Monday, 30 May 2016

Welcome To Manchester: Jose Mourinho.

Will Mourinho's Midas touch transform Manchester United?

The fans reaction at the sight of a crazy little Portuguese fella running down the touchline at Old Trafford after seemingly losing his mind was one of pure disbelief at the audacity of the man.

That man will get a totally different reaction from the United faithful when he walks along the side of the pitch to take his seat in the dugout at the Theatre of Dreams as the new Manchester United manager come August.

Jose Mario Dos Santos Mourinho Felix or more commonly know as The Special One, a moniker he bestowed on himself, brought his Porto side to Old Trafford back in 2004 and knocked United out of the Champions League on his way to lifting the famous trophy and cementing his place as one of the most sought-after young managers in football.

Fast forward twelve years and the 53-year-old is the man that United have pinned their hopes on to revive the fortunes of the great club after three seasons of underachievement in the hands of Moyes and van Gaal.

The one-time interpreter turned coach certainly will not lack in the self-belief that one needs to succeed at United and can fall back on his experiences at clubs such as Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea again. At each of those clubs, he led them to either domestic or European titles or even both. He also managed to get the backs up of the club owners with his outspoken views.

Mourinho crossed swords with United and Alex Ferguson in his first spell at Chelsea during his three years there and backed by Roman Abramovich's billions he built a title winning side that became a thorn in Fergie's side on more than one occasion.

He transformed Chelsea from an average side to Premier League champions for the first time in fifty years. During his first two seasons, he won the league twice, plus the FA Cup for good measure. The Champions League evaded him and this led to disagreements with the owner.

Following his fall out with Abramovich, Mourinho moved to mainland Europe in 2008. He continued his golden touch at Inter Milan guiding the Italian giants to two championships and the Champions League.

Then the lure of a move to Real Madrid proved too strong and he found himself pitting his wits in Spain against Pep Guardiola the coach at Barcelona. Even though he guided them to the La Liga in 2012 he missed out on the Champions League the following season and departed by mutual consent.

He surprised everyone by rebuilding his relationship with Chelsea supremo Abramovich and returned to West London for a second spell at the Bridge in June 2013.

In his first season back, he only managed to guide them to third in the table, but the following campaign, they completed the double of the Premier League title and League cup.

In August 2015, following the success of the previous season, Mourinho signed a five-year contract. However, come December, all was not well at the Bridge after losing nine out of sixteen games the pressure was on. There were clear signs coming from the club that they had problems. The players' body language and the fall out with the club doctor played out in the press and eventually club and manager parted company yet again.

Since the start of his enforced sabbatical, his name has been linked with the position at United on a daily basis and the worst kept secret in football was finally confirmed on May 27 following the dismissal of Louis van Gaal.

There is no doubting his winning mentality and it seems perfectly in tune with United's desire to return to the days of success enjoyed under Fergie. And his old friend and foe won't be too far away as Pep will be close at hand at the Etihad to ensure that their fight to be the dominant force will continue at a pace.

With the United faithful wholeheartedly behind him, Mourinho has already jumped over the first hurdle that Moyes and van Gaal managed to trip over through their inept tactics and philosophies, the fans' support.

Many have voiced their concerns that his ego might be too big for the hot seat at Old Trafford but consider United's past managers. They were not exactly shrinking violets Busby, Docherty, Atkinson and Ferguson were never ones to hide behind closed doors when something had to be said so expect some delightfully interesting press conferences.

Personally, I am looking forward to seeing how Mourinho sets out his stall in the transfer market. Who he brings in and more importantly, who he releases as he attempts to make his mark on the club from the start.

Mourinho's preference for playing with three central defenders and a strong midfield may not sit well with the present set of players who struggled with a similar system under van Gaal. He needs to build his own team, which may take more than one season to fulfil.

Many existing United players will be worrying whether or not they fit in with his plans or will be surplus to requirements. Mata springs to mind as he was allowed to join United while Mourinho was in charge at Chelsea.

He has already made the statement that the past three years has not been good enough for the club. However, he will need to rejuvenate a side bereft of that all important winning mentality added with a mixture of new blood that will also show his intent in the transfer market with a reported £200 million at his immediate disposal.

Bringing in new players without the promise of Champions League football is never easy, but his name and stature in the game should be enough to lure marquee signings to Old Trafford. Zlatan would be a good start.

United will surely go into the 2016/17 campaign on a more positive note than if van Gaal had remained. And you can expect the special one to produce a special season that will have all the United fans forgiving him for his over the top dance down the touchline all those years ago. In fact, they would love to see it again if it was in celebration of winning the league.

