Monday 22 March 2021

Manchester United should sign two Leicester players in a heartbeat

Leicester may have been missing James Maddison and Harvey Barnes but their midfield hugely impressed in the FA Cup victory.
Whilst United's incompatible double pivot of an ageing, static Nemanja Matic and the frenetic Fred looked utterly woebegone, the Foxes buzzed around with swash and buckle, vim and vigour, seizing control from the first minutes of the match - a control Brendan Rodgers side would never relinquish.

Maddison, Barnes and Jamie Vardy are the three players most often credited with Leicester's impressive identikit under Brendan Rodgers, with the former Liverpool manager having put together a superb side capable of mixing it with the best in the east Midlands. But it is often a side's most under-rated and unheralded players that prove the bedrock of any success - one look at Ji-Sung Park and Darren Fletcher (to name but two) will tell you that. Those two players hardly ever got the credit they deserved as United's star-studded A listers, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes et al, took centre stage, but we would never have achieved what we did without players like Park, Fletcher and John O'Shea. 

Wilfried Ndidi and Youri Tielemans may not be the first names coming to mind when you look at the bedrock of Leicester's evolution under Rodgers, but the pair are - without question - the finest midfield pairing in the Premier League.
Ndidi and Tielemans were everything "Fretic" weren't - composed, confident, agile, mobile and capable of breaking the lines and creating with their passes. When Ndidi - the 24-year-old Nigerian - plays well, Leicester tend to do the same. It seemed he was everywhere as an enforcer and destroyer in chief. At times, Ndidi seemed to be in midfield on his own, such was his brilliant and bullying influence - five tackles completed, five duels won, three interceptions and three clearances. Matic can barely run never mind even dream of having such an impact and every pass Fred played seemed to be attracted as if by magnets to a blue-clad Foxes player. The anti-Ndidi, I suppose you could say.
I've been a huge admirer of the Nigerian for a while now and yesterday only reaffirmed that view - for all the clamour for Declan Rice, Ndidi should be first choice in the middle of the park at Old Trafford. He would fit like a glove into United's engine room and would offer an instant upgrade on what we already have. Still only 24, he's not even in his prime yet. 

The same could be said for the 23-year-old Belgian Tielemans. The brains alongside with Ndidi's destructive brawn, Tielemans is the man whom makes Leicester tick. He's just as crucial to their success as Vardy, Maddison, Barnes and Kasper Schmeichel. The pair dovetailed delightfully and effortlessly and there was a perfect symmetry to everything they did. Tielemans helped Leicester win the midfield battle (if you can even call it that) with ease and pulled the strings superbly, hassling Fred and Matic into submission and running the game in a manner we've become accustomed to with Bruno Fernandes. 
To cap a stunning individual showing, Tielemans scored the goal to put his side back ahead as he exchanged passes with Ndidi to leave "Fretic" for dead and running through treacle. Epitomising the two midfields, the Belgian was strong and forward-thinking whilst Matic and Fred seemed to be going backwards as he waltzed through acres of space, proved too strong for Victor Lindelof and thumped in beyond Dean Henderson. 

Ndidi provides Leicester with the vital assets every side needs -  athleticism, ability to cover ground quickly, and to recover possession and move the ball on. Not always flashy but always effective, every team needs a player like him. He doesn't offer much in attack but, then again, never really needs to with the likes of Tielemans, Barnes, Vardy, Maddison and Perez the prominent players in that regard. He is simply immense at what he does - protecting the Leicester defence, winning the ball, breaking up play and running the game from midfield like Michael Carrick and Roy Keane used to do. 

 The closest we have to him is Scott McTominay but he's more of a box-to-box man rather than an out-and-out CDM. McTominay's best work comes at the edge of the opposition penalty box rather than ours. 
Tielemans vision and range of passion makes him the perfect foil for Ndidi - a bit like Fernandes but, if (or indeed when) Paul Pogba leaves United - most likely in the summer - the Leicester man would be the perfect, ready-made replacement for the mercurial, World Cup winning Frenchman. To get the best out of McTominay and Fernandes once Pogba goes (assuming he does), we need a more agile, mobile, deep-lying midfield and Ndidi fits the bill perfectly. 

Both Ndidi and Tielemans creep under the radar but they are integral to Leicester's excellent side under Rodgers and would walk into United's ragtag midfield. 

Sunday 21 March 2021

Leicester loss is disappointing but its only the cup...

Manchester United's season-long unbeaten run away from home came to a juddering halt at the hands of Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-finals. 

United missed out on a place in the last four and a Wembley meeting with Southampton as Brendan Rodgers side proved too strong in the east Midlands as they prevailed through a Kelechi Iheanacho double and a Youri Tielemans effort. 

Of course, any defeat is disappointing but, fortunately for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players, this is one that probably came at a good time. As the club battles to get into the top four as this season like no other reaches its run in, the last thing anyone really needed was a long and protracted cup run. With Chelsea and Manchester City lurking in the draw, the prospect of us winning the FA Cup was always an unlikely long shot to begin with. The Europa League is far more prestigious and should be considered as our number one priority. 

Fortunately for us, this was not a league game and so we have not lost any ground on our domestic rivals as we bid to seal a second successive season in the Champions League. Its only the FA Cup - a second rate trophy that is always at the bottom of any club's priorities and is it something that anyone really wants any more? Let Leicester have their moment - fair play to them, and let's hope they go on and win it but, for us, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise. 

As we've said, it was always going to be hard to win and if it's not the Premier League or the Champions League then I'm not interested. Those two trophies are the biggest and the best in the game. Win them and you're in business - you're the best in your country and in Europe. But the others mean nowt, aren't important and shouldn't be taken seriously. They're nice to win if you can but don't define your future or the season. The FA Cup is nothing more than a payday for the lower league sides. 

I agreed with what Solskjaer said this week that cup wins mean very little in the grand scheme of things - you can fluke a cup, it doesn't mean you've progressed and no one remembers it anyway. 

I'm not pleased by our departure from it, and why would I be, but I'm certainly not upset by it. United didn't have the squad depth to cope with two cup competitions as well as a league push - we had to prioritise and the Europa League always seemed the more appealing cup to win. An argument could be made that any side worth their salt should be looking to get both trophies, but that's very hard to do in the modern game unless you have a squad like City where their bench is good enough to be anyone else's regular starting XI.

The league is much more important for this club and we have Brighton, then Tottenham, in the Premier League immediately after the upcoming international break. Not only do we want (and need) to secure top four, we also want to try and finish second. As Solskjaer himself said this week league position, and not a random cup win, is the true barometer of progress. Leicester are only one point behind so the FA Cup might prove a distraction for them but, for us, it gives us an edge in the league with one less game to worry about. 

United played in Milan in the Europa League on Thursday whereas Leicester have had a full week off and that definitely affected the tempo and pace of the game. Leicester looked sharper and more 'on it' whereas a much-changed United side were sluggish and off the pace for much of the game. You don't want to use such factors as an excuse but it definitely had an impact on the game. 

All this considered, and you can see why Solskjaer chose to leave Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw on the bench. The pair have been magnificent of late but Solskjaer wanted to keep them fresh for the league so it made sense to leave them out here. Ideally, you wouldn't want to use them at all but at 2-1 down and chasing the game he had very little option. He took a gamble with an eye on the long term and, although it didn't pay off here, no one will be complaining when Solskjaer delivers on his promise of Champions League football. There has been little opportunity to give any of his squad a breather of late so this seemed the perfect opportunity in which to do so.  It's not as if the players he selected in their stead were young kids plucked from the Reserves - they were full internationals in Alex Telles, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek to name but three. These players have played in the other FA Cup rounds - even in the fourth round against Liverpool, Fernandes and Shaw were on the bench so their omissions here should not be a surprise. 

United need to refocus now - we're in a strong position in the league and still have a chance of European glory in May. The FA Cup loss may be the end of the world for some but, fortunately, its far from the be all and end all. 

Match report: Leicester City 3-1 Manchester United

Leicester City powered past an error-strewn and out of sorts Manchester United side as Brendan Rodgers side earned a fully merited victory to set up an FA Cup semi-final with Southampton.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side - fresh from midweek heroics in Milan - fell short in the face of an impressive performance from the Foxes, inspired by the twin midfield partners in crime of Wilfried Ndidi and Youri Tielemans. 
The result may have come as a disappointment but at least it wasn't a league game and came in a second-rate competition that we had very little chance of winning anyway. 

