Sunday, 28 February 2016

Rashford Shoots Down The Gunners.

Manchester United 3 Arsenal 2

Louis van Gaal literally fell over backwards to make his point during a match that Marcus Rashford proved his worth with yet another double to follow his brace on Thursday. That's four goals in two games for the young man which made sure his team ended the week on a high.

The last seven days have seen United progress in two cup competitions and reignite their attempt to gain an automatic Champions League place in the Premier League.

Lately, it had looked increasingly difficult for United to grab a coveted top four position. However, they have a new found belief and nothing is better than beating the Gooners and their manager Arsene Wenger along with damaging their hopes of winning the league.

In the past, it was usually a title decider between these two giants of the league but how those days have changed. The fact that Leicester City is the top team says a lot about how the pendulum is swinging as the normal top four clubs are slowly losing their stranglehold on the league.

Would van Gaal keep faith in the youngsters that have performed at the top of their game for him and the club? Especially local lad Marcus Rashford whose debut double against Midtjylland catapulted him onto the football world stage.

The answer was yes, as was reflected in the squad: De Gea, Varela, Carrick, Blind, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Mata, Lingard, Memphis and Rashford started the match and the bench was brimming with young talent.

De Gea and Rojo returned to the starting lineup in place of Romero and Riley. Rashford was handed his first Premier League start and on the bench, there was another academy youngster getting his first taste of first team football the versatile 18-year-old Dutch player Timothy Fosu-Mensah who can play in midfield or defence sat alongside James Weir, McNair, Pereira and Januzaj.

Arsenal got the game underway with United old boy Welbeck in the side and the last time he played at Old Trafford it was his winner that knocked United out of last years FA Cup.

The first chance fell to the visitors as Monreal beat the off side to face De Gea who was alert enough to block the shot. Let off for United who didn't seem comfortable with Carrick at the back in the opening exchanges.

Varela was cautioned early doors as he struggled to contain the lively Sanchez and wrestled the Chilean to the ground more in keeping with the Six Nations rugby.

Rashford showed his natural power and agility by weaving his way past two defenders and was tripped right on the edge of the penalty area. Memphis struck the resulting free-kick well enough to make Cech save on his line. Brilliant play by Rashford in the build up proving he has the confidence and temperament for the big occasion.

Carrick picked up United's second yellow of the match for a late challenge on Welbeck, which was taken by Ozil and had the crowd gasping as De Gea flapped the ball away from danger after a Sanchez flicked header, thankfully  the linesman had raised his flag for offside.

Then just before the half hour, the Theatre of Dreams exploded into life as Marcus Rashford took over the match for the next couple of minutes as he announced his presence in the Premier League with a brace that sent the home fans and the manager into pure ecstasy.

The first came courtesy of a missed clearance by Arsenal following an early cross whipped in from the right by Varela and there was Rashford to calmly place the ball into the net to grab his debut goal.

The second followed good work from Lingard, who crossed the ball again from the right, which Rashford met with a firm header to plant the ball past Cech. A fairytale start for the youngster to make it four goals in two debut games.

Welbeck continued to haunt United by pulling a goal back for Arsenal just before the break with a sneaky header past De Gea.

Half time and United led 2-1 in a half that was illuminated by Rashford's finishing to make him the youngest player to score two goals for United in a Premier League match.

The only blight on the half was how easy it was for Welbeck to get between defenders to keep his side in the game. Carrick was having an off day at the centre of defence alongside Blind and Varela was being run ragged by Sanchez.

The home side got the second half underway attacking their favoured Stretford End. There was a worry for the home side straight away as goal hero Rashford was caught with a boot to his nether region and needed some treatment. When he saw Januzaj warming up, he soon returned to the pitch.

United struggled a little to get into the game in the opening minutes of the half as the visitors tried to take the game to them. It nearly paid off as a mix up between Blind and Carrick opened up a gap through the middle of the defence and if it wasn't for the covering pace of Rojo it could have ended in the equaliser.

After ten minutes Rojo picked up a knock in a challenge with Welbeck and had to be replaced by yet another player making his debut Fosu-Mensah.

Lingard earned United a free kick on the right and the ball was floated over to the far post where Schneiderlin had so much time to ready himself for a shot but he over elaborated and his effort was blocked.

The Red Devils eventually came alive again with some attacking play that deserved more than the end results produced with Memphis, Mata and Rashford involved in the majority of the attacks.

