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

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Opposition in profile: Atletico Madrid

The Champions League is back as Ralf Rangnick leads his Reds into battle against Spanish champions Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in the first leg of our last 16 tie. 

With United in a nerve-shredding five way fight merely to qualify for next season's competition, the return of European competition provides a welcome distraction from domestic duties and represents United's only remaining chance of silverware.

Lying in their way is the spectre of Diego Simeone's famously streetwise El Cholo in only the second ever meeting between two of the continent's biggest clubs, to be played in two of the world's biggest cities. Our only other previous meeting with the men from Madrid came three decades ago in the now defunct European Cup Winners Cup - more on that later.

United go into the match having hit a semblance of form and with Atletico faltering (albeit still dangerous), Rangnick's Reds will be quietly confident of causing an upset. 

In times of doubt, it is helpful when your touchstones are built in granite. There is not any other elite club in European football with such an easily identifiable set of fortes as Atletico. Nor is any team built closest to their manager's own image as this lot. Even for those of you who never watch them, you know exactly what they do: defend deep in numbers, kick everything that moves and look to nick a goal from a set piece or a counter attack. Simeone's Atletico are very hard to beat: well organised, battle hardened, durable, hard-working and a team which will run through brick walls for him.

It may not be pretty, but it's certainly extremely effective. Under Simeone - one of the best managers in the game today - Atletico have won two La Liga titles (breaking the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly in the process), the Copa del Rey, two Europa Leagues, the Supercopa de Espana and two UEFA Super Cups: in short, everything there is to win except the biggest prize of all - the Champions League, the holy grail, the cup with the big ears. Simeone, the Spanish league's longest serving manager, boasts a very impressive CV and has transformed the club he served with distinction as a player. Atleti have reached two finals in this competition under his tutelage, agonisingly falling short twice against city rivals Real and a certain chap by the name of Cristiano. His legacy and influence is akin to that of Pep Guardiola, Johan Cruyff and, dare I say it, even Sir Alex. 

Known for not only his ability but also for his rugged, uncompromising and charismatic personality, the famously firebrand Argentine is an adored figure in the red-and-white half of the Spanish capital - indeed, had United not already danced with the devil in Simeone's kindred spirit Jose Mourinho, he'd surely be in contention for the job in the summer.

But despite a stellar cast list and their status as champions of Spain, Atletico's fire has showed signs of flickering. 

They are struggling to get into the top four, with the lesser lights of Sevilla and Real Betis ahead of them, and have been knocked out of the domestic cup. Those touchstones, that achingly familiar raison d'etre, have been conspicious in absentia. They lost four games in a row for the first time ever under Simeone in December and scraped out of a far-from-daunting Champions League group with only two wins, one clean sheet and three red cards - the latter of which rules Yannick Carrasco out of tomorrow night's encounter.

Yet despite all this, it would be folly to write them off. With Antoine Griezmann and our old foe Luis Suarez up top, captain Koke pulling the strings from midfield and one of the best keepers in the world, Jan Oblak, between the sticks, they possess talent in abundance. Others to watch out for include highly-rated Portuguese starlet Joao Felix, tricky Frenchman Thomas Lemar, and midfield anchorman Geoffrey Kondogbia. 

David de Gea goes toe-to-toe with his former employers for the first time, with ex-Red Diego Forlan also having plied his trade for Atleti - so too former United man Quinton Fortune. Ron Atkinson managed both clubs in the 1980s and Simeone, of course, will forever be remembered for his altercation with our very own David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup when he made the most of Becks flick out of the leg as the ten men of England went down on penalties to Argentina in the last 16. 

It seems an anomaly that these two well known and successful clubs have only ever met once - that sole, aforementioned tie in the 1991-92 season. It was a second round match up, with United in the tournament by virtue of their status as holders. 
United were beginning their rise to prominence under Ferguson, having won the FA Cup in 1990 and this competition a year later with the UEFA Super Cup and the League Cup to follow. Ryan Giggs had just broken through with Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and defensive duo Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce in a powerful, robust side taking shape for an assault on English football's established status quo.

Yet it was the Spaniards who put United to the sword with a 3-0 win in the Vicente Calderon Stadium, with two late goals from Paulo Futre turning a slender first leg lead into a surely unassailable advantage. 
And so it proved as despite Mark Hughes early opener back in Manchester, Schuster's leveller left United Bernd and on their way out of the competition as Atletico - under the canny guidance of Luis Aragones - showcased many of the traits of the modern day, Simeone-era side.

That era has showed signs of creaking and although this is definitely a case of beware the wounded animal, United will surely fancy their chances of finishing it off. 

Atletico Madrid predicted XI: Oblak; Savic, Gimenez, Hermoso; Vrsaljko, Llorente, de Paul, Herrera, Renan Lodi; Suarez, Griezmann. 
United predicted XI: De Gea; Dalot, Maguire, Varane, Shaw; McTominay, Pogba; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Ronaldo. 

