Friday 28 May 2021

Manchester United 2020-21: Reflections on a season in the Red

 As I write this, the dust has just about settled on the epitaph of Manchester United's 2020-21 season.
It was a season of both progress and promise for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his exciting, emerging young United side. A baptismal campaign for Old Trafford's next generation - spearheaded by the old stager Edinson Cavani, a zest of youth  - Mason Greenwood, Amad, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay - to name but four and a sprinkling of stellar, world class talents. 

Despite the bitter disappointment of football's cruellest fate - losing a cup final on penalties - the end of the season is a good time to take stock and reflect on the campaign just gone.

It was of course, a campaign like no other: a condensed eight month season, stadiums locked and empty until the last two gameweeks, and a match every three or four days. It was football at a density and a volume we had never seen before. 
As the curtain comes down on Solskjaer's second full season in the hotseat, there is much to reflect upon. The taste of defeat might be bitter, raw and still difficult to take, but the team can channel their anguish and come back stronger next season. I hope the players are hurting - they must take the mindset of ensuring they're never in the position of being runners up again and - next time - they will be the ones lifting the trophy rather than just forlornly walking past it. 

 A fourth successive season without silverware will be the over-riding memory of a season in the Red, and as such, it must be considered a disappointment. Even had we won the Europa League, you would say it's still only a consolation prize having faded from contention when it comes to the major prizes everyone wants - the league and the Champions League. Would we have celebrated victory on Wednesday? Of course we would, and it could have been a valuable staging post for this side to instil the trophy-winning habit and provide a launchpad for greater things to come. But, ultimately, it is not where you want to be. Having finally broken the semi-final jinx after four consecutive losses at that stage, a runners up medal is hardly reason to quell the doubters. Fans have still been left disenchanted at the lack of trophies and, although a team can progress year on year (which we are doing) the true measure of that upward trajectory is truly measured by the only currency that matters: prizes, cups and silverware. 

In relation to the league, Solskjaer inherited a team that had endured its worst 17-game start since the pre-Premier League era - 26 points from 51 available. Since then, there has been stability, consistent top four finishes, a continual improvement on league places and a gap to the eventual winners that's closing by the year. 

At the turn of the year, we dared to dream, for a few short weeks at least. A string of gritty, character building single goals wins - in many ways the recurring theme of the campaign - fired the Reds to the pinnacle of the Premier League. The hashtag #21iscoming suddenly seemed more than just a pipedream - for the first time in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, United were top of the table at the turn of the year. Alas, it was not to be as City's consistency, strength in depth and metronomic form proved the difference and they pulled away to a fifth title in nine years but it was certainly fun while it lasted. 

As a footnote, no team has doubled us under Ole and only Liverpool and City have ever finished above Solskjaer's United. Even Jose Mourinho, the serial title winner, was only able to equal this effort. 
Not only has there been progression both in securing a runners up spot and in closing the gap, but - under Solskjaer - United managed something not even Sir Alex Ferguson managed to do. The Reds became the fourth side (Arsenal twice and Preston), to remain unbeaten away from home in an entire league season - we've not lost away from home since before the pandemic, in January 2020. Second in the league with 74 points set against third place and 66 points last time out. Champions League qualification was only secured on the last day of the season in 2019-20 but this time it has never looked in doubt. Progress? Certainly. Success? Absolutely not - any season without a trophy cannot be considered a successful one when you are Manchester United. Solskjaer will know that - as he himself alluded to on Wednesday night. We and you can be sure he will also know his managerial tenure cannot truly be considered as such until he wins that elusive first trophy. 

United have had an impressive recent record in the cups over the last few years, consistently reaching the latter stages. It proved a similar story this time around, only losing to the eventual winners in each one: the Europa League (Villarreal), League Cup (Manchester City) and FA Cup (Leicester City) in the final, semis and quarter finals respectively. 

There have been some magnificent individual performances this season. Luke Shaw has gone from unwanted outcast to the best left-back in the country by a considerable distance. Shaw has had the season of his life and his resurgence has been the perfect example of Ole's excellent man management. Marcus Rashford has also caught the eye with 21 goals from left midfield despite playing with injury, and Bruno Fernandes has again been the string-pulling supremo with 28 goals and 18 assists to finish as our top scorer and winner of the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year for a second time. Scott McTominay has improved on last term's showing with a stellar season, with the Lancaster-born Scot quickly becoming one of Solskjaer's key men - adding goals to his game and epitomised by his totemic, man of the match performance in the Gdansk final. Dean Henderson has shone when given the chance and Mason Greenwood struggled but then sparkled as he hit a run of stunning late-season form. 

Not only that, but there have been breakthrough campaigns for the latest fresh-faced Reds to step off the Carrington conveyor belt - Anthony Elanga, Hannibal Mejbri, Will Fish and Shola Shoretire - showing United's age old tradition of giving youth its chance is alive and well. 16 Academy graduates have now made their senior first team bows under the tutelage of Solskjaer. 

Despite comfortably outdoing them both, there seems an obsession to judge Solskjaer against Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta. The comparisons may seem obvious - all three men are part of a growing trend of top, high profile clubs appointing legendary former players as their manager but that's as far as it goes. Lampard was out on his ear after a year and a half at Chelsea, and Arteta failed to take Arsenal even into the new Conference League. What an effort from him to go from 8th to 8th. Yet Solskjaer is the one to continually be targeted as a failure and a serial under-achiever. 

Solskjaer has proved in 2020-21 why he deserves at least one more season in the job, it's a rebuilding job, a process, and he should be backed in the summer. He has achieved so much with his hands tied behind his back, gets no support from the media, fans and ex professional players but yet has made a mockery of all his doubters. With this backing and sign of support from the corridors of power at Old Trafford, the onus and the pressure will certainly be on Solskjaer to turn promise into prizes and I would be happy for him to get another season in trying to do so. 

So near but yet so far for Solskjaer's United

Writing this 48 hours on from the events of Wednesday evening, the pain and heartbreak of the Europa League final has continued to linger. 
I decided to take a breather after the agony of our defeat - I wanted to let the dust settle, the furore to die down and for my head to begin to piece together coherent thoughts as I tried to come to terms with what had happened. I didn't want this to an emotional, knee-jerk reaction piece so I thought it best to take a day or so to reflect and think rationally before I penned my thoughts.

 I rarely let my emotions get the better of me and don't often feel down or upset after a bad result, but there's nothing worse than seeing a winnable final slip away. Actually there is. Seeing a winnable final slip away on penalties. Everyone loves a good ol' penalty shootout - fantastic for the neutral but hell on earth when it's your team. Sometimes I really do hate football. I'm still gutted, this result hurt me and it will haunt my dreams for a long while to come. 

It may have been "only" the Europa League - a competition United only found themselves in because we weren't good enough in the Champions League - but try telling that to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players. As Geronimo Rulli stretched out a hand to tip away from opposite number David de Gea, United's red shirted heroes sunk to their knees in despair, the agony clear for all to see. Bruno Fernandes cried, Paul Pogba walked round with his hands on his head and the greatest of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson, wrapped a tender arm around the sunken shoulders of De Gea. They did not want their runners up medals and who can blame them? No one remembers the gallant losers. 

 When you've not been in a final for three seasons - and not won anything in four - beggars certainly cannot be choosers. This could have been the launchpad for bigger and better things but instead it was only a letdown. It was a supposed to be a night when the progress made under Ole finally got reward - instead it was another missed opportunity. 

There perhaps seemed an element of fate as Solskjaer the manager led United into a European showpiece 22 years to the day since his greatest act of derring do as a player, but instead the Reds wait for silverware will stretch into a fifth year. The longer the wait goes on, the more the doubts over his suitability for the job will continue to grow. Promise needs to turn to prizes sooner rather than later. 

As Manchester United's tearful and tired players trooped past the trophy - soon to be decked in yellow rather than red - it was the epitome of our season - so near, but yet so far. Just as the 65cm high trophy remained within touching distance but yet out of reach, so too has silverware, not for the first time, slipped from the grasp of Solskjaer and his side. The 2020-21 season ended as it had begun for United - painfully. Progress was made and plenty was promised, but ultimately nothing was delivered.

Such are the fine margins of a football penalty shootout, it is difficult to criticise, or to apportion blame. There is a blame culture in this country and most of it will inevitably be put on the shoulders of Solskjaer. But what he can do when you lose in a manner akin to the toss of a coin? David de Gea failed on every one of Villarreal's eleven successful spot-kicks and then missed the decisive one - but can you really hold him accountable? Someone has to miss, and it's hardly his job to score penalties. On another day, he'd have saved a few of those spot-kicks and we'd be sitting here having a very different conversation. De Gea has failed to stop any of the last 36 penalties he's faced and has only saved five of his last 40. FIVE. So whilst there was, indeed, a case to put on Dean Henderson solely for the shootout to try and shift the  equilibrium, how many managers would have actually done so? I can only think of the 2014 World Cup quarter-final when a certain Louis van Gaal subbed on Tim Krul against Costa Rica. He saved two spot-kicks and the Netherlands went on to win the quarter - final. But what's to say Henderson would have fared any better...

