to watch out for such as their leading scorer, the Cypriot international Pieros Sotiriou and ex Middlesbrough man Viktor Fischer.
Winger Rasmus Falk has consistently been at the heart of things for FCK this term, with the right-footed winger a real threat cutting in from the left and is more than capable of both scoring and creating goals. 

Copenhagen play at the Parken Stadium, a ground with a capacity of 38,065 for football but more than 50,000 for the various concerts that have been held there - including Take That, Beyonce, AC/DC and the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest. The stadium is also the home of the Denmark national team, but of course United won't be visiting it this time with Monday's quarter final to be played in neutral Germany. The Parken Stadium will also be a host venue for the delayed Euro 2020 tournament. 

Telia Parken | Sports arenas | VisitCopenhagen

United are currently the favourite for a second Europa League title in four years, but any opponent in a European quarter-final cannot be taken for granted. Although there is no requirement to win this with the Reds having already sealed Champions League qualification, it would be a nice bonus to get some European silverware and secure a first trophy under Solskjaer. The winners of Monday's tie would face Wolves or Sevilla in the semi final.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Alexis Sanchez: Where did it all go wrong

Alexis Sanchez arrived at Old Trafford to much fanfare and acclaim with United having acquired his services in a stunning, eleventh hour swoop from under the noses of Pep Guardiola's City. 
I'm sure I wasn't alone in being the most hyped about a United signing for years - here we had one of the finest exponents of his craft at the peak of his powers. A man whom had earned a reputation as one of the best in the Premier League for his swashbuckling exploits at Arsenal and a bundle of energy, skill and creativity. Not only did it make for comedy gold on AFTV but the Reds had acquired a genuine world class talent and a showman player who seemed a natural fit for the Old Trafford stage. Even his unveiling, with the suave Sanchez tinkling the ivories to the tune of Glory Glory Man United, got the pulses racing. No new player had ever been announced like this. If his time at the club was even half as good as the build-up, then we were on to a winner. Or so we thought. But all of this could not have been further from the truth. 
Now, 31 months on, the Chilean has made his loan switch to Inter Milan a permanent move, linking up with former United team-mates Ashley Young and Romelu Lukaku at the Nerazzurri. Sanchez will be quickly forgotten at Old Trafford, and will hold the dubious honour of one of - if not THE - worst signings in this club's proud and illustrious history. It has been a disasterclass. 

His signing certainly divided opinion. There's a very valid argument to be had that when a world class players becomes available, as indeed Sanchez did, then you should go all out to get him. But United didn't need him, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were playing well and Sanchez upset the applecart. His signing ruined the wage structure and caused resentment among the players, particularly those longer-serving stalwarts on money nothing like as good. The board saw the pound signs in front of their eyes. Here was a chance to sell shirts, push "brand United" to a new level and acquire another big name, big money X Factor signing. Ed Woodward simply could not resist the temptation. It was another failed transfer, another black mark. 

The best paid player in the league, on astronomical wages of £475,750 a WEEK, departs with only five goals to his name in 45 games - against the might of Huddersfield, Swansea and Newcastle in the league and two in the FA Cup against Spurs and former club Arsenal. The Sanchez who left the Gunners was not the Sanchez that joined United and just about everything that could go wrong did indeed turn Pete-tong. 
So how did one of the most sought-after players on the planet become Old Trafford's biggest flop?
He did score on his home debut and his form in that first half a season was not a complete failure. But after that, Sanchez was poor and his form deserted him to the extent that United have since emphasised their need not to repeat mistakes made with the Chilean - even when pursuing players such as Jadon Sancho. 

There was no doubt that Sanchez was a versatile player, capable of playing on the left, on the right, down the middle or as no.10. 
But whilst he had a clearly defined role in north London as Arsenal's string pulling creator in chief, at Old Trafford there was confusion. The chemistry was different, he never nailed down a regular position and displaced the in-form Martial, throwing the mercurial Frenchman off his game and effecting his confidence. Even when deployed out wide at Arsenal, Sanchez had Olivier Giroud ahead of him with Mesut Ozil as the creator. He could not have wished for more willing team-mates. At United, only Juan Mata fitted that bill and he was never a regular at that point. Sanchez was expected to add creativity despite being the one who often relies on it from others.

Sanchez was coming into a defensive team, not Sir Alex Ferguson's vintage. Mourinho's concerns over the side's defence meant there was rarely an overlapping full-back and Mourinho's emphasis on safety first meant that he was never given the space nor the freedom to shine. Not entirely his fault, but in hindsight his was a signing that went against Mourinho's raison d'etre. 