Solskjaer opted to leave out Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw, two of our best performers of late, with one eye on the upcoming league fixtures and in the midst of a hectic fixture schedule, as he shuffled his pack for the last eight trip to the east Midlands in a selection with five changes from the midweek win in the San Siro. 

Kelechi Iheanacho put the hosts ahead after 25 minutes only for Mason Greenwood to equalise with his first goal in 19 games - not since the fourth round win over Liverpool has the 19-year-old been on the scoresheet.
Youri Tielemans raced through unchallenged to restore Leicester's lead and Iheanacho put the result beyond doubt late on to send Brendan Rodgers men to Wembley where they will face the Saints in the semi finals.
Dean Henderson saved well from the always-dangerous Jamie Vardy as the United stopper palmed the ball away from close range to deny Leicester's top scorer.
Harry Maguire snuffed out the danger from the same player soon afterwards but it proved only a temporary reprieve as Leicester took the lead on 25 minutes. United's attempts to play out from the back ended in catastrophe as Henderson rolled the ball to Maguire and he in turn moved it on to Fred. The Brazilian merely needed to roll the ball to our full-backs but instead opted to turn into trouble and go back to Henderson. Iheanacho seized on the gift to round the keeper and gleefully slot into the empty net, hardly able to believe his luck.

Vardy went close again, with United this time bailed out by Aaron Wan - Bissaka, but the Reds equalised out of nothing and against the run of play seven minutes shy of the interval.
The ball was worked out to Paul Pogba on the left-hand side and he burst forward to fire a cross into the box. Donny van de Beek dummied the ball and it ran on to Greenwood to blast home beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

Pogba tested the Foxes keeper from distance and Ayoze Perez went close at the other end but United could consider themselves fortunate to go in at half-time level.

Having discovered Southampton awaited the winners (with the draw made at half-time for some strange reason), you felt the incentive of avoiding both Chelsea and City would act as a catalyst for an improved second half showing.
Unfortunately, United did not awake from their soporific slumber and fell behind again seven minutes after the restart. The move started on halfway as the eye-catching Tielemans played a quick one-two with the impressive Iheanacho and ran at United's back-pedalling defence. With Nemanja Matic back-pedalling, Fred missed his tackle and Victor Lindelof turned his back as the Belgian burst through unchallenged, given all the time in the world to pick his spot and rifle in beyond the advancing Henderson.

Alex Telles thumped a shot wide and Greenwood was snuffed out in the box, before United received a let-off when Vardy fired uncharacteristically wide having been put through by his strike partner Iheanacho.
That prompted Solskjaer to decide he had seen enough as Shaw, Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Edinson Cavani replaced Telles, Matic, van de Beek and Pogba in a four-pronged assault on 64 minutes.

Greenwood headed wide and a Fernandes free-kick was pushed out by Schmeichel but, in truth, the Reds didn't do enough to threaten a second equaliser as Leicester deservedly stretched their lead.
United were undone from a set-piece 12 minutes from time as McTominay - having given the free-kick away in the first place - failed to clear and Iheanacho was left was a simple header at the back post to put the result beyond any lingering doubt.

United now face two weeks without a game with Brighton on Easter Sunday next up after the international break before the Europa League double header with Granada. 

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

Friday 19 March 2021

United's path to potential European glory

 Manchester United's path to potential Europa League glory has been mapped out following today's draws for the quarter and semi finals.
Having edged past the far from insignificant hurdle of Milan to reach the last eight, United are looking to go one better from last season's painful semi final KO at the hands of Sevilla.
The six time winners are absent from the line-up this time around, but there were two Spanish teams in the hat for the quarter finals along with us and Arsenal from England, one from the Netherlands, one from Italy, a Czech team and a club from the Croatian capital.

United did not have long to wait to discover their next European opponents. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men were the second side out of the plastic bowl, to follow Granada and complete the first quarter-final pairing.

There's alway that one team everyone wants - a surprise team seen as fodder, a mere stepping stone on the way to bigger things. Granada are that side this time. 
However, there's no "easy" games at this stage of a tournament, Granada are there on merit and the chance for them to face Manchester United in a European knockout game is the opportunity of a lifetime. It's their cup final and you can be sure they will raise their game to prove they are not just there to make up the numbers.
But, with respect to the La Liga team, Spain's eighth best side represent the best possible scenario at this stage. United faced the toughest draw they could've had against Sociedad and Milan respectively (not forgetting the Champions League Group of Death) so there was a sense that, here, at last, United had been rewarded with a tie that - whilst certainly not "easy" - comes against the weakest team left in the competition. Avoiding the big guns and drawing a mid-table side in their first ever European season in a quarter-final - it's what every United fan will have wanted. 

Having said that, Diego Martinez's side showed their credentials with an impressive 3-2 aggregate victory over high-flying Napoli of Serie A in the last 32 - so under-estimate this side at your peril. They certainly should not be taken for granted and any side in a European quarter-final cannot merely be seen as a foregone conclusion. United have looked increasingly battle-hardened and the growing confidence in Solskjaer's side will only be further enhanced by the prospect of reaching a semi-final that now looks tantalisingly within reach. 

Should we do so, then a considerable step up in class awaits. United will play the winners of Ajax or Roma - the most eye-catching of the quarter final ties, in the last four, should we get there. One of those heavyweights will fall before the semis and, ideally, United will have wanted to avoid either of them. But if you want to win a competition like this one, you will need to beat the strongest sides at some stage or other anyway. The Amsterdam giants appear to be the most difficult hurdle between the Reds and the Gdansk final. 

That means, of course, the growing possibility of an all-English final in May with divisional rivals Arsenal lurking in the other half of the draw. 

The Gunners are the only other British club left in the competition after Spurs were humbled at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb and Rangers were sent packing by the dark horses of Slavia Prague. Arsenal will play the Czech side in their last eight tie whilst Spurs conquerors from the Croatian capital host Villarreal in the other match.

United travel to the Estadio de los Carmenes (Covid restrictions permitting) on the 8 April with the return to be played at Old Trafford a week later in the first ever meeting between the two clubs. 

The semi-finals are 29 April and 6 May with United (if we get there) to play at Old Trafford first ahead of the return in Amsterdam or Rome a week later. 

Europa League quarter-finals:

Granada vs Manchester United
Arsenal vs Slavia Prague
Ajax vs Roma
Dinamo Zagreb vs Villarreal


Granada/Manchester United vs Ajax/Roma
Dinamo Zagreb/Villarreal vs Arsenal/Dinamo Zagreb 

Solskjaer's United to discover European fate

 Manchester United are set to find out their next opponents as the draw for the Europa League is made in Switzerland on Friday.
Our reward for getting past Milan is a place in the quarter-finals having seen off the Rossoneri in an eagerly anticipated clash of the giants in the last 16.

Paul Pogba's winner in the San Siro sent United through 2-1 on aggregate to set up a third Europa League last eight tie - this time, unlike last season, it will be a two-legged affair.

United are currently the bookmakers favourites to go on prevail in the Gdansk final in May - a triumph that would provide a second Europa League title and a first trophy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Reds are 7/4 on with divisional rivals Arsenal second favourites at 10/3 with an all-English final a growing possibility. But the draw is open, there's no country protection and so there is the potential for the two remaining British sides to face off in a totemic all-Premier League clash. 

It would be fair to say we've not had the luck of draw in Europe so far this season having been handed the Champions League group of death with PSG and Leipzig and then two established European sides - Real Sociedad and the resurgent Rossoneri - in our two knockout Europa League ties so far.

Of course, there's no such thing as an "easy" match when you get to this stage at the business end of the tournament but it would be nice if we had one of the lesser lights as you want the best possible opportunity of making the next round.

That said, United tend to reserve their performances for the big occasion and so even another difficult tie is unlucky to cause much alarm.

The Reds could face Ajax, Villarreal, Roma, Slavia Prague, Dinamo Zagreb, Arsenal or Granada. Ideally, we want to avoid Ajax with Erik ten Haag's young Eredivisie leaders having made flawless progress to the last eight. They, like us, dropped out of the Champions League and coasted past Young Boys of Berne 5-0 on aggregate in the last 16 having got past Lille in the previous round. 

Any match-up between United and the Amsterdam club would be a repeat of the 2017 final when United triumphed 2-0 in the Stockholm final under Jose Mourinho to win the trophy for the first time. The Donny van de Beek derby?

