Saturday 30 January 2021

Match report: Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United

Edinson Cavani came within inches of a dramatic late winner as Arsenal and United again shared the points in an underwhelming encounter. 
The Uruguayan only further served to highlight his credentials as the main striker for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side when his movement and craft created two chances at the death, only to be denied by Bernd Leno and then send a volley narrowly wide.

In truth, a draw was probably a fair result as the Reds remained in second despite Manchester City extending their title lead with a win over our midweek conquerors Sheffield earlier in the day.

Solskjaer shuffled his pack again as he made five changes to the team from midweek, with Scott McTominay and Fred coming back in and the much-malinged Anthony Martial dropped to the bench. Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof also returned after a rest against Sheffield. 

The Norwegian was rewarded with a positive start as the Reds looked to get the feeble Sheffield loss out of their system. Our first opening came from an unlikely source as a Marcus Rashford corner was only half cleared to Fred, and the Brazilian - despite not being known for his shooting prowess- almost put us ahead with a clever lob only to be denied by a good save from Leno.

Gabriel Martinelli cleared well under pressure from Marcus Rashford, and the theme of unlikely attacking contributions continued when Aaron Wan - Bissaka put a header inches wide having been picked out by fellow full-back Luke Shaw. 

Bruno Fernandes curled a shot wide before Alexandre Lacazette tested David de Gea at the other end at the culmination of a Gunners counter-attack to cap an exciting period of play.

With McTominay suffering from stomach cramps, Martial was summoned into action from the bench earlier than he would have expected, with Paul Pogba dropping into a deeper role alongside Fred and his compatriot moved out to the left. 

Rashford frustratingly should have done better when Shaw - once again United's best source of attacking threat - picked him out from close range. Instead of hitting the shot first time, Rashford cut in and tried to nutmeg his marker and chip the keeper, only to be snuffed out by Cedric Soares at the final moment.

Arsenal upped the ante after the restart and finally began to show what they're made of. The excellent Wan - Bissaka blocked superbly from half-time sub Willian, and Harry Maguire did likewise from the next attack, this time to thwart the intermittent promise of Nicolas Pepe. Having controlled the first half, it was all becoming a little last ditch for United's liking. 

But just when it looked as if we were being pegged back, the Reds found a new lease of life and went oh so close through Cavani on 62 minutes. Yet again, it came from Shaw's swashbuckling raid down the left, as he whipped the cross in and United's no.9 looked certain to score, only for the impressive Leno to somehow deflect the ball wide. 

Three minutes later, Arsenal were left cursing their luck as a clumsy foul by Fred teed up a free-kick for Lacazette, but the Frenchman rattled the set piece against the bar. In a game of fluctuating fortunes, De Gea saved superbly from Emile Smith - Rowe and Pepe then went close when he flashed an effort across the face of goal having been put through by the same player.

De Gea denied Granit Xhaka from distance and Mikel Arteta then introduced much hyped loan signing Martin Odegaard, from Real Madrid, for the closing stages.

With the game heading for the first goalless encounter between these two since 2014, there almost came a dramatic denouement. Wan - Bissaka was again involved as he burst clear and found Cavani with an excellent cross, but the striker's hooked effort flew agonisingly off target. 

In truth, though, a draw was a fair result. 

Overall team performance: 7/10. Excellent first half but patchy in the second.
United Faithful Man of the Match: Aaron Wan - Bissaka. Almost faultless in defence and attack. 

Bruno Bruno Bruno, he came from Sporting like Cristiano

 As Bonnie Tyler once sang, Manchester United were holding out for a hero until the end of the night.

A year ago to the very day - 30 January 2021 -  that hero duly arrived at Old Trafford and transformed the fortunes of an entire football club. Eight days hence, United had been jeered off after a wretched 0-2 home loss to Burnley that left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clinging to his job by his fingertips on a night that anti-hierarchy tensions spilled over. The Reds were fifth in the league having suffered back-to-back defeats with a gaping 30-point chasm to soon-to-be champions Liverpool. It was clear that something, whatever it may be, needed to change. 

Enter, Bruno Miguel Borges Fernandes. The fourth Red to arrive at Old Trafford from the sunnier climes of Lisbon, no-one could have imagined the seminal and seismic impact the new arrival would have - not just on the club and the team, but on us fans too.

Not since Eric Cantona has any one single player proved so impactful at United. Eric 'Le Roi' proved the final piece of the title-winning jigsaw as the mercurial and enigmatic Frenchman sparked Sir Alex's side from promising contenders into serial, all-conquering winners. Even CR7 himself took a while to settle before the full force of his talents became apparent. 

Even only a cursory glance of the stats tells you everything: 51 appearances, 28 goals and 16 assists. Four Player of the Month Awards - more than Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Alan Shearer won in their entire careers. It is unheard of for a January signing to earn recognition as player of the season, but Fernandes busted that myth too, winning the prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. Indeed, a case could be made that Fernandes is the greatest Premier League January signing of all time. So much more than simply a penalty specialist, Fernandes has continued to prove himself as the string-pulling heartbeat of Manchester United.

For context, only the best three players on the planet - Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski - have better stats across Europe's top five leagues in the last 12 months. No one has taken more Premier League points than us since the arrival of the metronomic, string-pulling playmaker. 

 It is difficult to put into words exactly the extent of the difference Fernandes has made - an impact embellished further by several soporific years of Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard, to name but two, proving so incompatible in the no.10 position. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata had all been tried there as United attempted to plug the gap with square pegs in round holes. Whilst few of us had even heard of Fernandes, never mind see him play, he quickly became the man we never knew we needed.

In short, he offered us everything those players# either don't or can't. Not only adept from set-pieces, his box-to-box link play, work rate, direct running, passing range and ability to drive us forward, to set the tempo and dictate the play, often arriving into the box at the just the right moment, is reminiscent of Paul Scholes in his prime. That's before you even begin to consider his professionalism and leadership qualities. 

Fernandes carries the air of a player born to don the iconic Red shirt, and plays as if he has a magic wand concealed in his shinpads. With a sprinkling of stardust and a monster mentality, his United career was only 90 embryonic minutes old before he got his own terrace chant. Us lot can be hard to win over, but our new love caught our eye within moments. When he shushed Pep Guardiola in the derby - Old Trafford's last match in front of fans - we had completely taken Fernandes to our hearts. 

In the words of Tyler - he's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be fast and he's gotta be fresh for the fight. There haven't been enough characters at United in the last few years but Fernandes refuses to accept anything less than 100% from everyone around him. Harry Maguire may be the official skipper, but you feel Fernandes is United's captain in all but name. 

I've never felt as sure about anything before as I have in my conviction that this man - our hero in the no.18 shirt, will go on to become an Old Trafford legend and potentially one of our greatest ever.

Bruno, Bruno, Bruno, came from Sporting like Cristiano.. 

Friday 29 January 2021

Farewell Odion Ighalo... the man who lived the dream

 Now, admit it, we've all been there. We've all had that dream where we run out at Old Trafford in the iconic red of United in front of 76,000 fans and score the winner at the Stretford End. For us mere mortals, it will be the closest we will ever get to treading the hallowed turf - such a scenario only ever plays out in the fantasy of our heads. Only ever a dream.

Yet for one man, that fantasy was realised. A man written off as an outcast, a veteran journeyman plucked from the backwaters of the Chinese Super League as a short term, stop gap signing for one of the world's biggest clubs. As Odion Ighalo returns to Shanghai after his loan at United comes to an end, he is living proof that dreams do, indeed, come true. 

Ighalo was written off as the epitome of Manchester United's erratic dealings in the transfer market - with a striker needed, surely there were better options than this bloke, or so the narrative seemed to say. Having searched in desperation for an emergency centre-forward, the Reds final, eleventh hour throw of the dice, looked a case of panicked desperation. Bruno Fernandes had arrived the day before and elevated expectation to such an extent that there was a sense of understandable antipathy and anti-climax surrounding the signing of a player deemed to be not good enough. After all, he had let go by Watford. Watford.... 

Ighalo had gone 18 games without scoring on his last sojourn in the Premier League, and failed to find the net in over 600 minutes during his final months on these shores. So how on earth would he be good enough for the might of Manchester United? Fans, critics and pundits alike were awash with criticism.  But in the space of six short weeks, the only person laughing was the man himself. 