One thing is for sure and that is there will be no shortage of entertainment during his reign as manager.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Manchester United Season Review 2015/16

He came, he saw, he failed to conquer. Louis' reign as the Manchester United manager came to an end 48 hours after lifting the FA Cup.

He was fired by the United board for not achieving the aims of the club mainly the failure to qualify for Champions League football next season.

Van Gaal has departed without anybody being any the wiser on what exactly the Dutchman's philosophy was. All he has left is a legacy of tactical ineptitude that bemused the fans and left them frustrated.

Louis van Gaal came to United in 2014 saying all the right things, but ended his second season, saying all the wrong things. Of course, the fans' expectations are high we are talking about Manchester United after all but to say that we put too much expectation on the team is ridiculous, to say the least.

The Dutch coach arrived at the club with an impressive CV after many successful years in club football and at the helm of the Dutch national squad. However, in two full seasons his philosophy got us absolutely nowhere, in fact, in the league they even went one step backwards.

Last summer Old Trafford was all abuzz with the marquee signings van Gaal had made, including the German international Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton, little-known Italian defender Matteo Darmian, exciting young prospect on the wing Memphis Depay, Argentine keeper Romero and the most expensive teenager at the time Anthony Martial.

Out of those summer buys only Martial proved his full worth as was evident on his scoring debut against bitter rivals Liverpool. That scoring form continued throughout his debut season ending up United's leading scorer with 17. A total that sounds low until you consider that he spent the season out on the left wing.

Schneiderlin also performed admirably as did Darmian, but the others not so much. Schweinsteiger spent the last two months out injured and Memphis endured a torrid season blighted by a dramatic drop in confidence which meant he spent most of his first season on the bench. Romero played the first six games until De Gea's new contract was signed then he managed only four more appearances.

Van Gaal, like a lot of the players, talked up a good game especially in his famous press conferences. But when it came to the important part they failed to deliver time and time again on the pitch. Ten defeats in a league season is simply unacceptable.

The biggest problem had to be the distinct lack of goals that cost us a top four place as we ended the season on equal points with Man City who enjoyed a far greater goal difference.

In total United scored only 49 goals in the Premier League, which is the lowest achieved by a United team since the 1989-90 season, 46. The top scorer in the league was Anthony Martial with 11. Therein lies the problem. For all the possession they enjoyed the main problem was the inability to put the ball in the back of the net especially when you consider Wayne Rooney scored the only hat-trick of the season in August against FC Club Brugge in the Champions League qualifier.

In the past, all the players contributed to the goals for column, but this season, the highest scoring midfielder was Mata with 6 and the defenders only managed two goals between them. On the subject of the defence it was one of the meanest in the league conceding 35.

At Old Trafford, the visitors only managed to score 9 times. This was down mainly to the partnership of Smalling and Blind and of course the brilliant De Gea who rescued his team on countless occasions.

Playing players in different positions, also had the fans scratching their heads in disbelief and at times amusement. Young, a winger, as the main striker while Martial, a centre forward, was on the wing. Rooney was utilised more in the midfield where he had some decent games. But Paul Scholes he is not and his scoring ability was wasted there.

Some players were used sparingly during the season and others too much. Herrera often had to take a back seat to Felliani and Carrick looked off the pace at times.

Goalkeeper David De Gea picked up his third player of the year award in a row and this shows how inadequately the outfield players grasped the manager's tactics and were left to play without any urgency or in a cut throat attacking style.

It wasn't all doom and gloom. United did play well against the so called big teams, including a double over bitter rivals Liverpool, a tremendous performance against Arsenal at home, beating City at the Etihad and the 3-0 win at Goodison which was probably the best away performance of the season. And they ended the campaign with their 12th FA Cup win and their first silverware for three seasons.

However, it was the inability to put the lower sides to the sword, especially in defeat to the likes of Swansea, Bournemouth, Sunderland and relegated Norwich after dominating in those games that hurt the most. Newcastle, also relegated, held United to two draws. Lost points that had an adverse effect on the final league position.

The fact that Leicester City have been crowned Premier League champions shows that there has been a shift in power from the standard big four. It will be interesting to see how the Foxes fare next season along with West Ham, Spurs and Southampton who all brought a breath of fresh air to the league.

If there is any consolation in finishing fifth in the league it is that Chelsea and Liverpool will miss out completely on Europe after both had replaced their managers and still failed to deliver.