Ajax have a very good record in Europe and no-one will want to face them but then again, if you want to win these tournaments you have to beat the likes of them at some stage anyway.
Slavia Prague have impressively knocked out Leicester and Rangers to perhaps enhance their status as dark horses but the Czech club remain something of an unknown quantity. United have never faced Jindrich Trpisovsky's side at any level of football and so they would be a brand new opponent for us - from our perspective, you would certainly see that as winnable. 
We have only played the Croatian club twice - in the group stages of the Champions League in 1999-2000 when we won 2-1 in the capital before a 0-0 at Old Trafford in the return fixture. Zagreb provided THE story of the last 16 when, with their manager literally in prison, a Mislav Orsic hat-trick knocked out Tottenham and overturned a 0-2 deficit in stunning fashion after extra-time. 

With all due respect, Spain's eighth best team will be one everyone wants at this stage. Granada are here on merit and cannot be taken lightly but they are the weakest team left and look the best case scenario for a quarter-final tie. The Na

edged out Solskjaer's former side in the last round and - like Slavia Prague - United have never played the team from Andalusia. 

Paulo Fonseca's AS Roma side have a plethora of household names amongst their alumni including former Chelsea and Barcelona man Pedro, Edin Dzeko (once of Man City), Davide Santon and a certain Henrikh Mkhitaryan. They would provide a stiff test for anyone and, like Milan, are one of the top sides in Italy with a strong record both domestically and in Europe. Another side you ideally want to steer clear of at this stage. 

So, that's our thoughts when it comes to the last eight - who will we get, we shall find out shortly!

Bring it on..

Match report: Milan 0-1 Man United (Agg: 1-2)

Paul Pogba stepped off the bench to mark his return with the winner and fire United into the Europa League quarter-finals.
The Frenchman has missed the last ten games but made the decisive difference three minutes after his introduction and Dean Henderson saved from Zlatan Ibrahimovic late on to seal our place in the last eight.
Playing in the iconic San Siro, United needed to score after Simon Kjaer's late equaliser in the first game at Old Trafford gave the resurgent Rossoneri a slender advantage in this second tier meeting between two of the continent's biggest clubs. 

United will now wait to discover our quarter-final fate with Arsenal, Ajax, Roma, Dinamo Zagreb, Slavia Prague, Granada and Villarreal our potential opposition. 
The Reds were unchanged from Sunday's victory over West Ham but Pogba and Donny van de Beek returned to bolster the bench, although Edinson Cavani did not travel despite being passed fit. 

United started brightly and carved out the first opening of the encounter after 13 minutes when the again impressive Luke Shaw linked up well with Bruno Fernandes. The latter picked out the former and he blazed over the bar when well placed but perhaps should have done better.
Franck Kessie had caught the eye in the first leg for Milan and tried his luck for the Rossoneri, but his effort from distance proved easy pickings for Henderson, retaining his place in goal despite the return of David de Gea.

Daniel James was barged over by Fiyako Tomori when clean through in the box only for referee Felix Brych to remain unmoved and wave play on.
Henderson pushed away from Alexis Saelemaekers and Rade Krunic also went close as Milan grew into the game, with United held at arm's length as the Italians held their away-goals advantage going into half-time.

That lead was quickly extinguished, though, as the Reds soon found an away goal of their own. Pogba had come on for the injured Marcus Rashford and took up a left-wing position to add a different dimension to a side in need of creativity. 
The mercurial Frenchman had not played since the draw with Everton in February when he was forced off in the first half. Pogba traditionally takes a while to get up to speed after coming back from injury, but made an immediate and pivotal impact here.

Fred found Aaron Wan - Bissaka with a lovely ball across the box. Having flown through a posse of players in a frantic penalty box, the ball came to Pogba at the back post. Fred got a foot in and Pogba shaped to shoot before he took a touch and curled home superbly from an acute angle to grab the all-important away goal.
The tie became increasingly end - to - end with United getting space in behind as Milan pushed forward in search of an equaliser to force extra-time.
Saelemakers was denied by Henderson and opposite number Gianluigi Donnarumma was then called into action at the other end to deny Mason Greenwood having been put through by the increasingly impressive Pogba.

Stefano Pioli introduced Reds past and present as Diogo Dalot - on loan from us - and Ibrahimovic replaced Pierre Kalulu and Samu Castillejo on 65 minutes as Zlatan's presence saw the Italians replace a false nine with the veteran, ageless and enigmatic centre-forward.
The immense Victor Lindelof blocked superbly from Kessie and Henderson was then called into action as Ibrahimovic, almost inevitably, got involved. Hakan Calhanoglu picked out the Swede - on the day he was recalled to his nation's national squad - and he headed goalwards only for Henderson to atone for his first leg error with a fine save. 

Brahim Diaz, formerly of Manchester City, flashed a shot wide and Henderson kept out Calhanoglu as Milan came on strong in the closing minutes. Solskjaer's side had ultimately done enough, though, as a sixth clean sheet in seven games snuffed out the Serie A giants and ensured safe passage to the quarter-finals.

Bring it on!!

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Paul Pogba. Pogback!

Monday 15 March 2021

A damning reminder of David Moyes failings

Manchester United completed a first league double over West Ham since the 2013-14 season when a certain David Moyes was in charge at Old Trafford. 
The fate of the sorry Scotsman is a tale often told, and does not need embellishment on these pages.

 Moyes was sacked ten months into his six-year contract after a seventh placed finish with a side that had won the title at a canter the year before. It was a mess that is only now just starting to be repaired. 

Moyes was in the opposition dugout for the visit of the Hammers on Sunday night with his side the season's surprise package - challenging for Europe after the near miss of relegation in 2019-20. Moyes has done a good job in east London but his side's showing here was a damning indictment of why it never worked for him in Manchester.

West Ham had not won at Old Trafford since the 2006-07 season - when, with the club involved in an ugly dispute over Carlos Tevez's contract - he promptly went and grabbed the winner before signing for United that summer.
Yet despite their poor recent record in this parish, West Ham arrived in M16 in good form, with only two defeats in ten games and firmly in the thick of a surprise push for European qualification. They would've moved to within three points of us with a rare victory at Old Trafford, a result which would've thrown the top four fight wide open. 

But yet, in the "David Moyes derby", his side came here and absolutely stank the place out. They were rancid, horrible and absolutely putrid. Of course, to come and go all out in pursuit of victory is close to a suicide pact given United's counter-attacking capabilities, but they didn't even try and attack. I don't think anyone expected Moyes to send West Ham out to attack, attack, attack, but nor did we expect them to be so timid, so negative and adopt such a defensive mindset - you can find a balance somewhere between the two.

After all, here was a team with similar ambitions to us as they looked to close in on an unlikely place at the top European table next season. West Ham got exactly what they deserved and, in truth, United could and should have won by more, being denied repeatedly by the upright and the strong goalkeeping of Lukasz Fabianski. It would have been an absolute travesty had we not won that game. 

Bereft of the ineligible Jesse Lingard - a man we know all about and a key cog in their recent run - Moyes parked the Titanic, two buses and Big Ben in front of Fabianski's goal. He deployed a back five with wing backs and three defensive midfielders - effectively a nine-man back-line - with Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio their only attacking players. With those two isolated and United's defensive trident of Dean Henderson, Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire on cruise control throughout, they barely fashioned a scoring chance with the pacy Antonio never utilised to run at Lindelof and Maguire - a duo that have been far from faultless this season.

Moyes remain without a win at Old Trafford as an away manager, a sequence that now stands at 11 defeats in 15 games in all competitions. He has never won at any of the "big six" (United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City) and indeed, even when he was manager of us (it still brings me out in a cold sweat even now), a home win against the Gunners was the only high point of a miserable campaign.
West Ham failed to register a shot on target and only when Said Benrahma and Manuel Lanzini stepped off the bench after an hour did they start to show signs of creativity. Even then, you still felt they truly lacked the belief to mix things up and ask questions of United. 

It was an approach almost identical to the FA Cup meeting between the sides last month, when West Ham spent much of the game sitting back. They fashioned one effort on goal that night too and, again, only brought Benrahma and Lanzini on later in the game rather than going at us from the start. Scott McTominay's extra-time winner made the Hammers pay for their extremely negative system, whilst Craig Dawson's own goal this time around made it a hat-trick of wins over the east London side in 2020-21. As Einstein once said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." 

