Saturday 31 December 2022

Match report: Wolves 0-1 Man United

Marcus Rashford stepped off the bench to earn United a hard-fought fifth successive win and lift Erik ten Hag's side into the top four.

Rashford; dropped for disciplinary reasons; came on at the interval and struck his eleventh of the season - and third goal in as many games - in new Wolves manager Julen Lopetegui's first home game at the helm.

Molineux has traditionally been an unhappy hunting ground for United and despite the old Gold's current struggles at the wrong end of the Premier League table, this would prove no different.

After Newcastle's goalless stalemate with Leeds and City's 1-1 draw with Everton, the Reds sit a place and two points behind Eddie Howe's high flyers with a game in hand. Guardiola's slickers are currently in second place, but only four points ahead of us.

There was one charge to ten Hag's side from the XI which beat Wanderers relegation rivals Nottingham Forest on Tuesday as Alejandro Garnacho came in for Rashford.

In United's final fixture of a largely forgettable 2022, our red hot no.10 showed great strength to hold off a posse of players and drill home an excellent finish 14 minutes from the end.

United will go into the New Year in fourth place; two points behind Newcastle with a game in hand and only four off Pep Guardiola's faltering City. 

The influential Casemiro had a header deflected over in the sixth minute before an excellent piece of last-ditch defending saw Nelson Semedo snuff out the danger from a lurking Garnacho.

The Wolves right-back then underhit his backpass to the feet of the forward, but the teenager was thwarted by the smart reactions of keeper Jose Sa.

The home keeper was soon called into action again to keep out Antony's deflected effort, before both sides were indebted to brilliant pieces of defensive play. First, the much-maligned Aaron Wan - Bissaka came to the Reds rescue when his lunging block prevented a certain goal from Joao Moutinho. Minutes later, James Collins was on hand to deny Anthony Martial a clear opening after his excellent challenge meant the Frenchman couldn't turn home a Bruno Fernandes cross.

Sa saved well from Antony on the stroke of half-time when the Brazilian winger perhaps should have done better. 

Rashford was summoned off the naughty step whilst Wolves also upped the ante with speedster Adama Traore on in place of the Reds old nemesis Diego Costa. With Luke Shaw at the heart of a makeshift back four, Traore was tasked with unsettling the Reds' defence and pinning us back.

Clear cut chances were few and between as the Reds' annual visit to Molineux lapsed into a familiar, jarring pattern. Fernandes fired over from a free-kick before compatriot Ruben Neves almost showed his Portugal team-mate how it's done, only for David de Gea to produce an excellent full-length save.

Struggling Wolves face a battle for survival and Lopetegui must find the answer to his new team's problems in front of goal. United also have well-documented issues in that department but came up with the solution here in the shape of the red-hot Rashford.

A give-and-go between Rashford and Fernandes saw the latter release the former to show great strength and perseverance as he cut inside to hold off three players and fire in under the stranded Sa.

Our super sub thought he had put the result beyond doubt minutes later when Wan - Bissaka picked him out. Rashford's shot was saved by Sa only for the ball to rebound in off the onrushing Rashford only for VAR to chalk the goal off for handball.

That set up a frantic finale in which de Gea saved superbly from substitute Raul Jimenez, and Ruben Neves had a drive deflected narrowly wide in the final moments.

United survived through five harum scarum minutes to hold out for victory and ensure a perfect ending to 2022. A third straight win (and clean sheet) for United since the restart and a clear upward trajectory. Roll on 2023. 

Overall team performance: 6/10. Job done
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford MBE. 

Thursday 22 December 2022

Winds of change: A look at Manchester United's summer signings

For too long, a contributory factor to Manchester's United decline in form and fortunes has been the club's inept record when it comes to recruitment. 
There can be no doubt the club have spent money and liberal amounts of it - primarily under successive managers Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Yet there has been only one outstanding signing worth his weight in gold with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes in the winter window of 2020. A few have had a short-term impact (think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic) whilst others such as Daley Blind, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba were never utilised correctly.

