Sunday 31 October 2021

Match report: Tottenham 0-3 Man Utd

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ended his "darkest week" with a hugely important victory over out-of-sorts Tottenham in the capital.

The United manager remains a man on the precipice but is safe - for now at least - after his Reds side ended a four game winless league streak with a simple but effective victory. The result moves United up to fifth and firmly amongst the chasing pack on a day when Manchester City lost and Liverpool were held by Brighton. 

Surprisingly, considering the nature and manner of last weekend's loss to the latter, Solskjaer made only two changes to the XI for our first trip with fans present at Spurs' new ground. Raphael Varane returned to slot into a back three alongside Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire, with Edinson Cavani handed only a second start of the season as he partnered Cristiano Ronaldo in a front two with an average age of 70. Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, 24 today, were the players to miss out. 

After an impeccably observed minute's silence ahead of Remembrance Day - this being Tottenham's closest home game to the day - Son Heung - min had the first opportunity when he cut inside and fired goalwards from distance. Fred blocked the shot but the resultant corner came to nothing as United cleared with ease.

Eric Dier cleared under pressure from Ronaldo after good work by right wing-back Aaron Wan - Bissaka before another Spurs chance at the other end. Luke Shaw and Maguire were both booked in quick succession, and Son then skied his effort from close range when he perhaps should have done better.

Nuno Espirito Santo's side looked to have made the breakthrough when they had the ball in the net on the half hour mark. Oliver Skipp flicked on a flag-kick and the ball founds it way through to centre-back Cristian Romero. He turned the ball home beyond David de Gea but the Argentine's celebration was cut short by the linesman correctly flagging for offside. 

Hugo Lloris saved superbly from Fred's 25-yarder to deny the Brazilian a rare goal but the hosts failed to heed that warning and United led six minutes shy of the interval.
Luke Shaw's darting run down the left saw Spurs backpedalling as Fernandes collected the ball on the edge of the penalty area outside the box. Spotting his compatriot Ronaldo - who had superbly pulled off the shoulder of his marker - Bruno picked him out with an immaculate cross. Ronaldo met it with an even more immaculate strike, a stunning volley on the angle across Lloris and into the corner.

Son flashed an effort wide shortly after the restart before Ronaldo had a superb strike ruled out for another offside infringement. 

Spurs huffed and puffed but were unable to find a way past United's disciplined, organised and well drilled defence with Varane in particular doing more than most to ensure we kept them at arm's length.

In truth, the Reds rarely looked threatened and put the result beyond any lingering doubt 25 minutes from the end when Fernandes dispossessed Skipp and found Ronaldo. He in turn slid the ball through to the advancing Cavani and he did the rest to lift the ball over Lloris and in for his first goal of the season.

Scott McTominay thwarted Harry Kane as the struggling England captain shaped to shoot, and substitute  Steven Bergwijn then fired wide as Spurs threatened to set up a barnstorming finish. 

But nothing would deny the Reds a much needed clean sheet and late gloss was added to the scoreline as substitutes Nemanja Matic and Rashford combined. The former fed the latter to race through and slot low into the far corner to complete a good day at the office for Solskjaer's United.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Raphael Varane. Colossal. 

Saturday 30 October 2021

Brendan Rodgers... the perfect fit for Manchester United?

 At the end of a week which saw him cling to the job by his fingertips Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is almost Manchester United's manager on a game-to-game basis.

The Norwegian seemed almost certain for the sack in the wake of United's worst-ever Premier League week after the humiliating embarrassment of a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool on home turf. Quite how Solskjaer has survived to take charge of today's trip to Tottenham is beyond me. 

It still seems a case of 'when' rather than 'if' Solskjaer will lose his job at Old Trafford but, when it comes to his successor, this time there is no clear and obvious successor. It is this, and this alone, which has spared Ole the chop, at least for now. United can't get in the manager they want at present and it seems likely they are unwilling to trust a rookie, novice caretaker such is the difficulty of these upcoming games. 

The old adage says good players rarely make good managers - in fact the reverse is often true. But Zinedine Zidane has proved to be an exception to that unwritten rule - albeit with a star-studded Real Madrid squad which it would be difficult to fail with. But the Frenchman, mentioned in dispatches for the United job, doesn't speak English and has ruled himself out of the running for the role. The jury was very out on a man whom has never managed outside of his native France and only ever had a team of mega stars at his disposal.

Erik ten Hag seems to fit the bill as a relatively young, up and coming manager but a man with an already burgeoning reputation and record. The Ajax boss is a smart tactician proven at building and sustaining winning teams, he trusts youth and his philosophy mirrors that of his idol, Pep Guardiola. ten Hag worked under the now City boss at Bayern Munich and the United hierarchy are known admirers of the 51-year-old Dutchman - twice a winner of the Dutch league and cup since taking over in 2017. 

But ten Hag has said he won't leave the club mid season, meaning the Reds would have to wait to get him if they wanted to secure his services. His contract with the Amsterdam giants runs until the end of next season meaning there would be a significant compensation package needed.

ten Hag should certainly be considered, but my first choice for the job is a little left-field and perhaps slightly controversial. Enter, Brendan Rodgers - a man who fits United perfectly and ticks virtually every box when it comes to what a Manchester United manager should be.

If we're prepared to ignore his connections with Liverpool - and let's not forget Sir Matt Busby played for them and Manchester City - then I'd 100% take Rodgers at Old Trafford. 

Leicester are superbly coached under the astute tutelage of the Northern Irishman, he's tactically flexible and has beaten Solskjaer's United three times in a row now. An FA Cup winner with the unfashionable Foxes last term, Rodgers was the man to take Liverpool the closest they'd been to the title in 30-odd years until a certain Jurgen Klopp arrived as his successor. Rodgers transformed the men from Merseyside into a side ready to challenge at the top of the league having been a sleeping giant - adrift in the wilderness - for years. Klopp may have taken them on to the final step of the ladder, but Rodgers laid the groundwork for the German to complete the job. 