Sancho the spearhead in Ralf Rangnick's revolution

In many ways, perhaps Jadon Sancho came to epitomise the flaws of Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

Touted as the answer to our issues on the flank, United had been chasing the highly-rated, sought after wideman for the better part of two years, and - then under the tutelage of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - finally got their man for £75m in the summer. We knew Sancho would come with a price but his eventual fee was some way below the 100m+ Dortmund had wanted the previous year, and here was one of the finest young players on the planet - a player to adorn the iconic Red of United for the next decade.

So in that context, Sancho came at relatively good value. But when he did finally pitch up in M16 as one of the most expensive players in club history, there seemed no plan on how best to actually use him. Solskjaer spent two years wanting to bring Sancho to the club but then, when it actually happened, didn't seem to actually trust him or play him for more than 20 minutes. 

Ralf Rangnick's arrival as interim manager co-incided with the best form of Sancho's fledgling United career so far. From the moment Sancho slammed in his first Reds goal - at Villarreal in our first post-Solskjaer match and with Michael Carrick now in charge - there has been a purpose, a decisiveness and a notable step up in consistency, contribution and confidence from a man who lit up the Bundesliga as one of English football's brightest young talents. We saw flashes of what he could do early on but everything's coming together now. He, perhaps more than anyone, has benefited the most from Solskjaer's sacking. 

Sancho arrived at Old Trafford with a hefty price tag and even loftier expectations, and understandably struggled to make an impact in his first few months at the club - so much so, he was dropped from the England squad by manager Gareth Southgate at the end of 2021. 

He was already being written off as (yet another) expensive flop but it takes time and patience for any new signing to settle in, let alone one coming to such a big club in a new league with an entirely new system, style and identity. Not forgetting the state of United when came in - the club was in a flux, an incoherent rabble under a manager with limited tactical acumen with noses pushed further out of joint by the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Expectations were far too high, especially when the counter argument for 100m man Jack Grealish and his similar struggles at City was he needed time to bed in. There was no pressure on Sancho in a free-spirited Dortmund side, but he inevitably felt the heat when thrown into the Premier League pressure cooker, especially for such a large fee. 

Sancho has been the beneficiary of circumstance both in Solskjaer's subsequent departure and the sudden absentia of Mason Greenwood which has enabled our no.25 to make a first-team place his own. Recent strikes against Middlesbrough and Southampton in consecutive home games - his first two goals at Old Trafford - added to earlier finishes in that European tie in Spain and his one-on-one finish at Stamford Bridge. He crossed for Bruno Fernandes to nod in at Leeds and then teed up Fred for our third in the second half: two assists in the same game to embellish his already impressively increasing numbers after a very eye-catching showing against Brighton. 

He's still got a fair way to go to hit the metronomic heights we saw in the Bundesliga but the signs are good. In a game played in a deluge of biblical proportions, Sancho lit up Elland Road as his two assists capped another man of the match showing. 

United may have picked up two wins in a row to significantly alter the course of a rapidly sinking season, but the picture even a week ago was very different. Rangnick's Reds had stuttered to a trio of 1-1 draws with each of them coming in exactly the same fashion. But whilst every player regressed and seemed to play within themselves, Sancho was the one exception - the one shining light amidst the doom and gloom. The one player who looked like he was growing whilst all around him wilted to the fringes. 

Sancho was signed primarily to fill the void on the right wing but his best performances have come on the left, dovetailing superbly with the rejuvenated Luke Shaw in Rangnick's preferred 4-3-3. He's equally adept on the right, too, as can Marcus Rashford and Anthony Elanga so the wingers can interchange making the attack a lot more fluid and unpredictable. With freedom to switch, the supremely talented 21-year-old has scored half his goals since the winter break and it's clear he's getting better by the week. Sancho has come alive, adding an end product to his dazzling pace and trickery which make him such an exciting player to watch - indeed, he is now showing exactly why United wanted him so much. 

Sunday 20 February 2022

Match report: Leeds United 2-4 Man Utd

 Substitutes Fred and Anthony Elanga scored after half-time as Ralf Rangnick's Reds held off a Leeds fightback to strengthen our grip on a top four place.

In a cross-Pennines clash between two of English football's oldest and fiercest rivals played in a deluge of biblical proportions, Harry Maguire's header from a corner (yes, really) and another nodded finish, this time from Bruno Fernandes, put the Reds in charge at the break.

But, out of nothing, back came the hosts, for whom relegation fears remain a lingering worry. Rodrigo's 53rd-minute cross crept in over David de Gea and substitute Raphinha then turned in a Dan James cross to level.
Memories of our recent collapse at Aston Villa were still fresh in the mind but the recently-introduced Fred restored our lead before another replacement - Elanga - sealed the win and the points late on. 

