Monday, 25 April 2016

UNITED SALVAGE DATE WITH DESTINY

United players join fans to celebrate Anthony Martial's sensational winner in stoppage time

It was on the 21st of May 1990 that Sir Alex Ferguson won his first FA Cup for Manchester United to (allegedly) keep his job as manager of the club after a difficult four year start. It was on the 21st of May 2008 that United clinched a third European title in Moscow in the season that marked 50 years since the Munich Air Disaster. It will be on the 21st of May 2016 that Louis van Gaal could potentially salvage some pride as manager of the club if by the end of that day, United lift a record equalling 12th FA Cup at Wembley.

On Saturday evening, Manchester United were in the (unusual) position of going into a season defining game as favourites.Roberto Martinez has struggled to progress from his initial success at the Merseyside club so much so that there was no gusto in the team when on the otherwise fiery occasion that is the Merseyside derby. There was doubt as to whether Everton would rouse themselves in a Cup semifinal if they couldn't manage it in a game against their old enemy.

For United, the dominance of their play, especially in the first half was nothing surprising. Indeed, United almost always hog the ball. The question was whether the club would rise above its profligacy in front of goal and make their chances count. In the end, United nearly paid for coming away at halftime with just the one goal lead after dominating. On another day, that Lukaku penalty goes in and heads drop. It has been such a familiar theme all season that the expectation of United recovering from adversity has since evaporated.

Incredibly though, Anthony Martial was on hand to score in Fergie time a sensational winner to deservedly send United through to a 19th FA Cup final. On the whole, it was one of the better performances for the club this season (the bar is so low) and further evidence of a burgeoning understanding from the front three of Martial, Rashford and or Jesse Lingard. Again, and unlike most of the season, several chances were fashioned on the back of the speed of the attack, allowing for confidence to thrive in the team.

Individually, Martial stood out for his craft and industry that resulted in a first half assist and a second half goal but credible mentions must go to Marouanne Fellaini who opened the scoring and made a last ditch interception to prevent an almost certain goal. The Belgian built on his outstanding performance against West Ham United in the quarter-final. He certainly does his bit to give the manager more reason to keep starting him ahead of what we know are more accomplished midfielders in Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin.

And what about David De Gea who kept out a third straight left footed penalty. Robin van Persie, Leighton Baines and now Lukaku have tried beating the Spaniard on his right hand side but all have failed. That was a crucial stop in the circumstances. In a season when the the outfield players have had all sorts of problems, his fellow professionals have recognised him as the hardest goalkeeper to beat in the league. He deserves his place in the PFA team of the year.


It is incredible that even at this stage of the season, with four games to play, Louis van Gaal can still technically defend himself infront of the board by claiming that he is still within reach of his targets. If the club wins each of its 4 league games, they make the Champions League places. Added to the fact that he gets to lead the club out at Wembley for an FA Cup final, you understand the fear gripping most fans about the possibility that he could yet stick around for his third and final season. The smoke about the place suggests that he will not survive beyond the summer, but stranger things have happened.

Ultimately though, a trip to Wembley to contest silverware is one of the hopes fans of many clubs carry from the start of the season. It is poetic reward to fans who have persevered through a dull season with less than a handful of highs to write home about. Save for the dead end that was the Sheffield United game at Old Trafford, the football in the competition has been pretty good throughout. More of that please at Wembley on a day you can be certain will be an occasion of joy for Reds.          

Friday, 22 April 2016

UNITED SEEK WEBLEY REDEMPTION IN DOUR SEASON


Even in the good times, it was not often that Manchester United made the trip to London to Wembley Stadium for an FA Cup game. Often times over the past decade since the opening of the New Wembley in 2007, United have only had to journey there for the odd Community Shield game at the start of the season.

As such, Saturday's trip to Wembley to face a rather out of sorts Everton side will remain something for romantics to cling to in an otherwise forgettable season. It was against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembey in 2009 that Dimitar Berbatov conjured a lazy spot kick to ensure that the Liverpool club and not us progressed to the final against Chelsea.

Before that, Didier Drogba popped up in the last few minutes of extra time to deny United what would have been an historic Cup triumph and League and Cup double on the occasion of the new stadium's opening in May 2007.

As such, United have an awful record at the FA's prize stadium.Indeed, victory tomorrow would see United record only their first FA Cup win at the new ground---an incredible statistic considering the decision to move semi-finals to the venue as well.

The plight of our Merseyside opponents mean that incredibly Louis van Gaal will walk his young side into the Cup semifinal as marginal favourites. Except that often times this season, and indeed under the Dutchman generally, United have looked the part when they walk into a fixture as underdogs and the reverse has been true when they have been assumed as favourites. Everton, it has to be remembered, easily overcame a testing Chelsea challenge in the last 8 of the competition to book their place in the last four. On their day, as we saw only too well at Old Trafford recently, they have the tools to topple anyone.

Lest we forget as well that United themselves are not in a position to cause much concern to the opposition. The youthful nature of the club's first team means that occasions such as tomorrow when game management could be required at several points in the game puts the club second best when compared to the relative experience in terms of age in the Everton team.