During his stint north of the border, he led Celtic to a hat-trick of trophies in 2016-17 (with an unbeaten season thrown in for good measure) and then repeated the feat in an unprecedented "double treble" 12 months later. 

Rodgers has built Leicester into an exciting, all-action blend of youth and experience with the emerging young talents of Harvey Barnes, Luke Thomas, James Justin and Kiernan Dewsbury - Hall, to name but four, all having become first team regulars during his time in charge at the King Power. Another box ticked.

Detractors will, perhaps with a degree of justification, point to the fact Rodgers and his Foxes side have missed out on the top four twice in successive seasons despite holding a seemingly unassailable advantage on both occasions. 14 points ahead of the Reds in January 2020, Leicester - depleted by injuries and hindered by post-lockdown lack of momentum - blinked with the finish line in sight. United reeled in and eventually overhauled them with a 2-0 win at the King Power on the final day of the campaign sending us into the Champions League at the expense of the faltering Foxes. 
Leicester had occupied a top four position all season but were denied at the last - and history repeated itself in 2020-21. Three defeats in their final four games again saw the Foxes - possibly distracted by the lure of FA Cup glory - drop from third into the Europa League. 

Despite all this, his success, record in promoting youth, tactical nous and ethos of attractive football puts him at the top of any list when it comes to picking Solskjaer's successor. 

 Rodgers is under contract at the King Power until 2025, so United would need to buy him out and, again, would probably need to wait until the summer if we wanted to bring in the man from Carnlough. 

You'd have been laughed out of town if, a few years ago, you'd suggested Brendan Rodgers would make a potential Manchester United manager. But we could certainly do a lot worse, and I'd much rather him than Antonio Conte. 

Monday 25 October 2021

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer... the man who made me dream

 It now seems only a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' the curtain comes down on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's final act at Manchester United.

Once the final whistle put Solskjaer's United out of their own self inflicted misery on one of the darkest days in our club's history, this has sadly seemed inevitable. It was not so much the defeat itself but the feeble nature of it. No Manchester United manager can survive a humbling of that scale and nature to our biggest rivals, never mind on home turf. I've wanted him to get time to turn it around but this was the final nail in the proverbial coffin - Ole is never going to be the man to get us to where we need to be. Surely even the notoriously uninterested Glazers cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  

 Discontent and doubts over Ole's suitability, or otherwise, for one of the biggest and most difficult jobs in football had been bubbling for some time, in truth since he got the job permanently in 2019 but even more so since the final against Villarreal. The Liverpool pummeling has proved the final nail in the coffin. There's no doubt Solskjaer is popular and well liked among his players but sentiment, love and goodwill only gets you so far. 

I'm gutted and broken its come to this. Never have I wanted anything so badly than to see the affable Norwegian - the man who gave me the best night of my football supporting life - succeed at the club where we still chant his name. Returning to the club where he's hero worshipped to bring back the glory days as manager - it was our shut eye fantasy which ultimately has failed to come to fruition.  He deserves so much better than to have this day - a black day for Manchester United - as his ultimate epitaph. But in many ways it has come to symbolise Solskjaer's tenure at Old Trafford. 

Solskjaer arrived at Old Trafford as Jose Mourinho's successor with United at their lowest ebb of the Premier League era - a club broken, a group of players shattered and on their knees and a fanbase feeling more disconnected to our club than ever before. He released the handbrake, threw off the shackles, raised spirits, lifted the gloom and brought back the feel good factor. If these indeed are Ole's final hours at the wheel, then I will forever be grateful to him. He's a legend, one of us, an indelible part of our history and no one can ever deny him of that. I will always have nothing but respect and admiration for a man who has never done anything but his best for this club. It might not work out but that certainly doesn't mean he hasn't taken us forward or improved us. But every story has an ending. 

Ole's halcyon days in the hotseat seem a lifetime ago - those three magic months when his tricky Reds channeled the spirit of Sir Alex Ferguson's finest vintage for 14 wins in 19 games under the temporary tutelage of the man from Molde. Playing on the front foot and pressing teams into submission in a swashbuckling 4-3-3, it is perhaps the most baffling footnote of all this: why have Ole and his backroom boys never set the team up like this since? 

Since his permanent appointment, off the back of that stunning run of form, Ole's vision was clear: to rebuild the side and sprinkle it with a touch of stardust and the "Man Utd DNA" whilst keeping us competitive at the sharp end of competition. He has more than fulfilled that remit and will leave behind our finest side since 2009 for his successor. 

As with any managerial tenure, there have been some glorious highs and some equally desperate lows under Ole. Against all the odds, Solskjaer's United rose from mid-table mediocrity to the summit of the Premier League. For a few short, wonderful weeks in the January of 2021, I and millions of others dared to dream. Dared to dream he would go where Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho couldn't - to the title. Solskjaer fuelled genuine belief our wait for the league trophy was coming to an end as the hashtag #21iscoming was born on social media. Alas as we know it didn't but it sure was fun while it lasted. For the first time since the retirement of our greatest ever in 2013, I believed United were returning to the top. Maybe I got swept up on the romantic notion of Ole as the man to bring back the halycon days of yesteryear, but could you really blame me for doing so? 

 The Europa League final loss to Villarreal in Solskjaer's first - and possibly last - final at the club saw the trophy slip through our fingers. Ultimately, his stubborn loyalty to certain players - namely Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay and Fred, has cost him dear. So too his consistent inability to get us over the line when it comes to the crunch in important knockout cup games. 

Then came the record-smashing away league run with United going an entire league campaign unbeaten on the road last term, a run extending to 29 games before Leicester ended the streak last Saturday. Admittedly it came with a Covid-era caveat of behind closed doors football, but the record books will still show United's place in Premier League history. Any achievement of that size and scale deserves a doffing of the proverbial cap.