Let's revisit the final hours of transfer deadline day, 2020. A time before Covid changed our lives beyond recognition almost overnight. United needed a striker with Marcus Rashford injured and down to the bare bones up front. Anthony Martial was the only player between the Reds and a full on striker-less crisis. Ighalo, a boyhood fan growing up in Nigeria, took a pay cut to make his dream move happen, signing on loan from Shanghai for the remainder of the 2019-20 season. The move would later be extended until January 2021, with his time at the club officially coming to an end on Wednesday. 

Although Ighalo found game time hard to come by, especially after the arrival of Edinson Cavani this term, he became a cult hero at Old Trafford. Ighalo dispelled the doubters and silenced the sceptics with his infectious enthusiasm, selfless work rate and his fair share of important goals. The first Nigerian to ply his trade for the club, and the seventh African, Ighalo became the first player in 95 years to score on each of his first four starts for the club with a brace at Derby in the FA Cup, the opener at Norwich in the quarter-final and strikes in wins over LASK and Club Brugge in the Europa League. Far from merely a novelty wildcard, Ighalo proved a popular man in his brief time at Old Trafford. 23 appearances and five goals represents a decent return but it's a shame he was only able to play in front of our home fans three times before the pandemic struck and forced football to go behind closed doors. 

When Rashford returned to full fitness post-lockdown, Ighalo's role was limited to sporadic cameos in league and cup, mainly to allow Rashford and Martial a rest and as a rotation option amidst a frantic fixture schedule. He provided cover to United in our hour of need when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reliant upon him, and played his part in our side's run to third place and three semi-finals, albeit without reaching a final. If anything, he leaves United with his reputation enhanced. He even had a terrace chant in his honour. 

There are some warm and cuddly Ighalo moments - from his visceral, unadulterated joy at scoring on his full home debut in his first start against Brugge, to his hold up and supreme touch play as a late sub against City in the derby. Ighalo was brought on to get the Reds out as we clung grimly to the slenderest of leads in the wake of a sky blue onslaught. The image of him caressing the ball having pulled it out the sky to turn, back-heel the ball and set up Scott McTominay's match-winning moment is one that summed up his year in the spotlight at Old Trafford.

So too the scenes as the elated Nigerian was mobbed by exultant team-mate as he wheeled away in delight in that aforementioned European tie with the Belgians. Ighalo deserved credit for the job he did in his short time with us. With United in the midst of a crippling injury crisis and down to one striker, he answered our SOS call. 

Nothing can ever take away the fact that Ighalo lived the dream that every United fan plays out in our heads - the one where we imagine ourselves on the grandest stage of all, plying our trade at Old Trafford in the iconic red. For the boyhood United fan from the Nigerian capital, the past year has capped a truly meteoric rise to stardom. Thanks for the memories, Odion Jude Ighalo. Old Trafford really was your Theatre of Dreams. You'll be welcome back there any time. 

Thursday 28 January 2021

Blades inflict a nasty reality check on Solskjaer's Man Utd

Just how exactly do you go from the zenith of beating Liverpool to the nadir of defeat to the basement boys in the space of four days? Ask Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

Well, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. Manchester United's brief, tantalising view from the summit atop the league is - for now at least - at an end, displaced up there by a Manchester City side in frightening form. 

The players have rightly been lavished with praise and plaudits in the wake of a stunning, almost three-month long unbeaten run in which we had cut a swathe through the league to rise to the pinnacle and look set for an against-the-odds title challenge.

Yet everything we had strived for, the huge strides the club have taken, all we had done to reach that point came crashing down on Wednesday. Of course, one loss does not mark the end of a title challenge, just as a winning run to put you top of the league doesn't mean you will stay there. But it's a huge psychological boost to a rampant Manchester City side, a superb team that feasts on uncertainty and inconsistency. Title winning sides don't lose to bottom of the table ones. City have the advantage now and history tells us that once they have it, Pep Guardiola usually ensures it is one they do not relinquish. 

We were on top of the world after rising to the summit and then knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup. Three days on, and the side propping up the Premier League pop up and administer a kick to the private parts. Football, bloody hell. The league has seen some crazy results - Liverpool's 7-2 loss to Villa, their      1-0 home defeat to Burnley, and our thumping at the hands of Spurs to name but three. But this one trumps all of those and more as the biggest upset of all. If a week is a long time in politics, it is an eternity in football. 

Hope had turned to belief and in turn that belief turned to expectation for every win United put together. The longer the unbeaten run went on, the more we started to dream that 21 was coming. Yet all of this came crashing down in brutal and unforgiving fashion as the Blades - rock-bottom of the league with one win and five points before their trip to M16 - cut United open and exposed hidden failings to inflict a nasty and damning reality check on Solskjaer's United. Jekyll and Hyde United FC reared their ugly head again. 

It was perhaps one that was needed, and we can only hope that this, indeed, is only a minor blemish. It could one of two ways. Either we'll put this result behind us and embark on another unbeaten streak or the bubble has been well and truly popped. This side has previous for this kind of thing. Remember back to when Solskjaer got the job permanently after his stint as caretaker. A side that could not stop winning suddenly forgot how to do exactly that. 

One thing's for sure. I want to see the very opposite of this Manchester United when we visit the Emirates and in-form Arsenal on Saturday night. I want a reaction, a raging, red-rag-to-a-bull Reds side. I hope the players have been badly hurt by this result. I certainly have been. I'll be the first to admit I have given this side immense credit where it's due - credit for a brilliant surge of form and credit for getting into this position in the first place, extolling the virtues of our new found mentality and for showing the hallmark of champions. All true at the time, but forgotten amidst the wreckage of a sorry and soporific night at the office. 

Perhaps, even deep in the subconscious, the players took their eye off the proverbial ball in a game that looked a home banker, coming as it did sandwiched between the high octane environs of totemic tussles with Liverpool and Arsenal. We can't know for sure but its come back to bite you on the arse.

I can accept losing - it's part of the game and comes with the territory. You cannot win every game. But to lose in that fashion to those opponents with so much at stake is criminal, embarrassing and unacceptable. The manner of the loss was shambolic. The players let us down - completely lacking in desire, fight, energy, guts and character. Words I haven't had to pen for a very, very long time but ones befitting of the type of performance and result that we thought had been consigned to the history books. No pressure on the ball, no organisation, no commitment or desire to lunge in and make that tackle, win that ball - everything we have seen from our side over the past few weeks and months was bizarrely conspicuous by absence. Solskjaer should be absolutely seething. 

 In a way, it would have been easier to take had we lost to Liverpool - at least we could hold our hands up and admit (albeit through gritted teeth) that they were simply a level or two above us. Like the Man City defeat in the League Cup when United acquitted themselves well but fell short against a good side in a rich vein of form. Sure, it was disappointing, but you could take solace from the fact that it was against opponents capable of doing that to anyone. Not so when its Sheffield United, a side that had beaten only but Newcastle before their improbable, upside down, form book defying victory. It wasn't a smash and grab either - the Blades were excellent and, in 38 year old Phil Jagielka, had a heroic defensive performance for the ages. 

Indeed, in terms of the "exploit Manchester United weakness" bingo, this was a full house. A sluggish start, frailty at the back, a continued inability to defend from set pieces and a struggle to break through a defensively well-drilled opponent who score first and sit in a low block. 

There are questions surrounding the selection and substitutions. As already mentioned elsewhere - how Anthony Martial played the full 90 minutes is beyond me. Edinson Cavani should have replaced him, not Mason Greenwood, and should have come on at half-time. Donny van de Beek and Luke Shaw were thrown into the fray too late but we were already trailing. You can legitimately look at Solskjaer for this but the bare truth is, it should not have mattered whatever decisions he made. Regardless of selection or tactical decision, the team we had out still should have been enough to win that game and it wasn't. I'm at a loss to explain why. 

The first goal may have been contentious with David de Gea barged out the way out of the ball by Billy Sharp, allowing Kean Bryan a clean run and header on goal. There seemed little wrong with Harry Maguire's duel with Aaron Ramsdale that saw Martial's goal disallowed for a foul. But, that aside, there can be no excuses, particularly having got ourselves back into the game through a trademark Arry' header. 

Where do you even begin with the goal that turned out to be Sheffield United's winner? From Martial's failure to keep hold of the ball on halfway to Axel Tuanzebe deflecting the ball beyond De Gea, it was an absolute shitshow - a comedy of errors. Nemanja Matic failed to close down, Alex Telles was out of position and De Gea and Maguire's brain-freeze saw them forget the golden rule of defensive uncertainty - if in doubt get it out!! That ball had to go into Row Z or even for a corner. It was a goal I would be embarrassed to concede at Sunday league standard, never mind Premier League level. And we're supposed to believe this lot have a genuine shot at the title with defending like that!! There were five players responsible for the concession of the goal. It beggars belief. 