But I can't think of any other examples. We can all sit here and say what we would have done differently but hindsight is a wonderful thing and Ole did what he thought was right. You live and die by your decisions - sometimes it works, sometime it doesn't. 

Scott McTominay outshone his more illustrious colleagues Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in midfield, with the Scot's energy, industry and driving runs again coming to the fore in the biggest of games. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani were excellent and Aaron Wan - Bissaka had a good game at right-back. 

Too many players didn't do themselves justice - Luke Shaw - off the back of a magnificent season - failed to find one more big performance and this was the nadir of Marcus Rashford's professional career. Pogba flitted intermittently and Bruno was bogged down by Unai Emery's spoiling gameplan. 

Not for me is the criticism, or the "what ifs" or the scapegoating. I'm not angry and I don't think its right to rant. I'm proud of the team - we did superbly to get that far, the players have been magnificent all season and deserve huge credit for their efforts. We can only hope the bitter disappointment of Wednesday night in Gdansk will serve to spur them on next season. Of course, we'd have loved to win it, but perhaps it's a good thing the players know what it's like to lose a final. The first trophy is always the hardest one to win and when it inevitably does happen, it will be even sweeter.  

Thursday 27 May 2021

Match report: Man Utd 1-1 Villarreal (10-11 pens)

Manchester United suffered Europa League final agony from the spot at the hands of Unai Emery's Villarreal. 
The ex-Arsenal manager pulled off a fourth success in the competition as his unfancied Yellow Submarines tucked away all eleven of their penalties before Geronimo Rulli saved the 22nd effort from opposite number David de Gea to deny United a first piece of silverware under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Edinson Cavani had earlier cancelled out Gerard Moreno's 30th goal of the campaign to restore parity and that was the way it stayed throughout extra-time to ultimately force the lottery of penalties. 
Typically under Emery, Villarreal dug in as the Reds struggled with energy and invention late on as the Gdansk showpiece became a tense and tired affair as the tie drifted into extra-time and then the nail biting drama of the shootout. 

In the Reds 61st and final game of a marathon season, Solskjaer restored his key men having played a shadow side at Molineux in the last match of the league season. Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford were paired together with Eric Bailly at centre-back alongside Victor Lindelof in the enforced absence of captain Harry Maguire. Paul Pogba played in a deeper midfield role with Fred - perhaps surprisingly - named on the bench.

Scott McTominay - probably the best player on the pitch - flashed a shot wide inside the opening ten minutes when he should have done better with a trademark strike from distance.
Villarreal's Spurs loanee Juan Foyth then required treatment for a bloodied nose after an accidental collision with Pogba. 

Villarreal defended deep and in numbers but United dominated possession without managing to get in behind the Spaniards organised and well drilled low block. 
Luke Shaw's cross-come-shot flashed across goal with no one on the end of it to take it beyond Rulli, before United target Pau Torres headed over at the other end in a rare opening for the La Liga side. 

Cavani mis-controlled a pass from Greenwood on 23 minutes but United's threat fizzled out and we fell behind on the half hour mark in familiar fashion. United's Achilles heel has been set pieces and it was a case of deja vu here. In fairness to Dani Parejo, it was a well-struck set piece, whipped in with height and pace to drop between our two centre-backs into the path of Moreno, and he stuck out a foot to knock in the ball in beyond the stranded De Gea.

Rulli - supposedly suspect - was protected and marshalled by a wall of yellow as Villarreal swamped and stifled United are every turn.
Greenwood made an encouraging darting run in the closing stages of the half but - as if magnetically - it was a yellow shirt which was able to intercept the ball and shepherd it back to the keeper.

Greenwood was scythed down on 52 minutes but the French referee Clement Turpin, appalling all game, waved away vociferous protests after the obligatory VAR check. 
However, the video technology was soon to work in United's favour with the equaliser three minutes later. McTominay's driving run won a corner, Shaw's effort was half cleared and Cavani pounced to turn the ball home from Rashford's deflected shot.

A longer VAR check saw hearts in mouth but there was nothing wrong with the goal as the ref confirmed Cavani had been onside to finally break Villarreal's rearguard.
Rashford missed a sitter on 70 minutes when clean through but he will have been relieved to see the offside flag raised after an infringement from Bruno Fernandes in the build up.

Cavani headed Shaw's cross against Torres and another penalty appeal was turned down when the same player seemed to handle a Greenwood ball in but again there was nothing doing.

With legs beginning to tire, Emery finally threw off the shackles and introduced all five of his substitutes to breathe new life into his sinking Yellow Submarines.
22 years on to the day since his famous exploits in Barcelona, neither Solskjaer nor his side were able to conjure up another magical winning moment.

With United tiring and Villarreal newly freshened through their bench, it took Ole until the 100th minute to make a change as Fred came on for Greenwood to tighten the midfield and give his side energy.
Parejo fired wide and Moreno went close with a header but, in truth, a shootout long seemed inevitable with neither side having the willpower - or the fitness - to launch one last push forward.

Juan Mata and Alex Telles both came on seconds from the end for the penalties and both, to their credit, dispatched their spot-kicks with ease. Rashford, Cavani and Fernandes were also amongst United's five penalty takers but the extraordinary shootout came all the way down to the fate of the respective keepers. Rulli converted, De Gea failed to do so and United's hopes of European glory were agonisingly over for another season.

Overall team perfomance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Scott McTominay 

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Europa League final predicted XI: Tuanzebe and Rashford to start

 Manchester United will look to finish their season with a first piece of silverware under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the Reds face Villarreal in the Europa League final.
United take on Unai Emery's Yellow Submarines in Gdansk tomorrow evening with 9,500 fans in the stadium in our 61st and final match of a unique 2020-21 season. Fresh from a creditable runners up finish in the league, all the focus now is on delivering European flory and what could be a seminal moment for Solskjaer and his side. 

Harry Maguire is a major doubt for the showpiece as United's skipper battles with an ankle ligament injury. It seems almost certain Maguire will miss out, even though he has travelled with the squad, and so Bruno Fernandes is expected to captain the side in Maguire's absentia. You have to feel for Maguire - the marathon man never gets injured for two years but the first one he gets rules him out of a cup final. 

Solskjaer has a couple of major decisions to make over his team - who will partner Victor Lindelof at the back and will it be Mason Greenwood or Marcus Rashford on the right? Here are the eleven men we think Solskjaer will select and send out in Gdansk tomorrow night to bring home the trophy

GK - David de Gea

Solskjaer faces a major dilemma in the summer as he has two very good goalkeepers but, of course, only one of them can be first choice. That's a debate for another day, but de Gea deserves to get the nod for the final following an impressive performance over two legs in the Roma semi-final. Henderson played in both legs of our last 32 and last 16 ties against Real Sociedad and Milan before De Gea took up the gloves for Granada and Roma. There's no reason to drop him here and having not played in the 2017 final when Sergio Romero was selected in his stead, De Gea will get his chance here.

RB - Aaron Wan - Bissaka

A no brainer, Wan - Bissaka is a certainty to start having been rested at Wolves in our last league game in readiness for the final. His task will be made easier by the expected absence of Samuel Chukwueze - with Villarreal's wing wizard set to miss out through injury. Roma got a lot of joy when he was substituted at half-time in the Italian capital - AWB was on a booking and could have missed the final - and his importance was only highlighted in second half absentia. Primed and ready for his first major final at senior level

CB - Victor Lindelof

The Iceman will need to live up to his nickname as he attempts to shackle Villarreal's 29-goal striker Gerard Moreno. Without his cohort Maguire next to him, Lindelof is expected to be the senior man and has to shoulder the added responsibility of organising the defence in his captain's absence. Another rested at Wolves, so Lindelof is a certainty to play at the heart of the backline. Lindelof is bidding for his first major honour in English football and will look to head into the heat of battle with Sweden on a high. I expect this to be a busy evening at the office for him.

CB - Axel Tuanzebe

The big call for Solskjaer - does he go with a relative rookie or the experience of Eric Bailly against his former side? He may well decide the latter to be a preferable option but we think he will plump for the more youthful Tuanzebe. The man who shackled Kylian Mbappe in the Parc des Princes has been a peripheral figure at times this season and would never have expected to line up for the Reds in a major final. It has been clear since Maguire's injury at Villa Park that it would be one of Bailly or Tuanzebe alongside Lindelof in this final - both played at Wolves and, if that was an audition, then Tuanzebe passed it with flying colours. If he hadn't already done so, then Tuanzebe's performance at Molineux may have helped Solskjaer to make up his mind. He gets the nod despite Bailly's greater experience. Potentially a seminal, coming of age evening for the 23-year-old.