So what next? It does indeed seem the writing is on the wall for Solskjaer. History and indeed the very name Manchester United suggests United managers don't survive carnage of this nature. But who else is there? I don't want Antonio Conte anywhere near my club - he's argumentative, confrontational, never stays anywhere for long, overloads his sides with defensive players and pisses everyone off. Sound familiar? I'd rather have my dog in charge. Zinedine Zidane is out of work but he doesn't scream a United boss and has only ever managed a Real Madrid side with world class stars in every position. Erik ten Hag won't leave Ajax in the middle of the season so could it be a lack of viable alternatives saves Solskjaer? 

Whatever happens, it seems Ole is closer to the sack than at any other time during his three years in charge but when he does go, he will do so with my eternal gratitude. He gave us our club back. 

The beginning of the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

Sitting stony faced and silent in the dugout as Liverpool put his sorry United side to the sword, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must have felt about 3ft tall.
You had to feel for him, powerless to prevent a thumping at the hands of our biggest and most hated rivals on our own turf, his sullen features the epitome of a man who must surely now know the end is nigh. 

Manchester United have had bad days before - even under Sir Alex Ferguson, when we were an all-conquering juggernaut at the height of our powers. The 4-0 at Anfield in the late 80s, the 4-1 defeat at home to the same opposition in 2008-09 (we still won the league that year, mind) and the 1-6 mauling at the hands of Manchester City three seasons on. 

But what I saw on Sunday cannot adequately be put into words - certainly not words suitable for these pages, anyway. It’s a dark day for everyone associated with Manchester United. Perhaps our darkest of the Premier League era. Not just beaten by the team we hate the most but battered - embarrassed on our own turf by a Liverpool side which never even really got out of third gear. In my 24 years following this club - our club - I’ve never felt like this before. For the first time in my life, Manchester United have broken me. 

It will take a miracle for Solskjaer to survive this. Jose Mourinho was sacked after defeat to Liverpool - a performance I thought would be the worst I'd ever have to witness against the Scousers. 

I can accept losing: I don’t like it, of course I don’t, who does, but sometimes even if you play well and lose - perhaps through a bad piece of refereeing, a stroke of misfortune or a moment of magic from an opponent - you can accept it isn’t always going to be your day. 

But there’s a way to lose and whatever that ‘way’ is, the events of the weekend certainly were not it. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has our best squad in years at his disposal - indeed better, for my money, than Sir Alex Ferguson’s final two title winning sides in terms of player-for-player pound-for-pound quality. But right now he looks completely clueless when it comes to setting it up, organising it and coaching it to manage even the basics. 

This was supposed to be the year when Solskjaer’s talented, expensively assembled squad came to the title party. If not win it, then push the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool very close. Instead, they were streets ahead in every department, United embarrassed and humiliated by the first truly elite opponents we have faced this season. Under Mourinho, the players gave up and - to coin common parlance - he “lost the dressing room.” It somehow seems to make everything worse when you consider these players love Ole, they would run through brick walls for him, but yet we’re still seeing this level of performance. 

I actually thought we looked decent going forward - Bruno Fernandes skied an early sighter and Alisson made a couple of good saves from Cristiano Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood but Liverpool looked like scoring every time they went forward. United were all over the place defensively, it was a shambles - there was no shape, no organisation, no cohesion and the same individual and collective mistakes we have seen on a weekly basis. 

I will always be grateful for the work Solskjaer has done in his time at United. He has done a simply remarkable job in difficult circumstances, often with one hand seemingly tied behind his back. He inherited a mess, rotten to its very core, and a group of players on their knees at breaking point. He made us competitive again - for a while at least, we dared to dream. Solskjaer took us into the Champions League in successive seasons, finishing third and then second: that might not sound much, but its more than any of his three predecessors managed. He will leave the club in a much better, stronger position for his successor and he will leave with my utmost respect and adoration. He will have my eternal gratitude and thanks for giving us our club back and making us ‘United’ again.

But football is ultimately a results business and you can only survive on goodwill for so long. There’s no doubt Solskjaer has done a superb job of rebuilding a shattered club but we’re beyond that now. This is a side ready to win. I truly hoped Ole would be the man to drive us on that journey, but it’s clear now he’s not going to be. It’s got to the point now where to prolong this agony would be to begin undoing the strides we have made under Ole. If it gets any worse, the man is in danger of tarnishing his legacy ala Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.  We all wanted him to succeed and bring back the glory days to our club but it hasn't quite worked out that way. Take Chelsea as the example.. the west London club found themselves in an almost identical position with a club legend in charge of a brilliant group of players. They knew it was never going to work, made the change and got in a much better manager - now look at them. Thomas Tuchel took them to Champions League glory only four months into his Stamford Bridge tenure and, not even a year after his arrival, they are the early Premier League pacesetters. 

Ole’s not the man to take us where we need to be, in a position to be challenging for the biggest honours in the game. Solskjaer gave me and I’m sure countless others the greatest night of my football-supporting life with a flick of that trusty right boot 22 years ago, but modern football and sentiment wait for no man. Some of United’s best post Sir Alex days have come under his tutelage, but no Manchester United manager can or should be expected to survive a pumping at the hands of Liverpool. I’m afraid this feels like the end. There is simply no way back. Not every story has a good ending. 

Sunday 24 October 2021

Match report: Man Utd 0-5 Liverpool

Mo Salah struck a hat-trick as five star Liverpool put United to the sword and piled further pressure on beleaguered boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.  

In front of an Old Trafford crowd stunned into silence, ten years and a day since the 1-6 thumping at the hands of Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp's unbeaten Liverpool emphasised the gaping chasm between the two sides and their managers.
The visitors - in the 208th meeting between the Reds of Manchester and Merseyside - raced into a four-goal interval lead and added a fifth as Salah completed his hat-trick before substitute Paul Pogba was sent off for a reckless lunge on Naby Keita.

