Sunday 29 August 2021

Match report: Wolverhampton 0-1 Man United

A late Mason Greenwood winner punished Wolves for their profligacy as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side set a new record of 28 league away games unbeaten.
It was the ultimate smash and grab raid for the Reds as Bruno Lage's men were dominant for long periods and should have been out of sight by half time having missed chance after chance with United indebted to David de Gea. 
But Greenwood popped up ten minutes from the end - having been set up the colossal Raphael Varane - to send United into the international break with two wins from three, four points better off now than at this stage last season.

The 19-year-old became just the second teenager to hit three in his side's first three games of a league season - Liverpool's teenage tyro Robbie Fowler first set that particular record in 1994/95.

Speaking of records, United are unbeaten away from home since January 2020 at Anfield, eclipsing the Arsenal Invincibles with Bruno Fernandes yet to taste defeat on the road in a league game. This was a tie in which we certainly rode our luck and scarcely deserved the win, but - as the old adage goes - it is backs to the wall wins like this one which can prove so vital come May. 

In a seismic week in which United announced the return of our prodigal son Cristiano Ronaldo, there was a Portuguese-themed party atmosphere at Molineux with the travelling Reds serenading CR7 throughout, running through his own personal song book with a cardboard cutout of the man himself. 

There were full debuts for Varane and Jadon Sancho, in place of Victor Lindelof and the injured Scott McTominay with Paul Pogba dropping into the pivot and Dan James recalled in lieu of Anthony Martial on the left.

In keeping with the nine previous meetings between the sides since the Old Gold's return to the top flight, it was an enthrallingly tight contest as Solskjaer took charge of his 100th game in the league as United manager.

United had the first opening as Sancho ran at the hosts defence, but the ball was recycled and Wolves countered at breakneck speed. The dangerous Adama Traore - one of the best wingers in the league - demonstrated his jet powered ability as he burst clear to leave Fred for dead and picked out Raul Jimenez, but the talismanic striker could only fire straight at David de Gea.

The Reds were a side under siege as Wolves went close again soon afterwards. Midfield mainstay Joao Moutinho played the ball through to Francisco Trincao, Fred looked to have kept it out but instead lost possession to the on loan Barcelona player. Clean through and with only De Gea to beat, Trincao fired beyond the advancing keeper only for Aaron Wan - Bissaka to stretch every sinew and rescue United with a brilliant last-ditch clearance on the line. 

Moutinho flashed a shot over the bar and Jimenez went close again before United weathered Wolves early onslaught and went close themselves at the other end through Greenwood, whom was narrowly off target after a darting run into the box.

Varane was having a busier bow than he perhaps would have expected, but nothing phases this colossal Frenchman and his importance was only emphasised with an excellent headed clearance from a Moutinho free-kick. 

Bruno Fernandes had a goal chalked out for offside shortly before half-time, Wolves keeper Jose Sa did well after Luke Shaw had whipped in a cross and Greenwood came within inches of putting United ahead against the run of play.

Two of United's generational talents were at the heart of it as Sancho found Greenwood - a combination we will see a lot more of - and the latter burst into the box to fire his angled low drive narrowly wide of the far post.

United were much improved and finally awoke from their soporific slumber after the interval. Sa saved well from Fred (it wouldn't be a United match without an effort by him from distance), and Fernandes might have linked up with the newly-arrived Cavani had they not got their wires crossed in the box.

Lage's men remained a threat going forward and Traore saw another chance go begging as he fluffed a shot wide when well placed after the eye-catching Trincao had cut the ball back. 

This was the very definition of "riding your luck" as De Gea came to our rescue again on 66 minutes with a sensational double save. The Spaniard kept out a Roman Saiss header from a corner, but the ball dropped to the same player on the rebound for a second, ever better, stop from De Gea as a fine reflex save deflected the ball to safety. Quite how Lage's Wolves had not scored no one knew, and it became somewhat inevitable United would punish them.

Sa denied Pogba and Fernandes pulled an effort wide, but the breakthrough finally arrived in the 80th minute with that man Greenwood again at the heart of it.
Wolves were left incensed after a coming together between Pogba and Ruben Neves, with the Wolves man going to ground about 50 years after challenging the Frenchman for the ball. Varane collected the loose ball and moved it out wide right to Greenwood, he shimmied, threw in a stepover and fired on goal. The angle was tight and Sa should have done better but did we care? Did we f**k. Greenwood's third goal of the season ultimately proved enough despite five added minutes to make United record breakers ahead of the imminent arrival of a chap called Cristiano..

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea. Three world class saves to preserve parity. How crucial they proved to be.

Saturday 28 August 2021

Cristiano Ronaldo: A glittering career in numbers

Twelve years after leaving, Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Manchester United as one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.
Long after this extraordinary exponent of his craft has ridden off into the sunset, his legacy will live on as a man who defined an era and inspired an entire generation of fans and players. 
He left United as the best on the planet and returns over a decade on still going strong, now in the twilight of his career but with more trophies than most clubs. 

Born and raised in Madeira, it was at United where Ronaldo's career really took off. He arrived at Old Trafford in 2003 as a
talented, teenaged and temperamental tyro with annoying hair, poncey earrings, the world at his feet and with more flashy style than any tangible substance. Six years on, he left the Theatre of Dreams as a legend, a man with hero cult status and a place in the annals of United as greatness personified. 

Ronaldo's time at United bridged a generational gap as one great side - the league winning one of the mid-noughties - was rebuilt and remodelled, going through three fallow years when the Old Trafford garden was far from fruitful. But the player known simply as 'CR7' would emerge as the pantheon of Sir Alex Ferguson's last great side - the spearhead of a magnificent, all conquering juggernaut as the formidable Reds swept all before them en route to three successive league titles, a Champions League, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the FIFA Club World Cup.

But even as United's fortunes began to wane, Ronaldo's star was only just beginning to shine. He struck 118 goals in eight shy of 300 games in the Red of United - a frightening tally only enhanced by the fact he primarily played as a winger in most of that time. His best season in front of goal for the Reds came in the 2007-08 season as he plundered 42 goals across all competitions in one of the finest individual campaigns the club, and indeed the Premier League, had ever seen. 

It was then Ronaldo hit his peak and become the greatest player on this planet - a status some would say he has yet to relinquish. Ronaldo had only just turned 23, but eclipsed the legendary George Best's 40-year old record of 32 goals in a season from the wing. CR7 fell only two short of equalling another great - Denis Law - who still holds the honour of the highest goals tally in a single season for the Reds (46). The Portuguese had assumed superstar status and his goals-per-game ratio that year is also superior to Luis Suarez's rate of a goal every 95.5 minutes in 2013/14.