We all would have settled to be in this position - one point behind the league leaders in January and still with a long way to go. But if anyone realistically thought we had a genuine chance of lifting this title, then that faint hope was surely eviscerated here. 

But in a season of unpredictable results, anything is still possible. We're now going to see what Solskjaer's United are made of. If it was a test of character and cojones beforehand, it is even more of one now.

Do we really have what it takes to go for the title? Can we cope with the bitter disappointment of an unexpected setback? Do we have the resilience that champions are made of? We'll find out on Saturday at Arsenal.

Anthony Martial's Sheffield United disasterclass

Manchester United's bad night at the office in defeat to Sheffield was epitomised by the performance of Anthony Martial. 

It would be unfair to solely single the Frenchman out for criticism, given the fact he was by no means the only man to have a shocker in the upset of the Premier League season so far. But the mercurial Frenchman's disasterclass was the worst individual performance you will see for a long, long time and only added to the feeling that he simply isn't up to standard. Against Sheffield, Martial was, to put it bluntly, a disgrace. 

Everything went wrong for the Frenchman. He was slow, he was lazy, he didn't get involved in the game, his touch was poor and he barely threatened in front of goal bar the disallowed effort. He looked devoid of any confidence or creativity and lacked the guile to get in behind the visitors resolute and well-organised defence. 

No-one covered themselves in glory, and too many players weren't at the races. Alex Telles was poor, Nemanja Matic ineffective and Marcus Rashford anonymous. Mason Greenwood failed to fire and although Bruno Fernandes work-rate could not be faulted, he too failed to hit the heights. So many players have done so much right in recent weeks, but everything went wrong here. You can get away with two or three players enduring an off night, but there's no escape when its your whole team. 

Martial had a great season last year, so much so that he was championed as our Player of the Year on these very pages. A 23-goal campaign would surely have been 30 if not for injury and he was the Reds most consistent performer after lockdown. Re-energised and a man in fine fettle, only the form of Fernandes denied him the Sir Matt Busby award and he looked a player back to his best. Off the back of his best season in front of goal for the Reds, he looked set to kick on again as 2020-21 rolled around.

Four months into that said season, Martial has two league goals and five in all competitions, from 25 appearances. For context, Edinson Cavani - a veteran 33-year-old signed on transfer deadline day - has twice as many strikes from ten fewer appearances. 
But the application and attitude between the two are chalk and cheese. The Uruguayan, despite his advancing years, never stops running and has a phenomenal work-rate. His movement is elite and he has shown more aptitude and stomach for the fight in a few months than Martial has in half a decade. Moments after coming on against the Blades, Cavani made a clever run to pull the Blades defence out of position and get to a Paul Pogba ball only to put the header off target. It showed just how much more he can offer when compared to the anonymous Martial. Even if you agree with the notion that Cavani should have started against Sheffield, whatever the XI was picked by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should have been good enough to win. 

Seven months on from his hat-trick against the same opponents, the Frenchman cut a forlorn figure in the latest meeting with the Blades. Cowed and stymied by some early rough-house treatment, the fact that a 94-year-old Phil Jagielka enjoyed one of the easiest nights of his life tells you everything when it comes to trying to pick the bones out of Martial's pitiful showing.

Slow and lazy, it was he whom will have to carry the can - at least in part - for Sheffield's second goal. Martial lost the ball on halfway and didn't even try to get back, moving as slowly as a snail as the attack built. Granted, Harry Maguire and David de Gea should have done more to avert the danger, but it all stemmed from Martial's all-too-easy squandering of possession. 
But worse was to follow. In the 89th minute and United pushing for the goal that would have at least rescued a point, Martial was ten yards away throwing his arms around and made no last-ditch lung-busting effort to burst into the box in anticipation of a chance. 
We have had languid players before - Dimitar Berbatov wasn't exactly renowned for his work rate and even Cristiano Ronaldo ambled - but those players were unbelievable and had the talent to avoid such criticism. They both compensated for a perceived lack of work-rate but Martial either doesn't, or chooses not to.

Martial is enigmatic and mercurial at the best of times, but flopped spectacularly here - so much so, you had to remind yourself he was even on the team list. He should have been taken off at the interval, but yet somehow completed the match in its entirety - exactly how is beyond me. 

It was a night that only further emphasised Cavani's credentials as our main striker. 

For Martial, though, this was probably the worst individual performance I've seen from him and an absolute disasterclass. 

Match report: Man Utd 1-2 Sheffield United

 Manchester United's title challenge suffered a setback after a deflected Oliver Burke winner saw the rock-bottom Blades pull off the biggest shock of the season.
Fresh from beating Liverpool in the FA Cup, there seemed a sense of formality as Chris Wilder's struggling side - having picked up five points all season and depleted in numbers - arrived at Old Trafford.

Yet United fell behind in familiar fashion when Kean Bryan put the side from across the Pennines in front on 23 minutes. Harry Maguire's bullet header against his old club looked to set up the inevitable, but instead of a late United onslaught, Burke's winner, deflected off the recalled Axel Tuanzebe, knocked the stuffing out of the Reds.

With Saturday's trip to Arsenal on the horizon, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shuffled his pack and recalled several of his fringe men with starts for Tuanzebe, Alex Telles, Nemanja Matic and Mason Greenwood in a side showing six changes from the Liverpool FA Cup contest.

Solskjaer's side started brightly and went close through Marcus Rashford and then Greenwood, who rounded Aaron Ramsdale but was crowded out before he was able to get his shot away.

The visitors had picked up three wins in four games and played with a belief and a confidence previously conspicuous in absentia. 
United's set piece struggles reared its ugly head again in the 23rd minute when John Fleck found Bryan from a corner. The latter rose above Paul Pogba to beat the onrushing David de Gea to the ball and nod the ball in, despite replays showing the United keeper had been fouled by Billy Sharp.
Soon after, it looked a
s if United had equalised through the otherwise anonymous Anthony Martial when he flicked in from close range, only for referee Peter Bankes to adjudge that Maguire had fouled Sheffield stopper Ramsdale.

When set against the fact De Gea had suffered a seemingly worse infringement, it looked a tough call for United. 
Greenwood pulled a shot wide after Bruno Fernandes had picked him out with the Blades happy to sit back and protect their slender, precious lead at all costs. The Yorkshire side remained a threat at the other end, though, and went close twice in quick succession through David McGoldrick.

The striker was denied by De Gea when one-on-one and then fizzed a curler narrowly wide with the outside of his foot having been played through.
Rashford's knuckle ball from a set piece was saved by Ramsdale but the Reds enjoyed more joy from a similar free-kick only three minutes further on.
Shortly after the hour mark, Maguire popped up with a captain's goal against his old club to haul United level and pave the way for eventual victory - or so we thought.
Telles had endured a difficult night but set up the equaliser with an inswinger and Maguire barely had to leap as he met the ball with a thumping header beyond Ramsdale to finally restore parity.

The Reds were following the same script we had seen on countless occasions this season in going behind to obdurate opponents before climbing off the canvas to win.
Only this time, there was to be an unwelcome sting in this particular tale.

Edinson Cavani was summoned from the bench and replaced Greenwood as the Reds set about their task of another climb-off-the-canvas victory.
But the tie would be level for only ten minutes as Sheffield re-took the lead in a manner that has to be seen to be believed.
Martial lost the ball on halfway and failed to track back, allowing the Blades to spring forward as United failed to clear. Nemanja Matic and Tuanzebe stood off as Maguire and De Gea's ill-fated attempts to clear saw the ball drop for Burke and his shot deflected off Tuanzebe to wrong-foot De Gea and find its way in via the bar.

Despite our penchant for spectacular acts of late escapology, the Reds were unable to find a way through as the Blades packed the defence in an attempt to hold out. Ramsdale saved well from Telles and Pogba drilled wide from distance, but this time there was to be no late drama.

Let's put this one down to a bad night at the office.  

