Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The formality of Sociedad as massive week looms

Manchester United face Real Sociedad tomorrow night but attentions have already turned to Sunday's heavyweight clash in west London. 

You very rarely get a chance to rest players at this stage of the
season as every game is so important and means something. Such is the nature of European competition, you are invariably faced with the best the continent has to offer and most ties often go down to the wire. As United complete the formalities at Old Trafford tomorrow night, this is a rare exception to that rule. Barring the unlikeliest of mathematical miracles, surely even La Real manager Imanol Alguacil will think his side are dead and buried. It would take a huge leap of the imagination and a freak, once-in-a-century comeback to change the course of this tie. 

In all logic and reality, this tie is done, it resembles nothing more than a glorified training game and is a mere footnote ahead of a huge week for the Reds in which we face two top six rivals in the battle for crucial Premier League points and positions. 

The title is gone but United are firmly in the hunt to finish as best of the rest and travel to Stamford Bridge, a ground that has held something of a hoodoo in recent years, for a crunch clash with in-form Chelsea on Sunday. In the second of three successive away games, Solskjaer's side cross the capital to face Crystal Palace in midweek before the small matter of a daunting Manchester derby. Set against this monumental backdrop as we look for a first victory over the so called "big six" this season, the meeting with the La Liga side pales into insignificance. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side lead their Spanish visitors 4-0 and with both feet - surely - already in the hat for the last 16 (a strange expression as the plastic balls always come out of a bowl, never a hat). Therefore, it does indeed give the affable Norwegian the chance to change his entire XI and give some of the younger players an invaluable taste of European experience. 

There have been signs of wear and tear within the United squad, and some players whom undoubtedly could do with a rest. As Sociedad make only their second ever visit to M16, this is a game that provides United with the opportunity to do exactly that. We don't need to go all out and push hell for leather - that job is already done, so this is just a case of going through the motions and playing out proceedings whilst giving several men a well earned breather. 

We should expect to see the likes of Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe, Alex Telles, Ethan Galbraith, Dan James, Juan Mata, Amad Diallo and the latest fresh-faced youngster to step off the Carrington conveyor belt - Shola Shoretire - fresh from his brief Premier League debut against Newcastle last time out.
Galbraith was added to United's 'B' list ahead of the tie, allowing him the possibility of a debut, whilst we're keen to see more of the highly-rated young duo Amad and Shoretire, both of whom have taken age group football by storm. 

Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Fred, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes - basically anyone involved against Thomas Tuchel and co - should be wrapped up in cotton wool and given the night off here. Solskjaer should keep a few of these big guns on the bench, and - the latter three in particular - will only be introduced if absolutely necessary, in case things become hairy and more difficult than expected. 

It's absolutely vital that United maintain a clean bill of health as they prepare for a huge week that will go a long way to defining the outcome of our season. We certainly don't need a full strength side against Sociedad and risk any unnecessary injuries. This competition offers a strong chance of ending the trophy drought, but the spectre of Stamford Bridge and then Manchester City's all-conquering juggernaut will be at the forefront of Reds minds on Thursday night. 

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Match report: Manchester United 3-1 Newcastle Utd

Dan James and Bruno Fernandes scored as United  eventually overpowered struggling Newcastle to reclaim second spot in the Premier League table.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had been bumped down to third after Leicester's win over Aston Villa earlier in the day, and with surprise package West Ham - under David Moyes - breathing down our necks. A win was imperative against a Magpies side fighting for their league lives, but the Reds started slowly and looked in danger of dropping further points after Allan Saint - Maximin cancelled out Marcus Rashford's opener. 

But after impressing during the midweek thumping of Sociedad, James followed up that performance with another excellent showing as he thumped home on 54 minutes for his third goal in as many appearances. Fernandes made it 3-1 from the spot after Rashford had been scythed down to push United back into second and a return to winning ways in the league after two draws despite a slow start. 

Solskjaer made five changes from the European win in Italy on Thursday as David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial came back in.
Despite their lowly position - fourth-from-bottom and only three points ahead of rejuvenated Fulham in the battle for survival - Newcastle went about their task with the vim and vigour of a side in the upper echelons of the table. It was a start as bright as their voluminous yellow kit, with Solskjaer's team perhaps unprepared for such a quick out of the blocks approach from former United defender Steve Bruce's side.

De Gea punched away an early cross-shot from Joelinton and Jonjo Shelvey, having seized on the loose ball, flashed a drive narrowly over the crossbar from distance.
A James daisy cutter proved easy pickings for Karl Darlow, but Newcastle continued to bely their lowly league position with a bold performance, as the eye-catching Miguel Almiron went close when he fired straight at De Gea with a 25-yarder.

The Reds were mainly reduced to chancing their arm from distance, as Aaron Wan - Bissaka showed, but then came a United lead out of nothing on the half hour mark. It was a goal of superb individual brilliance, as Lindelof picked out Rashford to run at the back-pedalling defence. Rashford flummoxed right-back Isaac Krafth with a nutmeg before he cut inside and smashed a shot beyond Darlow and into the corner, although the visitors keeper will feel he should have done better with the near post effort.

Our no.10 had done the business at one end, but then Newcastle's came to the fore. Having been denied superbly by De Gea, Saint - Maximin finally got the better of the United stopper on 36 minutes. The Reds have been repeatedly undone from set-pieces and our Achilles heel reared its ugly head again as Harry Maguire only half-cleared a Willock corner to Saint - Maximin and he lashed in the loose ball to level.

Fred went close with another long-range strike before a brief flare-up of tempers saw Fernandes booked for a coming together with Isaac Hayden. 
The half-time breather failed to dampen Newcastle's fire and they began the second half as they had the first, pinning United back and carving out openings. De Gea was called into action again to keep out the omnipresent Saint - Maximin with a good low save five minutes after the restart.

The Reds finally hit their stride and re-established their advantage with a brilliantly worked second goal, again slightly out of nothing, on 57 minutes. Matic, in for the injured Scott McTominay, shaped to shoot but instead turned and threaded a through pass to the onrushing James wide on the left. The in-form Welshman took a touch and leathered the ball low beyond Darlow for his fifth of the season and second in as many games. 

It had taken over an hour, but the Reds had wrestled firm control of the contest. Darlow tipped wide to deny Anthony Martial a match-sealing third before the enigmatic Frenchman was replaced by in-form Mason Greenwood on 69 minutes.

Six minutes further on and Solskjaer's United put the result beyond any lingering doubt. Matic was again involved as he picked out Rashford, only for the striker to be scythed down by the lunging Willock. Willock didn't need to make the challenge but, once he had, there was no doubt over the award of the spot-kick. Fernandes stepped up to dispatch the resultant penalty in his usual fashion for his 22nd goal of the season and give United breathing space.

There were a flurry of late chances to add further late gloss to the scoreline. Matic headed over and Darlow twice saved from a pair of Maguire headers before Fred had another effort deflected wide in our best spell of the encounter.

With United finally having wrapped up the result, there was a late, lovely moment for 17-year-old Academy graduate Shola Shoretire. The highly-rated youngster was given a debut by Solskjaer as he replaced Rashford for the final few minutes, and had a few nice touches in the closing stages. Fellow substitute Juan Mata was also given a run out as the clock ticked down. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. The best left-back in the country at present. 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Player ratings: Fernandes and Fred shine in excellent team performance

 Manchester United put the tie to bed at the halfway stage of this Europa League last 32 contest with a stunning showing against Real Sociedad of La Liga.
Bruno Fernandes scored twice as Marcus Rashford and Dan James also got in on the act to put United out of sight ahead and render next week's return at Old Trafford a glorified training match. 

Sociedad are a very good side so to beat them 4-0 - in truth it could and should have been more - is a very good result and allows Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to rest the entire first team for the second game at Old Trafford, coming as it does three days before our trip to Stamford Bridge. 

Here, we look at every player to feature in Turin.

Dean Henderson - 7

Had very little to do bar one early save with his evening restricted to strong aerial handling and impressive distribution. Played a part in the third goal as he started the counter attack and exuded confidence and authority. What he had to do, he did well. This was Henderson's second European start after the nightmare of Istanbul as he helped to secure a clean sheet. Henderson will start in the second game at Old Trafford. 

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 7

Perhaps could have been rested and almost certainly will be for the second leg. Booked early on but recovered well for a solid evening, getting forward to support the attack and played a part in the fourth goal with a good run from right-back. Nothing special but did his job effectively in a good team performance

Harry Maguire - 7

It looked like it would be a busy night for the skipper in the first five minutes, but improved after a few shaky moments and made a critical lunging block at 1-0. Predictably beaten in a foot race against quick forwards but was solid and authoritative, and made two great clearances under pressure. Looked better and far more assured alongside Eric Bailly

Eric Bailly - 6

A calamitous and chaotic opening spell where he fell over and then got skinned twice. But, to his credit, the Ivorian recovered well and made some good recovery tackles. Claimed an assist for the fourth goal on his return to the side and gained in confidence and stature as the tie wore on. Should have done enough to keep his place for Newcastle on Sunday.