Solskjaer stuck with the side he sent out in Wednesday's dramatic win over Atalanta with Scott McTominay and Fred anchoring the midfield, Mason Greenwood on the right and Marcus Rashford on the left. Pogba and Jadon Sancho were named on the bench. 

United started well and saw the game's first opening come our way inside the opening three minutes when McTominay worked the ball to Rashford and he in turn found the onrushing Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese playmaker found himself one on one with Alisson but could only lift the ball over the bar from close range.

Seconds later and Klopp's Liverpool were ahead in the fifth minute when tormentor-in-chief Salah sliced United open to find Keita and he slotted his finish beyond David de Gea.

Eight minutes later it was 0-2 with a carbon copy of Atalanta's opener in midweek as Keita nicked the ball after England pair Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire got themselves in a tangle. He fed the overlapping Trent Alexander - Arnold to pick out the onrushing Diogo Jota - picked ahead of Sadio Mane - and the Portuguese striker steered the ball in at the back post.

De Gea denied Roberto Firmino and Alisson saved superbly from Greenwood at the other end, before Luke Shaw fired wide, Ronaldo went close and Rashford had a volley pawed away. To their credit, United's 19-minute spell brought about improvement and fuelled belief of another epic comeback like we saw in midweek but, with respect to Atalanta, they aren't Liverpool.

On the contrary in fact. United may have looked decent going forward but were wide open and all at sea at the back. Eight minutes before the break, the rampant visitors already put the result beyond doubt through that man Salah. 

A fluid passing move saw Salah's blocked effort fall to Keita on the rebound and he in turn worked the ball back to the Egyptian to thump the ball high beyond De Gea.

Ronaldo and Fred were both yellow carded - with CR7 perhaps a little fortunate to stay on the field after he appeared to flick a leg at Keita in a coming together.
Salah added a fourth before the interval - his 14th of the season - when Jota found him in acres of space to sweep the ball beyond the helpless and stranded De Gea.

The half-time whistle was met by a chorus of boos greater in both number and volume from the smattering of discontent which greeted Wednesday's interval, after an insipid, chaotic and disorganised showing.

Pogba was introduced for Greenwood but quite what he was expected or supposed to do in such circumstances we will never know. 
It was he whom made an immediate impact but not in the way hoped for when Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson dispossessed the Frenchman and curled the ball into the path of Salah to nudge beyond De Gea for his treble.

Ronaldo thought he had pulled a goal back but United's day was epitomised when VAR ruled the United man to be offside and his effort was chalked off. Things then went from bad to worse when substitute Pogba was sent off on the hour mark for a reckless, late foul on Keita. 

The Liverpool man was taken off on a stretcher as Diogo Dalot and Edinson Cavani came on for the last hour with the Reds reverting to a back five in an attempt to limit the damage.

The Uruguayan hit the bar from a McTominay flick on but not even a consolation goal was forthcoming on one of Manchester United's darkest days.

Overall team performance: 0/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood. One of only two players - the other being De Gea - to emerge with any modicum of credit. 

Thursday 21 October 2021

Ronaldo rises to win it for Solskjaer's United... again

There was a sense of inevitability when Harry Maguire popped up at the back post to wipe out Atalanta's advantage and pull United back from the brink.

With 15 minutes to go and the Reds almost entirely in the ascendancy, there was only going to be one winner, and - indeed - only one man to provide it. 
As the old adage says, lightning doesn't strike twice, but try telling that to Cristiano Ronaldo - a man born for nights such as this on the biggest stage of all. Sometimes you just know how the script is written, how the story will end, where the journey will take you to. 

Just as he had three weeks hence against Villarreal, the Champions League's all time top scorer rose in the dying embers of a crucial European tie to earn United a thrilling, heart-stopping, priceless victory. 
But whilst the Spanish side could legitimately have felt aggrieved, Atalanta could have no such complaints. We battered them and could, probably should, have been out of sight long before Ronaldo's thrilling coup de grace. But of course, this side never do things easily. Supporting Manchester United should come with a health warning. It was all part of the master plan.

Even having fallen 0-2 down, the Reds - ironically - had put in their best performance of the season. Only a combination of the woodwork (Marcus Rashford struck the bar) and a string of top stops from the impressive Juan Musso had kept United out. Indeed, the Italian side's 2-0 lead came through their only two attacking moments - despite dominating the game, United somehow found themselves in a whole heap of trouble - bottom of the group and nothing going for us. For so long, this looked to be "one of those nights." But in the end, there can be no denying the fact United were worthy and fully deserving winners. 

This superbly see-sawing contest seemed to epitomise everything United are and will continue to be under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Spasms of action, moments of broken, disjointed play, space for high class players to carpe diem and seize the day off the cuff. It felt like an anatomy of this strange red machine: one so gloriously brimming with talent, but yet so brittle, so prone to collapse at the slightest probing, the one punch KO artist whom seems to spend so long of each encounter gassed out and on the ropes. The boos at half-time were sporadic and seemed a little wide of the mark, masked by vehement vocality for a man we're desperate to do well here. 

It's difficult to predict predict which United will turn up - even half to half, never mind game to game. Yet this is why we love football and this most unique of clubs. The Reds had enough first half chances to win three games, Atalanta - for all their enterprise - were wide open at the back and you still made us favourites to prevail despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

United conjured the spirit of Sir Alex's finest Red vintage, as we built pressure, pinned an increasingly aggy Atalanta back and laid siege to Musso's goal. Both Ronaldo and Rashford should have scored before the latter finally did with a neat finish across the keeper and into the corner. Scott McTominay struck a post and Ronaldo had another shot saved before Maguire - unmarked - caught the Italians napping to smash into the far corner. 