As regards United's endeavours, or lack of, in Europe that didn't go so well either. They finished third in what looked a fairly easy group and ended up in the Europa League where they were eventually knocked out by Liverpool after basically a no show at Anfield in the last 16 first leg.

The terrible double leg fracture suffered by Luke Shaw early in the campaign was a major blow to the United defence, but it did signal the rise of the youngsters to be given a chance by van Gaal in the first team.

There is one thing that van Gaal can take from his two-year tenure and that is, he brought the youngsters through from the lower ranks and gave them their chances in the first team. However, it has to be said that was due mainly to necessity rather than choice. He had released Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson on loan before the new year and didn't make any cover signings during the January transfer window, so in effect he had no choice but to turn to the reserves and Under-18's academy players.

The first of those introduced to join by now regular and cup final hero Jesse Lingard was Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at full back then the likes of Love, Varela, Poole, Weir and the great young talent Fosu-Mensah also had opportunities presented to them due to many injuries in the defence. Marcos Rojo missed a huge chunk of the season after shoulder surgery and the same went for Antonio Valencia.

It has to be said that the youngster that had the biggest impact on the side had to be 18-year-old local lad Marcus Rashford. Talk about a Roy of the Rovers introduction to life as a Man United hero.

Two debut doubles in two matches against Midtjylland in the Europa League and Arsenal in the Premier League had the fans and media foaming at the mouth at this talented goal scorer who clearly wasn't daunted by the prospect of playing regularly for the first team.

The United reserves retained their League Champions crown which speaks volumes for the work that the coach Warren Joyce did to bring such a talented group of players together and become a feeder for the first team.

So, another chapter in Manchester United's illustrious history has come to an end and now it's time to turn the next page. One that will hopefully see our great club return to where it belongs and knock Leicester off their perch. Over to you Jose!

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Lingard Lords It Over Palace.

2016 FA Cup Final: Crystal Palace 1 Manchester United 2

Local lad Lingard became the hero as he won the FA cup in extra time for ten-man United with a blistering strike that lit up an otherwise ordinary final.

Manchester United have enjoyed a special relationship with the oldest club cup competition down the years that goes back to their first win back in 1909. Since then they have lifted the trophy eleven times but hadn't tasted success since 2004.

So, here was an ideal opportunity at the end of a poor league season to equal Arsenal's record by beating Crystal Palace and lift their first piece of silverware in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Louis van Gaal and his players made a point of saying that this one was for the long-suffering fans who have had to endure yet another campaign in which United have failed to deliver on the promises of a squad that unfortunately didn't materialise.

In what many believe, and the majority hope will be van Gaal's last match as the manager he chose a starting XI that didn't hold any surprises: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Rooney, Mata, Martial and Rashford.

Rojo came back into the side at left-back and Carrick kept his place in midfield in what could be his swansong for United. Fellaini was preferred to Herrera to partner Carrick along with Rooney.

There are always players who will be left disappointed in not starting a match of such importance among those must have been Lingard who was left on the bench in favour of Mata.

However, the one United player who must have felt devastated to be left out of the squad all together had to be Memphis who has endured a season in which his confidence seemed to have taken a battering and his omission won't help him in any way.

Palace got the final underway amid a wonderful atmosphere provided by both sets of fans.

Right from the off it became abundantly clear that Crystal Palace's tactics involved getting all the players behind the ball and use their pace on the counter-attack.

United played the majority of the first half around the edge of the opposition area but failed to take advantage of the chances that came up. Too many times they attempted to play through the middle with Rooney without the use of the wings.

Palace were happy enough to stand off Rooney and limit his passing options. The frustrations of the United players were clear for all to see as they were punished by the referee with three bookings for Smalling, Rojo and Mata.

Referee Mark Clattenburg didn't exactly endear himself to the Palace fans as not once but twice he didn't allow the advantage to be played following fouls by United. On the first occasion, they actually had the ball in the net but the play was called back and the second would have seen Ward through on goal but again Clattenburg blew his whistle much to the despair of an animated Palace manager Pardew on the touchline.

The first half ended, not for the first time in United's season, goaless, as they laboured in a pedestrian fashion at times. The match needed an injection of pace and imagination if goals were to come.

The United defence didn't really have a lot to do as most of the play was up at the other end. There were flashes of brilliance from Rashford and Martial who both spent the half looking for a way through the tight Palace defence. Carrick, in what was probably his last match, gave the ball away far too easily in dangerous positions and his lack of pace showed against the younger Palace players.