There were three changes from the midweek win over Brighton including surprise recalls for Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Jesse Lingard - the latter's first league start in over two years.
Paul Pogba came in for Fred with the midweek trip to Atletico Madrid probably at the forefront of Rangnick's mind.

In the first game in front of fans between United and Leeds at Elland Road since 2003, it was Marcelo Bielsa's side whom went closest early on.
Mateusz Klich picked out ex-Red youth player Jack Harrison with a lovely lofted through pass, but he was unable to test De Gea.
Illan Meslier saved well from the excellent Pogba and Adam Forshaw then stung the palms of United's Spaniard at the other end before Meslier denied the Reds again when he blocked from point blank range to deny Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Whites young Frenchman was an increasingly busy man and he came to Leeds rescue again as Fernandes tried his luck from distance only to see his 20-yarder tipped behind for a corner.

United had gone 139 flag-kicks without success but finally ended that barren run in the 34th minute when Maguire powered home a thumping header from a swirling Fernandes delivery. 
Jadon Sancho flashed a shot over the bar soon afterwards but United had their second on the cusp of the interval. 
The first goal had been scored by Maguire, and the second owed a lot to his centre-back partner Victor Lindelof. He surged upfield superbly to find Sancho whom in turn swept the ball in for Fernandes to leap and plant home his header beyond Meslier - the Portuguese schemer's second goal in as many matches.

This all gave little hint of the drama which was to come in a madcap minute early in the second half.
United had been comfortable but Leeds - with the wind behind them and buoyed by the half-time introduction of Raphinha - suddenly hit back.

Rodrigo had been on the periphery but sparked the game into life when he drove forward and hit a hopeful cross into the box - only for the wind to wreak havoc as it caught the ball and took it in over De Gea.

The Reds were still reeling but barely had time to dust themselves off when Bielsa's side equalised. James skipped beyond former team-mate Wan - Bissaka and crossed low for the onrushing Raphinha to turn the ball beyond De Gea despite claims of a foul on Fernandes in the build up. The obligatory VAR check followed but there seemed little contact on the United man and the goal was allowed to stand.

Leeds were revitalised and went close again through another sub, teenage striker Joe Gelhardt, only for De Gea to save well down low.

To their credit, the Reds and Rangnick responded in superb fashion as we restored the equilibrium in a double change as Fred and Elanga replaced the impressive Pogba and Lingard.
The diminutive Brazilian had only been on the field for three minutes when United were back in front. Fred drove forward, played a neat one-two with the magnificent Sancho and let fly with an angled drive which left Meslier with no chance and put the Reds back ahead.

In a thrilling, superbly see-sawing contest, De Gea was called into action twice in quick succession as he denied Gelhardt and then Klich before Stuart Dallas then flashed a shot wide having been teed up by James.

Raphael Varane was brought on to try and help tighten up at the back but there was to be no late drama as the Old Trafford side made sure of the points - and victory - in the final minute.

Elanga latched on to a lovely through ball from Fernandes and the young Swede - who had earlier been struck by an object thrown from the stands - finished well beyond the advancing keeper to complete the Reds recovery. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Jadon Sancho

Sunday 13 February 2022

Deja vu on Groundhog Day for Manchester United

In North America on February 2 each year, the groundhog emerges from its yearly hibernation and if the creature can see its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter weather. 
In short, its a synonym for the same tedious, predictable and unwelcome events occurring again and again. 

You see where this going, right? And so that brings us neatly to the modern day Manchester United - a strange beast with the same habits, the same behaviour and an uncanny ability to lie dormant for long periods of time. Just like that repetitive old groundhog. Football is supposed to be fun and unpredictable, but right now it is both telling and damning at present you don't need to watch Manchester United to know exactly what's going down - 30 minutes of high pressing intensity before we fall to pieces with fear at the slightest probing. The inevitable opposition goal follows and then it's game over - United simply lose their way, their heads and almost the match. 

This team are incredibly frail and melt away like an ice cream in the Caribbean at even the merest hint of adversity - once again on Saturday our shape and confidence disappeared when Che Adams swept in off a post. United became edgy, nervy and a chronic case of the "jitters" spread like wildfire throughout the team. This is a team with arguably the world's greatest ever player up top, a World Cup and Champions League winner at the back and one of the finest young wingers on the planet in it. 

At present, the latter two are carrying us but Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't scored for six games, his longest barren run since 2009. He may have scored important goals for us, but CR7 is a huge problem right now. He looks frustrated and a man at odds with himself, his movement is poor and he's missing too many sitters. Unfortunately, our options up top are thin with Mason Greenwood unavailable and Edinson Cavani plagued by injury. Ronaldo is by no means the only guilty party but he is certainly a big part of the problem. 

