Monday 27 February 2023

Casemiro 10;Martinez 9: Reds star as United win Carabao Cup at Wembley

Manchester United faced their most testing week for many a year but passed with flying colours as we knocked Barcelona out of Europe and then won the Carabao Cup at Wembley.
It may have 'only' been the League Cup, but it was the first trophy of the season and a chance for Erik ten Hag to collect silverware only nine months into the job at Old Trafford. This will act as a springboard, a launchpad to propel United to further success and you can bet this will be merely the first of many. 

Despite having only two days to prepare in comparison to a week for opponents Newcastle, United controlled the final and won at a relative canter. 

Everything ten Hag touches turns to gold: his substitutions work to perfection, his signings have been brilliant and his mentality monstrous. Up ze Reds!

Here is how each played rated as the team roared to a sixth League Cup success.

David de Gea - 8

Had little to do apart from one low save from Allan Saint-Maximin and a late Joelinton header. The clean sheet ensures he has now eclipsed the legendary Peter Schmeichel as the keeper with the most shutouts in the club's illustrious history. A second League Cup win for our Spanish Dave.

Diogo Dalot - 5

Always looked to have a difficult afternoon in store against the pace and trickery of Saint - Maximin. An early booking didn't help his cause and was given a stern examination by Newcastle's dangerman. Subbed at half time - but he has his first Reds winners medal.

Raphael Varane - 8

A defensive masterclass from the World Cup winner and one of the best defenders in world football. Won everything in the air and was calmness personified. Rolls Royce of a player. 

Lisandro Martinez - 9

Last-ditch challenge on Fabian Schar prevented Newcastle from going ahead. Got kicked in the head twice but epitomises this side with his bravery, courage and ability. One of the signings of the season. Easy to see why he is already a cult hero here.

Luke Shaw - 8

First trophy of his career having missed out on the cup double of 2017 under Jose Mourinho. Crossed superbly for the opener and excelled both defensively and going forward. What a season this man is having. Is there a better left back in the country right now?

Casemiro - 10

Put United ahead with a thumping header and ran the game thereafter. Strong, composed, influential on and off the ball and popped up everywhere. His leadership and winning mentality has permeated through this side. A simply magnificent master of his craft. What a player. The perfect performance.

Fred - 7

Picked up a booking in the first half but controlled the game in a Brazil-centric midfield. Energetic and combative as usual, Fred is a reliable big game player and never lets you down. 

Antony - 6

Toyed with Dan Burn on more than one occasion and linked up well with Dalot. Drifted in and out of the game a bit but is so important to the structure and balance of this team. 

Bruno Fernandes - 7

Absolutely tireless performance as he defied fatigue to cover every blade of grass. He plays 90 minutes three times a week but his level never drops. Neat and tidy without having a seminal impact on the game.

Marcus Rashford - 7

Was an injury doubt coming into the final and United's talismanic figurehead was not at his dynamic and explosive best. That said, he still got his goal and has now won four major honours with his boyhood club. 

Wout Weghorst - 6

A decent performance from the loan frontman. Played a part in the second goal by assisting Rashford and nearly scored himself with a screamer. His best work came from a deeper role - his pressing is relentless and his work rate insatiable. 


Aaron Wan - Bissaka (for Dalot ht) - 8

An absolute colossus against ASM in the second half. Never gave him a sniff, got forward superbly and would be a contender for man of the match had he played the full 90.

Scott McTominay (for Weghorst 69) - 6

Came on to re-energise the midfield and kept things ticking over. Solid if unspectacular

Marcel Sabitzer (for Fred 69) - 7

A very impressive cameo. Came on at a time when Newcastle were pressing and helped to restore the equilibrium. I like the look of him.

Jadon Sancho (for Antony 83) - 6

Had little time to impose himself on the match but made a few darting runs in the closing stages

Harry Maguire (for Rashford 88) - N/A

Came on to lift the trophy but had no time to make an impact


Erik ten Hag - 10

Got everything right with his substitutions, game management and preparation. You simply cannot fault him. Bald is best. 