If that was impressive, Ronaldo's numbers only continued to smash through the ceiling upon leaving for Real Madrid. It was the young man's dream, and we watched with pride as his phenomenal prowess in front of goal struck new heights. His exploits in the white of Los Blancos made his success in Red look average as - over the next decade - Ronaldo would score goal after goal. In 438 games in the Spanish capital, he would procure a simply astonishing 450 goals (450...)  to win two more league titles, four (four!) Champions Leagues, two Spanish Cups, three UEFA Super Cups, and the FIFA World Club Cup again (and twice more for good measure). Ronaldo had taken off at Old Trafford but, by now, he was in full flight. 

Despite three relatively underwhelming years at Juventus, Ronaldo remained undimmed with another 101 goals in 134 matches. In total, Ronaldo has played 895 times for four clubs with 674 goals as well as Portugal's all time top scorer (109 goals, 179 caps) and equalling Ali Daei's all-time international record. 

Never one to do things quietly, Ronaldo has also cut a swathe through his rivals on an individual level as well as 33 trophies across his club career. For the best part of remarkable, net busting decade, CR7 and Lionel Messi have battled it out - going at each other hammer and tong - for the Ballon D'Or as the world's best men's player. 
In an individual head to head battle for the ages and football par excellence, the two finest players of our - and any other - generation have been at the peak of their considerable powers since Ronaldo left Old Trafford to join his rival in Spain. 
Ronaldo picked up FIFA's top honour five times (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017) but Messi has outdone to scoop the prize on six occasions including four in a row - 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2019. 

Now he's back and has showed no signs of stopping - even last season, by now a veteran at 36, Ronaldo struck 36 goals in all competitions despite Juventus missing out on the title for the first time since 2011.

Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo... ere' United sing, running down the wing, viva Ronaldo! 

Ronaldo's return a double edged sword for Solskjaer's United

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United will be seen as a fairytale denouement to one of the most decorated careers the game has ever seen.
The man simply known as 'CR7' was born to shine at The Theatre of Dreams with the 36-year-old superstar still fondly remembered at Old Trafford for his part in Sir Alex's final great dynasty. 

Ronaldo won the Champions League, thr
ee Premier Leagues, the FA Cup and two League Cups in a glittering six-year stay under his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson before an 80m move to Real Madrid. 

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will celebrate the recapture of Ronaldo - but his return also proves a double-edged sword for the affable Norwegian gaffer.
Solskjaer has done virtually everything right as United boss but his managerial CV at the club is still missing the biggest measure of success - silverware. Despite signing a new deal last month, he cannot afford to wait much longer to break the drought given the vast outlay this summer.

Ronaldo will be greeted as the returning hero, a moment twelve years in the making, the homecoming Old Trafford has much longed for but one none of us ever thought would actually materialise. It will be pure theatre when Ronaldo walks down the tunnel and out onto the hallowed turf in the Red of United once more.

It was a moment of high emotion when he came back with Real Madrid in 2013 in the Champions League as he received a standing ovation in one of the best atmospheres the famous old ground has ever witnessed.
Typically, he thanked us in the only way this phenomenal champion knows how - by scoring the decisive goal as SAF's last assault on the cup with the big ears was snuffed out. No sentiment from Ronaldo, only the most precious commodity of all - success.

Now he is back at the Theatre of Dreams in Red, Solskjaer will hope he can bring that champion's mentality with him.
Ferguson's father-son relationship with Ronaldo was believe to have played a key role in his eleventh hour diversion away from 'them' in sky blue, a move which the mere thought of led to death threats, burning effigies and shirts, accusations of betrayal and a man motivated by money rather than loyalty to a club where Ronaldo remains an idol.

It is an extraordinary coup by United, especially so given City's financial clout and the fact we've publicly finger blasted them makes it all the sweeter. 
United's priority may lie in the defensive midfield area with re-enforcements desperately needed in that position, but how we could turn down the possibility of bringing back Ronaldo, a player whose star remains undimmed despite reaching the twilight of a magnificent career. We simply couldn't have passed it up.

Ronaldo brings a sprinkling of stardust, a touch of romance and enduring quality to Old Trafford. He's a certainty to plunder 25+ goals a season and provides a touchstone, a figurehead, for our emerging young talents in Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. Even his mere presence makes United a far more daunting proposition to our Premier League rivals. 

Ronaldo is still in extraordinary shape at 36, still so potent in front of goal even in a poor Juventus side. He scored 35 goals across all competitions last season, outdoing even red-hot Romelu Lukaku (30 goals) before his 97.5m move from Inter Milan back to Chelsea.

For Ole, though, Ronaldo's return ratchets the pressure up tenfold. Of course there is always pressure on the manager of Manchester United, but there will be even more now. United have fallen short in the biggest matches under the Norwegian with the agony of last term's Europa Cup final loss to Villarreal still fresh in the memory as the prize slipped away from the Reds - strong favourites on the night - by the narrowest of margins.

Solskjaer has been building something special at Old Trafford but there was always going to come a time when that progress had to be replaced with success. Given the events of the summer - with the arrivals of Sancho and Raphael Varane as well as Ronaldo - that time must be now. 

If United do not deliver a serious, prolonged, consistent title challenge and finally win that elusive trophy then scouring questions will inevitably be asked, given the embarrassment of riches at the United manager's disposal. Put simply, there can be no excuses for Solskjaer this time. 

There are still flaws in this United side - the lack of defensive nous and creativity in central midfielder is a worry and we have no cover for right-back Aaron Wan - Bissaka. But with Harry Maguire and four time Champions League winner Varane at the heart of an impressive defence, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes as our creative, string-pulling heartbeat, and Ronaldo in attack with fellow new signing Sancho, another ageless but nonetheless magnificent striker in Edinson Cavani, Solskjaer's United cannot afford to fall off the pace in the chasing pack. Chelsea and City remain, for my money, favourites to battle for the title but United, on paper at least, have a squad to push them all the way.

Solskjaer has put his nets out and landed his prize catch in sensational style. It cannot be claimed he hasn't been backed in his quest to deliver glory back to Manchester United.

With Ronaldo back on board, he will be expected to finally deliver.

Friday 27 August 2021

For 12 years, I never stopped dreaming.... viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo!!

 One of the most seismic 24 hours in the illustrious history of Manchester United culminated on Friday with news twelve years in the making: Cristiano Ronaldo has come home. 
Our summer business was seemingly done and dusted with the arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane - a dash of youth and the sprinkling of a genuine, world class 24-carat serial winner, a man to offer an instant upgrade to any defence in world football. Even only 24 hours ago, all was quiet and peaceful in the Old Trafford garden. There was not even a hint of the drama only just beginning. This will go down as surely the most remarkable transfer window football has ever seen. 

But then came the bombshell. If you thought Lionel Messi's departure from Barcelona - something we never thought we'd see - was big, then what followed was simply seismic. How very Manchester United to upstage even the greatest player of all time. What would the odds have been on Messi's move to PSG becoming merely the second biggest transfer drama of the summer? 