Van Gaal made no changes at the start of the second half. The match didn't take long to spring into life as first Fellaini crashed an effort against the bar after great approach play from Rashford. Then Martial saw his headed effort come back off the post. It was looking as if it could be one of those days.

Rojo's final came to an end on the hour mark when he was caught by a late lunge from Delaney that on closer inspection warranted more than the yellow he received. The Argentinian did try to carry on but was replaced by Darmian at left back.

This was followed by the departure of youngster Rashford after a defender had stamped on his knee. The way Palace were aggressively going into tackles was reminiscent of the 1990 replay.

Ashley young replaced Rashford and immediately slotted in at centre forward with Martial on the left. A positional tactic that not for the first time baffled the fans.

All of Palace's plans came to fruition in the 78th minute when they took the lead through substitute Puncheon who managed to beat De Gea from the tightest of angles. Not a mean feat. 1-0 to the Eagles and boy did their fans celebrate.

Ten minutes to go in the final and fans wondered how United would react. The answer came so quickly, within two minutes to be exact.

United levelled when Rooney decided the only way past the tight Palace defence was to run at them with the ball which he did with fantastic effect. Eventually, he sent over a cross which Fellaini chested down into the path of Mata who dispatched a shot that found the net after a slight deflection.

The game had come to life and with extra time looming van Gaal introduced Lingard for scorer Mata.

The Red Devils looked to have the upper hand at the start of the first period of extra time as the Palace players looked shattered both physically and mentally. Only former red Zaha continued to be a thorn in United's defence and it took heroic defending from Blind to prevent a goal.

Then as is always the case with United they made it harder for themselves when Smalling was sent off for a second yellow card after he had brought down Bolasie. To be honest, it was a harsh booking for Smalling but he was deceived by the forward's pace.

Down to ten men, it would take a huge amount of effort for United to win the match before being resigned to penalties.

United's player of the season came to the rescue in the second period as De Gea managed to get a boot to deny an effort by Gayle.

Then a chance for Carrick to write his name in United history as he found himself unmarked in the Palace area only to send his header wide of the goal when it looked certain he would become the match hero.

That honour fell to the feet of Jesse Lingard who netted the winner in the 110th minute. A cross from the right from the ever busy Valencia was only half cleared and there was Lingard lurking in the box to smack home a shot that was so sublime in its execution it will one of those Wembley goals that will be drooled over with every viewing.

There was still time for De Gea to thwart Zaha as he dived bravely at the wingers feet and received a knock on his head for his troubles.

When the final whistle blew it prompted jubilant scenes from the players and the bench as the reality sank in that they had actually won the cup after being reduced to ten-men and came from behind to fully deserve their victory. Even Louis van Gaal leapt from the bench jumping with joy into the arms of his assistant Ryan Giggs.

In all reality, it wasn't the greatest of finals but a lot of that was down to the way Palace had set out their stall. United were left frustrated many times but to their credit, they never gave up even when they had fallen behind and a player short.

Performances from the likes of Blind, Mata, Fellaini and Martial kept the dream alive. However, Rooney was the man once again who was at the centre of all United's moves and even though he was guilty at times of wasteful passes it was his inspirational run that provided the equaliser. As regards the man of the match then that would have to go to Valencia who completed his duties in defence and attack to great effect.

A last special mention has to go to the hero of the day Jesse Lingard. How refreshing it is in this modern game of football and its millions that it was a local lad from Warrington who came up through the ranks at United to score the goal that will be forever remembered and celebrated by United fans all over the world.

With the cup victory United have finally ended their drought with the first major trophy in three years. The big question has to be whether it is enough to save van Gaal's tenuous position as manager? No sooner had the final whistle blown the media vultures circled the Dutchman looking for answers. At least let the man celebrate the victory before writing his obituary. There will be plenty of time for that.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Rooney Runs The Show.

Manchester United 3 Bournemouth 1

The final day of the season is not usually known for its drama off the pitch, but on it. That was exactly the case at Old Trafford on Sunday following the bomb scare that caused the stadium to be cleared and the match to be rescheduled.

After the suspect package had been discovered the security staff have to be praised for the calm way they conducted the evacuation of 75,000 people in such an orderly fashion.

However, questions have to be raised at the club in regards to the way a suspect package had been left unnoticed for four days. And the security company that left it there have to be dragged over the coals for their ineptitude.

The last league game of the season eventually saw United welcome Bournemouth to Old Trafford after the understandable postponement of the match on Sunday.