Manchester United end trophy drought and scratch six year itch

Manchester United ended a trophy drought spanning six years and over 2,000 days with victory in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley.

Against a Newcastle side on an even longer run without success, Erik ten Hag's mentality monsters delivered the Dutchman's first piece of silverware at Old Trafford at the first opportunity, only nine months into the job. 
It rounded off a memorable week with the might of Barcelona sent packing from the Europa League on a thunderous Thursday at Old Trafford. Manchester United haven't had a few days as good as this for quite some while. 

ten Hag has the look and feel of a transformative manager and now has a trophy as tangible reward for the speed and manner in which he has turned United around. 

The erudite Dutchman's potent mix of discipline and tactical awareness makes this feel like a very different Manchester United to the one that stumbled blindly in the dark under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick. But those dark moments, some of the darkest we have ever known, make this slice of silverware all the more worthwhile. We've waited a long time for this. Not as long as valiantly vanquished Newcastle in fairness, but not since the late sixties and early seventies have United fans witnessed such a drought. 

But that monkey is off our backs now. The itch is well and truly scratched. Six months out from sinking without trace in that 4-0 defeat at Brentford, what odds would you have got on this? What would the odds have been of United sitting comfortably in the top four, winning the first trophy of the season as the only club in Europe still in with a chance of landing all four major competitions? 

It's true ten Hag's predecessors Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho also delivered silverware during their stints in the United hotseat, but neither felt sustainable. They were nice to win at the time, but we knew van Gaal was on his way out and Mourinho's short-termism meant it seemed like the end of the journey. 

This time, it feels different. This is only just the start. This League Cup victory is surely merely the first of many. You cannot help but make comparisons to the United vintage of 2006. Back then, the Reds were transitioning between eras as one great side ceded and another was created. A young team with early-twenty-somethings Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and the new arrivals Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra won this very trophy with a 4-0 win over Wigan.
The following season, Sir Alex's finest surged to the first of a Premier League three peat, before the Double followed in 2008. In short, that League Cup success paved the way for a new era of dominance. That side needed a trophy and, once it got one, it could not stop winning. That League Cup win may have felt underwhelming at the time, but proved a catalyst for greater things, instilling confidence and a winning mentality into a young, ambitious group of players who would become serial winners. 

The League Cup was Pep Guardiola's first trophy in England and so it is fitting a man who learned his trade under the City boss, a disciple of the nuances of the Beautiful Game, has followed suit. His United forerunner but three, Jose Mourinho, also sparked his silver-plated managerial years on these shores with three three handled trophy. Ridicule and mock it if you want, call it the Mickey Mouse trophy is you want, but no one said that when City won it four years in a row, or indeed when Liverpool themselves did so last season. It is not top of the priority list but it's a start and better than nothing. 

Now of course it is probably a stretch to suggest history will repeat. Pre-eminence such as we enjoyed then is rare now, and the margins so fine. But it will give these players the belief that greater things like ahead. Spearheaded by serial winners Casemiro and Raphael Varane, the first taste of a trophy will leave the group wanting more. Of United's matchday squad for the final, only David de Gea and Marcus Rashford had won a trophy with the club. Others like Varane, Casemiro, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Antony and Fred had won elsewhere but not since coming to Old Trafford. For Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Scott McTominay to name but four, all this was new. 

ten Hag himself will not stop here. There were no elaborate celebrations: the team returned to the North West at 10pm on Sunday to return to training ahead of West Ham's FA Cup visit on Wednesday. With the League Cup now safely stored in the cabinet, United will not rest on their laurels. There remains the chance of a quadruple. We are still in the FA Cup with only City left as one of the 'big' six and ten Hag's United are surely now favourites to win the Europa League. Something special is building at Old Trafford. 

Friday 17 February 2023

European giants serve up a cinematic thriller

Someone at UEFA had a very warped sense of humour when Manchester United and Barcelona were drawn together in the Europa League.
Yet, from the moment Xavi's La Liga champions-elect dropped out of the Champions League, there seemed a sense of fate, a sense of inevitability, that these two mighty monoliths would be pitted against each other.