Alex Telles - 8

Did well on his last outing against West Ham and was superb again here. Shackled ex-Red Adnan Januzaj expertly and was superb both in defence and attack. Telles was unconvincing in his early days at United but has really improved and this was probably his best showing in Red. Picked up a knock but played the full 90 and has proved a very capable understudy for Luke Shaw.

Scott McTominay - 8

Another totemic performance that illustrated his growing importance. Given licence to bomb forward and did so to excellent effect. Should have scored and was unlucky not to do so in a supreme box-to-box showing. Efficient in everything he did and drove the team forward from deep. A doubt coming into the game, he was replaced on the hour mark to keep him fresh ahead of Newcastle's visit to Old Trafford on Sunday. Undroppable at the moment. 

Fred - 8

Tidy as always in possession but added an attacking threat to his game and his lovely defence-splitting pass for Marcus Rashford epitomised a brilliant individual performance. Diligent and hard-working, Fred provided balance and his defensive nous allowed McTominay to drive forward whilst the little Brazilian sat and marshalled superbly. Like a traffic warden, Fred has become Solskjaer's go to man in games like this one and, on this showing, it's easy to see why. I thought Fred was poor at West Brom but bounced back here. 

Dan James - 7

A somewhat surprise inclusion in Solskjaer's team and drifted in and out of the tie. James scored against Southampton last time out and looked dangerous on the counter-attack, particularly in the second half as a tiring Sociedad side left space. Had a goal disallowed and was twice denied by Alex Remiro before he capped a good individual performance with a goal late on, an excellent finish on the angle having burst clear. Has had some criticism but certainly will have silenced some of those here.

Bruno Fernandes - 9

Where on earth would Manchester United be without this man - surely the best no.10 on the planet and the talismanic, inspirational, string pulling heartbeat of Solskjaer's United. Put United ahead with a finish more difficult than it looked and then showed the predatory instincts of a striker for his and our second - his 21st goal of a magnificent season. Quite simply a world class talent at the peak of his powers. Sociedad couldn't get near him and he gave a footballing lesson. The best player on the pitch by a considerable distance. When the end of the season awards come around, this man won't be far away. What a player and what a signing. Should watch the second leg from the comfort of home as he won't be needed. Magnificent.

Marcus Rashford - 7

Profligate in the first half and missed two sitters before he finally got his goal. The wrong man in the right place as he wasted three gilt-edged openings, but made good runs, linked the play well and had a key role in both Fernandes goals. Good movement and caused problems for the Spaniards despite his erratic night in front of goal. A mixed performance from him. 

Mason Greenwood  - 8

Despite the fact he didn't score, Greenwood certainly deserved to get a goal and continued his recent upturn in form. Deployed in his favourite position up top, Greenwood did his bit defensively to snuff out an opening for Monreal and even headed clear several dangerous crosses before half-time. Looked to have assisted James only for the offside flag to decide otherwise. An excellent performance of maturity and patience, he was unlucky not to score himself as he was twice denied by Remiro. He may not be banging them in, but Mason has been a man in fine fettle of late and looks to have recovered from his blip earlier in the season. He was unfortunate to be dropped to the bench at the Hawthorns and there were signs he he's getting back to somewhere near his best level.


Nemanja Matic - for McTominay 60 - 6

Allowed McTominay a breather and was relatively untroubled as he kept us ticking over. Made an important clearance soon after coming on and used his experience to snuff out danger on a couple of occasions. Nothing spectacular and was solid.

Anthony Martial - for Rashford 68 - 5

Came on for the rested Rashford and would have fancied getting himself a goal but it didn't quite happen for him. Had a few nice touches but was unable to replicate the brilliance of his attacking colleagues

Juan Mata - for Bruno Fernandes 82 - 5

Made his first appearance since the FA Cup game against Watford ages ago. Replaced Fernandes as Solskjaer gave some of his fringe players some valuable minutes. Fernandes won't be needed for the second leg so Mata can look forward to a rare start at Old Trafford.

Amad Diallo - for Greenwood 82 - 6

Didn't get long to impose himself but made a couple of darting runs and could have grabbed a debut goal had James cut the ball back instead of going for goal. Did well and - given the fact the tie is over as a contest - should get his first start in the second leg. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - 9

I liked what he did with his team selection here - a side strong enough to win the game and respect good opposition but he rested some key men with the league in mind. It was pleasing that we kept attacking and didn't simply sit on the 2-0 to see the game out. Got everything right and oversaw an excellent result and performance. I want to see everyone rested at Old Trafford. 

Match report: Real Sociedad 0-4 Man United

 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United gained firm control of our last 32 Europa League tie with a thumping first leg win in neutral Turin.

Played at the home of Juventus due to Covid-travel restrictions that prevented United from going to Spain, the change of venue did little to prevent a ruthless and dominant Reds side from all but ending the tie as a contest, and rendering the second leg at Old Trafford nothing more than a glorified training exercise. Real Sociedad were considered as tricky and difficult opponents when the tie was made, and few would have predicted the contest being all but over ahead of the return in M16.  After successive draws with Everton and West Brom, this was a decisive, clinical and professional performance from a United side that meant business from the outset. This was a classic away performance and, indeed, there will perhaps be a disappointment we 'only' scored four. 

Bruno Fernandes continued his remarkable scoring season with his 20th and 21st goals of a magnificent campaign from a man surely the best in the world in his position. Marcus Rashford - having missed two gilt edged chances - added the third and Dan James completed the rout with a well-taken, deserved finish late on. 

Solskjaer shuffled his pack but still named a strong side as he looks to go deep into the tournament. Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani were all missing, but Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly, Alex Telles, Dan James and Mason Greenwood all started in a United side that showed five changes from the weekend draw at West Brom. Teenagers Amad Diallo and 17-year-old Shola Shoretire were named on the bench. 

The match began at breakneck speed with little hint of the one sided contest to come. Former Red Adnan Januzaj curled wide from distance after 72 seconds and Alejandro Ramiro denied Rashford at the other end moments later. Sociedad continued to pour forward and almost capitalised on a Bailly mistake when Alexander Isak forced Henderson into action as the United keeper palmed the Sociedad striker's effort round the post.

The Reds were in the ascendancy and twice went close to an opener that soon seemed only a matter of time. Ramiro saved with his legs to keep out Scott McTominay before another Rashford chance, again fired straight at the keeper. On the rebound, Fernandes' header was hacked to safety off the line by Robin Le Nomand, an eleventh hour replacement for the injured Gorka Elustondo.

It had been all one way traffic and United finally broke the deadlock shortly before the half hour mark when Rashford floated a dangerous ball towards Fernandes and the Portuguese magnifico seized on the loose ball after Ramiro had collided with team-mates Le Nomand and Igor Zubeldia. It was one of Fernandes' easiest goals in Red as all he had to do was steer the tap in into the net for his 20th goal of the campaign.

Henderson punched clear at the start of the second half but any semblance of a La Real fightback was quickly extinguished as the Reds moved further ahead on 57 minutes. Some excellent work by Fred and Rashford saw Fernandes dummy the ball to James. The Welshman moved the ball on back to Fernandes and he took a touch to curl the ball beyond the advancing Ramiro for his and United's second. The strike was originally ruled out for offside but replays showed he was level, and the ball had come off ex-Arsenal man Nacho Monreal to play the Portuguese onside in any case.

The Reds did not simply shut up shop and sit on their 2-0 lead and it got better as we put further distance between ourselves and the tiring Spaniards seven minutes further on. A defence-splitting pass from the excellent Fred found Rashford and despite his previous misses, he made no mistake this time with a superb finish across Ramiro for the third.

Greenwood set up James to tap in a fourth - only for the flag to deny him - and the former then had a go himself only for the increasingly busy Ramiro to save well. Greenwood deserved a goal for his efforts and went close again soon afterwards as he had a shot deflected wide having been picked out by Aaron Wan - Bissaka. 
The stopper kept out James as United kept up the pressure despite a raft of substitutions as Solskjaer gave a rare run out to Juan Mata and introduced the much talked about Amad Diallo for a debut. 

James did get the goal his performance deserved, though, when he galloped on to Bailly's pass down the right, cut inside and squeezed home a shot at the far post to complete the rout.

With the tie put to bed and all but won, Solskjaer should rest his entire first team for the second leg as United go to Stamford Bridge three days later. 