But then, Cristiano Ronaldo has made a career out of doing just that. Whatever Messi does, this champion - this remarkable, record smashing, stellar, once in a lifetime player - has to do it better. 
Coupled with Manchester United's penchant for the spectacular and the unexpected, you have a match simply made in heaven. Two men, surely the pair of them the best players we will ever see, both moving to new clubs in the same season in the same transfer window? No one, not even Mystic Meg, could have predicted this. Even if she had, you'd tell her to lay off the sauce and go for a lie down. These two have defined a generation, exalted above all others as the finest exponents of the Beautiful Game the world - and we - will ever witness. Their legacy and greatness will live on long after both have ridden off into the sunset.

For the past 12 years, we had all dreamed of this moment. But for so long, it has seemingly been only exactly that - a dream. Never did I think my shut eye fantasy would become a reality. The notion of Cristiano Ronaldo one day, some day, coming back to Old Trafford was like the ex you never really get over - you spend long hours pining, wondering, cherishing the memories, all the while thinking "maybe, maybe, we've got one last shot." For years I've hoped, somewhere deep inside, but never believed it would actually happen. Until this moment - a "where were you" moment on Friday, 27 August 2021. Almost twenty years on from when the braided, teenage tyro stepped through the door as a relative unknown from a small club in his native Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo has come home. 

We watched 'Ronnie' with immense pride at Real Madrid - United had developed him from a talented if frustrating showman with poncey hair and earrings into a superstar with legendary status. We didn't mind him going - he stayed with us for one more year and had a dream to go to Real - who were we to stop him? When he went to Juve in his 30s, you felt United's chance to bring him back to where it all began - the hallowed turf of Old Trafford - had gone. 

It's at this point we should really say thank you to our nearest and dearest across the road. You see, without City's interest none of this may have ever happened. It wasn't until the mob in sky blue made their move the wheels were set in motion. From death threats, accusations of betrayal, burning shirts and effigies, disloyalty and being derided as a fallen hero, even the thought of an idol - a man we still idolise on the terraces, joining 'them' was unthinkable. 
As soon as City made their move, in came United and a phone call from one 'goat' to another, Sir Alex Ferguson (still regarded by Cristiano as a father figure), sealed the most remarkable of deals. If a week in a long time in politics, then 24 hours is an eternity in football. No club can put you through the entire gamut of emotions or pull at the heartstrings quite like Manchester United. This club, man.

In a parallel universe, both Ronaldo and Messi may have been lining up in sky blue on the opposite side of town as the latest components in Pep Guardiola's oil driven juggernaut. We can shudder at the thought but let's thank divine intervention it never came to fruition. 

Never mind the fact we can debate if Ronaldo is "what we need" or the fact he's 36 and in the twilight o a glittering career. When a player like this becomes available you'd be mad not to try and get him and the fact City just got absolutely finger blasted in public merely adds the icing on top of a delicious cake.

Even at 36 and ageing, Ronaldo is still unrivalled at the top of the game as his status as joint top scorer in the Euros attest. He's a guarantee of 25+ goals a season, brings experience, a champion's mentality and an aura around him even if he is - unsurprisingly - not the same all action player he was first time round.

So what next in this madcap summer? Ronaldo's come back home, Messi's moved to pastures new, and Real Madrid have lost both Varane and Sergio Ramos but acquired Kylian Mbappe. As the man who even in retirement still holds the key to the modern day Manchester United once said: "Football eh, bloody hell."

They say never go back but Cristiano Ronaldo has always been unique. By doing so, he made mine and millions of others dreams come true. 

 Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo!! Welcome home, legend. Let's finish what you started. 

Thursday 26 August 2021

Manchester United discover European fate

Manchester United were finally handed a favourable draw in Europe as the Champions League groups were determined today.

The 32-team group stage was drawn earlier on Thursday in the Turkish capital Istanbul as the Reds - due some luck in one of these - will be happy with the hand they were dealt by UEFA's powers that be. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have had a succession of very difficult ties in recent seasons including last season's "Group of Death" in the Champions League when we played PSG and Leipzig (after facing Juventus, the French giants and Barcelona in 2019), but there will be few complaints this time around. 

United, amongst the tournament's second seeds in a strong pot two, were drawn into Group F amongst some familiar faces and one opponent we have never faced before.
By a strange quirk of fate, we will be joined in the section by Unai Emery's Villarreal - and the La Liga side will need no introduction having agonisingly edged out Solskjaer's United on penalties in last season's Europa League final to earn the Yellow Submarines a place in this competition despite a seventh placed league finish.

It will be a revenge mission for the Reds, who have faced Villarreal four times before in the tournament's group stage. All four ties - in 2005/05 and 2008/09 - ended goalless with May's final also finishing in stalemate to ensure we've never beaten the men from Spain.

Atalanta - Amad's former side - provided the opposition from Pot Three with the Reds never having met Italy's emerging force in a competitive match before. Having gained promotion into Serie A only ten years ago, the Bergamo-based club have enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence under the highly rated Gian Piero Gasperini, twice finishing as runners up in the domestic cup with three successive third-placed finishes over the past three seasons. 

Atalanta reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League on their competition debut in 2018-19 and despite not knowing much about them, look to be a tough examination for the Reds as we play Gasperini's men for the first time ever. 

Young Boys completed the section with the Swiss champions being paired with United for the second time in four seasons. We last played the team from Berne in 2018-19, winning 3-0 on a plastic pitch in Switzerland before a late Marouane Fellaini goal in the return at Old Trafford put the Reds through to the last 16 in a match famous for Jose Mourinho's bottle throwing antics. Not only did we face them relatively recently but they are also managed by former Huddersfield maestro David Wagner - former coach of Huddersfield - new to the job when he took over this summer. 
Having fallen just short of progress to the knockouts last season - albeit with the caveat of a very tough group - United should be confident (but not complacent) of getting through this time. It's nice to have a section which, on paper at least, won't be a monumental effort in every game. 

It's about time we had a draw that isn't ridiculously difficult but there are no 'easy' games at this level and so United will know not to take anyone for granted. 

Elsewhere, our divisional rivals were handed a tougher time of things. Manchester City bucked their trend of embarrassingly straightforward draws with, for once, a daunting prospect as they were placed with Lionel Messi's PSG, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge - the Belgians aside, the exact same group we found ourselves marooned in last term. 
Liverpool will play Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, Porto and AC Milan in a tough group whilst holders Chelsea were drawn with Italian giants Juventus - with Max Allegri back in charge - Zenit St Petersburg of Russia and Swedish side Malmo. 