The cynic in me wondered whether it was always UEFA's plan, to make sure Barcelona didn't get out of their group and then to engineer a situation where we would meet them: what better way of marketing the Europa League and increasing their viewing figures. The fact this was the first tie drawn out with minimal effort only added to my suspicions. 

Paul Scholes thumps home that goal in 2008.

A game fit for the final was, instead, merely a play-off, a passage into the last 16 of Europe's second-tier tournament. Whilst it epitomised quite how far these two giants had fallen - twelve years on from a Wembley meeting in the Champions League final - one thing was certain: this would surely be the most hotly anticipated Europa League match-up of all time. 

The hype and sense of occasion for this one far outstripped anything we will see in the Champions League this year. Indeed, perhaps only December's World Cup final, Messrs Messi and Mbappe and all, came close on the excitement scale. It is unlikely you will see a better spectacle even at the very apex of Europe's top table this season. 

Indeed, when United - heads bowed and with tails firmly between the legs - stalked off that pitch as beaten finalists in 2011, no one would have believed you if you had said this would be a second-tier knockout playoff game twelve years on. Both teams are striving to once again rescale the heights of those heady days and, on this evidence, are firmly on track to do so. 

And so the stage was set: two of the world's biggest and most successful historic sides in a heavyweight duel, like two heavyweight boxers renewing acquaintances after a decade in the doldrums. Whilst the tie may have lacked quite the same stellar, star-studded and A-list names associated with this storied fixture, merely the mention of Manchester United and Barcelona is enough to set collective pulses racing. 

This was a heavyweight collision for the ages, two giants coming together in front of the world to recreate the halcyon days of yesteryear: football royalty par excellence. Thursday's thriller did not disappoint to produce a simply stunning, magnificent match in which two of the continent's most in-form sides went at it hammer and tong over 92 captivating and mesmerising minutes -  a Champions League work of art on loan in the Europa League. United had chances, and some big ones too: Wout Weghorst should have scored when one on one, Marc - Andre ter Stegen tipped wide from Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho could also have netted. 

Although the first half was scoreless, it was still fascinating. Xavi deployed the wonderfully named Ronald Araujo at right-back, a ploy he used against Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior. The Barcelona manager had expected his United counterpart to utilise our main threat, Rashford, on the left. But instead, Sancho was out there with Fernandes stationed on the right and our no.10 down the middle. 

Barcelona more than played their own part in arguably the best game of the season so far. Ultimately, a draw was probably the fairest outcome but the Reds will be confident of completing the mission back on terra firma next week having flexed their muscles and gone about our business in an emphatic fashion here. Throw in the fact the Old Trafford fortress will be rocking, Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are back from suspension and the fact Barcelona are without Gavi and Pedri, and you can see why United and Erik ten Hag will be delighted with their night's work. Of course, the job is not done yet but we've cleared the hardest hurdle and will be marginal favourites at a ground where we're unbeaten since September.
It is the epitome of just how far this side has come we're disappointed with a draw at the Nou Camp only six months on from the Brighton and Brentford eviscerations. That, more than anything, speaks volumes of the impact ten Hag has had. 

Barcelona may be on course for a 27th Spanish title, eight points clear having conceded only seven goals in the league all season, but, great rivals Real Madrid, aside, rarely will they have witnessed an opposition side come to the fabled Nou Camp and play like this. At times, they simply could not live with a sensational and swashbuckling wave of white. United pressed high and hassled Barcelona into submission. We played them off the park at times and, although we understandably tired in the closing minutes, Xavi's men will have been the team more relieved to hear the whistle. 

For this United team is now one with the Dutchman's paw prints all over it. Resilient, relentless, together and capable of scoring at will. We are better organised, more confident both individually and as a team, we keep our shape effectively and our press is devastating. 