In short, the club have spent their own money but have spent it badly. But all that changed this summer. With the arrival of incoming Dutch boss Erik ten Hag, so there was a shift in philosophy and strategy. For the first time in many a year, United's recruitment and transfer policy has been absolutely perfect. 
ten Hag has signed players not just of supreme quality but has assembled a dressing squad of strong characters with a strong mentality.
All five of our new players have been very impressive and have brought an exciting and eye-catching combination of youth and experience to Old Trafford. This was the year United finally acted like a proper club and got things right. 

First came Tyrell Malacia, a player unknown to many outside of his native Netherlands, but a young full-back ten Hag had clearly been keen on for some time. After impressing for Feyenoord, he came to United for £14m to provide youthful zest and competition for Luke Shaw following the departure of the not good enough Alex Telles. Malacia was United's only bright spot in the abject 4-0 defeat at Brentford, and then shone on his maiden start in the Reds shock 2-1 win over a faltering Liverpool. Malacia pocketed Mo Salah and caught the eye with a simply supreme performance of pace, energy and athleticism in which he was a man of the match contender. Malacia has belied his tender years and looks like he's been playing at this level, and this standard, all his life.

The arrival of Malacia may have felt a little underwhelming given United's need to strength elsewhere, but when Christian Eriksen was unveiled ten days later, it certainly set pulses racing. Having been released by Brentford, it seemed a no brainer to bring in a player of Eriksen's undoubted class and guile for absolutely nothing at all and so it proved. United thinking rationally and using their common sense? Whoever would have thought. 

After years of watching the anodyne antics of McFred plodding around in a non existent midfield, Eriksen provided an instant upgrade and brought a sprinkling of stardust to an area of the team in desperate need of reinforcements. And the best thing of all? He was free.

United had gone into the season needing a new full-back, a new centre-back, another right footed winger, two midfielders and a forward. ten Hag again turned to his native homeland - and his former club - to beef up his options. Lisandro Martinez was the third new addition through the door, from Ajax for £40m and, despite reservations about his height, has been a colossus since day one. Like Malacia, he announced his Old Trafford arrival in fine style with a man of the match performance against Liverpool in which he silenced his critics and instantly endeared himself to the United faithful.

Affectionately nicknamed Licha, Martinez is the closest player to Nemanja Vidic since the man himself, the Butcher of Amsterdam is strong in the tackle, quick, elite on the ball and clearly loves the club already. It's easy to see why ten Hag wanted the newly crowned World Cup winner so much. He has been magnificent and is the early favourite for United's Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. I absolutely love the man and I'm so glad we've got him. Where are those doubters now? He has dispelled them in his own indomitable style. With Martinez and Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence, United can legitimately claim to boast the finest pair of centre-backs in the land. 

But the player the new Reds boss wanted above all others is the one he never got. From the day his appointment was announced, United were involved in a tug-of-war with Barcelona for the services of Frenkie de Jong. Every year there's a protracted transfer 'saga' which seems to drag on for eternity and the squabble for de Jong proved no exception. But even that turned out alright on the night. Enter, Casemiro. He may have been second choice in terms of targets, but he is certainly very much at the top of his game in terms of his undoubted quality. ten Hag will be so pleased he ended up with a five-time Champions League winner instead, despite the Brazilian's advancing years.

What a player this man is and what a difference he has made. Adding steel and stability to a midfield in a terrified state of flux, Casemiro's elite mix of both brain and brawn are exactly what we have needed for years. It's a shame we didn't get him a few years ago, but United's midfield is now a place where United move the ball around rather than simply moving it on. 

Casemiro was drafted in as an emergency, makeshift centre-back for the Carabao Cup visit of Burnley but you'd never know it. He was just as much of a baller back there as he is when deployed in midfield. A five-time Champions League winner, you still have to pinch yourself United have a player this good in our ranks. As per, Casemiro was dubbed ' too old' from a press pack desperate to criticise, conveniently forgetting he's younger than Thiago Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk. 