Overall team performance: 9/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes 

Manchester United Predicted XI: Rotated side for Solskjaer's United

United will look to begin our Europa League campaign with a strong first leg showing against the dangerous Spaniards of Real Sociedad in the first leg of our round of 32 tie on Thursday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side face the high-flying La Liga side in neutral Turin after the match was relocated by UEFA due to Covid-19 travel restrictions in Spain.

United have only lost one of our last 16 Europa League knockout matches (W10 D5) but that solitary loss came at the worst possible moment, at the hands of eventual winners Sevilla in the one-off semi final last term. However, the Reds have a poor recent record against sides from Spain - we're winless in our last nine.

We will be without midfielders Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek with striker Edinson Cavani also sidelined, so rotation seems almost certain. Exciting and highly rated young talents, teenagers Amad (18) and 17-year-old Shola Shoretire have been included in the 22-man travelling squad and could make their long awaited debuts.

Nobody wants to be in the Europa League but we might as well try and win it as the four year anniversary of our last trophy - in this competition - is on the horizon and beggars cannot be choosers.
With all this mind, here is how we think Solskjaer will send his men out into battle as the journey to Gdansk, Poland, begins in earnest.

Usual cup keeper Dean Henderson is likely to start between the posts, with Solskjaer's selection of his keepers enabling David de Gea to play in the league and his capable understudy in the cups both domestically and in Europe. Henderson is arguably too good to merely be back-up, but for the moment that seems to be the state of play. Henderson's European debut ended in ignominy in Istanbul so he will want to make amends here. 

In defence, there will likely be alterations to both full-backs as Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Luke Shaw are given the night off. Brandon Williams will deputise at right-back with Newcastle on the horizon, and Alex Telles will get another chance to impress on the opposite flank. Telles looked good in his last game against West Ham and is very 'European' in style so should be well suited to the demands of this competitions. Both AWB and Shaw have played a lot recently and could do with a break. Harry Maguire is an ever present and will, as usual, captain the side at the back. Much has been written and said about his partnership with Victor Lindelof and Solskjaer should mix it up here. Eric Bailly was in fine fettle throughout December and January and has recovered from injury, so the Ivorian - our best defender - should come in alongside the skipper. Lindelof and Maguire just do not work as a pair so Bailly has to play whenever he's fit to do so.

United's options are stretched in midfield with Pogba and van de Beek both sidelined. Scott McTominay is a doubt but has travelled, however, if fit, he is likely to be given a breather. That means Nemanja Matic will be restored to the team as Solskjaer deploys the Serbian to mop up and start attacks in front of the defence. Fred will keep his place, too, with his energy and industry key to stopping a lively and energetic Sociedad side. Matic has a lot of experience in Europe and can be relied upon to allow McTominay a night off.

Solskjaer will line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 system - on the right, there will be a recall for Dan James with Mason Greenwood moved up top. James hasn't had much game time and so the Welsh wizard will get a chance to impress here. The much talked about Amad is an option here, but it seems more likely that the £18m teenager would start on the bench and - fingers crossed - we'll get to see him on the right wing. James to start and Amad to get 25/30 minutes off the bench.
Bruno Fernandes has largely been rested in the cups and we expect no difference here, with the virtuoso Portuguese to get the night off having - as is his wont - been in the thick of things recently. His rare absence from an XI paves the way for Juan Mata - conspicuous by absence in recent weeks - to get a rare start. Solskjaer has championed the veteran schemer and hinted at involvement, he's travelled and this seems an ideal game for his comeback having not featured for the club since the FA Cup win over Watford last month. 
On the left will be Marcus Rashford, in need of a good performance after a string of tired, below par showings in recent weeks.  Rashford plays most games so it seems unlikely he'll get a rest, with the 23-year-old at his best when stationed wide on the left. Shoretire is a left winger but again, like Amad, any involvement would probably come as a substitute. 

Up front, and with Cavani missing through injury, Greenwood and the out-of-form Anthony Martial seem the only options for Solskjaer. Greenwood has filled the void admirably on the right in the absence of a natural, out and out winger but he's the best finisher at the club and should play as a no.9. Martial has done nothing to warrant selection and has endured a poor season. Even had he been fit, Cavani probably would have been rested anyway paving for the way for Mason to be handed an opportunity through the middle. 

Predicted Man Utd XI vs Sociedad: Dean Henderson; Brandon Williams, Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly, Alex Telles; Nemanja Matic, Fred; Dan James, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford; Mason Greenwood. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Opposition in profile: Real Sociedad

Januzaj, Januzaj, Januzaj
 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds were handed a difficult but compelling draw against the Spaniards of Real Sociedad in the first knockout stage of the Europa League. 
United will face the La Liga side in neutral Turin on Thursday before the return leg at Old Trafford a week later (25th February). 

Here, we take a look at all things Sociedad to get you in the mood for the resumption of our European campaign. 

Who are Le Reales?

They hail from San Sebastien, a beautiful coastal city in the Basque region of north eastern Spain, close to the border with France on the Bay of Biscay. The club, founding fathers of La Liga, have been in existence since 1909 and are one of nine clubs to have a Spanish domestic title to their name, having won the league twice in successive years - 1980/81 and 1981/82. They also have two Copa del Rey (the Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup) to their name and will play in the delayed 2019-20 final against Athletic Bilbao, with the original match postponed due to the pandemic. Known as 'Real' (Royal) Sociedad, so called from their early days King Alfonso III of Spain bestowed his royal patronage upon them (hailing as they do from Sen Sebastien where His Majesty was his summer residence). Like United, they've been virtual ever presents at the top level of their country's elite league, aside from the odd foray here and there in the second tier. Sociedad qualified for the Europa League courtesy of a sixth placed finish in 2019-20 but a distant 14 points off fourth placed, Champions League bound Sevilla. 

Who's who..

There are several familiar faces amongst the Sociedad alumni. Adnan Januzaj - former Red with 63 Old Trafford appearances to his name - failed to fulfil his precocious potential at United and transferred to La Real in 2017 after several loan spells. The then 18-year-old burst on to the scene under David Moyes and was touted as United's next big thing but, unfortunately, is living proof that raw talent will only get you so far. Januzaj will be keen to show that he still has plenty to offer, so let's hope his pace and sweet left foot are left in the changing room for this double header! Elsewhere, David Silva is another name whom needs no introduction. After years of service across the road in the Sky Blue of Manchester City, Silva - now 35 - may be ageing but still has stardust in his boots. Widely regarded as one of the Premier League's finest ever foreign exports, Silva will be out to get one over on his former side's arch rivals for one last time.
At the back, Nacho Monreal is another former Premier League rival now plying his trade with Sociedad. Monreal spent eight years at Arsenal, winning three FA Cups and playing in the final of this competition with the Gunners. Mikel Merino, once of Newcastle, can now be found at the heart of Sociedad's midfield having become a full Spanish international since his move from SJP in 2018. 
In the dugout, like United, the Spaniards have a former player and one of their own at the helm. Imanol Alguacil had held numerous roles in San Sebastien, taking charge of the reserve side whilst also working as a scout and physio. Alguacil was appointed as boss of the first team in December 2018, and Thursday's match will be the 49 year old's 101st in the dugout.

Domestic duties..

Sociedad are a handy side and have enjoyed a good season in La Liga. The similarities with ourselves continue with Sociedad having led the way at the summit - albeit briefly - before fading slightly to the fringes. That said, they remain in contention for Champions League qualification, sitting in fifth place after 23 games with ten wins, eight draws, five defeats and 38 points - seven points off fourth placed Sevilla having played one game fewer. They followed up an impressive 4-1 win over Cadiz with victory by a solitary goal at Getafe on Valentine's Day. Swedish international Alexander Isak scored the winner in that game to hit double figures for the season, with Spanish hitman Mikel Oyarzabal leading the way as top scorer with twelve - both men got on the scoresheet in that result against Cadiz, as Oyarzabal and Isak plundered a brace apiece. 
Not only will the tie be played behind closed doors, but the first leg will take place in Turin at Juventus' Allianz Stadium due to coronavirus travel restrictions that prevent United from entering Spain. Sociedad will be the 'home' side in neutral Italy so away goals will apply as usual ahead of the second leg, to be played at Old Trafford as usual.

How they got here

As United agonisingly slipped out of the Champions League by the narrowest of margins at the death in Germany, Sociedad, too, were fighting for European survival in the Europa League. Drawn in Group F with Napoli, AZ and Croatian side Rijeka, their fate also came down to the final game. Trailing to the Italian side and heading out, a 92nd minute equaliser from Willian Jose (now on loan at Wolves), changed the complexion of the group in an instant - from almost certain elimination to last 32 progress in the blink of a proverbial eye. Sociedad were second in their section with two wins, three draws and one defeat from their six games to go through on eight points behind the Italians and setting up this heavyweight encounter with Solskjaer's United at the first knockout stage.

