Thursday, 12 May 2022

United's FA Youth Cup win lifts the Old Trafford gloom

Ralf Rangnick's Reds have endured a rotten season but United's first FA Youth Cup win in eleven years is promising.

Dark clouds have enveloped Old Trafford throughout the campaign but were lifted on Wednesday night as Travis Binnion's young Reds beat Nottingham Forest to win the League Cup. In United's worst season since 1988-89, there has been very little, if anything, to be positive about. While no fan would pretend this triumph has redeemed a campaign spent in the doldrums, inside Old Trafford the sense of catharsis was palpable.
A trophy had been secured, and while it pales into insignificance compares to the prizes City and Liverpool are fighting over, it is one that means a lot in these parts. 

The Reds first lifted the most prestigious prize in youth football in 1953 and went on to prevail in the next four tournaments as Sir Matt Busby's iconic and famed young charges were catapulted into the national spotlight.

And so began an affiliation with the Youth Cup unmatched by any other club. The core of this side would become Busby's first great team, with the the emerging rough diamonds of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards going on to superstardom.

As we are tragically aware, many of the Babes were lost at Munich as the finest young side in the land were wiped out in one fell swoop leaving United shattered, broken and on the brink of the abyss.

United would lift the cup again only six years on, spearheaded by an exciting, raw young Irishman by the name of George Best. Best scored in the two-legged final as Jimmy Murphy's swashbuckling side put the Town of Swindon to the sword with a 5-2 aggregate victory. 

United would go on to reach a pair of finals in the 1980s, but - like their senior counterparts - success dried up. Whilst United's men's first team went 26 years without winning a league title, there was an even longer wait of 28 years to win back the Youth Cup. It wasn't until that famous year of 1992 when "Fergie's Fledglings" burst on to the scene and saw off Crystal Palace that the Reds - under the tutelage of legendary youth coach Eric Harrison - won it again with a team featuring Gary Neville, David Beckham, captain Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. These four players, alongside Gary's younger sibling Phil and a young ginger lad called Paul Scholes would of course forever become synonymous not only with the Youth Cup but also the pathway it offers to reach the very highest level of the game. To this day, they are known simply as the "Class of 92" 

United went on to win it twice during Sir Alex Ferguson's mammoth quarter of a century at the helm, notably in 2011 with a side featuring current squad members Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard as well as Everton's Michael Keane. 

Every one of these successful Youth Cup-winning sides have produced at least one first team graduate at Old Trafford not to mention many more elsewhere. So who in this 2022 crop will kick on? 

Alejandro Garnacho certainly seems better equipped than most and staked his claim in the final. The highly rated Spanish-born Argentine scored his side's second from the spot then slalomed through the Forest defence and slammed home the game-clinching third goal. It was a ceiling-smashing display from a player already on the fringes of Rangnick's senior team. Garnacho made his first team debut in a brief cameo against Chelsea in last month's Premier League tie in what will surely be the first of many appearances at that level.

Central midfielder Kobbie Mainoo was another to stand out and set pulses racing. A destructive, all-action presence in the middle of the park, the 17-year-old tackled with authority and passed the ball creatively. It was so refreshing to see a proper midfielder doing everything a proper midfielder should be doing. Joe Hugill did well when he came on, executing his no.9 role with old school expertise as he played with his back to goal and held the ball up superbly. 

Then there was La Masia graduate Marc Jurado who channelled his inner Gary Neville at his zenith. Crunching into tackles, cajoling team-mates, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy and showing a lovely line in touchline-hugging, combative tenacity. You can tell he's from Barcelona stock. 

Skipper Rhys Bennett opened the scoring with a thumping header and made telling contributions at the other end too. His fine defensive display aside, in which he epitomised his side's courage and fearlessness, he showed his leadership skills in taking his team-mates to console keeper Radek Vitek after his mistake allowed Forest to level. 

For one night only, United felt like a club renewed and a club restored: indeed, a throwback to the halycon days of yesteryear. 
Helped by a competition record crowd of 67,492, the £1 tickets helped create an atmosphere unrivalled at any other game at this level. Us cynical adults stewing over pathetic performance after pathetic performance were conspicious by absence, with many kids in attendance at their first game and the chance to watch live football to a good standard at the famous old ground. There was youth and optimism both in the stands and on the pitch.

By it's very nature, the realities of youth football and the huge chasm to the professional game means many will be lost to the sport. But last night's cup winners can be heartened by how many of the 2011 side have carved out excellent careers at the top level. While Pogba and Lingard - as well as Harry Maguire from opponents Sheffield United - have plied their trade over 100 times for us, others have done well away from Old Trafford.

Sam Johnstone and Michael Keane are England internationals and established regulars at West Brom and Everton respectively. But if those two are reminders of what can lie in store, Ravel Morrison - considered the cream of that particular crop - has fallen by the wayside. Morrison's nomadic existence has seen him fail to fulfil his undoubted potential and he has ended up under former team-mate Wayne Rooney at Derby County.

Will Keane fired Wigan Athletic to the League One title as the third tier's top scorer and Ryan Tunnicliffe and Tyler Blackett have caught the eye as competent and experienced EFL players. Not every player goes on to win the World Cup like Pogba, but there's no reason why the majority can't enjoy good careers in the game.

But in the aftermath of our latest Youth Cup success, it would be great to see some of these players get first team chances. Garnacho deserves his chance in the final game of the senior side's season at Crystal Palace and others will likely follow. Incoming manager Erik ten Hag - whom secured the Eredivisie title with Ajax when this final was being played - will be unable to address every problem position across a single transfer window. 

At least now he knows there are young players who can be replied upon to plug the gaps.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

United's youngsters end club's trophy drought

Manchester United ended a 1,813 day trophy drought as Alejandro Garnacho scored twice to seal an eleventh FA Youth Cup victory for the Reds.

Not since 2017 have the club seen silverware of any kind but the five-year drought is over thanks to the youngsters, who have lit up a desperately dark season at the club. Some of these lads surely deserve a chance in Ralf Rangnick's side for the last game of the senior team's campaign at Crystal Palace. 

Travis Binnion's young charges rose to the occasion at Old Trafford in front of the biggest crowd in the competition's 70-year history  - 67,492 - as two second half goals from Garnacho saw United run out winners over a hard-working Nottingham Forest side. 

It is United's first triumph in the tournament since 2011 when a side featuring Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison beat Harry Maguire's Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate in the two-legged final. 

Maguire was in attendance here as United captain Rhys Bennett headed his side front on 13 minutes. Sam Murray's clipped free-kick cross found the onrushing skipper and he rose to plant the ball beyond Forest keeper Aaron Bott who will feel he should have done better. 

Justin Hanks headed over the bar for the visitors, managed by former United youth supremo Warren Joyce, back on familiar territory. Garnacho curled wide after good build up play from the eye-catching Kobbie Mainoo, and the same player then went close again after Dan Gore had picked him out.

Garnacho was crowned the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year before kick off and certainly showed why he is tipped to become the next big thing off the Carrington conveyor belt with an impressive performance.

Two minutes before the break and Joyce's boys were level when Josh Powell tried his luck from distance and the ball slipped from Radek Vitek's grasp to find its way in.

The United keeper made amends for his error shortly after the restart though when he went down bravely in the box to block at the feet of Dale Taylor.

Bott saved well from the prolific Charlie McNeill, Garnacho had an effort blocked and Mainoo was thwarted in a tackle as he shaped to shoot.

Bott then denied Marc Jurado from distance after he had cut in, with the loose ball just out of the lurking McNeill's reach.

Vitek was called into action at the other end when Detlef Esapa - Osong fired on goal, and the Czech Under-19 keeper then plucked a teasing cross out the air as battling Forest sensed an upset.

Extra-time looked to be on the horizon at 1-1 and with little to separate the sides, but on 78 minutes Garnacho was released and scythed down by Zach Abbott. The foul looked to have occurred on the edge of the penalty area but the young Argentina dusted himself down and fired beyond Bott to restore Binnion's side's lead.

Substitute Joe Hugill flashed a shot wide as Forest began to tire on the expansive and energy sapping Old Trafford pitch. 
With eight minutes added on, Garnacho added gloss to a slightly flattering scoreline when he stormed clear down the left and finished well beyond the advancing Bott with the aid of a deflection. 