Jurgen Klopp's side have what looks to be this season's "Group of Death" with an eye-popping fifteen European Cups between his Liverpool team (six), Milan - seven time winners - and Sergio Conceicao's Portuguese outfit (winners in 1987 and 2004). 
The group fixtures are set to be announced by the weekend (Matchday One will be played on 14/15 September)with the final to be played in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday 28 May 2022. 

The draw in full:

Group A - Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge
Group B - Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Porto, Milan
Group C - Sporting CP, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Besiktas
Group D - Internazionale, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheriff Tiraspol
Group E - Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Benfica, Dynamo Kyiv
Group F - Villarreal, MANCHESTER UNITED, Atalanta, BSC Young Boys
Group G - Lille, Sevilla, FC Salzburg, Wolfsburg
Group H - Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit St Petersburg, Malmo 

Champions League group stage draw

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United will discover their European fate when the Champions League returns later on Thursday.
The draw for the 2021-22 of the continent's most prestigious club tournament - in its 30th season under the current guise - takes place in the Turkish capital of Istanbul at 5pm.

Solskjaer's United finished second in the league last term and are one of the 26 automatic qualifiers with the other six clubs reaching this stage via the play-offs. The 32 clubs are divided into four seeding pots with each club from one of those pots being put into eight groups of four (A - H).

The first pot consists of the tournament's top seeds: holders Chelsea, Europa Cup winners Villarreal and the league champions from the six highest ranked UEFA nations - Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Internazionale, Bayern Munich, Lille and Sporting Lisbon. 

United are in pot two - determined by governing body UEFA's club co-efficient system - along with heavyweights PSG, Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool, Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund. Have the top two pots ever been stronger than these in the tournament's history? 

Pot three consists of: Porto, Ajax, Atalanta, RB Leipzig, Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk and RB Salzburg.
In pot four are debutants Sheriff Tiraspol - the first club from Moldova to play in the Champions League group stage - along with AC Milan, Wolfsburg, Club Brugge, Malmo, Besiktas, Young Boys and Dynamo Kyiv. 

No team can play any other side from their own league at this stage meaning there can be no all-English affairs until the start of the knockouts in the New Year. 

Spain has five representatives (the top four from La Liga last season plus Europa Cup winners Villarreal) with clubs 'paired' with other teams from their country (for example PSG and Lille) to ensure matches are split between alternate matchdays on a Tuesday and Wednesday. Two pairings are done where a country has four or more sides in the draw as is the case with England, Spain, Germany and Italy. The two clubs paired together are always in the opposite side of the draw. 

The best case scenario for the Reds would be a group with Lille, Zenit and Club Brugge but we all know its rigged for us to get the hardest possible draw every time so we're definitely getting Bayern, Ajax and Milan whilst City get Sevilla, Shakhtar (for the 5,000th time in a row), and Sheriff Tiraspol. I'm looking forward to us getting a ridiculously hard time of it yet again and yet another "Group of Death" for the umpteenth season in succession. 

The tournament kicks off with the first round of group games on Matchday One, 14/15 September with the group stage culminating in early December before the road to Russia begins in earnest with the round of 16 in February. The 2021-22 Champions League final will be played on Saturday May 28 2022 in Saint Petersburg. 

We'll have full reaction to the draw and run the rule of United's group stage opponents as Ole and his men look to improve on last season's disappointing showing. 

Wednesday 25 August 2021

I'm convinced these cup draws are fixed (RANT)

It's happened again, IT HAS HAPPENED AGAIN. Get to fuck the FA and the EFL. Get in the bin where you all belong. This is a joke now, so much so I'm beginning to question the integrity of these supposedly "random" cup draws. 
How else do you legitimately explain Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always, ALWAYS, without fail getting one of the toughest ties possible when these cup draws come around. It's beyond a joke now. Every time, United get a top six Premier League side so we can't even rest players and have to play a full strength team every time when the other big clubs can rotate. 

I'm convinced the football powers-that-be join forces and conspire with one another every pre-season to make sure Manchester United must be given Premier League opposition in every round of every domestic cup competition each season and ensure we never win one of these again. How else do you explain our ridiculous bad luck of the draw? It's all a scam and it's a disgrace. 

As United were paired with former boss David Moyes and his West Ham side - again, really! - in the third round of the Carabao Cup, the anger rose inside me. Granted, it wasn't Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City (more on them in a moment), but still a tough hurdle to negotiate having needed extra-time to get past the Hammers in the FA Cup fifth round last term. That win came after victories over divisional rivals Watford and Liverpool and before our knockout KO at the hands of eventual winners Leicester in the quarter finals. We lost to City in the semi finals of the League Cup and had the Champions League group of death to contend with. That was only last season. It was City and Chelsea the year before. Can anyone else spot a definitive pattern emerging here? There should be a full investigation in to the FA, the EFL and UEFA as no one can legitimately explain to me why it is that we're stitched up when it comes to the cups, season in season out. And people ask why we can't win them? Is it any wonder with these ridiculous draws every time. Can we for once, just once, play lower league opposition? The authorities hate Ole but adore beloved, untouchable, fawning Pep. 

Speaking of which, this disdain doesn't even tell half the story. Yep, you can probably guess where I'm going with this. Just as United are almost certain to get one of the most difficult ties, our nearest and dearest from across the road - precious Pep and his bottomless pit - City without fail of course, for the 5,000th time in a row, face Ragarse Rovers Reserves. 

The authorities might as well just front up and admit it now, City pay them off to get piss easy opponents every step of the way. It's a fix for the bald fraud to stat pad his way to another cup win by virtue of getting a bye and allowing his 60m back up squad players some game time. When the dirt eventually emerges about these corrupt, tapas shagging, tax dodging, soulless, oil money plastics this special treatment from those in the corridor of power will definitely pop up. There should be an investigation into this, too. Its not as if its a one off - it happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Far too many times to simply be a coincidence or just a lucky run. These twats are paying the relevant people off to get a piece of piss whilst all the other heavyweights knock six bells out of each other. Any success they have is tainted.

Look at 2018-19 as an example - the season
of City's much vaunted "domestic treble." They won the league and the two domestic cups but their 'opponents' in the FA Cup were as follows: Rotherham, Burnley, Newport, Swansea, Brighton and Watford. Three Premier League teams admittedly, but all of them you'd expect them to beat with their eyes closed. In the League Cup they played: Oxford, Fulham, a second string Leicester side, Burton Albion in a semi final and Chelsea in the final. For the record, their Champions League group that season consisted of Lyon, Shakhtar Donetsk and 1899 Hoffenheim. By comparison, we had Arsenal, Chelsea and Wolves in the FA Cup and a Champions League group of Valencia, Juve and Young Boys (and then PSG and Barcelona in the knockout rounds) - City got Schalke in the round of 16. 