Haven't we met before?

We have met Sociedad twice before when the two clubs were paired together in the group stage of the Champions League during the 2013-14 season. Under David Moyes (who would later have an unsuccessful stint in charge of the side from San Sebastien), we won 1-0 at Old Trafford through an Inigo Martinez own goal. The away game in Spain ended goalless, notable for Marouane Fellaini's red card and
not much else. Robin van Persie also erred from the penalty spot in that game but it didn't matter as the Reds topped the group and Sociedad went out having finished bottom of the pile. 

The stage is set for an intriguing contest against opposition who cannot be under-estimated. Bring it on!

Monday, 15 February 2021

Match report: West Brom 1-1 Man Utd

A stunning Bruno Fernandes volley wasn't enough for United as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had to settle for a disappointing point at struggling West Brom.
Fernandes had been on the periphery in a below-par performance but popped up with a customary moment of magic shortly before half-time when he cracked home an exquisite over-the-shoulder volley to cancel out Mbaye Diagne's shock second minute opener. 

The Reds reclaimed second spot - albeit only on goal difference - from Leicester - but lost further ground on leaders Man City, now seven points clear with a game in hand. With our title hopes fading fast, United now seem set for a fight to finish as best of the rest.

Solskjaer rotated again, with five changes from the midweek cup win against West Ham as David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Fernandes and Edinson Cavani - on his 34th birthday - were all recalled.

The Reds have a penchant for starting games slowly and did so again here, as Sam Allardyce's strugglers - 19th in the league and on course for relegation - went ahead after 83 seconds.
United conceded early again through Diagne, whom powered home his header beyond De Gea from a Connor Gallagher cross having climbed above Victor Lindelof. Replays showed the much-maligned Swede seemed to have been illegally barged out the way to enable Diagne to make contact with the ball, with the striker's arms covering Lindelof's eyes as the pair tussled for the ball. All that said, an argument can be made that Lindelof was simply outmuscled and should have been stronger and reacted quicker.

Fred had a sighter from distance but failed to properly test ex-Red Sam Johnstone between the posts for the Baggies. De Gea saved superbly from Robert Snodgrass after Conor Townsend had picked him out, whilst Anthony Martial had a shot deflected behind at the other end.

Then came Fernandes and a trademark sprinkling of stardust. Maguire had been influential in an attacking sense and played a part in the goal as he found Shaw down the left. His cross was slightly behind Fernandes, but it did not matter as the Portuguese swivelled and smashed home a dipping, thumping volley on his weaker foot for yet another goal of the season contender.

United had been sluggish and far from fluid in the first half but, perhaps with the strong words of Solskjaer ringing in their ears, came out on the front foot after the interval.

Matheus Pereira dragged a shot wide for West Brom and Johnstone was called into action when a Fernandes hit struck Scott McTominay and deflected safely into the arms of the keeper.
Four minutes later, just beyond the hour mark, came yet another VAR-dominated talking point. Maguire looked to have been bundled over by Semi Ajayi as a Fernandes free-kick was swung in, and referee Craig Pawson awarded a spot-kick. Whether VAR deemed it to be no foul, or Maguire was considered to be offside, will forever by a mystery, but - either way - the referee overturned his initial on-field decision.

Mason Greenwood - perhaps unlucky to be dropped - was then introduced in the 66th minute and his introduction forced a change of impetus as United laid siege to Albion's goal.
Johnstone saved superbly from the substitute as he denied Greenwood with his foot, before McTominay's effort on the rebound was hacked to safety off the line by West Brom sub Darnell Furlong.

Yet Allardyce's side remained a threat themselves on the counter and could have re-taken the lead when Diagne burst clear on goal. It seemed as though he had fouled Maguire, but Mr Pawson waved play on and United needed De Gea to come to our rescue as he saved both the initial shot and then clawed away the loose ball as Diagne threatened to pounce.

The tall and rangy West Brom striker consistently appeared the hosts most likely source of an unlikely winner and went close again on 83 minutes when he wastefully lifted the ball over the bar from close range.

With five minutes added on, United poured forward in search of a crucial and dramatic winner. Having conceded oh-so-late against Everton in our last game, the Reds almost snatched a role reversal as we came with inches of pilfering the points with the final action of the game. Another Shaw cross fell to Maguire at the back post, but the skipper's header was somehow, inexplicably, pushed on to the post by Johnstone at full stretch. 

The former Reds keeper had denied his ex-side an invaluable victory as United - again - were forced to settle for a point that ultimately does neither side much good.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes. 

Thursday, 11 February 2021

The puzzling paradox of Manchester United's disparate Dutchman

 When Donny van de Beek made the slow walk to the touchline to end 73 minutes of torture, the only surprise was that he had lasted that long. It summed up his Manchester United career in microcosm. 

As United toiled through 90 minutes of nothingness before eventually seeing off the Hammers in extra-time, van de Beek was mercifully put out of his misery after another performance that amounted to the square root of not much at all. This was a game in which a player of his reputation and potential should shine, but yet one in which you almost forgot he was there at all. 

It was hard not to feel for him when his number flashed up and van de Beek resignedly trudged off, as United turned to Bruno Fernandes in a belated attempt to take control of the cup tie.
It took some doing to fade to the periphery of a match that won't live long in the memory, but yet somehow van de Beek managed it . Handed a rare start in the absence of the usually undroppable Bruno Fernandes - watching from the bench - instead he ran like nobody was watching for much of what had come before.

For a man schooled in the magnificent artistry and technical brilliance of Ajax and the Dutch raison d'etre of "Total Football", it is baffling to see him look so completely lost and out of his depth in the red of United. Even more so when you consider Edwin van der Sar, director of football with the Amsterdam giants and once of this parish, was quick to champion the qualities and skillset of van de Beek. One of the greatest keepers in United's long and illustrious history, he is one of several dazzling Dutchmen to grace Old Trafford - Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie to name but three others. Unfortunately, in his seven months in Manchester, van de Beek has been more Memphis and Alexander Buttner than RvP and RvN. All hype but zero ability. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had criticism for not giving the Dutchman enough game time but yet, on this evidence, came you really blame him? You have to earn that chance, but van de Beek simply hasn’t. Every time he has been given an opportunity, he has spectacularly failed to grasp it. Why therefore, should the boss continue to select him? 

It’s no wonder Solskjaer doesn’t seem to trust him, or have faith in the player. Indeed, it makes you wonder whether the United manager even ever wanted him at all. If it wasn’t for the effects of a freak pandemic for the ages that crushed the world’s economies, the previously Real-Madrid bound van de Beek would be locked in to the Bernabeu by now. His stats made for impressive reading - 33 goals and 27 assists from midfield in 141 Eredivisie and European games. Admiring glances from Real Madrid, a commendation from a United legend and impressive numbers - it seemed we were getting an excellent player with burgeoning potential. Sadly, it simply hasn’t worked out that way. His influence - or, more pertinently, lack thereof, has flown in the face of such glowing character references.

Perhaps it’s became he hasn’t had a run of games. Perhaps it’s because we expected him to be something he will simply never be. Maybe he’s struggling to adapt to the pressure of a new team in a new league and a different role, in an alien environment a world  away from the technical piece de resistance of his native homeland. Perhaps he simply isn’t good enough. Whatever the reasons, van de Beek looks a man at odds with himself - a thinking footballer thrust into a side that plays on instinct, a man who moves trying to do the job of a man who finds movement. Either way, the situation already looks irretrievable - we’ve already reached the point where it’s hard to see a future for van de Beek at Old Trafford. I spent most of the match trying to work out what he does. 

Everything is very safe with van de Beek - he doesn't take players on, he doesn't drive forward, doesn't pass, doesn't shoot and doesn't link the play. It's all a five yard sideways pass here, a two yards backwards ball there. Is he a ten? A six? A box to box player or a link man? There is simply no identity in van de Beek - bizarre for a player signed from a club synonymous for exactly that. He came to Old Trafford touted as a player to set pulses racing and one to get you off you seat in excitement but instead I just do not see what he offers, or what he's supposed to do. 

Compare van de Beek's anodyne and anonymous performances with those of Fernandes - the very antithesis of the struggling Dutchman. Fernandes never stops running, always wants the ball, never takes the easy options and always makes this happen. Van de Beek appears as if he's WAITING to things to happen - the bridesmaid to Fernandes' bride, the back up to the best man.

To add insult to metaphorical injury, Scott McTominay came on and instantly offered everything van de Beek didn't - he quickened the tempo, made runs, broke the lines and created attacks. Indeed, his match winning goal came from a run and finish that you would expect from van de Beek, bursting into the box at just the right moment to thump the ball home in a manner reminiscent of Paul Scholes. It was the Scot's seventh goal of the season and the fact he upstaged his perhaps more illustrious colleagues tells you everything you need to know. Indeed, it's a damning indictment of van de Beek's current plight that McTominay continues to epitomise everything we thought we were getting in the Dutchman -  Van de Beek has played roughly half as much football as a man nowhere near his technical level. 