LB - Luke Shaw

Shaw will finally get his chance to play in a final - United have featured in four since Shaw joined but he's missed out on selection every time. No risk of that this time. United's Players Player of the Season has had the campaign of his life and his energy, industry and work rate will be key in suppressing an exuberant Villarreal side. Shaw has shared left-back duties with Alex Telles in this competition but there is no doubt over the former's participation in the final. Our best left-back, and indeed the finest exponent of his craft in the country. Shaw is going to the Euros and will hope to do so as a Europa League winner for the second time.

CDM - Fred

The Brazilian picked up a minor knock against Fulham and missed the Wolves game but is expected to be fine to man the midfield in Gdansk. A go to man for Solskjaer in games like this one, Fred is virtually a guaranteed starter when the big games come around. Needs to improve his distribution and you can be certain of at least one 30-yarder each week when this man plays. It seems almost certain Solskjaer will revert to "McFred" in midfield. Fred has featured in every match of United's Europa League run and is seen as indispensable by his manager. 

CDM - Scott McTominay

Taken off against Fulham with a minor knock but he too, like Fred, is expected to be fit to play. Rested against Wolves, McTominay is always a certainty for the big games and the Lancaster-born Scot - a dyed-in-the-wool United fan - will relish the opportunity to take the field in a final for his boyhood club. "McFred" have consistently been Solskjaer's first choice picks in matches like this one and there's no reason to believe he will change it at this stage. McTominay will lock horns with ex-Hornet Etienne Capoue (or former Gunner Francis Coquelin) and will be expected to dictate the play and start United's attacks from deep. 

RW - Marcus Rashford

The other major selection headache for Solskjaer when it comes to deciding upon his XI for the game - who will get the nod on the right wing? On current form, Mason Greenwood deserves to start but, equally, his pace and dead eye ability may be better utilised off the bench later in the game. Both were left out at Molineux, so there were no clues from Solskjaer regarding which of the pair he will go with. It's possible - albeit unlikely - that both could play but that would mean leaving Paul Pogba out and that simply will not happen. Rashford is better on the left but so is Pogba so it seems likely Rashford will move across as Solskjaer completely overhauls his attacking options. With 21 goals to his name this season, Rashford has been a virtual ever-present despite playing through injury. We think he will get the nod over his England colleague Greenwood for this one. One of the few players to have experienced a final in the Red of United.

CAM - Bruno Fernandes

Fernandes will captain the side in the absence of Maguire and will as usual be relied upon to act as United's inspiration, instigator and string-pulling creator in chief. More than anyone, Fernandes deserves the chance to lift a trophy with the club having completely transformed our fortunes since signing last January. His form may have dipped slightly since the turn of the year, but his star remains undimmed and 28 goals from midfield for United's double-winning Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year only serves to highlight his vital importance to the team. The beating heart of Manchester United, you can be sure Unai Emery and Villarreal will have a plan to try and shut him down. The outcome of the final could well depend on whether they do so or not. The thought of this man lifting a trophy high into the night for United is one to boil the piss of opposition fans but a scenario United supporters everywhere have dreamed of. 

LW - Paul Pogba

Another certain starter, United are a far better team with Pogba than without him. This could be his last game in the Red of United with the speculation over his future refusing to go away. If it does turn out to be the last we see of him, then what better to bow out than with a trophy and a (nother) winner's medal in his pocket. Despite being a central midfielder by trade, Pogba has been just as effective out on the left and has more than played his part in getting us to this final with his winner in Milan in the last 16. Dovetailing superbly with Fernandes, the pair are a handful for any defence and again will be key to victory.

ST - Edinson Cavani

The veteran Uruguayan is a man in red hot form with 16 goals this season and five in his last three European games so will get the nod to spearhead the attack against former boss Emery. Cavani saved his best performance in the red of United for the semi final against Roma when he scored twice in both games to take the Reds en route to Gdansk. Well rested and a man on a mission, Cavani is the man for the big occasion and will be champing at the bit to finally get his hands on a European trophy. Give it give it give it to Edi Cavani...

Opposition in profile: Villarreal CF

And so it all comes down to this: Manchester United vs Villarreal for Europa League glory at the end of an exhausting and unprecedented 2020-21 season.
After four successive semi-final losses, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side finally broke that jinx and face the Yellow Submarines in Gdansk in our 61st and final game of a campaign squashed into only eight months.

It's been a season of progress for the side, with a second placed finish and 74 points. But to truly underline our upward trajectory, we need a trophy to add to the Old Trafford cabinet. The cupboard has been bare since 2017 - when United won this competition - and although it's not where you want to be, even winning the Europa League could prove to be a springboard and a launchpad for United's exciting mix of youth and experience. 

This will be the Red's eighth European final - of those, five have been won.  Only the might of Barcelona at the peak of their considerable, Pep-Guardiola inspired powers have stopped United in their tracks when Barca may not lie in our way this time, but United face Spanish opponents for the third time in European competition this season.

We got past Real Sociedad 4-0 on aggregate over two legs of our last 32 encounter and brushed aside the rank outsiders of Granada in the last eight by the same scoreline to set up a meeting with the club from the Castellon - a small but relatively successful club led by a familiar face.

United have played Villarreal four times before. We have never beaten them but, curiously, neither have they ever beaten us. Even more intriguing is the truly remarkable stat that each of those past four meetings have ended 0-0. Villarreal played a major part in United's shock early exit from the group stages of the 2005-06 Champions League as a side featuring Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Ruud van Nistelrooy et al were twice held to the dullest of stalemates by Manuel Pellegrini's men - although, in mitigation, Villarreal would progress all the way to that year's semi finals where they were beaten by Arsenal. 

The two sides also met three seasons later in the group stage but again United - who would reach the final that year - were again held to a pair of goalless games.
Surely this can't have ever happened before but one thing's for certain this time around - something has to give in Gdansk on Wednesday.

Villarreal have consistently punched above their weight and have had another impressive season in 2020-21. A seventh placed finish in Spain's La Liga is a strong effort for a club of their size but it's in Europe where they have shone. Perhaps almost inevitably, the stage was set for perennial Europa League winner Unai Emery to gain revenge on his former side Arsenal having been sacked and replaced by compatriot Mikel Arteta, and the Europa League master - a winner of this competition three times in a row between 2014 and 2016 - outclassed his rookie successor to dump his ex out of the tournament to set up this meeting with the Reds. 

Emery is not the only familiar face to watch out for in the opposition ranks. Former Watford and Spurs man Etienne Capoue plies his trade for Villarreal, so too ex-Gunner Francis Coquelin, veteran ex-Real Madrid man Raul Albiol, Spurs loanee Juan Foyth and Alberto Moreno, once of Liverpool. Villarreal defender Pau Torres has become linked with a move to Old Trafford as United look to strengthen their backline, and so we will get to see him in the flesh for what could be an audition ahead of a potential summer move. 

Gerard Moreno is the team's top scorer this term with 29 goals in all competitions - he has plundered six goals and grabbed four assists en route to Gdansk -  but he will be without his string-pulling partner in crime Samuel Chukwueze with the absence of the scintillating winger a major blow to the Yellow Submarines hopes of a first ever major honour. Paco Alcacer and Carlos Bacca will be vying to get the nod up top alongside the irrepressible Spanish marksman in Emery's preferred 4-4-2 system.  

Despite the fact United will start the final as strong favourites, Villarreal will be dangerous underdogs and have been mightily impressive throughout an unbeaten run to the final. Topping their group section with five wins and a draw, Emery's team dispatched RB Salzburg 4-1 on aggregate, Dynamo Kyiv 4-0 in the last 16 and then 3-1 over two legs over Tottenham's conquerors Dinamo Zagreb before the aforementioned semi final KO of Arsenal. 

Having already despatched of one Premier League heavyweight, Villarreal cannot be underestimated by a United side who are also no stranger to success in Europe's second tier tournament.
The Reds have been installed as favourites to go all the way ever since our ill-fated Champions League campaign came to a painfully premature end. United will look to become only the second English side to win the Europa League title having dropped out of the elite competition - Chelsea were the first, and so far only, side to do so in 2013.

Solskjaer still has his doubters, and those critics certainly will not be silenced if our trophy drought continues this week, but lifting silverware - any silverware - aloft tomorrow should signal to the dissenting voices that the affable Norwegian is the right man to to restore United to former glories.

The 2013 Norwegian Cup represents Solskjaer's only honour during his relatively brief managerial career to date, and adding to that somewhat modest haul will be no mean feat against Europa League expert Emery - himself looking to steer the Spaniards into a new era with their first ever major trophy 98 years into their existence. 