This rescheduled match meant two things. Firstly,  United knew that barring a victory of 19 plus goals, there would be no Champions League football next season. Secondly, it would interrupt preparations for the upcoming FA Cup final against Crystal Palace this weekend.

How would these factors effect van Gaal's team selection from the one he chose for the original game? The answer was it didn't as he picked the exact same eleven: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson, Carrick, Rooney, Lingard, Mata, Martial and Rashford. In came the recalled trio of Borthwick-Jackson, Carrick and Lingard at the expense of Rojo, injured in training, Schneiderlin, ill and Herrera who started on the bench.

In all honesty, there was very little to say about the first half as it had been pretty much unremarkable until Rooney gave the fans something to cheer as he netted his 100th Premier League goal at Old Trafford in the 43rd minute.

The captain had the easiest of finishes as he buried the ball into the back of the net after Martial and Mata had played a neat one-two with each other and the former produced a cross that Rashford stepped over which left Rooney able to pounce. One down, only 18 to go.

Before the opener the closest the sides came to raising the pulse of the fans was when Carrick almost got a touch to a Rooney delivery from a free kick and at the other end, Pugh had an effort blocked by Valencia. The match had that feeling of a pre-season friendly written all over it.

At least at the start of the second half, both sides had decided to make a go of it with Rooney eyeing up a shot that was blocked and Mata who went to ground in the penalty area after being caught from behind but referee Jon Moss waved play on.

The visitors had their moments when Pugh and Wilson tried their luck from the edge of the area but would need to do better to beat De Gea.

Carrick was the next player to jolt the fans into life as he blasted a swerving, long-distance drive against the crossbar.

At the centre of United's attacking forays were Martial's quick feet on the left and the precise passing of Rooney from his midfield position.

Somehow the score remained 1-0 after a spot of football pinball inside the Cherries box after great play by Rashford. The ball just wouldn't go in after every shot was blocked by the defenders.

United had found the desire to kill the game off and Valencia came close with a cracker of a shot that Bournemouth keeper Federici brilliantly saved with his fingertips.

What a difference the two halves were proving to be.

The home side had another penalty shout when Lingard was brought down. However, the referee wasn't interested in the appeals of United.

The visitors did manage to put the ball in the net, but to their disappointment, Wilson was correctly ruled offside. It was a reminder to United that one goal might not be enough.

Right on cue Rashford made it 2-0 in the 75th minute. The move started with a delightful ball played deep into the box by Rooney which was headed back into the danger area by Valencia and there was Rashford to fire a low shot into the net and celebrate his call-up to England's provisional squad for the European Championships.

Van Gaal made three substitutions in the last ten minutes with Herrera, Memphis and Young replacing Mata, Rashford and Martial. And it was the forgotten man Young, who produced the icing get on the cake in the 87th minute with United's third goal of the game after great work from the man of the match, Rooney. He beat the defence with a well-timed chip to provide Young with the easiest of chances to score to which he duly obliged.

The match had time for one more twist when in added time Smalling managed to put the ball into his own goal which denied De Gea a share of the league's golden glove, much to the Spaniards dismay judging by his reaction.

After an anti-climatic first half at least the players brought the game to life in the second half. Rooney pulled the strings from his midfield role and provided a master class of passing combined with his never say die attitude when chasing back.

The main objective apart from the win was to not sustain any injuries before the cup final. In that respect mission accomplished.

United had chances so many times this season to make sure they booked their seat at the caviar and champagne table of the European elite and only have themselves to blame for ending up picking up the scraps in the Europa League.

Have we witnessed the van Gaal farewell at the Theatre of Dreams? Which in all reality has turned out to be nothing less than a nightmare for the coach who arrived with such high expectations following an impressive career across Europe. However, once again the season has fallen short for the club under his so-called philosophy.

Surely the time has come to put everyone, including van Gaal, out of their misery. No matter what happens in the FA Cup final the board have to find the right person who can take United in a new direction or witness the further demise of our great club.

Thanks for reading. Next stop Wembley.

Miles Dunton.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

United Blow Their Chance.

West Ham United 3 Manchester United 2

It was a night of heated tension as Manchester United came from behind only to gift West Ham two goals in the space of five minutes which allowed them to leave their home for the last 112 years on a high.

The evening started badly for the Red Devils even before the match had begun when their team bus came under attack on the way to the stadium. An event that could have shook the players confidence even before they had entered the ground. However, no excuses can be made for the way they squandered the lead after Martial's double had put their noses in front.