It's clear that van de Beek is a man out of touch, out of sync and ill at ease. He may still come good, and plenty of players have started poorly at Old Trafford before coming on strong later. But, right now, Donny van de Beek and Manchester United look a rotten match. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Scott McTominay's coming of age

Scott McTominay scored the winner in Tuesday's night victory over West Ham to put Manchester United into another cup quarter-final.
The Scot came on a second half substitute and made the decisive difference with a match-winning strike reminiscent of his illustrious predecessor and idol Paul Scholes. McTominay arrived late in the box to strike home a finish in a manner that is quickly becoming the young Scot's trademark.

We're only in February, butt McTominay has already had his best season in front of goal for the Reds, becoming a key cog for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United. His goal against the Hammers was his third in as many games, following his header against Everton and edge-of-the-box effort in the rout of Southampton. 
It is perhaps no surprise that "McSauce" has found his scoring touch given he used to ply his trade as a centre-forward before being converted into a box-to-box midfielder by youth coach Warren Joyce during McTominay's formative years at the club. A sudden growth spurt only further championed his cause as the player shot up ten inches within a year, his 6ft 4 frame befitting all the attributes of the classic string-pulling midfield man. 

McTominay has always been something of a divisive - even derided - figure at Old Trafford, plucked as he was from obscurity and plonked into the midfield (and sometimes even the defence) as the symbol of Jose Mourinho's box-ticking exercise at United. Picked by the former United and current Spurs boss simply merely because of his height, McTominay struggled to win over the fans and earned a reputation as something of a "teacher's pet", a feeling only further emphasised when Mourinho invented his own prize for the young Scot at the club's end of season awards ceremony - a gesture that was perhaps meant with good intentions but one that only opened up more criticism for both player and manager. But now, two and a bit years on with Solskjaer at the wheel, the player is finally starting to get the respect, recognition and credit he deserves. 

McTominay was the epitome of Mourinho's United - with his good position, ball carrying ability and strength in the tackle earning him the trust of the notoriously hard-to-please Portuguese. His consistent inclusion in the line-up sparked disparaging questions and criticism - was he really good enough to be the answer to United's midfield problems? Especially when you considered that he was often selected ahead of Paul Pogba, a very public victim of Mourinho's ever-increasing meltdown. The fact one of the best players in the world, and one of the finest exponents of his craft (a World Cup winner no less) was being ignored in favour of a "passion merchant" with a seemingly limited skillset told you everything. 

Many thought that McTominay's influence on the team would start to wane once Mourinho was acrimoniously sacked in the final weeks of 2018. But, since Solskjaer's arrival and appointment as permanent manager, his influence an

d impact has only gone from strength to strength. The first leg of the Champions League quarter-final in March 2019 looks to have been a seminal moment for the then 22-year-old when he seized control of the game with a performance of courage and maturity beyond his tender years. Against one of the greatest midfields in world football and in the esteemed, metronomic company of Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto et al, McTominay shone amongst a galaxy of stars. It was a night that made us sit up and take notice of the Lancaster-born Scot, the performance of a veteran on the biggest stage of all. 

 He has formed an industrial and combative grit-and-guile pairing with Fred at the heart of the Reds midfield, with the duo becoming Solskjaer's preferred choice in the engine room. "McFred" as they are affectionately known, appear to offer the best and most effective balance with the United system, as they give protection to the lack of pace of centre-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, and the capability to break the lines and beat the opposition press on the counter attack. He might not have the flair or the easy on the eye influence of a Bruno Fernandes or a Paul Pogba but McTominay, United through and through, is the epitome of everything this club stands for and he always gives everything for the club he loves. Fred and Nemanja Matic toiled in vain for 73 soporific minutes on Tuesday against the Hammers, but upon the introduction of McTominay, he instantly increased the tempo, quickened up the midfield and United looked far more threatening in attack as he probed and pressed in the face of the Hammers low block.

The 24-year-old has continually showcased captain characteristics and should be seen as a FUC (Future United Captain) at some point in the future. The player hinted at his potential leadership qualities when he skippered a heavily rotated side in the third round of this competition and captain-for-the-night McTominay again came up trumps as he scored the winner to send United on their way against Watford. 

Far from merely being the lanky teacher's pet, McTominay has developed and come of age as one of this side's most important players. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Match report: Manchester United 1-0 West Ham (a.e.t)

 Substitute Scott McTominay struck in extra-time to see off West Ham and our former boss David Moyes to seal a spot in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
After 97 minutes of turgid and tepid football, McTominay provided the one real moment of quality when Marcus Rashford - on the occasion of his 250th United game - teed him up for the Scot to drill home a well-taken strike beyond Lukasz Fabianski from twelve yards. It was a goal reminiscent of the great Paul Scholes, both the manner of the finish and the way in which McTominay ghosted into the box just at the right moment. 

On a bitterly cold night at Old Trafford, the match pitted twelve-time winners United up against former boss David Moyes with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team looking to set up a seventh successive quarter-final.
Solskjaer shuffled his pack and made six changes from the dramatic draw with Everton at the weekend as he handed rare starts to Nemanja Matic, Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek and cup keeper Dean Henderson. 

United had all the possession against a team sitting deep, and it was clear from early on that Moyes had sent West Ham out to frustrate the Reds and defend in numbers. The recalled Anthony Martial saw the first chance of the cup tie fall his way as his close range snapshot was well-blocked by Angelo Ogbonna on the stretch. The Hammers centre-back was injured in the act of blocking the ball and the visitors were forced into an early change as Issa Diop came on to replace the Italian. 
Mason Greenwood was also denied by another last-ditch intervention, this time from Tomas Soucek, before the tie somehow stayed scoreless on 27 minutes as United kept up the pressure. West Ham needed Fabianski to be at his best as he changed direction to inexplicably palm a Victor Lindelof header onto the post after Telles had picked out the defender from a corner. 

Van de Beek had a shot deflected over, from another teasing Telles delivery, and there was then a nasty clash of heads between Martial and Diop, as the latter became the first ever player to be the victim of the new concussion substitute rule, with the substitute himself replaced by Ryan Fredericks at the interval.

It was looking like one of those nights where the opposition keeper simply saved everything, and the Polish stopper was called into action again on 53 minutes, this time to deny Rashford from point blank range.
The Hammers had been content to sit back and contain United, but the visitors finally came out their shell as the half wore on, and Pablo Fornals went close on the counter-attack, but fortunately he was unable to turn the ball home after Ben Johnson - another sub - had picked him out.

Having failed to kill off the tie when on top, the Reds were suddenly on the back foot and had further defending to do when Aaron Wan - Bissaka's risible, skied clearance needed the attentions of the otherwise redundant Henderson, whom tipped the ball over the ball for a corner. 

That prompted a double change from Solskjaer with McTominay and that man Fernandes introduced in place of Matic and the almost anonymous van de Beek. 

Fernandes was inevitably straight into the action as the game entered the final ten minutes, as the Portuguese playmaker tried his luck from distance only to see the effort deflect away to safety. Martial went close with a header and Rashford flashed a shot wide as United upped the ante in search of a late winner.

With extra-time looming, there was - predictably - a heart in mouths moment for United as a late Hammers corner caused panic and Craig Dawson's flicked header was blocked under the bar by the stretching Wan - Bissaka. 
AWB was forced off for the additional 30 through injury, having sustained a knock, with Brandon Williams going to right-back and Shaw replacing Telles on the opposite flank. 

You always felt the tie would ultimately be settled by either a mistake or a piece of brilliance, and so it proved through the latter. The Reds broke on West Ham at trademark speed, as Fred caused panic in the visiting ranks with an uncharacteristic foray forward. The Brazilian whipped the ball in, Edinson Cavani's flick on found Rashford and he knocked the ball into the path of the onrushing McTominay who fired the ball home on the run - ala Paul Scholes. 

Yet another sub, West Ham's Said Benrahma, almost equalised when his header was well saved by Henderson, but he was offside and so the goal wouldn't have counted anyway. 

Martial almost added a second at the death, but United had done enough to book our place in the last eight for a seventh successive season and remain on course for potential cup glory. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Alex Telles. Rarely tested defensively but looked excellent going forward and his crossing proved a threat throughout 

Monday, 8 February 2021

The highs and lows of the Beautiful Game

On Saturday, Manchester United marked the anniversary of our darkest hour, 63 years on from the tragic events at Munich that defined the course of history for this iconic club. 