Sunday 23 May 2021

Match report: Wolves 1-2 Man Utd

 Juan Mata scored the winner on what could be his final United appearance as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds ended the 2020-21 league campaign with victory.
The Reds had long since secured second spot but completed an unbeaten away league season to finish on 74 points, 12 behind City's winning total of 86 and safely in the runners up position. Mata scored from the spot in first half stoppage time after Nelson Semedo had cancelled out Anthony Elanga's opener.

With Wednesday's Europa League final on the horizon, there were ten changes to the XI at Molineux with Axel Tuanzebe the only player to keep his place from the draw with Fulham. Daniel James returned to the team with Amad, Elanga, Brandon William and Donny van de Beek all given starts in a weak, young and much changed line up. 

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo somewhat surprisingly announced his departure on Friday, and fans returned to give their popular boss a heroic send off after seven years in charge - in which he has taken the Old Gold club from the lower reaches of the second tier to a European quarter-final. 
Santo is the hot favourite to become the next Tottenham manager and has taken the west Midlands side as far as he can. After a stale and injury-ravaged campaign, Wolves finish in 13th place. 

19-year-old Elanga had shown glimpses of his sparkling talent against Leicester on his debut earlier in the month, and the Swede was soon at the heart of things again. In a bright United start, Elanga narrowly failed to connect with a superb Alex Telles cross, before he blasted over the bar from close range after good work by the returning James. Like United, Wolves had nothing to play but would have wanted to deliver the perfect send-off for Santo. Traore almost did just that inside two minutes but dragged his shot across goal and wide inside the opening five minutes. 

Having already gone close twice, Elanga brilliantly put United ahead on 13 minutes when he thumped home a superb header for his first senior goal after being picked out by James. 

van de Beek flashed a shot wide and Amad forced a save from Rui Patricio, but the hosts equalised against the run of play five minutes before the break. The ball deflected into Fabio Silva and he moved it on to Semedo. He in turn fired on goal and beat Henderson at the near post, albeit with the aid of a deflection.

It was the Portuguese player's (is there any other kind at Wolves) first goal for the club but no sooner had they hit back than the hosts were on the back foot again. 
United went close twice in quick succession as Patricio saved from Williams and Telles then volleyed over on the follow up from close range in a good response from Solskjaer's men.

That was not the end of the first half drama though. van de Beek went down under a challenge from Roman Saiss as the Wolves defender left his trailing leg out to trip the Dutchman as he shaped to shoot.
Referee Mike Dean somehow failed to spot the foul but, after the now customary VAR check, the decision was overturned and a spot-kick awarded. There could be few arguments as replays showed clear contact on van de Beek by Saiss with the United man clipped on the ankle - a challenge that will bring a spot-kick all day long in the modern game.

In the absence of our usual spot-kick king Bruno Fernandes, Mata stepped up and duly sent the keeper the wrong way to restore United's lead. In the poignant celebrations to follow, our no.8 pointed to the sky in memory of his late mother as he marked what could be a farewell appearance with a goal. Mata's contract is up in the summer and the ageing Spaniard is yet to renew his deal so, after 271 games, there remains uncertainty over his future at the club.

Most of the action came in the first half, with clear cut openings at a premium upon the resumption. Henderson held a header from substitute Willian Jose, but United sprung into action at the other end and should, in truth, have put the game beyond doubt. 
Nemanja Matic found Amad and he in turn released James - clean through one and on and with only Patricio to beat. The Welsh wizard attempted to lob the advancing keeper, but he failed to connect properly with his shot and the ball rolled across goal and wide.

The Reds should have finished the tie as a contest but Wolves would not go quietly as United needed Tuanzebe to preserve his side's lead with 20 minutes to play. Tuanzebe thwarted Fabio Silva with the Wolves man clean through, and the same players were involved again as Tuanzebe twice blocked from Silva to strengthen his claim for inclusion in Wednesday's XI.

An already young United side became even more so when Hannibal Mejbri, 18, came on for his debut on 82 minutes while Shola Shoretire got another late cameo after his senior bow against Newcastle back in February.

There was to be another debut in the final seconds when centre-back Will Fish came on for James as Wolves pushed for a leveller.
Ruben Neves went close with a trademark effort from distance in a spell of late pressure from the hosts, but the Reds had done enough to close out victory and complete an impressive unbeaten season away from home.

All eyes now turn to Villarreal and Gdansk as United look to finish a season of progress with a trophy.

United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Elanga. A brilliant header and a constant menace
Overall team performance: 8/10. Superb win and great end to the season with the team we had 

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Match report: Manchester United 1-1 Fulham

Edinson Cavani welcomed the return of fans to Old Trafford with a 40 yard stunner before Joe Bryan headed a late equaliser for already relegated Fulham.
But despite the lowly visitors comeback, Chelsea's defeat of Leicester City in the late kick off ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are now certain of a runners up finish in the Premier League with one game to spare.

For the first time in 14 months and over 400 days, Old Trafford opened its doors as 10,000 spectators returned to the stadium for United's final home game of a breakneck campaign. Solskjaer made three changes as David de Gea, Axel Tuanzebe and Mason Greenwood came in for Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly and Marcus Rashford in an XI that won't be far off the one selected in Gdansk for next week's European final.

Paul Pogba headed over the bar and Cavani then had a penalty appeal waved away when he was pulled down in the box, but referee Lee Mason remained unmoved.
The veteran Uruguayan had spoken of his desire to play in front of fans as the main reason for extending his contract, and he gave the Stretford End a moment to savour with a world class opener in the 15th minute to ultimately get his wish. 

De Gea punted the ball long to find Bruno Fernandes and he flicked the ball on with a deft touch into the path of Cavani, coming back from an offside position. On halfway with only the goalkeeper to beat, Old Trafford erupted as the striker sent a stunning, sumptuous lob over the backpedalling Alphonse Areola from fully 40 yards to put the Reds in front - his sixteenth of the season and an 18th assist of the campaign for newly crowned Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year Fernandes. 

Mason Greenwood headed over and Fernandes tested Areola from distance but Fulham - despite their lowly status - carried an intermittent threat at the other end. Fabio Carvalho was snuffed out by Fred but the 18-year-old caused problems with his pace and went close on the half hour mark when he gave Victor Lindelof the slip and fired on goal, but De Gea was equal to the teenager's effort.

Fernandes was denied by Areola and Luke Shaw - the club's Players' Player of the Year - skied his shot high and wide in the final action of a first half in which United dominated. 

The pattern of the game continued after the interval with string-puller in chief Fernandes the main instigator of everything United did. Areola saved well to keep out the Portuguese playmaker's curling free-kick and the same player flashed another shot wide from distance as, despite their superiority, the lack of a Reds killer edge saw Scott Parker's strugglers gain in confidence.

The capital club served notice of their intent on the hour mark when a superb double save from De Gea kept United's lead intact. First, he got a hand to Ademola Lookman's attempt at the near post before the Spaniard clawed away Carvalho's header on the rebound from point blank range.

Fernandes had another set-piece held by Areola after intricate trickery from substitute Marcus Rashford and Greenwood fired over soon afterwards having been put through by Cavani.

The Reds were ultimately made to pay for their profligacy and were pegged back as the Cottagers struck at the Stretford End with 15 minutes to play. Bobby De Cordova - Reid picked out the onrushing Bryan at the back post and he nodded home beyond De Gea as VAR allowed the goal to stand following a lengthy VAR check.

Cavani headed wide and Mario Lemina blocked from Fred as Solskjaer threw on Amad and Donny van de Beek, but the Reds were unable to carve out a trademark late winner in front of the Old Trafford faithful.

United's status as definite runners up was later confirmed when Chelsea beat Leicester - the only team whom could have caught us - at Stamford Bridge to move into third.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Edinson Cavani. Give it give it give it! 

Monday 17 May 2021

Luke Shaw-ly a shoe in for Man Utd's pick of the bunch

 It's that time of year again as the 2020-21 season - a campaign like no other - reaches it conclusion with two games to go.
Manchester United face Fulham and Wolves to finish domestic duties before heading for Gdansk to take on Villarreal in the Europa League final on 26 May for a chance to earn a first piece of silverware under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But whilst the signs of collective improvement have been clear for all to see, so too have the individual campaigns of several Reds. With the prestigious Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award up for grabs for the season's most impressive performer, special recognition awaits for the winner. 

Bruno Fernandes was last term's winner, with the string-pulling, transformative influence of the Portuguese playmaker making him only the second player from his country to win the award as a Red (no prizes for guessing the other), and the eighth to win it in his debut season. The fact he only arrived at Old Trafford in January was both damning and telling. 