This was the first of two important matches for the Red Devils in their season finale that would determine if their quest for a top-four finish would indeed materialise after another fairly disappointing season.

The target was clear win the last two games and they would secure a Champions League place at the expense of Man City. There could have been no greater incentive.

Louis van Gaal's starting XI had a strong look about it: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Mata, Rooney, Rashford and Martial. Van Gaal made four changes by bringing back Blind, Schneiderlin, Rashford and Martial, who had been a doubt after pulling out in the warm-up against Norwich.

The match was delayed for forty-five minutes to allow Man United more time to prepare for the game as their team bus was late arriving at the ground due to the mass of home fans outside the stadium. Fans decided it would be fun to pelt the United bus with various objects including beer bottles and probably jellied eels as it was the East End.

Once the match got under way it became abundantly clear that not only did United have to overcome the opposition but also the partisan home crowd if they were to come away with the victory.

Immediately following the kick-off West Ham bombarded United's penalty area and in doing so created panic in the away defence.

Martial didn't seem to be hampered by injury as he burst into the box in the opening minutes and was unlucky not to be awarded a corner.

It was not the start United wanted when the Hammers took the lead in the tenth minute following a cross from the left that found Sakho unmarked in the box and his effort was deflected by Blind past the despairing dive of De Gea to give the home fans more to shout about.

This was proving to be a match that would truly test the characters of the United players as they were in a cauldron of hate pouring down from he stands.

West Ham had a perfect opportunity to double their lead when Carroll was played clean through but with only De Gea to beat he placed his shot too close to the keeper who managed to get a block in and save Smalling's embarrassment as it was the defender who lost the run of Carroll.

The ball was in the United net again in the twenty-first minute but thankfully for United, the goal was disallowed as it had already crossed the line for a corner.

As the half hour mark approached United finally started to put some decent passes together and created some space on the flanks but were let down by the final ball.

On one such attack Valencia and Martial linked well on the right and when the cross was played over Mata was adjudged to have fouled a defender as he headed goalward.

After a rare mistake from Martial, who slipped while in possession, Payet was gifted a golden chance but he totally miscued his shot and it curled harmlessly wide.

At the other end, Rashford tried to get on the end of a pacey Rooney cross but the youngster seemed to mess up his jump and the chance was gone.

As the half neared its conclusion it was the home side who were on the front foot and had plenty of chances to put the game beyond the reach of the visitors.

There was a late shout for a penalty after Martial was nudged as he sped into the penalty area. However, Mike Dean immediately waved away the claims from the United players.

Half-time and behind to only a single goal meant that in the second half United still had to hope they could overturn the score. The biggest problem in the first half was that United weren't allowed to settle and when they did have the ball they didn't seem to know what to do with it.

The most creative player for United had been Rooney, who in his deeper role tried to pick out the runs of his forwards and was unlucky on a couple of occasions that his passes hadn't been as pinpoint as usual.

United got the second half underway looking for a vastly improved second forty-five minutes compared to the first. Van Gaal made his first change at the start of the half when he replaced Schneiderlin with West Ham old boy Carrick.

In the 51st minute, the home fans failed to return the ball to De Gea from behind his goal so a replacement ball was called for. From De Gea's goal kick the new ball eventually fell at the feet of Mata who showed great awareness inside the area to cut the ball back from the byline and his pass was swept home by Martial to make the scores level.

Superb play by Mata to create a chance out of a long punt by his keeper. Bet the home fans wished they hadn't delayed play by not returning the ball.

Unfortunately, Martial followed up his strike with the first booking of the match.

United were looking more dangerous in attack as Rashford tried a cheeky backheel across the six-yard area that Herrera was unlucky not to get on the end of.

The Hammers still provided their own threats on United's goal and in one attempted header by Carroll it took a goal line clearance by Rashford to save a certain goal.

As the match entered the last twenty minutes tackles flew in left right and centre and there were two cautions in quick succession for Carroll and Valencia.

Then in the 72nd minute, that man Anthony Martial scored his second of the game and 17th of the season to put United into a 2-1 lead.

The move began with Rooney who played the ball through to Rashford who in turn passed to Martial on the left-hand side of the area. The French forward still had a lot of work to do as he dribbled his way into the box then from a tight angle clipped the ball into the net. A brilliant finish from a player on top of his game.

After the jubilation of the equaliser, West Ham pressed United back and then turned the game on its head with two soft goals both headed in from close range by Antonio and Reid that stemmed from a couple of set pieces delivered by Payet and poorly defended by the United back four.