If anyone was in any doubt, this was most certainly a side still playing for its manager. Solskjaer hasn't "lost the dressing room" and you feel they would run through brick walls for him to succeed. Where others may have turned ages ago, the loyal, proper, hardcore match going fans remain united - pun intended - in our backing of Ole. Met by a wall of noise as the Stretford End, almost as one, tried to suck the ball in - United were a side possessed, transformed and inspired, particularly in the second half, every stride and surge met by a rising of the decibel levels. The fans were just as relentless as the players - there may still be justifiable doubts over the manager's ability and acumen but this wasn't a night for that. 

When it came, the winner was a thing of brutal but simplistic beauty. Ronaldo made one of those half movements, the run that isn't quite a run, then stretched his stride as he picked up the flight of the ball from Luke Shaw's telling delivery on the left.
This is one of the things the master does so well: the algebra of flight, speed, timing, gravity, contact, the millions of equations and muscle-mnemonics that go into making these moments.

Two quick steps, a press with his right foot and Ronaldo was clear of Merih Demirel and up into the atmospheric Old Trafford air. Time seems to stand still when Ronaldo does this - objects, bodies, pressure, all seem to fall away as if he's suddenly the only person present - alone in all that air with the outcome of a team's destiny entirely in his hands. 
The header from Ronaldo was almost a parody of Ronaldo-ness, the neck cocked, the muscles wrenched, the ball sent like a bullet into the corner. 

Even his landing was balletic, a moment of display, of showmanship. Was it ever really in doubt? 

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Player ratings: Man Utd 3-2 Atalanta - Fernandes and Ronaldo shine

Never in doubt!

Cristiano Ronaldo headed the winner as Manchester United completed a dramatic, climb-off-the-canvas comeback to turn a thrilling Champions League tie on its head and go top of Group F. 

In truth, United could and should have been out of sight by half-time having fallen 0-2 behind but missed a hatful of chances. Marcus Rashford pulled a goal back before captain Harry Maguire levelled to set the stage for that man Ronaldo to send Old Trafford wild. 

Here is how we rated each Red on a heart-stopping night in M16. Viva Ronaldo!

David de Gea - 7

Had relatively little to do and wasn't to blame for either goal. His magnificent double save at 1-2 surely kept us in the tie. If either go in, it's game over. How pivotal it proved to be

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 7

Contributed little at either end but seemed to get better as the tie went on. Surged forward superbly in the second half onslaught.

Harry Maguire - 6

Showed leadership and courage in the second half and popped up with a captain's goal to level. Could have perhaps done more to prevent the Mario Pasalic opener.

Victor Lindelof - 5

Looked very much like the third choice centre-back he now is. Got bullied by Luis Muriel and was spun too often. A below par showing from the Swede. 

Luke Shaw - 7

Caught out on the corner for the second goal but redeemed himself with a worldie of a cross for Ronaldo's coup de grace.

Scott McTominay - 5

Thumped the post at 1-2 but couldn't get near Pasalic and was hooked after an hour as United looked to chase the game.

Fred - 6

Played with his usual insatiable energy, tested Juan Musso and should have scored just before half-time. His passing was typically sloppy but actually had one of his better games

Mason Greenwood - 5

Pressed high and well early on but faded to the fringes even as the Reds took the upper hand. The 20-year-old has been our best player this season but struggled here.

Bruno Fernandes - 7

Poor in the first half but, like so many, came alive after the interval. Set up Rashford with a filthy assist to start the revival and put the cross in for his captain to equalise. Even when not at his best, his impact is seminal

Marcus Rashford - 6

Looked lively and back to full fitness but squandered two good chances and struck the bar when he should have scored. Came off with a knock after a nice finish

Cristiano Ronaldo - 8

Created chances for Fred and Rashford and should have scored himself before he was there to meet Shaw's cross. A player made for nights like this. Viva Ronaldo! Siuuuuu


Edinson Cavani (for Rashford 66) - 6

Relentless work rate, ran his nuts off and might claim an assist for Maguire as he got a flick on Fernandes' cross

Paul Pogba (for McTominay 66) - 8

Magnificent when he came on. Carried the ball, pressed, linked superbly, broke the lines and pushed Atalanta back. 

Jadon Sancho (for Greenwood 73) - 6

Showed glimpses again with some darting runs in behind.

Nemanja Matic (for Fred 88) - N/A

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

Match report: Manchester United 3-2 Atalanta

Cristiano Ronaldo headed another late Champions League winner as Manchester United completed a dramatic climb-off-the-canvas victory to go top of Group F.

In truth, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had dominated the game but missed a hatful of chances and somehow found themselves 0-2 down and bottom of the section at half-time.

You felt United had played well enough to muster something special as Marcus Rashford fired in a stunning Bruno Fernandes pass to reduce the deficit, before captain Harry Maguire swept in a leveller.

With time ticking down, up popped that man Ronaldo again to thump in a header from Luke Shaw's cross as Old Trafford erupted in the face of a United comeback for the ages.

Solskjaer made two changes from the weekend defeat at Leicester as Fred and Rashford were restored to the XI in place of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba. 

It was the returning winger whom had the first sight of goal inside the first five minutes. A lovely pass from Bruno Fernandes picked out the onrushing no.10 but he could only pull the shot wide - although the goal would have been chalked out for offside anyway.

Gianpiero Gasperini's emerging, highly rated Atalanta side have caused problems for even the European elite and went ahead after 15 minutes, albeit in slightly controversial circumstances.
United were carved open with a typically slick passing move which culminated in ex-Chelsea man Davide Zappacosta finding Mario Pasalic and - despite more than a hint of offside - he slid home beyond David De Gea from close range.

Juan Musso saved well from Fred but United's response was brief as the men from Bergamo threatened a seismic upset with the second goal shortly before half-time. 
United were undone from a set piece for the second time in as many games as Teun Koopmeiners picked out Turkish international Merih Demiral to evade both Maguire and Shaw and power home his header.