Looking forward to us getting Bayern, Ajax and Milan in tomorrow's Champions League draw whilst City get Eastcote Farm, the Dog&Duck and Toytown before Pep comes out and drones on and on about how wonderful he is and what "challenging games" the fixtures will be. Get to fuck all of you. It's all a stitch up. 

Monday 23 August 2021

Frantic Fretic illustrate United's major weakness

Whilst a point away from home in the second game of the season shouldn't cause too much concern, the form of two midfielder players against Southampton certainly did.

With Scott McTominay not fit enough to play 90 minutes at St Mary's, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had little option but to opt for the incompatible midfield pairing of Fred and Nemanja Matic (aka "Fretic"). 
Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane are quality summer signings and add a sprinkling of stardust to a talented squad, but it's been clear for years now United's midfield isn't up to scratch. Games at this level are more often than not won and lost in this area, but the Reds can't hope to challenge with such a glaring weakness in the team.

For all their detractors, Fred and McTominay work well as a two and have never let Solskjaer down. With Matic restored to the team in the latter's absence though, the ageing Serb was all at sea on the south coast. swimming against the tide in the wake of Southampton's vicious and energetic current. 
At times it felt as if Matic was sporting the red and white stripes of Saints rather than the dark blue of United's newly unveiled third kit. It was a day when no one on our team stood out - with the possible exception of Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba - but, for Matic in particular, it was a day he'll want to forget in a hurry. There is glittering promise in this side, but in the two Mourinho-era signings, our biggest drawback as well. Fred has been an important first team player and a key cog for Solskjaer's United, and Matic was one of our best players during Project Restart after the first Covid lockdown. If you argue United are a club with great ambition of success (whether they are or not is another matter), then you simply need more creativity and reliability than these two. 

With a week of the window still to go United should go all out for the addition of a top class midfielder. Declan Rice, Ruben Neves or Eduardo Camavinga have all been linked, but it's going to be hard to prise any of the three men away from their clubs at this late stage of the summer. I've been a long term admirer of Brighton's Yves Bissouma - every time I've seen him he's excellent and is nearly always the best player on the pitch. He would slot in alongside McTominay like a glove. 

The pivot has been a point of weakness in United's team for a while now, with the presence of an elite central defensive midfielder conspicuous in absentia. Fred and Matic felt the full force of the Saints trademark energy and high press - hussled and harried into submission with misplaced passes and poor decision making. When Fred was replaced with McTominay in the 75th minute, United - instead of re-asserting control - only slipped further. 
Pogba was excellent again on the left wing and picked up his fifth assist of the season in only our second game, but his success out there diminishes options even further. In a way, you're hoping Pogba's anonymous on the wing because then he can moved further back to bolster the quality of the pivot. Fred played well against Leeds last week and even got himself on the scoresheet, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day and he was back to his usual chaotic self at Southampton. 

Fred was at fault for the opening goal as Jack Stephens - despite what looked a clear foul on Fernandes - allowed to carry the ball and move it on to Moussa Djenepo. He in turn found Che Adams and the Saints striker deflected off the outstretched toe of Fred and beyond the stranded David de Gea.
Why do United always seem to get naff Brazilians - I want to get this man's passport checked because there's no way he's from the country that perfected the Beautiful Game - aren't the Brazilians supposed to be able to pass a football? Matic was cumbersome against the energy and industry of James Ward - Prowse and Oriol Romeu but did, at least, improve a little after the break. Fred seemed to get worse as the game went on - he dithered, dallied, got skinned twice, scored the own goal and seemed rattled by the officiating. His poor day at the office was perhaps epitomised by Valentino Livramento - Southampton's hitherto unknown full-back.

Shortly after he erred at the wrong end, Fred was smoked by Saints teenage tyro on his home debut having come in from Chelsea. From a United corner, the right-back stormed forwards 60 yards upfield leaving Fred trailing and treading water in his wake like a tin can on the bumper of a wedding car. Nothing came of the burst, but it was an example of where this United team will struggle.
On another occasion, all he had to do was roll the ball ten yards sideways to Aaron Wan - Bissaka, but instead of doing even the basics he fired the ball straight out of play with his supposedly strongest left foot - everything he attempted failed and it was no surprise to see Fred subbed. The only surprise was he lasted as long as he did. Matic did nothing and Fred's only contribution saw him score an own goal and almost create another - for his side's opponents. 

By the end of the game, United's midfield looked utterly adrift in Southampton. Donny van de Beek did not make it off the bench - all the stranger given the struggles of his colleagues but perhaps a terminal verdict of the player's prospects under Solskjaer. 

Your midfield is supposed to be a platform but, at present, it looks more like a ceiling for United's ambitions. 

Sunday 22 August 2021

Match report: Southampton 1-1 Man United

Mason Greenwood's second half equaliser cancelled out a controversial Che Adams opener as United were held to a draw at St Mary's.

There looked to have been a clear foul on Bruno Fernandes in the build up as Jack Stephens wiped out the Portuguese and made no attempt to play the ball. The loose ball found its way on to Adams and he fired in with the aid of a deflection off Fred. Greenwood's well-taken goal ten minutes after the interval ultimately earned the Reds a point - in truth, probably a fair result. 

In doing so, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side equalled Arsenal's record run of 27 away league games without defeat stretching back to January 2020 at Anfield but there will be a sense of frustration over a missed opportunity as United lost their way in the closing stages despite a strong response to Greenwood's equaliser.

Solskjaer made two changes from the opening day thumping of Leeds as Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial were recalled to the XI in place of the not fit enough Scott McTominay and the rotated Dan James. New signings Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane had to be content with a place on the bench as our new World Cup winner was involved in a squad for the first time - albeit a watching brief with Victor Lindelof's assured showing in the opener enough for the Swede to maintain his place.

In keeping with the atmospheric din from the returning fans on the south coast, Saints applied the early pressure through the familiar source of captain James Ward - Prowse. The set-piece specialist had scored in the corresponding fixture last season as Saints took a 2-0 lead, and went close again this time as his free-kick was tipped away by David de Gea. The same player fired into the side netting from the resultant corner.

Somehow, United failed to go in front moments later at the other end. It came from a similar set piece as Fernandes swung the ball in and found Lindelof. The centre-back stretched every sinew and flicked the ball towards goal and on to the bar. On the rebound, Martial headed goalwards but Southampton managed to clear their lines after a goalmouth scramble.

Alex McCarthy saved well to deny Paul Pogba from a set-piece and the same player then headed over the bar having been picked out by Luke Shaw on the left. 
The impressive Mohamed Salisu nicked the ball off Fernandes on the edge of the box, but Southampton - controversially and fortuitously - took the lead on the half hour mark. Saints had created next to nothing from open play, until Stephens had scythed down Fernandes in the United half and moved the ball on to Adams. The Reds vociferous appeals fell on deaf ears - where was the VAR check? - and the Scott carried the ball forward and fired on goal. The strike reached its target as the ball took a deflection off Fred and beyond the stranded De Gea into the corner, but replays showed there was contact by Stephens on Fernandes. 