This all helps to ultimately explain what went wrong for Moyes at United - too often he lacked conviction, had a poor, defeatist mentality and would often set up to contain rather than to play on the front foot with an attack-first mantra. He championed caution, an alien concept for a fanbase fed on a diet of bludgeoning their opponents into submission. At West Ham and Everton you can perhaps get away with it more often than not, but there's no hiding place when you're at Manchester United. Dour, unambitious and safety-first, West Ham's performance was the epitome of their manager. Despite this result, it does little to detract the excellent job Moyes has done and no doubt will continue to do in the capital. But it was a result that also showed why Moyes ill-fated Old Trafford tenure was also, ultimately, doomed to failure. 

It certainly brought back memories of Moyes' United, something we'd all prefer to forget and merely pretend was just a bad dream. Indeed, a performance like this one makes you wonder how this man was ever deemed good enough to be our manager in the first place. 

Manchester United's Shaw flank redemption

If ever there can be such a thing as a 1-0 thrashing, our win over West Ham was surely it. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side should have won by more and have surely now extinguished any lingering doubts over the certainty of a top four finish.
There were a number of impressive individual performances but Mason Greenwood and Luke Shaw, in particular, stood out as the pick of the bunch. Shaw has had a phenomenal season and only continued his stunning upward trajectory against the Hammers. Shaw has been through the wringer at Old Trafford but is surely now the best left-back in the country by a considerable distance. Solskjaer and the player himself deserve all the credit in the world for Shaw's remarkable renaissance. 

Signed by Louis van Gaal as the then most expensive teenager in world football, he touted as a generational talent for the future. Since then, it has been a consistent hard luck story for the player - there have been crippling injury lay-offs, issues with his weight, frequent and very public fall outs with Jose Mourinho and questions surrounding his temperament and attitude. To some, all this made Shaw the epitome of the post Sir-Alex Manchester United -  huge expectations, but ultimately an expensive, lazy flop and not up to standard. 

His was a career drifting wastefully towards the file marked 'Trash' when frequently singled out as the victim of Mourinho's confidence-shredding missions. But now, seven years on, Shaw is in the best form of his career. His importance only grows whenever he's left out of the side and the best left-back in England is now the complete player. Supreme in defence, he offers width and danger in attack, linking the player, driving forward and offering a constant outlet for his team-mates. The raison d'etre of the modern full-back requires you to be able to both defend and attack in equal measure. 

Both these aspects of Shaw's game have improved beyond all recognition - as his superb solo goal in the derby testified - and he is by far our most improved player. Solskjaer deserved huge credit for Shaw's reinvention and the autumn arrival of Alex Telles has provided competition, only serving to lift Shaw to an even loftier level. After years of Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian as makeshift full-backs and for the first time since Evra, United at last have a proper, world class full-back worthy of the name. 

Bruno Fernandes and his huge, burden carrying shoulders aside, have United had a more reliable, and consistent performer this season than our no.23? He was the best player on the pitch again against West Ham after yet another dominant and dynamic showing and is seemingly now a contender for man of the match week in week out. His form looks certain to get him a first England call-up in almost three years - if not, then Gareth Southgate should be arrested for crimes against football. As the national team prepare to open their World Cup qualifying campaign against the might of San Marino, Albania and Poland, if Shaw does not get the nod then it's an absolute disgrace. 

Last time Shaw played for England was against Spain in 2018 when he played as a wing-back in a side featuring Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Ben Chilwell aside, England don't have a natural, out and out left-back so Southgate surely cannot ignore how good Shaw has been this season with the squad for the delayed Euro 2020 firmly in the forefront of the mind of the England manager. 

Shaw - United's Player of the Month for February - won the prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in 2018-19 and surely won't be far away this time around when the top gong is handed out in May at the culmination of the campaign. Shaw made his United best of 40 appearances during that campaign but is comfortably on course to eclipse that tally in 2020-21, having played in 34 of our 45 matches across all competitions. 

Shaw has had so much to cope with and it's been a far from easy journey at Old Trafford for him. But now, seven years on from his arrival, the green shoots of recovery have finally begun to spring through the surface. Manchester United's Shaw-flank redemption is in full swing. 

Match report: Man United 1-0 West Ham United

 Craig Dawson's second half own goal sent United up to second and earned a valuable victory over Champions-League chasing rivals West Ham. 
David Moyes' Hammers have caught the eye as this season's surprise package, mounting an unexpected challenge for the top four and impressing with a bold attacking style. However, this was in stark evidence at Old Trafford as the visitors,  bereft of in-form Jesse Lingard - on loan from United - set out to frustrate and stifle Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side.

Marcus Rashford returned from injury and Dean Henderson kept his place in goal with Victor Lindelof restored to the defence as Fred and Luke Shaw also returned having been on the bench against Milan in midweek.

United had needed extra-time to overcome West Ham in the FA Cup meeting between the sides last month, and the game lapsed into a similar pattern here with Moyes' men deploying a mass defence with a back five and three defensive midfield players. 

Henderson punched clear after Aaron Cresswell's deflected, looping cross had threatened to cause problems but it took 25 minutes for United to carve out their first clear opening.
Rashford had recovered soon than expected having picked up an ankle injury in the derby, and it was he whom should have done better as he headed wastefully wide when unmarked at the back post having been picked out by Mason Greenwood.
Greenwood was selected as United's main striker in the absence of Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani and went close himself eight minutes shy of the interval.
A trademark throw-out by Henderson released the impressive Luke Shaw and he in turn found Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese schemer in turn picked out Greenwood and his effort looked to be creeping in only for Lukasz Fabianski to get down well and turn the ball on to the post.
Rashford headed wide and Scott McTominay flashed a shot narrowly off target as United ended the half firmly in control.

The second half started as the first had ended - with United on top and remaining patient in the face of the Hammers ultra-defensive system.
Eight minutes after the re-start came the breakthrough that we had been looking for. On 53 minutes, a Daniel James cross almost found Rashford but Vladimir Coufal reacted quickest to turn the ball behind. But, from the resultant Fernandes corner, McTominay's header struck the leaping Dawson and the ball flew beyond the helpless Fabianski to break the deadlock and give United a deserved lead.

The West Ham keeper saved from Fernandes to prevent a second but, with the Hammers now chasing the game, Moyes finally broke the visitors out of their self-inflicted slumber.
Said Benrahma and Manuel Lanzini were brought on to inject some urgency and threat to the east London side, and the changes immediately brought about an increase in West Ham's tempo and danger.
Jarrod Bowen glanced a header wide to serve notice of their renewed intent, even though he was flagged offside so even if he had scored the goal would not have counted.
Henderson was never unduly troubled and in fact it was us that came closest to the game's second goal when Greenwood thumped off a post at the culmination of a trademark sweeping counter-attacking move. 

United have painfully conceded stoppage time equalisers to Everton and Milan in recent week and this was no doubt still fresh in the memory as the game entered the closing moments with United still holding a slender lead. 
West Ham continued to press but there was never any sense of a late Hammer blow (pun intended) as Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were in command at the back to get United over the line and secure a very important win, securing a first league double over West Ham since 2013-14 in the process (when we were managed by a certain David Moyes). 

In what amounted to a top four six-pointer, Solskjaer's side moved nine points clear of their visitors in fifth place, to return to second position after Leicester had gone there with a 5-0 thrashing of bottom-club Sheffield United earlier in the day. 
With nine games left, it will take an unlikely, Devon-Loch style collapse fo United to miss out on the top four as the season builds to a conclusion.

As a footnote, this was the first time in nine years (February 2012 against Liverpool), in which United didn't make a substitution during a Premier League game. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw 

Friday 12 March 2021

Match report: Manchester United 1-1 Milan

Simon Kjaer cancelled out Amad Diallo's inventive header to grab a crucial away goal and hand the Rossoneri the advantage in the last 16 Europa League tie.
United must score at the San Siro to avoid elimination after Kjaer powered home a header from a corner in the final seconds, the very least Stefano Pioli's eye-catching Milan side deserved from an energetic and eye-catching display.

United keeper Dean Henderson should have done better but failed to keep out the Danish international's effort, giving the Italian side a goal that changes the entire complexion of the tie.
Both sides were missing key men, with ex-Red Zlatan Ibrahimovic sidelined through injury, and Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani missing for United.
Milan featured Reds loanee Diogo Dalot in their starting XI as rules over eligibility do not apply in this competition - with Eric Bailly, Alex Telles, Nemanja Matic and Mason Greenwood Solskjaer's four changes from the memorable derby win.