Because of the difference he has made and the impact he's had, I would say Casemiro is the best of all of our summer additions. 

With Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford sharing left-wing duties, and the latter incompatible on the right, there was an obvious need for another right-sided player. The usual names were bandied about but ten Hag had a clear vision in mind and again went back to raid former club Ajax in search for the missing piece of his jigsaw.

An Olympic gold medallist and twice Eredivisie winner with the Amsterdam giants, Antony seemed exactly in keeping with the attacking, dynamic mindset ten Hag had set out for United. Tricky and direct, Antony made an immediate impact at Old Trafford with a goal on his United bow in the ding-dong tete a tete with erstwhile unbeaten leaders Arsenal. He netted again in his second game and then curled in a wordlie in United's loss at derby rivals City - three goals in his first three United games for the man from Sao Paulo, our second Selecao, who arrived for an eye-popping £81m. 
Although the glut of goals have dried up a little since then, Antony has continued to excite us with his flair, box of tricks and unpredictability - an edge-of-your-seat showman, a tricky and mercurial winger. 

United have backed ten Hag with the money and the signings he wanted and so far, both he and the new additions have been vindicated. This time, maybe just maybe, we have found the winning formula. The winds of change are beginning to bluster through Old Trafford. 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Man Utd vs Burnley: Understrength Reds as domestic football returns

 Manchester United return to action for the first time in 37 days as the Reds host Championship leaders Burnley at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup fourth round.

The game will be played with a reduced capacity of 62,000 due to ambulance strikes in the area with a place in the quarter-finals at stake. Whatever your view on the virtues of this competition, several of the big guns have already fallen by the wayside with Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham already eliminated. Either Manchester City or Liverpool will join that illustrious list as the two heavyweights meet on Thursday, clearing a path for the Reds to make a concerted push for the Wembley final as second favourites.

So with all that in mind, and with the availability of United's World Cup stars uncertain, here is the side we think Erik ten Hag will pick for Wednesday night's game.

Martin Dubravka made his United bow in the last round KO of Aston Villa and will be in contention again here, but David de Gea was not selected for Spain in Qatar. It therefore seems likely he will get the nod between the sticks behind what will be something of a makeshift defence.

Diogo Dalot picked up an injury in Portugal's last eight exit to surprise package Morocco and so is unlikely to feature, although he probably wouldn't have played anyway. Aaron Wan - Bissaka got a rare run out in the two winter friendlies and looks set for his first competitive start under ten Hag. On the left, both Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia are unavailable so Brandon Williams will come in from the cold to fill the void. For obvious reasons, both Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez will miss out so Harry Maguire could be rushed back alongside Sweden international Victor Lindelof, a shoo in to start after his nation missed out on Qatar.

Christian Eriksen has been back at Carrington for a week after his Denmark side's earlier than expected World Cup exit. He seems certain to start with the well rested Scott McTominay in midfield with the talented playmaker's selection for this tie a welcome boost for an otherwise hugely understrength United side. 

The most clear cut selections will come in United's front four which picks itself. ten Hag will go with the same quartet he went with against Cadiz and Betis as none of the players involved featured in the World Cup.

So it will be Anthony Elanga and Alejandro Garnacho in the wide positions with another chance for Donny van de Beek tucked in at 10 behind line-leading Anthony Martial. Jadon Sancho is unlikely to feature having been on an individual training programme which saw him miss out even on selection for the shadow training squad in Spain. 

Man Utd predicted XI vs Burnley: De Gea; Wan - Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Williams; McTominay, Eriksen; Elanga, van de Beek, Garnacho; Martial


Vincent Kompany's high flying Clarets will fancy their chances of a minor upset here considering the fact they are fresher, and considering the Reds will be missing most of their regular first choice XI. We think this will be a close encounter, but ten Hag will still be able to send a reasonably strong team out with options aplenty on the bench. United will do just enough to secure a narrow victory. 