On 65 minutes Rashford turned provider as he played a delightful pass into the path of Herrera, who made no mistake in blasting his team into the lead, via a slight deflection, which sent the home fans into raptures of delight. The goal followed a break out of defence by Mata who fed the ball to Rashford and the vision the young man showed to play in Herrera was proof that here is a player with immense skill.

Arsenal kept plugging away and pulled another goal back after De Gea saved brilliantly from point blank range from Welbeck but Ozil was there to knock in the rebound.

There was a scuffle in the midfield after Herrera and Ramsey clashed and both reacted angrily towards each other. They were both cautioned for the spat.

The players were really getting stuck into the challenges and referee Pawson had a hard time keeping control of them. Van Gaal was unhappy and made his way to the touchline and demonstrated how he thought the Arsenal players were diving by literally falling to the ground backwards for the benefit of the fourth official. Comical, but great to see him off the bench remonstrating much to the delight of the crowd.

Local hero Rashford was denied the chance of a hat-trick as he was replaced by Januzaj for the last ten minutes of the match. The standing ovation the goalscorer received was probably the loudest heard inside the famous stadium for many a season.

Arsenal still tried to get the game back on level terms but each time they played the ball into the area De Gea was there to tidy up. It was all frantic stuff as United frustrated the away side with keep-ball by the corner flag with Mata and Memphis combining well together.

Five minutes of injury time were added to the tension as the two old rivals fought for every ball and neither team wanted to give an inch. Pulsating stuff from both sides.

James Weir became the latest starlet to make his debut when he entered the fray for the last few minutes in place of goalscorer Herrera.

United held on to claim all the three points and dent Arsenal's title challenge and at the same time make up ground on Man City mostly thanks to man of the match Marcus Rashford, who once again proved that the young guns at United are worthy of a place in the first team.

You wonder how the season could have been if the team had played with this amount of enthusiasm from the start. The experienced players have to hold their hands up and admit that the youngsters are showing them how it's done in no uncertain terms.

The games are now coming thick and fast as the season enters its final bend so the return of injured players is going to be critical in how United's campaign ends. So as not to end the season empty handed again, United will need the mixture of experience and the energy of the younger players to carry them through to the finish line.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

United's Boys to Men.

I'm sure almost every Manchester United fan has dreamed about scoring the winning goal in front of the Stretford End to earn the Reds a vital victory. Well, imagine not only doing it once, but twice.

Marcus Rashford must have been pinching himself the morning after his dream debut against Midtjylland as he realised exactly what he had achieved. Not only had he helped his side into a mouthwatering last 16 clash with arch rivals Liverpool, but he had also put his name in the record books as United's youngest scorer in European competition an honour previously held by the one and only George Best.

Not bad for a local lad who thought he would be on the bench hoping to get a run out for the last few minutes. Fate has a strange way of showing its hand.

It has been a season in which United have had to rely on the youngsters at the club to help out the first team due to the heavy loss of players due to injury and boy have they risen to the challenge. Jesse Lingard is the main example, a product of the United system, he has enjoyed an extended run in the side and has not let himself down not only performing well but contributing with five goals.

The main positions that have needed the most cover have been in the full back spots and they have been admirably filled by the likes of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Donald Love, Guillermo Varela, Joe Riley and a late cameo by Regan Poole against Midtjylland.

In attack, James Wilson obviously didn't grab van Gaal's attention and was allowed to join Brighton on loan and it was a surprise that the manager recalled Will Keane as cover in the attack in place of Wilson. Andreas Pereira has been used fleetingly but has been involved in the full squad set up for a while.

And that's the main point getting the young players involved as much as possible with the first team. They might not play every week, but the fact that they are training and travelling with the more experienced players is a crucial component in any young players development. It's imperative they learn how to be a Manchester United player on and off the field.

In the first leg in Denmark and against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, there was a bench full of academy and reserves, including the recalled from loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson as cover for Romero. Valuable experience even if they didn't manage to get involved in the matches.

It's been a mixed bag for the academy teams this season with a change in coaches after a poor season, which saw Paul McGuinness depart after years involved in the progress of many players.

With former graduate of the famous class of '92 Nicky Butt now in charge of the academy it guarantees that the young starlets' feet will remain firmly on the ground as he will lead by example and ensure his young charges do not get carried away with the fame that will surely come their way.