Rafael Leao looked to have put the Serie A giants ahead inside five minutes when he fired in an angled effort from close range only to be denied by a clean offside infringement.
Anthony Martial, fresh from his magnificent showing in the Manchester derby, was denied by Gianluigi Donnarumma at the other end in an end-to-end opening between these two great names of European football.

Then came a moment that will be talked about long into the night - yet another VAR incident. The excellent Franck Kessie collected the ball from a throw-in, pulled it down on his chest and fired in a finish on the half-volley beyond Henderson. No one in Red appealed but, surprisingly and somewhat harshly, the goal was ruled out for an accidental handball as Kessie attempted to control the ball.
It did little to stem the flow of Milan attacks and they came close again through ex-City man Brahim Diaz, but Henderson was equal to his shot from distance. The Rossoneri had started well and the performance of Kessie enabled them to control the midfield and dictate the tie.
Henderson was called into action again, this time to keep out Alexis Saelemakers on 30 minutes but despite being second best, United somehow squandered a chance to go ahead shortly afterwards.
Quite how they didn't, only Harry Maguire will know. The United captain met a Bruno Fernandes flick on at the back post, but somehow nudged the ball on to the woodwork with his shin and watched in bemusement as the ball spun away to safety. Maguire had contrived to miss from a yard and, perhaps from then on, you knew it wasn't going to be our night.

Martial had picked up an injury to leave United without a recognised striker for the second half as Amad Diallo came on for the Frenchman, in his first full half of football in Red. 
It proved an inspired substitution as the 18-year-old made an instant impact only five minutes after he came on.
As usual, the architect was Fernandes as his expertly flighted ball over the defence picked out the Ivorian, and Amad showed sensational instinct and ability to guide a backwards header to send the ball over Donnarumma and in. The goal brought back memories of a similar effort by Chicharito at Stoke in 2010.

Milan were not rattled by going behind and, in fact, doing so only seemed to inspire them further. Bosnian Rade Krunic nodded wide after Davide Calabria had picked him out, and Henderson then saved from Kessie before Leao's mishit air-kick when well placed provided a let-off. For all Milan's possession and territory, though, United had a glit-edged chance to extend their lead when Amad linked up with Mason Greenwood and the latter cut the ball back for the onrushing Welshman, but he dragged wastefully wide from eight yards. 

Solskjaer made three changes soon afterwards as Brandon Williams, Luke Shaw and Fred replaced Aaron Wan - Bissaka, James and Fernandes. It was perhaps a questionable move as United sat on their 1-0 lead for the closing stages, inviting Milan on with the intention of holding what we had.
It seemed a risky approach, particularly against a good side in Europe, and we'd ultimately be made to pay for it as Kjaer thumped home a header from a corner in the 92nd minute to deny United what would've been a scarcely deserved victory. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Amad. What an introduction and what a moment for the Reds youngster

Thursday 11 March 2021

Manchester United vs Milan: A second tier clash of the sleeping giants

Manchester and Milan. Two of the world's most famous and iconic cities, linked by almost every global industry you can think of - music, fashion, film, food, travel and, of course, football.

The two cities are both in the northern region of their respective countries and are considered almost as second capitals - both have two football clubs, and it wasn't so long that a match between the United of Manchester and Associazione Calcio (AC) Milan conjured up images of footballing par excellence.

Who can forget that wonderful Milan side under Carlo Ancelotti - a side even too good for the might of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand et al. They had Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filipo Inzaghi and Andrea Pirlo amongst their alumni, to name but eight. Co-incidentally, Seedorf, Gattuso and Inzaghi have all managed the club in recent years whilst Pirlo is now in charge at divisional rivals Juventus. Milan knocked us out in 2005 in the round of 16 before the two sides met again - this time in the semi-finals - two years on. United were in transition with the full force of Sir Alex Ferguson's emerging young side yet to be felt by the world in the first meeting. The Reds would win the league by the time they renewed hostilities with Ancelotti's men, but still had no answers to eventual winners Milan, despite the fact they could only finish fourth in Serie A. It seemed like a rivalry for the ages, one that only seemed to grow in importance as the stakes got higher, and revenge would not be far away.

When these two historic clubs last met in 2010, Sir Alex Ferguson's United side were at the peak of their considerable, all-conquering powers. It came in the last 16 of the Champions League and the Reds vanquished Leonardo's ageing Rossoneri by an aggregate score of 7-2 (3-2 away, 4-0 at home), as a chap by the name of David Beckham came on as a second half substitute in the second leg at Old Trafford, to much acclaim. United would go on to lose in the quarter-finals against Bayern Munich, but would then make the final the following year - the less said about that, the better. 

As we're painfully aware, Pep Guardiola dealt United and Sir Alex capital punishment to deny us a third European title - Ferguson would leave two seasons later and United haven't been anywhere near those heights since. 
2010-11 was also the season that Milan last scaled the zenith of domestic bliss, with Leonardo - unflustered by their shellacking at the hands of Sir Alex's final great side - delivering an 18th Scudetto to the capital club - to date, it is their last league title. These two superpowers of the game, two clubs famed and revered for glittering successes and sides known for iconic, star-studded teams, have gone almost a decade without the most prestigious prize in domestic football - both have suffered significant drop-offs and the similarities are striking - a high turnover of managers and players, boardroom struggles, a lack of identity and scattergun recruitment in a bid to return to former glories. United have, of course, picked up the odd trophy in the intervening years, but the game's biggest prizes remain tantalisingly out of reach. 

It is perhaps fitting, then, that eleven years on from that last clash of the titans, United and Milan meet in the distinctly second tier surroundings of the Europa League. Back at the time of that last showdown in 2010, such a scenario would have required an almighty leap of the imagination - pah, these two in the Europa League! But yet its come to pass - a clash between two sleeping giants, a tie synonymous with the halcyon days of yesteryear and a reminder, perhaps, of how quickly football can leave you behind. 

Manchester United and AC Milan - 38 league titles and ten European Cups between them and a Champions League tie in all but name. Has there ever been a more glamorous tie in the backwaters of the Europa League than this one? Even if it does have a kick off time of 5.55pm on a Thursday... 

What used to be a long and gruelling struggle for continental supremacy instead now resembles a far more feeble fight - merely a case of which of these sleeping giants will reawaken first. Indeed, there's an entirely different line of reasoning when it comes to the respective fortunes of two sides that used to light the way as the creme de la creme of the European elite - which one has fallen furthest? 

There are signs that a brighter future lies ahead, as both are second in the league and still have hopes of a successful season, but a full return to former glories could yet be a long way off. 

Wednesday 10 March 2021

A new direction for Manchester United

 After a process that has seemed as slow as a Tory government during a national emergency, Manchester United have moved - kicking and screaming - into the 21st century. 
The club have finally appointed their first ever Director of Football to follow in the footsteps of nearly every major club as we look to end years of catastrophic and scattergun decision making in the Old Trafford corridors of power. 

The absence of a director of football is rare for a club the size and stature of United, and there has been years of speculation surrounding our pursuit of such a role. Certainly, given the lack of any tangible football knowledge on the money obsessed and profit-driven board, such an appointment is long overdue but very welcome.

There were several big names United were searching for in the appointment of one of the most important figures within the workings of a football club. Men with a proven track record, men such as Monchi from Sevilla, Fabio Paratici (Juventus), ex-Spurs supremo Paul Mitchell, now with RB Leipzig, or Marcel Brandts. But instead, United have chosen to promote from within as John Murtough gets the nod as United finally catch up with their contemporaries and move into the modern day. When the news was announced on Wednesday, it came out of the blue - hardly anyone saw this coming. 

Murtough joined United under David Moyes, where he's been credited with the rapid rise to prominence of the Women's side and the successful overhaul of the Academy. Murtough steps up from his role as head of football development, and often chaperoned new signings into Carrington to sign on the dotted line and for medicals.

Having a director of football is almost commonplace in the modern game, but yet there remains a certain mystery over what such a man actually does. The official line appears to be that the directors of football are in a senior position, almost as important as the manager and his backroom staff. Transfer, recruitment and development will be Murtough's chief remit. For too long now, ol dick Ed has made all the football decisions at United - nonsensical when you consider Ed Woodward is nothing more than a glorified accountant. Murtough will take full control of scouting, recruitment of potential new players, putting in place a long-term strategy to move the club forward and controlling the transfer budget. He will work alongside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a daily basis and the two men will have the final, overall responsibility on any major football matters at the club. Matt Judge, previously Head of Recruitment, has been given a new job title, now working as Director of Football Negotiations. 