The 73,000 people inside Old Trafford expected the net to bulge when Ronaldo rounded Fraser Forster and flicked on goal but his effort was tame and easily cleared. 
It's been the same against Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and at Burnley, and again versus Southampton. Repeat ad nauseam. The last two weeks have been the same football match on a time loop. United are incapable of sensing blood and putting opponents to the sword - but their opponents are preying on every misstep, every slowing, every chance missed. 

We are vulnerable and lack confidence and you can bet those two elements form the basis of most managers pre-match team talk in the away dressing room at Old Trafford. Profligacy leaves little margin for error at the other end of the pitch and it seems like United are getting punished for every wrong turn at present. 

In the Premier League's first ever match between two managers called Ralf, Rangnick's Reds started strongly but then lapsed into a familiar pattern as Hassenhuttl's Saints caught the eye with their energy, their movement and their work rate. To Rangnick's credit, he has tried to implement a similar raison d'etre but the players are letting him down. The interim manager spoke of how United failed to execute his plan after scoring the first, and then lost their shape in the second half. 

If anything summed up just how bad we are at present it was the pathetic attempt to beat Southampton's offside trap when seven players pushed up beyond the Saints line in the second half. If I hadn't watched the game and seen only the still image in isolation, I'd be thinking it's a good defensive line - the problem being, United were ATTACKING at the time. This team has no mentality and the footballing IQ of a five year old child. As the old saying goes - hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard. 

This was United's third consecutive 1-1 draw with each of those almost an exact carbon copy the same in terms of its pattern - so much so, Saints leveller three minutes into the second half came with exactly the same time on the match clock as Jay Rodriguez's own equaliser on Tuesday. United have been ahead in each of the three but have somehow conspired to throw the game away. I was going to say shooting ourselves in the foot, but knowing this lot we'd probably miss. Four games, 82 shots, four goals, one win - and even that was in the last minute. You have to look at the misfiring players rather than any tactical shortcomings on Rangnick's part. Southampton knew United's weaknesses, sensed their vulnerability and took full advantage. 

Earlier in the season, United were pegged back to 1-1 right after half-time by Leeds, then Newcastle. On both occasions the team motored on and pulled clear to win 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. Right now, this team look shell shocked after history repeats, going into its shell rather than rousing themselves to go and get a second. 
By the time the game reached 70 minutes, it seemed quite obvious United had hit a brick wall - the players were tense, their body language was poor, and  clear cut chances were at a premium. 
This is a problem which has only exacerbated as the season has gone on, and it is a worrying trajectory with ties against Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool next month.  

It is almost as if the football Gods are doing everything they can to mock Manchester United's misfortune - to make us suffer as much in adulthood as we triumphed in childhood. 

The 2021-22 season promised so much with our stellar cast of summer signings as a campaign in which he had high hopes of a first title push for a decade. But it has turned into nothingness, an exhausting plod week in week out with no end in sight. The top four is looking less and less likely and many of us want the season to be over already.

If only we could rewind time - it would give us a prime Ronaldo, instead of a 37 year old, who, after years of defying Father Time, is now beginning to look his age. 

Match report: Man Utd 1-1 Southampton

 Che Adams cancelled out Jadon Sancho's opener as United had to settle for a third successive 1-1 draw against an impressive Southampton side.

It was groundhog day, a case of deja vu, with the tie almost an exact carbon copy of the midweek draw by the same scoreline at Lancashire neighbours Burnley - a bright start from the Reds before we faded away and allowed the opposition to seize control with an early second half goal. 

From then on, Ralf Rangnick's side were unable to recover and in fact the south coast side - fresh off the back of a fine win at Tottenham - ended the game the stronger. 
Despite an excellent opening half an hour and a superb Jadon Sancho goal, more points were lost in the increasingly congested battle for the Champions League positions. Harry Maguire came closest to a winner, but ultimately a draw was a fair result.

United made one change from the XI at Turf Moor as Cristiano Ronaldo returned up front in place of the unavailable Edinson Cavani and there were some frantic and frenetic opening exchanges. It took only six minutes for the first chance to come our way when Sancho released Ronaldo and he rounded the keeper, but his effort lacked pace and Romain Perraud was able to scurry back and mop up the danger. 

Adams header was blocked to safety by Maguire before Sancho went close again at the other end only to this time be denied by the impressive Fraser Forster. 
Sancho's early prominence stood out and it was he who put United ahead after 21 minutes at the culmination of a fine sweeping move. Bruno Fernandes sent Rashford away and he in turn cut the ball back for Sancho to turn home from close range - his first Premier League goal at Old Trafford.

Stuart Armstrong thumped just wide at the other end in response, and the same player then sent Red hearts fluttering when his acrobatic effort was superbly kept out by De Gea. 
The Spaniard was tested again - this time through left-back Perraud - and the again impressive Paul Pogba then had the ball in the net only to be chalked out for offside.