The reserves have had a better season sitting pretty at the top of their league and it's that side that has provided the main cover for the first team. With the likes of James Weir receiving rave reviews for his overall contribution this season, it won't be long until a few more young stars of the future will be knocking on the door of the first team.

Many negatives have been said and written about Louis van Gaal's tenure as manager of the club. However, one thing is for sure he has not been afraid to give the youth a chance. It can be argued that as he didn't sign covering players in the transfer window then he has had little or no choice but to turn to the youngsters.

The main thing is once they have been given the go ahead the players have responded well and at no point seem overawed by the step up to the first team. It's so refreshing seeing them clearly enjoying themselves and obviously playing for the club rather than their wallet and long may that enthusiasm last.

It looks like the latest batch of young talent off the production line is bright at Old Trafford and long may the tradition of nurturing talents like Rashford, Lingard & Co. continue to flourish for many more years to come.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Dream Debut For Rashford

Manchester United 5 FC Midtjylland 1 (agg: 6-3)

Manchester United has a new hero in the shape of 18-year-old local born Marcus Rashford whose debut double saw the Red Devils through to the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League.

In a week that will define how United's season will shape up, it was imperative that after getting through to the FA Cup quarterfinals they overcame their opponents from Denmark. And they did so with van Gaal's special brand of 'horny' football that had everybody excited in the second half.

After the shock defeat last week in the first leg there were many wrongs to put right including a home performance that could at least put a marker down for the remainder of the teams left in the Europa League that United were taking the competition seriously.

With the treatment room at Carrington full to the rafters it was a mixed bag of news for van Gaal in the run-up to the match. The return to training of Rojo and Valencia with the former on the bench for this match. But it was a game too soon for De Gea who will hopefully be fit for when United host Arsenal on Sunday in the critical Premier League game.

The starting team that van Gaal originally put out was: Romero, Varela, Carrick, Blind, Riley, Schneiderlin, Mata, Herrera, Lingard, Memphis and Martial.

Then, during the warm up the injury jinx hit United again as striker Martial pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem. This meant that youngster Marcus Rashford would unexpectedly make his starting debut on the biggest night of his career. Also making his full debut was Joe Riley at left back.

Carrick started at center back in place of Smalling in a role that he has filled in before, so it shouldn't be a huge upheaval at the back.

The home side as expected enjoyed the majority of the play in the opening minutes with Rashford and Riley looking sharp on their first starts for the Reds.

The Danish visitors clearly came with a frustrating game plan as most clubs do when they come to Old Trafford and that was to sit everybody behind the ball when United attacked.

On the quarter hour mark Rashford showed the skill that all the fans who follow the reserves knew about as he broke at pace into the area and powered a shot towards goal which the keeper managed to turn round the post for a corner.

Memphis seemed to enjoy himself on the left and on one run beat a number of defenders to open up a chance but the end result came to nothing.

Then in the 27th minute and totally against the run of play with practically their first clear chance on goal Midtjylland scored. And it was a goal by Sisto, who waltzed through the United defence and placed a shot to the right of Romero.

United responded to the set back well with Memphis, attempting to bring his side level with a shot that almost found its way through. Just after the half hour mark the Dutch wingers persistence paid off when he weaved his way past a couple of defenders and delivered a low fizzing cross from the left which was turned into his own net by Bodurov. 1-1 and United looked up for the fight.

Schneiderlin tried the acrobatics with an overhead kick which was only just wide. Memphis was on fire as he was at the head of every United move and certainly looked on top of his game. His confidence was there for all to see as he tried to beat the keeper from thirty yards as the ball flew just wide.

Now the Red Devils needed two more goals to qualify and if they kept feeding Memphis then you got the feeling anything was possible. From the home side's seventh corner the away side needed a great save from Anderson to keep their noses in front on aggregate.

As the clearance came back towards the visitors penalty area Memphis flicked the ball onto Herrera and as the midfielder entered the box he was tripped to earn United a penalty.

Mata took the huge responsibility and placed the ball towards the bottom corner. But Anderson dived well to turn the ball out for a corner. It was a great save by the keeper who read Mata's intention well. This means that the Spaniard will be taken off spot kick duties for sure.

Half-time and all square at 1-1 in a half that United totally controlled and was unlucky not to be ahead after all the possession they enjoyed. In the end, they shot themselves in the foot with a lack of quality in defending by Blind and Carrick for the visitor's opener by showing a lack of commitment to make a challenge on Sisto as he danced across the area.

On a positive note it was all about Memphis as he tortured the Midtjylland defenders and was at the heart everything United produced, including an assist for the own goal and the pass for the penalty.

The second half got underway with the pressure on United to turn the tie around and they would have loved the chance of an early goal which almost came when Mata floated a delightful ball over to the far post where Schneiderlin was waiting unmarked. The Frenchman inexplicably hit his shot back across the goal when it looked certain he would blast the ball into the back of the net.

Herrera had the next chance as he ran onto a far post cross from Memphis, but the midfielder seemed to change his mind about shooting and elected to head the ball which went just wide.

It was all United as they went in search of their second goal at the same time having to keep an eye on the counter from the visitors especially with their half-time substitute and scorer from the first match 2.01m Onuachu.

Just before the hour mark, the atmosphere in the ground went a bit flat as United took their foot off the pedal and the visitors enjoyed more of the ball.

The game, the tie and the atmosphere were suddenly brought back into life in the 63rd minute as Marcus Rashford scored a wonderful goal on his debut in front of the Stretford End after great work by Mata, who won a lost cause as he saved the ball from going out of playing and pulled it back into the area and their was Rashford first to react and placed the ball gleefully into the back of the net. A great moment for the 18 year old and hopefully the first of many at the Theatre of Dreams.

Lingard seemed to have won a penalty for his side and as the crowd cheered the referee decided wrongly, that the forward had dived and booked him for simulation. A decision that could have had a huge bearing on the outcome of this match as United were still in search of the goal that would see them through. Also, it means that Lingard will be suspended for the next match in the competition.

Memphis continued to conjure up chances from the left and you got the feeling that if any player was going to create something it was him.

As the game entered the final fifteen minutes it was the debut boy who turned hero again as Rashford side-footed in from a chipped cross from Varela. What a debut from the Manchester born striker it will be a night he will never forget.

Following the goal, it was a welcome return to play for fans favourite Marcos Rojo who came on for Joe Riley, who certainly played his part in his first start for United. Lingard was also withdrawn by van Gaal and replaced by Pereira.

Two minutes left on the clock and United was awarded a second penalty for a handball by Hansen. The crowd was calling for Rashford to take it and get his debut hat-trick, but Herrera took the responsibility and dispatched his shot firmly into the back of the net.

Midtjylland would see out the last few minutes of the match with ten men when Romer received his marching orders after a torrid night up against Memphis.

Then at last after all of his hard work Memphis got his just reward by netting United's fifth goal of the night with a cut in from the left and a shot that gave the keeper no chance. A deserved goal for the man of the match.

There was still time for another player to make his debut for United as Regan Poole entered the match in place of Herrera in added time.

Final score 5-1 and 6-3 on aggregate saw United successfully through to the next round after a second-half display that was more like United of old as the Stretford End hailed a new hero in the shape of youngster Rashford who scored a double.

Not bad for a player who thought he would be stuck on the bench proving that dreams do come true and he took the opportunity that was presented to him with the confidence of a quality forward.

After all his troubles this season it was pleasing to finally see Memphis perform to the level that everyone knows he can play at. The extra training sessions with Giggs are clearly paying off.

Next up is Arsenal at home in the Premier League for United. They will not have it as easy as they had it in this match and with Martial added to the injury list the team selection could be a headache for van Gaal. However, in Rashford he has the option of a young man who has the ability and confidence to grab the goals.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

United Tame The Shrews.

Shrewsbury Town 0 Manchester United 3

After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of FC Midtjylland in the Europa League here was a chance for van Gaal and his beleaguered side to put some passion and a semblance of pride back into their game.

Playing against the lowest ranked team still left in the FA cup and with a tasty home tie against West Ham awaiting the winner in the quarterfinals should have been incentive enough for the Red Devils to ease through the 5th round.

With so many players injured van Gaal once again turned to a mixture of experience and youth with a starting XI comprised of: Romero, Varela, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Mata, Lingard, Memphis and Martial.

United got off to a quick start in their changed strip of all white as they won a corner in the first minute. Blind's delivery was met by the head of Smalling, but the captain's header was over the bar.

Memphis tried a couple of long range efforts but each shot only just managed to stay in the small ground, which was bouncing with noise from both sets of fans. A true cup tie atmosphere.

It was after ten minutes that the Shrews keeper Leutwiler was first tested and that was from a low drive from Memphis that he managed to palm to safety. It was all United without the final punch.

Herrera tried his best to kick the ball out of the stadium, but failed as his shot only reached row W. Maybe he and Memphis had a side bet on who could belt the ball into the car park first.

After twenty minutes and the home side were holding out against United who just couldn't find the killer touch to warrant all their possession. Same old story of the season. But even United would find it difficult not to carve out a clear-cut chance in the remaining seventy minutes, surely.

The away side were awarded a free-kick right on the edge of the penalty area which was taken by Memphis, but on the way to goal the ball struck the back of Martial's head and went out for a goal kick. It looked like the ball was on the way to the corner of the net. It totally summed up United's play at the moment.

Martial then almost turned the tie in United's favour with a show of quick feet inside the area and a shot which was saved by the keepers legs then cleared off the line by Grandison. That was by far the closest United had come to taking the lead.

Then up stepped skipper Smalling in the 37th minute to do what his forwards couldn't and scored the goal the team badly needed. It started with a strong headed challenge by Schneiderlin that fell nicely into the path of Smalling who had stayed upfield following a corner.

The defender showed calmness under pressure and struck the ball into the ground and on its way towards goal it took a deflection and looped into the goal. 1-0 ahead and you would expect the Red Devils to put this game to bed as soon as possible. They continued to attack and the pressure paid off right on the stroke of half-time.

It became 2-0 to United as Shrewsbury gave away another free-kick in a dangerous position on the edge of their area and, this time, up stepped Mata to deliver a perfectly placed shot bent over the wall and into the back of the net to put the tie beyond any doubt. There was a claim that three United players were standing in an offside position between the wall and keeper as Mata struck his shot, therefore it could be claimed they were obstructing Leutwiler's view as he was rooted to his line.

Half-time and United were comfortably leading a tie they had controlled from the first whistle even if at times they had made it look more difficult than it should have been.

Shrewsbury had not troubled United at any time but had been fairly overzealous in some of their challenges which the referee would have to keep an eye on in the second half. The image of the half had to be the smile on van Gaal's face when Smalling put his team 1-0 ahead.

United started the second half and van Gaal made one change to his side by giving a first team debut to young full-back Joe Riley who replaced Borthwick-Jackson at left back.

The away side picked up where they had left off in the first half by immediately going on the attack and caused panic in the home defence and won an early corner.

There were two close attempts on goal within minutes as first Memphis showed his determination with a run and shot that flew inches wide then Martial watched his close-range header go agonisingly wide.

Just after the hour mark, United sailed into a three-goal lead through a smart finish by Lingard, who put the ball away on the half-volley at the far post following a delightfully flighted ball by Herrera. The move was started with a huge throw out by Romero which caught the home defence well and truly on the back foot.

Within minutes of the goal wand with clearly an eye on two important games coming up van Gaal decided to withdraw Mata and replaced him with Pereira.

With twenty minutes left on the clock van Gaal made his final change of the match by giving Martial a well-deserved rest and put Keane on up front.

Lingard almost grabbed his second, however, he got the ball tied up to his feet before he could get away a shot.

Once again the away fans were in fantastic voice making the majority of the noise inside the stadium of just over 9,000 spectators.

Will Keane's first taste of action almost saw him score the fourth goal, but his left-footed strike hit the post. Unfortunately for the young forward it was his last taste of action as he had to leave the field with what looked like a groin strain. So, having used up all their substitutes, United had to see out the final fifteen minutes of the match with only ten men.

The home side did, at least, have an attempt on goal as late as the 84th minute, which United's defence managed to clear. Suddenly Shrewsbury had a belief that they could score as Ogogo had a totally free header which he directed across the goal and wide. In all honesty, Romero should have picked the ball out of his net after the striker was left unmarked and in a great goal scoring position.

At the death, Memphis was still trying to get his name on the scoresheet but the keeper managed to block his close-range effort.

Cole came close for the Shrews with a shot that only just went over Romero's bar. You wonder what would have happened if Shrewsbury had played the whole match with as much energy as they had shown in the final ten minutes.

Full-time 3-0 and, in the end, a job well done by United. If not scintillating football is was a vast improvement on recent results and sets up a mouth-watering home tie in the quarterfinals against West Ham United. But let us not forget that this was a victory against a Football League One side and there will be tougher teams ahead. For United it was a step in the right direction.

Next up is the small matter of the return tie against FC Midtjylland and another chance for van Gaal and his team to reignite the season and make amends for the first leg.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Dismal Display In Denmark.

Midtjylland 2 Manchester United 1

No more! Manchester United directors need to start to the process of replacing Louis van Gaal as the manager of a team that is being dragged ever lower into the depths of despair following this latest defeat by FC Midtjylland. Or, he should at least offer his resignation and put us all out of the misery that is of his own making.

Let's get the inevitable excuses, which van Gaal will no doubt make, out of the way first. Thirteen injured first team players prior to the match, then add to that your number one keeper injures himself in the warm up. A defence made up of players not used to playing together, a bench crammed with mainly reserve team players and you could argue that United were up against it on the night.

But wait a moment the opposition is from the Danish league who last played a competitive match back in December and were beaten 9-1 by Napoli over two legs in the group stages of the same competition. That tells you exactly how shocking United's performance was.

This was a display so awful that words can hardly describe the utter naivety and inept way United succumbed to defeat. Weak challenges, poor passing and the inability to take control of a game that the home side should never have been allowed to dictate the way they did. Yes, we should beat the Danes next week at Old Trafford but hasn't the damage to our pride already been done?

Manchester United is a proud club that has been built on the rich traditions of stylish, flowing and attacking play and a never say die attitude with players willing to overcome any obstacles with the one aim of winning, come what may. There was no one on display in this game that could be associated with those same values.

Also, the same can be said of the coaching staff, who remained glued to their seats as their players clearly needed direction from someone on the touchline even if it was only to issue a rally cry and at least attempt to show some passion.

Winning this second class Europa League has become the only realistic chance United have of qualifying for the Champions League next season because a top four spot is looking increasingly unlikely as each Premier League week goes by, but judging by this showing even that is going to be harder than it looks.

Next up is Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup 5th round and you can bet they will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of United's visit on Monday.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

United Fail To Deliver.

Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1

In a match that at least on paper United should have won fairly easily ended in a defeat which not only leaves top four qualification in the balance, but also throws fresh doubt on Louis van Gaal's position as manager.

Outplayed, out-thought and outgunned by a Sunderland side fighting for their Premiership survival United offered little in the way of ideas of how to compete with the Black Cats.

Coming into this match United's Premier League away record against the Sunderland was impressive, having played fourteen and won nine of them and having only lost one. So, a victory was definitely on the cards for the Red Devils bearing in mind the style of attacking play they had put on in the last three games and the fact that Sunderland has been struggling for most of the season.

Under new manager Sam Allardyce they have started to put a run of form together and pulled an unlikely draw out of the hat away at Anfield last week after falling behind by two goals.

After sticking with the same side for the last two matches van Gaal decided a slight reshuffle was needed and chose this starting XI: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Mata, Lingard, Rooney and Martial.

The manager made only one change to the starting eleven and that was to rest Fellaini completely as he brought Schneiderlin back to the midfield to partner Carrick.

The surprises were on the bench as there were three youngsters called up to join the first team and they were defender Donald Love, midfielder James Weir and striker Will Keane who netted five goals against Norwich City last week in an under 21 match. In fact, the U21s are now leaders in their league above, ironically, today's opponents Sunderland.

Sunderland got the game underway on a bitterly cold afternoon and before any of the players could get warmed up the hosts took the lead from a Khazri free-kick that went through everyone and caught De Gea off guard as he dived late and was unable to stop the ball creeping in at the far post.

Great start for the home side after only three minutes not so much for the visitors but there was still a long way to go in the match and more than enough time for United to put things right.

It was almost 2-0 for Sunderland after ten minutes when the ball was bubbling around De Gea's six-yard area only for Defoe to thankfully miss kick his shot under pressure from Smalling.

United had played in some decent balls into the opposition area without being able to cause any worry to former red O'Shea and his defence. They were also guilty of giving away needless free kicks while attacking in the final third. So far, this was not the same United side that had performed well in the last three outings.

In the opening half an hour Sunderland was on top of the match and had created the better chances, including a fair shout for a penalty against Schneiderlin. It seemed that the wind had been knocked out of United's sails by that early goal.

Mata had the first clear chance on goal for United with a snapshot from the edge of the area which was fired directly into the keeper's hands.

Ten minutes before the break Darmian was involved in a collision with goalscorer Khazri which clearly caused the Italian defender immense pain in his right shoulder that forced him off.

Then all the away fans raised the roof as Anthony Martial scored a sublime equaliser five minutes before half time. It all came from a passing move that ended with Mata firing a rasping drive that the keeper Mannone could only parry into the path of Martial who dinked the ball over the keeper into the net. A lovely finish which brought United right back into the game.

Before the restart, Donald Love replaced Darmian at right back to make his first team debut for United. With his surname and tomorrow being Valentines day it could have been a writer's dream for the headlines.

Half-time and it ended 1-1 thanks in no small part to Martial's awareness in front of goal. His quickness of feet is a joy to watch and the way he executed the little chip over the keeper shows how much confidence he has in his own ability.

The equaliser was the only bright spark on an otherwise dull display from United and with Darmian leaving the play with a shoulder problem, it could prove very expensive indeed with games coming thick and fast. The players were well below par and would drastically have to lift their game in the second half.

United started the second half with two youngsters Borthwick-Jackson and Love in the full back positions and no further changes.

Rooney had been fairly quiet in the first half and started the second by having his name taken for a careless trip on Cattermole.

It was Sunderland who started on the front foot and Defoe almost caused Blind to score an own goal which gratefully didn't happen as the ball squirmed past De Gea's post with the keeper beaten.

Mata became the next United player to be cautioned after he had bamboozled himself lost the ball and tripped up the defender. To be honest, it was a harsh booking as the ref should have laughed it off along with everyone else. Then Carrick gave Marriner no option but to book him after he fouled M'Vila right under the ref's nose.

Not a good start from United who were all at sixes and sevens and needed a straight head to guide them through this rocky period of play.

There was a very dangerous moment for United when N'Doye was put clean through the away defence and he struck his shot well when in a one on one position with De Gea but not for the first time this season the Spaniard stuck out his size 9's and saved a certain goal.

On the hour mark van Gaal made a change in attack when he replaced Lingard with Memphis who was celebrating his 22nd birthday.

United's passing had been terrible all day with Mata being the main culprit when in a forward position and Carrick comes a close second.

The Red Devils had De Gea to thank again as he pulled a save from his vast repertoire by tipping over a drive from close range by Kone. There are not enough adjectives to describe United's keeper at the moment he really is on top of his game.

As the final ten minutes approached the visitors enjoyed a spell of pressure, which resulted in a string of corners that had no end result as the Sunderland defence cleared them all too easily.

Disjointed could be used to describe United's play in this match as they looked at times like they had never played together before.

Van Gaal stated that Memphis had had his confidence boosted by his appearance for the U21s in midweek but that confidence was nowhere to be seen as he shot weakly towards the goal when he should have blasted it into the back of the net.

After being denied by De Gea earlier, Kone broke United's hearts by putting the Black Cats back into the lead with a header that somehow went under the keeper's body on the line. The winner was unfortunately put down as a De Gea own goal which was a shame as he had pulled off some fine stops prior to the goal.

Five minutes on the clock and with his side trailing van Gaal tried his last throw of the dice by replacing Schneiderlin with Keane in an attempt to save the game.

Memphis tried his luck with a curler that the keeper managed to punch away as United tried to save face. This was followed by O'Shea, who clearly hand balled a Memphis shot, but the referee only awarded a corner much to the disgust of Rooney and his teammates. There were a few shouts for penalties throughout the game and maybe Marriner felt he couldn't award one when he didn't give the others.

Full time and it ended in a 2-1 defeat that has left a very bad taste in the mouth. A result that has to go down as one of the worst of a season of many not so much for the fact that United lost against a team that has been struggling near the bottom all season but more for the fact that they performed so poorly.

United failed miserably to take an advantage in the race for a top four position with all the top four teams playing each other over the weekend. A victory would have seen United close the gap over City to just three points. However, once again van Gaal's side just didn't turn up for a fight.

There are only twelve Premier League matches remaining that will define United's season and they will surely have a strong bearing on whether Louis van Gaal will still be at the helm come next season. Failure to finish the campaign in one of the coveted top four positions will only add fire to the rumours surrounding the impending arrival of the self-proclaimed special one Jose Mourinho.

There is a backdoor chance of qualification for the Champions League via the Europa League, which starts this week with a first-leg tie away in Denmark against Midtjylland.

The quandary for van Gaal and his team is how seriously they take the tournament as on the one hand, it's the only European competition United have yet to win and along with the FA Cup it is their only realistic chance of silverware. On the other hand, a sustained run could hamper their league form through fitness and more injuries.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.