His ideas are left-field but who are we to question when they always seem to work? He had Weghorst in central midfield: while the Burnley loanee offered little attacking threat he contributed so much to the cause. Weghorst is doing a job for now; we need an upgrade in the summer but ten Hag is both delivering and rebuilding. 

ten Hag has reinvigorated and revitalised nearly everyone in a United shirt through simplicity and clarity. His methods work and he is a disciplinarian but fair with it. The players know where they stand and respect him for it. 

As the old adage says, the sequel is rarely better than the original but it's all to play for under the lights at Old Trafford as a huge week beckons for United. 

Wednesday 1 February 2023

League Cup semi final 2nd leg: Young Reds side to start against Forest

 Erik ten Hag is expected to give several of his fringe players the chance to shine as United welcome Nottingham Forest to Old Trafford.
Barring a cataclysmic catastrophe, the Reds will face Newcastle at Wembley on 26 March as we hold a three-goal advantage from the first leg; no side has ever recovered from such a deficit and - with United unbeaten at home since September - the odds are firmly weighted in favour of ten Hag's side.

This game presents an ideal opportunity to rotate and give youth a run-out but will ten Hag continue with his tendency to select strong sides? 

With that in mind, and with the team in the middle of a hectic run of fixtures, here is how we think the Reds will line up at OT this evening.

In goal, David de Gea is likely to be given the night off so expect either Tom Heaton or Jack Butland to get the nod. We think the on-loan Palace keeper Jack Butland is set to make his debut. Why bother signing him if you don't play him in games like this? It will certainly be a night to cherish for either one of United's back up stoppers to get a rare chance to play in a semi final under the lights at Old Trafford.

Butland will line up behind a defence of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Brandon Williams. 
Diogo Dalot is still sidelined so AWB will continue his run of games. It's possible Williams plays at right-back with Tyrell Malacia on the left, but there is no reason to think ten Hag will give AWB a breather. He has been good recently and so starts in our predicted side. 
It might seem unwise to risk injury when the tie is already won, but Varane has been rotated out for the first leg of this one and the cup tie with Reading. Varane will play against Palace on Saturday but we don't want him going into it with no minutes for a fortnight, so it makes sense to start with the Frenchman here. 
Alongside him, the skipper gets another 90 minutes under his belt having come in from the cold to perform well against Championship opposition. 
Luke Shaw is still absent and Malacia needs a rest, so Williams is set for his first start of the season at left-back. As mentioned, he could fill in for AWB at right-back with the young Dutchman in his stead but we think Malacia will get the night off. 

In front of them, our options are limited. Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen are injured and Casemiro needs a rest. Fred is almost a certainty to start after impressing from the bench of late, with teenager Kobbie Mainoo to be handed a second senior start. Mainoo played against Charlton in the quarter-finals and ten Hag is a keen admirer so there's no reason why he shouldn't be in from the start again for this one. 

Facundo Pellistri has impressed me in his fleeting, two-game cameos so far so I'd really like to see him in from the start. Jadon Sancho will return to the squad but is likely to be on the bench after three months out and Antony will also be rested. That paves the way for the talented young Argentine to step in lieu of his more established senior colleagues. 

With Bruno Fernandes rested and no one else to come in, 19-year-old Zidane Iqbal comes in for his first senior start. His only first-team appearance so far came in the last minute of last season's dead rubber group stage match with Young Boys but the Old Trafford stage is calling for United's first-ever British-born South Asian.

On the left, Anthony Elanga failed to secure a loan move during the transfer window despite a whole host of clubs scrapping for his signature. The Swede will be a valuable squad player for United under ten Hag and should get a rare chance to impress his manager here. 

Up top, Alejandro Garnacho is due a run-out and with Anthony Martial set to be on the bench, Wout Weghorst can also be rested to allow the young Argentine a start. 

So there we have it: a rotated Reds side focused on youth but, with an unassailable lead already, it's the perfect time to give our senior men a long-awaited and much-needed breather. 

Marcel Sabitzer: An eleventh hour deal done in a day

Shortly before midday on Monday, the entire landscape of Manchester United's season shifted with confirmation of the extent of Christian Eriksen's injury.