Congratulations to Binnion, his staff and all the young players on a brilliant achievement.

United: Vitek; Jurado, Bennett (c), Jackson, Murray; Mainoo, Gore; Mather (Aljofree 86), Hanson - Aaroen (Oyedele 64), Garnacho; McNeill (Hugill 64). Unused subs: Pye, Woolster, Forson, Ennis. 

Monday, 9 May 2022

Brutal United bludgeoned and battered by brilliant Brighton

As Ralf Rangnick watched his sorry and soporific Manchester United side go south in Brighton, the evidence was loud and damning.

The 3,000 or so travelling fans tucked away in the South East corner of the Amex - myself included - had finally seen enough. Manchester United's worst ever Premier League season, confirmed by this latest horror show, brought our famously loud, proud and loyal visiting support to boiling point. In that moment, we showed more honour and pride than these tragic and abysmal wasters masquerading as professional footballers had shown all season. You had to feel for every single one of them in that away section, shelling out hundreds of pounds to make the 615-mile round trip at great expense and watch that shit. The two lads I went to the game with left their native Ireland at 2am to get over for the game. They deserve better. We all deserve better. I'm proud to say I didn't leave early and stayed until the end, more in defiance than anything. 

Indeed, those seven words summed it all up: "You're not fit to wear the shirt." The spleen was vented at no one specifically, but everyone collectively. Some Reds sat motionless, unable to even comprehend what we were seeing. Others echoed the behaviour of beleaguered United right-back Diogo Dalot come full-time by simply standing dumbfounded, a shake of the head and a glance to the heavens, as if asking for divine intervention. Not even the Lord himself could save this lot. Just when you think United could get no worse, they continue to sink to new levels of ineptitude by the week. Only another 90 minutes of torture to go before we can forget and move on. 

 It has been a car crash of a season and the Brighton brutality was surely the nadir. Put it this way: I got a free ticket for the away end and still felt like I should be refunded. Harry Maguire has epitomised United's troubles in a desperate season, but the fact he came on to limit the damage at 0-4 down and actually improved things in his brief cameo seemed to simply say it all. 

Chants of "viva Ronaldo" immediately followed, as if to render the United great exempt from the criticism. In all fairness, if not for his admirable efforts of 18 league goals, often in a team where he gets no service, United wouldn't even be clinging to the final European spot (fuck me, never thought I'd say that back in August). The fact we're even in sixth position is primarily down to him and David de Gea. United have had several shockers in this cataclysmic campaign: 5-0 and 4-0 vs Liverpool, 4-1 at City and same at Watford and 4-2 at Leicester, but this was surely the worst of the lot in our worst Premier League season of them all. 

When Ronaldo was United's talismanic figurehead in our last Champions League win, circa 2008, Brighton&Hove Albion, plying their trade at a rundown athletics stadium, finished seventh in the third tier. Ronaldo hit 42 goals as the spearhead for United's Double-winners - one of the greatest club sides ever assembled - whilst Brighton, under the tutelage of Dean Wilkins, missed out on the League One play - offs.

Take nothing away from Brighton: they were simply magnificent and, for as brutal as United were, Graham Potter's side were brilliantly impressive. A talented team of grafters with a sprinkling of flair and attacking spark, this was arguably their finest hour. Notoriously goal shy, Brighton have mustered only 12 in the league front of their own fans despite their position in the league. 

That was until Rangnick's Reds rocked into town. We're the worst team in the league, definitely the easiest to play against and headed home humiliated and outclassed. With a sold out Amex rocking to the beat of the high flying Seagulls in the finest of fettles, brilliant Brighton battered United, bludgeoned us to death and served us with chips. It has been good to see this top class side given their due amidst the inevitable post-mortem which follows every United defeat. Potter and his merry band of men deserve all the praise they get. Meanwhile, forget open heart surgery, Potter's soon-to-be opposite number Erik ten Hag needs to completely resuscitate his new side upon arrival in the summer. 

Marc Cucurella was majestic - although he was aided and abetted by Alex Telles going MIA which gave Cucurella, Brighton's unsung hero, the freedom of Sussex to hold United at his sway. Dalot put a shift in but wasn't much better on the other flank. I struggle to think of a worse pair of United full-backs than Dalot and Telles, and I lived through the Rafael and Alexander Buttner 'era.' Raphael Varane, a world champion and four-time Champions League winner, looks cowed and terrified of opposition forwards a player of his undoubted quality should be in cruise control against. 

In midfield, Yves Bissouma and Moises Caicedo showed why they would fit this United side like gloves with a dominant and irrepressible demolition job of their opposite numbers - the anodyne Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic -  to cut a swathe through midfield. Caicedo, Cucurella, Pascal Gross and Leandro Trossard all feasted upon United's banquet of ineptitude. 

United's dreadful players looked like they would rather be sunning themselves on Brighton's iconic beach. In fact, they looked as if they'd rather be literally anywhere else. There's a thing called professional pride, a commodity called honour and a badge on an iconic shirt demanding nothing less than 100%. That's true for any player at any level but this mob either can't be bothered or aren't good enough. We are absolutely tragic and I cannot wait for this season to be finally fucking over. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Thank you for everything, Juan Manuel Garcia Mata

Juan Mata's Manchester United career ended where it should have started. 

Mata, one of the finest no.10s of the Premier League era, lined up on the right hand side on his Reds debut against Cardiff under David Moyes in 2014 and stayed there for the next eight years. Back in the position he calls his own behind the centre-forward, Mata was simply magisterial against Brentford in a vintage performance for the ages.

A scorer in an FA Cup final and a major part of United's run to Europa League glory in 2017, Mata will always be fondly remembered at Old Trafford. His stunning double in the famous win at Anfield in 2015 - probably United's best ever performance at that ground - saw to that on a day remembered simply as 'Juanfield.' 

Denied legendary status in the Prem due to years of mismanagement and misspent quality during his time at the club, Mata glided around Old Trafford almost at will in the win over Brentford. Working hard, creating and, perhaps most importantly, caring to give United fans a final glimpse of what we should have seen far more of in seven-and-a-half years of wasted talent.

Mata arrived at United having won back-to-back player of the year awards with Chelsea as one of the Premier League's most pre-eminent creators. He contributed the same number of assists (32) in two-and-a-half seasons with the Stamford Bridge side as he has in the rest of his decade-long stint in England. But for the fine margins of the linesman's offside flag, he would have surpassed that tally on Monday.

It was Mata at his brilliant best. Having drifted over to the left from his floating no.10 role, he beautifully cushioned a volley to Bruno Fernandes on halfway, beat the offside trap to spin in behind, received the return ball before a perfectly weighted pass into Cristiano Ronaldo. Had CR7 held his run a fraction of a second longer, it would have been the perfect coup de grace.

In a way, it epitomised Mata's Reds career in microcosm. His brilliance and speed of thought wasted, not fully taken advantage of, squandered.
The signing of Mata is, in hindsight, the epitome of Manchester United post Sir Alex Ferguson. Having signed Marouane Fellaini six months before, David Moyes opted for the polar opposite - a player in the starkest of contrasts to the burly Belgian brute as is possible to be. 
A diminutive graduate from Real Madrid's Academy in tandem with a man who was all elbows - neither of the two midfielders were quite like anything we had seen at United in previous 20 years. Both have since been deemed unsuitable to the hustle and bustle, the harum scarum pre-ordained "attack attack attack" mantra at United.

That alludes to probably United's biggest problem - an obsession with a style of play which has never really existed. Mata, and many signings since, haven't been a good fit for that United but that says more about the club rather than the undoubtedly talented footballers that have failed to reach their zenith.

The win over Brentford almost felt like a testimonial. Neither side had anything to play for, and it offered a chance to say goodbye to three of United's departing cast, Mata of course among them. It's a shame United only turned on the style with the season already done and dusted bar the two remaining formalities. We broke quickly, moved the ball well and played with a swagger. Mata, Fernandes and Ronaldo were at the heart of everything - laying balls off smartly, accurately and running beyond each other. It was, and this hasn't been the case for far too long, fluid and entertaining.

Those two words are what Mata has all been about. This was his first, and probably only, league start of the season and, when he departed to a standing ovation 20 minutes from the end, it was hard not to shed a tear. This was a stunning United swansong and an affectionate farewell to a man you simply cannot dislike.