Fernandes is sure to be in contention again this time around after another stunning individual season (28 goals and 19 assists), with the Reds no.18 looking to emulate his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo by repeating the feat to become only the ninth man to retain the prestigious, fan-voted gong. 
Fernandes was the clear, outstanding recipient back in May and remains this side's talismanic figurehead, but it speaks volumes about the level of improvement as a squad that he is by no means certain to bring the award home once again this time. 

Indeed, my vote has gone elsewhere this year. Fernandes has been sensational and his impact on the team needs no embellishment. But even he has been upstaged by a man in the finest fettle of his career, a player coming off the back of the season of his life. Step forward, Luke Paul Hoare Shaw. 

The 2018-19 season will not be remembered with any great affection by anyone at Old Trafford - coming as it did after a turbulent campaign of tumult and unrest as the Reds faded badly to finish in sixth having sacked the moribund Jose Mourinho. Shaw walked away with the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, but there was no great acclaim, no real fanfare and his individual title seemed somewhat tainted after a poor season for United. It was a case of the shiniest turd in the toilet. 

You'd have got long odds on both player and club having undergone such a rapid transformation but, two years on, and the picture is very different. Shaw is free both from injury and the shackles of the Mourinho era, and his performance levels, consistency and fitness have shot through the roof. I struggle to remember a bad game in his 45 appearances so far this season - easily the most in his seven seasons at the club. Shaw has sparkled both in defence and attack - creating the most chances of any defender in Europe - with only Marcus Rashford and Fernandes having clocked up more assists in the Red of United. Shaw has, quite simply, been a revelation, so much so not only has he earned an England recall but he looks certain to be Gareth Southgate's first choice at the upcoming European Championships this summer. 

Ridiculed and written off by Mourinho, Shaw - monikered Shawberto Carlos in homage to the legendary Brazilian - has become a phenomenon under the guiding hand of Solskjaer and there is no better left-back in the country at present than him. 
Andy Robertson has had a poor season by his own lofty, exalted standards, Ben Chilwell lost his place to Marcos Alonso and Lucas Digne has flattered to deceive at left wing-back. Shaw has eclipsed them all and a player who faced an uncertain future is now one of the first names on Solskjaer's team sheet. 

Not too long ago, Shaw was accused of half heartedly strolling through games - too casual in his defensive diligence and a reticence to attack. But the emergence of Brandon Williams last season and the increased competition provided by the signing of Alex Telles this time around has helped him to kick on and - by Solskjaer's own admittance - up to "full tilt." 
There has been a show-reel of masterpieces from Shaw this term. From his swashbuckling performance at Anfield when he kept Mo Salah on the tightest of leashes (not for the first time), to his stunning solo goal at the Etihad, Shaw has been a Man of the Match contender for United on an almost weekly basis. In keeping with his upward trajectory and sky-rocketing momentum and confidence, Shaw has offered a genuine threat going forward with his pace and crossing, both from set pieces and open play. Defensively he has barely missed a tackle, shacked Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Adama Traore to name but three, and had United's left flank under his own form of lockdown. 

When a Team of the Season is selected, it invariably causes debate and consternation but both Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville included Shaw in their XIs and it's hard to disagree. The United fanbase is chronically divisive at the best of times but no one could argue with Shaw's selection. It wouldn't surprise me if he's in the PFA Team of the Season and the BBC one too. For once, everyone seems universally in agreement - Shaw has been nothing short of sensational as the best left-back in the land. 
Up until the turn of the year, Fernandes would have been strong favourite for the club's - and possibly even the PFA's - Player of the Year but, despite his sustained brilliance and 28 goals from midfield, his halo - by his own metronomic expectations - has perhaps slipped a little since. 

It's because of his journey - Shaw's redemption from rock bottom to revelation - that has tipped the balance in his favour when it comes to deciding who should be our pick of the bunch. 

Friday 14 May 2021

Marathon man Maguire a huge miss for Man Utd

United were undone by chaotic defending as Liverpool took full advantage of skipper Harry Maguire's absence.

A Reds defence without Maguire in it has been almost unthinkable given his unflappable ever-presence. The skipper has played 6,467 league minutes out of a possible 6,660 - we had no idea what a United side without him may look like but its something we're going to have to get used to. Up until his early departure at Villa Park, Maguire had played every minute of United's Premier League season - just as he did last season: an impressive 2020-21 total of 2,790. 

 I'm a fan of Eric Bailly but he's better next to Maguire rather than in lieu of him. The madcap Ivorian simply can't - and doesn't - offer what his skipper does. 

 The man never seems to get tired and had stayed remarkably free of injury until going off at Aston Villa last weekend. Maguire was forced off with an ankle injury, sustaining ligament damage and he looks likely to miss the rest of our season as a result. It seems almost certain he won't be fit in time for our last home game with already-relegated Fulham on Tuesday as fans return to Old Trafford for the first time in 436 days. Beyond that, we travel to Wolves as the curtain comes down on the 2020-21 league season before we face Villarreal in Poland for the Europa Cup title three days later, on the 26th May. Whilst those two domestic opponents shouldn't be too much of an issue even without him, you feel our chances against Unai Emery's La Liga men are significantly reduced. 

It would be a cruel irony that having played in four previous semi-final losses, Maguire might miss out on the occasion of his first showpiece as our captain. His participation in Gdansk must be in serious doubt and he cannot afford to simply be rushed back with the European Championships looming large. United's defence looks nowhere near as good as it normally does without Maguire - statistically the best defender in the league.  

Since signing for an eye-popping 80m fee in 2019, no one in world football has played more minutes than Maguire. He has played every Premier League game since, only missing out on selection when afforded a the rarest of rests by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a meaningless cup game.

 It is often said that a player's true influence on a team is only noticed in absentia, and it would seem the same can be said for Maguire. Despite often being the target for criticism - much of it very unjustified - it's easy to see the difference he makes at the heart of United's defence. Whatever your personal opinion on the former Leicester man, he must bring something to the back four as we're a complete shambles without him. He's not the quickest, but Maguire hardly ever misses a header, he offers a commanding and vocal presence, organises those around him and tells his team-mates what to do and where they are meant to be. 

His price tag is the biggest stick to beat him with, and some are still determined to desperately highlight any mistake or any misstep he might make, wanting perfection every week. Newsflash: he is a footballer, a human being and no one is ever perfect. But the ragged and wanderlust defending on display at Old Trafford only goes to show his importance, and may have already changed a few minds. Maguire is criminally under-rated and deserves more credit. With him at heart of our defence, United have evolved from a team scraping into the top five to genuine title contenders, despite David de Gea's struggles, the emergence of Dean Henderson and a plethora of moribund midfielders ahead of him. 

Maguire watched the chaotic carnage unfold beneath him from his perch in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, sat in a moon boot protecting his damaged ankle that must surely make him a major doubt for the aforementioned final. From there he was his usual vocal self, encouraging and cajoling his team-mates and arguing their corner in every contentious refereeing decision, just as he would if he had been out there in the heat of the battle.

It is that leadership and presence that's such an important part of what he has brought to this United side since he arrived as the world's most expensive defender - becoming all the more clearer in this Covid era of behind-closed-doors football with many of his impassioned outbursts, as so much does, going on to social media. 

But Maguire is more than that, too as one of the most well rounded centre-halves in Europe. Not only is he an aerial presence, winning on average four or five battles every game, but he anticipates and reads the game superbly, making up for his lack of pace. Few top level centre-halves have made more tackles and interceptions than Maguire this season. 

Consider all of this, and you can see just how impactful his absence is, how important he is for club and country and how much he is missed on the rare occasion he's not around. 

Match report: Manchester United 2-4 Liverpool

Liverpool claimed victory in the hastily re-arranged fixture to strengthen their top four chances with a Roberto Firmino double.
Bruno Fernandes' 28th goal of the season had given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds an early advantage but a madcap spell either side of the interval put Jurgen Klopp's side in control. Diogo Jota equalised before Firmino's double, only for Marcus Rashford to give the hosts hope. It briefly looked as if the Reds might nick an ultimately undeserved point only for Mo 

Salah to seal the result for the men from Merseyside at the death, Jurgen Klopp's first win at Old Trafford since he took charge at Anfield. 

For United, despite the fact we had little to play for in stark contrast to the visitors own ambitions, it will go down as a bad night at the office for Solskjaer and his men.
Klopp's side, though, climb to fifth - four points behind place above Chelsea with a game in hand in an increasingly congested battle for the final Champions League qualification position. 
Having seen his heavily rotated side go down to another side in the mix for the top four, Leicester, 50 hours earlier, it always seemed likely that Solskjaer would restore his key men for Liverpool's visit to M16 and so it proved. Eric Bailly was the only survivor from the defeat to the Foxes, with Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Rashford, Dean Henderson and Aaron Wan - Bissaka amongst those to earn a recall. 