Our Danish, string-pulling schemer has been one of the key factors behind Erik ten Hag's Reds revolution but, thanks to Andy Carroll's criminal act of thuggery, Eriksen faces a lengthy layoff. So long, there is doubt whether he will feature again this season.

The ramifications quickly began to sink in. With Scott McTominay also facing a spell out, Casemiro and Fred were United's only two fit senior midfielders. With respect to Fred, he simply cannot be expected to influence a match in the same way as Eriksen. Beyond the Brazilian pair, 17-year-old Kobbie Mainoo and Zidane Iqbal, 19, with one senior start between them, were our only other options. 

The club, as Erik ten Hag himself alluded to, had not expected to sign any more players on the final day of the window. But all that changed with the devastating blow that came with Eriksen's crippled ankle; all because of Carroll's out-of-control antics in the Cup tie. 

ten Hag did not want to risk his side's upward trajectory through a lack of numbers, so there was little option. United would have to dip into the transfer market and break with tradition by doing so at breakneck speed with a little under twelve hours to go. From the utter despair of Eriksen's heartbreaking news, came hope. Hope that, after all, we could still salvage the season with the latest of additions. But then, United are notoriously slow when it comes to this transfer malarkey, so there was always lingering doubt we'd fail to get any new signings over the line in time. 

To expect United to continue to challenge on four fronts with a game every three days with only Casemiro and McFred was, to be frank, delusion of the highest order. 

I'd like to think the club knew the extent of Eriksen's injury before going public with it and so it stands to reason they already had a few short-term targets in mind. We have long been admirers of Leicester man Youri Tielemans but the east Midlands club wanted a huge fee for the Belgian. Ryan Gravenberch of Bayern was also high on our list of targets but neither the club nor their manager Julian Nagelsmann wanted to part with the player. 

Attention turned to Marcel Sabitzer, a player well known to ten Hag and a man who also played under the Dutchman's ill-fated interim Ralf Rangnick during his time at Leipzig. Rangnick is now, of course, Sabitzer's national manager and recommended his former charge to United's powers that be back in the summer. United had been in communication over Sabitzer for a few days and, then, once the injury news broke, things really accelerated. 

United's scouting department was familiar with Austrian international Sabitzer's energetic style, pressing ability, and versatility from his seven-year stint at the Red Bull side - a side renowned for their intensity.

United may not have spent any money but reacted quickly in the transfer market when bringing in loan striker Wout Weghorst as cover for the injury-prone Anthony Martial. With the addition of Sabitzer, United's swiftness and sure-footedness is another indication the club is heading in the right direction. 

From reports first emerging shortly after lunch, to representatives of United and the player meeting in Munich to discuss terms two hours later, United's late swoop for Sabitzer moved at head-spinning speed. 

By 6pm UK time, Sabitzer was on a private plane from Munich en route to Manchester where he was driven to the training ground. There, the player underwent the formalities such as his photoshoot, medical and finalising the paperwork. A deal sheet was lodged to give the club an extra hour to wrap up the formalities before the deadline at 11pm. At ten minutes past midnight on Wednesday morning, a short statement on the club's website confirmed the arrival of Sabitzer on loan until June. There's no option to buy but the 28-year-old spoke of his clear pride in coming to the club despite the unexpected nature of the deal. 

His pedigree and 'big club' clout is impressive: a stable and skilful short-term solution, a league and cup winner at RB Salzburg and Bundesliga champion with Bayern having played at two major tournaments for Austria. 

With Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka holding the status quo in midfield for the perennial Bundesliga champions and Nagelsmann willing to let one of his squad players go, a move for Sabitzer made sense. Too much sense for Manchester United and a fanbase used to a club scrimping over every last penny. 

But the club acted decisively and with alacrity, trading players efficiently and as smoothly as Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in the film Moneyball. 

With an authoritative, decisive manager, a proper football director with his feet now firmly under the table, and a chief executive content with background duties, United, at last, resemble a fully functioning, professional football club.

Welcome to Manchester United, Marcel Sabitzer.