Indeed, if I could channel my inner David Tennant and boast the ability to time travel, I would transport myself back to the Old Trafford of the mid 50s and watch in wonderment as Messrs Taylor, Edwards, Pegg, Colman and Byrne et al thrilled the world and became all-conquering. Even my uncle, the man thanks to whom I caught the bug that is United, was too young to remember them. I may not have had the eternal honour of watching the legendary team in action, but it shaped the future of the club I - and millions of others - would fall deeply in love with. The memory of Munich will forever be enshrined in the very fabric of the greatest football club in the world. 

You won't need me to tell you what happened, as every football fan on the planet knows the story of the finest young side in the land, the generational talents cut down in their prime by a plane crash - a plane that failed to get off the ground and crashed on take off on a snowy, slush covered runway. A team and a tale immortalised in black and white as a group of brilliant young men forever consigned to the annals as the Busby Babes. 

The ceremony marking the tragedy was, of course, a significantly watered down affair this year, amidst the backdrop of a national lockdown in the battle against the single biggest health crisis this country has even seen. But if the Munich memorial service was more low key than usual, then the match that followed it certainly wasn't. It was only the fourth time ever that United have played on the actual date -  6 February - and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called for a performance and a result to honour those we lost in a manner befitting of the finest traditions of the club. Solskjaer wanted United to put on a showing synonymous with the Busby Babes penchant for expansive, exciting and attacking football. 

For 94 minutes, he looked as if he had got his wish in a rip-roaring, superbly see-sawing content in which United led 2-0 and then 3-2, having been pegged back, only for Dominic Calvert - Lewin to administer a last gasp kick to the solar plexus and pilfer a precious point for the Toffees at the death.
In doing so came the painful realisation that the Everton man had done so much more than simply deny us a victory. As he wheeled away in celebration and assistant Duncan Ferguson needlessly cavorted down the Old Trafford touchline, in all probability and barring a miracle, United's dreams of title no.21 went with him. But in the spirit of Sir Matt's finest, this is a club that never give in and fight for everything until the last second. Manchester City have turned a tight title tussle into a procession in no time at all, but you can never truly write Manchester United off. 

It was all a far cry from a week hence, when the Reds had smashed Southampton to smithereens and equalled (our own) record for the biggest margin of victory in the Premier League. It just goes to show that the old adage is true - if a week is a long time in politics, then it is an eternity in football. From quite literally being on cloud nine when basking in the glow of an incredible, if slightly freakish, 9-0 victory, to feeling like we've all been kicked in the proverbials after a gut wrenching draw, all in the space of a few days. Only football can provide two such contrasting emotional states in such a short space of time. 

As the great man once said: "Football eh, bloody hell." But yet, that's what we all love about the Beautiful Game. The capacity to agonise, astonish, captivate, delight and despair in equal measure. Manchester United have certainly succeeded in putting us through the wringer with the whole gamut of emotions in our last two games. I'm sure Sir Matt Busby is chuckling to himself up in the heavens - whilst manager of the supernatural's very own Red-encrusted five-a-side line up, of course. 

Busby was a champion of front-foot attacking play and would be delighted with the fact United are scoring goals for fun, with a sizeable dollop of youth and Academy graduates - a pioneering raison d'etre he so painstakingly built - thrown in for good measure. 

In a week when we experienced every emotion football can throw at you, it's important to remember that the Beautiful Game is exactly that - a game. A former Liverpool manager may have said otherwise, but it really isn't more important than life or death. Especially at a time of year particularly poignant for everyone at Old Trafford as we remember 23 people and eight of our own whom perished on that runway in Germany.

Even with the passing of time all these years on and in this country's own darkest hour, Manchester United's will never, ever be forgotten. 

21 may not be coming after all for Manchester United

 Well, it was certainly fun while it lasted wasn't it?

When Manchester United hit the Premier League's top spot with a 1-0 victory over Burnley last month, social media was awash with understandable - if premature - excitement. United were eleven games unbeaten and had defied the odds to surge to the summit and we got carried along on a wave of emotion as hope turned to belief and that belief in turn gave way to expectation. This was supposed to be a season in which United consolidated and looked to close the gap on our more illustrious competitors. 

Instead, for the first time since our last title winning season, the Reds led the way in the New Year and, temporarily at least, we dared to dream. Dared to dream that the club legend - the baby faced gaffer from Scandinavia would do what many thought improbable, if not impossible, and deliver the goods with the odds stacked against us and with the daunting spectre of fellow North West heavyweights Manchester City and Liverpool lurking at every turn. 

Tongue in cheek it may have been, but the hashtag #21iscoming became a regular feature of many a Reds' Twitter feed. For all our baiting, there perhaps seemed a perfect symmetry that, as 2020 made way for 2021, United's tally of league title wins would do the same. The stars seemed to have aligned and make the Impossible, not for the first time, possible. 

Alas, a month on, and the dream has started to fade. Of course, it's only February and there's still 16 rounds of matches to go - in layman's terms, an awfully long race to run. But what looked to be a four way title tussle for the ages is now rapidly in danger of becoming a one horse procession. Manchester City's winning run was extended to a thirteenth match with a rare and clinical victory at Anfield, all but putting the faltering champions out of the picture and firmly establishing themselves as favourites, opening up a five point gap in the process.

Five points may not sound like much at this stage but Pep Guardiola and his team of City slickers are a side in the finest of fettles. They don't look like conceding even a goal, never mind dropping any points, at the minute. Coupled with the fact they have a game in hand and have been the only team with a semblance of consistency, and you can suddenly see why they have to be regarded as already having one hand on the trophy. Of course, its not in Manchester United's raison d'etre to give in, our very DNA dictates we fight until we can fight no more, and you can be sure that despite what he's said publicly, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's in-house message will follow a very different path. You can never completely write us off, but it would take a man with enormous "cojones" to put your money on anyone other than the sky blue of City from here. Indeed, you're more likely to have success on a wager for them to go the rest of the campaign unbeaten than you would for anyone to pip them to the crown. The only thing that can stop Manchester City from winning the title now is Manchester City themselves. 

Scoring for fun and securing shut-outs supreme, it is difficult to see anyone denying the mob from across the city a third title in four years. United will need a minor miracle to do so from here - we've dropped too many silly points and are conceding too many silly goals with our "GA" column of 30 the most of any top half side. If even if they DO drop points, we'll drop more. As our legendary former manager Sir Alex Ferguson once said: attack wins you games but defence wins you titles..

Our attack is as good as City's and we're the top scorers in the division but its at the other end where any realistic tilt for the title has persistently been undermined. Our front four of Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani (or Anthony Martial) is as good as any the continent has to offer, but a defence of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof won't win you a Premier League title. For context, City have let in a paltry 14 from their 22 games, their backline significantly bolstered by the arrival of Ruben Dias (he looks a quality player) and the unexpected renaissance of John Stones - a man reborn by the presence of his impressive centre-back partner from Portugal.  Perhaps, after all, 21 isn't coming. I don't think many of us actually ever genuinely, deep down, believed it would be, but it was a heck of a lot of fun when we were top of the table and boiling piss for those couple of weeks. Ultimately, United aren't a side - not yet at least - at the level of league champions. 

But Solskjaer's Reds certainly remain on the right track. In truth, this season was never really about the title. It was one in which we looked to bridge the gap between City and Liverpool. We've done that alright, five points off the former and the same number ahead of the latter, in anticipation of a genuine title challenge with added re-inforcements next term. The world and his wife can see that Manchester United need one, if not two, new centre-backs with the injury prone Eric Bailly and not-good-enough Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe the only other options besides Maguire and the Iceman. Sevilla's Jules Kounde and Leipzig's wonderfully-named Dayot Upamecano should be the priority. 

Even a second placed finish would represent improvement on last term's showing when United were third with that final day flourish at Leicester, albeit with a distant, yawning 33 point chasm to the eventual champions from Anfield. If we'd been offered this position at the start of the season, every Red would have snapped your hand off. 

So let's strap ourselves in, enjoy the ride and see where the rollercoaster that is the 2020-21 campaign finally takes us. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Match report: Manchester United 3-3 Everton

United missed the opportunity to pull level on points with Manchester City as Dominic Calvert - Lewin. equalised with the final kick of a six goal thriller at Old Trafford.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had looked on course for a comfortable victory after Edinson Cavani and a stunning Bruno Fernandes strike had put us into a 2-0 lead by the break.
Even when the obdurate Toffees had equalised with two goals in as many minutes through Abdoulaye Doucoure and James Rodriguez, Scott McTominay's thumping header looked to put the Reds again on course for a vital victory.

But we had reckoned without our chronic inability to defend set-pieces as Michael Keane flicked on a Lucas Digne set piece and Calvert - Lewin gut wrenchingly bundled the ball in from close range in the fifth minute of stoppage time. 