Five minutes before the break, Ralph Hassenhuttl's side could have extended their advantage further had Adam Armstrong turned home a whipped delivery from eye-catching full back Valentino Livramento. Fortunately, the striker, on his home debut, was unable to get anything on the ball and the chance had gone.
McCarthy clung on to a Lindelof header in the final action of the first half as United, once again, would need to find their powers of recovery.

In keeping with much of the opening 45, the second half proved an end-to-end contest as De Gea saved from Armstrong's outside of the foot effort before United's leveller came.

It came through some wonderful build up from Pogba, as he exchanged passes with Fernandes and poked the ball through to Greenwood. The two had linked up to devastating effect against Leeds and were at it again here as Pogba's fifth assist of the season set up the teenager and he finished well beyond McCarthy from close range. The gunman doesn't miss those - it was his second of the season already and seemed to set United up to push for victory.

That belief was only enhanced as the Reds laid siege to Southampton's goal. Pogba flashed a shot wide having jinked through the defence, Greenwood nodded over the ball and McCarthy was called into action to keep out Fernandes. A United winner seemed only a matter of time with the introduction of Sancho but Saints, to their credit, fought back.

They could even have retaken the lead as De Gea twice sprung into action to preserve parity. The Spaniard saved superbly from Armstrong with the striker one-on-one, and then punched clear when another Ward - Prowse free-kick caused United's defence problems. Adams was unable to direct his header home when well placed with Southampton suddenly sensing victory.

But there was to be no late drama like last season here when Edinson Cavani - serenaded superbly and loudly throughout as his excellent new chant got an airing - scored an injury time winner. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason 'Gunman' Greenwood 

Monday 16 August 2021

String-pulling Pogba hits peaks of his powers - but now consistency is key..

Bruno Fernandes claimed the man of the match award in Saturday's win over Leeds United with his first hat-trick in the red of United.

But it was the performance of Paul Pogba which proved ultimately more significant as the Frenchman claimed four assists against the men from across the Pennines to become the first Manchester United player to achieve such a feat. Only six other men - Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Santi Cazorla and Harry Kane - have followed in his footsteps in claiming quadruple assists in a single Premier League match. Eight other United players have grabbed three or more assists in one game, but no one has done so since Antonio Valencia back in December of 2011. Pogba nominally played off the left against Leeds but his presence and influence was felt all over the pitch. This was why United paid 89m for him - it is what you should now expect from Jack Grealish, the man to usurp Pogba as the Premier League's most expensive player. 

While there has never been much debate around Fernandes value to the Old Trafford cause since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon in 2020, with the mercurial Pogba it could not be more different.
It is simply staggering to think in 38 minutes of one game Pogba has eclipsed his entire tally of assists - three - he managed last season. And therein lies the problem: whilst there are few better in his position than a fit and in-form Pogba, he's consistently inconsistent and doesn't find his best level anywhere near often enough. Yet in the blue, white and red of the world champions France we so often see Pogba at his bullying, brutal and destructive best. 

Despite his vastly fluctuating fortunes, a "Best of" Pogba showreel would still represent a thing of beauty. We got a bit of everything against Leeds in a performance up there as amongst his best since he rejoined United in 2016. A volleyed, first time lofted pass to Fernandes for the opener, a 40-yard curling ball to beat Pascal Strujik all ends up and set Mason Greenwood free for the second. A short flicked ball to Fernandes for number three and a drilled low cross to pick out Fred to fire in and complete the rout. A highlights compilation from this game alone would put Pogba high on the list of the world's most influential exponents of his craft. Along with his second half showing in the derby of April 2018 when he single handedly turned the tie on its head, Newcastle at home in the same season and Bournemouth in the final game of 2018, this was another stunning edition to Pogba's collection of his greatest hits. 

But Pogba simply doesn't play like this often enough. Maintaining performance levels like this one from one week to the next has, in fact, proved impossible for him. This is why Pogba came into the season with so much debate around his future. Would United be better off cutting our losses on a man who cost us £89m when he came from Juventus but could - for the second time - leave for absolutely nowt this season, given the fact he's out of contract next summer. 

The arrival of Lionel Messi seems to have answered that question for the moment. PSG are, realistically, the only club with the status, interest, and financial clout to be able to close a deal in the current transfer window. But Messi's arrival means they simply cannot contemplate such a signing for now, meaning Pogba will stay - for now at least.
The return of fans could be the key factor in persuading Pogba to stay, just as it was when Edinson Cavani signed up for a second season at United. With fans back in the ground at full capacity, showing Pogba some love could alter the goalposts when it comes to his future. 
Money, inevitably, will be an even bigger one and history would suggest there will be plenty more debating to be done surrounding the 28 year old before his future is resolved one way or another. 

Sunday 15 August 2021

A genuine title tilt for United's best squad in years?

 As first days of term go, that one wasn't too shabby was it? Manchester United passed their first test with flying colours to comprehensively finish top of the class after the opening assignment of the season. 

Speaking of which, Leeds were very much on the wrong end of one - again, for the second successive season. Inspired by straight A students Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba - with the former hitting a hat-trick and the latter grabbing FOUR assists - Leeds were sent from the classroom sweating profusely, muttering under their breaths and begging for mercy like an errant pupil with a high tolerance for rule breaking. Manchester United didn't show them any. For notoriously slow starters as United often are, this was a gauntlet thrown down to rivals, a question asked, a statement made. 

This United side have all the ingredients to excel at whatever challenges they are posed across the next nine months. Fernandes and Pogba lead the way in academia par excellence, adding a sprinkling of genuine 24-carat stardust on to an already stellar collection of players. Mason Greenwood was excellent, Harry Maguire kept Patrick Bamford quiet, Luke Shaw did well again and even Fred scored. Perhaps most notably of all, it's easy to forget this is a Reds side with four players still to drop back into it. Marcus Rashford is injured, Edinson Cavani unavailable with summer signing Jadon Sancho consigned to the bench for this one. Raphael Varane, our other new arrival, was unveiled before kick-off and is set for a debut at Southampton. Grabbing the goals - and avoiding the concession of them - should not be a major concern for Solskjaer this season. 

A little under a year ago, United - undercooked, unprepared and simply not ready - were outclassed in almost every department by Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace at an eerily empty Old Trafford in our 2020-21 opener. In the very next home game, the Reds humiliation was even worse - 1-6 to Jose Mourinho's Tottenham, albeit in controversial circumstances. Three games into the last campaign, and a title challenge was already out of reach. Eleven months on and, indeed, its only one game in but we're already three points better off. A quick start is imperative if we are to mount a genuine assault on top spot for the first time in many a year. Last season, we should perhaps have seen that poor start coming when United's transfer window was more akin to a trolley dash in Poundland. No one really expected a serious challenge on the leaders. Now, given United's far more cohesive, measured and joined up thinking in the market, many are giving us a genuine chance. 