In theory, we'll have football people making football decisions with the likes of Woodward left to focus on the commercial, money-making side of the club. But then again, Woodward has a power-hungry penchant for meddling in things in above his head, so can he really be trusted to leave well alone? 

Jose Mourinho was a known adversary of such a structure, as the firebrand Portuguese felt it would undermine his authority. One of the reasons for Mourinho's sacking was his reluctance to have a "mediator" and the club's own commitment and priority in moving towards a model familiar with the biggest and best clubs in Europe. Fifteen months on, and it should not come as a surprise that is has taken them so long. 

Ex Red Darren Fletcher played 342 times for United and becomes our first ever Technical Director, working across all aspects of the club's football operations from youth team to senior side. Fletcher has been working as first team coach under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, despite his lack of experience in a boardroom role, has impressed those behind the scenes. It is felt Fletcher can provide and offer professional expertise in areas of scouting, recruitment and squad building. 

United's structure from the top has been a complete state for years and the appointments of both of a Director of Football and a Technical Director is the first step on the road to reversing such regression. 

Monday 8 March 2021

Reflections on the 185th Manchester derby

Perhaps, given what had gone before, Manchester United were always destined to prevail in the 185th Manchester derby.
That may sound a strange statement to make, given the fact City came into the game with a 14-point chasm at the top of the Premier League and on a mammoth 21-game winning streak whilst United had faded from contention after stumbling fatally with dropped points against Sheffield United, West Brom, Everton and Palace.

You see, Manchester United are at their best when their backs are firmly against the wall. After Mr Hyde had made one too many appearances of late, it was time for Dr Jekyll to make his entrance. And where better to do that than at the home of the soon-to-be-Premier League champions. The Etihad often brings out the best in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his merry band of men, and this time - even in the face of our all-conquering neighbours - it would be no different. For as many fans who thought a pasting at the hands of City was in the offing, somewhere deep within you was a feeling that this Reds side would stand up and be counted. This United side has an astounding tendency to randomly pull out the most monumental of results when you least expect it. 

Something had to give: City's 21 match winning run against United's own 21-match unbeaten away record as irresistible force met immovable object. In the end, the result was never really in doubt and, in fact, it could and should have been even worse for the team from across the city. City's magnificent run of wins simply couldn't have gone on for ever - how sweet it was that it should be us to bring their rampaging juggernaut to a grinding and spectacular halt. Not since the 21st November and a 0-2 defeat at the hands of his old adversary Jose Mourinho had anyone got close enough to lay a glove on Guardiola and his side. Perhaps there was a certain sense of symmetry and deja vu that Solskjaer's United would finally be the team to do it. Some things are just meant to be. 

 Having failed to score in over 400 minutes after a hat-trick of 0-0 draws, and given our penchant for scoreless stalemates against the top six, there was even some pre-match talk that United would do something not seen since 1992 and play out a fourth consecutive goalless game. Ironically, on this occasion, it would have been a result that many of us would have settled for. 
It took only 101 seconds for such a possibility to be eviscerated as Bruno Fernandes slotted home his spot-kick to give United a lead we would ultimately never relinquish. In so doing, not only did the Reds end their own personal drought against the Premier League's leading lights, but Fernandes himself busted the myth that he is incapable of doing so. 
An early goal was the perfect start - it allowed United to set their stall out and put City into the almost unprecedented position of being forced to chase the game, giving United space to counter-attack in behind them. Our raison d'etre of caution, Solskjaer's safety first identikit in these big games, had gone out the window and been blown to pieces within the first minute. We did not go to City to sign our own death warrant and simply sit back. One of the greatest edges in a managerial armoury is the element of surprise and City's slickers were certainly caught cold by the Reds rapid start. 

Yet it was clear we would always need a second goal - you haven't a hope of holding a 1-0 lead for 88 minutes against a side with a death by a thousand passes mantra and a team who can cut even the most miserly of defences to shred in seconds. 
The second 45 minutes felt like 45,000 hours - usually our matches fly by but this one feels as if it's in snail time - even when Luke Shaw duly obliged to put clear daylight between ourselves and our nearest and dearest, it felt like there was still an eternity to go. Only when the match entered its dying embers deep into stoppage did I finally feel confident our team would finally get over the finish line - as good as we had been, here we had a magnificent football team, one which can put you to the sword in the blink of an eye. 

I hate the derby as much as I love it - not the actual match itself, but everything that goes with it. The build-up always feels different, you get that knotted stomach and a sense of "us against them" that no other game can bring. The derby is about bragging rights, local pride and the chance to claim the city as your own. There's nothing like a cross-town punch up to stir the senses, get the juices flowing and conjure emotions no other game can. 
Liverpool is always the game us United fans want to win, but there's nothing quite like winning a Manchester derby. Victory is always special, defeat always that little bit more crushing. This one felt distinctly low-key. Perhaps it's because of the situation with City miles clear at the top and safe in the knowledge that even this defeat won't derail their progress to the title. Perhaps it was because of United's untimely dip in recent weeks, putting paid to any hopes of #21iscoming. Or perhaps it was the appropriately sterile environment of this Covid era and an entire season behind closed doors that meant I had no fellow Reds to revel in and share the moment with - just my old man in the front room at home for company. 
There was just something amiss on this particular derby day, a match that is always looked for first when the fixtures come out. It was in stark contrast to when these two sides had met at Old Trafford a year ago exactly to the day. None of us knew it at the time, but it would be the last time United would play in front of fans before the UK went into lockdown. The Reds secured a memorable derby double courtesy of THAT Scott McTominay stunner in stoppage time as Old Trafford's capacity crowd erupted into ecstasy as the Lancaster born Scot put the local rivals to bed. It only added to the feeling of melancholy this time around. 

But yet despite this most fabulous of victories against the odds, there remains a maddening case of 'what if'. What if, indeed, we had beaten Sheffield, Everton, West Brom and Palace. Imagine where we'd be now had we done so...

United turn the tables with a derby victory for the ages

Four days on from the sleepwalking snoozefest of Selhurst Park, this bafflingly unpredictable Manchester United side again rose to the challenge with a derby day victory for the ages.

It was a script that perhaps seemed written as United turned the tables with a historic win to take the honours in the 185th all-Manchester meeting and stop our neighbours and rivals in their formidable tracks and end their 21-game winning run. 

After three consecutive goalless draws, the Reds had been criticised for a lack of spark and fire as a league season that had offered so much had started to peter out. There was a sense the Reds were merely going through the motions, trailing in the wake of a relentless, winning machine as City cut a swathe through the league en route to a third Premier League title in four seasons. The Reds had led the way at the turn of the year but silly points lost to Sheffield United, Everton, West Brom and Palace - to name but four - had seen any potential league ambitions stunted. Indeed, coming into this one, you weren't quite sure whether to expect a thumping or one of those random results where this side can look like world beaters. 

Yet whenever things take a downward turn, whenever the pressure mounts up again and the chips are down, something stirs within the inner recess of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It perhaps should be expected - after all, here is a man who specialised in the substitute rescue act during his illustrious playing career at Old Trafford. His job description as a player often amounted to salvaging a seemingly hopeless situation.
Now, as manager, Solskjaer seems to thrive when the odds are stacked against him and his side. When his back is against the wall and he needs a result, the United boss is the finest manager in world football. 

Pep Guardiola knows more than most what Solskjaer can do when it all comes together - this was the fourth time in seven games the United manager has outmanoeuvred his illustrious counterpart, and the third time in a row at the Etihad.
Make no mistake, this was a deserved victory - there was no VAR-dominated controversy, no luck, and this was not an out-of-form City side decimated by injuries. This wasn't even a park the bus, fortuitous, smash-and-grab victory. United, of course, were forced into long spells without the ball but had a good shape about us and played City at their own short passing game in the final 25 minutes. Even the most ardent ABU hater cannot deny the Reds fully merited their eventual victory - the early penalty certainly helped but, in truth, United could and should have prevailed by more.

United went to our neighbours and rivals and played a high line, got on front foot and turned the tables on an unsuspecting City side with a performance of supreme quality and confidence from the opening whistle. Solskjaer sent his side out to press hard and fast, never allowing City to lapse into their formidable passing rhythm or to build up a head of steam. 
It is a result and a performance Sir Alex Ferguson - watching from the posh seats at a deserted Etihad (literally the Emptihad) - would have been proud of.