Overall team performance: 2/10 (Referee: 0) 
United Faithful Man of the Match: Aaron Wan - Bissaka 

Monday 25 January 2021

Scouse-busting victory felt good and meant a lot

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first victory over Jurgen Klopp threw down the gauntlet and sent out a message to the rest of the football fraternity.
The affable Norwegian has enjoyed some seminal days in the dugout at Old Trafford but this one was particularly seismic - coming as it did against our biggest rivals, our most hated adversary still basking in the glow of European and domestic glory. A side touted by some as the greatest Premier League one of all time. Yet here was United - a United side painstakingly built in the image of their manager - going toe-to-toe with one of Europe's finest and emerging triumphant.  

It is almost as if Solskjaer and this side have taken that as a personal insult - not just rising to the summit of the league but opening up a six point advantage over the Scousers and eviscerating them from the FA Cup to boot.

In a game that had everything its league predecessor a week hence lacked, this was also everything Solskjaer's United want to be - thrilling, brave, mentally strong and, above us, victorious. Every victory should be toasted but any result against the Scousers is always extra special. Especially when we've had to suffer in silence as witnesses to the re-birth of Liverpool, finally re-awakened from their self inflicted slumber by the arrival of the charismatic Klopp. The crowing and the mocking has been painful to stomach, even more so when set alongside United's own lack of success. It has not been nice to see Man City and Liverpool trade honours and supremacy of late, so this victory felt good and meant a lot. Winning an under 12s game against this mob would mean the world, but this one came with a cherry on top. Let's just say that the gobshites have been conspicuous by their absence since Sunday night. Things you love to see.  

It was a match in which we saw Liverpool throw all they had at the Reds - but United returned it twice as hard. The Reds went behind and were then pegged back, but we saw the confidence and belief coursing through the veins of this side. A few months ago, you feel United would have gone under, but not now. We never panicked, didn't buckle and heads never dropped. Instead, the setback of Mo Salah's double only further showed the renewed mental strength of Solskjaer's United - enjoying our best spells of the game after both Liverpool goals and, in Bruno Fernandes, we had a meteoric match-winner to step up and play the decisive hand. In the Portuguese, the Reds now have a stellar talent capable of making the difference in games such as this one.  It spoke volumes that, even at 2-2 and with Liverpool exerting control, you always felt we'd go on to secure the win. It's been a long, long time since we've been able to say that. 

This might 'only' have been the FA Cup - a tournament that seems to diminish in importance with every passing season - but it was still a statement victory. Three years on from our last win over Liverpool, we've knocked them both off their perch and out of the cup in the space of a week. I haven't been this proud of a United side for years. 

For a man labelled as a PE teacher, Solskjaer is putting together an impressive CV of managerial scalps. In the past year alone, he has beaten: Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola (x 3), Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann, Carlo Ancelotti twice, Marcelo Bielsa and now Klopp. In cutting the German down to size, Ole has now prevailed over all of his so called "Big Six" rivals - and a few more thrown in for good measure. 

There was a hint of delicious deja vu as - twenty-two years on from scoring the injury-time winner to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup as a player en route to the treble (as a sub no less, of course), Solskjaer shot down the Scousers for the first time as United manager. 

There were no points on offer or positions at stake, but during a season in which United have enjoyed an unexpected rise to Premier League prominence, this was a psychological boon that also maintains that most precious commodity - momentum. United have only progressed another round in victory, but it was against Liverpool and the importance of that alone needs no embellishment. 

It also banished the notion that this United side only ever performs well against England's lesser lights but struggle when up against the creme de la creme of those in the upper echelons of the game's pecking order. 

Solskjaer's greatest triumphs at Old Trafford have come in the face of pragmatism - with Chelsea, PSG and City all humbled with a counter-attacking defensive trident last term and RB Leipzig humbled by a narrow diamond. Solskjaer's coup over Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs came amid the halycon days of his caretaker honeymoon and the uplifting pair of back-to-back 2-1 victories over City and the north London side were resilient rearguards over the two most decorated bosses of our generation.

This time, though, Solskjaer went with four at the back and we were notably more front-footed as a result - we pressed Liverpool into submission, played high up the pitch and took on Liverpool by playing them at their own game - there are signs that this multi-functional United are evolving. 

Ultimately, it was a day in which we showed how far we've come in such a short space of time, in beating a side considered streets ahead of us not so long ago. It felt good and meant a lot!

Sunday 24 January 2021

Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool: Player ratings - Rashford and Shaw excel as United go through

 Manchester United are through to the FA Cup fifth round after knocking out Liverpool in a superb cup tie at Old Trafford. 
After a sterile stalemate in the league at Anfield last week, these two old rivals served up a classic for the ages as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United prevailed in a five-goal thriller to set up a last 16 tie with West Ham. 

It was Solskjaer's first win over Jurgen Klopp in another notable scalp for the Reds manager. Here, we look at who starred and who struggled at Old Trafford.

Dean Henderson - 7

Powerless to prevent the opener but perhaps could have done better for Salah's second as the ball went underneath him. Cleared his lines well and made two good saves from Trent Alexander - Arnold and the hat-trick hunting Egyptian, the latter at 2-2 and with Liverpool getting on top, A save that was crucial in eventual victory. Did his job.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 7

Liverpool got no change down his flank and that was down to the solidity and resilience of Wan - Bissaka. Linked up well with Paul Pogba and got forward well, bursting forward to support the attack and got a couple of good crosses in. His passing was a little negligible at times. AWB would benefit from some competition at right-back. 

Harry Maguire - 6

Just doesn't look as commanding or as comfortable as he does alongside Eric Bailly. At fault for the second goal when he got caught in possession trying to pass out. Struggled to keep tabs on the forwards but there were some good clearances and some key blocks. Didn't do much wrong but not fantastic either. 

Victor Lindelof - 6

Not particularly good but not particularly bad either. Hardly put a foot wrong at Anfield but got caught out of position for Salah's opener. Struggled against the movement and guile of Roberto Firmino and lost the ball quite easily on occasions. At fault for the first goal. Doesn't look confident and remains a worry. 

Luke Shaw - 9

Perhaps a bit of a surprise starter, but the best player on the pitch again by a considerable distance. He is playing at a phenomenal level right now. Possibly partly responsible for Salah's opener but it's fair to say he redeemed himself with a stunning performance as he linked with Rashford, overlapped and stormed forward at will. Defensively good, magnificent going forward and added an end product with a series of testing crosses. Deserves an England recall. Never stopped running and outshone his more illustrious full-back compatriots. 

Scott McTominay - 6

Caught in possession more than once but grew into the game and looked better when Fred came on. Shielded the centre-backs well and his work rate was key in tracking the runners and recycling the ball. Had a couple of decent openings but played in a deeper role than normal and got found wanting. 

Paul Pogba - 7

Quiet by recent standards but showed flashes of form and put a shift in. A slightly different job here in a spoiling role rather than all-action attack. Played a part in our equaliser as he won the ball that started the move to culminate in Greenwood's leveller. Diligent and disciplined, this was another quietly effective showing - but the BBC's decision to give him man of the match seemed an odd one. 

Mason Greenwood - 7

Scored for the first time in ten games with a trademark run, touch and finish inside the box. A strike he badly needed and looked back to his best at times. Got an assist, too, albeit a fortuitous one as Rhys Williams should have dealt with Greenwood's ball in behind. Unlucky to be taken off at 2-2 and with United in need of a goal, but looked a threat on the break even if he did drift in and out of the tie at times. 

Donny van de Beek - 5

Awarded a rare start but did nothing to justify the outcry over his lack of game time. Slowed the game down, looked rusty and was always on the periphery despite his role in the first goal. Too safe on the ball,  and you struggle to see what he offers. Had a few bright moments but faded to the fringes and was hooked shortly after the hour. A disappointing day. 

Marcus Rashford - 8

Looked far more comfortable stationed in his more favoured position on the left. Terrorised Liverpool all day with a stunning pass for Greenwood's opener and a thumping, wonderfully composed finish for the second. Caused Trent Alexander - Arnold no end of problems with his pace and direct running. Back to his best. Looked to have picked up a knock in the second half. Excellent.

Edinson Cavani - 7

Although he was generally starved of service and didn't get involved in the penalty box too much, the veteran Uruguayan provides a focal point and a presence that the other strikers simply don't, or can't. Struck the post with a late header and ran himself into the ground with an immense work rate. Showed his importance despite not getting on the scoresheet. Still awaiting his first Old Trafford goal but used his experience to earn the free-kick for the winner when Fabinho scythed him down. 