This United squad looks the best we've had in years - not only in terms of its quality, but also its depth, its balance and its capability to adapt. Whatever the rest of the 2021-22 campaign has in store for Solskjaer's United, one thing seems certain: this version of the Reds looks and feels eminently more durable and efficient than that debacle. It's going to be tough to emerge from this particular school with the top honours when you share a room with the rich and spoilt oil tycoon, the Russian mafia's son and the good looking, hard working and talented high flyer - the kid who always used to say he'd do well "next year" until he finally achieved top marks. But maybe this time, this year, might just belong to the pupil named Manchester United. 

Fernandes has had too many brilliant games for United to list but this was perhaps his most impactful. Pogba, if less consistent, could distil his career at Old Trafford into a similarly sublime highlights reel. Without Pogba in the team, opponents can stifle Fernandes and stop United but with them both, when it all clicks together as we saw here, they both make the other better. It was poetry in motion as United's two finest string pullers in chief combined for a performance amongst their very best in Red. The outcome was swift, brutal and devastating - headmaster Fernandes with a hat-trick, prefect Pogba with four assists and old rivals vanquished. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. 

Not since 2006-07 have a United vintage enjoyed an opening day quite like this one. Still under the tutelage of the greatest teacher of them all, Sir Alex's Class of 2007 served up another lesson with Fulham this time the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. Needless to say, the Reds did finish top of the class that year (the rich oil tycoon hadn't joined the school then) with another deadly duo - two emerging young pups by the names of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo - at the peak of their considerable powers. That's surely got to be an omen..

Welcome to Manchester United, Raphael Varane..

And so its official - Raphael Varane is finally a Manchester United player with the signing of the £34m defender confirmed on Saturday.

It was always going to take some doing to upstage the return of fans to Old Trafford as the Uniteds of Manchester and Leeds met on the opening day, but - in truly iconic style - the Frenchman walked down the tunnel and held his new shirt number aloft in front of a rocking, baying Stretford End.

The deal had seemingly taken an eternity to complete - with United having agreed an initial fee for the 28-year-old on 27 July - but then held up through quarantine requirements and image rights with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitting on Friday the deal was not "100% done" as United still needed to "dot all the i's and cross all the t's." It all left us wondering when and perhaps even if the deal would be struck, but then, 24 hours later, Manchester United's latest recruit walked on to the Old Trafford pitch as a Red for the first time.

34m for a player of this quality seems almost criminal, especially when you consider Arsenal bought Ben White - a player in only his second Premier League season - for 50m. I never thought we'd see such a madcap transfer window as Lionel Messi departed Barcelona and their arch rivals Real Madrid moved on Sergio Ramos and Varane - one of the finest centre-back pairings of their generation - in the same summer. 

So what are Manchester United getting for their money? Widely considered one of the best exponents of his craft on the planet, the 28-year-old is one of the most decorated players in world football and brings with him a wealth of experience.

With a glittering CV of three La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, three Spanish Super Cups, four Champions League titles, four FIFA Club World Cups, three UEFA Super Cups during his decade at Real Madrid, and the World Cup with France, Varane is a serial winner as the only United player from this current squad to win everything there is to win. 
Only David de Gea is a league champion with the Reds, with Varane's influence and trophy-winning  expertise across 360 games for Los Blancos a significant boost as United seek to end their four-year search for silverware. It's easy to see why he's so highly rated - United have needed a player like this for years. The club have been long term admirers of the French international with former manager Sir Alex Ferguson originally interested in the then 18-year-old Lens player and Jose Mourinho also attempted to bring the player to M16. 

Ever since Rio Ferdinand departed Old Trafford in 2013 as Father Time finally tolled for a brilliant player, it left a gaping chasm in the defence that hasn't really been filled since. Plenty have tried - from the makeshift (Scott McTominay) to the moribund (Phil Jones) but none have succeeded. Ferdinand's exit saw the sudden absence of a specific type of defender, someone whom is dominant in his defensive duels whilst being calm and elegant on the ball to play out from the back. Last season, it was increasingly obvious we needed a partner for Harry Maguire - Varane ticks both boxes and generally brings an upgrade to a previously much maligned backline. That said, new Sweden captain Lindelof was excellent against Leeds but you feel it is his place in the team under the greatest threat now Varane has come in. 

The affable Norwegian said: "We are all absolutely delighted that we have managed to secure one off the best defenders in the world over the last ten years. Raphael is a proven winner who we have tracked over a long period of time and we know just how much of a dedicated professional he is.
"We have a great depth of international defenders and he will add immense skillset, experience and leadership to our group. He is a unique defender with a rare combination of top level attributes we hope will rub off on our young players."

His guile to Maguire's grit will be the final piece of the puzzle in the defence for Solskjaer with Varane's pace, ability and composure on the ball the perfect foil for his captain's tenacity and aerial strength. 

Varane will don the number 19 shirt at United, previously worn by Amad who now takes up 16 (Michael Carrick's former number). He will available for a debut at Southampton on Sunday - welcome to Manchester United, Raphael Varane. 

Saturday 14 August 2021

Match report: Manchester United 5-1 Leeds United

Bruno Fernandes struck a stunning opening day hat-trick as Paul Pogba claimed four assists on a day Raphael Varane was officially unveiled as a Red.
The £43m French international, signed from Real Madrid, was introduced to an already fervent Old Trafford crowd shortly before kick-off as fans returned with the iconic old ground at full capacity.

Fernandes picked up the mantle and carried on his magnificent form from 2020-21 as he set United on their way with a dinked opener on the half hour.
Although Leeds levelled through Luke Ayling - arguably the best goal of the game - the Reds responded superbly as Pogba played in Mason Greenwood and then set up Fernandes to fire in the third. The Portuguese magnifico volleyed in an excellent strike to seal his first Reds treble
before Fred joined the party to put the seal on a famous, magnificent day.

Fernandes quickly assumed hero status at United - such has been his transformative effect - but this was only the fourth time our talismanic figurehead had played in front of a packed Old Trafford.
United's other summer signing Jadon Sancho was named on the bench having not featured at all in pre-season with Pogba stationed on the right, Dan James on the left and Greenwood up top in the absence of the unavailable Edinson Cavani.

The Reds stormed into the new season looking intent for a repeat of last term's pre-Christmas thumping in which Scott McTominay put Marcelo Bielsa's side to the sword with a brace inside the first three minutes. And, perhaps inevitably, it was he whom went closest early on with an early sighter, blocked by Robin Koch after 120 seconds.
Greenwood, leading the line in his favoured centre-forward position, was denied by Illan Meslier and then put Pascal Strujik under pressure, with the defender forced to only poke the ball against the striker in trying to clear, but Meslier was equal to the effort.