United have struggled to hold on to leads and that familiar failing surfaced again almost immediately after the resumption. Burnley's equaliser had come in the 48th minute in the week and it was the same time on the clock when Adams popped up to punish United. Mohamed Elyounoussi played the ball inside and the Leicester-born Scot stayed onside to finish superbly off a post and beyond De Gea. 

Nerves had crept in and United were unable were unable to regain the momentum, with Ralph Hassenhuttl's side showing all the hallmarks of a side intent on creating another notable scalp. 
The Saints had lost 9-0 here last season but were a far cry from that meek surrender only a week on from the anniversary of that infamous mauling.

Armando Broja forced another save from De Gea on 55 minutes but the much-maligned Maguire then came within inches of restoring our lead when Luke Shaw's free-kick picked out the captain and his stabbed effort was hacked to safety by the busy, 50-year-old Forster. 

That sparked a spell of pressure as Ronaldo went close with a half volley and Forster was called into action again as he repelled Diogo Dalot's well-struck effort from distance. 

But back came Saints, again through Armstrong, whom fired over, and then the impressive Broja when he flashed across goal on the counter in the 67th minute.
United were thwarted again by the offside flag as Ronaldo's personal drought extended to a sixth game but Saints continued to pose a threat - namely through Broja in an eye-catching showing from the young Albanian.

Maguire had another chance to win it for the Reds deep into stoppage time, but once more Forster proved unbeatable as he clawed the skipper's header away to safety. 

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

Wednesday 9 February 2022

This is all a stitch up and one big con (RANT)

I hope Mike Dean and his corrupt paymasters at PGMOL are proud of themselves. Where do they find these corrupt donkeys masquerading as referees? It's time to get rid of all of them and get in officials from overseas.

For the second time in four days, Manchester United were screwed over by broken refereeing and VAR technology not fit for purpose. As if Duncan Watmore channeling his inner LeBron James on Friday wasn't enough, the Great Stitch Up went one step further at Turf Moor. 
The first disallowed goal was probably fair enough as Harry Maguire - albeit inadvertently - blocked off Jay Rodriguez to allow Raphael Varane to rise high and plant his header into the net. Maguire was interfering with play from an offside position so you could have little argument over that particular decision. 

But then the Great Stitch up kicked in, exactly as it's all been planned out to be. How else to describe the decision to disallow the second United goal when Josh Brownhill turned into his own net from a Rashford cross. It was the year 2034 when the linesman put his flag up and of course Dean couldn't wait to chalk it off but yet had it been the other end you can bet it would've stood - the script, the con followed to the letter. 

I will never understand how that's deemed a foul yet when our players get kicked, elbowed and stamped on nothing is ever done. It was never a foul by Pogba - the sort of contact you see 50 times each week - anywhere else on the pitch and you would play on. Erik Pieters didn't even appeal for a foul, he's never getting to the ball and Pogba's entitled to go for it. 

Remember when Victor Lindelof was flattened by Mbaye Diagne at the Hawthorns last season but it wasn't even looked at by VAR and the goal was given? Of course it was because it was against us and fits the agenda. Diagne's contact on the Swede was far more of a foul than this incident with Pogba - he barged him out the way and put his hands on Lindelof's face - but yet West Brom's goal was allowed to stand and this one wasn't. Another example of the Great Stitch Up in full swing. Well done Dean you massive prick. Get in the bin. 

The fact the VAR team was the same here as it was for the Middlesbrough game tells you all need to know. Anthony Taylor, Dean, Stuart Attwell - they are all as bad as each other. Every single one of them a key component in the Great Stitch Up. 

Wout Weghorst should've been sent off when he almost snapped Scott McTominay in half but of course he stayed on the field to play a part in the equaliser. Rashford got shoved over but no penalty was given, yet when its against us the officials can't give decisions quickly enough. 

Before the season starts, all the referees and all the governing bodies come together to collude a plan to bring down Manchester United and sabotage our season. It's all bollocks, all a set up to screw us over. It happened last season and now history repeats. Refs are told, they're paid off, to never give us a decision and ensure we fail to keep the likes of precious Pep and mouthy Klopp happy. Whenever United are playing well and our opposition struggling, referees step in to help them, give them a lift and boost confidence. The officials decide who benefits and who gets screwed over, and the dye is cast. 

It's becoming quite clear football is one big con to conspire against us - how else to describe us having to play 12 men every week and not having got a decision in our favour since approximately 1997. Last season's list of bad calls against us was as long as both my arms and this season's one is now up to ten with the three at Turf Moor on Tuesday the latest additions to an ever-lengthening charge sheet. 