He's put smiles on faces of fans and teammates alike with unlikely assists, delicate touches and stunning long range strikes. But most of those fond memories came in Chelsea blue, before a United career blighted by a succession of managers who failed to appreciate what he could do if used effectively.

Mata bows out with his head held high but with an irrefutable sense of frustration at what might have been. Thank you, Juan. 

Thursday, 21 April 2022

New boss ten Hag has a mountain of work to do

 You've got to feel for Erik ten Hag: what on earth has the poor man done to deserve this?

The highly-rated Dutchman has worked wonders with Ajax so going to a club of similar size and stature is unlikely to phase him but, with his Old Trafford in-tray full to the brim, where does he even start when it comes to fixing this mess?

Let's get this clear from the outset: it's going to take time and we're going to need to be patient. There's so much that needs doing it will be four, five, six years before we can even think about winning anything again. We need to lower those expectations, stop with the delusions of grandeur, and get behind him. 

Short term expectations should be virtually non existent, and he needs all the time in the world to re-organise, re-structure, re-build and re-invent a club which has lost not only its way, but its idea and its soul. 

We're at ground zero and have to start again from scratch. 

Of course, ten Hag is a risk - he's never experienced the unique demands of the English game, where energy-sapping game follows energy-sapping game and room for rest is virtually non existent. The level of media scrutiny on him will be unlike anything he's ever known and English isn't his first language. Not the pre-requisite for doing well, of course, but it helps you to build a rapport with the fanbase and the press. Will the players buy into his vision and philosophy, and will the blueprint which has brought him success at Ajax work in the Premier League?  But any manager is a risk and United have clearly seen something in him which makes this one worth taking. 

United's recruitment has been a major issue for almost 12 years now and it is this which ten Hag must come to first and foremost.

Quite aside from Cristiano Ronaldo's (re) signing - which came after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had spent months trying to tie down Edinson Cavani to a new deal - that's only the start of the problems.

There are the contracts for Eric Bailly and Phil Jones to name but two: how and why the club ever decided they were worthy of new deals is the epitome of everything we've done wrong. You can only presume it was to ensure there was some semblance of a resale value or a transfer fee on players with no future at United.
Only the signing of Bruno Fernandes and arguably Jadon Sancho look to have reaped any recent dividends. Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Harry Maguire started well but have regressed to such an extent the former lost his place and the latter has faced widespread calls to follow suit. Interim boss Ralf Rangnick has highlighted the continuity and meticulous recruitment that has helped make Manchester City and Liverpool into the country's pre-eminent sides. 

We needed one, if not two, defensive midfielders in the summer but yet, 12 months on, that is still the case. How can a defence worth almost 200m look so weak and febrile? Wan - Bissaka has looked shambolic and Maguire chaotic. Victor Lindelof has been one of our better performers this season but would we really miss him if he left?  We need another couple of strikers, a couple of full-backs and so, so much more from what we already have.

It is not hard to come up with a list of who should leave United in the summer - Wan - Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles, Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire to name but five. I wouldn't even mind if the likes of Fred, David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes left either. 

Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic are all out of contract and then there is goalkeeper Dean Henderson, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly whom face uncertain futures. Amad Diallo has shown nothing to suggest he will be a part of the United first team with Mason Greenwood still unavailable for selection. Martial is on loan at Sevilla, so too Brandon Williams at Norwich and Donny van de Beek at Everton although the arrival of his former boss may spark the latter into life at United.

Even if not all of these wasters end up leaving, there will still be sizeable gaps to plug but it has worked as Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace has shown when he inherited Roy Hodgson's ageing side. But finding a similar solution for United won't be so easy. 

Just how do you solve a problem like Cristiano Ronaldo? Whilst you cannot say his arrival is the root cause of United's problems - his 21 goals this season attest to that - his salary, status and superstardom is a subplot which will not go away. 

But how does ten Hag fit the 37-year-old into his raison d'etre of fast, fluid, high tempo play? Either through the clear physical limitations or his apparently strained relationships with Maguire et al, his mere presence instantly creates an issue for ten Hag.  

On the face of it, expectations should be low upon ten Hag's arrival. A top six finish and a prolonged run in one or both of the domestic cups would be a good start. Next season is a time to rebuild and refurnish - toss out old furniture, bring in new pieces, build a couple from within and freshen the whole place up with a lick of pain after years of neglect. Success next season isn't winning a trophy: we need to remove that mindset for now and look towards laying the foundations for the ultimate goal of mounting a challenge in the next five seasons. It's time for realistic expectations so we can continue to follow the long term plan and build every season. 

The worry is, you will always have an element of fans and press hacks who will be calling for his head if ten Hag's United don't win the first ten games 4-0. That comes with the territory, ten Hag musn't let it get to him and shut out the noise to get on with the job. Barring a mathematical miracle in the five remaining games, United will miss out on the Champions League for the fourth time in nine seasons in 2022-23. Correcting these statistics is one of the many reasons why ten Hag needs to be given time to implement his ideas, reboot the mentality and bring about at least tangible improvement. 

He needs to build an identity and get back to basics of hard work and determination; they can't take anything for granted under a man who will demand perfection and commitment. He's got to rip up the current sense of entitlement these wasters have, be firm, don't stand for any nonsense and stick to his principles. The club have to give him the keys and let him have full control if this is going to work. 

Given time, ten Hag has the reputation and record to turn his Dutch revolution into an Old Trafford one. He's shown he has the ability to do so but without three, four, five years or maybe more (and remember it took Jurgen Klopp three and half before he won anything with Liverpool) he will find it impossible to bring back the glory days. 

Welcome to Manchester United, Erik ten Hag

So it's confirmed and here we go: Erik ten Hag is the new Manchester United manager.

The worst kept secret in football became official as the man we all wanted was officially announced on Thursday afternoon. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sacked in November, the 'race' to become United's 24th permanent manager had long appeared to be a two-horse one with PSG's ex-Spurs boss Patricio Mochettino the other man in the frame. 

A few others, including Spain boss Luis Enrique and Sevilla chief Julen Lopetegui were spoken to but ten Hag, currently plying his trade with Ajax in his native homeland, has been the strong front runner in the fanbase.

ten Hag's assistant, Mitchell van der Gaag, is expected to join his boss at Old Trafford with a former United coach or player to also become part of his backroom team. 

The 52-year-old Dutchman will replace interim Ralf Rangnick in the summer on a three year deal with the option of a fourth with the German set to move into a consultancy role. 

ten Hag proved the unanimous choice having impressed the club's powers-that-be with his vision and blueprint closely aligned to United's identity and strategy as a proven winner with a penchant for attacking, eye-catching football and a commitment to youth. 

We've had "big name" managers in Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and even Rangnick to an extent but this feels different. This feels like it's progressive and forward-thinking rather than a quick fix. It won't change in one season and he will need time and patience. Look at Jurgen Klopp and to a lesser degree Mikel Arteta - they've built gradually and bought in players to fit the vision. 

After what has gone before under David Moyes, van Gaal, Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a sense structural issues are the real problem at Old Trafford and any manager would find it hard until these issues are sorted. But this is also ten Hag's opportunity to show the ability to transition from highly rated coach at a famous club - albeit one in a less competitive league - to the highest level of the game, 

During his time at the Dutch giants of Amsterdam, ten Hag has earned a reputation as one of the best managers in the game.
Winner of two Eredivisie titles, two Dutch Cups and the equivalent of the Charity Shield, he also took his unfancied young Ajax side - average age 21 -  to within a minute of the Champions League final in 2019, where they fell to a remarkable comeback from Pochettino's Tottenham at the (semi) final hurdle. 

Ajax are currently on course for a second successive league title, four points ahead of PSV with five matches left although they were beaten by their Eindhoven rivals (with ex-Red Ruud van Nistelrooy to take over next season) in the Dutch cup final. 

He has previously managed the wonderfully named Go Ahead Eagles and also Utrecht, having worked with Bayern Munich's second team under the guidance of his now cross-town rival Pep Guardiola. 

ten Hag certainly doesn't shy away from giving youth its chance with some of Europe's finest emerging talents having risen to prominence at Ajax on his watch - Ryan Gravenberch (19), Jurrien Timber (20) and Brazilian Anthony (21) to name but three. 

ten Hag said: "It is a great honour to be appointed manager of Manchester United and I am hugely excited by the challenge ahead.
"I know the history of this great club and the passion of the fans, and I am absolutely determined to develop a team capable of delivering the success they deserve."