The last fifteen minutes were played out against a crescendo of noise generated by the home fans around the ground. They must have been loving the fact that they had got one over United.

Herrera was substituted after he had been cautioned and was replaced by Lingard for the last five minutes. The last change by van Gaal was to introduce Januzaj for Valencia to try and rescue at least a point from the game which they failed to do.

Game over and United headed back up north licking their wounds knowing that they had blown a great chance to come away with a win but instead fell to their tenth defeat in the league.

From the start West Ham went for the throat fired up by the occasion with the backing of their fans behind them and United seemed to take an age to settle especially at the back. Everybody knows what a danger Payet poses at dead ball situations so why on earth did the United players continue to concede free-kicks in dangerous areas? Once Martial had provided the lead United imploded in the space of five minutes with a display of inept defending and only have themselves to blame.

Now the advantage has been handed back to Man City who have to win away at Swansea while United host Bournemouth in the final games of the season. The Swans are not a push over so expect a few more twists and turns during the last ninety minutes of the current campaign.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

West Ham vs Man Utd Preview

Manchester United's Premier League season has come down to basic mathematics win the last two games and they are assured of six points and a top-four finish therefore another crack at Champions League football next season.

In doing so they will guarantee that Pep Guardiola will spend his first season guiding City through the Europa League. Could there be any bigger incentive for van Gaal and his team?

Of course, this scenario could have and should have been avoided without having to rely on their rivals. Many times this season United have failed to capitalise on the failings of the teams above them so if they fail to grasp the opportunity presented to them this week then they will only have themselves to blame.

The first of those games is against West Ham United, who until their heavy defeat by Swansea City had enjoyed a stellar campaign by their own standards. Due to the shortcomings of the so-called big four, sides like West Ham have raised their game and have ensured that this season has been the most unpredictable in recent memory.

Hats off to Leicester and Spurs, who have both played out of their skins and in doing so have broken the monopoly usually reserved for the likes of United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Who could have predicted the demise of those clubs at the start of this campaign?

United's ability to collect the maximum points required from their remaining fixtures will largely depend on the team selection of Louis van Gaal. After 36 matches it is still difficult to predict the Dutchman's starting XI as he has often bemused fans with his choices.

This is not a time to rest players, but a chance for United to have the most creatively attacking players at their disposal to burst the Hammers' bubble. If fit, Martial should start up front with Rashford supported by a midfield made up of Rooney, Schneiderlin, Mata and Herrera. In defence, Blind, Smalling, Valencia and Fosu-Mensah seem to be the best option to nullify the threat of Payet and Co. Last, but certainly not least, De Gea between the sticks.

The clash against the Hammers has the added bite of being the last match to be ever played at Upton Park so United can expect a partisan atmosphere to battle against plus a team that will not only be seeking revenge for the FA Cup defeat but also pride in winning the last home game at the famous ground.

The one advantage United will have against West Ham will be the incredible Red Army of away supporters who have literally never wavered in their support for the players even when the side has struggled to put in a performance worthy of their incredible following.

Providing United come away from the capital with the necessary three points, it's then down to the last home game of the season against Bournemouth who you would expect not to present a major hurdle in the Red Devil's pursuit of obtaining the win needed to get over the finishing line.

It all sounds good on paper. However, stranger things have happened in United's season so nothing can be taken for granted.

If United do indeed step up to the plate and end the season on a high with Champions League qualification along with the FA Cup will it still be enough to safeguard van Gaal's position as manager? Over to you Ed Woodward.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Mata Secures United Win

Norwich City 0 Manchester United 1

Manchester United kept up their pursuit of a top-four finish thanks to a Juan Mata strike in a game that was short on chances and poor in quality.

Norwich desperately needed a win to have any chance of staying in the Premier League whereas United looked to gain another three points to hang on to the tails of the teams sat above them.

Louis van Gaal made wholesale changes to his starting line-up including a forced change after Martial complained of not feeling fit during the warm up. It was the same situation that gave youngster Rashford his big opportunity that he took so well against Arsenal.  However, the manager decided against making the same swap this time around.

Starting XI: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick, Herrera, Mata, Lingard, Memphis and Rooney.

With the midweek game against West Ham on the horizon van Gaal decided to rest Blind and used a center-back pairing of Smalling and Rojo with Valencia and Darmian as full backs. In midfield, there were recalls for Mata and Herrera with Rooney used as the lone forward. Memphis was handed a rare start in a season he would want to forget in a hurry.