Manchester City are still going to win the Premier League title, and this result does nothing to change that, barring the most unlikeliest of Devon-Loch style collapses. But they were deservedly vanquished by a sharper, hungrier United side who played like our lives depended on it - we defended magnificently, bullied City in midfield and counter-attacked thrillingly. To continue the horsey analogy, City were not at the races even on this derby day.

But Solskjaer and the Reds certainly were as we rose to the challenge in the face of our all-conquering neighbours and rivals. United know there is very little chance of stopping Guardiola's rampaging thoroughbreds - leading the way by eleven points - but we were intent on wrecking their sequence of successes. United have won this particular battle but City will win the war. 
From back to front and to a man, United were absolutely magnificent. Dean Henderson, curiously, had little to do, but his handling was good, he commanded his box and his distribution is something David de Gea does not have and a major asset.
In front of him, Aaron Wan - Bissaka again got the better of Raheem Sterling, forcing the City man to the fringes, winning tackles, and matching his rival for pace and interceptions. On the opposite flank, Luke Shaw showed why he is the best left-back in the league by a distance, in a tireless, magnificent performance of positioning and link-play as he snuffed out Riyad Mahrez and got forward to score - Shaw is having the best season of his career, he is a contender for our Player of the Year and is in the form of his life. In front of the watching Gareth Southgate, there is not a better left-back on the planet at the moment.

Harry Maguire was a colossus at centre-half, a leader vocally and in marshalling United's courageously high line. Victor Lindelof defied his critics with a magnificent showing alongside his captain in the pair's best performance of the season at the home of the champions. Lindelof often saves his best performances against the elite and this was another entrant for that pantheon. Fred hustled and Scott McTominay came alive in the engine room, becoming the bedrock for United's quick, incisive counter attack by winning the ball and starting attacks at will to wrestle control from City's midfield slickers.

Anthony Martial returned to the side and set the tone for the side's performance with an absolutely magnificent individual display. All that was missing was a goal as he worked the channels, linked the play, never stopped running and bristled with menace and pace throughout. Martial won the penalty - converted by the tireless Bruno Fernandes -  with a darting run in behind and at one point simply bounced off a two-pronged challenge from John Stones and Gundogan to spin in behind and burst clear. We've seen the worst of Martial over the past few months, but this was the mercurial Frenchman at his best. Along with Shaw, he was the game's most impressive performer. 

If United could be more consistent, maintaining close to this level of intensity every week, brushing aside the likes of Sheffield United, Everton, West Brom and Palace (all of whom we have dropped points against), then a bright future will look even more positive. United were as engaged and as hugely impressive here as we were abject and anodyne in south London in midweek. In a perverse way, it makes this victory slightly annoying as imagine the position we'd be in now had we won those games instead of drawn them. 
This was the sweetest of victories for United and Solskjaer - he keeps being questioned but keeps responding. United reclaimed second place from Leicester and look firmly on course to improve on last season, both in terms of league standing and points tally.

Manchester is Red.. Get in there!! 

Sunday 7 March 2021

Manchester derby ratings: Shaw and Martial magnificent as United shock City

United painted Manchester a glorious shade of magnificent red as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side turned the form book on its head to stop City in their tracks and end their 21-match winning run.
After three successive goalless draws, including a dire stalemate at Palace, United had come in for criticism but dispelled those doubters in spectacular style with a derby day showing for the ages as Solskjaer earned a fourth victory over his illustrious opposite number Pep Guardiola. 

Here, we take a look at how each Red rated as United defied the odds again to secure a famous victory in the 185th all-Manchester meeting

Dean Henderson - 8

Given his big chance with David de Gea on maternity leave, Henderson was commanding, vocal and made one excellent save in particular to deny Ilkay Gundogan. He may have expected to find himself a man under siege, but, curiously, had hardly anything to do in the face of United's all-conquering neighbours. He didn't quite register an assist but Shaw's goal came from his throw - out, something you feel De Gea just wouldn't do. Henderson did his prospects of becoming number one no harm at all.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 8

Seems to save his best form for the visit to the Etihad and the challenge of Raheem Sterling. The latter seems to have a mental block when it comes to getting the better of the Spider. Wan - Bissaka barely gave his rival a sniff all game, winning every challenge, making numerous important interceptions and had his side of the pitch in his own form of lockdown. Immense.

Harry Maguire - 9

Dominant in the air against one of the best attacks in Europe, strong, brave in commanding and leading a high line. Produced a number of hugely important clearances and, bar a booking, barely put a foot wrong. This was a captain's performance from a man having a quietly impressive season. His yellow card was clumsy and the only reason why he hasn't got a perfect score here. Colossal.

Victor Lindelof - 9

Lindelof was the main selection question from Solskjaer, as many of us felt Eric Bailly should have been picked alongside Maguire. But the Swede more than justified his inclusion with an impressive performance. Solskjaer likes Lindelof's composure and passing ability from deep and he certainly showed here that he is a man for the big occasion. Read City's attacks brilliantly, got stuck in, and limited a world class attack to barely anything of note. Courageous and confident on the ball, he had a brilliant game and tends to save his best performances for the elite. 

Luke Shaw - 9

A superb goal capped another absolutely magnificent performance from a player in the midst of a world class season. A constant menace down the left, he was excellent both in defence and attack and never stopped running. The goal will be the highlight of his career and won the battle with Riyad Mahrez at a canter. This tie was deemed as a duel between Shaw and City counterpart Joao Cancelo, but there was only one winner. What a player and what a performance from the best left-back in the country by a distance right now. An England recall surely beckons. 

Scott McTominay - 7

Nothing flashy but did his job well, excelling at the nitty gritty and frustrating City. He was loose in possession early on but got better and was tireless in closing down space and trying to break up play. He got forward well, linked the play and proved a nuisance for the hosts as he buzzed around in midfield to disrupt City's pretty passing patterns. Crucial in games like this one.

Fred - 7

Pressed superbly as the little Brazilian played with his trademark energy and industry. A little sloppy at times but grew into the game and cut off the passing lanes for De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan. Didn't do too much with the ball but his work off it was invaluable. Hassled and harried with guts and tenacity.

Dan James - 7

James drifted in and out of the game but his work rate and running off the ball laid the platform for United's counter-attacking masterclass. He provided excellent support for Wan - Bissaka and tracked back tirelessly to help his right-back shackle Sterling. He looked to push Zinchenko wide and free up space for Fernandes and Rashford between the full-back and centre-backs. James has been in good form recently and did well here as he gave us an outlet. His raw pace gave City problems. 

Bruno Fernandes - 7

Putting his hands to his ears, Fernandes was very much aware of the questions surrounding his efficiency against the top sides. He put United ahead with an early penalty, pressed excellently and recovered the ball eight times in the first half with his work rate and energy. He proved he can deliver when it matters, dispatching the spot-kick and providing a platform for United to build from. 

Marcus Rashford - 7

Rashford has come in for criticism of late but will have silenced them here with an excellent performance, his best showing for ages. Nearly scored early on and, on another day, could have had a hat-trick. Dovetailed superbly with Shaw down the left and led the charge on the counter, getting an assist for Shaw when he teed up the crucial second goal. Clearly struggling with injury at times, and had to go off with an ankle problem after tireless work off the ball. Played a part in the opening goal too and Solskjaer will hope his injury is nothing too serious.

Anthony Martial - 9

Recalled to the starting line-up with Edinson Cavani injured, Martial gets my vote for man of the match. Ran Ruben Dias and John Stones ragged, he held the ball up, worked the channels magnificently, led the charge on the counter and linked the play brilliantly. City couldn't get near him at times, typified when Rodri and Stones clattered against him as he spun and raced away - the mercurial Frenchman at his explosive and dynamic best. Should have scored with a good chance to make it 3-0 but a goal was the only thing missing from an otherwise nearly faultless performance from Martial. He was absolutely magnificent and terrorised City in a way no one has done for ages. He needed a big performance and had one here. 


Mason Greenwood - for Rashford 73 - 6

What a player to put on when the opposition are chasing the game and leaving gaps in behind them. Greenwood did his bit, and ran the channels with energy when United countered. He wasn't able to make the most of the space he had, but he worked hard and linked well with James on the left. 