His first job is getting shot of these wasters and improving the toxicity and mentality in the squad. 

Welcome to Manchester United, Erik ten Hag and good luck - you're going to need it! 

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

The Reds of Manchester and Merseyside worlds apart in every department

Four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. How long it took for this finest Red vintage to cut a swathe through Manchester United's desperate and disparate defence. How long it took for the already obvious gulf in class to be so emphatically emphasised. 

How fitting it should be Luis Diaz - the epitome of Liverpool's magnificent recruitment -  to get it all started. The Colombian has slotted in like a glove at Anfield and in only his 17th game appearance for the club it looked like he's been there for years. The same can be said for Diogo Jota, and, indeed, almost every player to step through the door of Melwood for the last few years. It is testament to Jurgen Klopp's remarkable work as manager but also of having the right people in the right places doing the right jobs. 

A chastening example of what happens when a club with structure that has recruited brilliantly comes up against one compiled via a lack of planning with a strategy seemingly based on plucking random names out of a hat. Liverpool's recruitment has been a triumph; United's simply a shambles. Just as in the reverse meeting at Old Trafford in October, Liverpool were as sublime as United were supine. 

Liverpool have become everything we used to be. They are meticulous - both on the field and off it. A big element of their success is an uncanny ability to assess potential signings with data and estimate how well they will fit into the dynamic of the team. Signing superstars doesn't necessarily make you a top side  - isn't that where we've gone wrong after all - but it's vital the blend of talents works well as a unit. It is this which Liverpool do so well and where United have got it so badly, terribly wrong. 

When United's starting line up dropped an hour before kick off, it was almost impressive how a squad which has had so much spent on it looked like one you would see in the Championship. 

Two full-backs who can't defend and have no positional sense, a man who's been here ten years too long and Harry Maguire who's just, well, Harry Maguire. In fairness to Phil Jones, you felt sorry for him in only his third start for nearly three years. He was sent out there like a prisoner walking to the gallows in the face of a ruthless and rampant Liverpool. He was far from blameless but cannot truly be held accountable as he was on a hiding to nothing. How is he still here never mind lining up at Anfield against the finest exponent of their craft on the planet? Inevitably and mercilessly, it was a bloodbath. Jones was put out of his misery when he was hooked at half-time. 

Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Diogo Dalot are the two worst full-backs in the league, Alex Telles not much better - so much so he wasn't trusted here. All that and three centre-backs with not a yard of pace between them in an alien formation, and you have probably the worst defensive unit the Premier League has ever seen. Where was Eric Bailly? How can a back five with a combined value of over 200m look so completely inept, so utterly anodyne? So completely clueless and chaotic? None of them would get in any other Premier League club's XI let alone any strong second tier side. A jumbled collection of haphazard, mismatched and discombobulated pieces look like a side already on the beach, merely drifting through until the end of the season in a month's time. 

Then we come to the midfield or - perhaps more pertinently - the lack of one. Two players who won't be there in a few short weeks, one of whom has probably played his last game for us in Paul Pogba. To quite literally add insult to injury, Pogba lasted ten minutes and his replacement Jesse Lingard is another headed for the Old Trafford exit door. Nemanja Matic, also leaving on a free, battled gamely but he was done at this level years ago yet there he was, the solitary shield in the holding role in front of the defence. Three players, one entire area of the team, which won't be here when 2022/23 rolls around. I suppose you could say it was a "free for all." Not signing someone in midfield either in the summer or in January was criminal and we've paid the price. And you wonder why they don't care. Why should Pogba care whether Manchester United will be in the Champions League next season when he'll already be in it with PSG. Matic will be sunning himself on a beach somewhere. 

Let's get one thing straight: everyone knew what was going to happen. You simply couldn't make a case, even the semblance of an argument, over how United had enough not only to hurt them, but to stop them. Even the most optimistic of Reds predicted a Liverpool landslide. My pre-match prediction rang true. I didn't see anyone whom gave us even a prayer in enemy territory and Liverpool were simply magnificent. In mitigation, any side in world football would struggle to cope with their energy, intensity, power, pace and precision. You can see exactly why Jurgen Klopp's side have a genuine chance of sealing an unprecedented quadruple. On this evidence, I wouldn't bet against it. They were quicker, slicker and on a different planet to their battered and beaten rivals. United were ragged and rudderless in the face of a Liverpool performance for the ages, the gulf in quality and attitude a chasm. 

We know Liverpool are better. The whole word knows it. I expected a hammering - everyone did. But where this side falls down is its lack of fight, guts and even the basics like tackling, running and closing down. Worse United sides than this - in terms of pound-for-pound quality, have won here against Liverpool sides at the peak of their powers simply because of this fixture's fiefdom.  Even when United were England's pre-eminent force, this fixture was always a standalone anomaly, a ferocious proposition no matter the situation, setting or state of the combatants. 

Instead, it merely served to show the size and the scale of the task facing United's incoming manager Erik ten Hag. What on earth must he be thinking? 

Saturday, 16 April 2022

United starlet in line for senior Reds debut

Manchester United have named teenage Argentine striker Alejandro Garnacho in the squad to face Norwich City on Saturday. 

United have nothing to play for with seven games left so it seems an ideal opportunity to give some of the club's emerging young starlets an opportunity to stake a claim in the final few weeks of the season. With the Reds depleted for the visit of the Canaries and missing five senior first-teamers, 17-year-old Garnacho is in line for a senior Reds debut in what amounts to a dead rubber tie. 

Garnacho was called up to the senior Argentina squad for the last round of international matches and has scored 12 times for the Reds at age group level in 2021-22. Five of those have come in the Reds run to the FA Youth Cup final including a brace in the quarter-final win over the Fox cubs of Leicester. 

A year ago, Garnacho was a relative unknown to all but academy aficionados, but a series of sparkling performances have illuminated a desperately poor season for the club. He rose to prominence after a stunning solo goal against Everton when he collected the ball deep in his own half, slalomed beyond four Toffees players and slotted beyond the advancing keeper. To further endear him to his rapidly growing legion of fans, Garnacho's coup de grace came in the aforementioned win over Leicester when Cristiano Ronaldo's iconic "Siuuuuu" celebration met the young Argentine's match winning brace. 

 Garnacho grew up in the Spanish capital and joined the giants of Atletico aged 11 in 2015. United scouts kept tabs on the young star and, despite the height of the pandemic, he signed for the club in 2020 for £419,000. Considered one of Atletico's most precocious talents, Garnacho's pace and technical ability caught the eye and the teenager hit the ground running at United as he registered seven goals and three assists in his first season in M16 - despite the Covid-19 enforced curtailment. 

A regular for Neil Wood's Under-23s even though still only 17, there is a desire to protect Garnacho from the spotlight and keep his feet on the ground. 

Despite never having played a minute for United's senior team, Garnacho found himself training with Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and co after Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni called him into the La Albiceleste squad for World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela and Ecuador. It is surely only a matter of time before Garnacho gets the nod in the blue and white of his adopted nation - for whom he qualifies to represent thanks to his mother. 

Garnacho will look to follow in the footsteps of fellow youth team startlet Anthony Elanga in making a senior Reds debut in 2021-22 - the only sliver of light in a forgettable season. The very fact he's in the squad hints at involvement against the relegation-threatened Canaries but it seems unlikely interim manager Ralf Rangnick will pick him from the start. 

It would be great to see Garnacho get a chance to show what he can do at first team level. I've a feeling this certainly won't be the last time we see him a United senior squad. 

We can only imagine how Garnacho - not 18 until July - will be feeling only hours before United kick off against the Premier League's bottom club. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

World Cup qualifiers: International Reds round up

Cristiano Ronaldo will play in what will surely be his final World Cup after Portugal came through their qualifying play-off to reach Qatar 2022. 

When the draw was made, the world expected a heavyweight battle between the last two European champions for a place in the final tournament in November. But after Euro 2020 winners Italy were stunned by the rank outsiders from North Macedonia, it meant Portugal would instead face Blagoja Milevski's dangerous underdogs instead. 