However, a run of four wins in five in all competitions has restored a semblance of confidence in the team. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have formed an understanding up top that looks to have the club in good stead. Lingard and Mata have done well to tag along that group. Now there's Wayne Rooney whom the manager is considering using behind the lot to stretch the play. It worked a treat in midweek against Crystal Palace, but Everton will not be as obliging opponents given what is at stake.

It's astonishing that in Manchester United's worst domestic season so far, the club is on the verge of an FA Cup Final appearance. A last chance salon perhaps for manager and players to make the season count. There'll be lots of red folk in London this weekend willing them on to that achievement. 

 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

UNITED AVOID SUCKER PUNCH 2 TO REACH WEMBLEY

United players celebrate Fellaini's winner


The campaign against Louis van Gaal is not that Manchester United are fifth in the league or that they crashed out of both European competitions early or that the club seems past its glory days. Manchester United are not new to tough times. A generation of fans at the club might be but the club did not win its admirers and make its name over a period of two successful decades.

It has become a cliche for just about any club but there is in fact such a thing as a 'Manchester United way of playing football'. Right from the days of Sir Matt and the Babes and even through the tough times of the 1970s and 80s under Docherty, Sexton, et al, United were favoured and famed for their footballing philosophy--the club always had a go. Because of that, opponents were always guaranteed chances themselves and indeed United were always vulnerable to concede but that was an irrelevance in the context of the ethos of the club. United came at you regardless who you were and almost oblivious of their own deficiencies. It's a mindset that has seen the club emerge as England's prime club even in the modern day era.

Louis van Gaal has essentially betrayed the identity of the club. Fans could take a bad season if the club's ideals were defended by their manager. For a club that has a go, coming away from White Harte Lane on Sunday with a miserable one shot on target remains unacceptable. It doesn't matter the statistics from the middle of the pitch if it all adds up to one shot at the opposition goal. It's easy to see where van Gaal's methods are limited in all this because it means that if the opposition goalkeeper manages to keep out the one shot on target that will come his way, United are effectively reduced to a blank.

Now, United do have an incredible worldwide audience. To ask that millions wait all week to watch the side muster a shot at the opposition goal is quite simply unacceptable! The football is insane! This is Van Gaal's biggest indictment, but incredibly, and to the frustration of many fans, the Dutchman has made 2 years of managing the club by always pulling out a result from the hat when he has been a game from a full blown crisis.

Last night, Manchester United's season, or what is left of it, was faced with a stern examination from West Ham United. The FA Cup remains the only realistic relevance about the club's season. With no side above United in the league left in the competition, there has never been a greater chance for the club to win a first FA Cup in 12 years. Except that United, fresh from a chastening at White Harte Lane were not favourites last night.

Therefore to come away with a 1-2 victory and arguably one of the best performances under Louis van Gaal drew mixed emotions with fans. There are those who have grown sick of the Dutchman pulling out such a result with his back against the wall and thereby buying himself a further stay of execution. Others are forced to rally behind the manager to salvage any pride they can from this season with another god performance.

Ultimately the frustration remains that this Manchester United team can capitulate like they did at White Harte Lane and yet play like they did last night. Make no mistake about it, West Ham are one of the premier league's toughest tests for sheer physicality and pace of the game. They can easily force anyone in the league into submission. And yet here is this supposedly young and inexperienced United team that matched the Hammers for pace, power and bettered them for quality.

More than anything, and true to the club's identity, last night, United actually had a go. By halftime alone, they had doubled the shots on target they managed on Sunday by full-time. There was an admirable directness about their play that forced the home side to do plenty of defending---something many of those defenders had not expected against a side that averages just the one shot on goal.

Individually, Marcus Rashford yet again stood out for the highest praise but this was a team performance. From goalkeeper to attack, United were committed to the cause and possessed a belief about them that we've not come to identify with the club this season; so much so that it didn't matter that the bench seemed flooded with better player personnel than what van Gaal had chose to start with. What fans would give to keep this confidence about them!

Often times a great performance is not reflected by a fine goal, but last night was one of the the exceptions. Marcus Rashford was nowhere near the Manchester United team last winter but he's up to six goals in 11 games for the senior side and most of them have been taken with such finesse of execution that at times we are forced to remind ourselves that he's just 18! Manchester United have racked up some fine FA Cup goals down the years, but the opener last night will rank among the best of them for execution if not importance. Rashford led a youthful brigade of fine individual performances. 

Marouanne Fellaini is not the player most fans wish to see start a game for United, especially if it means that Morgan Schneiderlin is on the bench but the Belgian acquainted himself well with the game after benefiting from a midfield axis that involved Michael Carrick but most crucially Ander Herrera. Fellaini gets beaten with his own stick a lot so he deserved poetic justice in the narrative that his smuggled effort was the one that eventually won the game for United.

Individuals aside, Manchester United paused in their abysmal walk through the season to deliver a team performance that resonated with the identity of the club. Unfortunately, we cannot even begin to trust that it will remain the case for what is left of the season.      