It's going exactly as they all wanted - the authorities don't want Manchester United to play in the Champions League so they're going to do everything in their power to make sure it doesn't happen because of course. It's all collusion, all planned, all staged and all a load of bollocks. 

It wouldn't surprise me if they try and deduct points off us after Wayne Rooney's comments in 2006 (the FA are investigating) in which he said he wanted to harm John Terry. Any excuse to bring our club down. We should ask for an enquiry into blatant corruption and match fixing costing us points and games week in week out. The Great Stitch up will of course ensure all the teams below us somehow all magically win their games in hand.

Abysmal, donkey refereeing cost us in both domestic cups and now has dropped us out the top four - now UEFA have only got to find a way to get us out of Europe and the Great Stitch up is complete for another year. 

Match report: Burnley 1-1 Man Utd

Jay Rodriguez cancelled out Paul Pogba's opener at Turf Moor with United again left aggrieved by questionable officiating for the second time in four days

Ralf Rangnick's Red had two goals disallowed when Harry Maguire was adjudged to have blocked off Rodriguez as Raphael Varane looked to have scored his first United goal. Another goal was chalked out when Josh Brownhill turned into his own net after Pogba supposedly fouled Ben Mee in the build up.
New Burnley signing Wout Weghorst should have been sent off when he lunged in on Scott McTominay but Mike Dean never gives us anything so it shouldn't be a surprise. It's all one big con. 

Rangnick made one change from the previous match with Middlesbrough as Edinson Cavani returned to the starting XI and Cristiano Ronaldo dropped to the bench. Brazilian duo Fred and Alex Telles were both sidelined through illness so McTominay and Shaw retained their places. 

In atrocious conditions at the home of our struggling Lancashire neighbours with torrential rain and a howling gale
, Marcus Rashford went close inside the first five minutes when he was denied by Nick Pope - having a fine game against United once again, as he so often does.
Then came Varane's excellent header which United thought had put them ahead only for a lengthy VAR check to rule Maguire's run into an offside position had blocked Rodriguez and prevented him from challenging for the ball. 

Lesser sides might have crumbled but to their credit, Rangnick's side continued to press and there was no doubt over Pogba's opener seven minutes later.
Excellent work from Luke Shaw done the left saw him cut the ball back to tee up Pogba and his rifled finish from range - reminiscent of his goal in the same fixture last season - left Pope with no chance.

The ball was in the Clarets net once more, this time inadvertently through Brownhill, only to again be ruled out through a very late flag for a foul by Pogba on Mee although there seemed little in it. United can be forgiven for thinking the fates have conspired against us in the last two matches.

Pope seemed to have grown four extra arms as he kept his side in the game with a string of superb saves to deny Cavani from point blank range, before he thwarted Rashford and tipped wide from Fernandes. The one from Cavani was the best of the bunch as Shaw's looping cross dropped to the waiting Uruguayan, but Pope flung his body at the ball to block it behind.

The game lapsed into a familiar pattern as Burnley levelled two minutes in the second half. Clever link play from the 6ft 4Weghorst released Rodriguez and he tucked the ball beyond De Gea from close range.
Weghorst was suddenly causing problems and the giant Clarets striker (is there ever any other kind) went close twice in quick succession when he was denied by a full-length stop from De Gea and then fired into the side netting on the angle.

After a brief spell in the ascendancy, Burnley reverted to type with Mee and James Tarkowski morphed into 2022 version of Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. 
Varane had a flick deflected away by the former having been set up by Rashford, and substitute Ronaldo headed over the bar when well placed from a Fernandes cross.

Maguire glanced a header wide and Ronaldo again nodded over the top against the massed, eleven man ranks of Burnley held out for a point which ultimately did little to help either side's respective ambitions.

A shout out to the near 3,000 army of travelling Reds who never stopped singing and backed the team magnificently throughout in awful conditions. Truly the best fans in the world. 

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

Saturday 5 February 2022

Manchester United can now focus on what's important

When Anthony Elanga missed the decisive penalty in the shootout at Old Trafford, two thoughts went through my mind.

There was, of course, a tinge of disappointment as you're never pleased to see your side on the wrong end of a result such as this one. But the main emotion was an overwhelming sense of relief - relief United are now gone from a competition which threatened to get in the way of more important matters. I wouldn't say I'm pleased, but the fact this was only the FA Cup softened the blow considerably. At least it wasn't a league match or a big European tie. 

The last time we lost on penalties came in May's Europa League final - a blow which left me dazed and gutted for days, but that was different. That was a European final, not the fourth round of some two bob domestic competition we were never going to win anyway. My emotions couldn't be more different. If I could have picked one game for us to lose, it would've been this one. 