There were once again protests outside Old Trafford before English football's marquee fixture, but this time, unlike the initial game scheduled for a week ago, the tie was able to go ahead without incident or disruption. 
As expected between the country's biggest clubs, the tie started at breakneck speed and both sides went close early on. Firmino shaped to shoot but instead whipped in a cross only for Bailly to block with a brilliant recovery challenge and despite shouts for a possible handball, there was no cause for alarm.

Then came a catalogue of errors from two men in excellent recent form. Liverpool keeper Alisson miskicked straight to Cavani - a man with eight goals in as many games - but his mistake was just as surprising as he fired off target with the goal gaping. Perhaps an early indication that this was not to be our night.

Despite that miss, United continued on the front foot and went ahead soon afterwards, albeit in slightly fortuitous fashion.
Wan - Bissaka cut the ball back for Fernandes and the Portuguese playmaker's curled, outside-of-the-foot cross was met inadvertently by centre-back Nat Phillips whom could only divert it beyond his own keeper. Replays showed the ball was going in anyway and so the goal was officially credited to Fernandes. 

Manchester-based referee Anthony Taylor was soon in the thick of the action when he awarded a penalty to Liverpool when Bailly was adjudged to have brought down Phillips. But VAR intervened and the official was forced to overturn his decision after the video technology correctly and clearly showed the Ivorian had won, and played, the ball. 

Dean Henderson saved well from the dangerous Jota but United failed to heed that warning and were pegged back from the resultant set-piece as we failed to clear a Phillips shot and the ball fell to the Portuguese forward to flick home the leveller shortly after the half hour.

Paul Pogba fired into the side netting and Cavani saw a half chance go begging, but Liverpool had turned the tables by the break, a trait United themselves had become accustomed to.

Another set-piece proved our undoing as Trent Alexander Arnold's whipped free-kick fell to Firmino and the back post and the Brazilian striker outjumped the attentions of Pogba to head the visitors in front.

Liverpool now had the momentum and the half-time interval failed to redress the balance as Klopp's side continued to exert their authority. Two minutes after the restart, Firmino grabbed his second and his team's third as Henderson spilled Alexander - Arnold's shot from distance and Firmino gobbled up the loose ball to give the Scousers breathing space.

United were ragged and on the ropes now and only the upright prevented further damage as Fred lost possession to Thiago and he moved the ball on to Jota. The striker, playing ahead of Sadio Mane, burst into the area and fired goalwards from a tight angle only for the ball to thump a post and bounce clear. Henderson saved from the hat-trick hunting Firmino soon afterwards but then, out of nothing, United were back in the contest.

Shaw and Cavani linked superbly in United's best move of the game as the former found the latter and he in turn released Rashford to finish superbly under Alisson on 68 minutes. Having been on the back foot and almost dead and buried, United were suddenly the side with the momentum.

Another dramatic comeback seemed in the offing as substitute Mason Greenwood - on for Fred - had a shot cleared off the line and then saw his follow-up effort blocked from close range as Liverpool,  surprisingly rattled, suddenly came under siege. In a superbly see-sawing contest, Henderson saved from Salah and Mane flashed a shot wide before Cavani narrowly failed to turn home an excellent cross from the impactful Greenwood.

But just when the stage seemed set for a frantic, grandstand finish, Salah doused United's fire as a reverse ball from sub Curtis Jones released the Egyptian one-on-one with Henderson and he was never going to miss to roll in the fourth and clinch victory for the deposed champions. 

This was an off night for United but the Reds have two games left and second place seems almost certain ahead of the visit of already relegated Fulham on Tuesday. 

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Aaron Wan - Bissaka. 

Wednesday 12 May 2021

The future's bright and Manchester United's kids are alright

Despite defeat for United's third string side against Leicester, there were plenty of positives for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

Fans of other clubs can moan all they want - perhaps most pertinently them lot down the east Lancs Road - but what exactly are you supposed to do when you're forced to play twice in 50 hours? It was always going to be impossible to go full strength in both games and this tie seemed the best opportunity to make changes. 

Faced with an unprecedented headache of four games in eight days, Solskjaer had little option but to select an extremely understrength side to effectively gift-wrap the game to Leicester. Indeed, the fact it was only 2-1 is a moral victory for the Reds, it was closer than it should have been and anything but a win for Brendan Rodgers side would have come as a major surprise. Given the circumstances, United put up a superb effort and did very well considering the team we had. 

Everyone's a winner - United are already certain of a top four finish, Manchester City have won the league and the result puts a significant dent in Liverpool's already slim hopes of Champions League qualification ahead of their trip to Old Trafford on Thursday. You love to see it. 

Instead of pointing the finger at Manchester United in the face of an impossible schedule, how about you don't lose six home games in a row and see where that gets you?

As the manager of Manchester United, Solskjaer's job is to do just that - manage and consider the welfare of his players however he sees fit. Why should he worry about the fortunes of other clubs? Whilst we didn't expect rotation on quite that scale, it's not as if United completely rolled over for Leicester - it was a top class effort and a brilliant performance from the Reds considering the team we had. City made nine changes against Chelsea and were praised for their strength in depth and using their squad but yet we do it and there are calls for a points deduction - it is absolutely ludicrous. At the start of a season, each club has a squad of 25 or so players and the manager can play anyone in that squad whenever he sees fit. Rotation is part and parcel of the modern game, particularly with such a quick turnaround between matches. 

There were some excellent individual performances. Axel Tuanzebe was one of our most impressive performers as he belied a lack of regular game time with an eye-catc hing performance at the heart of the defence. He may have been guilty of squandering possession on a few occasions, but Tuanzebe made some vital blocks to keep United in the game and his passing got better as the game went on. 

United's front three was comprised entirely of teenagers, but the trio had 107 appearances for the club to their name. In fairness, Mason Greenwood accounts for 102 of those and, by comparison to Amad (18) and Swedish debutant Anthony Elanga (19), United's no.11 is a season Old Trafford veteran. 

 Greenwood - the only man to keep his place from the Aston Villa tie -  continued his fine recent form with another goal - his twelfth of the season and eighth in his last eleven appearances. What had threatened to be a major season of regression has quickly developed into an electric campaign, belying his tender years with a series of swashbuckling performances spreading fear into Premier League all comers. Despite his young age, Greenwood led the line superbly against the Foxes in a United attack with a combined age of 56. 
There hadn't been this many teenagers on the pitch at Old Trafford since a week last Sunday. If those teenagers perhaps cast doubt over the immediate trajectory of United, then the eye-catching twinkle toes of Amad, Elanga and Greenwood only re-affirmed belief that here is a club with a golden-tinged future.

It was a night of promise for both Amad and Elanga. The former combined with Greenwood for the equaliser whilst the latter flickered on the fringes in a promising but perhaps inconsistent cameo as he adjusted to the rigours of top-level senior football having plied his trade exclusively with United's youth teams. Both showed enough to suggest it won't be the last we see of them at this level.

Juan Mata was anonymous on a rare start and showed why his future must sadly lie away from Old Trafford. But where Mata offered a lot of nothing, his former Chelsea colleague Nemanja Matic, captain for the night, rolled back the years. Matic may no longer be first choice but had an excellent game and ensured the otherwise youthful Reds kept a full-strength Leicester at arm's length for much of the contest.  Matic turned defence into attack for the opening goal, his passing was good, he tried to dictate the play, read the game magnificently and, in a game where the visitors should, on paper at least, have won by three or four, ensured it never looked likely.
Despite the presence of the effervescent, metronomic duo of opposite numbers Youri Tielemans and Wilfried Ndidi - the impressive bedrock of Leicester's recent FA Cup win against us - it was only late in the game when the ageing legs of Matic began to tire that the Foxes omnipotent pairing began to finally gain control. Scott McTominay and Fred may be Solskjaer's preferred double pivot pairing, but Matic showed why he can still be relied upon as a useful squad option. 

This might be remembered as a night when United finally gave up the title race - a good effort to push City to the closing weeks of the season - but we were hamstrung by circumstance given this week's schedule. The chances of us realistically winning the league had already evaporated. In United's trio of teens, though, there was a glimpse of a brighter future. 

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Match report: Manchester United 1-2 Leicester City

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's much-changed Manchester United side lost for the first time in 15 league games as Leicester City took a giant stride towards Champions League qualification.
The United manager was faced with an unprecedented schedule of three games in 72 hours and so made ten changes from the win at Villa Park, with only Mason Greenwood keeping his place. There were starts for teenage starlets Amad and Anthony Elanga, whilst Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Brandon Williams and Donny van de Beek added a sprinkling of experience to a rotated Reds XI.

The victory confirmed Pep Guardiola's Manchester City as Premier League champions, although in truth it was a moment that has been coming for many months.  United's win at Villa Park had maintained faint hope of a late surge for the title, but it would have required a very unlikely sequence of events. Having already wrapped up a top four spot with the Villa result, you get the feeling Solskjaer and United would have been happy to take the 'L' here to push Thursday's opponents Liverpool further out of contention.