Subs - Fred (for Greenwood, 66 mins) - 7

Combative, energetic and helped United wrest control of the midfield at a time when Liverpool were coming on strong. United's attacking impetus was notably stronger and improved when the little Brazilian came on. Sadio Mane should have perhaps been sent off for his reckless lunge on him, but it was a good call from Solskjaer despite the need for a goal. Must be a pain in the backside to play against. 

Bruno Fernandes (for van de Beek, 66 mins) - 8

Given a much-needed rest as he started the game on the bench, he wasn't on the pitch for long but his impact grows ever more seminal. Often criticised for not showing up in the biggest of the games, that wasn't the case here with a majestic free-kick to decide the tie. A sensational late cross for Cavani should have given him an assist. The spark, the fire-starter, the talismanic figurehead. What a player. Curled home the free-kick like a penalty. 

Anthony Martial (for Rashford, 86 mins) - N/A

No rating. Came on to hold the ball up and to get United out. Not on long enough

Match report: Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool

A stunning strike from substitute Bruno Fernandes set the seal on a famous win over old rivals Liverpool and sent the Reds into the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Fernandes stepped off the bench and made the decisive difference as he fizzed home a curler with a free-kick 12 minutes from time after Mo Salah had scored twice either side of goals from Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. 

But in a game that had everything last week's sterile stalemate in the league lacked, United deservedly edged a superbly see-sawing contest to set up a tie with in-form West Ham and former manager David Moyes in the last 16.

It was a thrilling, nervy, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster between these two powerhouses of the English game, the country's two biggest and most glamorous clubs in the world's most famous cup competition with nineteen FA Cups between them.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made five changes from the midweek win over Fulham with a recall for cup keeper Dean Henderson and a rare start for Donny van de Beek. Liverpool drew first blood through Salah, the Egyptian breaking his own personal Old Trafford duck. The two Academy boys, Greenwood and Rashford, then combined to turn the tie on its head before a fine Fernandes free-kick after a second Salah goal.

Liverpool monopolised the ball early on, but the Reds fired a couple of early warnings through the pace of Greenwood as he was denied by Alisson and then drilled wide at the Stretford End after a quick counter attack.
It would be third time lucky for the teenager, but not before Liverpool took the lead on 18 minutes, ending their recent travails in front of goal. United were carved open as youngster Curtis Jones played a defence-splitting ball to leave Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw flat-footed. With the United defence out of the game, Salah seized on the pass and advanced on goal to lift the ball over the advancing Henderson and put Jurgen Klopp's side ahead.

But this United side are made of stern stuff and restored parity only eight minutes later. Paul Pogba broke up a Liverpool attack and scooped the ball out to the magnificent Rashford. Continuing his mission of feeding kids, Rashford arrowed a sublime ball from his own half and into the path of Greenwood who pulled the ball down and slotted beyond Alisson.
Paul Pogba headed wide and Scott McTominay also went close, but United were turning the screw and ended the first half in dominant mood.
Alisson denied Shaw with a superb stop and Pogba was narrowly off target with a curler as the aforementioned war of attrition was instantly forgotten, in lieu of this markedly more exciting and end-to-end affair.

The interval failed to thwart United and it took us only three minutes in the second half to take the lead. 
It was a brilliant, clinical and incisive move that saw Greenwood turn provider as he collected a throw-in from Shaw and clipped the ball down the line to Rashford. Centre-half Rhys Williams should have done better but the Liverpool defender missed the ball completely and freed Rashford to race through and fire beyond Alisson to put United 2-1 ahead. 

But back came Liverpool, as our advantage lasted only a further ten minutes. James Milner hooked over from close range when he should have scored but it proved only a temporary let-off as the Anfield side kept up the pressure and made United pay for a poor attempt at playing out from the back. The loose ball fell to Salah and he gleefully gobbled up the opening to make it 2-2 two minutes shy of the hour mark.

With replays abolished for this season due to the hectic fixture schedule, the tie would need to be decided on the night with extra-time and penalties if required. Henderson tipped away from Trent Alexander - Arnold and was then called into action again as he stuck out a foot to stop Salah getting a hat-trick. 
Liverpool were on top now and Solskjaer had seen enough, bringing on Fernandes in place of van de Beek to try and snatch back the initiative. Fred also came in to tighten the midfield and give United an element of control in the engine room.

Fernandes has proved United's talismanic match winner on countless occasions since his arrival at the club, a year ago almost to the day. Edinson Cavani was recklessly scythed down by Fabinho - fortunate to still be on the pitch after several cynical fouls - and Bruno took responsibility for the set-piece. It was almost like a penalty for the Portuguese as he majestically curled the kick over the wall and into the bottom corner beyond the reach of the stranded Alisson. 
In a frantic, heart-stopping finish (is there ever any other kind), Cavani headed off a post from a Fernandes cross and Harry Maguire cleared superbly under pressure from Sadio Mane as United held out to book their place in round five. Get in!

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. The best player on the pitch by a distance.... again 

Thursday 21 January 2021

Solskjaer's United showing the hallmark of champions

In March 2007, title-chasing Manchester United travelled to the banks of the Thames to face a struggling, relegation-threatened Fulham side.
True to form, and in vintage United fashion, it was not a match for the faint-hearted. Indeed, supporting this club should come with a health warning and an advisory for those of a nervous disposition to stay away.
United were six points clear with Jose Mourinho's twice-defending champions breathing down their necks and with a game in hand. Fulham took the lead through Brian McBride and, although Ryan Giggs equalised, it looked set to be a pivotal day in the title race as the Reds pressed for a winner that seemed as though it would never come. 
Step forward Cristiano Ronaldo. With United under siege, the man who would go on to become the greatest goalscorer in the history of the game cut inside and fired home a late, late winner at the death to seal a priceless victory and spark scenes of wild celebrations. Sir Alex Ferguson raced down the touchline to celebrate in front of the jubilant travelling Reds, so much did the result mean to him.

And so on such smash-and-grabs are title challenges built. United did so countless times under Sir Alex but, since the great man retired, the Reds have often lacked the stomach for the fight. Too many silly points dropped against lesser sides have undermined any consistent status as contenders. United only lost five games in Mourinho's first season in charge, but we drew 15 and many of those came at Old Trafford against the likes of Burnley, Bournemouth, Stoke, West Ham and Hull. Put simply, if you want or expect to push for the major honours, these matches are must wins. It is often said that you learn more about a side against teams like these than you do when you play  far more glamorous and illustrious opposition. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side improbably lead the way atop the table at the halfway stage, admittedly only by two points and in the midst of what looks to be a title battle for the ages. Even since Christmas, Solskjaer's United have been grinding out perhaps at times ugly, but no less important, victories. Such a habit used to be one of the clear characteristics of Manchester United as a supreme, all-conquering, title-winning juggernaut. But it seemed to be an ability and intrinsic sense of psychology that has been conspicuous in absentia since Sir Alex retired. Whatever it was that gave United the repeated ability to snatch tight games at the death or to get over the line when backs were firmly against the wall, it seemingly left Old Trafford with Sir Alex.

But this side - Solskjaer's United 2.0 - have rediscovered this happy knack. The team have proved more than capable of blowing sides away in blistering fashion (just ask Leeds) but can grind results out. 

 Wolves were bitten in the 93rd minutes when a late Marcus Rashford winner pilfered the points. Aston Villa were vanquished and Burnley beaten - it's always a battle at Turf Moor and this time proved no different. It certainly wasn't for the faint hearted. In the not too distant past, the Reds would have fallen short but - on a night when United had a chance to go top - their patience and perseverance paid off. It highlighted that this was a United with a renewed physicality and new found mental-strength for consistency. Grinding out results and seeing out tight games are the bedrock for any side with ambitions of success. You're not going to win 4-0 every week. In fact, our very own Michael Carrick once said he preferred it this way. 

It's getting to the stage of the season where you hear a phrase that seems to have been invented solely for situations like this one. No one is quite sure what exactly it is, but that never seems to stop the mainstream media and press trotting out the "(insert team name) have the hallmark of champions." 

Recent history suggests that it is exactly what we're seeing from United at the moment - a down-and-dirty 1-0 away win to an awkward, no-frills opponent, one serving to ruggedly prove a side's title staying power once and for all. It's enshrined in Premier League tradition. Often, it's only after the New Year, only usually applied to a match played in particularly nasty weather and only when a grim fixture is won in a particularly gritty and unspectacular manner. Indeed, it was once said that the acid test of many a player and his team was Stoke away on a cold Wednesday night. 