It's a tournament no one really cares about (unless you're non league) and one I didn't want us to be in so, from that point of view, this comes as a blessing in disguise. There's too many games in too short a space of time with a small squad - if I had my way, the FA Cup wouldn't exist at all. No one ever remembers who wins the bloody thing

If I was in charge of our national game (imagine that!) I would scrap both domestic cups so teams at our level play league and European games only. This would not only help the fortunes of the England team but also preserve the health of players as well as reducing the frantic fixture list in size. 

It's just money keeping it going and unless you're after a big payday or a small non league team, the FA Cup barely matters to anyone. It no longer has a place in the English game. It's not quite good riddance to our place in it, but last night's result certainly does us a huge favour in the long term. I won't be losing sleep over it, put it that way. 

With another competition mercifully out the way, United have sixteen games left in the league with a crucial Champions League knockout tie with the might of Atletico on the horizon. Our exit from the much-maligned FA Cup allows us to focus on these two competitions without the distraction of another 5,000 fixtures on the schedule (OK, an exaggeration slightly but you get the gist). 

We can now focus on what's really important - the league campaign and having a crack at getting as far as we can in Europe. Those two competition are the only ones I care about and they are what we should be judged on. I don't think we'll get past Diego Simeone's Spanish champions - they will be strong over two legs despite their underwhelming league season -  but at least now we've got a far better chance of doing so. They will be a good little test for us. We've done well to get this far when it comes to Europe but it would be nice if we can go another round - the FA Cup exit gives us more time to prepare, frees up the calendar and allows the players a lot more rest in between games. 

United face three league games in seven days - next Saturday's home time with Southampton sandwiched by midweek tete-a-tetes against Burnley (8th) and Brighton (15th) in which maximum points are ideally required to keep our league ambitions on track. We need to win all three to continue climbing the league with the fight for fourth (or maybe even third) likely to go to the wire in the closing months of the season.

It's vital United secure Champions League qualification for the next permanent manager - whoever he may be. This should always be the aim and the Reds look good to do just that with only one defeat since November in the league. Rangnick has performed a minor miracle in getting the Reds into Champions League contention, when you consider where we where when he took over to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

United came into this season with the twin ambitions of a top four finish and an extended run, deep into the final furlong of the Champions League. Six months on and that hasn't changed with the Reds fighting on two fronts as we approach the run in.

Match report: Manchester United 1-1 Middlesbrough (7-8 pens)

 United were punished for profligacy as Championship Middlesbrough prevailed on penalties after Cristiano Ronaldo missed his own spot-kick.

Ronaldo - on the eve of his 37th birthday - skewed his first half effort wide as Ralf Rangnick's side missed enough chances to win five games. Jadon Sancho struck the bar, Bruno Fernandes hit a post and Middlesbrough keeper Joe Lumley made a string of fine saves to keep United at arm's length. 

To add insult to injury, ex-Reds trainee Matt Crooks scored a highly controversial equaliser before sub Anthony Elanga missed the 16th spot-kick of a protracted shootout to knock United out. 

Rangnick named a near full strength side for the visit of Chris Wilder's promotion-chasing Boro, with Paul Pogba's first start in three months and inclusion for Ronaldo, Luke Shaw, Fernandes and Sancho.

The dye was cast from the opening minute when Sancho raced clear to find himself one-on-one with Lumley. Our no.25 clipped the ball over the advancing keeper but hit the top of the bar and Fernandes fired off target on the rebound.

An acrobatic effort from Ronaldo forced a smart save from Lumley, and CR7 was involved again when Pogba was scythed down by the wonderfully named Anfernee Dijksteel in the box. Ronaldo stepped up for the spot-kick but uncharacteristically shot wide from the spot to keep Middlesbrough within reach.

Perhaps from that moment on, you felt it wasn't going to be United's night but we broke the deadlock in the 25th minute when Fernandes released Sancho, he took a touch and finished well with a low finish beyond Lumley.

Marcus Rashford had a goal ruled out and Lumley then came to Boro's rescue again with another top stop to deny Ronaldo as United lay siege to the Middlesbrough goal.

Arsenal loanee Folarin Balogun carved out his side's first opening but failed to test United's stand in stopper Dean Henderson.
Ronaldo fired into the side netting and Rashford shot over but Middlesbrough posed more of a threat and came close to a leveller on the hour mark. 
Crooks, who later featured so prominently, was picked out by Isaiah Jones with Henderson called into action to keep out the Middlesbrough midfielder.

Five minutes further on and they were level in a very contentious manner; Crooks finished into an empty net from close range after substitute Duncan Watmore had moved the ball on with his arm. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, referee Anthony Taylor couldn't give the goal quick enough and it was allowed to stand. 

Lumley saved again from Rashford but despite his heroics he then almost gifted us a second when - under pressure from Ronaldo - his miskicked clearance fell to Fernandes but he could only thump the upright.