Luke Thomas had put Brendan Rodgers Foxes, four days away from their first FA Cup final since 1963, ahead inside ten minutes. Fellow 19-year-old Mason Greenwood equalised as the understrength Reds put up a spirited fight, only for Caglar Soyuncu to thump home a 66th-minute header which ultimately proved decisive at Old Trafford. 

Inevitably, given United's much altered line up and their own need for victory, Leicester started strongly and went ahead with the first effort of the encounter. Youri Tielemans - the scourge of United in the FA Cup meeting between the pair - sent over a superb inswinger and Thomas met the ball with a dipping, thunderous volley high into the net beyond the helpless David de Gea.
It would have been easy for the hosts to crumble, but to our credit we hit back almost immediately and restored parity inside five minutes. Amad, on his league debut, created the goal with a run and cross to find Greenwood, and he turn swept home beyond Kasper Schmeichel for his eighth goal in eleven games on 15 minutes.

Jamie Vardy stretched the United defence and found himself one on one with De Gea only to be called back by referee Craig Pawson for a foul on the excellent Axel Tuanzebe. 

That proved to be the last action of the half but Leicester gained control and pushed the Reds back after the restart, as United struggled to gain a foothold.
Greenwood had a header deflected wide from an Alex Telles set-piece, but Leicester otherwise dictated the game.

De Gea saved superbly from the in-form Kelechi Iheanacho having been put through by Tielemans and the impressive Wilfried Ndidi flashed a shot wide from distance.
Solskjaer sent on Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford in an effort to stem the tide, with 517 career goals between them but - before either could acclimatise - Leicester had gone ahead.

Turkish defender Soyuncu climbed above captain-for-the-night Matic and thumped home a header beyond De Gea from a Marc Albrighton corner in the 66th minute.
The visitors almost put the result beyond doubt seven minutes further on when strike partners Vardy and Iheanacho linked up, the latter crossed and Tielemans narrowly failed to touch the ball home as he slid in, painfully colliding with a post instead.

Bruno Fernandes was introduced with 12 minutes to go and the Portuguese playmaker had the only chance to salvage a point when he screwed uncharacteristically wide after neat link up play between Telles and Mata.

That was to be the last action of a slightly surreal contest as Leicester held on to secure a potentially pivotal win in the increasingly congested battle for a top four place. United are expected to be at full-strength for the visit of Liverpool in the re-arranged game on Thursday.

Overall team performance: 6/10. Great effort with the team we had.
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood 

Sunday 9 May 2021

Match report: Aston Villa 1-3 Manchester United

Manchester United completed another second half comeback and kept alive slim hope of the Premier League title with a deserved victory at Aston Villa.

Defeat for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side would have handed the crown to neighbours Manchester City, but - after Bertrand Traore put Villa ahead - a Bruno Fernandes penalty levelled the tie before Mason Greenwood and substitute Edinson Cavani both continued their fine recent form with superb second finishes. Dean Smith's faltering Villains ended the tie with ten men after Ollie Watkins was perhaps harshly sent off when referee Chris Kavanagh ruled him guilty of simulation to earn a second booking. 

In the first of four games in eight days, the win makes sure of a top four finish and puts United to within one victory of the league's runners up spot ahead of upcoming home games with Leicester and Liverpool.
Solskjaer's United could be only four points off the top by the time Manchester City play again on Friday.

There were four changes from the XI following the midweek fixture with Roma in the Eternal City as Dean Henderson, Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof came in for David de Gea, Cavani, Donny van de Beek and Eric Bailly.

Untied started strongly and went close inside the opening five minutes through Greenwood, when his effort flashed narrowly off target. Former Arsenal keeper Emi Martinez soon found himself a man under siege as he denied Luke Shaw, Pogba and then Fred, after the Brazilian tried his luck with a trademark effort from distance.

Traore went close with a deflected shot at the other end before Fernandes poked wide from a half chance inside the box after Rashford had cut the ball back.

United's no.10 then nearly put us ahead himself after Greenwood smashed the ball across the box, but Rashford was unable to turn the ball home and the chance went begging. 
Despite the Reds early dominance, there perhaps seemed a sense of inevitability when Villa struck the opening goal shortly before the half hour mark. Fred and Scott McTominay failed to cut out a through ball, Traore seized upon it, spun and burst clear. Victor Lindelof cut out the winger's initial move, but the Swede was caught napping as the ball deflected back to Traore and he made no mistake this time to thump home a powerful, well-taken drive high into the net beyond the helpless Henderson.

Fernandes almost threatened an instant riposte as he fired over from distance, before Martinez was twice called into action shortly before half-time.

The Villa keeper saved Rashford's 20-yarder and then Greenwood, dictating the pace and tempo of the game from out wide, stung the hands of the stopper, with Martinez forced to tip his shot wide at full stretch. 

Second half comebacks are becoming a welcome habit for this side and so it was to prove once again. Pogba went close with a deflected shot a few minutes after the restart and the same player was involved in United's leveller on 52 minutes. Douglas Luiz continually tugged the shirt of the enigmatic Frenchman inside the box, then booted him in the shin twice causing Pogba to go down and give referee Chris Kavanagh no option but to point to the spot.

The resultant penalty was never really in doubt as Fernandes stepped up to fire in beyond Martinez for his 27th goal of the campaign. 
But that was only the start of the comeback as United turned the game on its head four minutes further on.
Greenwood, superb throughout, shrugged off the half-hearted challenge of Tyrone Mings, rode another tackle and lashed in at the near post having been picked out by Aaron Wan - Bissaka. 

Maguire and Rashford both went close to a third, but Villa remained a threat and almost equalised - albeit inadvertently - when Maguire's accidental back-header had to clawed away by Henderson. Substitute Cavani, on for Greenwood, proved his prowess in both boxes as he denied Anwar El Ghazi with a brilliant defensive header.

Despite having little to play for, Villa did not diminish and came close again as Wan-Bissaka shut out Watkins and Henderson saved well to deny Traore.
Perhaps slightly against the run of play, the Reds grabbed a third goal to seal the win and the points three minutes from time when that man Cavani clinically headed beyond Martinez from close range after Rashford had picked him out.

Villa's day went from bad to worse as Watkins was sent off for a second bookable offence for simulation after throwing himself to the ground having skipped beyond Henderson.

That proved to be the final action of the game as the Reds completed the double to reach 70 points and remain on course for a second placed finish.

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

Friday 7 May 2021

Ten years on from Manchester United's last Champions League final..

Ten years ago this month, Manchester United were preparing for a major European final against Spanish opposition.
The tenth anniversary of that match - 28 May 2011 - comes two days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United, circa 2021, take to the field in Gdansk for a major European final against, yep, Spanish opponents.

The difference being this time, of course, its not Barcelona at Wembley for the Champions League. Rather, Villarreal in Poland for the Europa League. The difference is striking. 

As United revved up to face Pep Guardiola's all-conquering Catalans in the capital, it came off the back of three finals in four seasons. We used to take such luxuries as an annual rite of passage the thought of going so long without scaling such heights again was unthinkable. Ten years without so much as a Champions League semi, never mind a final, would have seemed impossible to comprehend.

If someone had told you back then United would be in a Europa League final in ten years time almost to the day, you'd tell them to lay off the sauce.

Since that day, when even the genius of Sir Alex and his last great side (admittedly one already showing signs of rust) proved powerless to prevent the might of Barcelona winning the cup with the big ears, United have endured something of a love/hate relationship with the greatest and most prestigious competition in the club game.

There have been seven Champions League campaigns in the ten seasons since, but United have only made the quarter finals twice. We've failed to get out the group three times, with two exits at the round of 16 thrown in for good measure. David Moyes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the Reds further in the competition than their illustrious counterparts Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. For most clubs it would be considered indifferent, but for a club of United's size and stature it's a very disappointing recent record. One you could never have foreseen even in the aftermath of that chastening night at Wembley a decade ago. For the record, we don't expect to be winning the thing every season, but neither do we expect such a meek surrender when it comes to a competition held dear by everyone with Manchester United in their hearts. 

For context, several of United's biggest rivals have played in Champions League finals since we were last there, illustrating just how far the club have been allowed to slide. Guardiola had failed to shine in Europe since he so impressively put Sir Alex's men to the sword with that Barcelona side for the ages, but will look to do so again as our nearest and dearest painfully, but perhaps inevitability, broke their duck to go through to a first ever final. Chelsea, themselves looking to recapture the cup with big ears, stand in City's way in their second final since 2011 whilst Liverpool (twice) and even Spurs have all been present on the club game's biggest stage in the intervening years. As the blues of Manchester and west London lock horns in Istanbul on May 29th, it will be the third all-English final in the competition's history. 