On a bright East Anglian day, Norwich  got the game underway with the brilliant Red army of supporters in fine voice celebrating the fact that United were going to Wembley and the Canaries were on their way to the Championship.

The Red Devils dominated the game at the start without any urgency and seemed happy to try and control the game and nullify the home side and their fans. However, it was the home team that came the closest to scoring when as early as the fourth minute Jerome looked odds-on to score, but there was United's player of the season David De Gea to literally put his body on the line for the cause to superbly block the headed effort.

United full back Darmian became an early casualty as he was stretchered off following a clash with Pinto and had to be replaced by Borthwick-Jackson.

Just before the half-hour mark Smalling rose the highest for a corner and powered a header inches over the bar to register the closest chance of the match up to that point for the Reds.

Not for the first time in a season low on goal scoring chances United pressed high up the field and played some nice passes around the edge of the oppositions penalty area without actually creating an opening, frustrating to say the least.

The away side were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous area after Lingard was upended. The resulting kick was taken by Memphis who blasted the ball straight into the wall. Yet another wasted free kick by a player who should do better when the opportunity arises in those situations.

As half time approached Memphis stretched his legs down the left wing and his run took him into the penalty area where he was tackled all too easily and the attack broke down. That summed up the Dutch wingers season.

Half time and the two teams were locked at 0-0 in a half that was so lacklustre van Gaal was probably wearing shades to hide the fact that he had nodded off in the sunshine.

The main talking point had to be the injury to Italian defender Darmian and the hope that it would turn out not to be as serious as it had initially appeared as he joined the bench for the remainder of the match wearing a brace on his injured left ankle.

United started the second half having made no changes and immediately went on the attack as they tried to find the all-important opening goal and it was Herrera who came the closest as he volleyed his snap shot into the side netting.

The Under 21 player of the season Borthwick-Jackson made some decent forays down the left unfortunately, Memphis wasn't on the same wavelength as the youngster.

In the opening quarter of an hour, United were camped in Norwich's half as they searched for just one break but Norwich held firm as they had to if they wanted any chance of staying in the top flight.

Mata and Herrera were as industrious as ever but you could see that they needed more of a threat to aim for up front as Rooney laboured on his own. It seemed that if a goal was forthcoming it would be one of the Spaniards who would be heavily involved.

Rojo was next to try his luck with a header from a corner but it bounced wide of the far post.

Norwich did, at last, get the home crowd on their feet when they pressed the United defence in a two-minute spell which amounted to, basically, nothing.

Eventually United's approach play paid off in the 71st minute when Valencia played a long ball out of defence which Rooney collected and purposely strode into the box as soon as he realised he didn't have an opening he cleverly spun around and delivered the ball on a plate for Mata whose left-footed strike gave the keeper no chance and put United into a deserved lead.

Van Gaal decided the time was right for a change and replaced Lingard with Schneiderlin for the last fifteen minutes. Interestingly, prior to the goal forgotten man Januzaj was about to make his entrance. That all changed once Mata had scored.

Memphis once again flattered to deceive on the left wing as he squandered two opportunities to play decent crosses to his teammates much to the despair of Rooney and Mata who had made excellent runs to get on the end of the expected ball that never materialised.

There was a clear chance for Schneiderlin to seal the game after Rooney had set him up, but unfortunately he pulled his shot well wide.

The last change of the match saw the impressive Fosu-Mensah come on for Carrick in the last few minutes which produced smiles on the away bench as once again Januzaj was stripped and ready for action only for van Gaal to have a change of mind.

There was one last chance for the away side after goal hero Mata was unceremoniously dumped on his backside. Memphis took the resulting free kick and came within a whisker of adding a second.

The last shot of the game fell to Herrera who hit his effort high and wide which summed up the quality of the match both sets of fans had been forced to witness.

Full time and another important win and three points for United in their quest for a finish in the top four. So many times this season it has been said that the result was more important than the performance, which has never been more so than in this match. For all the possession United enjoyed they still made hard work of killing of a team that in ninety minutes only troubled De Gea once.

It's difficult to choose a player for the man of the match after so many below average performances, so Valencia gets the nod for his effort. Maybe Januzaj should get a special mention for at least providing the entertainment by taking the time to get ready for action, not once, but twice only not to be used at all.

With two matches left to play, United will be sweating on how local rivals City get on at home to Arsenal before their trip to play West Ham in mid-week for the last ever match at Upton Park when the Hammers will be aiming for revenge for the FA Cup defeat United inflicted on them last month.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.