The minnows had sensed another seismic upset, but Ronaldo and United team-mate Bruno Fernandes joined forces as the former set up the latter to put Fernando Santos's side ahead. Fernandes was at the double, this time teed up by Liverpool's Diogo Jota, to fire the impressive Portuguese team into Friday's draw, where they will be among the front runners for glory in what is likely to be Ronaldo's international swansong. 

Fernandes will play in his second World Cup showpiece, with the effervescent and evergreen CR7 appearing in his fifth. With United's string-pulling duo in tandem, Portugal will be a force to be reckoned with and will be amongst the top seeds when the group stage draw is made on Friday.

Elsewhere, Hannibal Mejbri helped Tunisia to see out a 1-0 aggregate win over Mali in the African section of qualifying as the north African nation qualified for the World Cup for an African record eighth time. Taking a slender one goal lead into the second leg of the tie, the Carthage Eagles played out a goalless draw in the capital city of Tunis with Hannibal on as a late substitute.

Victor Lindelof and Anthony Elanga suffered a complete contrast in emotions as their Sweden side, the 2018 quarter finalists, were pipped at the post by Poland. Lindelof captained the side and Elanga came off the bench but Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski scored in the second half to send the Poles to Qatar at their visitors' expense. 

United youngster Zidane Iqbal had only a watching brief from the bench as Iraq's hopes of a second appearance at the finals came to an end at the hands of Syria. Two countries more closely associated with war-torn conflict drew 1-1, which meant neither progressed to the next stage of qualifying. 

That all means the UAE will face Australia with the AFC winners to play fifth-placed CONMEBOL side Peru with a place at the finals up for grabs. 

There was also some midweek friendly action, as Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw featured in the England team which beat team mate Eric Bailly's ten-man Ivory Coast 3-0 at Wembley. Raphael Varane and substitute Paul Pogba played for a strong France side in a 5-0 friendly win against South Africa in Lille. 

Scotland let a two-goal lead slip in their draw with Austria, a match in which Scott McTominay stepped off the bench at the hour mark in Vienna. 

27 of the 32 spots in Qatar have been decided with five places still up for grabs and the final qualifying matches to be settled in the coming months. Congratulations to every United player involved. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Get rid of these referees and ask for an enquiry (RANT)

So there we have it. The great agenda is complete - UEFA never had any intention of allowing Manchester United to go through to the Champions League last eight. From the moment the draw was made, their plan was set.

United have now been shafted, robbed and cheated out of all three cup competitions thanks to the useless incompetence of these clowns masquerading as match officials. It's surely clear the EFL, the FA and UEFA want Manchester United out of their cup competitions and have done everything in their power to ensure that's the case. 

We knew Manchester United were never going to win the Champions League this season anyway. We simply aren't good enough. We knew that before the game and we of course know it now. It's the manner of it which stings. 

The referee on Tuesday night was quite possibly the worst referee I have ever seen - he was, to be polite, an absolute catastrophe. How he was even allowed to take charge of this game in the first place is beyond me when there's literally proof of his dodgy dealings. The guy's got links with Bosnian drug and prostitution gangs for life's sake. 

Not since the nonsense decision to send off Nani in 2013 have we seen such a diabolical performance at this level from a ref - but at least that was only one decision albeit one which still rankles to this day. 

But like Cuneyt Cakir, the name of Slovenian Slavko Vincic will live long in Champions League infamy on a night in which United can - once again - legitimately feel aggrieved at the level of decision-making involving us in a knockout cup tie. The authorities are terrified of Manchester United having success so just always make sure we never do, its all bollocks and one big stitch up. They just choose who they want in each round of the knockouts. 

Renan Lodi's goal should never have been allowed as there was not one but two fouls in the build up to it. Anthony Elanga was scythed down but play went on before Fred was studded in the knee by Hector Herrera. Both were ignored and Atletico broke away to score.

That was bad enough but what followed was even worse. With United on the attack, Marcos Llorente went down clutching his ankle but despite the fact it wasn't a head injury, Mr Vincic couldn't stop the game quick enough. Three minutes later Diogo Dalot was elbowed in the head and Atletico were given a free-kick. Twice the referee intercepted a United move forward and every time we built an attack he stopped the game. How did they only get two bookings when they were stamping, kicking, pushing and slamming our lads to the ground every few seconds? 

It is clear this man was given instructions to let Atletico harm our players and to allow them everything. Time after time their cynical play went unpunished but yet he couldn't wait to pull our lads up on the tiniest thing. Only four minutes of added time at the end of the game was a joke too as Atleti were time wasting from minute one and there were eight subs - that alone took up seven or eight minutes but he couldn't risk United scoring could he. He was giving goal kicks as corners, free kicks as throw ins and did nothing to stop Atletico's rough house treatment. He didn't allow us to tackle, didn't allow us to attack and was clearly just paid off by UEFA to screw us over because they didn't want us to go through. Hope he choked when he sucked off Diego Simeone in the locker room afterwards. It was all a set up for Atletico to go through. 

United are well within their rights to ask for an inquiry and for evidence of match fixing - how else do you explain what happened last night? Where do they find these corrupt wankers? This was a CHAMPIONS LEAGUE knockout game and we were cheated out of it by a blind donkey who didn't know his arse from his elbow. You expect the best officials at this level but I've had better officials when playing for my Sunday league side down the local rec. 

In the Carabao Cup we had two clear penalties turned down and got knocked out through an offside goal. In the FA Cup Middlesbrough played basketball but the authorities didn't want us in the next round so changed the laws to suit their agenda and allowed the goal. Then in the Champions League they give us the worst referee I've ever seen to ensure we get shafted again. I want a full explanation from UEFA into how this has been allowed to happen to us and to say the referee is being looked into for bribery, corruption, collusion and match fixing. He must never be allowed on a football pitch again. I have had enough of these referees - they are hell bent on screwing us over week in week out. Even on Saturday the clown did his best to ensure we didn't win with the two identical penalty incidents - one given to Tottenham but ignored completely when its us. He was simply inept, useless and didn't have a clue what he was doing. 

UEFA want us in the Conference League to boost its profile and make them money. It's obviously what they're trying to achieve and they will cheat us out of top four too to get their wish. We have had some absolutely criminal decisions go against us this season and it's time to ask why. Get rid of all of them. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Match report: Man Utd 0-1 Atletico Madrid (Agg: 1-2)

 Manchester United were cheated out of a place in the Champions League quarter final by corrupt donkey Slavko Vincic at Old Trafford.
Renan Lodi's first half goal proved the difference but the Slovenian referee failed to spot two fouls in the build up the goal, with Anthony Elanga slammed to the turf and Fred almost decapitated by Hector Herrera before Lodi headed home. But of course the goal was allowed to stand and this official then did everything in his power to ensure the result remained because its all bollocks and a rigged stitch up. 

He got in the way of two United attacks, stopped the game when Marcos Llorente went down with an ankle injury and then gave the visitors a free kick when Diogo Dalot got elbowed in the head. 
He only booked two Atletico players despite their agricultural approach to the game, yet couldn't wait to pull the yellow card out for the slightest thing by our lads. Only four minutes were added on despite Atletico's time wasting, eight subs and at least two minutes for the shenanigans of stopping the game. 

United genuinely have grounds to ask for an enquiry into corruption and match fixing here. It was the worst performance

Interim manager Ralf Rangnick made three changes from Saturday's win over Spurs as Bruno Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Elanga came in for Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Marcus Rashford. 
Old Trafford was rocking and it galvanised United as we started strongly. Elanga headed over having been picked out by Dalot with the young Swede harshly penalised as the donkey set the tone for his horrific showing.

Elanga came close again after 13 minutes when he was found by Bruno Fernandes and fired on goal only for Atleti keeper Jan Oblak to make the unorthodox save with his face. 

For all the Spaniards expert defensive guile, they're no mugs when it comes to attacking either and served notice of their intention through Rodrigo de Paul, who was denied by an excellent save from David de Gea. 

United had claims for a penalty turned down when Fernandes tangled with Jose Gimenez, but nothing - of course - was given before Diego Simeone's side had the ball in the net but Joao Felix was flagged offside.

Four minutes before the interval, and Atleti did go ahead in very contentious circumstances. A clear foul on Elanga by Gimenez went unpunished and Fred was also clattered by Herrera as the visitors broke upfield. 
Antoine Griezmann crossed for Lodi to head in at the back post beyond De Gea but despite United's vociferous protestations the goal stood.