Monday, 11 April 2016

SUCKER PUNCH 1


In a week after which Manchester United's season could be rendered effectively over, the club have suffered their first sucker punch yesterday at White Harte Lane. In truth, United's season has been on its last legs for quite some time but somehow, Louis van Gaal has managed to maintain an aspect of relevance beyond March. As such, he has allowed himself a bit of pomp in his media briefings reminding all who care to listen about the possibility of finishing the season in third place and with an FA Cup win.

Yesterday/s result confirmed that it will take a minor miracle for United to finish fourth let alone third. Despite the four point gap between the club and fourth, it is not feasible that United will make up five points on Manchester City in the six available games.

It leaves just the FA Cup tonic for Louis van Gaal between now and Wednesday. Having seen his spiky side at the end of the Spurs match, one wonders the kind of mood and indeed questions the manager will have to deal with on Friday in the pre-match presser IF United succumb to West Ham at the Boleyn Ground.

Incredibly, none of the above is the most damning thing about United this season. No. The information from the top is that the owners feel that Louis van Gaal should keep his job beyond the summer. Indeed, an FA Cup final appearance will just about do it for the Dutchman. To the owners, the club remains so successful commercially that there is little desire to make a managerial change. This has been and is the much dreaded Glazer model.


It's all nice and pretty having a side of the youthful exuberance that United have got now, but the club is desperately short of men and leaders. In Martial, Rashford and Lingard, United possess an attack that is still very much a work in progress. Those three will achieve some incredible feats in their careers but they cannot possibly be asked to revive this Manchester United side whilst playing in positions other than their favoured ones.

It's amazing how the manager quickly restores everyone to their natural positions when United are chasing a game. Overthinking situations and attempting to be too clever in the most obvious situations is van Gaal's legacy. It couldn't have been more apparent than when United got a free kick and played the ball back into their pass pass formation only to succumb to the pressing of Spurs and launch it long up top. If that was the target all along, why not launch the ball from the set piece under no pressure in the first place? It would certainly cause more problems than a pass under pressure would! But that would be too simplistic eh? So we'll just pass it around and find a quadratic route to goal.


It's hard to remember the last time West Ham were favourites in a game against United. Slaven Bilic has got his side doing the basics in the most simplistic way. It will fly in the face of how United will attempt to go about the replay. What the Hammers lack in quality, they make up for it with passion, heart and desire such that going 2-0 down at home against Arsenal cannot dampen their spirits. United will take some effort to avert sucker punch 2.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

UNITED JUST ABOUT KEEP SEASON ALIVE


It's the hope that kills you! At times this season, Manchester United fans have hoped that the season could just come to a quick end and we start all over again in August. In that respect, it would help to move this season on faster if, like Chelsea, United's season has nothing much left to play for. Just when you expect to be put out of your misery, Louis van Gaal and his side pulls out a result that keeps patient that is United's season just about alive.

 There is still every chance that United could end up in the top four this season and with an FA Cup to their name before the season is out and yet you'll be hard pressed to name a United fan who genuinely believes that the club can achieve either of those feats let alone both.

On Sunday, United followed up their derby victory over Manchester City with another important 1-0 win at home against Everton. As has been the norm this season, United picked up the win in a seemingly difficult game to make it four wins in five during a difficult spell of fixtures. Indeed, chances are United will come away with all three points at White Harte Lane on Sunday. The same cannot be said about United's plight against sides at the lower end of the table.

The feeling though remains that the next 10 days could finally see United fans put out of their misery. Manchester City will not relent easily in their quest to finish 4th and so United will yet again have to convince at White Harte Lane. A couple of days later sees the Reds take on West Ham United at Upton Park in the final FA Cup game at the Boleyn ground. If the season is still alive by the middle of next week, then perhaps something is written in the stars for Louis van Gaal this season.

In the absence of Wayne Rooney, the kids have formed a formidable front four that has thrived. Lingard, Martial and Rashford in particular seem to be enjoying playing off each other. The trio combined to win the derby for United a fortnight ago and were at it again on Sunday. Joined by fellow academy graduate Tim Fosu-Mensah, they combined well to open up an otherwise resilient Everton defence to net what turned out to be the winner.


Going forward, the United faithful will be caught at a cross roads. United boast a vibrant selection of youth that could easily develop into something special at the club akin to the Class of '92. However, the tumultuous air around the club suggests that there might not be much patience about that idea to develop. Indeed, the next manager might not be as fanciful about youth as Louis van Gaal has been. The last thing the club will ant is a succession of club rejects go on to achieve a premier league medal in the manner that Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson will do for Leicester City this season.

In an unprecedented twist of events, reports indicate that the kids do not actually fancy the Dutchman at the helm as they do not relate to his methods. Predictibly, neither do they fancy Jose Mourihno as his track record with youth is non-existent. It is Ryan Giggs that they'd vote for. Yet another facet of contemplation into the succession plan at Manchester United.


Finally, Old Trafford was riddled with a memorable throw-back on Sunday as the club honoured Sir Bobby Charlton by naming the club's main stand after him. There simply is no other name associated with Manchester United that is more worthy than Sir Bobby. Sir Bobby has always been there for the club and it is unthinkable that there shall ever be a time when he is not. Salute Sir Bobby!