Man Utd 2-1 Burnley

Thursday 15 December 2022

Rapha against Licha in 2022 World Cup Final

After the holders and defending champions France won their semi-final on Wednesday night to set up a final with Argentina, one thing is certain.
A Manchester United player will return to Carrington as a world champion.

In a World Cup full of shocks and heroic underdogs, we're left with a final which - in truth - was widely predicted. Argentina recovered from falling victim to arguably the greatest upset of them all when they were humbled by the rank outsiders of Saudi Arabia in their first game. Since then, Lionel Scaloni's side, spearheaded by the little genius with magic in his feet and the heart of a lion, has got better and better. But enough about Lisandro Martinez. This has been a tournament where the stars seem set to align for Lionel Messi to finally deliver on the biggest stage of all. At times, it has seemed as if he has dragged them to this point virtually single-handedly. Underwhelming and erratic in their first two games, La Albiceleste have eventually lived up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites.

Martinez has started two of Argentina's six ties in Qatar with his role dependent on the shape deployed by manager Lionel Scaloni, who has tinkered liberally between a 3-5-2, a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 system. Let's not forget his totemic, match-winning block against a fast-finishing Australia side in the round of 16; truly Martinez at his combative and no holds barred best! 

 Since dispensing with Licha's out-of-sorts namesake Lautaro in favour of Manchester City's Julian Alvarez after the second group game with Mexico, Argentina have never looked back. Should he win it, the Butcher would go back to Manchester with a winner's medal draped proudly around his neck. It would also mean BOTH of United's first-choice centre-backs would be World Cup winners. Not many clubs can say that. Barcelona had Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, Bayern had Mats Hummels and George Boateng in 2014. 2010 winner Sergio Ramos played alongside a certain Raphael Varane - himself a World Cup four years ago - as part of an immense and impenetrable pairing at Real Madrid for the best part of a decade.  

Speaking of which, Varane of course is now very much United's defensive lynchpin. Having left the pitch in tears after picking up an injury against Chelsea, our totemic no.19 clearly feared his World Cup was over. But Rapha is made of stern stuff. France coach Didier Deschamps left him out of Les Bleus opener against Australia, preferring Ibrahima Konate alongside Dayot Upamecano to manage Rapha's fitness and ease him back in having not played a minute since that tie at Stamford Bridge in October.

Rapha has looked back to his best since coming into the side for their second group match against Denmark. Always assured in and out of possession, Varane lifted the trophy in 2018 and impressed against England in the quarters in which he sent club team-mates Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford packing. 

His stunning break-the-line pass started the move which led to Theo Hernandez's opener in the semi against Morocco. Varane is now geared up for a second, back-to-back final having been impressive as Deschamps tournament specialists prevailed four years ago in Russia. Should he do so again, he would have two World Cup and four Champions League winners gongs - before he's even turned 30. That is simply staggering and I wouldn't mind betting no other player boasts such an illustrious achievement. 

Argentina are looking for their third World Cup triumph and first since 1986. Messi was one when a small, squat footballing magician by the name of Diego Maradona captained his nation to victory against West Germany. 36 years on, and there is certainly a sense of poetic symmetry as the late Maradona's heir apparent Messi, also his country's captain, takes centre stage in what could be his last international match. 

There is added impetus as Messi is yet to win a major global international trophy and this would be Licha's first taste of that particular delicacy, too. 

Varane, on the other hand, is part of a side vying to become the first to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962. The task of keeping Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and, of course, the French's talisman Kylian Mbappe quiet will be a stern examination for Licha with all three purring and pulling the strings for Deschamps depleted but no less dynamic side. 

Varane, meanwhile, will have to be at his considerable best to shut down Messi, no doubt drawing on his experience of shackling the diminutive genius during his time at Real Madrid.

Argentina will start as marginal favourites simply because of the presence of Messi  (then again, France have Mbappe), but which Red will come out on top? 

The World Cup final kicks off at 3pm on Sunday in Lusail.