Elanga headed wide and fellow substitute Fred tried his luck from distance but the fourth round tie went into extra-time with things level at 1-1.
Fred went close and Henderson saved well from Brighton loanee Aaron Connolly but there were no further goals and so a penalty shootout ensued.

The Reds have a miserable recent record in shootout and, of course, Middlesbrough's players suddenly became the best penalty takers of all time - funny that, isn't it?
After 16 successful efforts - Juan Mata, Harry Maguire, Fred, Ronaldo, Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Diogo Dalot all converted for us - Elanga erred to send Wilder's side into round five

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

Thursday 3 February 2022

Good riddance and thanks for nothing, ol' Dick Ed

So the day is finally here: a day nine years in the making when Edward Gareth Woodward is no longer an employee of Manchester United Football Club.
His reign of terror has lasted 18 months shy of a decade at Old Trafford and has been an unmitigated catastrophe on almost every conceivable level. 

For your average fan, on pitch success is the single most important metric, it's what you're measured on, judged by and dine out upon. One FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League is a miserable return by anyone's standards, never mind one of United's size and stature. All this despite an eye-popping outlay of £1.3bn, second only to mega-rich, state owned Manchester City who have dominated English football. Ultimately, he will be judged by a string of errors which brought one of the world's most iconic sporting institutions to its knees. The Reds are on the cusp of their longest barren streak for almost 40 (!) years. The banner above Burnley's Turf Moor in 2018 had it about right: specialist in failure indeed. 

The club have been nowhere near challenging for the title and have made the Champions League knockouts only twice in the last eight years on this man's watch. Four managers have come and gone on Woodward's watch, with a fifth - Ralf Rangnick - holding the fort in the interim until summer. From day one, Woodward has made a catalogue of errors - from acquiring Marouane Fellaini for £5m more than his buyout clause, to the lack of expenditure which led to the long and painful goodbye of one of the most successful managers of his generation - despite giving Jose Mourinho a new contract only five months hence. Whether you think those men were 'up to' the job or not, the high turnover of managers in a relatively short space of time will ultimately leave a black mark against the name and reputation of our ertswhile and ill-fated CEO. 

Woodward was a commercial guy, a money man, and was undoubtedly very good at it. Of course, that's exactly why the Glazer family rated him so highly. But United are such a huge financial behemoth, they're always going to bring in the pound signs. You don't need to be a genius to be able to significantly swell the club coffers. 
A man with no knowledge of football or experience in presiding over the fortunes of a football club called all the shots and made all the major decisions in the corridor of power. Often in lieu of those who did have said knowledge and nous. He quite simply never got to grips with the most important aspect of the club (the clue's in the name), but whether football success was ever a priority for Woodward and his merry band of minions is questionable. Perhaps his most heinous crime said it all, quite literally: "Manchester United don't to need to perform on the pitch to be successful."  

When United's then-manager Mourinho approached his boss with a list of targets - transfers he believed would make us title winners - in the summer of 2018, Woodward, having offered the firebrand Portuguese a new deal, slammed the door shut. Slammed shut by a man who probably didn't even know who the names were. He vetoed his manager's wishes, we ended up with Fred, Diogo Dalot and a 50-year old Lee Grant and the dye was cast for Mourinho's acrimonious but inevitable exit. To add insult to injury, one of those targets - Harry Maguire - was signed anyway a year later but with Mourinho now gone.

This was not Woodward's Old Trafford nadir, but it tells a tale of the lack of logic, the absence of joined up thinking and the chronic dysfunctionality permeating through United from top to bottom during his nine year reign of terror. In the turbulent post-Ferguson years, Woodward's presence has been the one constant, the common denominator in an era which has seen us lurch from one disappointment to another - in the transfer market, behind the scenes and on the field. How many other football club CEOs would you recognise, or be able to name? They're supposed to be in the background, the boardroom, not at the forefront. 

Woodward was the brainchild of the short lived, toxic and ill-fated Super League - last year's vanity project which caused such uproar in the world of football. A matter of days after ol' Dick Ed and his power hungry minions got their greedy heads together in a money-grabbing bid to ruin the Beautiful Game forever, the whole thing came crashing down and sparked a seismic chain of events which led to Woodward's departure. His decision to leave was apparently unrelated to the ESL debacle but you have to wonder if it served as the final nail in the proverbial coffin. 

Whilst the appointment of Richard Arnold might yet prove akin to shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, surely he cannot be any worse than his predecessor? Arnold is expected to take more of a back seat and not be so heavily involved in the football decisions. He's admitted its not his forte and is happy to let the likes of Rangnick and Darren Fletcher do the work, so he's already one up on anything Woodward ever managed. That's probably best for a club once again at a crossroads, almost a decade since David Moyes and Woodward - as rookie manager and CEO - faced the same unknowns. 

The bar set by Woodward may be low, but Arnold knows the stakes have never been so high.