Nemanja Matic - for Martial 86 - N/A

Brought on to sit in midfield and see things out. No rating

Brandon Williams - for Fernandes 90 - N/A

No rating as he came on to play in a back five

Manager - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - 9

Solskjaer caught City and Guardiola by surprise with a high press from the very first minute, instructing the side to ruin the hosts passing game with a high energy counter attacking performance. By the end, United were doing more than that - actually dominating the game and forcing City to the fringes. It worked impressively well as he took his record against Guardiola to four wins, one draw and three defeats. 

Match report: Manchester City 0-2 Man United

Manchester United defied the odds with a derby victory for the ages as Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw scored to end City's 21-match winning run.
Pep Guardiola's all-conquering juggernaut had looked on an unstoppable march to a third Premier League title in four seasons, and whilst this result will do little to derail their charge, it ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side returned to second spot and arrested a recent dip in form.

With ten games to go, Guardiola's side still lead the way with an eleven-point lead, so even this unexpected setback is unlikely to make any difference when it comes to the title. But the Reds remain on course for a top two finish and now seem almost certain to improve on last season's third place and 6 point tally. 

There were four changes from Wednesday night's sterile affair at Selhurst Park as Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay, Dan James and Anthony Martial returned to the line-up in place of Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani.

On a grey, damp Sunday afternoon across the city, in the first ever Etihad derby behind closed doors, Solskjaer's side couldn't have wished for a better start. In the 185th all-Manchester meeting, Martial was magnificent throughout and set the tone for a supreme individual performance when he burst clear of the City defence, only to be scythed down by Gabriel Jesus. VAR did not need to intervene as Anthony Taylor's decision was upheld, and Fernandes did the rest from the spot despite Ederson's best efforts to put United ahead after only 101 seconds.

Shaw went close to a second as United turned the tables on their hosts with a magnificent performance of pressing, persistence and relentless pressure. Ilkay Gundogan failed to test Dean Henderson - getting his first taste of a league derby- with a shot from distance in the ninth minute. Marcus Rashford then forced Ederson to scramble across his goal to thwart the winger's effort from distance.

Lindelof blocked to deny Jesus before Gundogan again went close as City slipped into their familiar, ominous passing pattern as they started to pin us back.
Yet for all their pressure, they never really got in behind United, with most of their efforts coming from distance, as Riyad Mahrez flashed a shot wide and the in-form Joao Cancelo fired over the top. Henderson was finally called into action as he tipped away a dipping strike from City's other full-back, Oleksandr Zinchenko.

The United keeper had to be on his toes again seven minutes before half-time when he denied Gundogan and then kept out the unusually quiet Kevin de Bruyne from a free-kick. 

The Reds needed to get to half-time ahead, and we did so despite late City pressure as Mahrez fired across goal and the onrushing Jesus was unable to turn the ball home on the stretch - although the goal wouldn't have counted anyway as the striker was offside. 

City started the second half as they had ended the first and almost equalised inside two minutes when  Rodri  rattled the crossbar with an angled effort after neat build up involving Mahrez and Jesus. 
You always felt United would need a second goal to take a giant stride towards a famous win and it duly arrived in the 50th minute. 
Henderson began a classic counter-attack as he found Shaw with a long throw-out, and our left-back moved the ball on to Rashford before he advanced upfield. The pair exchanged passes before Rashford teed up Shaw to thump the ball across Ederson and in for his third Reds goal to spark scenes of wild celebration.

James had a shot deflected wide and the excellent Martial went close with a header as United looked more likely to get a third than City pull a goal back.
Raheem Sterling continued his goal drought against us as he fired off target, and a long range De Bruyne effort failed to cause any undue alarm for Henderson.

Jesus flashed a shot across goal on 65 minutes, but it was far from one way traffic as United maintained a constant threat on the counter attack. The Reds could - and probably should - have put the result beyond any lingering doubt on 68 minutes when Martial went one-on-one with Ederson, but City's Brazilian keeper stuck out a foot to save and keep his side in the tie.

City grew increasingly desperate as their usually deadly precision subsided to a much more frantic approach. Substitute Phil Foden was inches off target on the turn, and Sterling then failed to convert at the back post on 78 minutes after De Bruyne had picked him out. Henderson claimed a corner under pressure from John Stones but, for all City's possession and territory, their expected late surge never came. 

Referee Anthony Taylor's final whistle after five agonising added minutes signalled a victory that will live long in the memory as we ended City's three-month winning run, stayed unbeaten away from home and secured a third consecutive victory at the Etihad.

Overall performance: 10/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial. Unplayable and absolutely magnificent. 

Friday 5 March 2021

Dean Henderson to get his moment for Manchester United

Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faced a goalkeeping dilemma as Dean Henderson returned to Old Trafford after two years at Sheffield United.
Henderson impressed during his time at Bramall Lane, none more so than during last term when the Blades confounded their critics to push for Europe before they eventually fell away to finish ninth.

With David de Gea firmly installed as Solskjaer's number one, it seemed as though Henderson would have to be content with merely filling in when De Gea was rested - getting the nod for the cup games as De Gea played in the league. He would play in the second half at Southampton, witness to an Edinson Cavani-inspired fightback for the ages, and deputise against his old side shortly before Christmas. 

But now, as United prepare to step into the fire and face the all-conquering juggernaut of Pep Guardiola's City slickers, it is 'Deano's' time. Henderson preserved a point at Selhurst Park with a superb late save from Patrick van Aanholt and will keep his place as he prepares for a moment he's always dreamed of - the last line of defence between the sticks as Manchester United's number one.
De Gea is in Spain with his partner following the arrival of their first child on Thursday, and is expected to be unavailable for the next five United ties - paving the way for Henderson to step in. 
He will face City on Sunday, play in both legs of the Europa Cup tie with Milan, before featuring against West Ham in the league and Leicester in the cup before De Gea's expected return after the international break in April. 

Players can often get their chance in the most circumstantial of ways - we all know the story of Marcus Rashford, thrown into the national spotlight at the eleventh and a half hour in THAT Europa League tie against Midtjylland in 2016 with Anthony Martial in the warm-up. By a strange quirk of fate and with a delicious dash of irony, one of the United fans embraced by the young starlet as he wheeled away in celebration? A wide-eyed 18 year old by the name of Dean Henderson. 

It seems churlish to describe Henderson as "back up" - he has played 14 times this season, has an England cap and is far from an untested rookie. Of those 14 appearances, nine of them have been clean sheets, so it's clear this lad has something about him - he certainly hasn't looked out of place. 
 But, with due respect to Chris Wilder and his Sheffield side, there is a huge difference between keeping goal for the respective Uniteds. Henderson would perhaps expect to be busy during his time across the Pennines, having a lot to do and staying in the thick of the action throughout the 90 minutes.
But, as we saw in south London on Wednesday, it's a completely different ball game when it comes to playing for the Red of United. We're going to have more of the ball and most of the play for the majority of the game, so Henderson might not have anything to do until the last minute of a match. It's vital he keeps his concentration and focus even in the quieter moments. We saw this against Palace as most of Henderson's work came under the high ball and catching crosses until he was called into action by van Aanholt in the dying minutes. 

Henderson played in the League Cup semi-final between the two Manchester rivals and could not be faulted for either of their goals, so it's not the first time he will face the pressure and spotlight of a derby match.  But you feel there will be a different dynamic at play - City have put together an incredible winning run to cut a swathe through the league and move to within touching distance of the title. This will be the biggest examination of Henderson's fledgling Old Trafford career. 

These five games almost seem like a job interview - if Henderson does well, then he has a very good chance of claiming the no.1 jersey in his own right on a permanent basis next season. If he passes this mini audition, the gig is surely his in the long term as he bids to usurp his team-mate and rival. De Gea is 30 now and although keepers can play longer than most outfield players (both Peter Shilton and our own Edwin van der Sar played into their 40s), he has a few years left in him yet as he approach the twilight of his career. 
Solskjaer likes De Gea and admirably stuck by him despite a less than vintage last couple of seasons, but surely even he cannot ignore the emergence of Henderson. In the end, Solskjaer's dilemma has been solved for him with an absolutely magnificent piece of man management - dropping De Gea without actually doing so to champion Henderson and give DDG some family time before he returns with fire in his belly and, hopefully, a new edge to his game. 

Henderson is more than merely a shot-stopper - his distribution is good, he's notably more commanding and vocal than De Gea and exudes confidence in the defence - all attributes that DDG has been accused of lacking in recent years. It's easy to see why he's so highly rated and exactly why he's been touted as a United number one in waiting for years.