These supposed late-season characteristics could have been written for Ferguson's sides. Well worn and the oldest of old adages - that winning without playing well is the stuff every champion has to do. Breaking down into a muddy, bloody collection of habits, such as grinding out results, popping up with late goals and, of course, the occasional slice of luck. Take United in 2007-08, for instance. In a double winning season, the Reds of Rooney and Ronnie et al won eight out of eleven games 1-0 in the depths of a gruelling winter. The following season, twelve post Christmas game were won by the same unglamorous scoreline. A United side that only conceded 24 league goals all season seemed to win 1-0 every time - even a squad famed and feared for their swash and buckle had to get ugly when needed. It has become an unwritten rule to consider such streaks as that of the dogged work of the champions elect. It can almost be considered a badge of unstinting honour. 

More so than any other Reds team since, I'm seeing similar hallmarks in Solskjaer's 2020-21 vintage. Whether it will be enough to deliver the title, it is simply too soon to say, but credit has to go to the players and coaches for instilling a new-found mentality that Ferguson would be proud of. 

To his immense credit, Solskjaer has assembled a cohesive unit that look capable of going all the way. He has created a dressing room full of character, courage and spirit and has the players fighting for the iconic badge again. Everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet. 

You would be perhaps forgiven for thinking a team with the stellar talents of Pogba, Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes - to name but three - don't quite fancy rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in away from home on a cold, wet January night, thank you very much. Top class players can come with the perception of strutting their stuff against a bigger rival, rather than climbing down to the level of a lesser opponent. But all three played their part on Wednesday - the first two scored and the latter got an assist. You have to step up to the mark just as much at Fulham and Burnley as you would at Liverpool and, right now, this squad are doing that.

Just as the legendary Usain Bolt was equally impressive when slowing up over the finish line as he was in racing away and getting there in the first place, there appears to be a special place in our hearts for performances in the final stretch that simply do just enough. 

Match report: Fulham 1-2 Manchester United

United returned to the summit of the Premier League with a club-record equalling victory at Fulham sealed by Paul Pogba's stunning second half winner. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had fallen behind on the road again early on, after Ademola Lookman had given the lowly but improving Cottagers a shock fifth-minute lead.
But for the seventh time away from the confines of Old Trafford in 2020-21, United found a winning response - taking our run to 17 unbeaten on the road in the league (the third best record in the whole of Europe).
Edinson Cavani steered in a Bruno Fernandes cross, albeit with a bit of help from Alphonse Areola, before Pogba's sublime control and angled 20-yard curler completed the comeback.
The Reds had been displaced from the top of the league after Leicester had beaten Chelsea 2-0 on Tuesday, and started the game in third as Manchester City moved top for the first time this season with a win over Aston Villa by the same scoreline.

Solskjaer made three changes from the weekend draw with Liverpool as Eric Bailly, Mason Greenwood and Cavani came in for Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford. 
Fulham, in the bottom three but with a notable upturn of late, started much the stronger on the banks of the Thames with Lookman in particular catching the eye.
David de Gea saved from the striker in the second minute, but proved powerless to prevent his second effort moments later. The forward was released by a pinpoint through pass from Frank - Zambo Anguissa before he took the ball in his stride and fired across De Gea and into the corner having been played onside by the errant Aaron Wan - Bissaka.
United then had what looked a stonewall penalty waved away when Ruben Loftus - Chee scythed down Fred in the box. but referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved and VAR failed to even request a review.

As is their wont, United exerted their authority on the game despite a slow start. Bruno Fernandes thumped against a post and Pogba flashed a shot wide, but parity was not long in coming.
Bruno, inevitably, was at the heart of it on 21 minutes as United deservedly equalised. Popping up wide on the left, Fernandes whipped the ball in and Areola failed to gather. The French keeper fatally fumbled the ball, and the lurking Cavani gleefully gobbled up the loose ball for his fifth goal of the campaign.

Areola atoned for his error with a fine full-length stop to deny Fernandes, Anthony Martial went close with a header and captain Harry Maguire was also off target with a similar effort.

The Reds were dominant now and saw two more chances go our way before the half-time interval. Fernandes fired over from a free-kick and Martial saw another header go wide after Luke Shaw had picked him out. 
Ivan Cavaleiro kept United's defence on their toes at the other end with a shot from distance and the returning Greenwood was crowded out on the counter attack in the last action of the first half.

Fulham went close twice in quick succession early on after the resumption as Harrison Reed flashed a shot over the bar and De Gea saved well from the lively Lookman.
The Reds remained a threat in an increasingly end-to-end contest, though, when Maguire headed wide and then the in-form Luke Shaw almost capped another impressive performance with a goal when his deflected drive flashed narrowly wide.
Fernandes headed straight at Areola, only to be flagged offside, and Martial should have done better with another close-range effort kept out by the keeper.
What one Frenchman failed to do from close range, another did so spectacularly from distance. 

On 65 minutes and the Reds in need of a winner, up stepped Pogba. He has been nothing short of world class since the contract furore in December and showed his considerable powers here. Pogba seized on a loose, wind-assisted clearance and pulled the ball down with a delicious touch on the edge of the box. He skipped away from his marker, cut inside and unleashed 25-yard rocket that flashed beyond Areola and left his compatriot grasping at thin air. It was a goal worthy of winning any game and will be a contender for any Goal of the Month competition.

Cavani then almost put the result beyond doubt, only to see his header tipped away superbly by a sprawling Areola, who had redeemed himself spectacularly after his earlier error for the Uruguayan's leveller.

That paved the way for a nail-biting finish as the Reds found themselves a side under siege in the wake of a late Fulham onslaught.
De Gea denied Loftus - Cheek with his foot, and the Chelsea loanee went close again on 82 minutes when he fired over the bar after a knock-down from the recently arrived substitute Aleksandr Mitrovic. 
Lookman's shot was deflected behind by Wan - Bissaka and hearts were in mouths when Bailly diverted Mitrovic's goalbound effort wide, the ball missing the target by mere inches. 
De Gea pushed away a Lookman effort but the Reds survived to return to the summit of the table on a night that marked the halfway point of the season. Phew!

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba 

Monday 18 January 2021

Player ratings vs Liverpool: Defence excellent but attack struggles

 Manchester United remained top of the Premier League after a goalless draw at Anfield in the 205th competitive meeting between the sides. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side will be content with a point but will also feel one point could have been three.
Here, we run the rule over those in Red (or, more accurately, gray), as we retained both our leadership of the league and our points advantage over the out-of-form champions. 

David de Gea - 6

You would expect a very busy afternoon for an opposing goalkeeper at Anfield, but this curiously wasn't the case with most of the Spaniard's work coming from long-range pot shots and clearing his lines. Had Roberto Firmino not left his shooting boots at home, De Gea would have been troubled more but, as it was, he had very little to do. Made one good stop to deny Thiago from distance in the second half. 

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 7

Shackled Sadio Mane with trademark tenacity and had a few moments going forward. Perhaps could have conceded a penalty in a clash with Salah late on, but dealt with Mane and Robertson - probably the best left flank in the country - with diligence. Typically solid, nothing flashy but good in the tackle and, as usual, excellent when one-on-one. 

Victor Lindelof - 8

Surprisingly and somewhat contentiously picked ahead of the recently excellent Eric Bailly, Lindelof justified his selection with a magnificent showing. Seemed drawn to the ball like a magnet, and made a sensational, colossal, match-saving clearance with ten minutes to go and Roberto Firmino set to pounce. The thought of his and Maguire's lack of pace against two of the quickest forwards in the league terrified me, but fair play to Solskjaer for getting this selection right. Fair play to the Iceman too for an excellent performance. 

Harry Maguire - 8

A few shaky moments and lost the ball needlessly once or twice, but good in the air, organised well and generally solid. If you're a centre-back and you get a clean sheet at Anfield, you will always get a good rating. Having been superb alongside Bailly in recent weeks, Lindelof coming back in did not hinder Maguire at all. In fact, this was one of the best games the two have had together in a pair at the back. 

Luke Shaw - 10 

A sensational, virtuoso masterclass and the best player on the pitch by a considerable distance. Shut down Mo Salah and later Mane magnificently and linked the play brilliantly to create our two best chances with overlapping runs. This was probably Shaw's best ever game in the Red of United. Magnificent in defence and attack, he was absolutely flawless. Cleared everything, never missed a tackle, made six interceptions and never stopped running. A dominant and decisive man of the match showing. A player in the finest of fettles and shone like a beacon amidst a galaxy of stars. 

