Friday, 26 February 2016

UNITED KEEP EURO CAMPAIGN IN SITU BUT ARSENAL LIE IN WAIT

Teenage debutant Marcus Rashford wheels away to celebrate a scoring debut

At the start of the week, the state of affairs at Manchester United put the club's season on trial. United were in real danger of exiting two Cup competitions in a week to effectively put to bed any interest in their season. I blogged that the club would do well to remain in both competitions by the end of the week.

It turns out that they did manage it in the end but for long periods last night, it seemed like a major European upset was on the cards. Certainly so when the Danish club opened the scoring at Old Trafford to extend their aggregate lead over United to a couple of goals.

United's early plight in the first half, coupled with news of injury to Anthony Martial in the warm-up had the feel of Murphy's law in operation. Louis van Gaal has been unfortunate with injuries--15 at kickoff yesterday--but it is by his design that the club's human resource is feather-weight. The reasoning is that it affords him to give more young players an opportunity, which is fine and all, but he cannot in the same breath use it as an excuse when things go wrong.

Last night though, more things went right for the Red Devils who lined up with such a plethora of youthful players that if you'd just been from under a cave, you would think that the Dutch manager had opted for a second string selection in Europe's ugly duckling competition.

Often times this season, a dearth of experience in the squad has seen the players lose confidence at the first turn of adversity during a game. There were plenty of points during the game last night that examined the mental strength of the kids on show.

In the first half alone, FC Midtjylland scored with their first attack, Schneiderlin struck the post and Mata missed a penalty. And yet to their credit, United kept at it, plugging away until they---to use a van Gaal coin, 'forced the luck'.


It's a determination that was embodied by the debut of Manchester's latest along the production line, Marcus Rashford. In for the pulled up Martial, the 18 year old turned in a performance that he will never forget regardless how his career pans out from hereon.

Pace, strength and directness in a centre forward is what United have lacked this season and yet Rashford seemed to have them in abundance. Indeed the couple of excellent finishes in the second half were what we know as a typical centre forward's goal, borne of the kind of movement and positioning in the box that we've not seen too often this year.

Louis van Gaal will be accused of many things when his time is up at Old Trafford, but the number of debuts he has handed out to the youth has provided fans with some decent memories to hold onto. Of the young lot, and for various reasons, Old Trafford will remember impressive debuts from Andreas Perreira, Cameron-Borthwick Jackson, Marcus Rashford from the club's ranks and Anthony Martial from the transfer window.

It also helped the club's fortunes yesterday that Memphis Depay was at the races yet again in European competition. His performances against more accomplished opposition in the premier league however gives the impression that he is yet to make the step up in quality required for assignments such as Sunday's league meeting with Arsenal.     

Ultimately, for a game that struggled to sell, it was the most entertaining United have been at home in a long while. Certainly the best of the season. There was more panache and verve about United's going forward. Perhaps the youthfulness on this occasion worked to negate the baggage of nerves and pressure that the senior players often exhibit. As such, United ended up creating chance after chance and posting the biggest win under Louis van Gaal. Not once had United managed five goals in a game under van Gaal's leadership. That, in itself is an indictment on United's fortunes under the Dutchman.

United will definitely come up against more stern examination in the competition than a third placed team in the  Danish league, but at least they've avoided a humiliation that would have scaled unknown heights. Two positive results on the bounce are no longer a given at United but there will be no eyebrows raised during a week in which United have come up against opposition they are expected to sweep aside. No. The brows will be raised if United close the week with victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday.

United's successful template against the Gunners had been built around a competitive, aggressive approach to games against them. Under LVG, that template has since been ditched for a softer, less abrasive approach. The results have since dipped against them. The pain of losing to Arsenal is often underscored by the fact that there is an existing and well known template of how to go about games against them. Unfortunately, LVG never got that memo. At least not quite well anyway.

The 3-0 defeat to them in October was record premier league victory for them against us, highlighting how rarely it has been for Arsene Wenger's side to totally dominate United in a game. We'll find out if van Gaal learnt a few lessons from that on Sunday. 

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