Oblak saved well to keep out Fernandes and Elanga flashed a shot wide shortly after the restart.

Atleti showed why they're the masters of the dark arts as they disrupted, stifled and strangled the life out of Rangnick's Reds with keep ball and time wasting at every opportunity. 

Jadon Sancho fizzed a volley over the top having been picked out by Dalot and the Spanish champions went close at the other end when a Gimenez header narrowly cleared the bar from a De Paul corner. 

Fernandes whipped in a free-kick which narrowly evaded the onrushing Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire, before a triple change from Rangnick saw Rashford, Pogba and Matic come on for Elanga, Scott McTominay and Fernandes. 

United were caught between a rock and a hard place - we had to attack and take the game to Atleti but, in so doing, left the back door open on the counter. Felix had an audacious effort from range but United continued to press and came close to a leveller when Oblak saved superbly to keep out Raphael Varane's header. 

Dalot fired wide from distance with Edinson Cavani and even Juan Mata thrown on in a valiant attempt to force extra-time. 
Technical director Darren Fletcher was yellow carded but the referee continued to ignore Atletico's blatant attempts to disrupt United's rhythm. 

Rashford's deflected cross gave the Reds one final set piece for which de Gea was sent up, but Oblak plucked it out the sky and United's Champions League dreams were over.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Slavko Vincic. What an incredible performance from a magnificent ref. 

Monday, 14 March 2022

Man Utd v Atletico predicted XI: Shaw, Fernandes and McTominay to return for Reds

Ralf Rangnick's Reds return to European action as we welcome Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid to Old Trafford for the second leg of our last 16 tie.

The contest is poised on a knife edge after Anthony Elanga's second half leveller in the Spanish capital but, with no away goal rule, this tie could go the distance through extra-time and penalties if required. 

Rangnick shuffled his pack again for the visit of Spurs but the interim boss is unlikely to make wholesale changes again for this one. Bruno Fernandes is expected to recover from Covid and should return, so Paul Pogba could play on the left. There's big decisions for Rangnick to make and so, without further ado, here is how we think the Reds will line up tomorrow evening. Come on United!

GK - David de Gea

Had a Covid scare against Spurs but a false positive enabled him to play and he will keep his place against his former side. De Gea had little to do on Saturday and will hope for another quiet evening here. 

RB - Diogo Dalot

Victor Lindelof started at right-back in the Wanda Metropolitano - an inexplicable decision which backfired badly. Rangnick is unlikely to take such liberties here with Dalot - recalled against Tottenham - to keep his place. The unheralded member of United's Portuguese triumvirate has been impressive under the German so we expect him to play

CB - Harry Maguire&Raphael Varane

Despite his unfortunate own goal, I thought Maguire played well against Tottenham and you're not dropping your 80m captain for a Champions League knockout match. Rangnick has dropped Maguire before but I just can't see it here.
Alongside him, it simply has to be Champions League Varane. The World Cup and four-time winner of this competition was born for nights like this. What a player this guy is - a Rolls Royce of a defender, a class act and a man whom holds the defence together. United have never lost a match when these two have started together. 

LB - Luke Shaw

Shaw has missed the last two games after a positive Covid test, which has allowed Alex Telles to turn in two contrasting performances at left-back. Shaw has recovered from the virus and is available again, so we think he will come back into the side at the expense of the Brazilian, however harsh that may seem on Telles. 

CDM - Fred

Excellent in the win over Tottenham and crucial to United in games like this one. Fred is always a shoo-in to start in the big games due to his work rate and energy and he will have a tough job to keep Hector Herrera and the returning Koke in check. Another player to have improved hugely under Rangnick, we expect Fred to start at the base of midfield.

CDM - Scott McTominay 

Nemanja Matic was excellent on Saturday but struggles to play two games in a row, particularly in such quick succession, so I can't see him starting this one. The return of McTominay will see the veteran Serb drop to the bench and could mean Paul Pogba also misses out on a place in the XI. McTominay may not be fit enough to get through a full 90 minutes but that's where the experience of Matic comes in. Alternatively, Rangnick could decide to play Pogba alongside Fred so this is undoubtedly a big call to make in a key area of the team. 

RW - Jadon Sancho

A certain starter, Sancho has been scintillating recently with his pace and trickery. Equally adept on the left as he is the right, Sancho had a slow start at Old Trafford but has been simply magnificent since Christmas. This is what we paid the money for. Atletico will likely deploy a three at the back system and will set out to shackle Sancho as they know to do so will be key to victory. He has very much arrived as a United player. 

CAM - Bruno Fernandes

Missed the win over Spurs through Covid and - to be fair - we did alright without him. But you need your big players for the big games and he is certainly still one of them. Pogba on the left won't work against Simeone's streetwise Spaniards and despite his tendency to lose the ball, Fernandes still has that string-pulling magic in his boots. When he's fit and available, he has to start. Simple. 

LW - Anthony Elanga

Elanga should start on the left after another fitful performance from Marcus Rashford against Spurs. He simply isn't doing enough to justify inclusion at present and Elanga has been the brightest spark since Rangnick's arrival. Got the goal in Madrid, hasn't netted since but has still looked lively. In line for only his second ever Champions League start, the young Swede is set to be given the nod in this one.

CF - Cristiano Ronaldo

Could it be anyone else? United's man of the moment, our hat-trick hero and the reason why United have even made it this far in Europe. Don't EVER tell me this guy is the problem at Old Trafford. The leading goalscorer of all time in the history of football, Ronaldo loves scoring against Atletico and - although he was snuffed out in the away leg - United will again look to him to fire us past his old nemesis and into the last eight.


This has all the makings of a fascinating, enthralling ding-dong at Old Trafford. We're expecting a match with plenty of twists and turns - Atletico will fancy their chances and I can't see them not scoring in Manchester. But I've just got a feeling, somewhere inside, this will be our night. It will be tight, tense and tactical, but I'm backing United - just - to go through to the quarter-finals by a whisker. 

Manchester United 2-1 Atletico Madrid 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Ronaldo heads up as Manchester United earn their spurs

After a week in which Manchester United's troubled season reached its nadir, it was perhaps inevitable Cristiano Ronaldo would have the final say.

Even in absentia, Ronaldo continued to dominate the headlines. Despite playing no part in the derby debacle, he was not immune to the wave of criticism that followed - his conveniently timed trip to Portugal led to accusations of Ronaldo shirking responsibility, refusing to play, 'bottling it' and letting his team-mates cop the flak whilst he took a back-seat, safe in the knowledge the result could not be pinned upon him in any way whatsoever. 

The fact he had picked up a hip flexor problem in training pre-City seemed to be forgotten as a footnote. It seemed many did not believe that particular party line. Ronaldo responded to the critics in a way only he knows - with a stunning display of poise, power and perfection to inspire United to a crucial victory over top four rivals Tottenham. 

As a riposte to the doubts and rumours of last week, it was simply magnificent. But yet - as so often when it comes to Ronaldo - there are other issues at play. There is no reason not to believe he was genuinely suffering with injury last week, but the furore around his withdrawal told its own story. Ronaldo has become so big, whichever club he plies his trade for becomes Ronaldo FC.  That in itself presents issues, with modern football about more than simply the impact of individuals. Ralf Rangnick's philosophy is a case in point - for gegenpressing to work, the whole team needs to be able to do it. He will grab the headlines after United's win, but it's important to remember the impact of others too - Fred and Nemanja Matic played well, Jadon Sancho was good again and Raphael Varane ensured it was a much better defensive performance from the team. 

Whatever this remarkable footballer says and does, he is never far from the spotlight. It epitomises the career of this simply stunning, once-in-a-lifetime player he continues, even now, to hold the footballing world in thrall. Whilst his rival for the title of the greatest player ever toils in the one-team league of France's Ligue 1, Cristiano's out here scoring hat-tricks in the most difficult, unpredictable and harum scarum league in the world. Lionel Messi has done next to nothing in Paris, but Ronaldo has continued to show he remains the finest exponent of his craft. 59 hat-tricks - only two of which have come for us - sees him become the leading goalscorer of all time and also bears testament to how he has changed and adapted his game as a player. 