Fred flashed a shot wide, Musso saved from Ronaldo and Rashford fired a gilt-edged opening against the bar in a flurry of chances before the break.

United were staring down the barrel of a potentially fatal European reverse and the notion this wasn't to be our night only further grew two minutes after the restart. Ronaldo found himself one-on-one with Russo and the whole of Old Trafford expected the net to bulge, only for the Argentinian keeper to smother at the feet of the forward.

But then came the moment which had been coming when Rashford sparked the revival on 53 minutes. A wonderful pass from Fernandes found United's no.10 and he finished well across Musso for his second in as many games since returning from injury.

United were a team transformed and laid siege to the Atalanta goal as Scott McTominay rattled a post, Ronaldo had another effort saved and Maguire went close with a header. Atalanta could count themselves fortunate to retain a full compliment of players on the field when Ronaldo was hauled down by Matteo Lovato. It looked as though the centre-back was the last man - CR7 only had Musso to beat - but he escaped with only a booking. 

With the Reds almost entirely in the ascendancy, Solskjaer summoned Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba in place of the limping Rashford, and McTominay. 

Yet for all their pressure, United were almost indebted to De Gea - not for the first time this season - as he kept us in the game with a magnificent double save. First, he clawed away a 20-yarder from sub Duvan Zapata before the Spaniard sprung up to repel another replacement, Ruslan Malinovsky, on the rebound. Had either chance gone past him and in, surely there would have been no way back. 

United's onslaught continued as Musso tipped wide to deny Fernandes and Ronaldo fired wide, but the pressure eventually told and we pulled level on 75 minutes. Captain Maguire popped up with a rare and much needed goal, his first in this competition, as he slammed in at the back post from a flighted Fernandes cross with Cavani perhaps getting the slightest of touches to flick the ball on. 

A Reds winner seemed inevitable now with the increasingly frantic Italians losing both their heads and their discipline as four visiting players were booked. 

Fernandes had a shot deflected narrowly wide but the stage was set - yet again - for his compatriot Ronaldo. Our talismanic figurehead rose like a salmon and seemed to hang in the air to meet Shaw's cross and steer his header beyond Musso as Old Trafford erupted. 

Despite four added minutes, United deservedly held out for a huge victory as CR7 sunk to his knees and greeted the final whistle with a double fist pump. Another late show in the Champions League. Phew - never in doubt..

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful of the Match: Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Opposition in profile: Atalanta

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United face first time opponents Atalanta in Champions League Group F on Wednesday. We've never played the Italian side before so here's what we can expect of the Blues from Bergamo.

La Dea (the Goddess) have proved to be an emerging force in domestic and European football, with three successive third placed finishes in Serie A. Muscling in to mix it with Italy's traditional superpowers like Juventus, Roma, Napoli and the two Milan clubs, Gianpiero Gasperini's side have earned plaudits - if not prizes - for their energetic and enterprising approach. 

Atalanta arrive at Old Trafford looking for another big name scalp on English soil, having triumphed 0-2 over Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool at Anfield last season. On their Champions League debut in the pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 campaign, the men from Bergamo went all the way to the last eight and came within seconds of knocking out eventual runners up PSG. They have reached the knockouts in both of their previous campaigns in this competition and have been tipped to bloody many a nose again this time around. It's been a meteoric rise through the ranks since their elevation to the elite a decade ago. They currently sit sixth in the table after eight games but won 4-1 at Empoli on Sunday. 

Gasperini's men are the early pacesetters in the section with four points from their opening two games - a scrappy 1-0 win over Young Boys and a 2-2 draw with Villarreal last time out and so arrive in M16 in confident, dangerous mood. 

Forget the stereotype you may have when it comes to Italian sides and their beloved catenaccio - Atalanta could not be more different and have broken that mould in spectacular style. A high-pressing, high tempo, energetic, fluid and free-flowing side, they have topped their league's scoring charts over the past few years. Atalanta go against the grain - fast and aggressive going forward but, somewhat unusually from the land of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and co, they can be suspect defensively - as City showed last year in a 5-1 win.

Gasperini prefers a 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 system, so will Solskjaer tweak our system to match up and try to nullify them? Expect to see Atalanta use two attacking wing backs with two split strikers - Colombian compatriots Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata - to lead the press and link the play. Other key men to look out for is ex-Chelsea man Mario Pasalic, Jose Luis Palamino at the centre of the aforementioned three-man defence, Rafael Toloi and former Middlesbrough man Marten de Roon. Another ex-Chelsea player, Davide Zappacosta, plies his trade for the team at right wing-back. 

Based in Bergamo in the alpine Lombardy region of northern Italy, Atalanta play at the 21,000-capacity Gewiss Stadium, a new venue and a new city to visit in the second part of a double header in two weeks time. 

Gasperini, in charge since 2016, has taken the club to two Italian Cup finals as well as into Europe, turning them into a force to be reckoned with in the upper echelons of the Italian league. The 63-year-old has won the Serie A coach of the year award in both 2019 and 2020. 

Quick facts - Atalanta

Nickname: La Dea (The Goddess)
Founded: 17 October 1907 (114 years ago)
Ground: Stadio de Bergamo (Capacity: 21,747)
Manager: Gianpiero Gasperini 
All time appearance maker: Gianpaolo Bellini (1998 - 2016; 435 apps)
All time top scorer: Cristiano Doni (1998 - 2003, 2006 - 2011; 112 goals)
Last season: 3rd place, Serie A, Champions League round of 16 (4-1 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid)
Last trophy: Serie B, 2010-11

Tuesday 12 October 2021

It never rains but it pours for Manchester United

An already brutal and season defining fortnight has just got a whole lot tougher for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United side.
As if Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs aren't enough to contend with, United will have to do so without our two first choice centre backs in captain Harry Maguire and his World Cup winning partner in crime Raphael Varane. Sod's law isn't it - bloody typical. Someone somewhere has a very warped sense of humour. 