Scott McTominay - 7

Over-run and outmuscled by Thiago in early stages as his opposite number dictated the play and set the tempo. Could McTominay perhaps have done better to shut down the Spaniard? Maybe, but to his credit he grew into the game and himself started to pull the strings as United's midfield held their own. Dropped into the back four when out of possession and had a couple of surging runs forward. The ultimate big-game player, his importance is evident for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

Fred - 6

Solid if unspectacular, Fred looked a little flustered at times under Liverpool's high press. This was a middling performance - nothing amazing but nothing awful. His usual consistent self, combative and put a shift in. Never gives anything less than his all, he was tireless and his composure improved as the game went on. Very similar in style to his cohort McTominay, the pair are perfect partners against top class sides. 

Paul Pogba - 6

Stationed wide on the right, this was a bits and pieces performance from the Pog. Having put in a man of the match showing at Burnley in midweek, Pogba looks noticeably happier, working hard for the team and putting a shift in despite his unfamiliar position. Covered for Wan - Bissaka and opened Liverpool up with some good passing. Smashed straight at Alisson in our best opening. Anonymous at times, influential at others. 

Bruno Fernandes - 5

Billed as United's most important player and touted as the key to Anfield victory, Fernandes was disappointing. On his first appearance against Liverpool, he often tried too hard and snatched at anything meaningful. His contributions ranged from the profligate to the sloppy via the over-ambitious. Went close with a free-kick and did get involved in the game, but should have done better with his late effort from a Shaw pull-back. Reacted petulantly after getting subbed to sum up his worst game for a while. 

Marcus Rashford - 3

Showed naivety, indiscipline and a baffling lack of understanding with the offside flag, getting caught out four times before the interval. Devoid of quality and influence, he failed to play in Cavani when three on two, his shooting was wasteful and he was anonymous. Played as the furthest man forward before Cavani came on, but failed to make the most of it. Had a shocker. 

Anthony Martial - 4

Ineffective from the left, Martial did nothing to suggest he should be our starting no.9. An injury doubt coming into the tie, this was a tepid and anonymous showing. There was one fleeting first half moment when he burst clear and threw in a nutmeg, but failed to build on that and was hooked for Cavani after an hour. Failed to fire and didn't do enough to test Liverpool's makeshift centre-halves.

Subs - Edinson Cavani - for Martial, 60 mins - 5

Showed some nice touches and offered something different as a focal point of the attack. But United never quite managed to get him in the game and he often dropped deep to collect the ball. 

Mason Greenwood - for Fernandes 89 - N/A

Came on for a fuming Fernandes late on. No rating.

Mixed emotions for Solskjaer's United after Anfield stalemate

Manchester United emerged unscathed from an exacting test at Anfield with both the leadership of the league and our advantage over the champions still intact.
It was in stark contrast to our last visit in the corresponding fixture a year ago almost to the day, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side beat a hasty retreat after a loss that left us trailing in the unstoppable wake of the soon-to-be champions. A day in which the Scousers opened up a yawning 30-point chasm, their fans became increasingly unbearable and left us simultaneously wondering when, or indeed whether, we'd ever reel them in.

The notion United could even contemplate winning the Premier League - or even figure in a title-winning conversation - was the stuff of fantasy. Even the most ardent red-tinted fan would never have considered it.
But yet, twelve months on, this 0-0 draw left United top of the pile and three points ahead of the team who won the league so impressively last term. 
A 38-game season is a marathon, not a sprint, and there, is of course, still a long way to run. But the sight of Manchester United at the top and leaving Anfield - where Liverpool haven't lost for almost four years in the league - with no damage inflicted will bolster confidence and self-belief for the mammoth, defining months ahead.

There isn't a Manchester United fan alive who wouldn't have accepted a point at Liverpool before the game. As already mentioned, Jurgen Klopp's side haven't been beaten there in 68 games and the Reds themselves hadn't tasted victory down the east Lancs road for five years. We'd have snapped your hand off for a point. 

As the dust settles on the game, that's still the case - I'm still more than happy at a point, avoiding defeat was the aim and a draw there is never to be sniffed at. But yet, there is a lingering sense of disappointment in that we were unable to claim victory. That, in itself, shows the extent of the progress we have made and how far this side has come. It also shows United are not quite there, yet. Viewed from this perspective, and with midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson at centre-back -  you could almost claim that this was a huge opportunity missed - United's best chance in years for victory at Anfield has gone begging.  United had the best chances through Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. Had the Frenchman put his late effort either side of Liverpool keeper Alisson - instead of straight at the Brazilian - then we'd be sitting here proclaiming a late, great, famous victory. 

Of course, there were mitigating factors. The lack of a crowd and Anfield's famous atmosphere - usually at its most unwelcoming when United are in town. Liverpool are feeling the bite of a lengthy injury list and a team that swept all before them are on a dry spell in front of goal - having failed to score in three consecutive league games for the first time since 2005. 
In the current reckoning, though, United sitting top of the table at the halfway stage of the season and after a trip to Anfield is a situation Solskjaer would have accepted. He certainly would have taken it after that game a year ago.

Whereas before Solskjaer and the players would have gladly been happy with the outcome not so long ago, the United boss and his players were clearly disappointed at full-time having failed to pilfer those three points. A realistic reflection on events and a sign that we're moving in the right direction. There's a significant mentality shift at the club now. 

For all their critics, United have a realistic shot at winning the title this season, despite the fact Manchester City are looking scarily ominous at present. We must grasp this opportunity and show greater ambition and boldness than we did for much of the game here. United never seemed to truly believe that victory was tangibly within reach at Anfield. The questions that surround United and Solskjaer's ability over winning when it matters will continue to linger until we can prove otherwise - but there is plenty to build on and the improvement is clear.

Fernandes was making his debut in this fixture but his usual metronomic radar failed to fire, epitomised by his less than gracious reaction to being hooked in the closing stages. United's heroes were elsewhere in the form of captain Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, absolutely magnificent and a comfortable winner in his personal battle with Mo Salah. Shaw was the best player on the pitch across both sides by a country mile. 

United and Solskjaer will be happier - but the true context of this result will only become evident in the weeks ahead. What cannot be argued is that this side is growing and is one unrecognisable from the one that left Anfield last January. 

Sunday 17 January 2021

Match report: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United

Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba squandered chances for a famous late win at Anfield but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side retained top spot with a well-earned draw.
Having gone down 2-0 in the corresponding fixture last season, Solskjaer's United showed vast improvement against an admittedly out-of-sorts Liverpool and the Norwegian will be the happier of the two managers. A draw was a fair result, and we'd certainly have taken a point beforehand, but the fact we were left slightly disappointed shows how far we've come.

Alisson twice saved superbly from point-blank range to deny Pogba and Fernandes, thwarting the latter with his foot late on as United came closest to a winner.
In truth, a draw was probably the right result with clear cut openings unsurprisingly few and far between, with neither side able to find the breakthrough. Solskjaer's Reds continue to hold a slender lead at the summit, three points ahead of the champions and two ahead of Leicester and Manchester City, whom have a game in hand. 
The United boss made three changes from the win at Turf Moor with Victor Lindelof and Solskjaer's preferred big game pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay coming in for the unlucky Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani with all three dropping to the bench. Jurgen Klopp chose something of a makeshift side with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, usually the heartbeat of his midfield, pressed into service at the back. Xherdan Shaqiri made a rare start in the engine room.

Thiago was influential early on for the hosts, with the European Cup winning playmaker dictating the tempo, and particularly influential in starting attacks and he constantly kept Liverpool moving. 
Roberto Firmino had the first effort of the encounter when he was picked out by Sadio Mane at the end of a flowing move, but the goal-shy Brazilian skewed his effort wide.
Mo Salah volleyed wide after Firmino had another shot blocked, but United finally sprung into life shortly before the half hour when Fernandes flashed a free-kick inches wide after the magnificent Luke Shaw had been scythed down. 

Firmino tested David de Gea with a daisy cutter and Salah went close again, but for all their possession and territory, Liverpool failed to get in behind a United defence expertly marshalled by a superb defensive unit. 

Liverpool had the better of the opening half, but the Reds proved far more of an attacking threat after the interval. Fernandes had a shot blocked by Fabinho, before a trademark Andy Robertson cross was dealt with excellently by the impressive Harry Maguire. Firmino was waiting to pounce, but the United skipper flicked the ball to safety off the striker. 