His three goals against Tottenham were a showreel - a highlights package, a compilation, of Ronaldo at his brilliant and bludgeoning best. His hat-trick was like a greatest hits of the man's career: finishes from all three phases of his career rolled into one to show exactly why he still has so much to offer. 

His first, a 25-yard screamer as Eric Dier sat off him, conjured up images of his goal against Porto in the Champions League quarter-final of 2009. Then we saw the predatory instincts that have been Ronaldo's trademark in his latter years, as he loitered with intent to time his run and stroke home a Jadon Sancho cross beyond Hugo Lloris. The third was a classic denouement, the epitome of Cristiano circa 2015, as he rose majestically to thump in a header with the ball behind him, all bulging neck muscles ala Tommy Lawton to cap his best performance of the season. From the way he read the flight and weight of the cross, to the way he attacked it and timed the jump to meet the ball with accuracy and power - it was the perfect textbook header.

Such finishes have become the stuff of legend, with theses written, lectures given and studio hours given over to the science behind the archetypal Ronaldo raison d'etre. When CR7 was substituted in the closing moments of Saturday's exciting 3-2 win over Spurs, Old Trafford rose as one in appreciation of one of our greatest ever. Ronaldo held 76,000 people in the palm of his hand after a vintage display, rolling back the years in a performance for the ages. 

His once seminal impact at United has been questioned as our season has unravelled, but only Liverpool's Mohamed Salah has scored more league goals than him this season and no else has reached double figures in the Red of United. 

At times, there's no doubt a man who appeared to defy Father Time has finally started to look his 37 years. He has created tactical problems, particularly for Rangnick and his preference for gegenpressing. He is not the player he once was, but did we really expect him to be? He's not the flying winger he was when he left us in 2009 as a wide forward occasionally deployed up the middle. But although much has been taken, much still abides. 
But goodness only knows where we would be without him - out of the Champions League already and nowhere near the top four, for a start. There are plenty of problems at our club (how long have you all got) - no one can deny that - but don't you dare ever tell me Ronaldo is one of them. 

Match report: Man Utd 3-2 Tottenham

Cristiano Ronaldo's stunning hat-trick inspired United to a vital late win over top four rivals Tottenham in a thrilling contest at Old Trafford.

Ronaldo's treble - his first since returning to the club in summer - was his second in the Red of United and was the 'perfect' hat-trick of left foot, right foot and a thumping header.

He put Ralf Rangnick's rotated Reds in front with a screamer after 12 minutes and then restored our lead seven minutes before the break after Harry Kane's controversial penalty. 
A Harry Maguire own goal pegged us back again but CR7 rose to plant home a header nine minutes from time and United held out for a superb win after last week's derby debacle.

Ronaldo was one of five changes to Rangnick's XI, with Diogo Dalot, Raphael Varane, Nemanja Matic and Marcus Rashford all in ahead of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay and Anthony Elanga with Bruno Fernandes absent from the squad.

After an opening akin to a chess match in which both sides eyed each other up and felt the opposition out, Ronaldo had an early shot smash into the arm of Eric Dier, but referee Jon Moss bafflingly waved away the claims.

Frustrations did not linger for long, though, with our Portuguese superstar at the centre of things again. Fred's exquisite reverse flick into the path of Ronaldo teed up our no.7 for a shot and he curled home a beauty from 20 yards which gave the stranded Hugo Lloris no chance.

Paul Pogba shimmied and then shot wide, but Antonio Conte's Spurs began to gain a foothold having been distinctly second best for most of the match so far.
It looked as though the north London side had levelled when Ben Davies nipped in to score, only to see his effort chalked out for offside by the linesman.

Spurs came close again on 26 minutes when Son Heung - min picked out Dier from a corner, but his header was hacked to safety off the line by the alert Diogo Dalot. This was a superbly see-sawing contest fully in keeping with its status as a key battle in the race for a Champions League position.

Yet Spurs were - quite literally - given a helping hand when their equaliser came ten minutes before the break. Having had our own penalty appeal waved away, there seemed a sense of injustice when a very similar offence - this time when Dejan Kulusevski's cross came off Alex Telles - was penalised by Moss.

Despite the protests, VAR failed to overturn the on-field call and Kane stepped up to slam home the spot-kick beyond De Gea.
But no sooner had the visitors restored parity, United were ahead again three minutes further on with another tinge of controversy.
Spurs felt Jadon Sancho was offside when he crossed to pick out Ronaldo, but Ronnie's second was rubber-stamped when VAR replays showed Sergio Reguilon had played Sancho onside and the goal stood.

Lloris saved well from Sancho on the cusp of the interval with Old Trafford rocking to the beat of a thrill-a-minute match in which United went in ahead with a more comfortable than it sounds lead.

United kept their probing opponents at arm's length, with only Son's snapshot wide on the turn to show for their renewed intensity. 
A hat-trick hunting Ronaldo stung the palms of Lloris from distance and the excellent Fred flashed narrowly off target as Rangnick's side looked to put the game beyond Tottenham's reach.

Victor Lindelof was waiting to come on to help us do that, but before the Swede could be introduced, Spurs had equalised for a second time. If their opener had been contentious, this one was purely fortuitous when Reguilon's cross was turned beyond De Gea by the unfortunate Maguire, on the stretch as he attempted to divert the ball away. In fairness, Maguire had to try and play it with two Spurs players waiting behind him for a tap in.

Lloris saved superbly twice in quick succession as he tipped away Ronaldo's half volley and substitute Edinson Cavani's header. 
Time was against the Reds but it was that man again whom came to his side's aid when he completed a stunning hat-trick on 81 minutes. Telles whipped in a flag-kick and Ronnie rose highest to power home a header despite the attentions of Cristian Romero - Old Trafford erupted to greet a goal which makes the superstar the all time world record for goals scored, just the 807. 

Lindelof did come on in place of Ronaldo - whom left the field to a loud standing ovation -   to tighten the Reds defence in the face of late Spurs pressing as they looked to recover the deficit for a third time.
This time, though, United's game management was good enough to see the game through and, indeed, we could even have had a fourth when Sancho ran through in the final minute only to be snuffed out.

The result moved us back up to fourth, two points ahead of Arsenal (albeit with four games in hand!) and our vanquished capital opponents Spurs, who are three points further back but again with games in hand over us.

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

Sunday, 6 March 2022

United gave it a decent go but were simply outclassed

In reality, Ralf Rangnick and his Manchester United side never had a chance when they crossed the city to face Pep Guardiola's all conquering sky blue juggernaut. 

United had won on their last three visits into enemy territory but never looked like making it four on the spin this time, in the 187th all-Manchester meeting. 

With Cristiano Ronaldo injured and the half-arsed Edinson Cavani again conspicious by absence, United had no striker and so shoehorned Bruno Fernandes into an alien position as a false nine. Even had Ronaldo been available, logic dictated United would need to sit in and hit on the break with pace - a tactical plan not conducive to the talents of the Reds ageing centre-forward. 

Throw in the presence of two second string full-backs, a third choice centre-back, an understrength midfield and a teenage winger and United were beaten before they had even started. Depleted and down to the bare bones with a bench akin to a wasteland with a few scraps thrown on to it, United kicked off at 4.30pm more in anodyne hope than genuine expectation. Recent history gave us reason to be confident as those hat-trick of wins suggested but I was not expecting a result - City's superior quality, intensity and strength in depth would surely prove too great for United's makeshift, hastily assembled side. Not for the first time coming here, United's underdogs would need to defy the odds again. This time, there was to be no upset.

In last term's corresponding fixture, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had turned the tactical tables on his illustrious counterpart with a fluid, high energy, high pressing blueprint which took City by surprise and laid the foundations for an improbable victory.
For all his faults, Solskjaer didn't often err when it came to the big occasion and interim boss Rangnick - at least for a while - looked to have replicated his predecessor.
United were good for the first half hour: we committed men forward on the counter attack, tried to press, won the ball high up the pitch and moved it through the lines quickly. Rangnick took a risk, it was exciting to watch and a brave approach. 
We caused them problems, created chances and despite trailing to a de Bruyne double, Jadon Sancho's stunner encapsulated United at their best. The Reds were 2-1 down at half time but still carried a threat and were well in the game.