Varane has transformed our leaky defence since signing in the summer in an impressive start to life in the red of United. But now the man whom exists in the throng of high end competition - a man whom thrives on the biggest stage - will miss United's make or break run through injury. These are exactly the type of games we brought Varane to the club for but yet he will now fulfil merely a watching brief from the bench. It seems like a key United player picks up a significant injury each time they go away with their countries during these poxy and ultimately pointless international breaks. 

Red hearts shot into mouths everywhere when Varane was forced off shortly before the interval in Les Bleus Nations League final victory over Spain on Sunday. Then came the news we'd been dreading - our no.19 is out for a "few weeks" with a groin injury meaning Solskjaer's United are down to the bare bones at the heart of the backline. It's the very definition of untimely. 

Victor Lindelof, to his credit, has done well in lieu of the injured Maguire since he replaced his captain against Aston Villa. Lindelof is good on the ball and possesses a decent range of passing from deep, but it remains one of life's great mysteries how a man so alarmingly average at everything else continues not only to play, but wear the armband, for Sweden.  The man would lose an aerial duel to Bilbo Baggins. Yet he will be forced from the fringes as Ole's third choice to become no.1 - the integral bedrock at the back as United attempt to navigate a fixture list that would give even Paolo Maldini nightmares. Having said that, many of the Iceman's best showings in Red have come against the best England has to offer - he will certainly need to be on his mettle to shackle Jamie Vardy, Mo Salah, Harry Kane and Kevin de Bruyne et al - so perhaps we won't need to watch from behind the sofa after all.

Eric Bailly has only featured once for the Reds all season, alongside Lindelof no less, in United's early Carabao Cup KO to West Ham. When fit, the Ivorian has proved himself as perhaps the Reds most capable centre-back but he's made of glass and has, unbelievably, been absent for 30% of all competitive United games since signing for the club. Bailly cannot be relied upon to stay injury free for more than five seconds which is a massive concern when you've got a string of massive fixtures so close together. 

It's a trend which could lead to the greatest comeback since Lazarus. Bailly will have to play two games a week for a month but he's is bound to injure himself on a blade of grass at some stage over the next month or so, so the stage is set for the resurrection, the Second Coming of surely Old Trafford's greatest survivor. Enter: Philip Anthony Jones. The destiny of our entire season - and maybe even the manager's very future at the club - could well be firmly in the hands of a man who shouldn't even be here. Whoever would have thought.. 

Jones last played for United 20 months and 625 days ago - when things were normal in a pre-Covid era: a time before lockdowns, masks and social distancing. He played, and scored, in our 6-0 FA Cup win at then League One Tranmere but hasn't been seen since. Now somehow in his eleventh season at the club, Jones has been the butt of many a joke and the subject of a number of internet memes. Having stayed at the club, he spent the entirety of 2020-21 on the sidelines but has featured in a few 'behind closed doors' friendlies and was an unused sub in the aforementioned cup loss to the Hammers. I don't think the world has enough alcohol to get me through Phil Jones lining up in defence against Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and co on October 24th.. even the very thought of it makes me want to gouge my eyes out. We're a defensive injury away from tha
t unpalatable nightmare coming true.. shudder! 

Much has been said and written about our no.4 but now comes his shot at redemption with Jones waiting in the wings to step up in our of need. 

It never rains but it pours for Manchester United. 

Monday 4 October 2021

The puzzling paradox of Manchester United

 As we reach the first international break of the season, it's mad to think we're almost a third of the way through the 2021-22 Premier League campaign.

By a strange quirk of the fixture list, Manchester United faced Everton - albeit away from home - in the seventh league fixture of last season. It came after successive losses to the minnows of Istanbul Basaksehir in Europe and at home to Arsenal in the league - the former result would ultimately cost us a place in the competition's knockout stages whilst the latter saw us slide into the bottom half of the table.

Quite how close Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came to the sack we shall, of course, never know, but the tide turned that day on Merseyside. The 3-1 at Goodison Park saw United start the day in 15th place but kick-started a 13-game unbeaten run which culminated in United rising to the Premier League pinnacle a little over two months later, in January. 

Twelve months on, and the landscape is very different - not that you'd know it judging by the mass hysteria and the dangerously low depths some go to to voice their displeasure every time we don't win 5-0. We've had a better start with a better team this time so there's good reason for optimism. 

On paper, the Reds look in a strong position - fourth (or joint sixth, as some might say) in the league but only two points behind early pacesetters Chelsea, one behind unbeaten Liverpool and level with the mob in sky blue from across the city. Based on the table alone and without knowledge of our fixture list, the casual observer would wonder why the manager is being questioned. Third in the league after seven games and in an equally strong position to qualify from our Champions League group and its still only October - you would think the picture is a good one for Manchester United and Solskjaer. 

It's true we're in a much better position now than we were at this stage last season but yet you still feel United are a better side than we're showing at present. I don't think we're playing as badly as had been made out - never let social media be the judge. The win over Villarreal in midweek was fortunate, with the Spanish side deserving of at least a point for their efforts - but, in turn, United deserved more from the league matches with Aston Villa and Everton. Dean Smith's Villains won through an offside goal and our own failure from the spot, whilst we dominated the Toffees for long periods and probably did enough to win but had to settle for a point.
One point from a possible six could easily have been four. 

United are controlling games, dominating possession and creating chances aplenty - 60% of the ball against Villa with 28 shots (four of which were on target) and 72% possession with 13 shots (six on target) on Saturday. Those stats certainly indicate results aren't reflecting performances. For context, we 'only' had 49% of the ball in the opening game with Leeds (16 shots, 8 on target) but won 5-1. It really is a funny old game. 