Cavani was introduced in place of the ineffective Anthony Martial after an hour, and Fernandes went close from distance shortly after the veteran striker's introduction. The Portuguese playmaker lined up a 25-yarder, but Alisson saved with ease. Salah then shot wide on the counter attack in an increasingly end to end encounter. 
With 15 minutes left came the big moment United had been waiting for. Shaw stormed down the left and cut the ball back for Fernandes but our December Player of the Month saw his close range snap shot superbly saved by the outstretched foot of goalkeeper Alisson.

De Gea tipped wide from Thiago and Salah saw another effort off target before the Reds (in their grey away kit) saw another huge chance go begging. Marcus Rashford and Aaron Wan - Bissaka linked up down the right and the former found the onrushing Pogba but his fierce drive was repelled by the busy Brazilian between the sticks. 

That proved to be the last incident of the match as United preserved leadership of the league ahead of the trip to Fulham in midweek.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. Possibly his finest game for United and the best player on the pitch by a distance. 

Saturday 16 January 2021

Match preview: Liverpool vs Manchester United

 The Reds of Manchester and Merseyside lock horns for the 205th time as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes his United side to Anfield as league leaders.
There is always plenty at stake when the country's two most successful and decorated clubs meet, but this time it carries the air of a seminal moment in a title race in which the pair are locked together at the top for the first time in over a decade.
Despite the two sides status as giants of the English game, United and Liverpool have rarely gone head-to-head for the title - Liverpool dominated in the 70s and 80s with United nowhere, and the Scousers had a fallow period themselves when our Reds were the dominant force in the Premier League.
This time, though, it's different. United have put many a nose out of joint through our unexpected surge up the league, and go to Anfield three points ahead of Jurgen Klopp's champions, whom have endured a slightly indifferent season so far. Victory at Turf Moor from our game in hand took Solskjaer's side to the summit of the table in midweek after 17 rounds of matches - a position the United boss would have snapped your hand off for if offered at the start of 2020-21.

Liverpool's 2-0 win over United in the corresponding fixture last season, almost a year ago exactly to the day, gave Klopp's men a thirty-point lead over us. Now, the champions need a win to merely draw level on points with us - how quickly times can changes, as if any of us need reminding of that!
Not only does the clash showcase the fierce and toxic rivalry that exists between them and us, it also brings together a Liverpool team unbeaten at Anfield since 2017 and a United side without defeat on the road since that clash against them last year. Something has to give. United are in fine fettle, Liverpool less so and the famous Anfield atmosphere will be conspicuous by its absence as the two meet behind closed doors for the first time ever.  

The Reds haven't won at Anfield since 2016 when new Derby manager Wayne Rooney smashed home the winner in the second half as Louis van Gaal's United pulled off a smash-and-grab raid. 

Victor Lindelof has missed the last two games with a back injury and is doubtful for the tie, with Phil Jones and Brandon Williams both sidelined. Anthony Martial and Nemanja Matic both picked up late knocks at Burnley with the pair set to be given a chance to prove their fitness. 
Liverpool's lengthy injury list has mainly affected their defence, with Joel Matip close to full fitness. The tie may come too soon for the Cameroon centre-back, but fellow defenders Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez are out. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have filled in at the back for Klopp with striker Diogo Jota also set to miss the tie. Thiago Alcantara, Liverpool's highly-publicised summer signing, is expected to feature but Naby Keita is sidelined again. 

In United's last eleven league games, we've won nine and drawn two but, by contrast, Liverpool have failed to scale the heights of last season with only four victories from ten in the league and none of their last three. In Mo Salah, they possess the league's top scorer and the Egyptian will pose the biggest threat going forward. But United have the momentum, the side are brimming with confidence and have the ability to cause problems with our pace up top and the guile and passing of Bruno Fernandes, set to make his debut in this particular fixture. 

Ole said: "You don't get anything for being top of the league in January so it's not something we've ever valued. It makes no difference, its where you end up at the end of the season that matters. 
"You're always excited when you play teams of their quality and calibre, form goes out the window and it doesn't matter when in the season it is, its always our biggest game. I'm really looking forward to it, we're in good form at the moment.
"Being where we are in the league gives us more confidence - its a sign and an indication of where we're at. The game against the champions. We are the challengers, they are the champions, and they earned the right to the the champions. We're challengers and hunters and you want something they have. Our mentality will be to work hard, to be humble and to do our best and see where it gets us." 

Solskjaer's United take on Klopp's Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday with a 4.30pm kick off. Bring it on!!

Form guide: Liverpool W W D D L W Man Utd D W W L W W 
Match odds: Liverpool 5/2 Draw 14/5 Man Utd 13/5
Referee: Paul Tierney. Wigan whistler Tierney takes charge of English football's biggest game for the first time. 

Liverpool predicted XI: Alisson; Alexander - Arnold, Fabinho, Matip, Robertson; Wijnaldum, Henderson, Thiago; Salah, Firmino, Mane
United predicted XI: De Gea; Wan - Bissaka, Maguire, Bailly, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Rashford, Fernandes, Pogba; Cavani 

We're Man United... we're top of the league!

As you may have heard, Manchester United sit astride the Premier League summit in the New Year for the first time in eight years.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has masterminded an incredible turnaround, from the dismal defeat to Spurs and 16th place, to leading the way and looking down from on high after 17 rounds of matches - almost the halfway point of the season. There is still a long way to go and it would take a brave man to even try and put money on the outcome of this mad, topsy, turvy and unpredictable season. 

As the Premier League panorama stretches out below United, it is new and uncharted territory for a group of players used to operating as the hunters. They have now become the hunted, there to be shot at (hypothetically of course) having climbed back upon the perch we used to claim as almost exclusive ownership.  Solskjaer and assistants Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher - a new addition to the backroom staff - have SIXTEEN league titles between them as a trio from their playing days. As coaches of a squad not used to being the creme de la creme as Premier League leaders, that must count for something.

Of course, you don't win anything in January and its where you are in May that counts. But United were not expected to even be anywhere close to a Liverpool side which finished 33-points ahead of us last season, nor a Manchester City that have become serial winners under Pep Guardiola. Indeed, should the former claim victory over us in Sunday's almighty ding dong at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp's side will share the summit and move back level on points with us. Our time in the spotlight would have been a brief - if glorious - one, at least for the time being. 

United's stint as sole leaders may only last for a matter of days, weeks, months or even - however unlikely - all the way through to May. I don't think we'll win it and nor - despite the unexpected bonus of a title charge - am I expecting United to do so. But you're not human if you haven't at least dreamed of 21 coming home in 2021 and moving back to two league titles ahead of Liverpool this year. My heart is with Ole's tricky showtimes Reds but - sentiment aside - City will take some stopping. For all my tongue in cheek baiting on social media, I still feel the title will end up either at Anfield or the Etihad. 

It has been a difficult few years for us United fans as our two fiercest and most hated rivals have become the country's two pre-eminent clubs, leaving United in the dust. As if Man City taking two successive titles, with a domestic treble to boot, wasn't hard enough to stomach, the unmentionables revival under Jurgen Klopp - with a sixth European Cup and the end of their 30-year title drought - was the unpalatable icing on the inedible cake. Having to witness City and Liverpool sweep up the silver like no tomorrow - as United ourselves used to do - it's made me want to eat my own scrotum. Particularly when set against United's own lack of success and our three-season trophy drought. 

Even the thought of a United title win has seemed far-fetched in recent seasons, so why shouldn't we cherish this moment. United may not be in this position for long but that doesn't mean I won't make the most of it. I've enjoyed every single second of us topping the table outright, and shall continue to do so. Yes, I've become unbearable on social media and have probably boiled many a piss in the process, but do I care? Not a jot - why should I? I've had to suffer in silence whilst my club's rivals have taken the trophies, so why shouldn't I revel in the fact that United are resurgent and have made the entire planet worried again.   I'm going to fully enjoy this and rub it in as much as possible while it lasts. In fact, I think the best thing to do for the league now is to null and void the season and award the title to the current leaders. It's the best and safest thing to do as Covid cases across the country continue to sky rocket. If you don't support a club top of the league, you're irrelevant. You could try talking to me, but I won't be able to hear you from up here. I think I've got altitude sickness. 

It's been so long, I've forgotten what it looks and feel like to be top of the table. The fact that so many are rattled by our presence as league leaders tells you everything you need to know. 

We may only have another 24 hours as the Premier League's no.1 side, so make the most of it. We're Man United, we're top of the league!