I don't mind players losing possession - you're never going to be successful with every pass and it often means you're trying to make things happen and taking risks. Even the best players cough up the ball from time to time. Bruno Fernandes as an example. But Sanchez seemed to do so more than most and earned unwanted headlines in games against Huddersfield and Newcastle when he squandered possession 36 times on each occasion - no doubt the nadir of his days at Old Trafford. He had fewer touches in the opposition box and dropped deeper to receive the ball, attempting more dribbles as a result - perhaps in an insight into his carelessness on the ball. 
He never seemed fully fit and always looked a shadow of his former self. Never has there been such a dramatic decline in a player in such a short space of time. Four goals in 25 games for Inter hasn't exactly hinted at a renaissance. 

Sanchez departs as just another disappointment - albeit a very expensive one. He's cost United over £40m in wages alone. Another example of the malaise that gripped the club in the years after Ferguson's retirement. Inexplicable? There were clues, glimpses, of why this was not a good fit, and more that could have done to make it work. But nobody could have foreseen quite how badly Sanchez's move would go.

Comparing Alexis Sanchez's Man Utd stats to his best season at ...

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Match report: Man United 2-1 LASK (7-1 agg)

Jesse Lingard
Manchester United resumed their delayed Europa League campaign with a late Anthony Martial winner to complete a 7-1 aggregate victory over LASK. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side came from behind to advance to the watered-down tournament's 'Final Eight' in Germany and will play FC Copenhagen in Cologne on Monday for a place in the semi finals. 

Martial came off the bench to score the winner four minutes from time, after Jesse Lingard's second in as many games had cancelled out Philipp Wiesinger's shock opener.

146 days after the Reds 5-0 victory in the Austrian town of Linz, and fresh from having secured a top three finish in the Premier League, Reds boss Solskjaer named a much stronger side than expected with the lack of young a major disappointment for the thousands of United fans watching from their living rooms. 

Harry Maguire played his 59th game of a gruelling campaign, and there were also starts for Lingard, given a rare opportunity, along with Juan Mata, Fred, Daniel James and Odion Ighalo. 

With the tie already won, it was perhaps understandable that United lacked tempo and urgency, with the Austrians - despite being dead and buried - sensing a chance to claim a famous, feather-in-their-cap victory at a deserted Old Trafford.

Juan Mata was thwarted early on but LASK soon seized the initiative and saw a flurry of openings fall their way. After the wonderfully named Andreas Andrade headed against the bar, the increasingly confident visitors went close twice in quick succession.
Peter Michorl flashed an effort over the bar and then Marko Raguz headed wide before Scott McTominay was snuffed out by a blocking challenge at the other end. 

Ighalo fired narrowly off target but the breakthrough remained elusive at the interval.

The Reds started brightly after the restart and had their best chance of the game on 52 minutes, at the culmination of a sweepingteam move. Mata found Brandon Williams and the marauding left-back in turn picked out Fred. The Brazilian moved the ball to the overlapping left-back and his whipped cross narrowly evaded both James and the stretching Lingard.

It was LASK, rather than the Reds, who responded to that let-off with a goal. It was a strike not in keeping with its surroundings, as United failed to clear a corner and Wiesinger chanced his arm with a 25-yard rocket into the top corner - a stunning finish that left Sergio Romero with no chance. 
Despite the goalscorer going close again soon afterwards, Dominik Thalhammer's hopes of a famous victory for his side did not last long. United restored parity within three minutes when Mata played in Lingard and he slipped the ball beyond Alexander Schalger for only his second goal of a disappointing season. Having also found the net at Leicester on the final day of the domestic campaign, it was Lingard's second in as many games - and the first time since December 2018 that he's score in back-to-back matches. Those came in Jose Mourinho's final tie in charge and Solskjaer's first. 

Romero saved well from substitute Dominik Reiter and McTominay went close from distance before Solskjaer handed a long-awaited debut to highly-rated teenage defender Tegen Mengi. It was how the 18 year old would have dreamed it, but it was still a proud moment for Mengi - becoming the eighth Academy graduate to make his senior bow under Solskjaer in 2019-20, the most since the days of Sir Matt Busby. 
Martial came on for James at the same time and there was still time for the lethal Frenchman to make an impact. Mata slipped him behind the LASK defence and Martial fired home a finish beyond the advancing keeper - who should havedone better - for his 23rd goal of the season, edging one in front of Marcus Rashford. 

Victory complete and job done, and United now fly out to Germany to prepare for that quarter final tie against the Danes on Monday.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jesse Lingard