Sancho showed flashes, Paul Pogba drifted from powerhouse to periphery, Fernandes fluctuated and Scott McTominay - at times a one man band against City's slickers - tried, but toiled in vain. Anthony Elanga looked lively but also showed naivety in his passing and decision making on his debut in the derby. 

What happened in the second half, we'll never quite know. United's threat simply evaporated - possibly because of fatigue, maybe a lack of fitness or perhaps even the sheer size of the task against one of the finest opposition sides on the planet.

The threadbare Reds battled gamely but City put the game beyond doubt 22 minutes from time through Riyad Mahrez. By then, Marcus Rashford had been introduced as Rangnick looked to inject fresh pace and purpose into his flagging side. It has been a recurring theme throughout the German's interim time in charge - spells of very good play and possession from the Reds at times but only in short bursts rather than anything sustainable across 90 minutes.

In the end, the Reds were simply outclassed and outmanoeuvred by this finest of football teams in the finest of fettles. Manchester City can do this to any team in the world when they're in the mood. Unfortunately this time it was us on the receiving end. City won 7-0 the other week so it shows you just how utterly ruthless and relentless they are. It would've hard enough with a full strength team but with the team we had, it was nigh on impossible. Expectations must be kept in check. 

 Sometimes you might strike lucky and nick it, but nine times out of ten you should expect to come out on the losing side. 4-1 flattered City, United gave it a go and it was a decent effort considering the XI we had - an XI which has never played together before -  but we were beaten by the better side. No shame there, it happens. It was always going to be a question of what City's final winning margin was going to be. The post mortem will be long and damning but context is important here: look at the circumstances, look at the team we had and look at the opposition. Kudos to Pep Guardiola and his magnificent winning machine. 

I'm proud of the performance, which might sound odd after a 4-1 defeat, but we hung in there, heads didn't drop and we kept going. In no way were City three goals better than us: a deflected third and a very tight offside tight in Mahrez's favour added flattering gloss to the scoreline and didn't tell the story of the game as a whole. I won't have it that we gave up - it was more fatigue than anything else. 

A chastening day for Rangnick and his Reds but its important to remember this is only our second defeat under the German and we won't play a team as good as this for the rest of the season. 

Match report: Man City 4-1 Man Utd

Manchester City showed exactly why they are English football's dominant force with an impressive win over Ralf Rangnick's reshuffled Reds in the Etihad derby.
A stunning Jadon Sancho goal had pulled the Reds level after Kevin de Bruyne had put Pep Guardiola's men ahead inside five minutes. De Bruyne struck again before Riyad Mahrez's double put a late and flattering gloss on the final scoreline.

The understrength Reds - depleted by injury - put up a fight and can be proud of their efforts but ultimately had no answer to the intensity and relentless quality of their title chasing neighbours. 
United were forced into a raft of changes after Raphael Varane and Luke Shaw tested positive for Covid, so Victor Lindelof and Alex Telles came in to the defence with second string right-back Aaron Wan - Bissaka included ahead of Diogo Dalot. 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani were both sidelined, so Rangnick was forced to line up without a recognised centre-forward with Bruno Fernandes as a false nine - at times Paul Pogba pushed up alongside the Portuguese in a 4-4-2. Marcus Rashford was on the bench. 

United had won on their last three visits here, but it took only five minutes for the sky blue of City to go in front. Bernardo Silva cut the ball back for the onrushing De Bruyne to rifle in his 50th Premier League goal beyond David de Gea.
Ederson denied compatriot Fred, before the impressive De Bruyne went close twice in quick succession only to be denied on both occasions by United's Spanish stopper. First, he had a shot blocked from close range and was then thwarted by De Gea having burst clear.

On 22 minutes, United were level out of nothing in fine style as Pogba picked out Sancho and he curled home a stunner against his former side at the culmination of a superb sweeping counter attack.

But parity lasted only six minutes as City quickly replenished their advantage. Phil Foden had a shot saved, the rebound was also blocked before De Bruyne gobbled up the third loose ball to slam in from ten yards.

De Gea kept out Mahrez and the hat-trick hunting De Bruyne was snuffed out by Maguire as United went in at the interval a goal down but still very much in the tie.

Anthony Elanga had a shot deflected over the bar and Fred flashed wide with the obligatory sighter, but City still carried a threat and Silva almost added a third, only for Lindelof to block. 

Ederson did well under pressure from Fernandes and skipper Harry Maguire was cautioned by referee Michael Oliver after a hefty challenge on opposite number De Bruyne.

United's attacking threat had evaporated and a third goal now seemed only a matter of time. It came on 68 minutes and ended the tie as a contest. De Bruyne added an assist to his showreel as he picked out Mahrez from a corner and the Algerian cracked a sumptuous volley beyond the keeper via a deflection off the unfortunate Maguire.

Substitute Marcus Rashford was crowded out at the end of a solo run and Sancho tested Ederson with a drive but City were relentless and went close again, this time through left-back Joao Cancelo - with the Portuguese's spectacular effort met by an equally impressive stop from De Gea.

But still City were not done as Guardiola's side undeservedly added salt into the wounds with the fourth late on as a tight offside call allowed Mahrez to steal in and score in stoppage time.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jadon Sancho 

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Match report: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Man United

Anthony Elanga stepped off the bench with a late leveller as Ralf Rangnick's Reds rallied to draw in the first leg of our last 16 tie.

Joao Felix had put Diego Simeone's infamously streetwise La Liga champions ahead, and United were distinctly second best for most of the game until Elanga popped up to sweep in a Bruno Fernandes through ball with ten minutes left.

There's no away goal in this season's competition with the rule having been abolished by UEFA but the Reds will be delighted to go back to Old Trafford on level terms with the second leg to be played in M16 on the 15th March.

Elanga had only been on the field for six minutes having replaced Marcus Rashford when he raced on to a perfectly weighted pass from Fernandes to roll in beyond Jan Oblak with his first touch. 
Until that point, you got the feeling United would have settled for 0-1 with Simeone's savvy side demonstrating a masterpiece in how to control a game without dominance or the ball.

There were three changes from the 4-2 win at Elland Road as Raphael Varane, Fred and Rashford came in to the side in place of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Scott McTominay and Jesse Lingard. Lindelof surprisingly started at right-back in Rangnick's 4-3-3 with both recognised right-backs - Wan - Bissaka and Dalot - on the bench. 

On our first ever visit to Atleti's Wanda Metropolitano, Lindelof blocked well from tough-as-teak centre back Jose Gimenez before the hosts - roared on by a partisan crowd - went ahead in the seventh minute.
United cleared a corner but eye-catching wing-back Renan Lodi recycled the ball and picked out Felix, whom still had a lot to do but powered home a stunning header via the post to leave David de Gea with no chance.

Fernandes saw his effort deflected behind for a corner, but that proved our only real effort of note despite dominating the ball, as we were unable to break down the rigid organisation of Simeone's team.               

Cristiano Ronaldo - scorer of two hat-tricks against Atleti - dragged a shot wide but United almost fell further behind on the cusp of half-time through Marcos Llorente when he headed off the bar after a cross came off Lindelof and into his path.

The same player flashed wide with a 20-yarder but the hosts continued to frustrate with clear cut opportunities at a proverbial premium. 
Fernandes had another shot blocked and the below-par Rashford fired over the bar in the second half before Fred almost caught out Oblak but the Slovenian managed to hold on to the ball when under pressure from the little Brazilian.

Ronaldo went close with a free-kick with United growing into the game, helped by the introduction of impressive substitutes Alex Telles and Nemanja Matic. The veteran Serb controlled the midfield and got United higher up the pitch with the Brazilian left-back also catching the eye with his pace and crossing having come on for Shaw.

Elanga was introduced in the 75th minute and immediately ran in behind - an option which had been conspicious by its absence up until then. 
It did not take long for him to find the finishing touch: United broke forwards through Wan - Bissaka and Fred as the latter found Fernandes to thread an eye-of-the-needle pass into the onrushing Elanga to calmly fire in beyond the advancing Oblak.

Another substitute, Antoine Griezmann, curled off the upright at the other end late on before yet another replacement, Jesse Lingard this time, could have won it for us in stoppage time only to be denied by a good save from Oblak.

And so it was our first Champions League knockout tie in three years ends honours even with the tie on a knife edge at half time ahead of round two at Old Trafford.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Elanga