Pogba smashed into the side netting having been played through by Greenwood but David de Gea was then called into action at the other end. Leeds served notice of their sporadic threat as a trademark swift counter attack culminated in first Jack Harrison, and then Mateusz Klich, denied by the recalled Spaniard.

Rodrigo headed wide but United's first goal of the new season arrived on the half hour mark when the Reds seized on an errant clearance from Meslier and Pogba picked out Fernandes. The string-pulling Portuguese took the ball under his spell with a wonderful touch to pull it down and clip neatly over the advancing keeper, whom got a hand on the ball but was unable to keep it out.

The Reds went in at half-time but, with only a slender lead, certainly did not have an unassailable lead.
Indeed, perhaps inevitability, came a blow to the solar plexus as Ayling collected the ball, travelled with it and - still unmarked - released a rocket from 25 yards to leave the helpless De Gea with no chance.

Just when it seemed as though familiar failings would return to haunt the Reds again, the response was swift, brutal and brilliantly emphatic. 
Only three minutes further on and United were ahead again as Pogba's defence splitting pass picked out Greenwood, he held off the struggling Strujik and drilled home a superb low finish beyond Meslier.
Leeds - and we - barely had time to draw breath before United, by now in the finest of fettles, came again.

Fernandes sat down Meslier and wrong-footed the defence in one movement before his goalbound effort looked to have been cleared by the stretching Ayling. However, referee Paul Tierney indicated goalline technology had signalled a goal and Old Trafford erupted again. Replays did, indeed, show the ball had crossed the line by a mile so it was the correct decision.

Still Solskjaer's men did not relent with Leeds now under siege and Old Trafford rocking with electricity and baying for blood. 
The Reds were rampant now and Fernandes added his crowning glory with the pick of the bunch on the hour mark. Varane will replace Victor Lindelof in the United side but the Iceman and Swedish captain showed his ability on the ball and why Solskjaer still views him as a key part of his squad. Lindelof's superbly lofted, raking through ball fell perfectly for Fernandes to smash home on the volley inside the box with a brief VAR check unable to prevent the completion of his maiden treble.

Leeds had been battered and there was still time for Fred to join in the fun as he swept home our fifth from yet another Pogba pull-back, the Frenchman's fourth set up of the match. 
But perhaps the biggest roar of the day came on 74 minutes when Sancho was handed a debut as he came on to replace Dan James with assist-king Pogba also given a breather in place of compatriot Anthony Martial. 

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

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

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Manchester United vs Leeds preview and predicted XI

 It's early August and just like clockwork its that time again as the new 2021-22 Premier League season gets underway on Friday.

We only have to wait until Saturday lunchtime before the long awaited return to action of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tricky, piss boiling, showtime Reds. For the first time in 520 days, United will run out to be greeted by a capacity crowd at an expectant Old Trafford in the biggest crowd the famous old ground has had since Scott McTominay's red letter day in the Manchester derby with mass gatherings legal again and no restrictions on crowd numbers.
Newly promoted Brentford host London rivals Arsenal in the first top flight match of the new season before Old Trafford opens its door again to a full compliment of fans.

As if that in itself wasn't enough to set pulses racing, the identity of the opening day opposition certainly will as the purists favourites - Marcelo Bielsa's eye-catching Leeds side - make the 48-mile journey across the Pennines for the 112th instalment of one of English football's fiercest, most storied rivalries. Solskjaer will want to ensure a better start this time, after he resided over a poor beginning to 2020-21 in which United picked up only seven points from the first six games. 

The Elland Road club took the league by storm on their return to the top flight last season but have bolstered their ranks in an attempt to avoid the threat of the dreaded "second season syndrome" - the unwritten rule in which promoted clubs dip significantly in their second year having survived with ease first time around (see: Sheffield United). Junior Firpo has arrived from Barcelona, Jack Harrison has made his loan move permanent and teenage winger Amari Miller has come in from Birmingham as they aim to kick on from last term's impressive ninth place.

It's worth noting that probably United's best performance of the season came in the corresponding fixture last term as Bielsa's side were blown away by a swashbuckling showing from the rampant Reds to the tune of a 6-2 thumping.

Speaking of which, there can only be one outcome if Solskjaer and his side are to improve on our 2020-21 showing. The Reds have finished third and second in the affable gaffer's two full seasons at the wheel so only the title can continue that upward trajectory. Finishing narrowly behind Manchester City is one thing, and you feel it might be this team's zenith, but taking the final step to usurp them is easier said than done.

But the Reds, too, look - on paper at least - a stronger and better balance proposition this time around. We've finally filled the Cristiano Ronaldo shaped hole on the right wing - twelve years on from the Portuguese's departure - with the 73m arrival of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, ending the Reds long running pursuit of the highly rated young wideman. Sancho hasn't featured at all during pre-season and a lack of match fitness could mean he's eased into things on his debut so don't be surprised to see him on the bench for this one.

The same can be said for our other newest recruit. As I write this on Wednesday afternoon, Raphael Varane is yet to be officially unveiled as a Manchester United player. The centre-back - signed from Real Madrid for the bargain price of 43m - underwent his medical on Tuesday at Carrington with the signing set to be completed and announced on Thursday. Champions League Varane would need to be registered later that day to be available for Leeds but - like Sancho - hasn't played a minute of pre-season and carries the risk of being undercooked going into the campaign opener with no competitive football in two months. If there's one team you don't want to face with a lack of sharpness, it is Leeds. 

So it wouldn't be a total surprise if Solskjaer gave him an extra week to prepare, with Victor Lindelof to partner the fit again Harry Maguire at the back for the visit of Bielsa's team. 
Marcus Rashford (shoulder) is out until October with Edinson Cavani also unlikely to feature as the Uruguayan hitman could need to quarantine following a late return from his South American holiday. Alex Telles is a long term absentee, Jesse Lingard tested positive for Covid whilst Eric Bailly and Amad Diallo have only just returned from Tokyo having represented Ivory Coast at the Olympics. 

Nemanja Matic impressed in our final friendly against Everton to stake his claim for a start, a match in which Anthony Martial returned having been out since March. In the absence of Rashford and Cavani, the mercurial Frenchman could be selected to lead the line. Dean Henderson missed the entirety of pre-season after his positive Covid test, so David de Gea is expected to be named in goal. 

Manchester United host Leeds at Old Trafford on Saturday 14th August with a 12.30pm kick off, live on BT Sport 1. 
Match odds: Man Utd 3/1 Draw 10/3 Leeds 5/1 (Odds courtesy of SkyBet) 

Predicted Man Utd XI vs Leeds: De Gea; Wan - Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; James, Fernandes, Martial; Greenwood.