I'm not blind - I know as well as anyone reading this does we need to improve and are a better side than we've seen of late. I know we can play much better. This is a season where we can simply no longer point to a rebuilding process - with genuine world class, 24-carat talents like Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane - you have to be looking at a title challenge, if not winning the thing. We've got the players now and have to deliver. But nor do I feel the hysterical sensationalism - most of it from 11 year olds and glory hunting virgins on Twitter - is justified. We were worse than this under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal and worse still when Jose Mourinho arrived. 

You can give credit and praise to Solskjaer for the work he's doing and you can criticise him too if you feel its justified - it doesn't mean you want him to be sacked. Calling for his head every two seconds is a waste of breath and won't get us anywhere. You might feel Solskjaer has taken us as far as he can and won't ever get us to the next level and if that's where you are then fine, but the constant whinging, aggression and abuse is not a good look. Ole In or Ole Out? Perhaps, for me, its best summed up by Ole Doubt - I don't want him gone and, more than anything, want to see him and us do well but he's got to get us performing to a higher level with the players he has at his disposal and has to ensure there's more guile, grit and creativity, particularly in midfield. Perhaps "Ole Sort it Out" is the best way of putting it. 

United are yet to face anyone from the upper echelons of the league's pecking order with all our opponents so far - bar maybe Everton and Villa - likely to finish in the bottom half - but have taken 14 points from 21. Pep Guardiola's defending champions City have the same tally, but in mitigation have gone to three of last season's top six, two of whom will go close to the title: Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool. You have to think Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool and Thomas Tuchel's capital Blues would have made far more routine work of the same fixture list. 

When the God-awful international break is over and England have routinely eased past a team of farmers no one's ever heard of, Solskjaer's United head to Leicester. The always tricky trip to the King Power begins a make or break for the team and manager. Liverpool visit Old Trafford on the 24th - four days after Atalanta come to town, before the trip to Tottenham. We host City in the derby and also go to Chelsea before November is out in a defining run of matches that could prove to be the most pivotal of Solskjaer's tenure. Yet history suggests we should be confident going into these next couple of months - for all his perceived shortcomings, Solskjaer has more often than not got it spot on against the other big six sides and has a winning head-to-head against both Tuchel and Guardiola since his arrival at Old Trafford.

When the pressure is on and one of United's fellow heavyweights are on the agenda, Solskjaer tends to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat. Now would be the ideal time to repeat the feat. 

Sunday 3 October 2021

Match report: Man Utd 1-1 Everton

 Andros Townsend cancelled out Anthony Martial's opener as United missed the chance to go top of the tabe amid further frustration at Old Trafford. For this third successive season, the fixture between the red half of Manchester and the blue half of Merseyside ends in a draw in M16. 

Martial - a surprise inclusion in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's XI - struck his first goal of the season with a well-taken effort shortly before the interval. But the under-strength Toffees, without Seamus Coleman, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert - Lewin, so often the scourge of the Reds, hit back. 
Demarai Gray escaped the attentions of Fred and the otherwise excellent Aaron Wan - Bissaka to burst upfield and pick out Abdoulaye Doucoure whom in turn found the onrushing Townsend to fire in low beyond David de Gea.

Unlike on Wednesday, when Cristiano Ronaldo won it (very) late, the Reds to unable to find the decisive moment and so were forced to settle for a draw which, in truth, was probably a fair result.
Ronaldo was handed a watching brief from the bench with Edinson Cavani brought in for his first start of the season. Martial started on the left ahead of Jadon Sancho and Fred returned to anchor midfield as Paul Pogba dropped out - giving United probably the most glittering set of substitutes ever assembled. 

Eyebrows may have been raised over the selection, but any doubts were quickly eviscerated as the Reds got off to a blistering, lightning quick start. Martial headed narrowly wide from an excellent Aaron Wan - Bissaka cross in the sixth minute, and Mason Greenwood flashed a shot across goal on the angle soon after.

Then came the clearest sight of goal on 21 minutes, with Everton and England no.1 Jordan Pickford called into action as Fred picked out Cavani with an excellent cross, but the Uruguayan's header was superbly pawed away by the stretching stopper.

Ex-Red Michael Keane went close at the other end, as he glanced a header wide from a Townsend set piece before De Gea denied the impressive Gray in an increasingly end-to-end encounter. 

The breakthrough came two minutes half-time with a devastating finish from the much-maligned Martial at the culmination of an excellent sweeping move.
Scott McTominay, Wan - Bissaka, Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes were all involved as the latter found the Frenchman with a stunning ball and Martial did the rest to thump home a finish from 16 yards into the top corner.

Ronaldo and Sancho were summoned into action early in the second half but Everton were level on 65 minutes. Frustratingly, the goal came from our own corner as a Fernandes corner was cleared and the visitors raced upfield. With Raphael Varane on halfway and backpedalling, Luke Shaw's attempt to block the breakaway came to nothing as Gray and Doucoure stretched the defence as the former found the latter to find the advancing Townsend and he swept in a finish from close range.

Ronaldo went close on the angle and fellow substitute Pogba went close twice in quick succession in a frantic finish. First, he curled a 25-yarder narrowly wide before he rose highest to meet another Fernandes corner only to send the header over the top when he perhaps should have done better. 

Yet there was more drama. Everton thought they'd won it with United caught out by another counter-attack as substitute Tom Davies - for reasons only he will know - opted to pass to Mina instead of opting to shoot on goal himself. Mina was left with a simple tap in but his celebrations were muted with replays clearly showing the Colombian in an offside position - much to the relief of most of Old Trafford, what would surely have been the winner was correctly chalked off by VAR. 

Sancho then could have won it for us in a frantic finish but could only fire tamely at compatriot Pickford having been set up by Ronaldo in added-on time. But there was to be no repeat of Wednesday night with a point apiece ultimately a fair result. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Bruno Fernandes. Excellent throughout and got an assist.