The Europa League once seemed akin to a distant planet - alien territory and ground only trodden by the brave and intrepid. Yet the Reds have become unpalatably accustomed to the second tier competition with those seven seasons at the top table interspersed by time occasionally spent in the backwaters, like the time you drunkenly stumble across the smoking area out the back of the nightclub at 2am whilst searching for the exit.

Yet even that has failed to offer solace in these fallow times. We of course won it in 2017 under Mourinho to complete the set of all major honours, but there has been two round of 16 exits and last season's semi-final KO. As Solskjaer attempts to replicate the feat accomplished by his predecessor, you at least get the feeling that United have at least started the long climb back to the summit, looking to scale the heights of 2011.

Whether Solskjaer's United are good enough to exorcise recent demons as we have another crack at the Champions League next term, I'm not so sure. But, ten years on, we're certainly in our best shape than at any other point since we last faced the Spanish inquisition in a major continental final. 

Manchester United go through to Europa League final

Clear your diaries and get the champagne on ice - Manchester United are heading to Poland!

The Reds have made it all the way to Gdansk despite a 3-2 defeat on the night, as we conquered the Romans 8-5 on aggregate to complete the Italian job and set up a meeting with Unai Emery's Villarreal. 

After four successive losses at the semi-final stage, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally lifted the curse to take his Reds into a major final for the first time under his tutelage. It will be our eighth European final - six of them have been won - and will come twenty two years on from his most famous exploits as a player.

United will play the Spanish club on the 26th May, a date forever associated with the greatest feat ever achieved by an English club. It was on that day in 1999, of course, when United defied logic and rewrote history as Solskjaer flicked the ball high into the Bayern Munich net to seal a never-to-be-repeated treble.

Surely its fate on the anniversary that the man so intrinsically linked with that unforgettable season gets this particular monkey off his back and delivers United's first piece of silverware in four years. If he does, Solskjaer will become the first man ever to win a major European trophy as both United player and Reds manager. As United fight a civil war against the absent men in the corridors of power, the hierarchy can at least point to their show of faith in sticking with Solskjaer when the going got tough - faith that's now one step away from being rewarded. Patricio Mochettino was primed, available and reportedly wanted the job, but the board stuck with Ole despite what, at times, seemed to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For that, despite their criminal negligence and abhorrent running of our beloved club, there must be a modicum of credit.

The Europa League isn't where we want to be, and is it a trophy I'm bothered about? No, and it does feel a little underwhelming, almost as if we shouldn't be in it. I'm perhaps not as happy as I should be but it's important for Solskjaer and we're in the final of a major competition after a four year absence so it's definitely not to be sniffed at - particularly seeing as it's been far too long since Manchester United won silverware. 

 Jose Mourinho, the new manager of Thursday night's opponents Roma, was the last man to do it when we won this very same competition in 2017. 

Thoughts of a European final at the end of this strangest of seasons seemed a long way off when the 2020-21 got underway - even in the Champions League, never mind the Europa. 
Drawn in the former competition's group of death, the Reds made a strong start with wins over PSG and RB Leipzig before a shock defeat in Istanbul. United recovered to thump the whipping boys at Old Trafford, but the loss would prove costly when PSG and Leipzig took victory - the latter fatally - to inflict a painful and stunning early elimination on Solskjaer's side. 

That, of course, saw us drop into the Europa League as the group's third placed side and United have cut a swathe through the field en route to Gdansk. Whether you agree with the notion of failure effectively being rewarded or not, there can be few arguments United deserve to be in the final. 

United have been mightily impressive en route to Gdansk as we brushed aside Real Sociedad (4-0 agg), edged Milan (2-1), 4-0 over two legs against Granada in the last eight before we conquered the Romans  8-5 over the two games.
It all adds up to this moment - whilst an all-English final was widely predicted, Emery's team failed to read the script and sent Arsenal packing having held his former side to a goalless draw at the Emirates, going through on aggregate after their 2-1 victory in Spain. 

There will be no repeat of 2018 when there were two all-English European finals but Villarreal will present their own challenge - the Reds and the "Yellow Submarines" have met four times with each tie ending 0-0.

Something has to give and with the two sides leading the way at the top of the competition's scoring charts, another boring stalemate appears unlikely. 

There will be fans at the final with capacity expected to be around 8,000, so dust off your passports, get yourselves jabbed and let's get out there - Manchester United are on the cusp of European glory again.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Match report: AS Roma 3-2 Man United (Agg: 5-8)

Manchester United are through to the Europa League final in Gdansk despite a second leg loss to Roma in the Eternal City. 
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds will face Villarreal on May 23rd after Unai Emery's La Liga side knocked Arsenal out with a narrow 2-1 win and prevented the chance of two all-English finals.

In a thrilling, 13-goal semi-final, Edinson Cavani continued his fine recent run of form with a magnificent brace but Edin Dzeko, Crisante and a late own goal from substitute Alex Telles gave outgoing manager Paulo Fonseca a momento from the night, despite the fact his side were distinctly second best over the two legs having gone down 6-2 at Old Trafford last week.

Solskjaer - bidding to reach his first final in the United dugout after four semi final losses - named a strong side despite holding an almost unassailable lead. There were three changes from the first leg as Eric Bailly, Donny van de Beek and Mason Greenwood came into the XI in place of Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford.

The Reds, in their black and whit third kit, were immediately put under pressure by the hosts, not vowed by their almost impossible position in the tie. Gianluca Mancini was denied by a superb David de Gea save, before former City forward Dzeko headed inches wide having been picked out by ex Red Henrikh Mkhitaryan. 

The Giallorossi's strong start ultimately subsided as United took control. Cavani hit the bar with a lob after a defence-splitting pass from Fred with stand-in stopper Antonio Mirante beaten. 

The 34-year-old hitman went close again soon afterwards after Bruno Fernandes played him through with a gorgeous through ball. One on one with Mirante, you'd have expected the Uruguayan to hit the net but his strike produced a good save from the Italian keeper and fellow veteran. 

Roma, already depleted after a spate of injuries in the first leg, then suffered a further blow on the half hour mark when another former United man, Chris Smalling, had to be replaced by teenage midfielder  Ebrima Darboe, with Crisante dropping into a rejigged back three. 

Mkhitaryan went close with a diving header but Roma kept their foot on the pedal and almost went ahead on the night when De Gea tipped wide from Lorenzo Pellegrini and then held Mancini's follow-up effort, although had he scored the goal would have been disallowed for an offside infringement.

Five minute before the break, Cavani showed his immense predatory quality with yet another goal against the Romans - they must be sick of the sight of him.
Cavani started and ultimately finished a wonderful sweeping move as his delightful touch saw the ball moved on to Fernandes and he, in turn, played it to Fred. The Brazilian found his South American colleague with a perfect, precise pass and Cavani, eight yards out, was never going to err for a third time. The striker slammed the ball home high beyond Mirante to extend our aggregate lead to 7-2 for his sixth in as many games, his fourth in the Europa League and thirteenth of an increasingly impressive campaign.

Mason Greenwood, the youngest player to reach 100 games for United, flashed a shot wide before De Gea was called into action again, this time to keep out Mkhitaryan. Fernandes failed to connect having attempted a spectacular scorpion effort, and the Portuguese magnifico saw another effort narrowly off target in the final moments of the half.

Brandon Williams and Telles replaced Aaron Wan - Bissaka (who was on a booking) and Luke Shaw for the second 45 minutes with the tie over as a contest.
De Gea had become increasingly busy and denied Dzeko with another impressive stop, but there was little the Spaniard could do to prevent the 57th-minute equaliser. Almost inevitably, it was the Bosnian, so often the scourge of the Reds, whom got it as former Chelsea man Pedro's volleyed cross picked out the lurking Dzeko for a simple headed finish.

Three minutes further on and Roma had snatched the lead on the night as Pellegrini dispossessed Fred and found Crisante to smash in from distance.

The Reds suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves a side under siege. Out of nothing, United looked as if they could dramatically collapse only for De Gea to rescue us with a string of fine saves to deny first Pedro, then Dzeko and - most impressively of all - Mkhitaryan, all within the space of two minutes.

Another Roma goal would have set nerves jangling but United rediscovered their equilibrium and equalised through Cavani, yet again, on 68 minutes. Greenwood had fired wide moments before another perfect cross from Fernandes dropped to the man who simply cannot miss and his thumping header made it 2-2 and 8-4 on aggregate.

Mkhitaryan hit a post after Marcus Rashford's introduction with Cavani replaced having picked up a booking as tempers briefly flared. Roma substitute Nicola Zalewski restored his side's advantage with a volley which deflected off Telles and under De Gea. But United were never realistically in trouble and had long since done enough to seal our place in Gdansk for the final on Wednesday 23 May. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea