Monday, 21 March 2016

Rashford Secures Derby Win.

Manchester City 0 Manchester United 1

Manchester United shrugged off fatigue to defeat local rivals City in their own backyard with teen sensation Rashford scoring the vital goal on his derby debut.

After a week that saw United labour to earn a replay in the FA Cup and knocked out of the Europa League it was a return to the Premier League and the short journey across the city to take on local rivals City for the 171st time.

Since the start of the Premier League United holds the upper hand against their noisy neighbours as they have won 19 of the 37 matches played, but in the last five years, the balance has been redressed by the Arab-funded blues.

This was be the last derby match with Pelligrini in charge of City and just maybe van Gaal at United, because a loss today would have been a disaster for the Red Devils who have struggled as the season nears its end.

A top four finish and automatic entry into the Champions League is the target for both clubs. With only a handful of matches left it's getting to the point where any number of sides could sneak one of the valuable places needed.

Van Gaal had received criticism over his team selection and subsequent substitutions against Liverpool and he decided to make two changes. One was to elbow Fellaini to the bench and start with Schneiderlin. The other was to replace Varela at right back with Darmian. The Fellaini change was met with support by many United fans after his less than impressive displays of late.

Starting XI: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Mata, Lingard, Martial and Rashford.

Both teams started the match in a wholehearted fashion with neither side wanting to give an inch. Smalling epitomised that when he was booked for tugging back an advancing Aguero. Blind and Aguero would then have a running battle for the remainder of the half.

De Gea made the first save of the game after an attempt by Navas as he blocked the shot with his legs.

On the quarter hour came a big moment for a young man when Marcus Rashford was played through by Mata and the striker showed the calmness of a veteran as he strode through and slid the ball past a despairing Hart. A brilliant finish from a confident player in his first taste of a Manchester derby. The way he destroyed defender Demichelis with one touch was a joy to watch.

A Great start for the visitors and one that had the away fans up the volume. Martial had a chance to double the lead within a few minutes of the goal not once, but twice with Hart saving one and the other was off target.

With half an hour gone, it has to be said that this had been a confident display by United with City labouring and not allowed to get into any rhythm. The forward line of United looked a threat every time they attacked the makeshift centre-backs.

This was proven on the stroke of half-time when scorer Rashford showed a quick turn of pace and burst into the area only to be upended by Demichelis for a blatant penalty which referee Michael Oliver incredibly waved away.

Then not one but two City players shoved Rashford around and the youngster stood his ground. No action was taken by the ref but it made for a lively end to the half. You can't fault the passion shown by the players and Rashford has it in bucket loads.

Half-time and United led through a wonderful goal by Rashford. The whole team deserved to go in at the break ahead with every player in red having shown the effort and guile to stay ahead. Not often that has been said this season.

City didn't really trouble De Gea and his back four and apart from the Navas effort no save had to be made. Special mention for Lingard, who played extremely well in the number 10 position.

The second half got underway with no changes having been made by van Gaal. From the off Martial almost benefited from a poor back pass that had Hart in all sorts of trouble as he managed to clear but was injured for his effort and was stretchered off.

As the hour mark approached the Reds still looked comfortable as they went in search of the vital second goal with substitute keeper Caballero twice coming to his side's rescue with stops from first Martial then Rashford. This was followed by a low drive from Rojo which again the keeper pushed away.

Van Gaal's first change of the day came when he replaced birthday boy Rojo with Valencia for the final half-hour as City started to gain momentum against a tired looking United defence.

The change meant that Darmian switched over to the left back position. A change that City immediately took advantage of with Aquero sneaking in at the near post to fire a header against the post following a cross after Darmian was well beaten. A clear warning for United to be more careful at the back.

Seeing the need for more strength and fresh legs van Gaal made his second substitution for the crucial last twenty minutes when he brought on Schweinsteiger for Mata.

The changes made in United's defence caused confusion every time City attacked and it was that man Aguero again who this time found himself unmarked at the far post but only managed to head the ball back across the goal.

The match against Liverpool and the effort put in by United in the first half took its toll in the last minutes of the match, especially with Darmian, who had to be replaced after he had gone down with cramp a couple of times. Fosu-Mensah was given another chance to show his worth at the back.

Six minutes of added time made the end more nervous for the away side as City had a flurry of chances to grab the equaliser. But with players like Lingard helping out the defence United stood firm to end the match with all the three points and equally important local bragging rights.

United thoroughly deserved the victory after they had held on after a high tempo first 45 minutes that of course was difficult to keep up for the full ninety minutes. However, they did hold on and came away from the Etihad with the valuable three points in the chase for a top four finish.

It was difficult to pinpoint one player for the man of the match as all the team had put the effort in. You had Martial and scorer Rashford's pace up front combined with Lingard playing behind the strikers.

Schneiderlin held well in midfield and Smalling at the back was a rock once again. But just because he scored a goal of pure class on his derby debut Rashford came out on top.

Manchester is still RED.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Security at Old Trafford.

Ugly scenes returned to the Theatre of Dreams following the match between United and Liverpool. Scenes that were reminiscent of the bad old hooligan days of the seventies. Some fans, especially youngsters, left the stadium clearly shaken by events that have no place in modern football.

In the recent past, UEFA has come down hard on teams for a lot less than was witnessed during and after the Europa League last 16 match between the bitterest rivals in the English game. Both club's cases will be heard on May 19 by UEFA's disciplinary board.

The hatred has always been there of course, but the level reached heights not seen for a long while. Certain groups of so called fans taunted each other throughout the game with chants about each clubs' past tragedies, scuffles broke out between the rival fans in the East Stand and seats were ripped out by Liverpool supporters and thrown at the home fans. But it was the lighting of flares in the away stand that raises a question about the level of security at Old Trafford.

In a world where every major city is on high alert against the threat of terrorism isn't it about time that stronger regulations were enforced at not only Old Trafford but all major football grounds up and down the country. If it is that easy to bring flares into a stadium, then how easy would it be to take something more threatening in.

Some may say that this is an overreaction and scaremongering, but is it? Terrorism knows no boundaries and as our club is a worldwide institution that alone makes it a prime target. Look what happened in Paris during the friendly between France and Germany.

Of course, it would be hard to search all the fans on a matchday. However, something has to be done and more stringent security measures put in place, especially with the away supporters.

Everybody is so wise after a terrible event so why not preempt it as it's better to be safe than sorry.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Friday, 18 March 2016

United's Euro Hopes End.

Manchester United 1 Liverpool 1 (agg:  1-3)

There is nothing worse for a United fan than to witness Liverpool away supporters celebrating getting the better of our team so vociferously inside the Theatre of Dreams as they did following the draw in this second leg Europa League tie.

United's sole aim was to turn around a two-goal deficit from the first leg in which they only managed one measly shot on target. Even though Liverpool are not a tough side to overcome the bar might have been raised a little too high for a United side who have struggled for goals all season.

It was crucial that the home side came out of the traps in search of the all-important early goal which would not only give a boost to the team but the supporters as well. Van Gaal said after the Anfield defeat that the home supporters got behind their team and that atmosphere made the difference.

This was a strange comment for the manager to make as the volume is always that high for games against the two biggest rivals in English football. But also, the Red Devil fans have been by far the most vocal of all the away fans around the grounds this season and considering they haven't had much to shout about especially in the dire performance in the first leg that's saying something.

When the team news was announced the positive feeling one had at being able to turn the tie around slightly evaporated: De Gea, Varela, Blind, Smalling, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Mata, Lingard, Martial and Rashford.

There was no Herrera at all with Fellaini and Carrick included when their recent performances had not exactly gone well. Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger would both start on the bench.

The first half started with a flurry of chances for United which included a close range header from Lingard that Mignolet saved well, a shot from Mata that he woefully screwed wide when the goal was gaping and a chance for Martial which he blasted over the bar following great approach play from Rashford to set the French youngster up.

Liverpool had had only carved out one clear opportunity in the first half hour and that was a Coutinho drive from outside the area which was marvelously saved by De Gea low down to his left.

Then just after half an hour of play a glimmer of hope for United to get back into the tie as Martial won and converted his own penalty to send Old Trafford into raptures of delight with the belief that United could actually pull it off.

However, the joy and aspirations, as so often has been the case this season, were short lived when on the stroke of half-time United's right back Varela showed his vulnerability when he was caught out of position by the lively Coutinho who skipped past him as if he wasn't there and once inside the six-yard area dinked the ball past De Gea and into the net.

That was the killer blow as it was obvious to everyone watching that the home team were not going to score the four goals needed to win the tie. But it could have been a different story had Rojo put the ball in the net from the closest of finishes a few minutes before Liverpool put the game to bed.

The second half saw a lot of huffing and puffing from the Red Devils without any real openings of note. The stuffing had been knocked out of them following the equaliser and apart from the trio of Martial and Rashford at one end and De Gea at the other, there was no player in red that you thought could offer United a respite in the game.

Fellaini once again flattered to deceive and he clearly hadn't learnt from the first leg as he elbowed an opposing player on at least two occasions one of which he was booked for.

Van Gaal made his usual mind boggling substitutions when chasing a game and needing goals he ignored winger Memphis and replaced both full backs with full backs and introduced a defensive midfielder. All of which showed a lack off attacking ambition and getting some credibility out of the game by the Dutchman.

With the tie all but over from the start of the half, United went through the motions and looked like they couldn't wait to get it over with. There was none of the gung-ho spirit that is associated with the club and they exited the competition with a whimper rather than a hurrah! Even with Giggs stood on the touchline to keep balance with Klopp it couldn't muster the troops. Klopp never even entered the dugout, take a note of that van Gaal.

So, there you have it another chance of silverware has gone and all that is left now realistically is the FA Cup, which you shouldn't hold your breath for on the team's present form and there is a small matter of the local derby on Sunday.

Maybe van Gaal should have made his players stay out on the pitch after the match to watch and listen to the away fans rubbing our noses in it. The United fans had to!

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Martial Bursts The Hammers Bubble.

Manchester United 1 West Ham United 1

Martial keeps cup hopes alive.

A much needed equaliser from Anthony Martial, following a superb opening goal by Payet, kept Manchester United in the FA Cup after another uninspiring display at Old Trafford.

The return of the FA Cup, which is conceivably the last chance of silverware for the Red Devils, saw the visit of high-flying West Ham United to Old Trafford in a match that would have a strong bearing on how United's campaign will end.

How would van Gaal and his coaches pick their players up for a tie against a Hammers side that under the guidance of Bilic have performed exceedingly well this season? Especially with their playmaker Payet.

Van Gaal decided to make three changes to the team who lost against Liverpool as Carrick, Lingard and Herrera came in for Schneiderlin, Memphis and the suspended Mata. 17-year-old defender RoShaun Williams became the latest youngster to be given a chance by van Gaal. The locally born lad was placed on the bench.

United's starting XI: De Gea, Varela, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial and Rashford.

United got the tie underway amid a buoyant atmosphere attacking the old Scoreboard End and it was Rashford who immediately stretched his legs with a run into the opposition area and earned the first corner of the match which was headed over by Fellaini.

In the build up Martial received a nasty-looking kick to his shin which Reid was quite rightly booked for by referee Atkinson.

Lingard had the next chance in a game that was an open affair, but his effort was wide of the far post.

The visitors came close when Antonio managed to work his way through United's defence and thankfully pulled his shot just wide of a stranded De Gea.

Ten minutes in and the match was a typical open FA Cup tie with both sides attacking at will. Carroll was the next to have a go with a flying header that whistled over De Gea's bar.

Martial recovered from the bad challenge in the opening minutes and won a corner after a run down the left-hand side. When delivered it almost had Rashford in on goal.

Jesse Lingard cut in from his position on the right wing but his low effort lacked any real power as it trickled wide. From the same wing, Varela delivered a teasing cross that Rashford met acrobatically but couldn't get the connection needed.

It was the visitors turn to attack and they came near to the opener as Emenike met an inviting cross from Cresswell and his header looked goal bound until De Gea saved on the line.

Then it was back up the other end as Herrera tried his luck from the edge of the area, but he mishit his strike and it was deflected behind for a corner but the referee didn't spot it and awarded a goal kick, much to the displeasure of the Spaniard.

As the game approached the half hour mark one thing was clear and that was Martial had the bit between his teeth as he terrorised the defence with his mesmerising runs down the left wing.

The best chance of the half fell to Herrera after fine combination work by Martial and Rojo who played the ball to the Spaniard who was unmarked inside the area, however he seemed to rush his shot and the ball ballooned high and wide.

Rashford had a similar chance to Herrera's and, this time, it was blocked for a corner. United enjoyed the majority of the possession and chances in the first thirty minutes, but would have to keep an eye on Payet and his teammates on the counter.

Not for the first time in his United career Fellaini picked up a needless caution for a foul on Noble that really didn't have to be made. United continued to allow the Hammers to bully them into giving away free kicks and this time, it was Rashford's turn to come back and in trying to help out his defenders only succeeded in putting his teammates in more trouble.

As the half drew to a close West Ham had the last chance when Cresswell delivered a threatening cross from the right, which De Gea did well to cut out before it could cause any damage.

Both teams went in at half-time ruing their missed chances in a half that was as open as it could get. Once again United's inability to put the ball in the net left the fans frustrated, especially knowing how big a threat the visitors have been all season.

After trying the duo of Carrick and Fellaini to little or no effect, maybe it was time for van Gaal to unleash Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger on the midfield to try and add that extra bite needed to push the Reds forward.

The visitors started the second half on the attack and almost caught the defence out with a dangerous ball into the box which De Gea was quick to react to as he punched away the ball.

United's first corner of the half had the players shouting in unison for a penalty for an alleged handball in front of the Stretford End. It would turn out to be the start of the referee waving play on from appeals.

A great passing game move by the home side almost opened the visitors defence until Payet brought down Lingard right on the edge of the area.

From the resulting Herrera free kick Martial almost sneaked in unnoticed at the far post and his header was blocked by a defender's hand. For the second time the referee saw no intention made. This upturn in action had the home fans raising the volume within the Theatre of Dreams.

In the next attack, the ball was worked along the edge of West Ham's penalty area where eventually Herrera blasted the ball goalwards only for his effort to be blocked by Reid's hand. That's was the third clear-cut handball inside the visitors' box, all of which were ignored by Martin Atkinson.

At least, Atkinson balanced the books by not awarding Payet a penalty when he deliberately dived in the area. If the ref believed that Payet dived then he should have been cautioned and sent off as he had been booked for an earlier foul on Lingard.

Right on cue in the 68th minute, Payet stepped up to deliver a superb free-kick which flew into the top corner past a despairing De Gea to give the visitors a 1-0 lead and sink United into more despair.

Twenty minutes left on the clock and van Gaal still hadn't made a change when quite clearly the players on the pitch were not providing the goods needed to turn the tie around. Even Carrick added to the woes with a late lunge on Lanzini that deserved the yellow it received.

Then with fifteen minutes to go van Gaal finally decided to freshen things up with double substitution when Fellaini and Rashford made way for Schweinsteiger and Memphis. There was a round of applause as Fellaini departed. However, it was more for the fact he had been substituted than for his performance.

In the frantic few minutes that followed the change Herrera had another shot blocked and Schweinsteiger blasted wildly wide. Time was quickly running out for United as they stared defeat down the barrel as they looked incapable of scoring an equaliser let alone a winner.

Then up stepped Martial to creep in at the far post to tap home a superb cross from Herrera to make it 1-1. Game on and could United find the winner in the final seven minutes? The crowd thought so judging by the noise levels as they urged the players to attack.

Carrick had a shot which squirmed just wide of the post. This was followed by the last change by van Gaal as he withdrew Varela for Darmian.

A shot from distance by Antonio in added time almost caught out De Gea but thankfully he reacted quickly and saved low to his right.

That was the last piece of action of the match as United hung on in the cup by the thinnest thread after falling behind to West Ham and unconvincingly clawing their way back into the tie to earn a second chance in the replay in the capital. A draw was probably the fairest result after a less than convincing display be referee Atkinson.

For United the outstanding players were Herrera, Martial and De Gea who all kept their side in the cup when other players struggled to get a grip on the game. When Schweinsteiger entered the fray United looked a different side and one can only hope that he starts in the upcoming matches.

Next up is the second leg of the Europa League tie against Liverpool at Old Trafford and the concern has to be where are the goals going to come from without conceeding at the other end. The man that has all the answers is Louis van Gaal, who has his work cut out over the next few days if he wants to save his and Man United's season.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Shot Shy United Lack Passion.

Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0

Not all 'white' on the night for United.

It may have been the 195th meeting between the two biggest rivals in English football, but it was the first time the giants had come head to head in a European competition.

The red of Liverpool gained the upper hand as they won the first leg against a United side that lacked any conviction and had keeper De Gea to thank for keeping the scoreline down to two.

Van Gaal had recalled Fellaini, Varela and Schneiderlin to the side in place of Darmian, Carrick and Herrera who would all start on the bench. There was also a recall for Bastian Schweinsteiger as a substitute.

Here was the United starting XI: De Gea, Varela, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Fellaini, Memphis, Mata, Martial and Rashford.

Mata was once again given the honour of captaining United even though Smalling was on the pitch.

United got the tie underway attacking the Kop and straight from the off they almost grabbed the opener as Memphis delivered a cross that evaded the defenders, but the onrushing Rashford was slightly caught by surprise and the ball rebounded off the young forwards knee.

The referee Carballo, from Spain, is known for his brandishing of cards as if they were going out of fashion, ten reds this season and he started his nightly spree as he booked Henderson for a high challenge on Schneiderlin.

The match started at a very lively pace with both sides up for the fight, heavy challenges set against a great atmosphere generated by both sets of fans.

United enjoyed the majority of the possession in the opening quarter of an hour, but as usual created little or no chances of note.

Twenty minutes of the match gone and Liverpool struck the first blow as they won a very debatable penalty after Memphis was adjudged to have brought down Clyne right on the edge of the penalty area. The referee took a few seconds to make up his mind. When he did, he booked Memphis and Sturridge dispatched the spot kick only just past De Gea, who managed to get a hand onto the ball.

The goal buoyed the home side and in the next attack they would have gone 2-0 up, but for the brilliance and athleticism of De Gea who saved Coutinho's certain tap in right on his goal line. That save could literally turn out to be United's lifeline in the tie for if the home side had scored a second so quickly it could have been game over.

After the goal United responded slowly and it wasn't until Mata almost weaved his way through the defenders in the box that they created anything close to a chance.

De Gea came to the rescue again for his side on thirty minutes when he made himself big in front of Sturridge to block the striker's shot.

The awkward style of the returning Fellaini earned United a free kick opportunity in a dangerous area which was fired in by Memphis with a disappointing end as it sailed harmlessly wide.

United's free kicks have been woefully poor this season with the exception of Mata's effort against Watford. But it's a sad state of affairs when they can't even get the efforts on target compared to the past when you knew something was going to come from them.

As the half entered its final minutes the game went a little stale until De Gea proved how invaluable he is with a reaction save from a Lallana deflected effort.

Rashford became the second United player to be booked on the stroke of half-time after a rash challenge on Moreno's.

Half-time and United trailed 1-0 without having a shot on goal. They had De Gea to thank for not going in at least three goals to the worse as he produced three saves that could have a massive bearing on the tie overall. And he did manage to get his fingertips to the penalty, however, not enough to prevent the ball going in.

It's fair to say that United would have to be the happier of the two sides to be only down by one goal. They were playing a dangerous game by sitting back and allowing Liverpool to come at them. An improvement of huge proportion would have to be seen in the second half if the Red Devils were to get anything out of this game.

At the start of the second half van Gaal made a tactical substitution in an attempt to get his team back into the game by replacing Rashford with Carrick. The change meant that Smalling, Rojo and Carrick played in a back three formation with Blind and Varela as wing backs.

United had their first shot on goal in the 52nd minute of the match with an effort from Schneiderlin which was straight at Minolet in goal.

David De Gea produced another high class save as he tipped over a powerful long range effort from Coutinho.

United's new formation looked to be paying off as they enjoyed a long spell of possession and applied pressure on the Liverpool defence without creating the killer ball needed to grab the vital equaliser. Martial came the closest during this spell as he almost got his head to a cross by Varela.

Fellaini became the latest United player to be cautioned for a swing and miss with his leg at Clyne.

Memphis almost threaded the ball into the path of Martial but the ball fell a little behind the French striker. However, this was better play from the visitors.

De Gea was at it again, this time, he produced a diving punch to deny a Clyne drive from distance. If United do go on to the quarterfinals, then they only have to thank one player and that's the keeper who must wish he had a quality defence in front of him.

Liverpool wasted two golden chances to extend their lead as first Henderson blasted a great chance well wide then Coutinho blasted a free kick towards goal clearly not realising it was indirect.

As the game entered the final twenty minutes Firmino doubled the home side's lead when he beat De Gea with a close range tap-in following a poor attempted clearance from Carrick. All United could hope for now was damage limitation and an away goal to take back to Old Trafford.

Bastian Schweinsteiger made a much welcome return when he came on along with Herrera for Mata and Schneiderlin for the last ten minutes.

The visitors chased the game in the final few minutes without worrying the home defence and the only concern for United was whether Fellaini would stay on the pitch after some challenges that could have earned him a second card and a ban if the elbow was seen. It was the Belgian who came close with a header that only just flew wide of the post following a Schweinsteiger cross.

The match ended with Liverpool on top in the tie and in the driving seat against a United team that had nothing to offer in any way, shape or form.Two errors of judgement by Memphis and Carrick cost their side dearly and add to that only one shot on target it was no wonder they lost.

This was another low for van Gaal and his team as they will have it all to do at Old Trafford. There was no sign of the drive or passion that would make you believe that they could turn the tie around next week.

It doesn't look good for the upcoming FA Cup match against West Ham this Sunday. A team who has a splendid away record this season against a United side slipping further down the slippery slope of failure.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

United vs Liverpool: Europa League Preview.

Manchester United vs Liverpool Rivalry Continues.

They are the two biggest rivals and also the most successful teams in English football, but now they come together for the first time to fight it out on the European stage.

The Europa League could prove to be the only way for one of these sides to gain entry into next season's Champions League as both teams look more and more likely to be failing in their bid to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

Of course, both United and Liverpool have a rich history of playing at the highest level in Europe which, goes back to the days of Busby and Paisley but now the situation both clubs find themselves in is a little foreign, to say the least.

Having to rely on the poor relations cup to gain access to the top table of European football is not an ideal position to be in. However, that's how it is after another fairly lackluster season for both sides.

There are many reasons as to why both teams have underperformed this campaign and no amount of excuses can appease both sets of fans who not only expect, but demand their clubs are fighting for the league each campaign, especially United.

During the present campaign Van Gaal has given so many youngsters the chance to show their worth as his side has been hit by injury after injury and it could be those same youngsters who will have the huge responsibility to carry United through to the quarterfinals when more regulars should be available to add strength and valuable experience to the team.

Van Gaal has endured a torrid time of late and if he is to get any respite from the fans he has to get it right over the next two ties. He can fall back to a degree on his record of having won all of his matches against Liverpool in his time as United manager including the latest 1-0 victory at Anfield. But in Klopp, he will come up against a manager who is known for his ability to motivate his players.

Maybe the outcome is too close to call. However, there is one guarantee and that is the fans will definitely be on top of their game as this match gives both sets of supporters the chance to vent their hatred towards each other. It really doesn't matter what the competition is the only outcome expected is a victory at any cost. Losing would not only cast a shadow over the clubs, but would be unbearable for the fans especially on social media.

If I was to stick my neck out, I believe that United will prevail as the second leg is at Old Trafford which offers the slightest of advantages for the Red Devils providing they can, at least, come away from Anfield with a draw and a vital away goal. Having said that, one thing has been certain this season and that is trying to predict van Gaal and his team's results is nigh on impossible.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Mata's Red Damages United's Chances.

West Bromwich Albion 1 Manchester United 0

As the season enters its final furlong any number of teams can still end up in one of the coveted top four spots needed for Champions League qualification. However, it looks increasingly more certain that Man United will not be one of them following this demoralising defeat in the West Midlands.

After winning their last four matches on the trot United went to The Hawthorns with a proud record of having never lost a Premier League match there and was buoyed by the return of centre-back Smalling to hopefully boost their rear guard.

Van Gaal made four changes from the side that laboured to the win over Watford in midweek. At the back, Darmian and Smalling replaced Varela and Fosu-Mensah. In midfield, Carrick returned to give Schneiderlin a well-earned rest and Lingard came in for Memphis. Starting XI: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Lingard, Mata, Martial and Rashford.

Teenage sensation Rashford was given another start up front and an opportunity to combine with Martial yet again. Fellaini returned from injury and started on the bench.

The first effort of the match fell to Martial after a couple of minutes with a long range effort to test former United keeper Ben Foster which the former Red collected easily.

United started the match well from the kick off by utilising Darmian's pace on the right to good effect as he provided some early pressure. Rashford started as the main striker with Martial positioned on the left and Lingard on the right with Mata linking the midfield and attack.

The visitors almost produced the opening goal as Mata linked well with Herrera, who tried to play his compatriot in on goal with a chip over the defence but slightly overhit his return pass.

It was then the turn of the home side to test the visitors resilience with a couple of high balls into the area which were dealt with well by Smalling and Blind. There was a chance for Dawson, who rose above United's defence only to get his header all wrong.

Blind failed to clear his lines and the poor clearance ended up at the feet of Berahino who let the ball run away from him and the chance had gone. The Dutchman was in the thick of the action again as his foot was too high as it connected with Berahino's face. A free kick was awarded right on the edge of the penalty area. Martial was back in defence and helped to clear the resulting free kick.

There was a scare for United as another free kick was floated towards the far post where McAuley stormed in and headed the ball across the face of goal with De Gea stranded. If the ball had gone in it wouldn't have counted as the flag was already raised for offside.

Then just before the half hour, a couple of rash decisions by Mata turned the game on its head. Firstly, he didn't retreat the full ten yards from a Fletcher free kick and was booked. Secondly, a few minutes later he went late into a tackle on Fletcher and caught the former United player for which the referee had little choice but to issue a second yellow and, therefore, Mata had to walk.

It has to be said that both yellows were needless from Mata and he should have known better as it put United on the back foot so early on in the match. It was also United's first red card of the season and the Spaniards first in the Premier League.

Dawson had another chance this time with a dipping shot that only just dropped wide of the post.

As the first half came to a close, it was the Baggies who dominated as United tried to regroup after Mata had been dismissed. Martial did manage to work himself into a shooting position inside the box, but he took too long to adjust himself.

Lingard engineered a good break down the left wing and earned a corner for his troubles on the stroke of half-time.

0-0 after 45 minutes and a half that was all about Mata's carelessness and less about the football. Even though West Brom created more chances they were mainly from high balls played into the area looking for either Rondon or Berahino which were dealt with without too much concern by the back four.

United created little of note before and after Mata saw red and an improvement in the second half would have to be found from somewhere if they were to gain the three points they badly needed. It would be an uphill struggle but not impossible. The biggest question was how van Gaal would reorganise his ten men for the second half.

The home side got the second half underway as van Gaal decided against making any changes and it was United that started on the front foot. They earned a corner from a Rashford shot following a great trademark twisting run into the penalty area by Martial. Better from the Red Devils now if they could only make the pressure count with a goal.

A couple of corners for United followed by a big appeal for handball against Gardner after he clearly handled a Rojo cross was waved away by the referee who was standing only a few yards away.

Lingard, who scored his first United goal against the same opponents at Old Trafford, tried his luck from distance and wasn't that far away.

It was all United at that point as Martial was upended just outside the area. Herrera fired the resulting free kick into the wall. Martial was proving to be a pain in the home side's defence as his pace and trickery caused problems for Olsson especially.

Then the first change was made by van Gaal just after the hour mark when Herrera made way for Schneiderlin in midfield.

Not for the first time this season, the away fans were in fine voice, but they were silenced in the 66th minute when West Brom took the lead through Rondon, who blasted a low left-footed drive past the despairing dive of De Gea. Exactly how Rondon escaped his marker to score only Blind can answer.

An uphill struggle suddenly looked like a mountain to climb for United who found themselves 1-0 down and with only ten men. From this point on United struggled to mount a reply against The Baggies.

Daley Blind was having a nightmare of a game against scorer Rondon and found it hard going against the robust forward.

Memphis was given a chance to rescue his team when he came on for Rashford for the final fifteen minutes. His first piece of action saw him brought down in a dangerous position. He also took the free-kick which evaded everyone inside the area.

Fosu-Mensah became the last change by van Gaal when he replaced Darmian at right back as the game entered the final ten minutes. It was a like for like change and even if Darmian had an injury then surely it would have made more sense to put on a player who could do more damage up front. A gamble on Fellaini's height maybe as the game neared the end.

The signal for four minutes of added time failed to spur United into anything close to a chance on goal and the match ended in another disappointing result for van Gaal's side.

There were many performances to forget, especially from Blind and Carrick. The latter created nothing from his holding position in midfield and spent most of the match following the goal passing backwards or sideways when the Carrick of old would have tried to pick out forward players with his passing ability. Those forwards also missed Mata's vision for the majority of the match and struggled to have any bearing on the result. Herrera was of the boil as were most of the team.

This was a defeat that could signal the end of a top four finish for United and more worryingly next up is the small matter of the first of the double header against bitter rivals Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League last 16. It will be the first time the two giants of English football have pitted their wits against each other in European football.

We can expect two matches of heated rivalry on and certainly off the pitch as both sets of players and supporters will not give an inch to each other.

With the second leg at Old Trafford, you would expect United to come out on top over the two legs as van Gaal's record of never having lost against the Anfield outfit bodes well. But after this result who knows what will happen.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Moment Of Magic From Mata.

Manchester United 1 Watford 0

It was a night in which United gained valuable ground in their chase for a top-four place as all around them lost their heads magical Mata kept his to ensure his side kept their winning run going.

After successfully coming through a week that included three wins and a remarkable couple of debut games for youngster Marcus Rashford it was the turn of Watford to visit Old Trafford in a Premier League match that United needed to win to mount a fresh challenge for an important top four finish and keep the confidence boosting run of wins going.

There was welcome news on the injury front with the return of to the squad of Martial and Darmian, but who would van Gaal drop to accommodate their return after the youngsters had more than done their part for the team the answer was in his starting XI: De Gea, Varela, Blind, Fosu-Mensah, Rojo, Schneiderlin. Mata, Herrera, Martial, Memphis and Rashford.

On paper, the side he chose looked exciting, to say the least with Martial taking over from Lingard to give the attack a potent looking feel alongside Rashford who has been scoring for fun this week. Mata had the honor of captioning United in the absence of Carrick, Rooney and Smalling.

In defence, Fosu-Mensah made his first start at centre-back in place of Carrick with Rojo at left back feeling no ill effects from his early withdrawal against Arsenal. On the bench, Joe Rothwell, the Manchester-born midfielder, was the latest reserve team player to be given his chance to shine.

It was the away side who started the match on the front foot attacking the Stretford End as they won an early corner which United defended well. Over the next ten minutes, United found it hard to get into any attacking rhythm and Watford took advantage of that with some forays into the home penalty area. Deeney caught Rojo with a boot to the head as the ball came in from a free-kick.

United struggled early doors to put a run of passes together as Watford hunted them down well to prevent the home side building any momentum.

Fifteen minutes in and Memphis blew off the cobwebs as he went on one of his trademark runs down the left which ended with a shot that was so wide of the mark it went out for a throw-in. At least, the winger can blame the swirling windy conditions.

Blind almost dropped a huge clanger by gifting Ighalo a chance on goal with a terrible pass which the forward thankfully hit weakly into the hands of a grateful De Gea to save the blushes of Blind.

United moved up a gear and won a free-kick in a dangerous area that Mata floated over. As the ball was cleared to the edge of the penalty area Schneiderlin was lurking and met the ball on the volley and it dipped narrowly wide of the post.

Debut defender Fosu-Mensah had a mixed start at the back with some great blocking combined with some rash challenges and received a caution for one of those challenges on the edge of the box.

After thirty minutes it had to be said that Watford had come the closest to opening the scoring and if it wasn't for nervy finishing they would have been ahead. United would have to tread carefully at the back.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was a little subdued, like United's play, and the away fans were questioning whether or not Old Trafford was, in fact, a library. Let's hope United would make them eat their words and give the crowd something to shout about.

Martial had a half-chance on goal as he met an incoming free kick which he hit straight at keeper Gomes. Memphis was having trouble with his final delivery as most of them were over hit. Mata, captaining the side, was trying to lead from the front and got in some challenges to attempt to get his players going.

Another scare for United came as Ighalo found himself clean through on goal for the second time, but instead of squaring the ball to an unmarked Deeney he chose to take the shot on himself. De Gea stood up strong and blocked his effort. How Watford was not ahead is anyone's guess.

Just before half-time, Herrera had a cross come shot that wasn't a million miles away from curling into the top corner.

There was another poor back pass by Blind that Ighalo latched onto. However, there was De Gea to the rescue again for the Red Devils who were certainly living dangerously at the back.

On the stroke of half-time, United won a corner which was inexplicably played thirty yards backwards and then the possession was lost.

Half-time and United had David De Gea to thank once again for going in on level terms as Watford had the majority of the chances on goal especially Ighalo who had wasted three clear cut chances.

The home side looked markedly downbeat and a little battle weary and didn't help themselves with some poor defending. A boost would be needed in the second half if they are to maintain their winning streak. Rashford and Martial had not really seen enough of the ball to make any impact on the game and Memphis would need to stay on his feet and become more of a threat down the left wing.

Watford started the second half as they had ended the first as they were gifted possession and it was that man Ighalo who failed to convert the chance handed to him on a plate. Capoue had a long range effort that only just fizzed over De Gea's crossbar.

Rashford came to United's rescue when he cleared a Watford corner from right on the goal line. You would have thought at this stage that Watford were the home team as United still struggled to get a decent foothold in the game.

Ighalo almost gave the visitors the lead after he twisted and turned Fosu-Mensah inside the area and curled an effort wide of the far post.

As the hour mark approached it was still Watford who looked the biggest threat on the attack, then golden boy Rashford went on a strong run into the area and won a corner for his effort. Could that be the spur to action that United needed to produce the goods?

United did indeed burst into life as Mata let fly with a screamer that Gomes managed to save and from the rebound the home side won a free-kick right on the edge of the box. Memphis struck a disappointing shot into the wall.

Time for United to turn the screw as they enjoyed their best spell in the game as Mata tried his luck from distance again but his effort was blocked. Then after sterling work from Rashford down the right, the captain almost broke the deadlock with a left-footed bender that curled wide.

When Rashford is in full flight the speed he has is frightening for a big forward and United began to reap the benefits once he had moved to the right and Martial switched to the centre.

Van Gaal made his first change of the match when he replaced Rojo with Darmian for the last twenty minutes.

The following five minutes saw the game get bogged down in the midfield as both sides looked to gain the advantage in the match.

The second change for United saw Lingard make an appearance in place of Herrera. Watford then proceeded to miss two clear cut opportunities the last one was a header at the far post by Prodl under pressure from Blind who was lucky to escape giving away a penalty.

A moment of magic from Mata eventually broke the deadlock and Watford's hearts in the 83rd minute with a delightful free kick dispatched up and over the wall into the top corner. The set piece for United came after Martial had been upended thirty yards out. That was exactly the inspiration that United needed.

It was Mata's final contribution as captain as he was replaced by McNair to a well-deserved standing ovation. Now all the home side had to do was hold out for the four minutes of added time.

Hold out they did and at the full-time whistle it was an important win and three points for United if not a great display it was the win that was crucial as Arsenal, Spurs and Man City all lost which meant that United moved to level points with City and put themselves back in the mix for a valuable top-four placing.

Even though Mata was the match winner it was the solid performance of midfielder Schneiderlin that deserved the man of the match plaudits as he gave his all for the cause as he has been doing for the latest run of games. A player that quietly but effectively goes about his business in a manner that sometimes escapes attention.

Ten league games remaining and if United can keep this run of results going who knows where they could end up.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.