The painful dropped points left the Reds two points behind the leaders ahead of the heavyweight clash between Liverpool and Pep Guardiola's side at Anfield later today.
On the 63rd anniversary of the Munich air crash - only the fourth time we've played on the date itself - there was one change from the side that put nine past Southampton in midweek as Paul Pogba came in for Fred, fresh from his stint as an auxiliary left-back.

After Harry Maguire and his Toffees counterpart Digne had laid wreaths in the centre circle in memory of the tragic events on 1958, the visitors started well as the Reds struggled to hit their stride in the way they had against Saints.

Given the poignancy of the day as we remembered the darkest hour in the history of the club, it was perhaps fitting that one of the four Academy graduates in the line-up should be involved in the opener.
Fernandes found Marcus Rashford and his cross evaded ex-Red Keane to pick out Cavani and the predatory Uruguayan showed his prowess in front of goal with a thumping header beyond stand-in stopper Robin Olsen.

Pogba would be forced off soon afterwards with a thigh injury and was replaced by Fred to revert to the XI used in midweek.
The United substitute almost made an immediate impact as he fizzed a shot wide from distance before his compatriot Richarlison went close with a curler at the other end having seized on Victor Lindelof's errant clearance.

Then came a moment that belonged in the pantheon of Old Trafford's greatest. It is almost criminal that Bruno Fernandes is strutting his stuff with no fans present, as this wonderful player deserves for his exploits to be recognised.

It was a filthy, Cantona-esque finish reminiscent of Le Roi's chip against Sunderland in 1996, with the non-celebration to
match. The Portuguese magnifico took his time, shaping to shoot before he audaciously dummied the ball to Aaron Wan - Bissaka whom returned the ball to Fernandes before he crashed a magnificent dipping effort beyond the reach of the startled Olsen - possibly the first player ever to effectively set up himself.

With United 2-0 and comfortable, it should have laid the platform to a comfortable and routine second half. Olsen saved superbly from Luke Shaw on 47 minutes, but in the blink of an eye the contest was turned on its head.

Olsen's intervention spurred Carlo Ancelotti's men into life as Tom Davies found Calvert - Lewin whose cross was merely palmed out to the onrushing Doucoure and he slid home from close range. 
United's penchant for doing things the hard way had reared its head again and the rejuvenated visitors stunned the Reds with an equaliser out of nothing on 52 minutes. Doucoure this time turned provider as he linked up with James Rodriguez and teed up the Colombian for a low, drilled finish with a 20-yarder beyond De Gea to make it 2-2.

The Reds shrugged off the shock of the quickfire double and surged back into life as Rashford was released by Cavani, only to be denied by a smart save from the sprawling Olsen.
A superbly see-sawing contest took another twist as United re-established their advantage with 20 minutes to play. Shaw, having earlier come close to a rare goal, continued his rich vein of form as he picked out McTominay with a magnificent cross and the Scot, himself a man in good nick, glanced home a header beyond Olsen whom probably should have done better.

Fernandes flashed a shot wide and Rashford also went close but Everton continued to threaten and almost levelled again through Calvert - Lewin as he fired narrowly off target after another teasing delivery from the impressive Digne.

You felt we always needed a fourth goal to make sure of victory, and Fernandes almost provided it as he set up a repeat of his match-winning FA Cup heroics with a free-kick. This time, though, he was unable to keep his effort down as the set-piece cleared the bar with ten minutes to go.

It was a moment that agonisingly came back to haunt us as late substitute Axel Tuanzebe scythed down Richarlison to concede a free-kick. United failed to clear and Calvert - Lewin pounced from close range to pilfer a point - three shots on target and three goals for the visitors clearly highlighting where the Reds went wrong.

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

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Rampaging, rampant and red hot United run riot against sorry Saints

Having misfired against Sheffield United and drawn a blank at Arsenal, Manchester United were perhaps due to dish out a thrashing. 
The Reds strikers had come in for criticism after Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford endured a horror show in our shock defeat to the basement boys before Edinson Cavani's gilt-edged misses saw two more points dropped in the soporific stalemate in north London. 

It was almost as if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United - and those three players in particular - had been saving up their goals quota and keeping the power dry, ready to unleash a deluge on whichever unsuspecting opponent dared to stand in their way. Spare a thought for poor old Southampton - a team whom usually hit their tenacious and energetic zenith against United. Ralph Hassenhuttl and his south coast side knew little of the impending carnage as they arrived in M16 on a cold and wet midweek night on the banks of the Irwell. By the end of a record-smashing night, even the most ardent Red would have struggled not to feel the smallest drop of empathy for the drenched and demoralised visitors. 

We had seen enough from the Saints to know they usually give us palpitations when it comes to meetings with United. As if Michael Obafemi's 96th-minute leveller in the corresponding fixture did not serve notice to their danger, United had required climb-off-the-canvas heroics from Cavani at St Mary's in November to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But this time they were merely lambs to the slaughter as Alex Jankewitz's red card, with the game only 74 seconds old, opened the floodgates in spectacular style. Rashford needed a goal and got one. The mercurial Martial needed a goal, and got two, despite starting on the bench. Cavani continued as Southampton's scourge and Bruno Fernandes ended his driest run in front of goal for the Reds with two assists and a penalty. As Solskjaer himself alluded to afterwards, the team spectacularly rediscovered their "mojo" - and how! For Hassenhuttl, the likeable Austrian was left to lick his wounds amidst the unwanted history of a second 0-9 defeat in as many seasons. 

With the 2020-21 season, a campaign like no other, beyond the halfway point, too many games had been won narrowly. Too often, United have survived and got through by the skin of their teeth, flying by the seat of their pants to a succession of nervy, edgy, single-goal victories often secured through a combination of luck, individual moments and sheer bloody mindedness. It had never looked to be a sustainable formula and came back to bite us, hard, against Sheffield. I expected this to be no different, particularly given our penchant for making life difficult both for ourselves and for anyone of a nervous disposition. Since Christmas alone, there had been the 1-0s over Wolves and Burnley (the latter sending us top of the table at Turf Moor) and a pair of 2-1 victories over Villa and Fulham, again sealed through a piece of magic from Paul Pogba. Not to mention the FA Cup KO of Liverpool, also by a single goal, and the goalless draws at Anfield and the Emirates, a gritty if not always easy-on-the-eye sequence that had propelled us into contention and saw Solskjaer's side unexpectedly sit astride the summit. 

Those results were all well and good and grinding out wins is the raison d'etre of any potential champion team. But a side with eyes on the title occasionally needs to make a statement and throw down the gauntlet. You need to be ruthless, relentless, hungry and brutally unforgiving. We hadn't seen that at all from the Reds so far  this term but, against Southampton, Manchester United became that team. It was perhaps only a matter of time, a question of when and not if, United would have a match where everything clicked, and it all came together against the beleaguered Saints. We were, as the old adage says, due one.  Everything United hit found its mark in a masterclass of playing against ten men - we moved the ball with power, pace and precision, stretched the Saints and left them chasing shadows. This was a performance we had been craving - United were rampant, red hot and ruthless and not only sent out that message but also put a sizeable dent in City's goal difference. After weeks of watching from behind the nearest sofa as United put us through the entire gamut of emotions, it was nice to enjoy a night where the result was never really in doubt. 

Prior to Tuesday night's obliteration, only Leeds United had left Old Trafford on the end of a rampage. Scott McTominay had put us into a 2-0 lead inside three minutes and we never looked back, the final 6-2 scoreline representing our biggest return for years and the satisfaction of dishing out a right ol' shellacking at the expense of one of our most hated rivals. A Leeds side with a soft underbelly and one that sees defending as an occupational hazard offered the caveat in the Reds only comfortable league win of the season. It was a result many of us thought would surely be our biggest of the campaign, understandably failing to foresee the carnage and chaos unleashed on the sorry and soporific Saints on Tuesday, 2 February 2021 - a date now forever enshrined in history as one where Manchester United found their shooting boots and equalled their own record for the joint biggest victory in the Premier League era. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Manchester United's Shaw flank redemption

In 2014, Manchester United acquired the then world's most expensive teenager as a rough around the edges unpolished diamond from Southampton.

Luke Shaw was signed by Louis van Gaal as a generational talent for the future, a player who had attracted flirtatious glances from Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool before settling of £27m move to Old Trafford. Tas
ked with filling the void left behind by the departure of one of our greatest ever in Patrice Evra, it always looked a baptism of fire for a young man still finding his feet in the lower echelons of the English game.

For the record, Shaw is now eighth on that particular rich list having been surpassed by some of the finest young footballers on the continent such as Joao Felix, Kylian Mbappe and our own Anthony Martial to name but three. 

Since then, and it has been a hard luck story for a man once touted as potentially the finest left-back England will ever have. There has been crippling injury lay-offs, issues with his weight, frequent fall outs with Jose Mourinho and questions surrounding Shaw's attitude and temperament. 

Indeed, Shaw is fortunate to still be playing at all, never mind for Manchester United at the highest level after his horror leg break five matches into his second season at Old Trafford - sustained in a horror two-footed challenge from Hector Moreno against PSV.
Eleven months on the sidelines set Shaw back years. Upon his return, Mourinho would publicly tear strips off him, both privately and certainly very publicly, and seemed to single the young defender out for criticism. Shaw has perhaps also been unlucky that his own personal struggles have co-incided with a wider collective malaise.

To many, all this made Shaw the very epitome of the post-Sir Alex Manchester United: an expensive flop and not up to standard. But yet, seven years after his arrival at Old Trafford, Shaw is a man in the form of his life. So much so, that not only is he already the favourite for our Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, but he is the best left-back in the country by a considerable distance at present. An England recall surely beckons as he looks to add to his tally of eight appearances for the national side, almost two years since his last outing for England, against Spain the Nations League. 

Even before his injury in November opened the door for Alex Telles, Shaw was our best defender and his star has only shone brighter upon his return. 
Dominant and decisive at Anfield as he pocketed Mo Salah and forced Sadio Mane to the fringes when Jurgen Klopp switched wingers in frustration. Shaw created United's three big chances at Arsenal and was again in full flow as his old club came to town despite only playing the first half. It's difficult to judge a team in circumstances such as this - a shellacking of a Saints side already down to the bare bones before the brainless sending off after 79 seconds of Alexandre Jankewitz. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial ended their goal droughts and silenced any doubters whilst Shaw was simply magnificent.

The raison d'etre of the modern day full-back requires you to be able to attack and defend in equal measure. Both of these aspects of Shaw's game has improved beyond all recognition with his impetus going forward a clear tactic to stretch the Saints in Tuesday night's record equalling rout. 

First came the brilliant delivery to his fellow full-back Aaron Wan - Bissaka - it was such a peach even Shaw's notoriously goal-shy compatriot could not miss - and then doubled his tally for the season with a sumptuous delivery met by an equally excellent header from Edinson Cavani. 
Too often, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young moonlighting as makeshift full-backs, crosses would trundle into the shins of a defender or float harmlessly out of play. This is not simply hit-and-hope into a  area, but targeted, well thought-out crosses that require vision, pace, understanding and execution. As Bruno Fernandes fades into the pack, Shaw is undoubtedly United's best player.

The autumn arrival of Telles from FC Porto, to bolster the ranks and provide tangible competition at left-back, cannot merely be a co-incidence when it comes to Shaw's upturn in form. It's as if he's taken it as a personal insult and the Brazilian's arrival has only lifted our former Player of the Year to an even loftier level.

Set pieces have perhaps skewed his numbers somewhat, but he has never created so much in a season with three assists to his name and his defensive work having benefitted hugely from his improved fitness and maturity. He is now so vital to this side that his withdrawal at the interval against his old side should be seen as a significant compliment with Shaw given a breather in preparation for Everton on Saturday. 

Solskjaer's man-management skills have worked to perfection when it comes to Shaw, talking with kindness and compassion to a man who needed an arm around the shoulder and bringing in Telles as a reminder that no one is an automatic pick. Shaw almost had his career ended by injury and then by Mourinho - there have been carrots, there has been sticks, and now at last the green shoots of recovery have finally broken through the surface. Seven years on, Luke Shaw has finally risen to prominence as a brilliant player whose consistency and reliability exceeds his unrealised potential.

Manchester United's Shaw flank redemption is in full swing. 

Nine, nine, nine as records tumble on historic night

 Just when you thought you had just about seen it all, the 2020-21 season continued to amaze and dazzle on a historic night at Old Trafford.
A night when a season noted for crazy scorelines and ever fluctuating fortunes took another madcap twist as Manchester United equalled our own 26-year-old record in brutal, relentless and unforgiving fashion. 

I wasn't quite four the last time something like this happened, in March 1995 when United recorded the biggest ever margin of victory in a Premier League game with a 9-0 gazzumping (is that a word) of hapless Ipswich. Before my time and only a memory for many a misty-eyed Red, you'd have hard pressed to find even the most ardent of fans who could have foreseen that history would repeat itself. 

As United put a beleaguered, demoralised and depleted Southampton side to the sword, it was hard not to feel a drop of empathy for the likeable Ralph Hassenhuttl and his merry band of men. On a night when records tumbled, Saints themselves secured their own piece of unwanted history as surely the first example of a side losing 9-0 in a professional match twice. Brendan Rodgers' Leicester infamously inflicted the same fate back in October 2019 in eerily circumstances when an early Ryan Bertrand red card preceded an implosion of the like none of us had ever seen before. Until now. This time, just as in that Leicester tie it may have come with a caveat - Saints had ten men for 89 minutes and nine men for seven - but the extenuating circumstances still should not diminish from a truly remarkable feat of football par excellence. 

There have now been three 9-0s in Premier League history and United have had two of them - only two managers have ever won by that margin in a home game. Two men by the names of Alexander Chapman Ferguson and another chap called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Sound familiar? Both were present as the carnage unfolded on Tuesday night, with the former master proudly watching his pupil from his lofty position in the posh seats as a deserted Old Trafford. 

Games with Southampton are often tight and edgy, as Michael Obafemi's 96th-minute leveller in the corresponding fixture last term - and Edinson Cavani's late, climb off the canvas heroics at St Mary's in November - perhaps attest. Admittedly, there was a significant caveat here as the visitors, already with a patched up team, were further depleted when Alexandre Jankewitz channelled his inner WWE impression as he turned from Saint to sinner inside the opening minute.

From then on, the result never really looked in doubt but a chronic failure to break down a low block and a defensive minded team has proved this side's Achilles heel for so long. Even when United had raced into a 4-0 lead by the break, the feeling was that United would ease off against a Saints side firmly set in a damage limitation mode, given the hectic fixture schedule and with minds perhaps elsewhere. 

But the most pleasing thing here was the ruthless and clinical streak from Solskjaer's United. An argument could be made that United should have waved the white flag in an act of surrender at 4-0 - the football equivalent of tanking where you take you foot off the pedal and allow your opponent to restore an air of respectability. But teams with an eye on the prize don't do this - you need to be almost nasty in your approach and take absolute advantage and inflict maximum humiliation. This what Pep Guardiola's Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool would do - don't relent and keep trying to score. Indeed, Solskjaer could be heard pushing his players forward in the search for more, even at 6-0 up in the closing stages. At half-time I said, only half jokingly, that I wanted more from the team. In a title race that might come down to goal difference, every strike is pivotal.

The outright record of our biggest ever competitive victory remained tantalisingly out of reach. That is still our double digit thumping of Anderlecht in our first ever European Cup home game in 1956. A Busby Babes side at the peak of its considerable powers put the Belgian champions to the sword to the tune of a Tommy Taylor hat-trick, a brace from Liam Whelan, Johnny Berry and a four from the indomitable Dennis Viollet. Manchester United 10-0 Anderlecht.

Even in a season where you have to expect the unexpected, this was something I've never seen before nor will likely ever witness again. The closest we have come to such madness in my lifetime was the 7-1 mauling of the mighty Roma in Europe in 2007, swiftly followed by the glorious 8-2 demolition when we shot down the Gunners in 2011. But both of those came with Sir Alex at the helm and the Reds in their prime, as opposed to the fallow and difficult years of the post-Ferguson years when it seemed such hallmarks were a thing of the past. Of course, there is always an element of fluke behind results like this one - everything we hit went in and the manner of Southampton's feeble collapse is one you very rarely ever see at this level. Opponents don't often completely capitulate in the way the Saints did and the lack of fans only further emphasised how bonkers this all was. 

As United became the league's top scorers and moved back level with City at the top, there was another first as the Reds saw seven different players get on the scoresheet for the first time ever (excluding Bednarek's og). This was only the second time this has ever happened, equalling another record, this one set by Chelsea against Villa in 2012 when seven men got on the scoresheet, the most for the same team in a single match. Aaron Wan - Bissaka chipped in with a rare goal, Anthony Martial helped himself to a much needed brace and fellow substitute Dan James got in on the act. Bruno Fernandes ended his goal drought and Edinson Cavani grabbed his first at Old Trafford with a sumptuous header. Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and an own goal from the hapless Jan Bednarek created another unique piece of trivia and completed the scoring in the joint third highest-scoring Premier League tie ever. 

Nine goals against nine men in 90 extraordinary minutes that really do need to be seen to be believed. As Saints look to erase the spectre of unwanted history - again - this was a statement that put Solskjaer's United firmly back on track.... and how!